A lot has been made of us losing our top 4 WRs, Jordan Gross and Travelle Wharton from our 12-4 season in 2013.... not to mention Cam's ankle surgery that will keep him out until July. Many in the fanbase feel a lot of uncertainty about the 2014 season.
I'm not one who has that level of uncertainty. I believe we'll be more of a power-run team in 2014, and the collection of talent we're pooling in the passing is geared toward that.
The 4 WRs that caught passes last year caught 156 of 274 targets (56%) for 1,983 yds and 15 TD. That's a little less that 10 catches per game and 7.2 yards per target.
Our starting WR duo of Smitty and LaFell combined for a 57.3% completion rate and 7.0 yards per target. That ranked 28th in the league among starting WR duos (only Buffalo, St. Louis, Washington and Jacksonville were worse... not great company).
By comparison, our competitors' WR duos were much more efficient than ours.
I use the yards per target stat because the total yardage number is skewed by pass attempts for a team like NO. Yards per target gives a better indication on how efficient the teams are on each attempt. Keep in mind that Cam's overall completion percentage (61.7%) was above Kaepernick's (58.4%) and not too far below Russell's (63.1%). Cam was significantly more successful by percentage at throwing at his other targets (Olsen, RBs) than he was at completing passes to his WRs (to CR's point on his Failed Completions post).
Cam has some accuracy issues to improve on, sure. But you can also make an argument that our talent at the WR position was a bigger issue.
Our team's decisions at the WR position speak volumes about our cap space AND where it feels like the greatest area of improvement is.
I fully believe that Cotchery is an improvement over LaFell. After realizing that Underwood only played in 12 games last year and Mike Glennon was force-feeding targets to Vincent Jackson (159 to 45 for Underwood), I really think that Underwood is an upgrade to Ginn in the passing game based on his size-speed combo. Underwood's 440 yards on 45 targets in 12 games with a rookie QB would beat Ginn's production with 68 targets from 2013 over 16 games. McNutt and King will be obvious upgrades at the WR4/5 spots over Hixon and AE (who got cut mid-season). It really comes down to nailing the early-round draft pick at WR to make the rebuild complete.
I can see a breakdown of the 270 WR targets lost being replaced by the following:
Cotchery - 80, WR Draft Pick - 50, Underwood - 50, McNutt - 40, King - 25, TE2s - 25
I also expect our overall passing attempts to drop from 473 to somewhere around 440 because we'll be committing to run more based on Stewart being healthy and infusion in talent on the OL at OG through health and at OT via the draft. And, yes, I do think that Byron Bell will be a better LT than most people think. He won't be as good of a pass-blocker as Gross, but he will be serviceable. I do think he will be a better run-blocker at his more-natural LT position than Gross was last year, and that will be a big factor in our offense. I anticipate that our rushing attempts will increase from 483 in 2013 to around 515-520 to accommodate more of Stewart and Barner (and a little less D-Will due to age and Cam due to preservation) in the run game.
It's important to incorporate TE2s into this because their completion % is usually higher than WRs and will bring some much need diversity into the offense, particularly in the red zone. The move to go younger at this position and not bring back Hartsock is actually one of the bigger developments this offseason that no one is talking about.
I still expect Olsen to get about 90 targets this year, too (A little less than last year, but more in the flow of the offense than being force-fed). I expect to see him get downfield a little more as a result.
This diversity in targets would be a plus for Cam because he won't be feeling the pressure of force-feeding targets to Smitty. I'm predicting that Cotchery will get the most WR targets because he's the best route-runner of the group. I expect Cotchery and McNutt to catch more than 60% of their targets (solid possesion guys). But the WR group as a whole should be much more explosive downfield when it's complete. That will fit Cam's skillset much better than last year's group, and should bump up the yards/target stat I mentioned earlier.
I also expect to see Barner get 25-30 targets in the passing game on 3rd downs, and we should see a little less of Tolbert and D-Will in that role. That would be a big infusion of speed out of the backfield if he's ready.... and another weapon with a higher completion % than a WR.
By not having to force the ball to Smitty and Olsen in the passing game, it will not surprise me if Cam is able to complete 63-65% of his passes this season. I also expect us to be over 200 yards net passing per game in 2014 with less attempts than in 2013. This would be an improvement over the 190 yards net passing per game we had in 2013. And I expect to see our WRs and TE2s gain somewhere between 2,200 - 2,400 yards and 15-20 TDs on the 270 targets vacated by Smitty, LaFell, Ginn and Hixon.
But we will need to nail a WR pick and an OT pick within the first 3 rounds of the draft to make this happen. It doesn't have to be a 1st rounder (should definitely be the BPA there), but we need the infusion in talent within the first 2 days of the draft.
I can't wait to see how this unfolds... I know this is a good bit to digest, but please feel free to let me know what you think!