Reception Perception: Assessing the Fit of the 2017 NFL Draft 1st Round Wide Receivers
Much of the talk heading into the 2017 NFL Draft was that the class of wide receivers was deep but didn’t carry the top-heavy appeal of year’s past. Well, it appears the league begged to differ, as all three of the consensus best players at the position went off the board in the top-10 picks.
Each of Corey Davis, Mike Williams and John Ross went to teams where their unique set of skills fills a hole in the wide receiver corps the organizations had previously constructed. Using the lens of the Reception Perception methodology for evaluating wide receivers, the fit for all three prospects in their new homes becomes clear.
Corey Davis to Tennessee Titans (No. 5 overall)
All along this was the perfect prospect-to-team pairing in the 2017 NFL Draft wide receiver group. The emerging Tennessee Titans offensive unit, while successful under Marcus Mariota on the back of a strong power-run game last season, was in desperate need of a true No. 1 wideout. The organization wasted no time and held no pretense as they filled that hole with Corey Davis at the fifth-overall pick, eschewing all potential worries over a barren pre-draft resume.
What Davis lacked in a sampling of his measured athleticism, he made up for in a dominant on-field profile. The Western Michigan product boasted a 79.6 percent success rate vs. man coverage score, showing that he thoroughly dominated the players across from him in college.
Davis is unique in that he’s a big receiver at over 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, but is also a natural separator. While comparing prospect scores to NFL players is clearly apples and oranges, no “big receiver” in the pros has approached matching 79.6 percent success rate. The closest big receivers in the database from the last three years would be Dez Bryant (75.5 percent in 2014), Allen Robinson (73.6 percent in 2015) and Julio Jones (73 percent in 2016). He’s also a true chore to jam off the line of scrimmage with a 71.7 percent success rate vs. press coverage. Those two metrics together combine to make him a route-runner that wins at levels of the field.
Showing an ability to separate on the nine with both speed and nuance, posting a 68.4 percent success rate vs, coverage, Davis brings his technical and athletic prowess to a variety of routes. He’ll help the Titans not only as a desperately needed big-play threat but also a true potential target hog in the short to intermediate areas of the field.
Marcus Mariota grew into one of the top young anticipatory passers in the NFL last season but never had the weapons to truly make good on that trait. Most of the Titans receiving corps struggles to separate with timing. While Rishard Matthews was a fantasy darling late last season, he profiles in Reception Perception as a pure possession receiver—solid contested catch conversion rate, above average against zones but poor success rates vs. man and press coverage.
Corey Davis runs timing and precision routes such as the out, dig and slant that will mesh well with Mariota’s accuracy and anticipatory passing. Best of all, Davis adds extra juice to the equation when a passer helps throw him into open space by being one of the top prospects this year after the catch. Davis was tremendous at creating with the ball in his hands, and his blend of physicality and athleticism will strike fear into the heart of even the most experienced NFL defenders. Davis broke a single tackle on 51.6 percent of his “in space” attempts and multiple tackles on 22.6 percent. His multiple broken tackle rate was bested only by Louisiana Tech’s Carlos Henderson among prospects charted over the last two years.
Not only did the Titans fill a glaring need for a No. 1 wide receiver by blocking out the noise and picking Corey Davis, they also identified a perfect fit for the style of play their quarterback embodies. Expect Davis to assert himself as one the league’s most productive wideouts before too long.
See Corey Davis’ Reception Perception evaluation here.
Mike Williams to Los Angeles Chargers (No. 7 overall)
In what was a shocking set of top-10 selections, Mike Williams to the newly minted Los Angeles Chargers may have been the least expected of the bunch. On the surface, this is a curious fit but a deeper dive does show Philip Rivers and his offense could use a player with his skillset.
The Chargers have Keenan Allen, one of the NFL’s top receivers when on the field, 2016 breakout wideout Tyrell Williams, Dontrelle Inman and his 810 yards along with former free agent addition Travis Benjamin already on the roster. With that in mind, it seems odd that the Chargers would take a wide receiver in the first 10 picks of the NFL Draft. However, several Reception Perception metrics reveal why the Chargers believed that Mike Williams not only fit well with their timing-based passing game but also brings an additional dimension to their offensive unit.
While Rivers isn’t afraid to uncork the deep ball, the Chargers have long operated off a short passing game as their primary tool to move the chains. According to the the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Rivers ranked 17th among quarterbacks with 200 attempts in air yards per attempt. While it’s not often identified as Mike Williams’ strength and is certainly not his trump card, the former Clemson wideout can function in the short passing game.
Beyond his work on the vertical patterns, two of Williams’ highest success rate vs. coverage scores came on flats and slants. That fits in well with what Los Angeles already asks of their wide receivers. Back in 2015, Keenan Allen ran a slant route on 21.8 percent of his routes sampled for Reception Perception, the second-highest rate trailing only the curl at 23.2 percent. Last year, Tyrell Williams ran a slant on 28.3 percent of his 311 routes charted for Reception Perception. That was far and away his his highest route percentage. Even Travis Benjamin’s, who the team brought in as a free agent last offseason, best route is the slant with a 80.4 percent success rate vs. coverage score.
It’s clear that the Chargers want their receivers to perform well on the the slant route, and while his primary skill is in the contested catch portion of the game, Williams can assist as a chain-mover. Matt Waldman, of Footballguys and the famed Rookie Scouting Portfolio, compared Williams’ ability to that of longtime Chiefs wide receiver Dwayne Bowe. Back in 2014, Bowe’s final season with the Chiefs and Andy Reid, 28.5 percent of Bowes’s charted routes for Reception Perception were the slant and flat. In a similar fashion, Williams will pile up targets on those patterns and help the Chargers move their offense down the field.
With all that being said, Mike Williams clearly stands out from the rest of the Chargers wide receiver corps for his ability to play the ball in the air. Of course, Keenan Allen is dominant in this regard, with an 82.6 percent contest catch conversion rate, but the rest of the Los Angeles wideouts don’t match up. Despite measuring in at 6-foot-4, 205 pounds, Tyrell Williams is more of a run after catch player than an in-air dominator. While the former Western Oregon star broke a single tackle on 51.5 percent of his “in space” attempts and excels on crossing routes, he posted a below average contested catch conversion rate of 58.3 percent in 2016. Similarly, the sub 180-pound Travis Benjamin’s 25 percent contested catch conversion rate is one of the lowest in the methodology’s database. Dontrelle Inman is a solid route-runner from the slot, but also comes in below the NFL average in winning contested catches.
On the other hand, Mike Williams is one of the best prospects in the previous two draft classes at winning the ball in the air. Williams’ 81.3 percent contested catch conversion rate falls along the 91st percentile among prospects charted over the last two years. A casual observer can identify the Clemson product’s strength in this area with just a cursory glance at his college cutups. With above average success rate vs. coverage scores on posts, nines and corners with a dominant trait in the contested game, Williams might already be the Chargers best vertical threat.
Williams is not the best separator, with a 69 success rate vs. man coverage score, falling along the 55th percentile. However, he can replace what the Chargers used to have as a field-stretcher in Malcom Floyd as a big jump ball wideout who wins along the sideline.
The pick of Mike Williams certainly makes sense from a fit and schematic standpoint, but it takes a creative mind to justify it from a team need perspective. While it’s hard to count on him to stay healthy, Keenan Allen comes with the marks of a true No. 1 wide receiver as a dominant player in the air and a 77.1 percent success rate vs. man coverage score that is still one of the five best in Reception Perception history. Their complementary wide receivers are strong assets across the board and that doesn’t even touch on a stable of age and youth at tight end.
Parsing out the targets in the Los Angeles passing game will prove a difficult chore on a week-to-week and season-long basis if their 2017 first-round pick earns instant playing time. Mike Williams brings a set of skills to the table that none of the other receivers on the roster offer, but he also adds another variable and thus a layer of questions that previously did not exist. Yet, there’s something to be said for an NFL team trying to win games by essentially maximizing their strengths to an unstoppable magnitude. It’s clear the Chargers have their eyes on doing just that with their aerial attack.
See Mike Williams’ full Reception Perception evaluation here.
John Ross to Cincinnati Bengals (No. 9 overall)
It was clear the 2016 Cincinnati Bengals were starved for offensive playmakers, especially one All-Pro receiver A.J. Green was lost for the season with an injury. Reception Perception identified last year’s second-round pick (Tyler Boyd) as a limited role player who didn’t have the separation ability to be a receiver a team would look to funnel 120 targets toward. Boyd did little as a rookie to suggest that wasn’t the case and the Bengals confirmed that role by drafting John Ross at ninth overall.
Ross’ record-breaking 4.22 speed isn’t the type of skill to just “yada-yada” over, as it’s a trump card that no other wide receiver in the NFL holds. As such, it’s no surprise to see he scored out above the two-year prospect average in success rate vs. coverage on the pure vertical go-route.
Even if he never produces a strong stat line for the Bengals, his speed and pure vertical ability will open up space for the rest of the Cincinnati offense. In the fantasy realm, analysts often get caught up with projecting target shares and the raw production that follows, but NFL teams are focused on gaining tactical advantages over their opponents across the line of scrimmage. At the absolute worst, Ross brings that to the table and will make life easier for pass-catchers like the all-world Green, Boyd and Tyler Eifert.
Yet, his Reception Perception reveals he can do more than just stretch the field. The cushion college defenses gave Ross off the line in respect of his blazing speed gave him an edge on other routes, but he showed the nuance to take advantage of that space.
Ross demonstrated a keen ability to sell college defenders on his intentions to head down the field before snapping back to the quarterback. He earned above average success rates on curls and comebacks while breaking off his routes at a 90-degree angle on either the out, dig or flat pattern.
A surface level evaluation of John Ross’ game, largely due to his size, will bring undeserved questions. His high success rates at all levels of the route tree hint at a deeper ability than just that of a vertical threat, and a demonstrated ability to defeat press coverage adds another layer of optimism. We often take size and extrapolate it a wide receivers’ attributes without confirming it on their game film. Assuming Ross cannot get off the jam due to his frame, he would fall under that umbrella. His 73.2 percent success rate vs. press coverage falls along the 78th percentile and a top-five score in this draft class.
Ross separates early in his routes with detailed route running and shoves the dagger in the defense with his unmatched speed. There’s no debate such a player will grab a prominent role in a passing game starved fro difference makers like the Bengals. His separation scores across the route tree offer hope that he can not only be a longtime No. 2 wide receiver for the Bengals, but also has the ability to grow into a 1B type of wide receiver along the T.Y. Hilton end of the speed receiver archetype in his range of outcomes.
See John Ross’ full Reception Perception evaluation here.