Analysis

North Carolina WR Josh Downs Is Playing Like a First-Round Pick

Burdened with high expectations coming into 2022, North Carolina wide receiver Josh Downs has yet to disappoint.

Despite missing games against Appalachian State and Georgia State, Downs ranks fifth among all receivers in total receptions at 74. Every time Tar Heels quarterback Drake Maye targets Downs he adds .43 Total Points and .66 EPA, good for fourth and third in the FBS. Given his continued performance, Downs could get drafted in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft.

Phil Longo, UNC’s offensive coordinator, has made the most of Downs’ skillset so far this season. Longo’s offense has averaged more than 35 points since Downs’ arrived in Chapel Hill. This season UNC’S passing game ranks first in Total Points per play (PE Per Play) and Expected Points Added per play (EPA/A). Between Longo’s coordination and Downs’ domination, the Tar Heels are riding the nation’s best passing attack to a 9-1 record and a berth in the ACC Championship on Dec. 3 against Clemson.

In spite of the quality performances Downs has put forth under Longo, some concerns could arise before he’s drafted. NFL scouts and coaches tend to be fearful of players who perform because of their scheme, not ability. Offensive schemes like the Air Raid can be particularly concerning for some. A receiver with a limited route repertoire and stunted football intelligence can set an organization back years. 

Downs is Different

However, a review of the analytics, schematics and film will show that Longo’s scheme and Downs’ skills should inspire confidence, not fear, that Downs can thrive in the NFL.

Longo’s offense descends from the Air Raid, an offense renowned for its small, simple playbook. Longo takes a different philosophical approach from not only the Air Raid but contemporary passing offense, as a whole.

Modern passing plays feature receivers running set routes and a quarterback reading a defense to determine which one will be open. Longo’s offense has the receivers read the defense to get open for the quarterback. The quarterback “throws to grass,” trusting a receiver correctly reading the defense will fill the space.

In theory, it sounds reminiscent of the Run-and-Shoot, but differs in function. Receivers in the Run-and-Shoot change entire patterns depending on the defense, whereas Longo’s receivers adjust their stems, snags and crosses to find the open area. In practice, the Tar Heels’ offense appears similar to any other passing attack, but the trust given to receivers to find the holes in the defense makes for easy completions, yards and scores for the offense.

Don’t Underestimate Downs’ Football IQ

Downs thrives within this scheme. He clearly understands not only how to run the routes, but how to adjust them to find the space within the defense. Within the short game, he knows how to find the seams of the defense without running into another defender. When running curl routes, he finds the nooks between defenders and sits.

When running out routes, he bursts too quickly for the safety to cover, but stops just short of the cornerback awaiting him in the flat. On passes under 15 yards, Downs has the third most receptions among slot receivers with more than 30 short targets, as well as the seventh-highest EPA/A.

On downfield passes, Downs varies his routes to find the holes in between the deep defenders. In addition, he can beat most safeties in man coverage with ease, rendering such a defensive adjustment worthless. On deep passes, Downs has the seventh most receptions (12) compared to slot receivers with 10 or more deep targets and ranks second in completion percentage and EPA per target from the slot.

With years of practice, Downs has proven adept at reading defenses. Only under Longo’s tutelage would he have gotten this sort of preparation for the NFL, putting him far ahead of his contemporaries.

Even outside of North Carolina’s scheme, Downs’ body control, balance, proprioception and hands separate him from the rest of the slot receiver pack. His 81% completion percentage on targets thrown his way ranks first among slot receivers with more than 50 targets.

Though uncontested on 85% of those targets of the 11 times defenders have contested the pass, he has come down with six of them. That ranks third among his peers. Even getting past the ridiculously small sample size of the last example, the game tape shows Downs’ uncanny awareness both of his body and of the ball. He can snag passes out of the air and from the jaws of the defense with ease.

Despite the growing resemblance between the college and professional game, college offenses routinely face ridicule for their simplicity, supposedly rendering their players ill-prepared for the NFL. 

But Downs should not suffer from this misconception. Longo’s offense asks more of its receivers than the typical Air Raid, and Downs has shown himself quite capable of handling such responsibility. Additionally, his athleticism displayed within the scheme should put to rest any questions about his abilities transferring to the next level.

Downs has thrived within Longo’s offense, and front offices across the NFL should see that as an asset, not a liability.

Prepared by Patrick Powers

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