It's uncommon for a small-school player to sit at the top of the draft board at his position, but Western Michigan's Corey Davis is making a strong case to be the first receiver chosen in the 2017 draft. As the FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) all-time receiving leader, Davis has put together an impressive resume that has some scouts singing his praises as a potential star at the next level.
While his supporters cite his outstanding size (6-foot-3, 213 pounds), ball skills and production as primary reasons for his rapid ascension up the charts, there are a number of scouts suggesting the media hype train is out of control for the consensus All-American receiver. They worry about his ability to thrive against big-time competition after playing outside of the Power Five (MAC) in college. To be fair, he can't really help who he faced as a collegian, but the competition question is a big concern in league circles with the draft fast approaching. With that in mind, let's take a look at the book on Davis.
What I'm hearing
"Davis definitely has the size, route-running ability and production to be an eventual starter. I like him, but I have some concerns about his speed and ability to thrive against top competition. Watch him against Wisconsin and Ohio State (2015), and you'll see him struggle a bit. ... He does have some 'wow' to him and I respect the skill set, but I'm not convinced that he is a No.1." -- AFC executive
"I don't think he's special. He's a good player, but he basically bullied those dudes in his league. Look at how he played when he faced some top guys. In the Wisconsin game, he couldn't get away from No. 8 (CB Sojourn Shelton). ... He struggles against speed and quickness, so he will have to play bully ball in the league. I need to see him work out to get a better feel for his talent and potential." -- AFC college scouting director
"He is a HWS (height-weight-speed) guy with talent. He dominated that conference, but I wish I could've seen him play against better competition. ... I need to see him work out before I could call him a No.1. ... I know Antonio Brown and others have come out of that conference and thrived, but they weren't first-round picks. I just need to see more from him." -- former NFC VP of player personnel
What I'm seeing
Davis is the smoothest route runner to enter the draft since Amari Cooper. I know that's a bold statement based on Cooper's immediate impact as a pro, but the Western Michigan standout has an NFL-veteran-like game that jumps off the screen when watching the tape. From his slick route-running skills to his spectacular ball skills and acrobatic footwork, Davis looks like a plug-and-play prospect at first glance. He displays a unique set of skills for a big receiver (6-foot-3, 213 pounds), which is why some scouts are salivating over his potential at the next level.
As a route runner, Davis shows remarkable timing, deception, balance and body control. He has all of the tricks needed to get open on the perimeter. Although he excels on intermediate routes (curls, speed outs, and digs), he possesses enough speed, quickness and body control to sneak past defenders on vertical routes, particularly on double moves on the outside.
Davis' polished route-running ability and high football IQ will serve him well as a receiver with the potential to play inside or outside in any system. A clever offensive coordinator can move him around in various formations to exploit mismatches on the perimeter or put the WR1 candidate in the best position to thrive against any coverage.
Davis displays exceptional ball skills as a pass-catcher. He consistently catches the ball cleanly with his hands and rarely drops a ball that's thrown within the strike zone. In addition, Davis shows outstanding strength, concentration and focus to snatch balls from defenders in traffic. He has a knack for boxing out defenders with the ball in the air, which makes him a dangerous weapon in the red zone on back-shoulder fades or alley oops in the back corner of the end zone.
As a runner, Davis flashes good speed and quickness with the ball in his hands. He explodes past defenders in the open field but also shows some power running through arm tackles in traffic. As a big-bodied WR with a powerful running style, Davis could thrive in a system that features several catch-and-run concepts prominently in the game plan.
From a critical standpoint, I'm a little concerned about overrating Davis' game due to the competition that he faced in the MAC. While there are plenty of NFL players that are MAC alums, there haven't been many that enter the league viewed as game changers or top players at their respective positions.
Looking at his work against big-school competition, you can make the argument that he wasn't the best player on the field when challenged to step up against premier talent on the edges (seven receptions for 70 yards against Northwestern; six catches for 73 yards and a score against Wisconsin). In fact, you could also argue that he didn't dominate MAC competition considering he posted just five 100-yard games (North Carolina Central, Northern Illinois, Ball State, Buffalo and Ohio) in 2016. With one of the schools (NCCU) playing on the Division II level, you could say that Davis' potential impact is a bit overblown.
Now, I'm sure some will take offense to my suggestion that Davis beat up on cupcakes throughout his career, but you have to consider how he played against big-time competition when projecting his potential at the next level. Looking at his minimal impact in a 2015 contest against an Ohio State secondary loaded with NFL talent (six receptions for 42 yards), you can continue to make the case that Davis struggles against top talent and evaluators would be wise to pump the brakes before anointing him the next best thing at the position.
Overall, Davis is an intriguing prospect with a polished game that fits into any system. He is ideally suited to be a WR2 at the next level, but he could grow into a WR1 role in a system that values good route runners at a premium.
Unsurprisingly, given their mutual ties to Western Michigan, Davis has been compared to Greg Jennings, but I believe Davis' game is comparable to one of Jennings' former teammates -- Jordy Nelson.
The 2016 NFL Comeback Player of the Year has emerged as one of the premier receivers in the game, exhibiting exceptional route-running skills and big-play ability on the perimeter. Nelson has posted four seasons with 1,200-plus yards and scored 63 career touchdowns in eight seasons (he missed all of 2015 with a torn ACL). Most impressively, he ascended up the depth chart from WR3 status to become the Packers' No.1 option in the passing game.
With a game that's built on rock-solid route-running ability and exceptional pass-catching skills, Nelson has become one of the most consistent WR1s in the league. Davis displays similar traits and could emerge as a star in a system that allows him to make plays as a slick route runner on the perimeter.
Where he should be picked
Scouts are all over the board on Davis at this stage of the process. He is viewed as the top receiver in the 2017 class in some circles, yet there are plenty of evaluators that see him as a potential WR2 and they've graded him as such. I believe he will hear his name called within the first 40 selections. He reportedly won't run at the NFL Scouting Combine (March 3-6 on NFL Network) after undergoing minor ankle surgery, and it's not yet known if he'll run at Western Michigan's March 15 pro day. However, if he runs well (4.50 seconds or better in the 40-yard dash), he could make his way into the top 15 as a potential WR1 candidate for a playmaker-needy team.
If I had to point out a few teams where Davis' skills would ideally suit their system, I would point to the Eagles, Cardinals, Titans and Buccaneers as intriguing options. The Eagles, in particular, would be a nice fit for Davis' skills as a route runner/playmaker on the perimeter. Under Doug Pederson, they run a version of the West Coast offense that's similar to the one that helped Jordy Nelson shine as a WR1 in Green Bay. The Buccaneers would also provide Davis with a perfect situation based on his ability to enter the league as a WR2 opposite Mike Evans. With the Pro Bowl pass-catcher commanding double coverage as the primary receiving option, Davis would be able to ease into the league as a complementary player early in his career. That would allow him to grow into a bigger role as he acclimates to the pro game.