From the FanPosts -Joel
Knile Davis will surprise his critics in 2013 with better than expected production.
I admit it. I'm an optimistic sap at this time of year. I get a look at the Chiefs' draft class and I begin to imagine how the new players will turn the team into a playoff powerhouse. Junior Hemingway? Last year's 7th round pick was going to become the new Hines Ward. (I still hold out hope for him, but that's another story.) Gabe Miller? The 2010 5th round pick was supposed to supply the extra pass rush the Chiefs have long and desperately needed. Ricky Stanzi? Enough said.
And now? Well, even more than Mike Catapano (and I'm positive he'll develop into Tamba's successor any day now), my fan-crush this year centers on Knile Davis. In spite of all of the red flags, I believe he'll start the season at number 2 on the depth chart and that if Jamaal goes down, it'll be Knile Davis who picks up the rock. (Feel free to pause here to perform whatever rituals are necessary to lift the hex I might have just laid on God Jam.)
I know that much of the AP community hates the pick, and it's worth reviewing why:
- Knile Davis has already suffered two broken ankles.
- Davis averaged less than 3.4 yards per carry at Arkansas in 2012 and lost his starting job to Dennis Johnson, who stands 5'7", weighs 196 pounds, and performed worse than Davis in every combine metric. (Johnson was not drafted. He signed with the Houston Texans as a rookie free agent.)
- Writers who grind a lot more tape than I do opine that Davis' style is "conceptually" problematic. Here's a critique that is not only damning in its own right but also links to further critical opinion.
- Oh, and I almost forgot about the fumbles. Last year, Davis fumbled 7 times on 112 carries. That's kind of a problem.
Am I crazy to think that Knile Davis is a good fit on the Chiefs? Probably, but I do have my reasons. Before I go there, I'd like to note that the Chiefs took Davis with the 96th pick. Examine a list of the best feature backs of this generation, and you'll see that with two or three exceptions, they were all drafted more than 20 slots higher than 96. In fact, between 2001 and 2012, 34 running backs were taken within +/- 20 slots of #96. Eighty percent of them either failed to establish a career or developed into run of the mill committee backs. It's what most analysts have projected for Davis, and it's fair to say that GM John Dorsey absolutely did not reach in selecting him at that spot.
But I'm not writing this Fan Post only to damn Knile Davis with faint praise. That's a waste of everyone's time. I want to convince fans that they'll feel fortunate the Chiefs chose Davis when all is said and done, so let's look at the football player.
There's No Speed Limit on the Road to Victory
Knile Davis is every bit as fast as Jamaal Charles, and this will help the team in both obvious and subtle ways. I hope that everyone remembers God Jam's 91-yard touchdown run against New Orleans last year. It launched an 18 point comeback and the Chief's first victory of the season. The best thing about that play was the nearly perfect blocking. Charles shot through a giant hole, and Saints defenders barely managed to wave goodbye as he sped past them. I know this claim borders on blasphemy, but any comparably fast running back could have made that run. Now, there are hardly any backs as fast as JC, but luckily, Knile Davis is one of them, and the Chiefs will still have the big play potential with him in the game.
Less obviously, Davis' speed and burst will allow the team to maintain the timing and rhythm of the running game when Charles takes a breather. When Peyton Hillis signed with the Chiefs in 2012, I was psyched to imagine what a "change of pace" power back could add to the offense. It should have occurred to me (and more importantly to Scott Pioli) that unlike baseball, the football change-up works only when the play goes from fast to faster. Since 'faster' isn't an option, the Chiefs will have to settle for running really fast all of the time (cue the crocodile tears). What's more, Knile Davis will make life easier on the offensive line because it won't have to adjust its game when he subs in. Davis can navigate the same running lanes at roughly the same rate. Opposing defenses will have to adjust instead to the extra 20 pounds of force and the different moves that he brings to the game.
I casually slipped in a reference to "burst" in the previous paragraph, and I think it deserves a closer look when evaluating Davis. One of the staple criticisms of the running back concerns his relatively slow acceleration coming out of cuts. When I look at the metrics and the tape, however , I don't see ‘slow'; I see ‘smooth'.
Consider the 10-, 20-, and 40-yard splits that Davis ran at the 2013 NFL Combine. They are 1.49, 2.49, and 4.37, respectively. Only 3 of 141 running backs drafted since 2006 have run a faster 10-yard split, and they all weigh less than 200 pounds. I've yet to see a faster 20-yard split and only 6 RBs have run a faster 40. That shows plenty of burst; the real question is how it might translate to the field. Can Knile Davis make the most of his physical talents?
Elements of Style: Vision, Timing, and Agility
I think he can. Take a look at the run shown at the 2:27 mark of this YouTube file. It occurred in the Arkansas game against Texas A&M in 2012. Davis lined up to the right of QB Tyler Wilson in a shotgun formation, 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage (LOS). The RG pulled, and Davis followed him through a gap between LG and C. You can tell that even as he saw the hole open, he also saw the NT fighting through the LG's block to close it back up. Davis smoothly bent his path to the right, used a hard shoulder fake to set up the charging safety, and then slalomed past towards the left edge. Davis next juked two more DBs into diving weakly at his feet as he turned up the sideline for a nice 28-yard gain.
I chose to highlight this run b/c the end zone angle of the replay lets us see some key aspects to Davis' style. He clearly picked the right hole - it was dead in front of him. Of more interest are the vision, timing, and agility shown in evading the defensive threats. Davis didn't so much cut with his feet as he re-arranged his weight around his center of gravity to change course without losing speed. He used his blockers to force the defenders to commit to a line of attack and then adroitly slid past them. Watch the play again and pay attention to how the defense seemed to tilt the wrong way when half of the unit bit on that shoulder fake.
[Incidentally, this was the last play in which Davis ran behind good to superior blocking. From that point on, two or more A&M defenders penetrated the LOS on every snap. The record shows Davis touching the ball 9 more times, and he broke or evaded tackles on 6 of them. Other than his abysmal ball security - there's no excusing the two fumbles - Davis continued to run exceptionally well despite the blocking and the lack of results.]
I also charted Davis' 2010 game against LSU (30 rushing attempts for 152 yards). He broke or evaded tackles on 8 of his carries. He got stronger when the game hung in the balance. Between the 2:29 and 4:45 marks of the YouTube recording, Davis ripped off 13 plays that helped swing the game for Arkansas. Here's his rushing yardage for each play in the sequence: +8, +5, +11, +4, +6, +6, -1, +8, +7, +14, +13, +9, and +4. He and the offensive line dominated one of the best run defenses in the country.
What about Those Red Flags?
The warning signs haven't gone away, but I hope I've placed them in a more positive context.
- While the broken ankles could shorten Davis' career, I believe that with the advances in surgery and stem cell treatments, it's likely that he'll have no further trouble. Moreover, I couldn't find any evidence that he has chronic injuries elsewhere in his physique.
- Davis lost his starting job to a running back that gained more yards after contact and, IMO, used the middle of the field better. Dennis Johnson had the better year in 2012, but I didn't see that he was the better runner in the games I watched. I'm hoping that the fall-off was due to the fact that Davis hadn't fully recovered from his broken ankle in 2011, and that the Petrino debacle hurt his game as badly as it hurt Tyler Wilson (common threads: scheme and blocking).
- While I really like Davis' running style, I can also see that it's missing the special something that would make him a top-tier player. Lacking a good stiff arm technique and the kind of balance we see with Marshawn Lynch or Doug Martin, Davis just doesn't handle contact as well as the best backs in the game. That doesn't mean he sucks or that he runs soft, just that there's a limit to his upside.
- Fumbles: I'm actually not too worried about this issue. Some really good running backs had trouble with fumbling (Adrian Peterson and Tiki Barber come to mind), and they managed to work through it. Davis surely knows he won't have an NFL career if he doesn't improve his ball handling, so I have to assume he will.
When I started work on this piece, I thought I could show that Knile Davis is the heir apparent to Jamaal Charles. That was pure foolishness brought on by draft fever. Charles really is a special runner and is very much under-appreciated (I hope to have more on this theme in a later post).
Fortunately, Davis will still produce in the Chiefs' offense. He has the speed and vision to take what the offensive line creates for him; he has the size and power to consistently get a couple extra yards after contact; he can make a defense pay for its mistakes; and he can force his fair share of missed tackles.
NFL teams run about 1,000 plays on offense each year. If we assume a 57/43 split in pass-to-run, the Chiefs will need to distribute about 430 running plays among its RB group (and the occasional QB or WR). Charles will get at least 250 of these carries, so that leaves roughly 180 carries for the rest of the corps. My forecast for Knile Davis is 70+ carries at 4.5 yards per attempt for a total of at least 300 yards. Because of his size, Davis will get a disproportionate share of chances in goal-to-go situations, and he'll score at least 6 touchdowns. As for his receptions? I have no idea.
I haven't forgotten about Cyrus Gray. He's in the mix for sure, and he might beat out Davis for the #2 spot. It's just that the post is long enough without getting into comparisons, so I'm leaving that for the comments.