Reception Perception: Corey Davis and the Universal Nod of Approval

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We’re a divided people. You can apply the statement to many sectors of our world, but it certainly fits the small group of individuals on this planet who gather on the internet to discuss the happenings of the National Football League.The beauty of the game lies in its ability to captivate an audience with the impressive feats of tremendous athletes or the dramatic twists of the league as a whole, but also in the way that two people can look at one individual occurrence and see wildly different realities. And that’s okay.

The subjectivity of the takeaways following the viewing of a football game is part of what makes it something that can be discussed for hours on end, 365 days a year. There’s no better example of that than in the toils of scouting college prospects.

Many analysts and observers approach evaluating college players and their potential worth as they transition to the NFL with widely varying processes. Even two people who approach evaluation with the same lens of process can come away from their study with two entirely different conclusions. One film-watcher can watch five games of a prospect and come away believing they just studied a future NFL star; another could see something that causes them to be less enthusiastic about the projection. One analytic data-miner might get hung up on one particular metric while another can easily explain it away.

Those differing end points to a similar journey can incite debate and discourse over a college prospect for months. However, the projection of Western Michigan senior wide receiver Corey Davis seems to be immune from that debate room floor.

It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t like Corey Davis’ game. It appears the draft community has largely extended a universal nod of approval toward his pro prospects. Even those who don’t view him as the 2017 NFL Draft’s best wide receiver largely regard him as no worse than No. 2 in their rankings.

Reception Perception, the charting methodology I developed for evaluating wide receivers, also casts a light of approval of Corey Davis. In the most crucial of metrics in the series’ portfolio, Davis comes up as a tremendous performer.

Alignment and target data

Games sampled: Buffalo, Wisconsin, Ball State, Kent state, Northwestern, Ohio.

Davis has been an impact player since he hit Western Michigan’s campus, recording 67 catches as a freshman in 2013. A stud performer over his last three seasons, Davis topped 1,400 yards in each of those campaigns. He reached new heights as a senior with 97 catches for 1,500 yards and a whopping 19 touchdowns.

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Unlike some receiver prospects who will stick to just one side of the field, Davis was a do-it-all threat in the Broncos’ offense. Davis lined up at right wide receiver on 42.6 percent of his snaps in the six games sampled for Reception Perception and another 30.9 percent at left wide receiver. Listed at 6-foot-3 and over 210 pounds, Davis is primarily an X-receiver with 71.3 percent of his snaps featuring him on the line of scrimmage. However, the Broncos also felt comfortable shifting him into the slot on 26.3 percent of his sampled snaps. Davis comes to the NFL with experience at playing all of the receiver positions in a traditional NFL offense.

As the engine of the Broncos offense, quarterbacks targeted Davis on 37 percent of his 184 routes run in his 2016 Reception Perception sample. It’s clear to see why his teammates and the Western Michigan coaching staff had such tremendous faith in him based on his Reception Perception “success rate vs. coverage” scores, which measures how often a receiver gets open on every variety of route run and against certain brands of coverage.

Success rate vs. coverage

Davis posted a 79.6 percent success rate when facing man coverage in his Reception Perception sample. That’s a score that falls in the 94th percentile among the prospects charted over the last two years, bested only by Sterling Shepard’s incredible 82.8 percent mark from the 2016 draft class. A smooth and natural route-runner, Davis easily separates from defenders and shows an advanced understanding of technique for a collegiate player.

It’s incredibly rare for a player of Davis’ frame to show up with such a gaudy success rate vs. man coverage score. While the prospect Reception Perception data points are typically higher than NFL players on the top-end, 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 Keenan Allen (77.1 percent in 2015).

Davis’ success rate vs. press coverage was also a positive note. At a 71.7 percent success rate, he fell along the 76th percentile among draft prospects charted the last two years. Davis’ quick feet and a variety of release moves make him a chore for defensive backs attempting to press him.

In an odd result, Davis didn’t perform as well when facing zone coverage, with a success rate of just 70.1 percent. That score put him several steps below the two-year prospect average of 77.1 percent.

Route data

In his six-game Reception Perception sample, Davis showed an ability to run a full portfolio of routes. However, a close look at his routes run shows a clear favoritism to patterns designed to show off one of his best attributes.

(Red indicates below the two-year prospect average route percentage, green is above the average and yellow is within the average)

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Davis ran five routes at a rate that was above the two-year prospect average. Those patterns were the slant, post, dig, out and flat route. His screen route percentage was right within the average. Three of those four routes are in-breaking routes, while the screen and flat are also often used to assist receivers in getting into the open field,

When you consider Davis’ run after-the-catch ability, it’s little surprise that he was so heavily featured on routes of that variety. Davis was “in space” on 16.8 percent on his 184 routes in the sampled games. The average prospect checks in at just 11.2 percent over the last two years. Davis was tremendous as creating with the ball in his hands, and his blend of physicality and athleticism makes him a chore for opposing defenders. Davis broke a single tackle on 51.6 percent of his “in space” attempts and multiple tackles on 22.6 percent. Both marks were in the top-three for this year’s receiver group and his bested the two-year prospect average of 40.4 percent and 10.2 percent.

While that’s a notable and highlight-reel worthy part of his game, what makes Corey Davis such a tremendous wide receiver prospect is his seemingly effortless ability to separate from the defender covering him. His success rate vs. coverage scores across the route tree help bring that skill into focus.

(Red indicates below the two-year prospect average success rate, green is above the average and yellow is within the average)

Davis posted an above average success rate on all but three routes on the tree. Of those three patterns, the post route was the only one in which he also ran at an above average rate. While most of his route-running is impeccably clean, Davis could further his acumen by adding in some deceptive moves at the stem point in his deep posts.

The same could be said in regards to his work on curl routes. By adding in more deceptive techniques to sell the vertical pattern before snapping back on the hitch, Davis could improve his curl route success rate.

Otherwise, Davis route success rate chart is superb. Despite only running a nine route on 10.3 percent of his sampled patterns, Davis’ 68.4 percent success rate gives reason to believe he could be an even better straight-line vertical threat at the NFL level if paired with a quarterback who likes to air it out.  

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In the NFL, Davis will be an incredibly dangerous asset running slants to the middle of the field. His tackle breaking makes him a lethal threat when the ball arrives, but his strong release from the line of scrimmage helped him post a strong 85.4 percent success rate on slants, making him even better before the ball arrives.

Player comparisons and NFL projection

Davis’ work on slants and screen patterns will cause some to assign him a Demaryius Thomas comparison. There are some similarities to the way those two play with the ball in their hands. However, Davis already shows more signs of being a better technician than even Thomas did at his peak. While the NFL veteran has always relied on his athletic ability and physical trump cards over nuance, the same cannot be said of the detailed Davis.

The dig and out routes are some of the more difficult patterns for NFL receiver to execute. The integration of technique and quick feet, especially at the break point, isn’t an easy task. Not only did Davis run those routes at a rate above the two-year prospect average, his 76.9 percent success rate on digs and 80 percent on outs were sterling scores. Thomas, in his peak 2014 season posted a 42.9 percent success rate on digs and 57.1 percent on outs, showing the differences in their games.

All in all, there was only one section of the game where Davis showed poorly compared to receivers over the last two draft classes. His 60 percent contested catch conversion rate was below the two-year prospect average. Since he is such an elite separator, he rarely has to make contest catch attempts (just five in his sample), but it’s fair to classify that as the weak point in his game. Davis also has some drops show up on his film, as his 10.3 drop rate is the highest so far among prospects charted for the 2017 draft class.

With such clear and valuable strengths as a route-runner and after the catch, Corey Davis has an incredibly safe projection to the NFL game. His traits and Reception Perception scores indicate he has the potential to be an offense’s alpha receiver, able to succeed in both a time-based or vertical passing game. However, even if doesn’t hit that peak, so much of his game indicates he could slide safely into a high-volume No. 2 receiver spot.

Much of Corey Davis’ game is reminiscent of Buffalo Bills wide receiver Sammy Watkins. Helping to further the comparison, Davis’ Reception Perception scores are strikingly similar to the results from Watkins’ 2015 season. Like Davis, Watkins posted strong marks against man and press coverage, while faltering a bit when facing zones. Their route success charts were markedly similar, as well, with high success rates on slants, digs and outs. Watkins also posted below NFL average contested catch conversion scores in both 2014 and 2015. Of course, unlike Watkins, Davis doesn’t come with constant health worries, which should have NFL observers excited about the potential of seeing the bright flashes of Watkins’ 2015 second-half consistently manifest themselves in Davis.

A universally adored prospect, Corey Davis comes with a clean Reception Perception profile to back-up his claim to be the 2017 NFL Draft’s best wide receiver prospect. He adds play-making dazzle after the catch ability to a craftsman-like approach to route-running in his efforts to separate from defenders.

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A sure-fire first-round pick, Corey Davis could assert himself as a Top-15 player and usurp the rights to be the first receiver off the board from Mike Williams with a strong pre-draft process. His Reception Perception results indicate he might already deserve those honors regardless.

If you’re interested in more Reception Perception analysis, make sure to visit our Reception Perception pages for college prospect evaluations and pre-order The Ultimate Draft Kit for access to 50 NFL players’ full data this summer. You can keep up with all of the work using the #ReceptionPerception hashtag on Twitter.

Editor’s Note: Get full Reception Perception data and written evaluations by Matt Harmon on top 50 wide receivers for the 2017 NFL season in the 2017 Ultimate Draft Kit

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