Reception Perception: JuJu Smith-Schuster and the Intersection of Different Departments

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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

When at peak functionality, an academic department is a truly beautiful ecosystem to observe. Those in it work under the same subject umbrella, yes, but the professors and their most loyal student followers often approach their search of the truth in the field with entirely different theoretical methodologies.

Back before this whole “career in football” vision was my goal, my life plan after undergrad was to set out in pursuit of a Ph.D. in sociology emphasizing in social theory and cultural studies. As such, I was well inundated in the sociology department at Lynchburg College, especially in my junior and senior years. The academic mentors I followed at school, and thus my side of the field was the symbolic interactionism, incredibly qualitative portion of the field. I often didn’t share the methods of the more qualitative, survey-heavy sectors of our department, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t see the value in their work. I believed that the purpose of my research, and those who undertook similar work to mine, was to help illuminate other layers of meaning and help contextualize through a micro sense the work of my quantitative-focused peers.

My longtime mentor in the football media world, Sigmund Bloom, believes our community of analysts, and particularly those who focus on the NFL Draft, operates in a similar fashion to that of an academic department.

In theory, this should mean that while we’re all approaching player analysis through different lenses of study, the different camps in the field should be able to add to and complement the other side’s work. Those who spend hours watching film and crafting reports based on that can absolutely learn a ton from the data-miners who take a more metric or qualitative approach to evaluating prospects. Unfortunately, there often develops a faux war and foolish competition between the two sides that involves useless retorts like “just watch the tape” from the qualitative side or use of traditional scouting jargon in a mocking fashion from the qualitative corner. Those of us, like me, who are pure writers at heart and therefore perpetually juggling arrogance and insecurity can contribute to the fruitless battles even if that’s not out true goal. Come to think of it, I can also recall some silly back-biting among the faculty of my undergrad sociology department, as well. We’re all humans here.

I suppose because my process for evaluating wide receivers involves absorbing hours of game film, I fall more on the qualitative side of the tape-watchers. However, because I’m rather obsessed with the shortcomings of our brains when trying to properly weigh what we see (perhaps best explained in my thoughts on not overweighting drops), I created Reception Perception in order to properly log all of my findings and to introduce a quantitative system for keeping my qualitative research on receivers honest.

Within the prospect analysis world, there exists a sector that relies heavily on college production to project prospects in the NFL. Kevin Cole of Rotoviz is one of the best in that field, detailing his regression tree findings in a post known as “college production isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” when evaluating wide receiver draft picks. Not always, but sometimes my method for evaluating leads me to contrasting conclusions from those like Cole who evaluate this way.

One such example from the 2017 NFL Draft class appears to be USC wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. With the still 20-year old receiver’s college production as impressive as it, it was no surprise to see Cole recently declare that Smith-Schuster was his No. 1 player at the position this year.

Reception Perception doesn’t view JuJu Smith-Schuster in quite that fashion. However, I’ve often said that my method is not the only way to the truth in evaluating, and I’d offer caution to  any reader who encounters an analyst who preaches the opposite of that admission. In fact, by then end of this report, we should likely find the most honest projecting of Smith-Schuster, (and other prospects like him) comes from blending Reception Perception’s findings with those of qualitative models.

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Alignment and Target Data

Games sampled: Arizona State, Arizona, Washington, Notre Dame, Penn State, Alabama

In Chris Godwin’s Reception Perception breakdown, we touched on the advanced learning curve of wide receivers who primarily stuck to one side of the field. While Godwin didn’t fit that bill, despite never venturing into the slot, JuJu Smith-Schuster definitely does.

Among Smith-Schuster’s snaps taken over his Reception Perception sample, 83.3 percent of them saw him lined up at right wide receiver. He ventured into the slot for 13.5 percent and took less than 10 total at outside left. It’s rare to see an NFL receiver even approach a 60 percent snap rate from one side of the field and prospects like Kevin White, Laquon Treadwell and Dorial Green-Beckham, among others, have struggled with the transition over the last few seasons. In fact, in the last two draft classes currently in my database, players who took more than 70 percent of their snaps from one side of the field largely struggled to transition quickly to the league:

NFL Draft prospects charted for Reception Perception the last three years who have played more than 70 percent of their snaps on one side of the field.

Now, there’s no question that some of these players were derailed by injuries in their first seasons. However, Corey Coleman averaged the most yards per game with 41.3 as a rookie among the players on this list. Neither Green-Beckham or White showed any career momentum in their second seasons. Perhaps this was what an NFL scout had in mind when he told my NFL Network colleague Bucky Brooks that the proliferation of the spread offense was killing wide receiver development. They are unlikely to find themselves in a deployment plan that resembles anything like this collegiate pattern, and thus reversing all aspects of route-running, releasing from the line and working the sideline presents a greater challenge when you have little to no experience doing so at the college level.

At this point, we can only hypothesize that receivers who primarily play on one side of the field in college face a steeper learning curve in the NFL. Based on the evidence we have so far, it’s at least something to monitor.

As mentioned at the onset, JuJu Smith-Schuster will be popular among evaluators who value production, especially when adjusted for age. As an 18/19-year old sophomore, he terrorized the Pac-12 with 89 catches, 1,454 yards and 10 touchdowns in 14 games. His momentum slowed a bit this year, as he caught just 70 passes for 914 yards, despite still scoring 10 times.

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Smith-Schuster wasn’t quite the target hog in 2016 one would expect following his dominant sophomore campaign. USC’s quarterbacks targeted him on 28.1 percent of his routes run in the Reception Perception sample, which is below the two-year prospect average. His production came in a bit more of a spiked fashion this season and he caught a pass on just 16.2 percent of his routes, also below the two-year prospect average.

There’s no getting around the fact that Smith-Schuster had a tendency to disappear from games, or at least stretches of them. The questions for evaluators is how much do we assign blame to him versus his surrounding variables. To be fair, USC’s quarterback play was rocky in the early goings of the post-Cody Kessler era before Sam Darnold took the reigns. In order to get more clarity on the answer to that query, we’ll turn to the rest of his Reception Perception results.

Success Rate vs. Coverage

The road already gets rocky in JuJu Smith-Schuster’s Reception Perception evaluation under the methodology’s primary metric. Success rate vs. coverage measures how often a receiver gets open against defenders covering them and what brands of defenses they are best at facing. It’s clear that this is not an area of strength in Smith-Schuster’s game.

With a 62.7 percent success rate vs. man coverage, Smith-Schuster falls below the 33rd percentile among prospects charted the last two seasons. It often appeared there wasn’t enough creativity or quickness in his route-running to earn separation when facing off man coverage. His success rate vs. zone coverage did not see him take a sizable leap, finishing in the 41st percentile.

What’s interesting to observe about JuJu Smith-Schuster as a route-runner, is that he does have some strong release moves off the line of scrimmage. He’s able to engage in hand fights or deceive defenders to elude jam attempts. This is reflected in his 68.6 percent success rate vs. press coverage, which unlike the previously listed scores, is above the two-year average. It’s troubling that he seemed to be unable to sustain separation the longer a route dragged on or lacked the creativity to win against off-man, yet, proper credit should go to his work with release moves.

Route Data

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s troubling performance in the base success rate vs. coverage metrics certainly requires a deep route-by-route investigation. Here we can see where USC deployed him most often in conjunction with where he best created separation.

Red is below the two-year prospect average, green is above and yellow is within the average.

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Smith-Schuster’s most heavily featured routes were the slant, curl and dig. In total, they accounted for almost 60 percent of his total route run in his Reception Perception sample. For a player whose team clearly held designs for him as the featured player in the passing game, these routes make sense for consistent usage. All three patterns provide ample opportunities for moderately simple completions for a quarterback and allow the receiver to rack up production in the short to intermediate game.

Not a major factor in the vertical game, Smith-Schuster’s nine and post route percentage were below the two-year charted average. The corner and out were the only two outside breaking routes that he ran at a rate within the class average. His route percentage on the comebacks and flats was just 1.6 percent for each.

In conjunction with Smith-Schuster’s usage pattern, his success rate vs. coverage route chart seems to only bring more questions than answers. Some of his most run patterns also show up with some of his lower success rate scores.

Despite running the curl and slant at one of the highest rates in the 2017 class, Smith-Schuster’s 67.3 and 74 percent success rate vs. coverage, respectively, on those routes checked in below the two-year prospect average. However, the other route that he ran at a high rate, the dig, saw him score an 81.8 percent success rate vs. coverage, which is above the average. The dig is often a pattern that requires a good deal of nuance and detail to properly execute. His performance there might just indicate there is more potential as a route-runner yet untapped.

Smith-Schuster did show some ability as a downfield player, with an 80 percent success rate on post routes and 62.5 percent on corners. He wasn’t asked to run those routes often, but those scores are nevertheless encouraging. Yet, it’s clear he’s not a true vertical player, with a below average 53.8 percent success rate on the nine-route.

We noted that out-breaking routes weren’t a big portion of Smith-Schuster’s route portfolio. Outside of the corner, he failed to score above the two-year average on any outside routes. Given what we see in his route data, Smith-Schuster’s best NFL system is likely one that asks him to primarily work the middle of the field in the intermediate zones of a passing game. However, with just three routes (aside from the screen) featuring an above average success rate vs. coverage score, it’s fair to wonder just how much is there to mine out.

Naturally, there will be some blowback to Smith-Schuster’s success rate vs. coverage with the notion that’s not “where he wins” as a player. That’s true. However, Reception Perception questions whether he’s as a strong as billed to be in some of the other facets of the game, or if some highlight bias is in effect.

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Ancillary Metrics to Dispels Narratives

JuJu Smith-Schuster is often regarded as a “bully” receiver, a player who can win at the catch point and is tough after the catch.

His 57.1 contested catch conversion rate turned up at the 40th percentile among prospects charted the last two years. His official measurements at the NFL Scouting Combine turned in under the 6-foot-2, 220 pounds he was listed as at USC. Now, an inch and five pounds isn’t a massive deal, but Smith-Schuster doesn’t truly fit the mold of a big receiver. He’s put up some highlight real worthy catch when leaping in the air, but this metric shows it is not a consistent trait.

The same can be said for his work after the catch. There’s a popular play from Smith-Schuster’s collegiate game film where he destroys a defender with a brutal stiff-arm.  Unfortunately, those moments were few and far in-between. He went down on first contact on 69.2 percent of his “in space” attempts over his Reception Perception sample, which was the highest rate among the prospects charted this year.

Moving Forward

With the highlight plays that would offset concerns about his separation scores not showing up as consistent strengths, JuJu Smith-Schuster remains something of a mystery. His Reception Perception evaluation certainly doesn’t paint him in the light that analysts who operate in the production-focused department might. However, there exists a way in which we might both be pointing to the truth in our findings.

I’m not sure that I’ve ever intended Reception Perception to be a tool in finding out “who is bad”. Rather, I’d like to use the findings from the methodology to better contextualize players, both in terms of what they do best and setting a range of outcomes.

What Kevin Cole and other evaluators in his department show us is that JuJu Smith-Schuster has a strong projection to be a useful NFL wide receiver. The thought would be that someone who shows so well in those historical production models has little chance of completely washing out as an NFL player. Now, what Reception Perception looks to add to the conversation is creating that range of outcomes for these players. I believe that’s the goal of my department, or at least it should be when working conjunction with the quantitative work of my peers.

A similar situation played out in last year’s draft with now Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd. The former University of Pittsburgh star checked all the boxes for production-based college evaluations. However, he scored below the class average in multiple branches of success rate vs. coverage, contested catch conversion rate and breaking tackles in space.

Despite that, I’d challenge anyone to find a single moment where I seriously suggested, throughout the number of pieces I wrote or podcasts I appeared on last offseason, that his Reception Perception results meant Boyd would be a failure at the NFL level. Rather, I believed that my findings on Boyd merely cast major doubt on his ability to be a top-two option in a passing game, and his chances to function outside of a specific role at the next level.

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We are only one year in, but that’s exactly what played out in his rookie season. The Bengals never moved him outside of a low-volume slot receiver role and he was even out-produced by veteran Brandon LaFell, who the team promptly re-signed when free agency opened, after A.J. Green went down with a season-ending injury. A Next Gen Stats analysis of Boyd’s rookie season showed the Bengals were likely wise to do so. He averaged a healthy 2.78 yards of separation on his targets from the slot, but a lowly 1.97 on those coming when lined up out wide.

Again, it’s just one year’s worth of results, but to me, this is a case where both the department featuring production-based models and my own work were correct in projecting this player. Their camp was right to point out Boyd had the pedigree of a future NFL receiver, while Reception Perception appears to have rightly offered a not of caution when projecting him aggressively into his pro role.

The similarities to the JuJu Smith-Schuster case in this draft are striking. His Reception Perception results are similar, but he also comes with a pedigree that indicates a positive pro future. I’m not interested in a faux battle between the two departments. I value the other branches’ work. In this case, I place importance on their findings that indicate Smith-Schuster’s pedigree make him a strong and safe bet for the NFL. Yet, Reception Perception just offers caution on extending that range of outcomes too high.

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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