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Can the Packers save Davante Adams?

Whether or not it's due to injury, Green Bay's second-year receiver is falling far short of the breakout that was expected of him this year, and one APC writer argues that he's doing more harm than good at this point.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

There is a baseball player and former Milwaukee Brewer named Yuniesky Betancourt. Yuni is in many respects an amazing player. He was at one point a highly touted prospect with excellent contact skills and a frame that looked like it would consistently add power, all while manning the toughest defensive position on the diamond. Young, power-hitting shortstops don't come around all that often, and that potential, along with some kind of incredible clubhouse mojo, or perhaps some kind of blackmail involving naked pictures of key members of both the Brewers' and Royals' front offices kept Yuni in the league for a very long time.

You see, Yuni never did develop power, and he never really could play a decent shortstop, and while he did hold on to those good contact skills he had no plate discipline whatsoever, and would consistently make extremely weak contact and easy outs over, and over and over again. By the time he hit his supposed prime he was a butcher in the field who could be retired by most pitchers with ease.

What makes Yuni special isn't that he was bad. Baseball, and all sports, are littered with bad players, and every team is going to have a few below-average guys as roster filler. What makes Yuni special is the fact that he was one of the worst players in baseball while simultaneously being one of the most played players in baseball. In the last 35 years there are exactly two players who have had over 4000 plate appearances with a sub .286 on base percentage. One of those is Alfredo Griffin, a defensive wizard at shortstop who was simply terrible with the bat, slashing .249/.285/.319 for his career. Despite his offensive struggles, Griffin was good enough defensively to actually post a positive 2.9 bWAR, and he was actually quite good in 1986.

The other is Yuniesky Betancourt, who played in a much better offensive era, but still only hit .261/.285/.388. Betancourt finished with -2.9 bWAR for his career, but that understates his awfulness as he was actually a positive WAR player in each of his first 3 seasons before letting himself go. From 2008-2013 he was a -6.6 win player, but despite being more than a full win worse than a guy you could find off the street for 6 full seasons, he managed to average 484 plate appearances per season. It's like everyone's IQ dropped 40 points when he was in the room.

Some people love Yuni, and see him as a fun, jovial guy to have around. He occasionally makes a spectacular play in the field (partially because his range is so limited that he has to dive all the time) and it is worth mentioning that in his one playoff stint with the Brewers he hit a very respectable .310/.326/.500, with a homerun, a triple, and 3 doubles. The sun shines on a dog's ass every now and then.

Anyway, that is enough about Yuniesky Betancourt. This is a Packers website after all. Let's talk about Davante Adams, who, like Yuniesky is bad. And like Yuniesky Betancourt, he is being used, and used, and used again to the detriment of all involved.

Last season Jordy Nelson played in all 16 games and had 151 balls thrown his way, an average of 9.4 per game. Davante Adams has missed time with a bum ankle this season and so has only played in 8 games, and in a few of those he barely saw any time due to the injury. He has 64 targets, or an average of 8 per game. Davante Adams, when on the field, has been used just a hair less than 2014 Jordy Nelson, and if we could accurately take out the portions of games where he was playing but seriously hurt, their useage would probably be about the same. Here is how the swap is playing out:

2014 Jordy Nelson
98 catches on 151 targets (65%), 1,519 yards, 15.5 Yards per catch, 10 Yards per target, 13 TDs

2015 Davante Adams, Pro-rated to 16 games:
64 catches, 128 targets (50%), 644 yards, 10.1 YPC, 5 YPT, 0 TDs.

Earlier this year I wrote about how the Packers would likely replace Nelson by using Cobb more than last year, and spreading the ball around to their new and young receivers, including Adams. Never in my wildest imagination did I think Adams would singlehandedly soak up this many targets or be this bad, but Cobb, Montgomery, and Abbrederis are all varying degrees of injured, Richard Rodgers deserves his own article about his inept play, and here we are. I called Adams sub-replacement-level in a recent Quick Outs and took a few shots for it, but I think it is warranted.

2014 Jordy Nelson was obviously one of the best receivers in the league, but Adams hasn't even been remotely close to half as productive. His catch percentage is laughable. He has at least 7 drops on the year that I've counted. If you break the field down by regions, Aaron Rodgers does not have a passer rating higher than 83.3 throwing to Adams in any region. When Aaron targets Davante on the short right, where Adams has seen 15 of his 65 targets, Rodgers has a 36.8 QB rating. The medium middle is one of the easiest throws in football, and when Aaron Rodgers targets Randall Cobb there, as he has 19 times, he has a 115.7 passer rating. When he targets Adams in the same spot, as he has 8 times, he has completed 2 of those passes for 17 yards, and a 39.6 rating.

Advanced statistics despise Adams as well. As I write this, Adams has a -27.8 DVOA from Football Outsiders, and ranks 64th out of 65 ranked receivers. Last year he was a little better, but he still was a -9.0 DVOA and 59th out of 87 ranked players. I think I've established that he's been pretty terrible, but sometimes players are terrible and eventually develop into something. Adams is young and you could argue that there is room for growth.

I'm not seeing it. I actually hope that Adams is injured, as receivers/quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt said on Tuesday. If he's injured, all of this is easily explainable, and instead of simply being a bad player forced to play more than he should, he would be a courageous player fighting through pain out of necessity. On the other hand, if he's been hurt and ineffective this long, perhaps Injured Reserve would have been a better solution. If he is healthy, though, is there any indication that he will improve? What about Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings? They both had slow starts to their careers as well, right?

Well, the 6'3" Nelson isn't really comparable, and even in limited action as a rookie Nelson was much better than Adams has ever been. He caught 61% of his passes, averaged 11 yards per reception and 6.8 yards per target. He was more sure-handed and more explosive. His role was reduced the following season due to injury and depth at the position, but when he played he was outstanding with a 70% catch rate and 14.5 ypc. Nelson was always good and eventually, when his role expanded, he became outstanding.

I think Jennings is a better comparison for Adams, as he is smaller (5'11", while Adams is listed 6'1") and did most of his damage closer to the line of scrimmage with his route-running and power. And like Adams, Jennings originally struggled catching the ball. In his rookie season Jennings caught only 45 of 104 targets, and in the final game of his rookie season, had a very Adams-like 1 catch on 11 targets for just 2 yards. Unlike Adams, Jennings got some bang for his buck averaging 14 yards per catch. and he was still over 6 yards a target. Also unlike Adams, Jennings would improve drastically in his sophomore season bringing in 53 of 84 targets (63%) and a stellar 17.4 yards per reception.

Both Nelson and Jennings ran faster 40s than Adams, Nelson is taller, and both were better physical prospects. When Thompson drafts a smaller guy without obvious physical tools, I look for that player to be a polished route-runner. Jennings was a gifted athlete, but he was also excellent in the fundamentals of the position right out of school. Adams hasn't shown the explosiveness of a young Nelson or the fundamentals of a young Jennings. If Adams can't be a physical freak he needs to get smarter. Unfortunately in my experience, Thompson drafts polished players precisely because things like route-running are harder to develop later. It is the same reason that basketball-playing tight ends were so en vogue, as those hard cuts are useful when they're drilled into your muscle memory.

If you look at Adams' scouting report, it's kind of depressing. His perceived best skill was his hands:

Has a rangy build with good body length and big hands to palm the ball and make difficult one-handed grabs. Tracks and adjusts to the ball very well downfield. Extends outside his frame and plucks the ball out of the air. Natural hands-catcher.

He is also praised for his ability to high-point the ball and win one-on-one physical battles. The issue is that his hands have been terrible for two years, and his average height and body control have undermined his ability to win physical battles. And he catches the ball with his body. The Packers often try to hit him for cheap yards when the corner is playing back, but he even loses those battles more often than he wins them. His weaknesses have come to define his pro career:

Lacks ideal functional playing strength to consistently beat the jam and can get hung up at the line. Long strider and is not sudden out of his breaks. Production was inflated from a quick-hitting, lateral passing game.

If I may translate: Cannot beat press coverage or fight through defenders, bad route-runner, stats look good because of stupid college offense.

Maybe Adams gets stronger and refines his game, but since he is not a physical specimen to begin with, he is working with a very low floor. We should have seen more flashes than this by now. Everyone seems to think that Adams has had several good games and that those represent his ceiling, but he has only eclipsed the 100-yard mark twice, and only once in the regular season. While acknowledging that his playoff performance against the Cowboys last season was good and important (and that his subsequent performance against the Seahawks the polar opposite of that), let's take a look at his 5 best regular season games:

1. Packers 26, Patriots 21, Week 13 2014
11 targets, 6 catches, 121 yards, 0 TDs.

Adams was amazing in the best game Mike McCarthy ever coached, hauling in passes of 33 and 45 yards, and beating Logan Ryan on both routes. While Revis was following Nelson around, Adams had his way with Ryan and Alfonzo Dennard. He still barely cracked the 50% catch barrier, but he made his receptions count.

2. Packers 27, Miami 24, Week 6 2014
8 targets, 6 catches, 77 yards, 0 TDs. October 12th, 2014

Adams' 12-yard reception with just 7 seconds to go set up the winning touchdown pass to Andrew Quarless. Adams was efficient, consistently punished Miami defenders, and by my count, every one of his 6 catches was a successful play (meaning the Packers either picked up a first down or became more likely to pick up a first down).

3. Carolina 37, Packers 29, Week 9 2015
11 targets, 7 catches, 93 yards, 0 TDs, 2-point conversion.

This game looks slightly better than it really is as 40 of his 93 yards came on what was essentially a Hail Mary at the end of the first half, and notably, a Hail Mary on which Adams didn't score, and therefore accomplished nothing. Other than that he was quite good converting a few 3rd and long plays and scoring an important 2-point conversion.

4. Packers 31, Bears 23, Week 1 2015
8 targets, 4 catches, 59 yards, 0 TDs, recovered Bear onside kick.

Adams had receptions of 25 and 21 yards, and had meaningful contributions on his other two catches. He also snuffed out a late Bear rally by fielding an onside kick cleanly, which prevented like a hundred thousand heart attacks in Wisconsin.

5. Packers 31, Jets 24, Week 2 2014
7 targets, 5 catches, 50 yards. 0 TDs

His 24 yard catch-and-run just before the end of the first half allowed the Packers to get into the end zone, and he had another nice 9-yard reception in the 3rd to set up a 1-yard Cobb TD.

So there you have it. One of Adams 5 best regular season performances went for 50 yards. Next on the list would almost certainly be a 33-yard effort against Seattle earlier this year. You may be wondering why I left off the October 26th, 2014 game against New Orleans where Adams had 7 receptions on 9 targets for 75 yards. It is because he also had a false start, an offensive pass interference penalty, and one of Aaron's passes intended for him was picked off after hitting him in the hands. That game looks good on paper but he did more harm than good. He put up 79 yards in the loss to Detroit earlier this season, but in that game he caught just 10 of 21 targets and got hit with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

Greg Jennings put up 80+ yards 3 times in his first 5 games. Adams has done so twice in 24. Jordy Nelson averaged over 13 yards per catch in 6 games his rookie season. Adams has done so 4 times in his career. Adams has shown poor athleticism distinguished by his comparative lack of big plays. He has shown poor hands. He has been a terrible route runner. He's only 6'1", 215 pounds, and not physically imposing for an NFL receiver. His scouting report is littered with red flags. Who cares if a guy can make 1-handed catch when he can't make a 2-handed catch? With very few exceptions, Adams has been about as bad as a receiver can be, especially this year when he has been sorely needed. Maybe he is hurt, and maybe he needs an offseason of coaching, but there has been no indication that he is showing any kind of growth or improvement. His fundamentals have gotten worse, and his tools are ordinary.

For now Adams is a gigantic bust getting too much time because of lack of depth and high draft position. He is that rare Yuni combo of terrible yet prolific, capable of singlehandedly undermining an entire team. If there was a minor league in the NFL, he would be sent down immediately. As soon as any other receiver is healthy his playing time should vanish, and he should be viewed with extreme skepticism going forward.