Much has been made this year over the need to find a true #2 WR this offseason whether it be through the draft or free agency, with names such as Justin Blackmon, Alshon Jeffery, Dwayne Bowe, and Vincent Jackson thrown out there as targets to complement, and eventually replace Steve Smith. However after doing some research on AdvancedNFLStats.com (a fine site that you should bookmark if you haven't already) I have deduced that not only do we already have a fine #2 WR on the roster, we have someone that may be able to take the reigns from Smith as a #1 option in the near future. That man is Brandon LaFell.
Let me begin by explaining some of the metrics I will be using. One measure I will be using is Win Probability Added, or WPA. Advanced NFL Stats defines WPA as:
The difference between a team’s Win Probability (WP) at the start of a play and the WP at the end of the play. WPA is the measure of a play’s impact on the outcome of a game. An individual player’s WPA is the sum of the WPA of the plays in which that player was directly involved. Being directly involved is defined as an offensive player who ran, threw, or kicked the ball, was targeted by a pass, or flagged for a penalty. Defensive players are credited for WPA when they tackle or sack the ball carrier, are credited with an assisted tackle or sack, cause a fumble, defend a pass, or are flagged for a penalty.
To put it simply, when you do something good your WPA goes up and when you do something bad your WPA goes down. Simple enough, right? I will also be using Expected Points added, or EPA:
The difference between the Expected Points (EP) at the start of a play and the EP at the end of they play. EPA is the measure of a play’s impact on the score of the game. An individual player’s EPA is the sum of the EPA of the plays in which that player was directly involved. Being directly involved is defined as an offensive player who ran, threw, or kicked the ball, was targeted by a pass, or flagged for a penalty.
Again, doing something good will increase your EPA, doing something bad will decrease your EPA. I'll also be using Success Rate (SR), Yards per Target (YPT), and Catch Rate (CR) to be evaluating LaFell's contribution to the team.
Success Rate (SR) – The proportion of plays in which a player was directly involved that would typically be considered successful. Specifically, SR is the percentage of plays resulting in positive Expected Points Added (EPA).
Yards per Target (YPT) – A receiver’s average yards gained per pass attempted to him.
Catch Rate (CR) – The proportion of passes targeted to a receiver that are caught.
Just as a warning, there is such thing as small sample size variance and we know that LaFell does not have an equal number of snaps to most of the players he will be compared to. For example if he's only targeted once in a game and that one target results in a deep completion then his SR for that game will be very high. Now that I've explained the metrics and given a fair warning to the dangers of sample size, let's look at where he ranks in the NFL in these five metrics.
YPT: 10.6, 7th in the NFL. He's been one of the best deep threats in the game this year. Smith ranked 5th with a 10.8 YPT for comparison's sake.
CR: 70.3%, 10th in the NFL. I believe that speaks for itself. While incompletions are subject to many factors, LaFell has been pulling balls down when they come near him.
So what we have in LaFell is a WR that has been remarkably productive while he's been on the field, to the point that he's been one of the more productive receivers in the NFL given his playing time. Whether or not he can continue this production with an increase in playing time has yet to be seen, but as it stands it is very apparent that he deserves more playing time, and he may be the eventual replacement for Smith that we all have our eye on.