Scouting the Senior Bowl: Aaron Burbridge, WR, Michigan State

NCAA Football: Iowa at Michigan StateAaron Burbridge had quite the senior season.  He enjoyed a true breakout year, more than tripling his previous career highs in receptions and yards.  Collegiate careers like Burbridge’s are the most dangerous and unpredictable for a scout to evaluate.  It’s almost impossible to determine why a player’s production increases so dramatically from one year to the next.  In some cases, it’s a product of player development and opportunity.  In other scenarios, it’s nothing more than a fluke.

For the 2016 NFL Draft, scouts will have to decide if Burbridge seized the moment this year and displayed his true next-level talent or if he was simply a good college football player who happened to be the No. 1 target for a highly touted quarterback.

The Senior Bowl is a great environment to scout receivers.  There are a lot of one-on-one battles with the top cornerbacks in the country; win in Mobile, and you’re likely to win in the NFL.  Jamison Crowder (Redskins) is a really good example of a player who excelled in the receiver drills last year and who has proven that his performance in Mobile was indicative of NFL success.

I was a casual observer of Burbridge’s season before diving into his film for my Senior Bowl preparations.  Prior to my film review, I thought that Burbridge was one of the more talented receivers in the country.  His highlights are as impressive as any wideout’s, as they are a blend of great hand-eye coordination, body control and sure hands.  Every time Connor Cook made a big throw, it seemed to be to Aaron Burbridge.

I expected to like him quite a bit.  And while I’m still a fan, I’ve cooled on my overall opinion of the Spartans’ top receiver.

There’s no denying that Burbridge had a fantastic season.  His 80 receptions top Michigan State’s single-season receiving marks.  He totaled 1,258 yards and 7 TDs with a long gain of 56 yards.  He was acknowledged as a First Team All-Big 10 performer, the conference’s receiver of the year, and an Honorable Mention All-American (Sports Illustrated).  That’s quite the leap from a 2014 season that totaled only 29 catches for 358 yards and 1 TD.  In fact, 2015’s production was a great majority of his career totals, which ended with 165 grabs for 2,174 yards and 10 TDs.  In total, Burbridge played in 51 games for Michigan State.  Prior to college, Burbridge was considered one of the more talented high school wide receivers, falling within the top-50 players at his position by the various scouting outlets.

Physically, Burbridge is about what you’d like to see from a NFL pass catcher.  He’s unofficially listed at 6’1″ and 208 lbs, which is bigger than I thought he appeared on film.   He’s not an overly built guy and he doesn’t have much pop behind his pads.  He really struggles to maintain his blocks downfield and there were a few occasions that I thought he should’ve been able to take out the defender with a greater thud.  He simply couldn’t.  It suggests that’s he’s not the strongest guy from an explosive power standpoint.

Athletically, Burbridge was a little tighter than I was expecting.  He has some really nice RAC plays sprinkled across his tape, but for the most part he’s not an overly quick guy.  His speed is adequate, but I don’t envision him being a third-level threat in the NFL where the corners are much more gifted than his general weekly competition.  He has really good hand-eye coordination and body control and excels at adjusting to challenging back shoulder throws.

Burbridge was an extremely productive player this year largely because he is a smart receiver; he finds soft spots in zone coverage and gives his quarterback an easy throw.  In addition, he’s crafty with his release off the LOS.  He holds his own against corners that want to get in his face and jam him at the LOS and he runs crisp, hard routes; he creates separation more as a result of his sharp breaks at the top of his stem than because of any one exceptional athletic trait.

I was a little disappointed in Burbridge’s hands, as his highlights had me believing I was going to see a player along the lines of Jarvis Landry (Dolphins).  Instead, Burbridge’s tape was only average from a pure catching standpoint.  He tends to let the ball get to his body a bit more than I’d like to see.  That said, and as I stated above, he did have some really nice catches on  throws that weren’t in the ideal catching radius.

I think it’s safe and fair value if Aaron Burbridge comes off the board in the 4th round.  I don’t think he’s going to be an immediate contributor as a rookie and he’ll likely max out as a WR3 in the NFL.  The fact that he has little to no special teams value hurts his overall appeal. His stock will be greatly impacted by his performance at the Senior Bowl and his scores as the Scouting Combine.  I think he’s going to come in as an average athlete, which would match his film and the value of an early Day Three player.