Reception Perception: Under the Radar Isaiah Ford is an Elite Separator
In my view, this is a strong wide receiver class. Last year, we saw four wideouts go in the first round. While I’m not so sure this group is as top-heavy as its 2016 counterpart, this year’s receiver crop extends a bit deeper. There are a number of players that will likely be available on the second day who will go on to have long and productive starting NFL careers.
The perfect example of a player of this ilk is Isaiah Ford out of Virginia Tech. So far this offseason we’ve look at some of Reception Perception’s “my guys” in Carlos Henderson and Chris Godwin. Ford is the third and final wide receiver in that group.
While Henderson and Godwin, especially, experienced periods of increasing buzz in the pre-draft process, Ford’s name has largely gone unmentioned.
Ford comes with a strong resume of production, with over 200 receptions in his college career and clearing 1,000 yards in each of his last two seasons. Additionally, he’s one of the youngest receivers in this draft class. Ford, Godwin and JuJu Smith-Schuster are one of just three wideouts who will play their rookie seasons at 21 years old.
Unfortunately, Ford failed to carry that strong resume over to his performance at the NFL Scouting Combine this month. The only measurement where Ford tested above the 50th percentile was in the broad jump, per Mockdraftable, and his 4.61 40-yard dash time was particularly disappointing. To his credit, Ford was immensely displeased with his performance in Indianapolis and improved his testing at his pro day by running a 4.52 in the 40.
While taking his own combine performance to task at his pro day, Ford also shined a light on what he believes is the most crucial area of winning at the wide receiver position. Ford told reporters, “I think the biggest aspect of the position is not only catching the ball but being able to run routes.” In my time charting receivers, I’ve often said that speed is the most overrated attribute to a wide receiver’s ability to get open and Ford concurred by adding, “no matter how you’re getting the separation — whether it’s because you’re fast or because you’re shifty or you’re a technician with running routes — it’s about getting open.”
Reception Perception would agree with Ford; it is all about getting open. Therein lies the appeal of Isaiah Ford as a draft prospect. Few players are as proficient as he is in creating separation in this class and there will always be a place for those players in the pros.
Alignment and Target Data
Game sampled: Clemson, Boston College, Notre Dame, Miami, Pittsburgh, Tennessee
Measuring in at 6-foot-1 and 194 pounds, Isaiah Ford’s lanky build is hardly what you’d expect out of a top receiver. Yet, that’s exactly what he was for Virginia Tech.
Over the six games sampled for Reception Perception, Ford lined up outside on 97.7 percent of his snaps and was on the line of scrimmage on 92.5 percent. Ford took just 1.2 percent of his snaps from the slot. He was an X-receiver through and through for the Hokies in his final year. His best home in the NFL may be as a flanker, where he profiles almost “to a T”.
As the clear engine of the Virginia Tech passing game, Ford saw a target come his way on 30.2 percent of his 189 routes run in the sampled games. Quarterback Jerod Evans clearly had an affinity for throwing his direction. Now, Ford did only catch a pass on 18 percent of those patterns, coming with one of the larger gaps in the class. Drops are something that will creep into his game. Ford’s 8.8 drop rate ranked second only to Corey Davis among charted 2017 prospects.
Like Ford said at his pro day, the real work at the wide receiver position happens before the ball even arrives. It’s in this area where the young prospect simply smashed expectations.
Success Rate vs. Coverage
Being a proficient technician is clearly of importance to Isaiah Ford based on his own words. It’s a reality that clearly shows up in his game.
The best route-runner in last year’s class was now Giants wide receiver Sterling Shepard. He posted a 2016 class-best 82.8 percent success rate vs. man coverage. Ford looks like that player in this year’s class and he just nipped at Shepard’s heels with an 80 percent success rate vs. man coverage. Those two receivers are the only prospects to post an 80 percent or better score over the last two classes.
Ford’s strong technical performance also carried over into his release moves. With an 81.9 percent success rate vs. press coverage, Ford’s score was just above the 88th percentile among receivers charted over the last two years.
The only branch of success rate vs. coverage where he performed below the two-year average was when facing zone. His 74.6 percent score put him in the 36th percentile. It’s an unexpected footnote given how strong his performance was against man and press, and the average receiver typically carries a higher success rate against zones. However, it is worth noting that Ford faced more than double the amount of man coverage compared to his attempts against zones.
Simply put, Ford is an outstanding route-runner. He shows an understanding of the details and nuances of the game that most of his peers are still attempting to grasp. The fact that he played his final season at just 20 years old make his success rates even more impressive. Ford’s quickness off the line combined with a variety of release techniques renders his size negligible. His timing and suddenness at the breakpoints of routes are a true a chore to cover one-on-one.
Breaking down Ford’s Reception Perception performance and usage on a route-by-route basis truly helps illuminate what makes him such a great technician. He’s a player with clear specialties but is well-rounded in his abilities, as well.
We often see the slant and nine routes as two of the more popular patterns for collegiate receivers. Ford’s usage portfolio is no exception with a whopping 52.9 percent of his charted routes checking in as a slant or nine.
With so much of his route percentage chart being dedicate to those two, in particular, it’s no shock to see that much of the other branches of the tree get little exposure. However, one route to note is his 8.5 percent comeback rate. I assert this with mostly anecdotal evidence: the comeback is perhaps the best route to notice who the truly special technicians are. So much goes into earning separation on that pattern. Not only does the wideout have to sell the cornerback that he’s going vertical, the timing of the break is so crucial as is the executing of sinking the hips while breaking back to the passer.
As such, it’s notable that Ford ran a comeback at an above average rate compared to other college prospects. It also makes his success rate that much more startling.
Isaiah Ford checked in with a wildly high 93.8 percent success rate vs. coverage on the comeback. He and Chris Godwin were the only two prospects this year to both run the comeback at an above average rate and manage a positive success rate. Again, this metric truly shows what kind of a pristine route-runner he is already.
However, the entire chart is truly something to behold. Ford backed up his high usage on slants and nines with excellent success rates. His 89.6 percent on slants was the best among prospects charted this year, and his 61.5 percent on nine routes was well above the two-year average. With detailed release moves and a near-impossible-to-handle ability at the break point, Ford was often uncoverable on quick-striking slant routes in college.
The only two routes where Ford failed to score above the prospect average were the corner and flat routes. Otherwise, the results were all positive.
What Ford’s route charts show us is that he’s a player who can create separation and win at all levels of the field. While he clearly carries a trump card in his route-running on the highly used slant and nine patterns, he’s someone whose route portfolio should carry quite a bit of depth at the next level. He’s on his way to mastery of the craftsman portion of the game.
We can clearly assert that Isaiah Ford is one of the most polished and mature route-runners in this class, if not the best in that department. Scores like his success rate vs. man coverage should indicate potential NFL star. Of course, Reception Perception carries other metrics along with route data to help properly place prospects on a range of outcomes.
While his frame doesn’t seem to hinder his ability off the line, it does show up as an issue after the catch. Despite running a high amount of slant routes, Ford was only “in space” on 8.5 percent of them. Breaking tackles is not an area of strength for the Hokies receiver as he was brought down on first contact on 56.2 percent of his in space attempts, the fourth-highest rate among 2017 prospects.
In the contested catch game, Ford is more of an asset than he is with the ball in his hands, though still not one of the elite receivers in the class. His 61.5 percent contested catch conversion rate falls right within the two-year prospect average. Ford is capable of winning passes in tight coverage but it’s not a dominant skill of his. He won’t hurt his NFL team in this regard, but his ability to create separation will be his true calling card.
With some of the ancillary metrics conjoined with his elite success rate vs coverage scores, we begin to better understand what Isaiah Ford may bring to an NFL team. There’s no way to ignore his skills as a separator. Ford will earn his offense’s trust as route-runner early and likely become a reliable target for his quarterback because of it.
In my view, there will always be a place for those players in the NFL. Wide receivers who can constantly separate are crucial, especially one who does it so consistently like Ford.
Ford’s ability as a technician, his route success rates in Reception Perception and his build all combined to give me a Stefon Diggs-like vibe. When healthy last NFL season, Diggs played and produced like a true No. 1 wide receiver. He’s a future superstar at the position.
However, Ford’s performances in some of Reception Perception’s ancillary metrics and his athletic testing results do at least make you question whether he has that same high range of outcomes. Technique and separating are extremely valuable, but high-ends starters also offer more than that.
Reception Perception firmly plants a flag in Isaiah Ford’s camp to confidently say he will be a successful NFL player and an asset to his future offense. His success rate vs. coverage scores are simply too strong to believe otherwise. In terms of projecting his production or reach the status of an NFL star-level player, he will need to improve in other areas of the game.
Isaiah Ford remains one of the more under the radar prospects as the NFL Draft creeps ever closer, just as non-flashy as extremely precise players at the position often do. However, much like fellow Reception Perception star Sterling Shepard, look for Ford to prove his worth quickly once he enters the league.
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.