Here is a breakdown of the Atlanta Falcons’ 2016 seventh-round pick: UCLA wide receiver Devin Fuller.
BIO & VITALS
Arm Length: 30 ¾”
Hand Size: 9 ¼”
40 Time: 4.39
Vertical Jump: 36″
Broad Jump: 124″
Devin Lewis Fuller was born on January 24, 1984 in Englewood, New Jersey. He attended nearby Northern Valley Region High in Old Tappan, NJ, where he was a four-star recruit as a dual athlete/quarterback. Over the course of his prep career, Fuller scored 118 touchdowns (58 passing, 60 rushing) and also picked off 14 passes combined over his final two seasons. As an excellent all-around athlete, he also rank track as a sprinter and also earned a letter in basketball.
He was originally expected to enroll at Rutgers coming out of high school, but the departure of former head coach Greg Schiano to the NFL prompted him to re-think his options, ultimately settling on UCLA. He was expected to redshirt as a freshman after Brett Hundley won the starting spot at quarterback, but injuries at wide receiver prompted him to be inserted into the lineup there. As a true freshman he appeared in nine games and earned a pair of starts at wide receiver. He finished the year with 20 catches for 145 yards (7.3 avg) and two touchdowns. He also returned nine kickoffs for an average of 18.6 yards and a pair of punts for a 3.0-per-return average.
He became the team’s primary slot receiver as a sophomore, starting 10 of 12 games. He finished the season with 43 catches for 471 yards (11.0 avg) and four touchdowns. He also added a rushing score while toting the ball four times for a combined eight yards. He also threw a touchdown pass, completing both pass attempts for 32 yards. He also returned eight kickoffs for an average of 28.0 yards. He earned All-Pac-12 team honorable mention that season.
He continued to play in the slot as a junior, appearing in 13 games and starting five of them. He finished the year with a career-high of 59 catches for 447 yards (7.6 avg) and a single touchdown. He also returned two kickoffs for an average of 20 yards and completed one pass for nine yards.
He moved to the outside as the “Z” receiver as a senior with UCLA hoping to take advantage of his speed. But despite starting seven games and appearing in 11, his production dipped to just 24 catches for 259 yards (10.8 avg) and three scores. He became much more of a regular on special teams, returning 17 kickoffs for an average of 24.2 yards and 12 punts for an average of 11.8 yards per return.
He suffered a concussion midway through his senior year and then missed two games with an ankle injury he suffered the following week.
His father, Bart Fuller, played safety at Texas Christian University from 1983 to 1987. His mother, Cindy Mizelle, is a backup singer that has performed for various artists over the years including Luther Vandross, Bruce Springsteen, Whitney Houston and the Rolling Stones.
2015 GAMES WATCHED
Note: scroll right to see more stats.
Key: UC – Uncatchable pass; KB – Key Block; FC – Fair Catch
|Sep 12||at UNLV||2||1||2||2.0||-1||-1.0||0||1||0||0||1||30||30.0||0||2||1||14||7.0||0|
|Sep 26||at Arizona||0||0||0||0.0||0||0.0||0||0||0||0||2||62||31.0||0||3||0||36||12.0||0|
|Oct 15||at Stanford||7||4||44||11.0||12||3.0||0||1||1||0||6||128||21.3||0||0||2||0||0.0||0|
|Nov 28||at USC||4||2||26||13.0||7||3.5||0||1||0||0||0||0||0.0||0||2||3||7||3.5||0|
SKILLS: How Good Is He?
Skills are graded on a 10-point scale: 1-pathetic, 2-poor, 3-weak, 4-below average, 5-average, 6-above average, 7-good, 8-very good, 9-excellent, 10-elite
Speed (8.0): Has good straight-line speed that doesn’t play as fast as he times. While he possesses the speed to get down the field, doesn’t ever seem to run by cornerbacks on a consistent basis. Shows good, albeit not great acceleration off the line of scrimmage. But has enough speed that college corners consistently played off him. Has the speed to run away from defenders as a returner on special teams, but lacks the speed that is going to utterly destroy defensive angles like a true burner. Was rarely used on vertical routes at UCLA.
Hands (5.0): Shows capable hands but has a tendency to let passes get into his body a bit. Can catch the ball away from his body and extend for high grabs. Lacks ideal size and catch radius to suspect that he’ll mostly struggle in traffic against NFL cornerbacks. Too often would double catch returns, creating questions about his concentration and whether muffed returns might be an issue at the next level.
After the Catch (7.5): Comfortable with the ball in his hands and shows the ability to shake defenders on quick screens and turn on the jets after the catch to run by defenders. Consistently is able to quick turn upfield to maximize yards after the catch. Doesn’t have much power to break tackles, although he’ll fight for extra yardage at times. Does a nice job on punt returns, making the first defender miss and getting upfield for maximum return yardage.
Body Control (5.0): Shows ability to adjust to high and low throws, but not a player that is going to necessary win in traffic. Doesn’t play with great balance as a route-runner or run-blocker. Lacks the size and strength to reliably win in traffic and needs to do a better job positioning his body in those situations.
Route-Running (5.0): Possesses the speed and quickness to separate from coverage, but his lack of polish as a route-runner means that he doesn’t often create it as easily as someone with his athleticism should. Shows capability of finding soft spots in zone, settling and making the grab.
Here is an example of Fuller beating press coverage off the line for a touchdown:
Blocking (4.0): An effective blocker at times on the collegiate level due to effort but will likely struggle at the next level given an overall lack of size, strength and blocking technique. Shows good effort at times when blocking downfield on a big play, but doesn’t always attack his assignments on the edge aggressively, showing just perfunctory effort. He’s mostly effective at “getting in the way” of defenders rather than being capable of hitting his assignments consistently.
Here are some examples of Fuller’s blocking ability:
Click here for more information about my grading system.
Reserve Prospect (2.9) – Possesses enough ability to contribute as a reserve but his NFL future will be largely based on his ability to impact on special teams. Typically a productive player in college but is just too limited in key areas such as size, speed and/or athleticism to project to beyond special teams at the next level. Ability and upside to be a starter is virtually non-existent and might only be able to impact as a limited situational player. Player is potentially worth taking a flier on in the seventh round.
NFL FORECAST: How Do His Skills Project to the NFL?
It was telling that Fuller was moved outside as a senior to give him more opportunities to take advantage of man coverage, yet his production dipped. To be fair to him, it’s likely the head and ankle injuries he suffered midway through the year were a significant factor in that dip. He only caught two passes in UCLA’s final six games after catching a combined 15 in the three before the injuries.
But Fuller was for the most part UCLA’s third or fourth option in the passing game behind wide receivers Jordan Payton and Thomas Duarte, as well as occasionally sophomore Darren Andrews, who took over his slot duties this past year.
Even though both Payton and Duarte were drafted ahead of Fuller this past year, it’s unlikely that a player that wasn’t higher than fourth on his depth chart in college is ever going to be higher than fourth on a depth chart in the NFL.
Thus Fuller’s real ability to stick in the NFL will likely be contingent on his ability as a returner. If he can stick there, then he will be given more time and opportunity to continue to develop as a receiver.
He’s still fairly raw given his limited experience at wide receiver. For a former slot receiver, his route-running isn’t where you’d probably want for him. It leads me to believe that Fuller is more an athlete than a true receiver.
Despite his time speed, he was rarely used as a vertical threat at UCLA. Most of his big plays came as a result of his ability to turn short gains into long ones after the catch.
A lot of Fuller’s routes were shallow crossing routes, slants and other in-breaking routes designed to get him the ball on the move and make plays after the catch. That skill does project well to the NFL, but it’s hard to envision Fuller ever being a major component of any team’s offense.
Teams can design a small package of plays for him that include screens and the occasional trick play given his past as a quarterback, but Fuller is a long ways away from being a regular contributor on an NFL offense.
I don’t know how telling it is that UCLA didn’t ask Fuller to go deep. That could be a function of their offense, although in the games I watched this past year, they did take a number of deep shots to other receivers like Payton and Duarte. So one must conclude that the UCLA coaching staff didn’t feel that Fuller was a particularly gifted vertical receiver.
Despite his timed speed, that does make sense. Harry Douglas and Devin Hester are two familiar examples of receivers that have possess field-stretching speed, but aren’t overly effective catching the ball downfield. They are both limited by a lack of size, limited catch radius and/or questionable ball skills. Based off limited number of downfield targets I saw, the same appears true for Fuller.
So one shouldn’t really consider Fuller a deep threat despite his speed. While Fuller is capable of making a big play down the field (as Douglas and Hester are), the infrequency of those plays will limit his offensive upside.
FALCONS FORECAST: How Does He Project in Atlanta?
Again, Fuller’s value in Atlanta will be tied to his ability as a returner. If he can quickly establish himself as an effective option there, then he could have a productive career as the team’s return specialist.
That would also give him the necessary time to develop more and improve as a wide receiver. But in reality, Fuller is probably never going to be a major part of the Falcons offense. While he can contribute a play here or there, his potential production in the offense isn’t likely to eclipse that of Nick Williams, who caught 17 passes for 159 yards and a pair of touchdowns in 2015.
Like Williams, Fuller would likely be an afterthought to most defenses, which would allow him to slip by at times to make a play every now and then. But he’s unlikely to ever be the type of receiver that reliably can demand the attention of opposing defenses.
One potential obstacle that Fuller has should he become a capable returner is the possibility that he’ll start getting more reps on offense because teams want to better take advantage of his playmaking skills with the ball in his hands. This has ruined many of return specialist over the years in the NFL with Dante Hall, Josh Cribbs, Jeremy Ross, Jacoby Jones and the Falcons very own Devin Hester being examples of players that started to see lesser success on special teams once they began to see increased reps on offense.
And more importantly, few of them ever successfully became impactful offensive players. There’s a simple explanation of why that is: because being dynamic with the ball as a returner is a different skill set than being able to run routes and reliably separate from coverage as a wide receiver. Unfortunately, NFL teams continue to struggle to distinguish between these two traits and make mistakes accordingly.
Ideally the Falcons won’t fall into that trap (again). But first, Fuller is going to have to win the return job. That’s not guaranteed, although he has the tools, skills and explosiveness to be very effective in that role.
Fuller isn’t on par with Hester in the sense that every time he touches the ball there is a chance he could score. But Fuller does have big-play potential as a returner and compared to someone like Eric Weems, is an upgrade there.
Weems was a reliable, but not explosive return specialist. Hopefully, Fuller can prove to be a good mix of both traits. But I do have some concerns about his ball security. While I didn’t find a ton of evidence of him muffing kicks at UCLA, there were some minor red flags there with his propensity to double catch the ball while fielding kicks. That is something that will bear monitoring in the future.
But whatever question marks exist, the biggest one is whether or not Fuller will have longevity in the NFL. Because unless he develops into one of the elite return specialists in the league, there just isn’t as much value in returners nowadays.
Fuller might have been a player that was born five years too late, thanks to the rule changes that the league has enacted to minimize the impact of kickoff returns back in 2011. I’m confident that I would have had a higher grade on Fuller had he come out five or six years ago before the new rules.
But the value of a solid to good kickoff returner has been largely eliminated from the game given a trend that is only expected to continue as the league continues to enact rule changes that will make it less likely that kickoffs are ever returned.
Thus Fuller’s ability to stick in Atlanta is going to be tied mainly to his potential to become a a very good punt returner. Predicting someone to be an exceptional punt returner is murky at best especially when they are a player like Fuller, who only did it for one year essentially.
Trindon Holliday is a good example of a player that has been hurt by the rule changes. While Holliday has been a productive return specialist since entering the league in 2010, he has also managed to play for six different teams in that period.
With the declining value of kickoff returns, more and more teams are turning to punt returners that also make significant contributions on offense or defense. Antonio Brown, Patrick Peterson, Julian Edelman, Jarvis Landry, Travis Benjamin, Golden Tate and Darren Sproles are counted among today’s punt returners.
The rule changes mean there is less incentive for teams to keep a pure return specialist on the roster that doesn’t add significant value on either side of the ball. Even those that do manage to stick will have a difficulty time like Holliday maintaining their hold on a roster spot unless they prove exceptional.
This is the exact same reason why a player like Hester is potentially on the roster bubble entering this summer. It makes it understandable why the Falcons drafted a player like Fuller because he gives them a much cheaper and younger option at that position. There is at least some potential that Fuller still possesses untapped potential at wide receiver, while Hester has proven over the course of a decade in the NFL exactly how much limited value he brings to an offense.
But while Fuller’s youth might give him a leg up in any potential competition for the return spot this summer as a rookie, it fars from guaranteeing him a long tenure in Atlanta.
That will again be contingent on his ability to provide significant value as a return specialist. Fuller has the potential, but I find it hard to say that he will last beyond his rookie deal.
The player I would compare Fuller to is former Detroit Lions wideout/return specialist Jeremy Ross.
An undrafted rookie back in 2011, Ross played for three teams until he landed with the Lions midway through the 2013 season. He was a highly productive returner on both kickoffs and punts that season before the Lions began to utilize him as their third wideout a year later in 2014. His production as a return specialist dipped that year and the Lions replaced him the following year with Tate on punts and rookie running back Ameer Abdullah on kickoffs.
Since being cut by the Lions last September, Ross spent time on two separate teams’ practice squads and is now with his third team in the New York Jets.
No longer the standout return specialist he was in 2013, Ross has struggled to stick in one place. As long as Fuller can produce at a level comparable to Ross early in his career, his job will be safe. But if he doesn’t, he’ll be hard-pressed to stick in not only Atlanta, but also in the rest of the league.
Fuller probably won’t make anyone forget about Hester, but he should prove to be a competent to good returner for the next few years in Atlanta. That works for a seventh-round pick.