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Chiefs WR Chris Conley film review: Opportunity awaits

When Jeremy Maclin was released, it created a ripple effect throughout the Chiefs offense. Suddenly we were left speculating as to the role that various other receivers would have now that the assumed top guy had been kicked to the curb.

One player who has been the focal point of said speculation is Chris Conley, the wide receiver who led the Chiefs in snaps at the position in 2016.

Conley has been an interesting player to track since he was drafted in 2015. A guy with an extremely impressive combine and good size (6’3 with arms longer than a giraffe’s neck), a lot of fans were hoping Conley would come on strong right away. However, he underwhelmed his rookie year and didn’t appear ready to contribute, with only 17 catches on 31 targets for 199 yards.

In year two, Conley saw his snap count and usage increase, and his production increased right along with it, as he had 44 catches on 69 targets for 530 yards. It’s worth noting that while players generally decrease in efficiency as their usage rises, for Conley it was the reverse. As a rookie, he averaged only 6.42 yards per target. In his second year, that number increased to 7.68 yards per target.

However, staring at wide receiver stats doesn’t tell us what we really need to know about a player. There are simply too many variables that affect production levels of a receiver for that to work. The offensive line, the quarterback, and the coaching are all wildly important in order for a wide receiver to produce. A guy could be open all day long and efficient when looked for, but if he doesn’t get the ball (or the ball thrown his way isn’t catchable, or the offensive line allows a sack), it just doesn’t matter.

Because of this, it’s important that we take a look at Conley’s film in 2016 to try and discern what changed (and what stayed the same) from his rookie year to his second year. Additionally, I wanted to see what traits Conley demonstrated as a wide receiver that could point to his continued improvement in year three. Barring one of the Chiefs’ younger receivers shocking everyone and stepping up in a big way, Conley will be a vital cog in the offense in 2017.

If you’ve never read a wide receiver film review by me, the methodology is fairly straightforward. I watch every route on all-22, then chart wins, losses, and neutral plays. A “win” is a play in which the WR achieves separation from man coverage OR does a little “extra” work to find an open zone. A loss is a play in which the receiver fails to separate from man coverage. A neutral play is when the WR is schemed open (and does nothing of his own merit to earn it), when zone coverage dictates that his route is covered, or when he simply doesn’t have enough to do to grade one way or another (say, a run-pass option where he just turns sideways and waits for the ball).

Want an example of a win? Fine, we need to break up all this text anyways.

That’s hardly a life-altering play, but Conley created separation from his corner to the point that even an average-to-bad throw would have gotten the job done. Importantly, note that Conley doesn’t get the ball here. On paper, that’s a “zero” play. In reality, though, Conley did his job well. Such is the life of a wide receiver.

We clear on methodology? Great. Let’s look at some numbers, then talk about Conley’s film.

All right, first things first ... unlike with offensive linemen, I don’t have enough of a basis to tell you precisely what percentage of the time I want to see WRs win. One thing that I do know is that I like the fact that Conley wins more than he loses, although you can definitely see the ratio change quite a bit depending on the quality of the corners he was facing (Denver and now-LA-but-I’ll-always-get-that-wrong gave him a lot more trouble than Pittsburgh, which we’ll circle back to).

(Side note: my charting for targets will be different from, say, ESPN, in that I’m only looking at catchable targets)

I was also very happy with how Conley handled his catchable targets. The only one he didn’t bring in was knocked away (not dropped) at the last possible second by Casey Hayward, who does that all the time but for some asinine reason wasn’t a hotly pursued free agent (that one still stings for me). Conley demonstrated consistent hands while I watched him, which was an improvement on his rookie season, where he had a few easy drops.

Another interesting thing to note was the number of neutral snaps. Andy Reid’s offense is predicated on route combinations creating opportunities for WRs against various defensive coverages. Because of that, wide receivers are often not “winning” or “losing” on their own, but are instead benefiting (or at times being harmed) from defenses being forced to choose between leaving one player or another open. It’s fun to watch, actually.

The overall point (and one that Matt Miller consistently makes about the Chiefs) is that in Andy Reid’s offense, receivers don’t always (or even often) need to create separation on their own. Anyway, back to Conley.

So the numbers, as I said, don’t tell me much at this point other than he was able to win a fair amount of the time. However, we can learn a lot more from his film than his win/loss numbers. A final note on those ... as you can obviously see, Conley was winning a LOT against the Steelers’ secondary. He was winning all night, and he didn’t see the ball nearly enough in my opinion (despite seven catchable targets). Unfortunately, that was the evening Alex Smith had his worst game as a Chief, and a lot of open routes simply went unnoticed. Why bring that up? I have no idea, but I feel like it needed to be pointed out.

Conley demonstrates a number of strengths as a player, but I think this time I’ll start with the weaknesses. The most demonstrable weakness Conley has is a noticeable lack of “get-up,” for lack of a better term. He lacks quickness on the majority of his routes and takes a great deal of time to reach his top speed (he’s a strider, to use the term you most often hear). And at times, that lack of quickness/acceleration ends up with him being completely blanketed.

While Conley at times demonstrated the ability to stop quickly even after reaching full speed, his “stop-and-go,” for lack of a better term, is sorely lacking. Any time Conley is stationary, getting back up to full steam looks like a chore. He just doesn’t have anything like the acceleration you see from a Jeremy Maclin (seriously, still not happy about that) or even an Albert Wilson.

That lack of quickness, if it’s not something that can be improved on (though he can help a bit of it by improving his routes, quickness and acceleration aren’t something that generally change), is something that will likely limit Conley’s ceiling as a receiver. He’s just not a guy who is going to separate from good coverage as often as you’d like and will likely need to be schemed open if you want him to achieve separation consistently (his “win” total was, in my opinion, raised up a bit by poor coverage in a few games).

Additionally, Conley continues to need work on his footwork in routes. He still rounds off cuts at times, which exacerbates his quickness issues. However, that issue (and wasted steps) markedly improved from 2015 to 2016.

Those are very, very real concerns with Conley and again, they could well limit his ceiling to “functional contributor” and nothing more. On the other hand, Conley demonstrated some really interesting strengths in 2016 that I wouldn’t have seen coming after his quiet rookie year.

For starters, Conley got STRONG.

Jalen Ramsey is known for playing tough press coverage (in fact, it’s the majority of what he does. That’s how the Chiefs SHOULD use Marcus Peters, but I digress). He’s big and strong and able to slow down most receivers at the line, which often leads to frustrated players throwing their hands up and looking at the ref for help.

The roles got reversed on this play, and it wasn’t the only time that game. Conley seemed to get inside Ramsey’s head a bit, as he was looking to the refs and complaining after several plays. He and Conley got chippy as the game went along, and it was (in my opinion) a direct result of the fact that Conley was playing just as physical as Ramsey and frustrating him. It was wonderful to see.

And Ramsey wasn’t the only physical corner Conley was able to beat at his own game.

Now to be clear, Talib by and large got the better of Conley when they were matched up one-on-one (like he does with virtually everyone else). The point isn’t that Conley > Talib. That’s just not the case, as Talib is one of the best cover corners in the league.

What’s interesting to me here is the way in which Conley “wins” against Talib, who may be the strongest corner in the NFL. Watch as Talib engages in his press. Normally, when Talib presses a WR, he makes first contact and stops the receiver in his tracks while Talib maintains his position (and his footing), which allows him to shadow the receiver wherever he tries to go after getting rocked.

That’s not what happens here. Instead, Conley has enough length to deliver a shot of his own, which rocks Talib a little off balance and to the inside. Conley takes advantage of that moment and sprints around him. Normally, Talib has enough balance to keep his body in front of the receiver and force them to run laterally rather than straight down the field. But because of the punch Conley was able to deliver, that’s not the case and Conley zips right past him.

Talib attempts to hold him (technically that could’ve been called, but whatever), but it’s too late and Conley has a head start as Talib rotates his hips to start trailing. However, even though Conley takes a bit to get revved up, his top speed is absolutely more than Talib can handle and he gets great separation.

Snaps like that are intriguing, again, not because it was a single win, but because of the WAY Conley won. He was able to take one of the strongest corners in the game and still use his own strength to create separation.

The majority of the time when Conley achieved separation, it was either because of Andy Reid’s scheme or because of his physicality. It vastly improved from his rookie year (when press coverage seemed to bother him) and became his defining trait as a route runner. With his reach and strength, he’s able to really flummox defenders when they attempt to play him in press. Ramsey ended up backing off a little more often as the game went along (which may have been a coach’s decision, but was definitely noticeable and rewarding to see after the two chirped at each other multiple times).

The other area Conley stands out as a wide receiver is at the catch point.

I think this is something that most fans know, because some of the catches he made last season were quite memorable. As you can see in the GIF above, Conley is able to bring in the catch even when coverage is close to perfect. He handles physical contact during a contested ball as well as he handles it at the line of scrimmage. It just doesn’t seem to bother him.

Additionally, Conley demonstrates very strong hands. Look at that GIF again. The corner has his arm wrenching down on the football and Conley’s arm/hands as Conley attempts to bring the ball in, and he does it anyway. That’s remarkably difficult to do, especially while dragging your feet to stay in bounds. Conley’s ability to concentrate and snatch the ball out of the air under very difficult circumstances is extremely impressive.

And it’s not like this was a one-time thing, or just limited to jump balls on the sideline.

Again, Conley shows that despite a lot of “noise” going on (contesting defender, about to take a hit, etc.) he will watch the ball in, catch it with his hands and keep a firm grasp of it despite getting hit/jostled.

After watching Conley in multiple contested situations, it’s hard not to conclude that he’s one of those “even if he’s not open, he’s open” kind of players. His height, reach, strength, jumping ability and focus all combine to create a player who will just go up and get it despite good coverage. That may not always be a fit to what the Chiefs try to do, but it’s a highly useful skill on third downs and late in games.

Something else I’m intrigued by with regards to Conley is in YAC (yards after catch). On one hand, he rarely demonstrated this trait last season, in large part because the type of targets he received were ones in which YAC wasn’t really possible (getting hit as you’re bringing in the catch makes it tough). On the other hand, Conley seemed to have the ability to punish secondary players attempting to tackle him and grind out tough yards. It’ll be interesting to see what he does in ‘17, as the best I can do in this area is give him an “incomplete” grade. I just didn’t see enough opportunities to know more.

Another area we’re a bit incomplete is with Conley’s ability to track the deep ball in the air and get in position to bring it down. He did so well on the few opportunities he had, BUT ... when there are only a few snaps here and there, it’s impossible to say if it’s a fluke or not. Given his ability to adjust on the fly in contested situations, I have a sneaking suspicion that he can do so. But there’s just not enough information.

Overall, Conley in 2016 wasn’t at all what I expected when the Chiefs drafted a tall, lanky, rail-thin wide receiver with good deep speed. At the time, the player I was hoping he would turn into was A.J. Green, who is the ultimate “tall, lanky, fast, quick” wide receiver who is a mismatch both as a deep ball receiver and a possession guy. However, what I saw from Conley didn’t match Green’s game. Conley just didn’t show the quickness to get separation in short areas the way Green does, and he lacks the acceleration Green possesses in order to be a consistent deep threat.

On the flip side, Conley was MUCH stronger than I anticipated, and clearly tailored his game to suit his strengths (length and, well, strength) and minimize his weaknesses. He wasn’t out there trying to juke guys out or win with pure speed. Instead, he tried to win with his frame and ability to throw defenders aside. He became a big target with the ability to either create separation with physicality or just win despite decent coverage. He also, as a side note, became a very willing and pretty capable blocker, using his natural strength to keep corners from helping against the run.

I thought the Chiefs were drafting a Green prototype. Instead, Conley looks a lot more like a Dwayne Bowe prototype.

Let that sink in for a moment. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

Look, I’m not saying Conley is an exact replica of Bowe. He doesn’t have the devastating strength prime Bowe had (watching him shrug off corners was always a real pleasure) and hasn’t shown the same brutish YAC ability. On the flip side, he has much better top-end speed and appears to be much more consistent in catching with his hands.

Where they are similar is in how they win, using physicality to create separation when they can and winning at the catch point when they can’t. Even their flaws (lack of acceleration, rounded routes that look too slow) are oddly similar.

If I were to “ceiling” Conley as a WR, I’d say he could be Bowe with more of an ability to stretch the field and more consistent hands. And frankly, I think any Chiefs fan would take a player like that; a dangerous possession receiver who can occasionally flash down the field. Again, though, that’s the ceiling. His floor at this point is what we saw in 2016, an unremarkable but reliable third option who can win at the catch point when called upon. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as such players are a necessity to have around. It’s just that the Chiefs will likely need more from him given the other options at wide receiver.

Considering the amount of improvement Conley demonstrated from his first year to his second year (and the fact that he seemed to really find an “identity” as a wide receiver with his strength), I don’t believe what we saw last year was as good as he will get. Should be interesting to find out.

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