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The myth of Corey Fuller: The deep threat

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Corey Fuller is often thought of as a deep threat receiver in the mold of Calvin Johnson. A deeper look into his statistics casts doubt on the veracity of this belief.

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Who is Corey Fuller?

Corey Fuller was drafted in the 6th round of the 2013 draft. Standing at 6'2", 204 lbs, and running a 40-yard dash at 4.43 sec, he was considered a prototypical deep burner.

Because his raw athletic ability was paired with a similarly raw set of skills (among a few other problems), he fell to the Lions in the 6th round. For the first year, he stayed on the Lions' practice squad, developing some of those raw skills. During the 2014 preseason, his improved skills led to his placement on the regular team. This was the first opportunity to see him compete against NFL-caliber competition in real games.

His production

The results were less than stellar in the first year for this young, raw player. With only 14 receptions (eighth on the team) and 212 yards (eighth on the team), he didn't exactly set the world on fire. In fact, the more you look at his overall production on the field, the more disappointing he appears.

Of the 27 players that Stafford has ever targeted more than 10 times, Corey Fuller, unfortunately, does stand out.

When throwing to Fuller, Stafford has the second-lowest passer rating (32.7), just head of Patrick Edwards (28.5). Of players still on the team, the next lowest is Eric Ebron (75.0). Fuller has the second-lowest catch rate (37.8%) just ahead of Bryant Johnson (36.1%). Of players still on the team, the next lowest is Eric Ebron (53.1%). Targeting Fuller results in the third-highest interception rate (8.11%), just ahead of Patrick Edwards (8.33%) and Aaron Brown (14.29%). Of players still on the team, the next highest is Joseph Fauria (4.44%).

"Less than stellar" may be putting it mildly. "Disappointing" might even be a little gentle for his performance thus far.

His spot on the roster

We're most of the way done with the preseason now, and Fuller's place on the roster seems to be rather safe. It has been made rather clear throughout camp and preseason that his place on the roster was secure. Nearly every wide receiver behind him is expected to be fighting for a roster spot, with two (possibly three) spots available for Lance Moore, Jeremy Ross, TJ Jones, and possibly even Greg Salas (though the last is a long-shot).

So, how does Corey Fuller have a safe roster spot in the middle of a fierce wide receiver competition, with such poor performance?

His Myth

His position isn't expected to be in any danger because he occupies a unique and vital role that the others aren't able to challenge him for: the big-bodied deep threat. The closest roster challenge is Greg Salas, standing 6'1", and running 4.53, with very little performance. With the rest of the wide receivers on the roster standing 6' or smaller, regardless of Fuller's poor performance, he is considered better than any other options for deep passes. So, he has an unchallenged roster spot.

In short, he is expected to fill Calvin Johnson's role (big, fast, strong wide receiver) in his absence.

While he may not be expected to perform at the same level as Megatron, he has been expected to perform in the same position. And this, I believe, has been the fundamental myth of Corey Fuller. That Corey Fuller, for all his faults, is at worst a threat to teams on deep passes. Upon deeper inspection of his statistics, we can see just how out of position he is right now, and in fact see in what role he is able to succeed.

Let's start by dispelling the myth that he was a deep threat.

His deep targets

Last year, Fuller was targeted 18 times on deep passes, and only caught two of them, while three were intercepted. To be clear: when targeting Corey Fuller on deep passes, the other team caught the ball more often than he did. His statistics, across the board, were terrible on deep passes, having never caught a touchdown despite being the most targeted.

The following is drawn from the 13 players that Matt Stafford has targeted 10+ times on deep passes (15+ yards). I'm going to include Calvin Johnson's numbers alongside Fuller's, as that is the role Corey Fuller was expected to fill in the offense.

Deep Pass % is the number of deep targets/total targets. The lower the rank always indicates the higher number. So, the highest total touchdowns will show as No. 1, and so will the highest interceptions. While some of these aren't very comparable due to scale, that would (if anything) make Fuller look better. Since they still don't, I'm including them to put the scale of the issue in perspective.

Deep Pass % Catch % Y/A TDs TD/G INTs INT/G Rating
Fuller Stats 48.6% 11.1% 4.06 0 0.00 3 0.25 4.4
Megatron Stats 34.9% 41.7% 11.95 21 0.31 19 0.29 83.4
Stafford Average 19.2% 37.0% 10.42 41 0.53 38 0.49 72.8
Fuller Rank #1 #13 #12 #12-t #12-t #2-t #2 #13
Megatron Rank #3 #4 #4 #1 #1 #1 #1 #4

Fuller has been targeted at a significantly higher rate in deep passes than any other player (No. 2 is Kevin Ogletree at 37.0%), has caught these targets at a lower rate than any other player (No. 12 is Bryant Johnson at 17.4%), was less efficient per pass than nearly every other player (No. 13 is Eric Ebron at 3.00), and still contributed to almost as many interceptions per game as Calvin Johnson, despite being targeted less than a third as often (1.5 per game for Fuller, 4.15 per game for Megatron). Finally, Stafford's passer rating when targeting him is so much lower (No. 12 is Bryant Johnson at 38.5) that if you wipe out every interception, it still only brings him up to barely No. 12, below Kris Durham at 59.0.

The Short/Intermediate Ball

If his overall statistics are disappointing, his deep passing statistics were atrocious. Judging by his catch rate and interception rate, it is hard to call Fuller anything but a liability as a deep receiver. To put it shortly, he is not credible as a deep threat. If I were a defensive coordinator, seeing that Corey Fuller is going deep would be the biggest relief possible.

But it needs to be understood that Corey Fuller was not wholly incapable as a backup for Calvin Johnson. Interestingly enough, he did follow a similar role as Megatron in a limited capacity. Certainly, it was not as a credible deep threat. Instead, however, he performs comparably on passes of less than 15 yards.

This is out of 26 players who were targeted 10+ times. These statistics are used to keep the scale appropriate.

Catch % Y/A Y/C TD/A INT/A Rating
Fuller Stats 63.20% 7.32 11.58 5.26% 0.00% 102.8
Megatron Stats 61.80% 7.32 11.83 5.01% 1.54% 94.4
Stafford Average 65.00% 6.18 9.52 3.52% 1.72% 86.6
Fuller Rank #16 #5 #2 #7 #16-t #4
Megatron Rank #18 #4 #1 #8 #12 #9

It is interesting to note that on short passes (judging by the Y/C, predominantly intermediate passes) Fuller nicely filled Calvin Johnson's role. In fact, he was one of the most effective WRs that Stafford has ever had on short passes. His combination of high-yardage, low-interceptions, and high-touchdowns gives him the highest receiver rating among all wide receivers. Among all receivers, he is behind Fauria (incredibly high touchdown rate, low catch rate, low Y/A), and Theo Riddick and Kevin Smith (high catch rate, low Y/A, very low Y/C, very low interception rate). Those, of course, are characteristics of successful tight ends and running backs.

Of course, he benefits from lighter coverage than Calvin Johnson and less game planning to stop him. However, he has performed in this role, and, to put it lightly, has not performed in his role as a deep receiver.

In this role, as an intermediate receiver, Corey Fuller was a very credible threat.

His quarterback

As of right now, Corey Fuller has a reserved roster spot based on his position as a back-up to Calvin Johnson. A role, it is contended, that no other receiver on the roster can fulfill. And yet, on deep passes, there are a number on the roster who have performed better, and are likely capable of performing better.

To begin, Matthew Stafford has done rather well at improving the deep receiving statistics for other players. Of the 11 players who can be compared with and without Stafford on deep passing, five players (Kevin Ogletree, Reggie Bush, Nate Burleson, and Brandon Pettigrew) improved their receiver rating by 20+, while only three (Bryant Johnson, Dennis Northcutt, and Will Heller) decreased by 20+. Six players improved their touchdown rate, while only two players decreased their touchdown rate. Five players improved their Y/C by 3.80 or more, compared to only two who decreased. Three improved their Y/A by 3.80 or more, compared to only one who decreased.

This is especially true of Stafford's primary deep targets from 2011-2014 who improved nearly across the board. The following table will show whether Stafford's primary targets from 2011-2014 increased or decreased. +/- indicates any change at all, while ++/-- indicates major change. + means increased, - means decreased.

Player Target Rate Completion Rate Y/A Y/C TD/A INT/A Rating
Calvin Johnson ++ + + - + - ++
Nate Burleson - ++ ++ ++ ++ + ++
Golden Tate + ++ ++ - -- + +
Brandon Pettigrew - - - + + -- ++
Tony Scheffler + - - + + - -

Keeping in mind that Stafford generally improves the deep ball for his receivers and nearly across the board improves his primary targets, it becomes even more notable that Corey Fuller has failed to produce. Not only does that make it more of an indictment against his "deep threat" status, but it also undermines the argument that nobody can replace him as Calvin Johnson's back-up on deep passes.

The other receivers

In fact, here is the production on deep passes for players currently on the roster (again, minimum of 10 targets).

Player Targets Deep % Completion % Y/A TD/A INT/A Rating
Calvin Johnson 278 34.9% 41.7% 11.95 7.55% 6.83% 83.4
Brandon Pettigrew 40 11.0% 42.5% 9.03 10.0% 0.00% 108.4
Golden Tate 28 18.4% 50.0% 14.54 3.57% 7.14% 78.0
Eric Ebron 11 22.4% 18.2% 3.00 9.09% 0.00% 69.9
Jeremy Ross 10 21.7% 40.0% 13.30 10.00% 0.00% 120.8
Corey Fuller 10 48.6% 20.0% 4.06 0.00% 16.67% 4.4

While players like Eric Ebron have been disappointing with his low Y/A and low completion rate, his roster spot is not based exclusively on his deep receiving abilities. This shows in his significantly lower Deep %. In addition, Fuller's passes have the increased interception rate that results from deeper passes, yet has not generated the desired benefit of touchdowns. All the risk without any of the payoff.

Interestingly, while it has been brought up that Greg Salas has been unremarkable in his career thus far, I think it is interesting how he compares to Fuller.

Player Targets Deep% Completion % Y/A TD/A INT/A Rating
Fuller 37 48.6% 37.8% 5.73 2.7% 8.11% 32.7
Salas 79 21.5% 59.5% 7.92 0.00% 3.80% 68.9
Fuller Deep 18 48.6% 11.1% 4.06 0.00% 16.67% 4.4
Salas Deep 17 21.5% 23.5% 7.35 0.00% 17.65% 18.1

Salas was also a risky throw (high interception rate) with no touchdowns. However, he caught the ball more reliably, and moved it more efficiently. What's more, he was more effective in the intermediate, with a comparable Y/C (11.65 vs. 11.58), comparable Y/A (8.08 vs. 7.32), comparable INT % (0% vs. 0%), though without the TD. That production all came with the combination of Sam Bradford, Geno Smith, Michael Vick, A.J. Feeley and Matt Simms throwing him the ball.

To be clear, this isn't to say that Jeremy Ross, Eric Ebron, or Greg Salas should replace Corey Fuller. Nor does it say that Corey Fuller cannot develop into a deep threat receiver. However, his position should absolutely be up for competition right now. He should not have a safe roster spot due to him being Calvin Johnson's back-up as a deep threat, because as of right now, that threat is not credible.

The Conclusion

Using Fuller as a deep threat has been critically damaging to the team, to Matthew Stafford, and to Corey Fuller himself. Consider the criticism that the Lions were too reliant on short passes last year. Remember that Corey Fuller was the target of almost 16 percent of the Lions' deep passes, almost 21 percent of the incomplete deep passes, as well as 33 percent of the intercepted deep passes. If lacking deep passes hurt the Lions offense last year, how much more did Corey Fuller's deep targets hurt the offense? And to what extent did Fuller's poor play impact the role of the deep passing game?

Fuller should not have guaranteed snaps like he did last year, and his spot on the roster shouldn't be guaranteed as it has been this preseason. However, his performance as an intermediate receiver has made a solid case for his spot on the roster to continue his development, as well as being Megatron's backup in certain situations. The deep threat role should be up for competition, and the fourth receiver role should still be up in the air. Keep him to what he's good at, while he develops into a more reliable receiver.

He may have the body of a deep receiver, but he does not possess the skills. The myth of Corey Fuller as a deep threat is just that: a myth. People shouldn't let the myth of Corey Fuller get in the way of the reality of Corey Fuller: a good intermediate receiver, who may never be a serviceable deep receiver.

Please note that all data in this article was gathered from Pro-Football-Reference's excellently searchable play-by-play data.