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How uncertainty helped the Packers land Romeo Doubs

...and also Christian Watson.

Samantha Madar/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin / USA TODAY NETWORK

Green Bay Packers draft picks Romeo Doubs and Christian Watson are both “tough scouts” for NFL talent evaluators. Watson is tough due to a limited sample size playing for a run-first school in a lower division. Doubs is tough due to the Air Raid offense he played in, which works well from the perspective of scoring points in college but can occasionally put its receivers in tough spots in terms of translating performance to the pros.

This is a problem for pure scouts and statisticians alike, and there’s not a simple solution for either. In baseball, statisticians are adept at projecting how prospects will perform at varying levels of the minor leagues based on mathematical models that consider likely development tracks and the talent level in each league. However, the same kind of projection simply isn’t possible in football based on a host of factors.

For Christian Watson, it’s just difficult to establish a baseline of how dominant a player should be in FCS football. Smaller, slower corners are going to play (way) off of him by necessity, which doesn’t test him against a competent press and allows for easy, short completions. The run-first (and run well) nature of North Dakota State’s offense also requires defenses to run heavier personnel than they might like, creating favorable matchups in the passing game. Compounding all of that, Watson easily led the team in receptions with 40, indicating that there just weren’t that many passing plays overall.

For Romeo Doubs, on the other hand, it really comes down to some of the peculiarities of the Air Raid offense and some quirks of his college stats from 2020 to 2021.

Doubs and Air Raid noise

For Doubs, the Air Raid throws a lot of noise into the equation. Nevada runs a typical 4 WR/1RB Air Raid in a fairly typical style involving an outside deep route, mesh crossing routes, and the back leaking into the space vacated by the deep receiver. The Air Raid also runs fast. The quarterback is calling plays at the line, making it difficult for opposing defenses to get their wind back and increasing the chances of a mistake on defense — and a big play on offense.

The problems for an individual receiver from a development perspective are legion. Receivers will run a limited route tree by necessity, as the hurry-up nature of the Air Raid sacrifices some complexity for speed. Having four wideouts on the field also stresses the depth of opposing defenses, while much of the success of the offense comes from picking on that fourth cornerback. This is great for completing passes, but not for testing receivers. Finally, while the hurry-up undoubtedly hurts defenses trapped on the field, it is also tiring for receivers, who are forced to run sprints repeatedly in a compressed time frame. This can lead to sloppy play and, in Romeo Doubs’ case, some poor effort in the blocking game on his college tape.

Scouts are at least as aware of these issues as I am, but it can still be tough to mentally adjust your grades based on that knowledge. A lazy block on tape is a lazy block on tape, whether there are extenuating circumstances or not, and while Romeo Doubs may be perfectly capable of running every route on the route tree, it’s not going to show up at Nevada. That lack of information hurts his stock.

When the Packers drafted Doubs (and Watson), they received a discount based on that uncertainty, and I suspect, they may have gotten a bargain with each as a result. Uncertainty in some aspects of the game should be treated as a small negative, to be sure, but proper scouting will be able to extrapolate some of this from other available information. It’s unquestionably true that Doubs was a poor blocker in college (Sports Info Solutions graded him a 3 out of 9 for his blocking, and believe me, he earned it), but he’s also not a small player, he exhibits good technique in other aspects of the game, and most importantly, he’s not afraid of contact. There are plenty of receivers, such as New Orleans’ Chris Olave, who that shy away from contact, and they are often poor blockers as a result. Olave earned a 4 from SIS for his blocking, which, while better than Doubs, is still quite bad.

Doubs routinely ran dangerous routes over the middle and took big hits as a result. When he was targeted on screens, he was almost always the initiator of contact. He has the characteristics of a willing blocker, and it’s not unreasonable to think that Green Bay projected him as such despite his poor marks and effort. They did something similar when projecting AJ Dillon’s ability as a receiver despite limited reps in college. I suspect that Doubs will be just fine in the run game.

Doubs was also an excellent route runner on the few routes he did run. My initial reaction to watching him was that he runs angry or violently. He looks like he’s attempting to hurt the ground with every step. Some scouts (reasonably) saw this as a bad thing. Sports Info Solutions, in their draft guide, wrote, “His release quickness doesn’t translate into consistent route sharpness, yet the suddenness can be seen in flashes at the stem.”

I don’t think this report is wrong, but I do think some Air Raid fatigue led to that inconsistency. And I think the lack of a full route tree (and some of this same inconsistency) appears in Lance Zierlein’s scouting profile on Doubs at NFL.com: “Linear and limited as a route runner.”

I absolutely see what each is talking about, but in the case of Doubs, I think the negative traits espoused here should come with some offsetting projection. Most bad route runners are nearly always bad route runners. Consistency problems are different. Consistency problems are not technique problems as much as they are focus problems. If you can execute the proper technique once (or at least, regularly) you can do it more often. The problem is attention to detail, lack of focus on the objective, or fatigue. I suspect in a more normal offense, running at a more normal pace, Doubs would have graded better at basically everything he was poor in, from routes to blocking to even deep speed, where several scouts knocked him.

I’m not here to bash scouts though. I think most were objectively correct in their assessments, and interpreting scouting data is often as much art as science. Numbers, metrics, and statistics can often provide some objective clarity, but in the case of Romeo Doubs, they are just as murky, unless you knew what to look for.

Deceiving stats and objective traits

First and foremost, Doubs didn’t run at the combine. The lack of a RAS score kept him off my radar as I prefer to focus on known good athletes who also excelled on a play-to-play basis in college. I do this using two metrics I’ve created: WRAPS and WROPS. (You can find more detail here, but simply put, WROPS combines a players catch% and yards per catch into a single number, scaled to baseball’s OPS statistic. WRAPS takes that number and aggregates it with Kent Lee Platte’s Relative Athletic Score to create a single number combining athletic prowess and college production, on a scale from 1 to 20.)

There are some competing explanations for why Doubs didn’t run at the combine, ranging from a cold to a lingering knee issue, but neither helped his reputation with teams, as an already hard-to-evaluate prospect was now a mystery as an athlete. While he ran a 4.5 40-yard dash at his late pro day, which came just a few days before the draft, the facts of missing the combine and the incompleteness and timing of his pro day still left some cold.

Compounding the lack of a true combine RAS, Doubs also had some issues in his production that NFL teams don’t care for, although as we shall see, there are several mitigating factors for each of them.

The first is the fact that he’s a senior. Most projection systems on wide receivers prefer juniors, as they are younger and performed well enough to warrant declaring for the draft early, but it’s worth keeping in mind that the junior rule benefits from that selection bias. Because 2020 was the Covid year, we saw more players than normal return to school, and so that selection bias isn’t as strong. However, it’s still noteworthy that of the 6 first-round receivers taken, only two (Chris Olave and Jahan Dotson) were seniors. Covid was a huge mitigating factor in return-to-school decisions, but the NFL still loved their juniors. Doubs was, at least, a fourth-year senior as he had no redshirt season, which likely helped.

The other major problem with Doubs is that on the surface, he was a less productive player from his junior to his senior season. The NFL hates that. While he had more yards as a senior, his rate stats crashed from a robust 17.3 yards per reception to a still good, but not as eye-popping, 13.9 yards per reception. He gained 107 more yards, but on an extra 22 targets! That’s simply not great, and while his 11 scores are impressive, it’s not a significant upgrade from the 9 he scored the previous season on far fewer targets. On the surface, Doubs looks like a player who moved into an expanded role, and suffered for it.

Except, that’s not really true. At least, it’s not a complete picture.

College football statistics are simply not as good and not as well-kept as NFL statistics, and this really shows up for receivers in the lack of easily available target data. It is available at several pay sites, and it’s unofficial as far as I know, but you cannot just head over to Sports-Reference and export a spreadsheet. The lack of target data means we also lack freely available catch percentage data, and you can’t really understand a receiver’s productivity without it.

On the surface, the Romeo Doubs story is that he caught more passes as a senior, but he was far less efficient in doing so.

But if we give the additional context of target data, it’s easy to see that if Doubs was less efficient, it was just barely, as he offset his lack of yards per completion with a huge uptick in his catch percentage.

It’s clear from this data that it wasn’t so much that Doubs declined, as much as his role shifted. As a senior he moved inside far more frequently, catching a fair share of short balls and bubble screens. Notably, the Nevada receiving corps was almost identical from 2020 to 2021 (Cole Turner, Melquan Stovall, Tory Horton, and Justin Lockhart all played major roles) and Carson Strong was almost identical from 2020 to 2021, posting a 70.1 completion percentage in both seasons while averaging 8.1 yards per attempt in 2020 versus 8.0 in 2021. The only thing that changed between the two seasons were the roles those receivers played. Doubs was more of a reliable stick-mover in 2021, while Justin Lockhart ran more deep routes, moving from 8.9 yards per reception in 2020 to 13.4 in 2021.

It’s not unusual for production to decline as a player’s role increases, and depending on the severity of that decline, it isn’t even necessarily a bad thing. But in Doubs’ case, that perceived decline wasn’t even real. If anything, he showed versatility in moving from an MVS-level deep threat in 2020 to a positively Davante Adams-esque all-around threat in 2021.

The Packers nabbed Doubs near the end of the fourth round, long after the consensus first-round studs were taken, after 11 running backs were taken, and after the aged Velus Jones (who is almost three years older than the 22-year-old Doubs) and several other middling receivers. It’s early, but it looks like the Packers may have a good one. If they do, they can credit their staff’s ability to scout through noise and project where information is lacking.

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