Reception Perception: A Clouded Journey Lies Ahead for Ishmael Zamora
In a class with the well-discussed Joe Mixon, there lies another character vs. ability riddle for NFL teams to solve. Despite not receiving much of the spotlight afforded to his running back draft class mate, Ishmael Zamora also presents the talent to flip a football field with the shadow of off-field baggage not far behind.
Just like Mixon, the NFL barred Zamora from attending the Scouting Combine after he faced discipline during his final year at Baylor in the wake of a video surfacing showing the wide receiver viciously and inexcusably abusing a dog. Zamora may well work out for scouts at Baylor’s pro day next week, where he will likely show why teams will have to weigh this dark mark against his ability.
Ishmael Zamora is physically gifted. It takes a mere naked eye to see that while watching him play. Even better, he put out a product that catches the more well-trained glance in his final season at Baylor. Should Zamora tear up his private and public workouts leading up to the draft, it will bring his ability back to the forefront.
How much of that is worth mining will be up to NFL teams to decide; but no matter what, prospects like Zamora come in with a razor-thin margin for error. Reception Perception shows that he may have the special traits to make it through when he hits the NFL field.
Alignment and Target Data
Games Sampled: Oklahoma State, Texas, Kansas State, Texas Tech, West Virginia, Boise State
In his final collegiate season, Ishmael Zamora almost exclusively played as Baylor’s X-receiver. Zamora took 90.4 percent of his snaps at left wide receiver, the second-most only to Chad Hansen among prospects charted this year, with 81.3 percent of his snaps coming with his foot on the line of scrimmage. Listed on Baylor’s roster at 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, the lengthy Zamora carries the prototypical build of split-end No. 1 receiver, something of a rarity in this class.
We know from Corey Coleman’s Reception Perception evaluation last draft season that the Baylor offense will naturally inflate the target data results in the methodology. Baylor, over the last few years, coached their wide receivers to not run routes when their side of the field isn’t on the designed read progression. Rather, simply stroll a few steps off the line. Those plays are not charted as “routes” in Reception Perception, thus these receivers’ raw stats per route data is skewed.
Ishmael Zamora is no exception, garnering a target on over half of his 125 routes run in his six games sampled for Reception Perception. With his quarterbacks throwing the ball his way on 53.6 percent of his routes run, and hauling in 65.7 percent of them, we see that Zamora was not only meant to be a big part of the offense, but largely converted when given the chance. However, painful focus drops will occasionally creep into his game, and his 9.0 drop rate is one of the highest in this year’s class.
It’s clear from the data surrounding his deployment, not only where he lined up but the offense in which he operated, that Ishmael Zamora will enter the NFL with a big learning curve. That, coupled with the difficult-to-swallow animal abuse act accompanied by a video on his resume, could well cause him to go completely passed over by NFL teams. Yet, his performance on the field as a pure playmaker will make him tough to ignore in the later rounds, as it rivals some of the best receivers in this class.
While he may drop the occasional maddening ball over the middle, Zamora more than negates them by reeling in some of the most spectacular catches among charted rookies. His 80 percent contested catch rate puts him in the 90th percentile for prospects studied the last two years. His large frame is naturally an asset. Yet, Zamora shows the concentration to track the ball over his shoulder and strong timing in knowing when to pluck the ball from the air.
With a powerful mindset in shielding defenders and willingness to leap, Zamora offers tremendous appeal as a catch-point player. He’s strong enough in this phase of the game to offer hope he can, at a bare minimum, translate those skills to the NFL.
While he’s a player that can win in the air, it would be a mistake to underrate what Zamora can do with the ball in his hands. Zamora went down on first contact on 36.7 percent of his “in space” attempts, a below average rate in this class. A steady player after the catch, Zamora broke a single tackle on 53.3 percent of his in space attempts. His long frame loaded with power make him a tough task for smaller defensive backs.
Zamora’s ability to not only win in the air but also on the ground after the catch will help him draw easy comparisons to another former Baylor receiver. It’s almost no coincidence he’ll enter the NFL with a character cloud hanging over him, just as Josh Gordon once did.
Success Rate vs. Coverage
We know that Ishmael Zamora offers a tantalizing combination of an impressive skill set and overwhelming size that is rare to not only this class, but the wide receiver group in general. What remains to be seen with this player is how often he integrated all of his clear athletic gifts into strong and tangible execution as route-runner.
With a 66.2 percent success rate vs. man coverage, Zamora falls right within the two-year prospect average range. Certainly still a work in progress in some regards, Zamora can see his game foiled by cornerbacks who are superior technicians. Of course, scoring at the average in one separation metric at that size and armed with his contested catch prowess is far from a siren-worthy note.
Elsewhere, Zamora was a strong performer when facing zone or press, despite only registering 46 and 17 attempts against them, respectively. His 87 percent success rate vs. zone coverage trails only Carlos Henderson among prospects charted the last two years. Despite still rounding out some of his mid-route technique, Zamora flashed strong hands and foot quickness off the line. His 70.6 percent success rate vs. press coverage fell just below the 72nd percentile.
Overall, Zamora’s success rate vs. coverage scores as a whole were largely positive. Of course, further context on a route-by-route basis is often needed with receivers from offenses like Baylor’s spread-heavy attack.
It will come as no surprise to discover that Ishmael Zamora did not earn much experience running a variety of routes at Baylor. If a resume with only 72 career catches didn’t explain just how raw this situation, his route charts certainly will.
Red is below the two-year prospect average, green is above and yellow is within the average.
Much like other air-raid style receivers we’ve studied previously, the bulk of Zamora’s routes were short in-breaking patterns. Yet, this is still an extreme example. A whopping 73.6 percent of his charted routes were either a screen, slant or curl concept. Along with the dig, those were the branches of the tree that checked in with an above average percentage. The team even rarely assigned Zamora to go deep, with his nine (12.8 percent) and post (1.6 percent) percentage missing the average by a wide margin.
We expect receivers of this ilk to primarily focus on inside breaking concepts, but Zamora never ran a traditional out-breaking route over the six games sampled for Reception Perception. Typically, that should not get levied as a criticism towards a prospect; aim to grade the results, not the environment. Nevertheless, it does provide insight into just what kind of journey lies ahead of them in adapting to the pro game, and again, Zamora’s route percentage chart is an extreme case.
Little assurance comes with the results on his route success rate chart. With clouds destined to cast a shadow on his projection either way due to his off-the-field transgression, Reception Perception quantifying his rawness does little to change the forecast.
Zamora only posted an above average success rate vs. coverage score on three patterns: the slant, screen and “other” which typically was an end zone style fade for him. With nothing happening on the out-breaking routes, the four other options came back with negative results.
There is more to being a deep threat than size and speed, which we know Zamora has in spades. With little deception techniques at the capacity to deploy yet, opposing corners can blot him out if he cannot simply run away from them. Of course, we know Zamora is a dominant contested catch receiver, and that alone will always make him a downfield threat even if he is not one of the best separators.
Zamora’s Closest Comp
Zamora’s strong performance on the slant pattern, with an 83.9 percent success rate, and his smooth ability to separate from defenders on that route is one of the many reasons that he presents a similar proposition to that of another wide receiver in the news of late, Martavis Bryant.
While his vertical ability is no doubt more refined that Zamora’s, and Reception Perception has always held that he is underrated as a complete receiver, Bryant’s most frightening plays come with the ball in his hands on slants. Zamora, coming with a similar build, is also a threat to take a quick slant to the house and presents the same matchup nightmare at the catch point as the current Steelers wideout.
Bryant is also a comparable case for Zamora as he came into the NFL with similar question marks, from a surface-level perspective. Zamora’s act was a singular moment of disturbing and sickening violence, whereas Bryant came with worries regarding his work ethic, and substance abuse issues have haunted him at the next level. Yet, we know that the NFL tends to just file all off-field issues under “character concerns” even if that is both unfair and illogical.
Both players also came with overall inexperience. Zamora was a surprise declaration for the draft this year, but even his final campaign was more productive than Bryant’s, who caught 11 fewer passes than his Baylor counterpart in one more season played.
Despite Bryant landing an indefinite suspension last year, the Steelers blueprint with him is likely one that will appeal to a team interested in drafting Ishmael Zamora. A Day 3 pick in 2014, Bryant only handled limited duties as a big-play weapon midway through his first pro season. After capitalizing on those at every chance he got, Bryant saw more get put on his plate and was a high-end starter by the time his second season rolled around.
Zamora’s future team should revisit that case. Allow him to grow and learn on the job while providing a dynamic asset as a big play machine. If he returns in kind with executing those, gradually put more on his deck until he integrates his ability with passable technique to give you a true steal of a draft pick.
Yet, Martavis Bryant’s tale also shows us the fragility of these propositions. A fourth-round pick with little expectations, Bryant slid through that narrow margin for error to earn early favor with the Steelers. Imagine, had he not shown ability in his first season and made his value apparent almost right away, Bryant could have easily washed out of the NFL altogether within a matter of two to three years before we heard a peep from him. Players drafted on Day 3 already have a steep hill to climb to relevance and prospects of this ilk with off the field questions almost always fall later than their talent would dictate they go. Additionally, those drafted later are afforded shorter leashes for off-field mishaps than premium picks, so these particular players are trapped on a circuitous carousel with many more possibilities for derailment than success.
Perhaps Ishmael Zamora’s animal abuse incident was an isolated occurrence, something he’s truly learned from and an event squarely located in his past with no impact to be felt in his future behavior. We should hope so, but even if that’s true, he will nevertheless enter the NFL behind the eight ball and in need of chances to prove his value right away, chances he will need to make for himself. The journey for Ishmael Zamora is destined to come with clouds overhead, but the possible destination is without a doubt one that could contain something special.
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