With their last pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, the Buffalo Bills selected receiver Austin Proehl from North Carolina. With the team already selecting a receiver before him, it will be interesting to see where Austin fits in the scheme of things. We talked to Akil Guruparan from SB Nation’s Tar Heel Blog, too see what Proehl is all about from a guy that watched him a lot in college.
What would you say are Proehl’s strengths?
Proehl, before his injury, was quietly one of the better route-runners in the country. He creates separation at all 3 levels: he’s shifty at the line of scrimmage and has the agility and foot speed (evidenced by his 4.41 40-yard dash) to get open down the field. His father Ricky was an NFL wide receiver for 16 years and then an NFL WR coach for several years after that and it’s clear both from watching Proehl and listening to him talk that his father has drilled in him the importance of precise route running. It’s a reason that he can play both outside and inside, and he lined up both pretty frequently as a wideout and as a slot receiver during his time as a Tar Heel. Ryan Switzer played almost exclusively in the slot, for comparison.
Proehl also tracks the ball very well, he was sent deep a fair bit at UNC and was always in position to make a play on the ball. This was a skill that impressed scouts at the NFL’s Regional Scouting Combine because it’s not exactly common at his size.
What about his weaknesses?
At a little over 5’9”, 185 pounds, and with 8.5-inch hands, Proehl’s physical limitations are pretty obvious. He struggles to win with physicality, whether that be on jump balls or in contested catch situations. The first isn’t a role he should be expected to play, though the latter is reason for some concern. He got ample separation in college and didn’t need to fight at the catch point much, but that won’t be the case in the NFL.
In 2016, his hands were good, but not great. He had a few drops throughout the season; not enough to be a real problem but enough to be notable. One play that stands out is his touchdown against Miami, where he juggled a pretty straightforward catch in the back of the end zone. He didn’t drop it, but only secured it after being knocked out of bounds. It was wrongly ruled a touchdown and was an example of the occasional butterfingers Proehl showed. He seemed to have improved on this tremendously in 2017. Though it was on a small sample size, Proehl’s hands looked excellent; every ball that got to his hands was caught cleanly. It remains to be seen whether this was an actual improvement or just luck, but to my eye there was a real difference in how Proehl attacked the ball in 2017 versus in 2016.
Which pro would you compare Austin to?
I think he compares pretty well to Taylor Gabriel. They’re built pretty similarly, with Proehl measuring an inch taller and 10 pounds heavier than Gabriel did, and both having similar 40 speed. I don’t think Proehl has displayed the play speed that Gabriel has but he’s not far behind. Both can play inside and out despite their size and are both quick and fast; Proehl made opposing DBs do 360s multiple times and Gabriel’s most famous highlight, of course, features making a cornerback trip over himself. Both have that ability to make the guy across from that look foolish.
Do you think he is a good fit in Buffalo?
He certainly fills a need in Buffalo, which almost indisputably has the worst/least-proven receiver corps in the league, so in that sense, Proehl fits very well with the Bills. There’s also the obvious connection between Proehl, whose father played and coached for the Panthers, and head coach Sean McDermott, who was the Panthers’ defensive coordinator before moving to Buffalo and whose time in Charlotte overlapped for several years with Ricky Proehl’s. In terms of Proehl’s particular skillset, though, his ability to move all along the formation should be valuable. It looks like Buffalo leans pretty heavy with its personnel choices, not going to more than 3 receivers too often, so it stands to reason that the Bills’ backups need to be able to play any of the WR positions, and Proehl, unlike several of the other players competing for the backup positions in Buffalo, has that ability. I think he can stand out against the likes of Kaelin Clay, Quan Bre, Ray-Ray McCloud, and Malachi Dupre (who I liked a lot last year) and make a case for the 53-man roster.
What is your favorite in game memory of him?
His game against Pittsburgh in 2016, which is one of my favorite UNC football memories period. Ryan Switzer stole the show with his 16/208/1 line, but Proehl had an excellent game in his own right, catching 7 passes for 99 yards and a touchdown. He kick-started the drive that won the game for the Heels with 3 early catches, including a crucial one on 3rd and 16 to turn it into 4th and medium and then, after that had been converted, a diving 4th-down conversion to get UNC near the Pitt red zone. Proehl’s skillset was on full display that game, as he caught passes at all 3 levels and showed his ability to both outrun and outsmart defenders with his routes, and it’s the game I’ll remember him most for.
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