Draft Analysis: Pick 2.46—K.J. Hamler
In the weeks leading up to the combine, trainer Anthony Hobgood led K.J. Hamler through a series of speed workouts called "flying forties". The drill, which entails running timed twenty yard sprints that begin at top speed, is meant to help athletes maintain their pace through the back half of the forty yard dash. In one such training session, Hamler posted a 1.80 second time on the last of his three scheduled runs. That was among the fastest times Hobgood had ever seen.
In the spirit of testing the limits of his own athleticism, Hamler decided to do one more rep and see if he could drop his time into the 1.7s. It was an ill-fated choice, as he wound up tweaking his hamstring on the run and sitting out most of the combine as a result.
But we don't need combine testing to know that Hamler's speed is freaky. "This is one of the fastest guys I've seen since DeSean Jackson, one of the first guys we trained," said Hobgood, who's worked with professional athletes for over ten years.
This profile starts right there—with Hamler's speed—but explores other notable aspects of his game as well, including his dynamic agility and worrisome drop rate.
In each of his two seasons at Penn St., Hamler wore a vest during games that used GPS to track how fast he was moving. His top speed (21.76 mph) would have been the 8th fastest of any player in the NFL last year.
The dude can fly.
In addition to elite top end speed, Hamler also has phenomenal acceleration. He can shoot by defenders from a near standstill (first clip: slot, top of the screen; second clip: circled, bottom of the screen).
Critically, Hamler can also use his quickness and speed to beat defensive backs over the top as a route runner (inside slot).
Even with a massive cushion, Hamler can run right by defenders (slot, bottom of the screen).
For a team that has lacked speed at wide receiver for years, this is incredibly exciting. But before we get too carried away, it's important to note that being incredibly fast is not simply an unbeatable cheat code in the NFL. There are plenty of wideouts around the league with world class speed (and theoretical field stretching ability) that provide only marginal on-field value.
Right now, it's probably most accurate to think of Hamler's speed as a weapon that heavily punishes defenses for making even a small mistake. In the above clip against Michigan, the safety is late getting over to Hamler's side of the field and fails to get into proper position. The result is a scorched earth, can't-do-nothing-about-it touchdown.
What sells me on Hamler is that he is not just a straight line burner in the mold of Ted Ginn Jr., Tre'Quan Smith, or Phillip Dorsett. Hamler can shake and bake in ways those other guys can only dream of. When he infuses his routes with that agility he is a real nightmare to cover. Check out this absurd double deke he puts on the slot corner in this play (out route from the slot, top of the screen).
Hamler's agility opens up a variety of underneath routes that one-dimensional speed players typically aren't able to run with success (looking at you, Henry Ruggs III). Penn St. calls his number on critical third and short situations, trusting him to get open underneath. On this play, Hamler puts a nice move on the CB at the top of the stem to separate on a slant (from right side of the screen).
Here's another example where he uses a lightning quick juke to freeze the DB and get open in a short yardage situation. The pass never makes it to Hamler, but he beat his man dead to rights and should've had a touchdown, and Hamler knows it (slot, bottom of the screen).
These plays that combine quickness and agility give me confidence that Hamler can succeed in more ways than simply stretching the field with his speed.
This may be unsurprising given the above, but Hamler has a real knack for making plays in space. When the ball is in his hands all options are on the table, whether it's going East, West, or even backwards. He high-steps. He weaves in and out of blocks. He's dynamic and fun (slot, bottom of the screen).
His creativity and penchant for finding space make him a dangerous return man too.
I cannot wait for the excitement in Denver on punts and kickoffs.
Route Running Consistency
Despite the scintillating speed and agility, Hamler is not a finished product as a route runner. There are reps on his tape that lack the wiggle he's shown in other plays, and that let CBs pick up on his route as a result. On this play against Ohio St. he rounds his slant, allowing the CB to diagnose the pattern, break early on the ball, and force the incompletion (slot, top of the screen).
Although there is no target on this next play, it's another example of a milquetoast route where Hamler does nothing to disguise his intent (top of the screen, running a route into the flat).
We know Hamler is more than capable of shaking defenders. It might be that on this second play he wasn't expecting to be targeted and so didn't put maximum effort into the route. But whatever the case may be, his top-tier agility does not always show up on tape, and will be something to watch as he transitions to the pros.
Hamler's hands—or rather, lack thereof—really stand out in his profile. He somehow managed to drop 12 balls on only 68 catchable passes, for an appalling 17.6% drop rate. For comparison, Broncos fans got worked up about Courtland Sutton's bad hands during his rookie year. He posted a drop rate of 8.3% that season, which is twice as reliable as what we've seen from Hamler in college.
The issue shows up clearly on tape. He often lets the ball get into his body, but even when he uses proper hands technique he's liable to whiff (slot, top of the screen).
The above pass does come in a bit hot, but it's not so much of a zinger that Hamler had no chance. It's a play he should make. And he better get used to catching passes with some zip on them—he's about to have Drew Lock slinging him the rock.
In another example of poor hands, Hamler tracks a deep ball well but utterly fails at the catch point (slot).
He's in excellent position to make the play. You can tell because the ball clangs off his face mask.
Instead of attacking the ball with his hands, he tries to catch it on his chest. It's poor execution on top of poor technique.
Hamler's struggles in contested catch situations represent a real limitation to his game. At this point, he is a throw-it-up-and-let-me-run-under-it type of player. It's an approach that will occasionally work because he is so fast, but to really flourish as a deep threat he will need to become much more technical in the way he fights for contested catches.
There are plenty of ways for smaller receivers to create space at the catch point. For example, Doug Baldwin uses excellent hand placement to bar corners from contesting a pass.
Alternatively, a well timed box out can do the trick. Here's an example of Antonio Brown bumping the CB just before the catch point to create some space (bottom of the screen).
Some might call it offensive pass interference (the refs didn't); others might call it savvy play. Either way, these are subtle techniques that can allow smaller receivers like Hamler to excel in contested catch situations. If he can add this layer to his game (big if—there isn't really any evidence that it's coming), Hamler will become a true terror. As it stands, his downfield game is largely dependent on winning with speed before the catch point. That makes him an effective field stretcher, but not a dominant downfield playmaker.
Size and strength are of course potential concerns for a 5' 9" 178 lb player. Corners will occasionally be able to control Hamler if they're able to get their hands on him (slot, bottom of the screen).
Or simply knock him clean off his route (inside slot, bottom of the screen).
Those sorts of things come with the territory when you're giving up at least 25 lbs to most defenders. Despite that, I'm not overly concerned about Hamler's small stature. He's strong for his size, putting up 15 bench press reps at the combine (four more than CeeDee Lamb and just two fewer than Laviska Shenault). He plays with physicality, and shows the ability to fight through contact on his routes.
In this clip, the corner tries to bump him off his route, but Hamler clear's the defender's hands with an upwards swipe (slot, top of the screen).
He won't always win these physical contests, but he shows enough fight to put some concern to rest. And more often than not, he'll be able to release cleanly without significant contact thanks to his absurd shake and bake (slot, top of the screen—ignore the broadcast's yellow circle).
I've heard some concerned rumblings in Broncos Country about how K.J. Hamler might be the second coming of former Bronco gadget player and return man Isaiah McKenzie. I understand the comparison, as both players are undersized, speedy, elusive playmakers that excel with the ball in their hands. But there are notable differences that make Hamler a significantly better prospect.
First, Hamler is faster McKenzie. Coming out of Georgia, McKenzie ran a 4.42 at the combine. Fast, certainly, but not next-level speed. While Hamler wasn't able to run at the combine, the evidence we have (clocking in at 21.76 mph on the field, the statements of his running coaches and workout partners that saw him run timed sprints) strongly suggests that he's on a different level when it comes to speed.
And second, Hamler is a better route runner. In his two years at Penn St., Hamler had far more success as a receiver than McKenzie did at Georgia (or in the NFL). You can also see it on tape—this sort of subtle outside flash to turn the corner around is just not part of McKenzie's game.
So while it's of course possible that Hamler never pans out, the evidence suggests that he is a much better prospect than McKenzie.
Another comparison worth exploring is Henry Ruggs III. Prior to the draft, it seemed like Ruggs might be an option for the Broncos at 15. So it's only natural to compare our second round pick to the other speedster we've been linked to.
Both players are blazing fast. It's certainly possible—if not likely—that Ruggs is a hair faster. But once you're talking about speeds that rank within the top ten in the NFL, the differences become negligible. And the similarities go beyond speed. Both players are more physical than you'd expect from an undersized sprinter. And both players struggle with contested catches.
Ruggs does clearly separate himself from Hamler when it comes to hands. Ruggs posted a sterling 2.4% drop rate last year. That's excellent compared to just about anybody, but it really sparkles when put next to Hamler's miserable 17.6% figure. The other thing Ruggs has going for him is that he played mostly outside, where it's harder to succeed, while Hamler lined up almost exclusively in the slot (616 of 694 snaps).
But honestly, the rest of Hamler's game outshines Ruggs'. Hamler is both more agile and more inventive than Ruggs. Those traits show up in their route running, with Hamler jitterbugging away from DBs while Ruggs runs fairly vanilla patters. It also shows up after the catch. Ruggs broke only four tackles last year. You might say that's because he just outran everybody, but I think it's also indicative of a fundamental lack of agility. Hamler's tape, on the other hand, is filled with broken tackles.
All in all, it's not clear to me that Ruggs is the superior prospect. A fairer treatment of the evidence we have up to this point would put them in the same tier with similar career outlooks. Either one could wind up having the better career—I wouldn't be surprised either way. Which is to say, I am thrilled that we were able to scoop Hamler up in the second round instead of paying a premium for Ruggs.
Hamler will have to improve his hands, because letting more than 15% of the catchable balls thrown his way hit the turf will get him booted out of the league. But he did make enough nice catches to make me think he can bring this number down.
To truly reach his ceiling, he'll have to develop some small-man tricks to help him win contested catches. But even without any further development, Hamler brings an array of tantalizing skills to Denver and projects as an incredibly fun playmaker at the next level. He fits nicely into this offense too, as his top notch speed will play very well with Lock's cannon arm.
Hamler's arrival pushes the new look Broncos offense into track meet territory, and I, for one, will be purchasing a ticket to the show.