Reception Perception: Providing Context to Cooper Kupp’s NFL Projection
Viewing the NFL Draft as anything but a process would be a mistake. Yes, it culminates in a singular event where the teams “put pen to paper” and select college players to join their organization, but there is so much that must play out to get to that moment.
Prior to the three days that stretch out from the end of April into the early days of May, there are many pivotal points in the draft process that take place and create peaks valleys and crests to the outlook of the players to be selected.
There’s the college football season, where prospects put on film what NFL scouting departments will judge them by. The declaration process comes next, where underclassmen join the pool of seniors and create movement in all the stocks of all involved. During the All-Star circuit, especially at the Senior Bowl, the few granted the privilege to be there get to take the first step in the pre-draft circuit to show off their abilities ahead of the rest of the class. At the NFL Scouting Combine, the majority of the rest players destined to get picked in the draft join those already featured at the Senior Bowl, and there, they’ll all be subjected to putting hard data behind the athleticism each possesses. After that comes pro days, team visits and the ever ongoing exercise of scrubbing every nook and cranny in the name of gathering information on all these young men.
To strongly overreact to just one of the many events on the pre-draft calendar is to ignore the realities of the natural ebb and flow when working with incomplete data. It’s not all about the Senior Bowl, the Scouting Combine or the film; it’s about the puzzles pieces fitting together throughout the process as a whole.
Something of this ilk appeared to take place with Eastern Washington wide receiver Cooper Kupp in the early goings of the postseason. After a dominant statistical run at Eastern Washington, Kupp traveled to Mobile, Alabama and by many accounts, put on a show at the Senior Bowl. His week there sent ripple effects throughout the draft world, causing many to place him among the top-five wide receivers in this class and perhaps even elevate his stock to that of a late Round 1 to early Round 2 prospect.
In my opinion, that seemed brought on by an overreaction to a singular event in the process, whereas the on-field players already profiled for Reception Perception like Chris Godwin and Carlos Henderson are clearly superior. Those players are in the midst of getting their dues as more analysts tune into Henderson’s tape and Godwin woke the world up with his combine.
At that same combine, Kupp tested in the 23rd percentile for the broad jump, the seventh percentile for the vertical and the 14th percentile for the 40-yard dash, per MockDraftable. Seeing his lack of athletic ability in comparison to some of his peers should cause the football world to ask if they put “the cart before the horse” on his NFL projection.
The key to understanding Cooper Kupp’s evaluation is in the art of contextualizing his projection with what he’s capable of offering an NFL team. Reception Perception can help us achieve that goal.
Alignment and Target Data
Games sampled: Washington State, North Dakota State, UC Davis, North Colorado, Portland State, Youngstown State
Let’s get right down to the most crucial reality of Kupp’s evaluation: he’s a slot receiver, through and through. In the six games sampled for Reception Perception, Kupp took 78.6 percent of his snaps from the slot. Over the last two draft classes, the prospect average is 20.1 percent of snaps taken on the interior. The only receiver sampled in that span who lined up in the slot more was UNC’s Ryan Switzer with 86.9 percent.
If his collegiate team didn’t even believe Kupp’s best position was as an outside receiver, what can we possibly base a belief that he will be anything but a big slot receiver in the NFL? His lack of measurable athleticism shown at the NFL Scouting Combine gives us a clue as to why that’s his most likely pro position. This is not to be taken as a negative, but it helps us put a value on the player.
As clear as it is that Kupp must be a slot receiver at the NFL level, it’s just as apparent that he’s one of the most reliable players in the draft class. Eastern Washington’s quarterbacks targeted Kupp on 29.2 percent of his 212 routes run in his Reception Perception sample. He caught a pass on 23.6 percent of them. His 5.6 percent differential between those two metrics was the lowest number of any prospect charted this year, showing that he was proficient at turning usage into production. In addition, his 1.6 drop rate was also the lowest in this class.
Success Rate vs. Coverage
It feels awfully aggressive to pigeonhole a receiver into a role before he’s taken an NFL snap. However, Kupp’s Reception Perception Success Rate vs. Coverage scores bear out that reality.
Naturally, as an inside receiver, Kupp faced far more zone coverage than he did isolated man-to-man defenders. Kupp registered 124 attempts against man coverage in his sampled games and did a solid job at getting open. His 77.4 percent success rate vs. coverage when facing zones is within the two-year prospect average. Kupp shows an ability to sift through zones and will assist his team as a chain mover against that brand of coverage in the NFL.
The struggles for Kupp come when asked to beat tight man coverage, and it is within these metrics we find the questions about his success as an outside receiver at the pro level. Kupp’s 59.1 percent success rate vs. man coverage is just above the 23rd percentile among prospects charted the last two years. Similarly, his success rate vs. press coverage of 52.3 percent checks in below the 27th percentile.
It’s a stretch to believe a player, no matter how productive on paper they may be, that struggled to consistently beat man coverage at a low-level of collegiate football will be able to transition to the outside in the NFL. Technical prowess is essential for most wide receivers to win as route-runners in the league, but even the most proficient technicians can be rendered moot when they lack the tangible athletic gifts of an average NFL receiver. After the scouting combine, we know Kupp falls into that group.
As with most slot receivers, Cooper Kupp came with a narrow route portfolio at the collegiate level. He was primarily asked to run short to intermediate routes with the design to get him into open space.
The four routes that Kupp ran above the two-year prospect average were the screen at nine percent, the slant at 25.9 percent, the dig at 8.5 percent and the flat at 14.2 percent.
Outside of those patterns, Kupp has little exposure on out-breaking patterns or in the vert game. Kupp’s post route percentage was right at the two-year prospect average, but he rarely ran the nine or corner route. Observing how often he ran each pattern helps add a needed extra layer of context to his route success rate vs coverage chart.
Despite running the slant and flat routes at a rate that was above the two-year prospect average and making up around 40 percent of his route run, Kupp did not manage to post an above average success rate vs. coverage score on either pattern. If Kupp is to become a reliable chain-moving receiver out of the slot at the NFL-level, he will need to perform better as a separator on those two patterns. Players like Jordan Matthews, who operate in a similar role to Kupp’s best-projected usage plan, do their best work on those routes.
Outside of the screen, the only route that Kupp posted an above average route percentage and success rate vs. coverage score was the dig. His performance on that pattern is crucial as it will assist him in picking up chunk yardage in the intermediate areas of the field. The same can be said for the out-route, which he ran at a rate in line with the two-year average.
His above average success rate vs. coverage scores on the nine and comeback should come with an asterisk, considering how infrequently Kupp ran those routes. His comeback route percentage was less than one percent.
None of the route or success rate vs. coverage data from Reception Perception is to say that he’s a worthless NFL projection or a player who cannot function at the next level. What this does is provide some sobering context to a draft stock that seemed inflated coming off a strong Senior Bowl week and give some clarity to his future outlook. Nevertheless, there are two areas where despite his lack of separation ability, he can help an NFL team.
Cooper Kupp posted an 81.8 contested catch conversion rate over his Reception Perception sample, the same figure Alshon Jeffery posted through his 2016 NFL season. It was a superior rate to that of Clemson wide receiver Mike Williams, who is widely regarded as a dominant catch point wideout.
Kupp’s frame and strength are complementary to his excellent hands. He is a strong receiver in traffic who can pluck the ball away from his frame even when well covered. His vertical jump illuminates the reality that he isn’t an elite leaper, but he offsets that by an ability to shield defenders.
Another area where Kupp showed up in a positive fashion was his solid ability after the catch. His high usage rate on flat and slant routes frequently put the receiver in space, totaling 11.3 percent of his routes in whole. He broke a single tackle on 54.2 percent of his “in space” attempts, which was the highest rate among all wideouts charted this year. The spectacular plays were in short supply, as he broke multiple tackles one just 4.2 percent of his “in space” attempts but he’s clearly a threat to make the first defender miss.
It’s fair to say that the hype on Cooper Kupp’s NFL projections certainly got out of control in the weeks following the Senior Bowl. His lack of ability as a separator and a player that can win outside are clearly illuminated in his Reception Perception evaluation. He must be confined to a big slot receiver position at the pro level, no more and no less.
However, he does bring some attributes to the table, such as his ability to win contested passes, overall reliability and solid skills at breaking tackles after the catch. With those in tow, he can slide into a spot as a role player for the team that selects him in the NFL Draft. Yet, with below average athleticism and questions about his ability to separate from coverage, he’s a selection best made on Day 3. With that context blanketed over his stock, he becomes a much more tenable pro prospect.
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