A Rational Look At Our Receiver Situation: Part One
The purpose of this Fanpost, my first, is to engender positive feelings and optimism about the Panthers’ revamped receiving corps. I hope that after reading this, you’ll feel as good about our receiver situation as I do.
I need to admit that I wrote this some time ago, and just never got around to trying to post it on CSR. At the time I wrote it, there seemed to be more, general uneasiness about our receivers than seems to be the case now. Nevertheless I think it’s still applicable and worth a read, especially if you’re still unsure about some of our free agent signings.
Please notice that I haven’t specified "wide receivers". This is because we really need to look at everyone out there who can catch a pass, not just the people designated as WRs. Even though some of us continue to envision our offense as more of a run-first, ground-it-out style, the popularity of more passing-oriented offenses seems to be on the increase. Thus, we need to consider all of the options we currently have. There are many of these options, and they are quality options.
Ever since the departure of Steve Smith, Ted Ginn, Brandon LaFell, and Dominick Hixon, there has been quite a spirited conversation on this topic. The same terminology keeps being used over and over again, not only among those of us on CSR, but in the national media as well. In the following enquoted remarks, which have been repeated ad nauseum, I've capitalized the words that I’m personally quite weary of hearing:
1. "The Panthers LOST their four TOP receivers…." (golly, they were just here a minute ago…where did I put them?)
2. "The wide receiver situation is a MESS…" ("cleanup on aisle 5…")
3. "They need to REPLACE [this guy or that guy]" (as if human beings were inanimate machine parts)
4. "Cam Newton needs some WEAPONS…" ("Trebuchet! Trebuchet!")
5. "[list of names] won’t exactly STRIKE FEAR IN THE HEARTS of [defending teams]…" (as if any NFL players worth their jerseys are quaking in fear over anybody)
6. "The Panthers have replaced their TOP receivers with a BUNCH OF NOBODIES…" (…so, just because YOU never heard of them, they must be "nobodies". Hey, there’s 31 other teams out there, people…)
Yeah, enough already. One of those "TOP" receivers had only 9 targets in all of 2013. One of them had a drop rate of 7% (yes, I know that’s not all on the receiver, but other Panthers did much better than that). One of them is on the downside of his career, and apparently was an enormous distraction in the locker room (to the FO’s credit, we’ll never know all that was going on in that situation). The fourth one surprised everyone with his performance in 2013, but isn’t blessed with any outstanding skills or talents that aren’t available from numerous other players. It seems that some of us are hell-bent on there never being any roster turnover, but that’s a pipe dream. Realistically, most professional athletes would best be considered hired guns; let’s support them while they’re here, and wish them well when they (almost inevitably) leave. There’s a reason why so many players rent apartments rather than buy houses or condos.
The rest of the above platitudes are just more churned-out, oft-repeated buzzwords, for the writing of which people are actually paid money. Sheesh, I wish I had that job. Furthermore, as we’ll see below, these kinds of remarks are insulting to the fellows we should be welcoming to our team, and they constitute serious oversimplification of a multi-variable equation.
OK, let’s get to the meat of the matter. I’d like to direct your attention to a website called Football Outsiders (footballoutsiders.com). These guys take statistical analysis to a level I’ve never seen in football. Take a look at their definitions of DYAR and DVOA. They’ve broken down a player’s performance play-by-play, and reassessed it relative to the actual situation of that play. They also incorporate the value of not only that play, but to the cumulative value of all plays during a particular season. Their description of what they do is far better than anything I could write here.
I understand that there are people reading this who know a lot more about statistics and statistical analysis than I do. For the record, I’m a health care professional who has experience in analyzing the materials and methods used in the articles in scientific journals, doing this for scientific literature review publications. This requires a healthy skepticism, and a penchant for finding flaws in statistical and experimental models, but I make no claim of expertise. My impression, however, is that this site has some interesting, useful, and convincing data to offer.
Having said that, I fully expect one or more of you to tell all of us that Football Outsiders is just a bunch of BS, they don’t know jack crap, yada yada yada. If you are of this opinion, well, that’s your prerogative. No analytical model is perfect; personally, I think that FO is way ahead of any other, similar service available on the web. I will also theorize that Gettleman referred to this website when considering who to go after in the first phase of free agency (see below).
Have you now familiarized yourself with DYAR and DVOA? Ok, now let’s look at the listing of WRs for 2013, starting with the top grouping, those with 50 or more targets. Find some familiar names: The exalted Steve Smith, out of 90 ranked receivers, is 51st in DYAR and 58th in DVOA. Ginn and LaFell show similar mediocrity. Hixon is down the second list, which includes players with fewer than 50 targets. His numbers are too insignificant to be considered in this discussion. Those of you who have offered the opinion that our 2013 WRs were an undistinguished group make a good point, IMHO.
Now, take a look at who is sitting at #16 in the top list…none other than our own Jerricho Cotchery. That’s right, according to this particular analytic model, Jerricho was the 16th best receiver in the NFL in 2013.
Now, how did this happen? Well, 10 touchdowns certainly had something to do with it. I’ve read here and there that JC’s 10 TDs were "a FLUKE! He only had 20 TDs in his first 9 years! It’s a FLUKE, I tell ya!"
Well, maybe it was more than a fluke. What happened was that the Steelers coaches and QB realized that JC would be a reliable red-zone receiver, and thus the Roethlisberger-to-Cotchery strategy worked well for the team. Was Cotchery always a terrific red-zone threat? Maybe he was, and no one realized it before 2013. OR, maybe his cumulative experience and football savvy allowed him to become a red-zone threat. People learn and grow in their professions, and smart football players are no different from anyone else in this capacity. Point: We have a proven red-zone target, ready to go while Benjamin develops his skills. With a very low career drop rate, and only 3 fumbles in ten years. Those are some pretty sure hands
How about Tiquan Underwood? Well, if you ask any honest TB fan, they’ll tell you that Tiquan was very often open and available, but that the rookie Mike Glennon either couldn’t identify his availability, or was too lacking in confidence to risk the long pass to a speedy target. That’s why Vincent Jackson had 161 targets (rookie defaults to his security blanket) but only caught 49% of them (rookie didn’t throw that well…); VJ only ranked 39th in DYAR and 57th in DVOA. A rookie QB was definitely a factor here, and this isn’t a knock against Glennon, who most feel did pretty well as a rookie in a tough situation in TB.
Underwood’s performance with that rookie QB, however, was pretty darn good according to FO’s analysis. Tiquan ranks FIRST in 2013, among all receivers that had 50 or few targets. His DYAR is the same as that of Victor Cruz; his DVOA is close to that of DeSean Jackson. Pretty good company, and through my optimistic eyes, plenty of good reason to believe that Tiquan can do even better with a better QB, with an additional year of experience under his belt, and in a healthier situation than TB had last year. Tiquan has shown steady improvement over his relatively short career (he’s still only 27) and I believe that 2014 can be a breakout year for him. I sure hope so.
Sure, this article isn’t focused on Underwood; also realize that his combine numbers are from several years ago. But it’s interesting to see the company he’s in regarding the points that this author wishes to make. Tiquan has plenty of arrows in his quiver, and 2014 with Cam Newton may be the first time he gets to use all of them.
As I implied above, I think it’s pretty likely that Gettleman was looking at the Football Outsiders data (among others, I’m sure). Obviously I can’t prove that, but the high ranking of Cotchery and Underwood, who may have been under the radar among those just looking at raw measurables, makes them more attractive as potential FA signings than some other guys. We all were talking about Hakeem Nicks and James Jones, who would likely have required higher compensation than Cotchery and Underwod, but whose history on FO
Now, I haven’t gotten to Jason Avant yet. Jason’s data for 2013 weren’t that good. I think there are many possible explanations for this, ranging from the manner in which Chip Kelly used him, to the fact that he was playing behind some top-notch receivers, to the possibility that Foles tended to look more for Jackson or Cooper than Avant. However, go back and look at Avant’s stats for previous years, under different QBs and a different coach, and you’ll see what he’s capable of. Football Outsiders does not consider drop rate, but if you’ll check other sources you’ll see that JA has been a very reliable target, and does what he does consistently well.
Sportingcharts.com and profootballfocus.com do, however, consider drop rate as a measurable. PFF has this nugget to offer regarding Jason:
So we know the worst, but how about finding the best? Well, look no further than Jason Avant who was the only receiver to have at least 40 catchable balls thrown his way and not drop any of them. Kudos Jason, you’re the 2012 Drop Rate winner.
For the record, Avant had one drop in 2013 out of 76 targets.
…and by the way, as you read the Pittsburgh article, realize that the Panthers aren’t the only team that "LOST" one or more of their "TOP" "WEAPONS" during the off season. It’s never a bad idea to check the fanposts on the sites of other teams. We were never any worse off than many of the other teams.
Finally, check out this link, which speaks to the character of Tiquan Underwood:
So, now’s a good time to talk intangibles. Cotchery, Avant, and Underwood have all been described as class acts, great locker-room guys, just the kind of people you want on your football team. There’s no way to quantify this type of character, nor its inevitably positive effect on the whole team attitude. Suffice it to say that we are head and shoulders ahead of last year in this very important department.
So what other "WEAPONS" do we have? I don’t know about you, but I am highly intrigued about the whole McNutt/King situation. One of you posted the similarities between McNutt’s career at Iowa and Cody Latimer’s career at Indiana. I’m not that familiar with King, but there must be something good about him to merit over a year’s worth of coaching under Ricky Proehl. Hard to believe the Panthers would waste their time with guys of minimal talent and potential. Who knows what type of secret "WEAPONS" (there’s that word again!) we might have at our disposal in September.
I really hope we don’t hear the same old "KING AND MCNUTT HAVE NEVER CAUGHT A PASS IN THE NFL!!!" bromide. Hey, guess what: Neither has Kelvin Benjamin, or Mike Evans, or Sammy Watkins. Everybody starts somewhere, and it’s not always necessarily on week one of a rookie season. There’s nothing wrong with taking the time to develop players, and I for one hope that the King/McNutt experiment turns out to be a favorable one.
In part 2, to be posted whenever I have time, we’ll look at the tight end and running back positions from the standpoint of pass receiving. There will be good news there as well.
I hope that this Fanpost causes some of you to feel better about the WR situation
Thanks for reading!