The veteran corner is looking to bounce back
Vontae Davis has been in the league for nine years, having played for two teams, and was a star corner for both. For the last six years he has been the Colts’ version of a lockdown corner and arguably one of the top corners in the NFL.
He has been known as a man cover corner, a guy that could shadow and mirror the opponent’s best wide receiver week in and week out. But he doesn’t just cover them, he also makes plays. Over the course of his career, he has registered 22 interceptions and 72 pass deflections. So, when Davis tore his groin in the third preseason game in his contract year, the writing appeared to be on the wall.
After his 5th and final game of the season, which occurred in week 8, the Colts decided to demote him. Head coach Chuck Pagano stated that the demotion was not injury-based, but Davis had a different take.
His demotion had nothing to do with his playing ability. There had to be other factors in the organization’s decision. Maybe it was the fact that it was the final year of his contract and he was never in their future plans or the fact that they drafted corner Quincy Wilson in the second round of the 2017 draft. Or maybe it was Davis’s bluntness when asked about the situation. But either way, the situation may have created a monster. The Colts gave Davis all the motivation he needs to ball out in 2018 after they decided to cut him soon after that interview. It’s pretty clear that the Buffalo Bills are looking to capitalize on it.
The Bills signed Davis to a 1 year deal worth $5 million, $3.5 million of which is guaranteed, and incentives that could escalate the deal to as much as $8 million. This is an interesting deal considering last year’s starter, EJ Gaines, is expecting to garner a similar $8 million dollar figure, but I would imagine at his age he wants more money in his pocket.
When I turned on the film I expected to see a banged up Davis struggling in coverage. I expected to see a player who had lost a step, a defender who lacked explosiveness, an athlete who had lost his edge, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Even with Davis dealing with the injury, he was still able to turn and run with some of the fastest and most talented guys in the league, including Paul Richardson, Marquise Goodwin, Marqise Lee, John Ross, and AJ Green.
Davis doesn’t fall for the double move by Green
You can tell his gait wasn’t quite normal, but he was nevertheless able to run and take away this ‘alert’ deep shot attempt by quarterback Russell Wilson.
Here, he is matched up versus Goodwin from the slot position. As Goodwin stabs hard inside, Davis matches the footwork and smoothly opens his hips, turns, and runs with the speedy receiver. Considering the injury he sustained, Davis was still able to run at a high level.
The brother of tight end Vernon Davis still displays a high amount of hip fluidity whether in man or zone coverage. In the following clips, watch how smoothly he can flip his hips to run, plant at the top of routes, attack the threat, and remain in phase.
At times, Davis’ route awareness was uncanny. In some instances while in man coverage, he essentially ran the routes for the receivers.
Most people don’t realize that the Colts played a well balanced coverage scheme. They played man 46.7% of the snaps last season (minus RZ and prevent defenses), which often meant that Davis shadowed the opponent’s best wide receiver. In his final game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Davis played a bunch of reps opposite AJ Green, and he more than held his own. Green was only targeted 2 times, of which he caught one for 14 yards. There were times Green was the primary receiver, but Davis did such a good job in coverage that QB Andy Dalton had to move on in his progressions or took a sack.
3rd and long
Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier will need to augment the defensive playbook as teams now have a full season to digest what they like to do on defense. Frazier will need to mix in more man coverage concepts to keep opposing quarterbacks guessing. Having a versatile athlete like Davis will make Frazier’s life a lot easier in that regard. Of the 187 passing snaps that Davis participated in last season, he was bumped into the slot 12 times, which doesn’t sounds like a lot, but the quality of those situations is what are to note. Most of those reps occurred on 3rd down. This is an area where his hip fluidity, change of direction, and short area quickness can flourish. He is able to stay in phase and has the athleticism to close on in-breaking routes, and that is the number one measurement for a slot corner. Those abilities help protect the middle of the field (hello Patriots) versus quick hitting passes, something the Bills need to do better in 2018. Slot corner Leonard Johnson was targeted 83 times (#1), gave up 59 receptions (#1) for 602 yards (#1) and two touchdowns. As a primary cover man, he surrendered a reception every 7.2 snaps, which was the 3rd-worst. Obviously, the slot is an area the Bills need to improve upon, and Davis may give them options going forward.
Davis understands where his help lies, plays with outside leverage, and shows the speed to close on in-breaking routes and always attacks the front shoulder to make a play on the ball.
Fans worry that he may struggle as an off corner because of how often he has played man in his career, but I don’t believe that will be an issue at all. I saw a lot of similar coverages executed by the Colts that the Bills ran last season. In fact, the most common coverage of the Bills, quarters coverage, was also a base coverage that the Colts played versus 2×2 sets. Davis is reading the #2 receiver to the bottom of the screen. That player takes a vertical stem past the linebacker level so Davis knows he has the #1 wide receiver John Ross. He recognizes the speed out and drives hard on it.
In 2017, the Bills played zone coverage 73.6% of the snaps (minus RZ and prevent defenses). So obviously it will be a small adjustment for Davis, but he does have traits that can translate. Take a look.
The Seahawks are backed up and faced with a 3rd-and-6 situation. They motion WR Doug Baldwin across the formation and run a snag/spot concept. The Colts call a zone blitz and drop into Tampa 2.
Wilson is hoping that Davis bites on the snag route by Jimmy Graham and doesn’t recognize Baldwin’s flat route because he is the fourth WR from the outside. But post-snap, Davis shows calm feet and very good zone eyes. He diagnoses the two routes that are his immediate threats to his zone by spacing them really well. Wilson separates his off hand from the ball to start the throwing process but realizes it’s too risky given the play by Davis.
So he is forced to pull it down and it leads to a safety. This is one of those plays that won’t show up in the box stats.
If there is one position on which I will never question this regime about, it’s the cornerback position. The front office and staff worked wonders last season through free agency and the draft in rebuilding this secondary. I think they may have hit again with this move. Davis is a much more well-rounded corner than pending free agent EJ Gaines and will likely cost less.
Davis is a better athlete overall. He possesses better speed, short area quickness, and fluidity. Even though Davis didn’t get his hands on the ball often last season, he has historically been able to make plays on the ball better than Gaines has.
His twitchiness is beneficial in tight press or off coverage.
The injury and the mounting tension between himself and the Colts may have led to Davis taking some plays off. There was a handful of plays on which he loafed and didn’t give 100%. This is something that is unacceptable, and I am sure this staff will not let that happen.
Look for Buffalo to continue to add depth to the position through free agency and the draft. Building a formidable defense was always a goal for Sean McDermott and this front office.
Check out Ian Wharton’s charting data on Vontae Davis and EJ Gaines: