Norv’s New Old Toy: How the Vikings Use MarQueis Gray
Image courtesy of Andrew Weber-USA TODAY SportsThe Vikings are invested in the concept of a “dynamic” player and have been since Percy Harvin started making waves. The use of multipurpose Swiss Army Knives has driven the offensive unit to create and design play after play with different methods of getting the ball to electric playmakers.
In the hands of the right offensive coordinator, it can be deadly and effective, but the bumbling mitts of a poor coordinator will find ways to drop the ball—overthinking and poor design will doom an offense more readily than stale plays and predictive playcalling.
To that end, the Vikings have added to their unique corps of multifaceted weapons. To go along with returner/runner/receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, running back/slotback Jerick McKinnon and fullback/H-back/tight end Rhett Ellison will be MarQueis Gray, a former quarterback and wide receiver for the University of Minnesota.
Though Minnesota fans may be wary of adding a player who may have harmed the program more than helped, his future at the next level has little to do with his past in the NCAA.
In the NFL, Gray was converted to fullback after a failed experiment at tight end in San Francisco. Shortly after the 49ers released Gray, he was picked up by the Cleveland Browns, who saw fit to revive the tight end experiment and tack on to his responsibilities, making him a fullback and wildcat option as well.
Under Norv Turner in Cleveland, Gray has lined up at quarterback, halfback, fullback, in-line tight end, slot tight end and receiver split wide. With Turner now in Minnesota, it follows that tendencies we saw there may end up here.
It’s not Gray’s raw speed that intrigued the Cleveland front office or Turner, but his uncanny ability to create yards with the ball in his hand and combine power with elusiveness. Given additional training in route running and plays designed to get him the open field and the ball, Gray could evolve into a potent weapon that may not be a feature of the offense, but a crafty supplement.
Just like Percy Harvin, Randall Cobb or Golden Tate may add tremendous value as a complementary weapon without having to be the primary target, so too can Gray provide more synergistic value to a team with an established threat than an ordinary receiver or tight end.
Gray’s measureables are frankly disappointing. At 6’3” and 240 pounds, his 40-yard dash (4.68), three-cone (7.25) and short shuttle (4.30) were remarkably all almost exactly average for a player of his height and weight. His explosion scores (30” vertical and 111” broad jump) were stunningly lower than his similarly-bodied peers and his bench press was astronomically low for a fullback or even a tight end (15 reps).
Despite all that, Gray averaged 7.2 yards per rushing attempt, and possessed enough power to average 2.8 yards after contact, which would have ranked sixth among all halfbacks in 2013, 0.2 yards behind Adrian Peterson. Similarly, his yards per route run in the 2014 preseason ranked 44th of 80th, a surprising total.
The difference between Gray and his athletically superior counterparts is the combination of coordination and vision, which gives him the ability to string together all of the physical gifts he has into a better running package. His agility scores are low, but his fluidity as a runner is evident, and he can create poor tackling angles with his body in order to increase his yardage.
As a runner, Gray keeps his hips low and pad level appropriate, even when he finds space, until he knows he’s in the clear. This gives Gray a much better ability to cut and react with explosiveness than many other runners his size. In addition, he combines his running with head fakes, shoulder fakes and lower body fakes in order to create more room for him to run.
It’s odd to think of the former Gopher as technically skilled and savvy at any particular thing; at Minnesota, he could never shed his rawness at quarterback, and his transition to receiver put him in a new position entirely; one for which he had never developed the skills. In both senses, he was an unmolded player without the appropriate technique.
But it would be a mistake to apply that to all areas of Gray’s skillsets. Whereas he was seen as an athlete without the technical ability to string together more than the sum of his parts, he’s much more a natural runner with the instinct and intelligence to create yards where many faster and more agile athletes could not. It’s that ability that Cleveland relied on when they gave him the ball, not any natural athleticism that made him faster or stronger than the players around him.
With that in mind, we can put his growth as a receiver and fullback into context. Consider the following routes MarQueis ran against the New York Jets in Week 16 and the Pittsbugh Steelers in Week 17:
Hardly the worst culprits in terms of his route-running, Gray rarely showed an inclination to deceive the opponent or set up his breaks, making him a predictable and therefore useless receiver when running a traditional route. His primary ability came from receiving in the flat, something he displayed with alacrity both in the preseason this year and his total play from last year.
More importantly, however, is Gray’s massively improved route-running this last preseason. It wasn't often we saw this level of skill from him:
This is a great video for him for a couple of reasons, and one reason why he could be much more in 2014 than he was in 2013. The first Pittsburgh GIF reveals an issue that occasionally cropped up last year, in that he was slow to get off the line and react to the snap. Here he’s not emphatically early, but he is decisive off the snap and gives himself time to get into the route and be an option for Hoyer.
After that, he keeps his hips square to the end zone, but turns both his shoulder and his head to his left, looking to give himself an outside release, like most seam routes and nearly every out-breaking route. The defender, already shaded to the outside moves laterally to get depth against outside routes (and, to his credit, does not open the gate by turning his hips outside). Gray doesn’t begin turning out until midway through his fourth step, making him a difficult read.
Most importantly, he does something he rarely did in 2014, which is keep his hips low in anticipation of the break. From there, he explodes out by uncoiling the spring, while integrating upper arm movements in a swim move to create additional separation (something that savvy route runners like Greg Jennings has done on many occasions) and finds himself with more than a foot and a half of room against his defender.
Gray doesn’t turn his head to look for the ball until after it’s left Hoyer’s hands, giving any wily defender, especially one with recovery speed, as little time as possible to break up the pass. He puts his hands together before leaping up to grab the ball, looks the ball in, and secures it before turning upfield.
2013 MarQueis Gray barely did any of that, much less all of it in one go. His eyes gave away his route, his hips would reveal his direction, he would stay upright throughout the process, he would never use his arms to create additional separation, he would employ terrible hands technique, and he would lose focus as the ball hit his hands.
This is not to say that Gray consistently did all of these things or that he’s ready to run a full route tree, by any reasonably stretch of the imagination, given what we saw of him in the preseason. But the fact that we never saw a complete process from Gray was worrisome, and is relevant now when it comes to evaluating who he is as a player.
Last year, Norv Turner used Gray in a variety of ways, from outlet passes in the flat, to out-breaking routes designed to release route combinations against certain defenses, often being used as a decoy to move defenders and create space elsewhere. When in Wildcat, Gray was a read-option player instead of the more familiar jet sweep-style plays the 2008 Dolphins employed to win their division.
In what may be a relic in his time with Minnesota, Gray was a fantastic read-option player. He rarely made the wrong reads and keyed in on defensive adjustments. This is the polar opposite of a player like Michael Vick, who seems like the perfect read-option quarterback, excepting the fact that he never did it while at Virginia Tech and couldn’t make the right decision when it was employed to save his life (in a quite literal sense).
With Norv Turner and the Browns, Gray read the EMLOS (End Man on the Line of Scrimmage, usually a 4-3 defensive end or 3-4 outside linebacker), a defensive tackle or a linebacker. It worked fairly well. Here, he reads the defensive end:
Here, he’s reading the outside linebacker.
Notably, Pittsburgh employs one of the most common and effective ways to beat the read-option, by scraping the linebacker to the alley. Gray beats this by narrowing the surface area he’s exposing to a tackle and gains more yards than he should.
He hardly, if ever, attempted passes for Cleveland, and this might need to be a part of his game in order to be a “true” Wildcat option, but even without that in his repertoire, he can be an effective gadget player.
The key is that Gray become effective in the passing game. What was pointed out in the Lions play was not a sign of a consistent receiving threat at tight end, but what may be. Throughout camp and the preseason, when he wasn’t held back by an injury (possible concussion—cleared—and a hamstring injury), his play was plagued by both drops and fumbles, one of each appearing in his preseason showings, as well as a few more in camps.
I asked Justin Higdon, who covers the Browns for DraftBrowns.com, what his impressions of MarQueis Gray were coming out of camp and the preseason, shortly after he had been picked up by the Vikings.
“He was basically gifted a role on a team without a lot of weapons and he whiffed with a couple of drops and a couple of fumbles,” Justin said. “The fact that they cut him tells me they couldn't even trust him a little heading into the regular season. The ability is there but he never seemed to get the sense of urgency to hold onto the ball. I think the cut really surprised him, but I'm just speculating.”
It’s true. The Browns are without Josh Gordon, and recently cut Nate Burleson, which means their receiver corps had a combined 548 yards last year. Consider the fact that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ranked last in total passing yardage last year with 2820 yards and let go of their second, third, fourth and fifth-most targeted receiving options but still have more combined 2013 passing yards from their receivers, and it really drives the point home.
Even when including Jordan Cameron (917 yards), the Cleveland receiving options are painfully limited. Cutting MarQueis Gray should raise serious concerns about his ability, perhaps even more telling of his current talent than Norv Turner requesting he be picked up. On the other hand, his cut was a major, major surprise to Cleveland Browns fans, and it seems as if ball security concerns were at the forefront.
The sustainability of those concerns aside, he could still be well worth it for the Vikings. It may be a persistent issue, though a college football fumble rate of fifteen over 340 attempts (each sack in college football is tallied as a rushing attempt) is actually stunningly good for a quarterback. Four percent may seem high, but consider that same year that E.J. Manuel’s fumble rate was twice that, and Robert Griffin III’s was higher as well.
Noted ball protectors Aaron Murray and Alex Carder both had twice the fumble rate of MarQueis Gray in college. Kellen Moore fumbled it on 25 percent of all tallied runs.
It may simply be the case that Gray’s fumbles this preseason for the Browns are a combination of variance and position adjustment, as he has shown ball-protection technique before, cradling the ball in the correct arm, holding it tight and away from defenders (though not as high as most traditional coaches want it) and so on.
He will of course, as you can see in some of the above plays, hold the ball away from his body and expose it to greedy NFL defenders, but it should be noted that in the Washington play he fumbled this last preseason, the ball was secured against his body before he received contact—even though it had been floating out a second before the hit.
Ball security will be a focus, but not a major issue, and certainly not one that isn’t correctable.
Gray, of course, hasn’t entirely been used to move the ball himself. Over the season, especially near the end, Gray was asked to take more pure fullback duties and block. This was a questionable decision, but one that was nearly unavoidable: Chris Ogbonnaya, the fullback for the Browns, ended up taking a lot of halfback snaps because of the depletion of the running back corps, with Gray spelling him at fullback for large periods of time.
His blocking in the Pittsburgh game was a disgrace. He rarely could sustain blocks, let defenders maintain separation before shedding, and perhaps most problematically, could not find the correct blocking angle in order to secure a lane for the runner.
His punch was OK, though it needed to improve, and his moved his feet throughout the block, which is good. But he couldn’t consistently mirror the defender and position himself with good running angles for the running back.
His vision as a fullback was neither superlative nor disappointing, and there were some, but not many miscues, in creativity as a blocker, adapting to the play in motion instead of the play as drawn up.
More encouraging was the game prior, against the Jets, when he lined up in line much more often and therefore had a smaller distance to close as well as a predefined and easy to achieve blocking angle. He sustained blocks better in that game, and the difference between the two should tell us that as a blocker in space, Gray needs work, but tight against a defender, he can do alright. Though his assignment all game, Calvin Pace, was not the terrifying run defender he used to be (and in fact throughout the year was a liability), his ability to put together what amounted to an average performance as a blocker is certainly encouraging.
The Vikings currently employ two fullbacks in name, and another one in practice (Rhett Ellison), so it is unlikely that Gray will be pressed into service as a fullback here despite his role in San Francisco and Cleveland. It is more likely that Norv Turner will use Gray as a more traditional tight end with gadget opportunities.
The benefit to having Gray won’t just be as a serviceable tight end receiving option with surprising yards-after-catch ability, but a move player that can run routes in-line, in the slot, out wide or from the backfield, as well as a running back or direct-snap running threat. When he enters the huddle as a lone tight end in a three receiver set, defenses will likely check into their nickel packages, which gives the offense the ability to run a Wildcat play against a 2-4-5 or 4-2-5, with only two true linebackers and four men on the line of scrimmage.
Because the option concepts Gray is good at running by design take a blocker away, it gives the Vikings an advantage that many Wildcat packages don’t have, with more blockers where the numbers are than offenses are typically used to.
Don’t be surprised to see Gray advance in his route-running ability and used as a shallow threat, not just as a crosser, but as a route-combination decoy, who can run snags, sticks and smash routes to clean up outlet passes with yards after the catch, or curl routes to advance the chains. He can run into the flats to catch a checkdown or a screen or himself be used in trick plays.
That Cordarrelle Patterson, Jerick McKinnon and MarQueis Gray can all sling the ball is a tantalizing opportunity, and all three on the field should create some significant confusion.
Norv Turner’s toy is a work in progress, but it can prove to be a fantastic complementary option and not just the failed quarterback-turned-receiver that NFL fans are used to seeing.
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