While most players looked to be shaking off the rust of a long offseason this past weekend, Corey Davis came out guns blazing in his first game of the season on Monday night against Denver. Davis was targeted early and often in this game, and we once again saw glimpses of the player that was drafted fifth overall in 2017.
Davis piled up 101 yards on 7 receptions, which is already a stark contrast to his 2019 season when Davis didn’t reach 100 receiving yards in any game. In fact, the last time Davis topped the century mark was November of 2018 when he roasted Stephon Gilmore and the Patriots.
He currently ranks 24th in targets league-wide after finishing 85th last year, and he’s already close to 1/8th the number of targets and 1/6th the amount of receiving yards of his entire 15-game 2019 season.
So what changed for Davis? Is this the Corey Davis we can expect all season?
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a piece on Corey Davis, tackling the issue of why he wasn’t producing more. Unfortunately, that article was removed from the site due to compliance issues with the NFL, but I will give you a quick summary of the main points. The primary reasons for Davis’ lack of production in 2019 were (1) his injury, (2) target quality/the effect of A.J. Brown, and (3) missed opportunities.
We saw all three of these issues resolved (in this game), and the result was a dramatic increase in Davis’ production.
First, let’s address his injury. Early in the 2019 season, Davis suffered a turf toe injury that significantly hindered his ability to plant and cut, which is crucial for wide receivers. This subsequently lead to an altered role for Davis, making him run more straight-line vertical routes.
However, you can tell by his usage now that his toe turf injury is finally behind him. Davis was back to running routes with sharper cuts and more explosive breaks. He still has a lingering hamstring injury, but this should only really affect his long speed (if anything) and not his ability to change directions.
Tying back in with his toe turf injury, the Titans also had to rely more heavily on A.J. Brown in 2019. As a result, Brown was almost always the recipient of the underneath crossing route on Yankee concept passing plays last season. This was where Brown did his biggest damage, using his yards after catch ability in the open space to create big plays. Coming into 2020, it was all but assumed Brown would continue to be the Titans’ undisputed WR1 and take a majority of these same targets.
However, Arthur Smith completely flipped the script against the Broncos. On the very first play of the game, Smith dialed up a modified Yankee concept with Davis—not A.J. Brown—running the crossing route underneath. Davis would catch this ball for a 13-yard gain as he got behind the linebackers that had crept up to defend the run.
Davis would go on to grab three receptions for 59 receiving yards on this exact play call throughout the night. While most expected either Derrick Henry or Brown to get the ball first, Smith made it an emphasis to feed Davis right from the get-go.
In fact, Davis was the underneath crosser on Yankee concepts over and over in this game and the Broncos just couldn’t stop him. Looking at the diagram below, the “Z” receiver represents Corey Davis’ role on this play.
If you look at his route chart from Next Gen Stats, all of his targets were on routes off hard breaks in the horizontal plane. This allows Davis to face the ball head on and prepare for the catch. This is contrasted to the vertical routes (go and fade routes) that Davis often ran in 2019, forcing him to catch the ball over his shoulders. These specific targets combined with Tannehill’s below average deep ball accuracy led to a ton of missed opportunities last season. As I mentioned in my previous article (that, again, no longer exists), Davis saw 11 deep ball attempts in 2019 and not a single one was on target.
While Brown feasted on these targets last season, I would say Davis is equally dangerous in space. Kareem Jackson can give you a first-hand testimony of this nasty stiff arm.
Davis wasn’t just effective on the Yankee concept plays. He also showed off his contested catch ability against this Broncos’ secondary in two different instances.
There was one incredible snare on the sideline where Davis mossed A.J. Bouye at the highest point while maintaining the concentration to keep his toes in bounds and sweep his back leg through to touch inside the green.
The second instance was over the middle, where Davis actively extended for and snatched the ball out of the air between Bryce Callahan and Justin Simmons for a big first down.
These two plays reminded how much of a well-rounded receiver Davis truly is when he’s performing at his peak. Not only does he bully defenders after the catch, he also knows how to use his 6-3, 210-pound frame at the catch point. There’s simply no aspect of the receiver position Corey Davis in’t good at. For him, it’s all about consistency.
This performance serves as a reminder of what Corey Davis showed before his injury, and what he can become if he stays healthy. We saw him win in multiple ways as the WR1 this week. I can’t predict a performance like this every game, but it certainly does show that the Titans have a two-headed monster in A.J. Brown and Corey Davis on the outside, if they can get them on the field together.
Now that Brown is dealing with his own injuries, Davis will have the opportunity to maintain his high volume of targets and should continue to produce at a high level.
Looking way into the future, we know the Titans opted not to pick up the fifth-year option on Davis’ rookie contract. But regardless of where he ends up playing in 2021, we should be rooting for his success in 2020. Not just because it will help the Titans win in 2020, but because if he chooses to play elsewhere, a more productive season will lead to a more lucrative contract and thus and a higher compensatory pick for the Titans.
Personally though, I hope he continues to ball out and the Titans choose to keep Davis in Nashville for a long time.