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In every draft cycle there’s usually one or two draft picks that your team brings in that you may see as a head-scratcher. This year, one of those players for me was 4th-round draft pick wide receiver Gabriel Davis. When I watched his University of Central Florida film and studied his advanced analytics, I saw what one would deem a “vertical threat” in an offense that asked very little of him. Davis’s route tree was truly very limited. Most of his success came off of slants, curls, posts, and go routes. Even those limited routes didn’t appear to be of the nuanced variety. He didn’t appear to have the freedom to tweak his route based on the leverage of the defender, you know, run routes with some creativity or pizzazz. When he wasn’t the first read or primary receiver, he didn’t even have to run a route. He was allowed to save his gas for when that next play call was made, which led many fans to believe he was dogging it. But that is simply a philosophy of their offense.
Many analysts also categorized the deep threat as a “big-bodied receiver,” but I don’t believe 6-foot-2, 216-pounds puts him in that category. So I worried that his 4.54 forty-yard dash wouldn’t be fast enough to be considered a down-the-field threat at the next level, especially considering he wasn’t a contested-catch guy.
So then, how would his skill-set mesh with quarterback Josh Allen, a QB whose success is closely connected to how his receiver separates? I must admit it was one of the first times I doubted General Manager Brandon Beane’s ability to draft wide receivers. So I went back to the film and analyzed what Davis did well on film and how and why it would help Allen in his third year . . . and the proverbial light bulb came on.
While most of Davis’s production came off of a limited route tree, if you look closer you could see that the devil was in the details. There was a lot more nuance — strike that, there was a lot more thought that went into his routes than I had initially picked up on. He won routes in ways that I believe can mesh well with Allen, with deception.
The young quarterback saw a heavy dose of man coverage last year. While his weapons were definitely upgraded prior to the season, most teams were not afraid of manning up against John Brown, Cole Beasley, and the rest of the smurfs. They pressed them at the line of scrimmage, forced Allen to hold on to the ball, and made him throw into tight windows. Allen and the offense struggled against this defensive approach, as Beane admitted.
“When we faced press-man last year we struggled a little bit at times and that’s one of the best things Diggs does.” GM Brandon Beane
Allen completed 49.3% of his passes against man coverage and squeaked out 11 touchdown passes, eight of which were in the red zone. I believe it was that struggle between the 20s and opponents playing tight-man coverage that were a driving factor in trading for Stefon Diggs.
Getting Allen receivers that can beat Man coverage is crucial to his success.
2019 stats vs Man
Recs – 37
Yards – 577 (2nd)
TDs – 3
1st down % – 78.4%
Recs – 24
Yards – 500 (5th)
TDs – 1
1st down % – 75%
Recs – 28
Yards – 331
TDs – 3
1st down % – 64.3% pic.twitter.com/ddI8r40yY5
— Cover 1 (@Cover_1_) March 17, 2020
Allen generally likes to see his receiver open prior to throwing it, and he can get away with those late throws because of his arm strength. Davis’s film showed that he could separate, but he doesn’t rely on speed or route running to do it. His path to winning is the art of deception.
When teams played man coverage, Davis flourished, especially on slant routes. He is well-versed in the art of the diamond release, a release perfected by Diggs. We see that here against press-man coverage. On the snap, he staggers his feet, which keeps the corner guessing, then releases outside like he is running a go-route.
That’s when the corner shoots his hand to disrupt and stay in phase with Davis.
Davis hits him with the counter, a physical push-by, in combination with a break back towards the middle of the field. This diamond release is deadly because it forces the corner to open and turn to the boundary, and as soon as he does, Davis can run the normal slant route stem.
Davis’s ability to separate lies in his releases. He is able to make them all look very similar, regardless of the actual route. Here, the corner has inside leverage, so Davis again makes the release simply look like a go route. On the snap, he executes what his trainer, Drew Lieberman (@sidelinehustle), calls a “gather step” with his left foot. This step-back with his left foot maximizes his explosiveness, but it does so horizontally, which creates even more distance between Davis and the corner. This also takes incredible balance and hip flexibility.
Once off the line, Davis sells the go route even more by pumping his arms and keeping his head down. It gets the corner to bite and open up to Davis while staying over the top so as to not get beat deep.
And that’s when Davis accelerates across the defender’s face while using his hands to create separation. As he puts the corner out of phase, the ball hits him on the hands and the offense has a first down.
When a corner wants to play soft-press, Davis understands that he doesn’t need to run the diamond release. All he has to do is recreate press coverage and use his physicality to separate. On the snap, he closes the cushion by foot-firing and setting up a two-way go, and before you know it, it’s as if it’s press coverage.
Now within arm’s reach, the corner naturally wants to get his hands on the 6-foot-2 receiver, and as soon as he does, Davis executes a two-handed swipe and accelerates to the middle of the field. However, he understands that in order to maintain separation he needs to attack up-field and not flatten the route.
He does, and the offense again moves the chains.
On this play against East Carolina, the corner is playing soft-press with inside leverage.
So, on the snap, he takes his “gather-step” and immediately gets vertical. There’s no need to spice up the release because the corner already gave him a free outside release and vertical stem.
He waits for the moment of truth — when the corner decides to execute the near-hand jam — and when he does, Davis pins the corner’s inside arm and breaks the slant off then adjusts to the inaccurate pass.
Time and time again, Davis was able to win on slant routes against press and soft-press coverage, even when the defensive back aligned inside, which is meant to take away that route.
As always, he closes the cushion and “steps on the corner’s toes.” The corner from Connecticut really has no idea which direction Davis is going to break, and to add insult to injury, the release by Davis caused the corner’s feet to be outside of his frame. This means that in order to change direction, he will have to disrupt Davis and gather his center of gravity.
But Davis doesn’t wait. He is proactive with his hands; he uses his left hand to create separation and his right hand to clear his way to the middle of the field.
That’s the definition of winning early and making your quarterback’s job easy.
Later in the game, the corner, whose name I will omit, gets abused by Davis again in the red zone, but Davis dropped it. It was one of his nine drops in 2019. He finished his career with 16 drops. You will see Davis drop some passes because he doesn’t frame the pass well enough. Often, his hands are too far apart and his arms aren’t extended.
This time, the corner plays off coverage, but inside to take away the slant.
Davis closes the cushion and sets this route up to look like the slant he scored on earlier. Davis closes the gap and appears to make it look like he is about to plant and break inside.
The corner is ready to match Davis’s footwork by planting and accelerating to the middle of the field, but that’s when Davis executes a hip-shift and head-shake to run a fade to the back pylon. He locks eyes with the QB and realizes the quarterback is throwing it back-shoulder, so he twists his body to put himself in a better position to catch it.
Unfortunately, his hands are a little wide as he tries to frame the ball, and it slips through his hands.
It’s a route that Davis ran two weeks prior against a highly-touted corner, Paulson Adebo, who we will get to later. It was the same route, but this time it was in soft-press coverage. If you haven’t noticed, Davis can win in spite of a limited route tree. That bodes well for the Bills.
Outside of press and soft-press coverages, when teams backed off and played off-coverage rather than run slants, they would extend their route a little deeper and run 5-step slants or 7-step posts, and this gave Davis the runway needed to reach top speed. And once he got going, he was tough to stop.