Reception Perception: Maybe It’s Easy to Overlook Christian Kirk But We Definitely Shouldn’t
As we’ve run through these Reception Perception profiles, we continue to return to a theme of this receiver class being chock full of complementary flankers and slot receivers. It’s an important point to remind ourselves. It’s also a reality that makes separating these players, much less trying to rank them, rather difficult. Good thing I don’t have to, sorry if you do. Among that group of players is Christian Kirk out of Texas A&M. He’s been in the spotlight for years as a productive SEC player and is highly-ranked among most national media outlets. Yet, for whatever reason, he hasn’t received much buzz in the months leading up to the NFL Draft.
Maybe it’s because he’s viewed as a known commodity after a productive collegiate career and we’re all more captivated with trying to one-up each other with the latest sleeper find. Perhaps some evaluators don’t see much of a difference between Kirk and other prospects belonging to the same archetype. At times, I’ve definitely felt the same way. However, the more time I spent with Kirk’s game and parsing out his Reception Perception branch-by-branch, the clearer his transition to the pro game became.
Alignment, Target Data & Contested Catch Rate
Game sampled: UCLA, Arkansas, South Carolina, Auburn, LSU, Wake Forest
Christian Kirk spent the vast majority of his time in Texas A&M’s 2017 offense operating from the slot. He took 93.2 percent of his snaps from the slot in the six games sampled for Reception Perception. Just eight of his snaps came from the outside receiver positions, the rest saw him line up in the backfield.
When I spoke with Kirk last month, he told me that in addition to working from the slot he wanted chances to prove himself outside because “that’s where No. 1 receivers play”. It’s impossible to come away from a conversation with this prospect anything but impressed with how professional and committed he appears to the preparation aspect of the game. He’s the type of player who can convince you he’ll accomplish a goal that would be a projection beyond what he showed on his college film.
Kirk is mostly right about his assessment of where No. 1 receivers line up, but I’d add one caveat: No. 1 receivers have almost exclusively played on the outside.
As the league, or at least the smart clubs, continue to look in the mirror in an effort to keep moving into the future, I think weaponizing the slot position will become an even greater emphasis. With more high-percentage throws to wide receivers coming out of the slot, according to the Next Gen Stats tracking data, teams should look to get their No. 1 receivers more targets from the inside and look for slot receivers that go a step beyond the traditional “old reliable” mold. You still need to coverage dominators outside but more resources should be placed on maximizing what you get out of the slot. I believe Kirk’s primary NFL home will be built from the slot position.
At the collegiate level, Kirk was a player who helped his team achieve that goal. Texas A&M’s quarterbacks targeted him on 31.5 percent of his sampled routes. Quantifying his reliability, Kirk didn’t drop a single pass sent his way. You can argue he has the best hands in this class.
Continuing that theme, while Kirk only saw a contested catch attempt on 15.4 percent of his sampled targets, he posted a strong 75 percent conversion rate. Kirk thrived in the bench press at the combine and clearly carries a rocked-up frame. He also has the “my ball” mentality he’s proud of. The ability to win the ball in the air with defenders tight to him will offer another layer of reliability to Kirk’s game, especially down in the scoring areas.
Success Rate vs. Coverage
Reception Perception’s success rate vs. coverage metrics isn’t meant to exclusively be pass/fail degrees. Oftentimes they can help us sort and categorize players and what they do well. That’s certainly true in the case of Christian Kirk.
Kirk’s 62.9 percent success rate vs. man coverage fell short of the 33rd percentile among prospects charted over the last three draft classes. It’s far to levy criticisms against his ability to get off man coverage, at this point in his progression. However, Kirk saw just 62 attempts against man coverage over the six games sampled for Reception Perception. That’s well below the average attempts (98) among charted prospects. You can note the same for his work against press, which he saw on just 15 routes.
As a primary slot receiver in the NFL, Kirk is destined to see more zone coverage from interior defenders. He showed an excellent ability to defeat that brand of defense. Over 103 attempts against zone coverage, Kirk posted an 86.4 percent success rate. His score cleared the 96th percentile and is the best in the class this side of Calvin Ridley’s 91.1 percent.
Kirk attributes his ability to find the holes in zone coverage to dedicated film study of not only his own team’s offense but also each opponent’s defense. It’s also about being on the same page with your quarterback, of which he played with multiple ones this past season. Being in the exact spot the passer expects him to be is a big reason that success rate is so high, and why he’ll make a reliable safety valve at the NFL level.
To further dive into what the success rate vs. coverage scores tell us about Christian Kirk’s game, we need to examine his route data. Here we’ll see where he operates best.
As a slot receiver who worked off the line of scrimmage and even took some reps out of the backfield, it’s no surprise to see the screen and flat routes well-represented on Kirk’s chart. These high-percentage dump off-type patterns made up over 21 percent of his sampled routes. In the same vein, Kirk checked in at less than 10 percent combined post and nine routes run.
However, we look further down the tree and we see plenty of usage on intermediate patterns. The dig and the out route both checked in at an above average rate. Even a deep route like the corner at 7.3 percent of his sampled routes was in his portfolio more than his peers.
Kirk ran so few deep patterns that itâs hard to put much stock on his flashy nine route success rate. If his usage is consistent with players of his archetype, he won’t be assigned those often at the next level either.
What is notable is how well Kirk showed out on the slant, curl and dig. Those are the patterns an NFL slot receiver does need to master. Breaking into the middle of the field is going to be a primary function for Kirk in his pro offense. Excellent success rates on that collection of routes is a strong indicator he’ll be up to the task. His 87 percent success rate on digs, which he ran at a higher rate than most prospects, was particularly impressive. All this does help in our effort to contextualize Kirk’s game. Perhaps he’s not the flashiest prospect but his route data speaks to a prospect who could fill the role of a high-volume slot receiver like we’ve seen out of Jarvis Landry or Larry Fitzgerald.
In a class that we’ve spent many hours dissecting while trying to find an upside-laden potential center of a passing game player, it’s easy to overlook a player like Christian Kirk. That doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.
Kirk has reliable hands and showed a mastery of finding the open spaces in a defense at the college level. There’s a world of value in a player that can do this, especially with so many more coaches valuing efficiency and designing easier throws for quarterbacks these days. There’s a clear need for players of his archetype in the pro-ranks with so many teams incorporating spread concepts.
The team that drafts Kirk will have a big influence on how he’s deployed and therefore how his career shakes out. With the right squad, his outlook could resemble that of Packers receiver Randall Cobb. At different points in his career, Cobb has stepped forward to be a key reliable target for Aaron Rodgers. He doesn’t separate as well from man-to-man coverage but is able to get open in the middle of the field against zones when healthy. Cobb is also a weapon for Rodgers in the red zone and Kirk could become that player too, given his strong marks on contested catches.
Perhaps you’ve taken in all this information and just don’t see the sex appeal. You might be right but plenty of teams need a player like this. The ones who do can will consider Christian Kirk on draft day and if it all works out, we’ll wonder why we didn’t discuss him just a bit more.
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