Rookie Film Study: WRs

Updated: July 23rd 2017

I’ve wavered on my opinion of the top WRs in this class since January when we saw Corey Davis, John Ross and Mike Williams playing in their post New Year bowl games.  In fact, I ended up putting Ross ahead of Williams halfway through writing this piece but decided to flip-flop them again before publishing.  I’m not sure if the fact that the three of them played on very good teams (combined 39-4 in 2016) is correlation or causation but the reality is that they will each be drafted in the first round and will be difference makers in 2017.  It would be cliche to say that you can’t go wrong with any of them, so I won’t, but I will definitely revisit their order after the draft based on the fit with their NFL team because that will help provide some separation between them.

Corey Davis, Western Michigan

The production put up by Corey Davis at Western Michigan is astounding.  The counter-argument regarding his numbers is typically about the quality of his opponents.  That’s fair, but also keep in mind he’s not having passes thrown to him by a future NFL quarterback like Deshaun Watson.  In addition to his production, Davis has good size (6’3″ 209lb; same measurements as Devante Parker last year) and because of that, I’m not scared away by Davis’ “mid-major” resume.

I watched film of Davis playing against Buffalo and Wisconsin.  Time and again throughout both games, I was impressed by his field awareness and how he turns that into perfect routes.  Whether it is knowing exactly where the first down marker is or knowing when to drag a route versus turning up field.  He’s very physical and uses his body well, which was highlighted by a 2nd Quarter touchdown against Wisconsin when he basically boxed the defender out and made the catch look easy.  He did something similar against Buffalo where he ran a great route near the goal line which caused the defender to hold him as he cut towards the pylon, he fought through the hold and by sheer strength turned the play into a touchdown rather than an accepted penalty.  In addition to his physicality, he has quick feet which help him after the catch – specifically two spin moves he pulled against Buffalo, one of which went for a score.

I think Davis himself would admit that he’s not very fast, but he looks slow coming off the line in the tape I watched.  Probably for this reason, he often lines up in the slot where he can gain some momentum before making contact with the defender.  He’s the target of the occasional quick or bubble screen and even some jet sweeps to get him in open space where he can try to make tacklers miss but his lack of elite speed prevents either from being a true weapon in the playbook.  Davis was not called on often to block but when he did I would say he was below average, there was not a single time where I noted that he really helped a teammate gain extra yardage.  Against Buffalo, Davis did have a number of drops but that could have been caused by the intermittent snow that fell early in that game.

Finally, let’s take a closer look at Davis’ aforementioned record-setting stats.  He is 1st ALL-TIME in career receiving yards in the FBS.  He is 2nd all-time in career receiving touchdowns.  He is 4th all-time in career receptions.  When compared to fellow rookie Mike Williams, Davis nearly doubles Williams in the main counting stats (Williams did miss all but one game in 2015, but I was still surprised to see such a difference).  Corey Davis haters will point out that the top of those all-time stats are full of unrecognizable names but it’s still an impressive resume and if he performs well enough at his pro day (if he is healthy enough) it should cement his place atop my rankings.

Mike Williams, Clemson

The most important film you can watch of Mike Williams is of this play from 2015.  That neck injury forced him to miss essentially the entire 2015 season.  It was a scary injury that thankfully was not worse.  If I was drafting for my NFL team, that would most definitely be on my mind as it is for my RSO team.

In my notes from the Clemson vs Ohio State semi-final game, I wrote “Mike Williams is a man.  If he were 2 inches taller he would be a Top 3 pick in the NFL Draft.”  I still agree with that sentiment, but he isn’t taller and after watching film I’ve learned to love Corey Davis more.  Against Florida State, Williams faded into the background a bit, only catching 7 balls for 70 yards (he did catch a key 2pt conversion late).  What stood out most against FSU wasn’t Williams’ size or ability to catch the ball, it was actually his blocking.  On three occasions, one with Watson rushing and Gallman the other, Williams’ blocking on the edge allowed the team to get a first down and advance down the field.  I was similarly nonplussed by Williams’ performance against Louisville even though he was the victim of a few bad throws from Watson.  His best play against Louisville was a short catch where he fought back through the defender to catch the ball.

Like Davis, Williams has the physical size (6’4″ 218lb) to be a great NFL wide receiver, but after reviewing his combine results I am starting to question his athleticism.  Williams’ vertical jump of 32.5″ was 30th best and his broad jump of 121″ was 24th best.  I do have to admit that for his size, Williams ran a good 4.50 40-yard dash at his pro day.

Ultimately, I am too hesitant to take Williams ahead of Davis.  At this point, I’d rather be the guy who misses on Williams but gets solid production from Davis than the guy who takes him despite the neck injury, some lackluster tape and concerns about his athleticism and is stuck with a bad contract.

John Ross, Washington

John Ross is fast, no doubt about it.  My concern though is how does that fit into his NFL team’s offense.  I’m not willing to bump Ross above Williams or Davis at this point because his best trait could easily be wasted if he is not drafted by a team/coach with a good track record who would be willing to utilize him properly.  Imagine if Ross was on the Chiefs offense instead of Tyreek Hill last year.  Hill is a former high school track athlete who showcased his speed on his way to a 12 TD rookie season.  Now, think about the fact that Hill ran a 4.29 40-yard dash at his pro day (which is typically a more favorable environment than the Combine) while Ross ran a record 4.22 last week.  That .07 may not sound like a lot but it is and it shows just how Ross could make the most explosive NFL players look pedestrian.

What makes Ross’ speed more impressive is that he is doing it after knee injuries to both knees.  Like Williams, he missed the entire 2015 season.  Ross is also now dealing with a shoulder injury.   If I’m being fair, I have to knock Ross significantly for his injury history like I did for Williams.

It should come as no surprise given his raw speed, but Ross has great release off the line of scrimmage.  He easily gets past defenders and can then accelerate downfield.  Against Rutgers, he had two of these plays in the 1st Quarter that resulted in touchdowns (38 and 50 yards) and he also had one in the 3rd Quarter against USC (70 yards).  Once he got past the defender at the line of scrimmage there was really nothing the defense could do.  Even with safety help, Ross is at full speed in an instant and by the time the safety flips his hips and pursues it is too late.  Ross did not run as many screens as I expected, but I do imagine this being a bigger part of his game in the NFL where corners will be bigger and more adept at keeping him in front of them.  Not surprisingly, Ross did not block much; his contribution to the running game was often running a pattern in the opposite direction of the play to draw defensive attention.  He did add a kick return touchdown against Rutgers (and had 4 on his career) which could help Ross contribute right away on whatever team drafts him.

Honestly, I was expecting Ross to be smaller than what I saw when I started watching film. I had not seen much of him (yeah, yeah East Coast Bias) prior to my research and based off what I had heard on talk radio I assumed he was in the 5’8″ or 5’9″ range.  He measured in at 5’11” 188lb at the combine which puts him in the same vein as guys like Odell Beckham, Markus Wheaton and Corey Coleman; none would be considered tall receivers but they aren’t Dri Archer which is more like what I was expecting.  That bodes well for his ability to stick as a featured receiver in the league.

**Note: When watching film for a player, I typically pick two games at random to watch.  I do not necessarily want to watch games where they did very well or very poorly as that may not be a great illustration of their true ability.  If possible, when comparing players at the same position I also like to watch film against common opponents.  Full disclosure, I am not watching film of every single game any player plays, instead I am looking for a representative sample.  When researching college players I use a number of resources, I would recommend bookmarking the below sites…

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, cfbstats.com
  • Film: draftbreakdown.com
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, nfldraftscout.com, walterfootball.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, ESPN’s First Draft podcast
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com

Robert F. Cowper is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey.  Robert works as a recreation professional, specializing in youth sports, when he isn’t acting as commissioner for his many fantasy sports leagues.

Rookie Film Study: RBs

Updated: July 23rd 2017

Last week in this space, I reviewed film on the top quarterback prospects of the 2017 class and shared my notes with you.  Today, we are going to look at the top three RBs – all of which are likely to be drafted in the 1st Round.  In my first batch of mock draft analysis, I supposed that we might even see a fourth RB taken in the 1st Round – Joe Mixon and Wayne Gallman will have to wait for their film review but keep them on the radar.

Leonard Fournette, LSU

Before the combine, I only came across one mock draft with Dalvin Cook placed above Fournette.  I’m not sure if that was a publicity stunt or a true belief at the time but it seems to be the vogue opinion now.  I’m not there yet, but it is getting very close the more tape I watch.  I decided to cherry pick the film I watched of Fournette because I wanted to see him against good competition.  I chose to watch him play against Wisconsin (#4 rushing defense in the nation) and against Ole Miss (#22 and one of only four teams to give up single digit rushing TDs, 3 of which came from Fournette himself).  In my opinion, Fournette reminds me of Adrian Peterson.  He is big but still possesses enough breakaway speed if he hits the hole and can rip off some huge runs.  On the downside though, he has a lot of carries for little to no gain that can keep the offense behind the chains.  I think he is an underrated receiver out of the backfield (as evidenced by a beautiful wheel route catch he made against Wisconsin).  He is also decent in pass protection which I was not expecting (in the two games he was actively engaged in pass protection 18 times by my count – he blew 4 of them that led to a sack/pressure/hurry).

Let’s look closer at his boom or bust potential.  In those two games I watched, Fournette had 38 carries.  On 16 of those 38 carries he earned 3 yards or less – that’s a whopping 42%.  You may be able to find similar stats for any running back but it’s a bit worrisome for somebody who is likely going to be drafted in the Top 5 of the NFL Draft.  At that rate, of 3 yards or less, he is putting his offense in 3rd and Medium or 3rd and Long situations too often.  Throughout the film I watched, I was struck by how infrequently Fournette actually breaks tackles.  On his three TD runs against Ole Miss he was essentially untouched for the combined 200+ yards of those plays.  If he hits the hole just right, he has a combination of vision and speed to kill the defense but he does not often gain extra yards by breaking tackles.  If I am going to harp on his bad runs, I do also need to give credit for his great runs.  In addition to all of those short runs he also had runs of 19, 24, 30, 59, 76 and 78.  Remember, that is just in two games against good defenses and ultimately that is why he will be the first RB drafted.

At the combine, Fournette weighed in as the heaviest RB at 240lb (the next heaviest was 233lb).  It should not be surprising then that his 40 yard dash time was far from elite (4.51 seconds, 20th out of 31) and his vertical jump was horrendous (dead last).  I hate to use the cliche, but he very well may be the guy who runs better in pads.  Honestly, I was disappointed by his two drills and I would have liked to see him complete the others to have more points of comparison.  I still have Fournette as RB1, but it is much closer than when I started my research two weeks ago.

Dalvin Cook, FSU

In my notes, I wrote that if Dalvin Cook showed up at the combine and weighed in at 215lb, he would automatically be my RB1 and overtake Leonard Fournette.  His game tape is that explosive.  He weighed in just short of my hope, at 210lb.  My biggest knock on Cook right now is the diminutive size.  In 2016, 29 RBs were measured at the combine and just 2 of them weighed in under 200lb.  I have seen him listed anywhere between 202-213lb; for comparison, ESPN lists him at 213, CBS has him at 206 and DraftBreakdown has him at 202.  I’m going to assume that he purposefully bulked up for the combine and I expect to see his playing weight fall closer to 202 than 213 come September.  There’s one other thing that concerns me about Cook: his pass protection.  In the two games I watched, he was in protection only a handful of times – most times he was out in the pattern.  I think he has the desire to block, he ended up being the de factor lead blocker on QB scrambles a few times, but he doesn’t have the size.

When watching Cook play, it is clear immediately how explosive he is, especially his cuts.  What is also evident is how patient he is, allowing his blocks to set up.  He rarely takes the hole running straight, but that explosiveness and patience combine for some great runs.  He dominated Florida in the first half but slowed in the second when they were trying to milk the clock.  Against Michigan’s dominant defense he played well too.  In my opinion, two plays against Michigan will best sum up Cook’s potential.  In the 1st Quarter, there was a play where he set out wide as a WR, ran a simple go route, beat the defender and caught the ball over his shoulder for a gain of 45 yards.  It was perfectly executed and could be the piece of tape that showcases his receiving skills to NFL scouts.  Later in that game, in the 4th Quarter, Cook took a 3rd & 22 counter handoff, that was meant to set up better punting field position, and scampered 71 yards after breaking two tackles and turning on his breakaway speed.  A last second push out of bounds was the only thing that kept him from the endzone.  That play showed his patience as his blocks set up and then he exploded up field.  Another positive that caught my eye was the varied sets that FSU’s offense ran.  In the two games I watched, they ran multiple plays out of shotgun, pistol, single back and I formation – that’s good for his transition to the NFL.

If you look at the results of Cook’s combine performance, it throws a bit of cold water on the film.  That’s why I still have him behind Fournette even though I was close to flip-flopping after watching the Michigan tape.  Cook was near the worst RBs in the 3 cone drill, the shuttle drill, the broad jump and the vertical jump.  His 40 yard dash time was good but not great: 4.49 which was tied for sixth fastest.  The only place he really surprised me was his 22 bench press reps which was tied for third most.

Christian McCaffrey, Stanford

Christian McCaffrey is a better football player than he is a running back.  That was the conclusion that I kept returning to while taking notes as I watched film and researched his game logs and career stats.  He will be drafted by a good team in the late 1st Round and will slot in immediately as a prototypical third down back.  He’s good at a lot of things, but not great at any.  Ultimately, I think that will limit his RSO upside in Year One but at least it will get him on the field right away.

I watched McCaffrey play against UCLA and Washington and in both games, I was impressed with his pass protection skills.  He routinely picked up the blitz and frequently chipped a rusher before going out for a pass.  He is a great safety valve for his quarterback and because of his blocking ability, he is a great threat to catch screen passes; he can feign blocking without the defense thinking “yeah right, he’s not blocking” and then sneak out of the backfield.  His middle name very well may be Versatile because in just two games, he took three snaps at WR and five at QB (in the Wildcat, no passes).  He will likely be the only player I profile this offseason that has passing, rushing, receiving and returning TDs in his career (2/21/10/2 for the record).

McCaffrey is a very patient runner at the line of scrimmage.  Honestly, he was too patient at times against Washington and I think it cost him additional yardage as he let plays develop too long against Washington’s strong defense.  He is rarely stopped for a loss of yardage.  In fact, I noted it midway through one of the games I watched and went back to review the play-by-play: in over 38 carries in those games he had just one negative yardage run.

McCaffrey, in my opinion, is quicker than he is fast.  That showed itself at the combine where he tied for the fifth fastest 40 yard dash (4.48) but did very well in the 3 cone drill (fastest) and shuttle drill (fourth fastest).  His jumping stats were also above average.  No surprise given his size, he was only able to do 10 bench press reps which was the second fewest.

 

Note: When watching film for a player, I typically pick two games at random to watch.  I do not necessarily want to watch games where they did very well or very poorly as that may not be a great illustration of their true ability.  If possible, when comparing players at the same position I also like to watch film against common opponents.  Full disclosure, I am not watching film of every single game any player plays, instead I am looking for a representative sample.  When researching college players I use a number of resources, I would recommend bookmarking the below sites…

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, cfbstats.com
  • Film: draftbreakdown.com
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, nfldraftscout.com, walterfootball.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, ESPN’s First Draft podcast
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com

Robert F. Cowper is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey.  Robert works as a recreation professional, specializing in youth sports, when he isn’t acting as commissioner for his many fantasy sports leagues.