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Chiefs’ Chris Conley has gotten much better. Here’s where it shows

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So I’ve dwelled on the shellacking the Chiefs took against Pittsburgh long enough. I wrote about how it was the first game in years I couldn’t finish. I wrote about Alex Smith’s tough evening and speculated about his future. I feel as though I’ve filled my quota of bad for a few weeks.

Let’s talk about Chris Conley.

You know Chris. He’s the 6’2, 210-pound freak of nature the Chiefs drafted last season. Remember? The guy with the nearly 10 inch hands. The guy who was a top-five performer in what seemed like every single combine workout (4.35 40, 11’7 broad jump, top five in bench reps, 45” vertical jump, which is basically like jumping over everything stacked on everything else).

The guy who, for all that physical talent, didn’t make much noise as a rookie? Yeah, that guy. Because while we weren’t paying attention, that guy started developing into more than an afterthought at wide receiver.

Since Conley arrived in Kansas City, there’s been a lot of talk about ceilings, potential, athleticism, and stuff like that. Everyone could see that Conley had wonderful athleticism and strong hands. It was widely recognized, however, that if Conley were ever going to contribute consistently to the offense he would need to improve on two things: route running and dealing with contact.

It doesn’t matter how athletic you are. You cannot play wide receiver at a high level in the NFL if you can’t deal with press contact and you don’t run at least decent routes. Conley was inconsistent with both last season. When he spent the offseason working with Jeremy Maclin (a wonderful route runner who deals with press coverage easily for a smaller wide receiver), it sparked a lot of hope that perhaps Conley was ready to start making contributions to the offense.

Four games in, I want to check on Conley’s development and see how he looks out there. While his stats aren’t eye-popping (he’s currently on pace for 60 catches for 688 yards), I don’t quite trust those stats to tell me the full story. This is in part because of how much Alex Smith has struggled early (please, for the love of God, don’t turn the comments into more Smith-wars over that sentence) and in part because a lack of focus on Conley from the offense.

For me, I want to see whether Conley is getting open out there, and whether he’s improved on those two issues (route running and dealing with contact). And so to the tape we go. For wide receivers, I’ll watch every route they run, throwing out plays like WR screens where the receiver doesn’t run an actual route. Then I’ll track how many plays they created separation (against zone or man), and use that to formulate separation percentage. Let’s take a look at that, then talk about Conley’s film.

I charted the above stats against the Chargers, the Texans and the Steelers. I didn’t get around to the Jets for a variety of reasons, but three games is enough to at least see some tendencies on film.

Routes vs. San Diego: 42

Routes with Separation vs. San Diego: 16

Separation Percentage vs. San Diego: 38.1 percent

Routes vs. Houston: 33

Routes with Separation vs. Houston: 18

Separation Percentage vs. Houston: 54.4 percent

Routes vs. Pittsburgh: 46

Routes with Separation vs. Pittsburgh: 21

Separation Percentage vs. Pittsburgh: 45.6 percent

TOTAL SEPARATION PERCENTAGE: 45.4 percent

Now, those numbers might seem a bit meaningless in a vacuum, but to provide a little perspective ... when I’m charting successful coverages for corners, I consider being successful 70 percent of the time (think of it as the opposite of a wide receiver creating separation, right?) as a good job by the corner. Once that percentage drops below 60 percent I start getting really worried.

So, in short, if I were reviewing the corners matched up against Chris Conley, for the most part I’d be pretty worried about them.

Now, not every one of those separations is Conley beating man to man coverage. Teams have employed a great deal of zone this year (perhaps to stop Alex Smith from killing them with his legs), and some of those separations are a result of the route combinations Andy Reid drew up. That said, finding the appropriate openings in zone is a skill as well, as it requires WRs to adjust to what the defense throws at them post-snap.

But the main point? Conley is getting open quite a bit more than he was this time last year, by my eyes. A lot of this has to do with doing little things better than he was in 2015.

Now I admit, the above play isn’t exactly sexy. It’s just a simple slant route. But where Conley is concerned, the mundane is EXACTLY where we were looking for improvement. Here, he’s up against an aggressive press coverage. He really struggled getting off the line of scrimmage in that situation last year.

This year? Not the case. First he employs a jab step, which is often used against press to try and get the corner moving the wrong way to create space. The CB doesn’t bite, which could mean trouble for Conley. However, as Conley moves inside, watch his left hand. He bats away the attempted press by the CB while staying in motion (important to hand fight WHILE in motion for a receiver, or the CB wins the “disrupt the route” contest).

The CB recovers well and, turns quickly, staying stride for stride with Conley. However, by utilizing a jab step and then swatting the CB’s hands aside, Conley has successfully gained inside position. A subtle cut inside around the 37-yard-line and Conley suddenly has more than enough space to haul in even an average throw (the ball had gone elsewhere).

What I love about this snap is that the corner actually did a very nice job on the play. He didn’t commit any real mistakes. He didn’t bite on the jab step and he looked to press hard right at the line, then fluidly turned and ran down the field in Conley’s pocket. It was good coverage. It was just a better play by Conley to FORCE separation.

Any clown can outrun a CB who gets his hips flipped or bites on a fake. It takes real, practiced skill to beat good coverage. Conley does it there.

That snap sums up a lot of what I see in Conley now. Particularly, the fact that physical coverage (once his mortal nemesis) doesn’t seem to bother him at all this year. In fact, Conley is often the player initiating contact this season. He’s clearly a much stronger guy than he was last year, and it shows up in how he deals with press coverage. He’s able to get into his route even while bodying up against defenders.

Additionally, Conley’s nuances in beating the press have improved. He no longer just tries to run by defenders. Instead, he employs jab steps, some stutters (though he’s nowhere near Maclin’s level with those), and really solid hand fighting to gain space.

This time last year Conley’s biggest weakness was press coverage. Now, I’d say it’s a strength of his. He’s improved in it both physically (increased strength) and mentally (significantly better technique employed).

And route running? Well, Conley has been working on that too.

Last year, Conley’s routes often seemed rounded off, his cuts less sudden than you want to see from a receiver. He’s definitely worked on his feet, as he’s noticeably quicker in and out of breaks (usually, not always). I imagine that route running is likely one of the major things Maclin worked with Conley on, and it shows. Conley might never be a great route runner (though maybe he will, given the rapid improvement from year one to year two), but he’s become a decent one at this point.

In addition to taking big strides forward in his areas of weakness this season, Conley has improved on his strength of catching the ball with his hands as well. While Conley did a decent job of snatching the ball out of the air (rather than using his body) last season, this year he seems even more intent on attacking the ball with his hands. The first GIF in this article is an example of this, as is this play:

Here, the corner is in good position to make a play on the ball. However, because Conley does such a good job walling off the defender and attacking the ball in the air, there’s really not much the CB can do to prevent a reception. Which is where you can really can an advantage with long-armed, big-bodied wide receivers who catch the ball well with their hands. If Conley lets this travel to his body, it’s likely an incompletion. But he doesn’t, so it isn’t.

Conley isn’t a perfect receiver. At times it seems to take him too many steps to hit top speed, and his consistency with his routes definitely still needs work. However, I’m very confident in saying that Conley’s a player who needs more targets as the year moves along. His improvement from last year is enormous, and it definitely makes one think about what kind of player he’ll be a year or two from now.