DJ Turner runs away from a NC State defender

Vogel’s All Versatile Team: WR DJ Turner, Pittsburgh

  • 2021 NFL Draft
  • All-Versatile Team
  • DJ Turner
  • Los Angeles Rams
  • Maryland Terrapins
  • Minnesota Vikings
  • New England Patriots
  • NFl Draft
  • Pittsburgh Panthers
By John Vogel January 10, 2021 0 Comment
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The Brawl Network’s Senior NFL Draft Writer, John Vogel, breaks down what makes Pitt receiver DJ Turner such an intriguing target for the NFL.

Let’s face it – we all love versatile football players. They always seem to capture our intrigue as it is astonishing to see a man compete in so many ways on the football field. Versatility piques the interest of NFL teams too. The NFL is always looking to add wrinkles to their teams on both sides of the ball, especially as the league becomes more about match-ups. For Pitt’s graduate transfer receiver by way of Maryland, DJ Turner is one of those players who brings versatility to an NFL offense.

Introducing the first annual 2021 Vogel’s All-Versatile Team – a breakdown of the most versatile players entering the NFL Draft and discussing how they can fit into an NFL offense with their unique skill sets.

In this series, the goal isn’t only to break down the best players entering the 2021 NFL Draft – it’s to break down some of the more interesting players. An initial 22 players will be announced on the “team.” Following the initial 22 release, we will add eight more players to provide some depth to the squad. After all, this was a difficult list to compile due to the extraordinary number of interesting players in this class.

The Team so far

So far, only four players have been introduced on Twitter. This is the third article in the series on a player. The team revealed so far is:

WR DJ Turner
TE Xavier Gaines

OLB Jabril Cox
ROVER JaCoby Stevens

Introducing WR DJ Turner, Pittsburgh

DJ Turner was a four-star prospect according to 247 Sports coming out of DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland. He was 247 Sports 24th-ranked receiver prospect, much higher than any other recruiting website. That’s why 247 Sports continues to dominate recruiting coverage.

Turner dropped down recruiting board rankings after a nasty injury ended his senior season. In the season opener, Turner gruesomely broke his leg on national television. Regardless, Maryland held its offer to Turner through the injury and a coaching change.

In January of 2016, Turner almost took an official visit to Syracuse. He receivied interest from Virginia and Army West Point as well at the time while remaining verbally committed to Maryland. “Syracuse would be a great fit for my style of play,” Turner commented on the upcoming visit, “so I would be dumb not to check it out.” However, a snowstorm prevented Turner from visiting Syracuse and potentially changing his mind, and he signed with Maryland on Signing Day.

Off of the field concerns surface while at Maryland

It didn’t take DJ Turner long to start getting himself into trouble at the University of Maryland, unfortunately. After a blowout loss to Ohio State in Turner’s freshman season (November 2016), Turner was suspended by the football team, along with his high school teammate, Lorenzo Harrison, after being charged with second-degree assault and reckless endangerment after “sniping” people walking through campus with an airsoft gun. Both Turner and Harrison were considered “critical losses” to the offense by their head coach, DJ Durkin.

Turner exploded in the team’s 2017 Spring Game, catching six passes for 126 yards and a touchdown. “He’s done that all spring long,” Durkin said afterward. “He’s been really really solid for us — consistent. He’s a playmaker with the ball in his hands. He’s a tough cover in the slot.” It was a good bounce back, and Turner remained focused and committed to football.

Turner struggled to stay on the field the next couple of years, hampered by injuries. However, in 2019, he was suspended for the remainder of the season after being charged with a DUI and many other counts. With new head coach Mike Locksley struggling to gather the team, he wasn’t happy about it. “DJ has to focus on the non-football things right now,” Locksley stated, according to The Washington Post. “I won’t get into or comment on anything further on that until I have more information.”

In October, Lockley announced that Turner would be taking a redshirt. “This will allow him to continue to work on his issues off the field, which he’s doing a great job,” Locksley said. “We’re going to keep supporting him as we have been, but we’re going to utilize the redshirt season that he has and hopefully get him back next year to play.”

Coming to Pitt

The Big Ten initially canceled their 2020 season in August, and DJ Turner was among the players looking for a new home. The question never was whether he would play football in 2020; rather, it became where. DJ turned to his brother, Mark Hayes, who played football in college back in the late 1990s and early 2000s at Rhode Island.

Pittsburgh head coach, Pat Narduzzi, was an assistant coach who recruited Hayes back in the day. They had a relationship, and Hayes reached out on behalf of his brother. Narduzzi was interested.

Turner had other connections to Pitt as well. His former wide receivers coach from Maryland, Chris Beatty, is the receivers coach at Pitt. When Turner was being recruited to Maryland, Beatty was his main point of contact. Beatty had left for Pitt following DJ Durkin’s termination from Maryland. “He’s just an overall great person. I’ve known Coach Beatty for about five years now and I got more respect for him than a lot of people,” Turner commented on his position coach.

Pittsburgh was attractive to Turner too, because he had played college football and become close with Dino Tomlin, the son of Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike. “I ran into coach Mike one time leaving the facility and we talked,” Turner explained. “He just welcomed me to Pittsburgh. A cool little conversation.”

Ultimately, it was the best decision that Turner had made in quite some time. Turner had a big 2020 season, catching almost twice as many passes this season as he had over the last four.

The ability from the slot

DJ Turner is a very solid receiver in his own right. Despite being a little short for the position, standing at a little over 5’8″, Turner has played big when it has counted. Turner has a very strong skillset. He’s a good route runner, he understands positioning, and he has strong hands to be competitive at the catch point. Turner catches well through contact, he seems to absorb it sometimes. However, the thing that he’s very good at doing is running routes underneath and along the sideline.

I don’t believe we will be talking about Turner as a guy who can stretch the middle of the field. That’s not where he has ever been very effective. No, I believe that Turner’s game is underneath on crossing concepts, like the shallow cross and the mesh, and then as a screen option around the line of scrimmage. If he gets going in a game with a couple of good runs after the catch, opposing defenses will press him. Once he gets the press matchup, you can send him on a fade or a wheel route down the sideline.

He concentrates on the ball. You really don’t see any concentration drops from him on tape. In the example displayed above, he watches the ball through a defender’s arms and reacts before anyone else has a chance to know that he caught the ball. It’s a remarkable play, really.

Running Back skill set in the open field

DJ Turner is a good wide receiver. He’s most certainly among the more talented in this class. He runs good routes, makes excellent cuts, and displays the ability to separate from defenders with ease. I love his skill set. I think there is a lot of very good things going on there.

However, the thing that really separates Turner from a lot of these other players is his run-after-catch ability. Turner is a monster with the body of a running back. When matched-up downfield with cornerbacks and safeties, he’s difficult to bring down. Against Virginia Tech this season, he caught 15 passes for 184 yards and the touchdown that you see above. Turner’s run-after-catch rate was about 2-1, he compiled 127 yards after the catch. He put together a 74.0 PFF passing grade that game – and a 67.0 grade the entire season.

Turner’s build and weight distribution for his height is excellent; he is bigger than many NFL running backs around his height. When you watch him run, notice how low his center of gravity gets. It’s ridiculous to watch.

Special teams prowess

DJ Turner was dangerous all season as a return specialist. He returned mostly kicks, but some punts as well for the Panthers, averaging 22 yards a kick return, and 8.3 yards a punt return.

The open field isn’t just catching a ball in space or underneath – it’s special teams too. Turner’s athleticism is simply extraordinary in the ways that he moves and free’s up space and picks his way through traffic.

It’s not only that Turner can play return specialist – it’s that he can play coverage too. Turner played on return coverage as well most of his time at Maryland in addition to playing wide receiver. The NFL values this type of versatility, especially if someone is borderline good enough to make a final 53-man roster.

How the NFL can use DJ Turner

The NFL will most likely use DJ Turner as a change-of-pace slot receiver option. He’s phenomenal in the open field and so quick in and out of his breaks that he’s difficult to cover underneath – a lot of teams will look to use him there.

I think Turner will see the utility role as well while in the NFL. The same role that many great players took before Turner – players like Percy Harvin, Tavon Austin, and Isaiah McKenzie. The idea will be to scheme Turner to space and let him thrive.

Lastly, you can’t talk about Turner without mentioning special teams. He’s nasty on both sides of it – as a return specialist and as part of the coverage unit. Turner racked up six tackles as a junior in 2018 on special teams in just seven games and then showed his explosive ability at Pitt this past season. Don’t underestimate the value that the NFL finds in a player like that.

Turner has worked hard at his issues off of the field. He told Jon-Michael Salter on Draft Diamonds that he’s serious about the game. “I think in the NFL, I am going to be the same guy,” Turner said. “I have been the same way my whole life. I take this game seriously, and I want to do it for a living. I know what it takes to be successful.”

Best NFL fits for DJ Turner

Minnesota Vikings

I think DJ Turner to the Minnesota Vikings would make a ton of sense. This year, they found the perfect replacement for Stefon Diggs in rookie Justin Jefferson, who’s in the running for Rookie of the Year. Between Jefferson and the veteran, Adam Theilen, the Vikings have a formidable receiving corps.

However, when they go to 11 personnel, they don’t have a great slot option right now. I think Turner would fit perfectly with them. Turner wants to run block when given the opportunity, something that the Vikings will value. Between Turner’s ability in space and the two other options outside, this could be a dangerous combination for the Vikings to unleash.

Plus, don’t think that the Vikings wouldn’t use him on special teams – the special teams unit lacked a lot of explosive ability last season.

Los Angeles Rams

The Los Angeles Rams have a knack for picking up key players who can be valuable as horizontal threats on offense. What do I mean by that? Someone who can start at one end of the field and has the explosion and quickness to get to the other side and turn the defense on a reverse, flip screen, etc. That’s DJ Turner. He fits this offense well.

Currently, Josh Reynolds, the team’s number three receiver, is on track to be a free agent next season. The Rams drafted Van Jefferson in the second round last season, and Jefferson has the ability to play the big slot role. That being said, Jefferson doesn’t really play in the slot role the way that the Rams generally play within their offense.

With as much time as the Rams like to spend in 11 personnel with Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp out wide, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that they could be looking for an explosive talent like Turner, who plays the slot role perfectly the way that the Rams want it played. Turner can be that horizontal threat and stretch the secondary thin, opening up the seams.

New England Patriots

The New England Patriots invented the slot receiver position with Wes Welker back around 2006. Welker went on to have a borderline Hall of Fame career with massive production for several years in that system. The biggest challenge in the Patriots offense in 2020 was finding receiver talent that was able to complement the quarterback.

The Patriots are looking to overhaul their receiving corps this season, or at least upgrade it. N’Keal Harry hasn’t worked out yet as a former first-round pick, and the most effective receiver that the team had, according to PFF, was Jakobi Meyers with an 80.1 season grade.

Turner could be that later option in the class that the Patriots add to play special teams and the slot role when they need it. Plus, Bill Belichick loves to scheme versatile players in ways that we aren’t used to seeing – I can’t imagine him passing up an opportunity to do that again.

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