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Opinion: Matt Harmon’s “Reception Perception” Gabe Davis profile reinforces existing narrative

Unsurprisingly, Gabe Davis has consistently performed well in one specific role

AFC Divisional Playoffs - Buffalo Bills v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Matt Harmon is an analyst for Yahoo Sports. He is also the creator of the “Reception Perception” methodology for evaluating wide receivers in the NFL. If you’re not part of the fantasy community, you might not be familiar with his work, but Harmon recently released the 2022 version of his Reception Perception (RP) profile on Buffalo Bills wide receiver Gabe Davis.

The results of his film study are unsurprising to many who have been a part of the Gabe Davis dialogue amongst Bills Mafia this offseason:

Harmon’s methodology is explained on his website in detail but in short, he watches a large enough sample size of games from a wide receiver’s season and charts each of their routes:

  • whether the route was against man or zone
  • where the receiver was aligned
  • what type of route it was
  • whether or not they faced double coverage
  • whether or not the receiver faced press coverage
  • and whether or not the receiver had “success” on the route, categorized by Matt seeing that they “got open”

All this data is tabulated along with NFL averages for all receivers charted and the images you see above from his tweet are then generated.

As an example, Davis’ chart can be read as follows: He got open on 59.3% of all nine (go) routes he ran — which is above the NFL average as noted by the green color (this is viewed on the left image). He also ran nine (go) routes on 18.8% of all of his routes, which is also above the NFL average. So the left chart denotes success and the right graph denotes usage. What he was asked to do is on the right-hand side, and how he performed when doing it is on the left-hand side.

Prior to the NFL Draft, I released a podcast called “The 2023 NFL Drax” where I talked about Gabe Davis and his current role as the No. 2 player in targets on the Buffalo Bills.

In this pod, I noted that Davis wins primarily down the field. And if a player of his skillset gets 90-100 targets, the average distance of target for the offense will naturally rise to intersect with the area where the player receiving those targets wins — and in many cases, it will push that average distance of target high enough to have the offense suffer inefficiency due to it. Alternately, you could target a player like Davis on shorter routes where he’s not consistently winning and the offensive passing efficiency could decrease simply because you’re creating more contested-catch situations and throwing the ball to a player who’s less likely to be open.

Matt Harmon’s RP profile on Gabe Davis reinforces all of those previous points from a dispassionate and unbiased observer. Davis is, according to Harmon, a player who is good in a role where he’s running vertical routes (nines, posts, corners) but can’t stretch beyond that.

There are two things that might immediately jump to mind as counters to Matt’s point if you are someone who believes that Davis is a complete WR2 option for a passing attack, and someone who can win on all levels. First, you may note that Davis was fighting through an ankle injury in 2022 that may have impacted his efficacy. Second, you might remark that Davis was utilized much less frequently in the slot under offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey than he was under previous offensive coordinator Brian Daboll.

To both of those points, Harmon notes that the results for Davis have been “pretty much the same” for the last three season, regardless of offensive coordinator or percentage of slot snaps.

In addition, this profile on Gabe Davis (that he’s a vertical winner who’s not going to consistently offer wins on routes that require separation early in the play, coming back to the ball, or winning on the horizontal plane) was the profile that existed in his scouting report coming out of UCF. Josh Heupel used him this way, Brian Daboll used him this way, and now Ken Dorsey is using him this way. None of this should be surprising as it tracks with everything established on Davis to this point.

One of the metrics that makes its way around the internet whenever the term “separation” is used is the one utilized from Next Gen Stats (NGS). This metric shows Davis has an average separation (SEP) of 2.8 yards — which is identical to former Carolina Panthers and current Chicago Bears wide receiver D.J. Moore, and is higher than young and promising New Orleans Saints receiver Chris Olave.

The important thing to note about this metric from NGS is that it marks the separation the receiver had AT TARGET. It measures not how OFTEN a player separated, nor WHERE a player separated. It’s a measure of: “When this player did win, how big was their win?” Nine of the top 12 pass catchers in this metric are tight ends. Are tight ends out there separating greatly from coverage on a consistent basis more than receivers? The checkdowns that quarterbacks throw to tight ends in zone coverage when there isn’t a defender in the immediate area as they’ve dropped deeper into coverage is inflating the numbers.

This metric for kickers would be: “When the kicker makes the field goal, how close to the middle of the uprights is the ball?” True, it will help me know how accurate the already good kicks are, but I’d much rather know how often the kicker actually makes the kick and from what distances. Gabe Davis ran 668 routes last year. He got 106 targets. I don’t want to know only how much separation he had on 106 plays; I want to know how he did on the plays when he didn’t get the ball as well. It’s the cart before the horse. I want to know how often you got open so you can get the ball, not how open you were when you did get the ball.

There are a few items to note that keeps RP from being a perfect representation of a receiver’s skill set. Most importantly, there is no perfect way to take a singular position in a complicated team sport and boil it down to one method of evaluation. Harmon’s film study composite is a good method, but there are contextual items that need to be communicated in the interest of intellectual honesty. As an example, not every route is designed to get open. You’ve certainly heard the term “clear out” used when discussing passing game concepts. In some cases, a vertically inclined player like Davis might run directly at a safety in order to open up a route behind him. In other cases, Davis might be responsible for running his route specifically to get in the way of a defensive back to free up another of his fellow receivers in an instance hilariously referred to as a “pick” by defensive players and a “rub” by offensive players. In these situations, a player running a clear out or a pick/rub might not even be assumed to be part of the natural progression of the pass play barring a scramble drill and, as such, judging that route on whether or not they “get open” is disingenuous to the purpose of that player’s function as part of the play. Second, it should be noted that Matt watched an eight-game sample of a player for a year. So while we’d like to have all 668 of Davis’ routes charted, that’s not achieved here.

But is Gabe Davis running “clear outs” and “picks/rubs” so much more often than every other vertically inclined receiver in the league for three consecutive years that his metrics would be skewed to the point of preferring NGS separation metrics? It feels unlikely. What’s more likely is that Matt Harmon’s RP profile shows exactly what should be unsurprising for all who’ve studied Davis since college: that he’s a gifted vertical receiver and should continue to be a valued member of an NFL team for a long time in a vertically based role. Expecting him to become a do-it-all style WR2 or WR1b receiver who wins on all levels of the field after not profiling as that player at UCF, under Brian Daboll with the Bills, or under current offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey — is likely an irresponsible projection.

If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, and looks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.

...and that’s the way the cookie crumbles. I’m Bruce Nolan with Buffalo Rumblings. You can find me on Twitter and Instagram @BruceExclusive and look for new episodes of “The Bruce Exclusive” every Thursday on the Buffalo Rumblings podcast network!