Reception Perception: Mike Williams & Completing the Story of the Unseen

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Evaluating college prospects is a tricky endeavor. Not only is there no exact scientific method to follow but we’re also attempting to oversimplify a process that revolves around the complex and unpredictable nature of human subjects, something that many evaluators appear to entirely forget. Making the matter even more difficult is the fact that some of us, even those in the tightest inner circles of the NFL, are working with incomplete information.One of the most impactful pieces of football content I’ve ever consumed was an article by Adam Harstad of Footballguys detailing psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s theory on bias he called “What You See Is All There Is” or WYSIATI. In his own assertion, Kahneman explains that when we take in some elements of a story or occurrence, we often construct the rest of the story off of what we see and pass up the pursuit of “the unseen” or what we don’t already know. As it relates to football, Harstad wonders if this unconsciously makes us biased towards certain players based on what we can plainly see on a broadcast view, an inherently limited and incomplete picture, and if we open ourselves to creating a story based only on those “seen” events rather than the entire complexion of their game.

Harstad wrote this piece in November 2015, but the notion behind Kahneman’s original WYSIATI theory and its application to player evaluation is exactly what led me to create the charting methodology Reception Perception over a year prior to its publication.

I believe that the wide receiver position is one of the most susceptible to this sort of bias. So much of a receiver’s job is executed before the ball arrives for them to attempt a catch, or even prior to to the quarterback deciding to throw a pass their way. Yet, that portion of their game is rarely captured by traditional broadcast angles, leaving those unable or unwilling to dig through the footage of additional angles, like the all-22, to only evaluate what happens at the catch point and beyond on a route-to-route basis.

Harstad wonders, “Are we biased towards receivers whose biggest strengths come after the catch as opposed to receivers who excel before the catch?” That’s likely true, but I’d assert that there’s another, perhaps greater bias created by Kahneman’s WYSIATI phenomenon. Due to the public’s limited access to footage beyond the broadcast angle for college games, we often see perhaps incomplete conclusions made on wide receiver prospects based on what can be seen on that angle—primarily at the catch point and beyond rather than before it.

We see that single element in the story of their game and it becomes the primary construction tool in creating biases about the rest of their profile.

It is plain to see that Clemson wide receiver Mike Williams can dominate at the catch point. Even if you haven’t poured over his college game film all you needed was a few exposures to watching him live, most notably in the National Championship, to glean that reality. A wide receiver that makes a large amount of dominant, highlight-reel contested catches often leads the public to a natural conclusion I’ve seen pop up on a number of occasions in my time as an evaluator.

“If he’s winning all these contested catches, it must be because he can’t separate.”

The goal of Reception Perception is to illuminate what occurs on a route-to-route basis; its use is that of a tool to remind us of “the unseen.” In Williams’ evaluation, it can help us decide if we should have concerns about his ability before the ball arrives, despite his pristine work in contested situations.

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Alignment and target data

Games sampled: Louisville, South Carolina, Pittsburgh, Ohio State, Virginia Tech, Alabama

Mike Williams has long had the intrigue of NFL Draft evaluators. As a sophomore in 2014, Williams posted over 1,000 receiving yards and showed he was a big play maven, averaging 18.1 yards per catch. Unfortunately, he couldn’t sustain that momentum as a serious neck injury cost him the remainder of his junior season after just two catches in his first outing. Williams elected to return for his senior season and culminated his collegiate resume with 98 catches, 1,361 yards and 11 touchdowns on way to Clemson snagging the National Championship trophy.

The appeal to Williams is easy to see on the surface as he’s built like the prototypical No. 1 X receiver. The Clemson wideout is listed at 6-foot-3 and over 220 pounds. He was used as a such in his collegiate career, as well. Williams lined up outside on a whopping 97.9 percent of his snaps taken over the six games sampled for his Reception Perception evaluation.

Despite playing on an offense with intriguing pass-catchers like Artavis Scott, Hunter Renfrow and Jordan Leggett, Mike Williams was the focal-point of the Tigers’ aerial attack. Deshaun Watson targeted Williams on 36 percent of the 172 routes in his Reception Perception sampled. Williams paid back his quarterback’s faith by being a clearly reliable target. Williams hauled in a catch on 26.2 percent of his routes run, which was the third-highest figure in the receivers sampled from the 2017 NFL Draft class and 4.8 percent higher than the two-year average.

Contested catch conversion rate

As mentioned, Mike Williams’ strength as a player is his ability at the catch point. Physical contact and traffic doesn’t bother him; he’s a strong leaper and tracks the ball well. He’s a classic “wins-in-the-air” receiver.

With a contested catch conversion rate of 81.3 percent, Reception Perception does not deny that as Williams’ true best attribute. His score in this metric falls in the 91st percentile among the receivers sampled over the last two seasons. He has strong hands overall checking in with a 3.2 drop rate, the fourth-lowest among the Top-15 receivers charted this year.

Williams’ proficiency in contested situations gives him what I call a “trump card.” A receiver with a trump card has one trait in which they are just so inherently dominant that even if a defender stops them on three out of four attempts, on that fourth down their trump card will eventually shine through.

Of course, Mike Williams’ ability to win contested catches is not what’s in question here. What Reception Perception will help answer is whether Williams has enough separation ability and acumen as a route-runner to be more than just a jump ball threat.

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Success rate vs. coverage

The primary metric in the Reception Perception catalog is “success rate vs. coverage” which measure how often a wide receiver gets open on every route they run and against different forms of defenses. Mike Williams’ positive performance in this metric may surprise some.

Mike Williams scored above the two-year prospect average in success rate vs. man, zone and press coverage. His best score was his 82.5 percent success rate when facing zone coverage, 5.4 percentage points higher than the two-year average. We’ve yet to see Williams’ athletic testing results as of press time, but those findings aside, athleticism may not be the pivotal marking of his game. Williams is undersold as a technician and a mental player diagnosing zones. That technical prowess also shows up on his release moves from the line of scrimmage with a 71.2 percent success rate vs press coverage, falling at the 71st percentile.

Now, Williams’ success rate vs. man coverage score isn’t quite as strong as his marks against zone and press coverage, despite it being above average. With a 69 percent success rate, Williams falls at the 55th percentile. Again, that’s not an elite score like the 79.6 percent success rate posted by his counterpart Corey Davis. The two are quite different prospects with contrary strengths and that’s quite alright. What we’ve learned from Williams’ success rate vs. coverage scores is that his separate ability is “good enough” to make him a viable No. 1 receiver candidate when viewed alongside the trump card he carries in contested situations.

One common comparison assigned to Williams is that of Chicago Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. Much like Williams, Jeffery is known as a jump-ball specialist who relies on that trait to offset his perceived issues as a separator. Reception Perception reveals that the comparison is fair, even if the concerns with both players’ ability to separate are overstated:

If Williams can amass the type of production and make the impact of a player like Alshon Jeffery, his future pro team will be more than pleased.

Route data

While we’ve learned that we shouldn’t be overly concerned about Williams’ ability to separate from coverage, it’s still necessary to dig into his route tree to see where he is most successful at creating separation.

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

Mike Williams’ route percentage chart reveals a clear utilization plan for the wide receiver. Clemson asked Williams to run an intermediate route including the curl, comeback and dig below the two-year charted average rate for college prospects.

You can see that his usage on shorter routes was quite a bit higher, as most of the more shallow patterns were right in line with the average rate, in addition to his post route usage. It was on vertical patterns like the nine and corner route that Williams showed up with an above average rate. His ability to separate deep and in the air on shot plays should not be in question.

Further highlighting that the intermediate game is not where he’s at his best, Williams’ route success rate chart shows the areas of the field where his NFL team will look to make the most use of him.

The three routes in which Williams ran under the average were also three of the four where he failed to create separation. His highest success rates came on shorter patterns like the slant and flat in addition to his vertical work on the post, nine and corner routes.

Unless Williams takes a  dramatic step in his development as a route-runner, it’s unlikely that he ever becomes an elite separator or that his NFL team will make much use of him on nuanced out-breaking routes. The question for those attempting to project him to the pro game is will that really matter? I often find myself offering a resounding “no” to queries like this.

Good coaches cater the assignments they dole out to match the strengths of their receivers. It’s why a player’s lack of ability to run the full route tree is often a hollow concern. If a player is dominant on just a handful of routes, what’s the sense in asking them to work outside of that comfort zone just for the sake of it? The goal should be to set them up for an optimal usage, even if it limits their route portfolio.

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Even the most diehard viewers would likely be surprised at how many receivers fall into a usage pattern such as this, including some of the league’s best wideouts. Take for example the route percentage chart of Calvin Johnson, who is certainly one of the top receivers to ever play at his peak, during his final NFL season.

Even one of the best to ever do it came with limited route tree, with over 53 percent of his routes being corners, slants or nines. The Lions were able to make use of Johnson’s incredible skills and position him as an easy target for his quarterbacks by assigning a rather simple route portfolio. This is not to suggest that Williams is a comparable talent to Johnson, or that he’ll produce at his level. Yet, what this does show us is that it’s certainly possible to funnel 140-plus targets on a No. 1 receiver workload even if the player runs just a handful of simplistic routes.

Reception Perception certainly suggests that there is little reason to worry about Mike Williams projection to the NFL as a separator or future usage as a No. 1 receiver. The details in “the unseen” revealed by the methodology show that just because he has a clear trump card in the contested catch game does not mean that we should limit our thoughts on what else he can do.

Williams will compete with Corey Davis to be the first wide receiver off the board in the 2017 NFL Draft. The process that will play out over the next few months will likely have a say in who ends up taking the honor home to be selected over the other. Although, in the end, the decision may come down to pure archetypal preferences. The trump card of Williams’ ability in the air help him have a clear projection to an early role, but the good enough separation ability Reception Perception sees gives hope to the idea that there is more to him than that.

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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