Which receivers were truly most effective with the ball in their hands last season? We look at the leaders in YAC+ for 2014 and the last nine years.
08 May 2013
by Rob Weintraub
Joe Flacco is a rich man today mainly because a) Anquan Boldin was exceptional in the playoffs, and b) poor safety play by Denver and San Francisco made Jacoby Jones look like a starting wideout. Well, now Boldin is suiting up for the Niners, and Jones is being counted on to step up. Let’s remember that before his postseason heroics, Jones had all of 30 grabs in 2012 for 406 yards, with a middling catch rate of 55 percent. Football Outsiders DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Average) metric ranked him just ahead of Jeremy Kerley. There was a reason, after all, that Jones was jettisoned by the wideout-desperate Texans last offseason. Regular work at wideout could also diminish his superior kick-returning ability.
The days and nights of Ozzie Newsome (a dramedy that would get good ratings in Baltimore, at least) have been occupied by rebuilding the defense, and his work on that side of the ball this offseason was exemplary. But the real key to the Ravens’ championship run was that an average passing attack (15th in passing offense DVOA) during the regular season turned into a far superior passing attack in the postseason. (DVOA is Football Outsiders' defense-adjusted value over average metric, explained here.) The Ravens probably won't be able to sustain that performance next season without the kind of solid performances Boldin gave them in the playoffs.
Surely you recognize the names David Reed and Tandon Doss, right? These gentlemen are the backups to Jones and Torrey Smith, and they have exactly one dozen NFL catches between them. The Ravens did draft a receiver, Aaron Mellette out of Elon, in the seventh round. He was a strong performer at the combine and the Senior Bowl, but the leap from the Southern Conference to the AFC North should tax even Mallette’s broad-jumping skills.
Both Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta are due to hit free agency after the 2013 season, so the Ravens signed a couple of tight ends after the draft ended. Matt Furstenburg turned heads at the combine by posting the fastest 40-yard dash and shuttle run at the position. He didn’t have the productivity at Maryland to match his athleticism, but the injury bug bit the Terps so hard that they were reduced to putting a linebacker at quarterback by the end of the season. Murphy Holloway is the latest basketball player to attempt to make it in football -- he didn’t even try out for pigskin at Ole Miss, preferring a trip to the Sweet 16 as a member of the Rebels hoops team. Finally, connoisseurs of fine names will hope Jose Cheeseborough, a cornerback out of Florida International, makes the Ravens.
Rumors flew all spring, but in the end Cleveland’s new brain trust passed on drafting a new quarterback, didn’t trade for Ryan Mallett, and is apparently ready to open the season with Brandon Weeden at the helm. That thought can’t provide fans of this quarterback-challenged franchise with much hope.
Sure, Weeden was a rookie, but so were Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin, and Andrew Luck, and none of those players are turning 30 this October. Even less-heralded newcomer Ryan Tannehill placed well ahead of Weeden in DYAR, DVOA, Total QBR, and ET (eye test).
While the Dolphins went out and signed Mike Wallace, Dustin Keller, and Brandon Gibson to juice their passing attack for Tannehill, the Browns mainly kept the arsenal doors padlocked, save for the draft day import of Davone Bess, a wideout made expendable in South Florida by the aforementioned weaponry. Bess is decent -- he placed a spot ahead of the far more acclaimed Jeremy Maclin in our DYAR stats for 2012, for example. But even if you consider Josh Gordon part of this year’s haul because the Browns used a supplemental choice on him in 2012, Cleveland didn’t do much to cure its offensive anemia.
Instead, much will depend on the development of Weeden, Gordon, and Greg Little. New head coach Rob Chudzinski didn’t exactly give Weeden a ringing endorsement last week when he told a local radio station that new backup Jason Campbell will be given every chance to claim the starting job.
Gordon provided several flashes of deep speed during his rookie campaign, and Little improved his catch rate from a putrid 51 percent to an underwhelming 58 percent. Yet neither receiver showed much route-running polish, and that can’t be blamed on the quarterback throwing to them.
Chudzinski is a former tight end, and has enjoyed much success working tight ends into the offense at previous stops. He’ll have his work cut out for him in Cleveland -- incumbent Jordan Cameron came to the Browns with very little college football experience, played very little as a rookie, and then ranked just 42nd in our tight end DVOA ratings in his second year. That put him four spots ahead of his new backup, Kellen Davis, who was run out of Chicago by irate Bears fans.
The Browns hope to double their Kruger pleasure, signing Utah defensive lineman Dave Kruger after the draft to mirror their shiny new linebacker Paul, Dave’s older brother. (A third Kruger, Joe, was picked in the seventh round by Philadelphia.) Dave was productive with the Utes as a senior captain, though he was helped mightily by lining up next to Star Lotulelei. A tackle in college, Dave projects to play five-technique end in the Browns 3-4, potentially with his brother looming over his shoulder.
Finding first downs was a weakness for Cincy’s offense in the final quarter of 2012, but the drafting of tight end Tyler Eifert and running back Giovani Bernard helped address those issues. Further adding diversity to the Bengals' attack, especially on third downs, will be the return to health of second-year receiver Mohamed Sanu, a sizeable (6-foot-2) possession target who had a three-game stretch with four touchdown receptions before a broken foot ended his rookie season.
Linebacker is still a concern. Between James Harrison and fourth-round pick Sean Porter, the Bengals hope to get by on the strong side. Rey Maualuga returned after a cold free-agent market, and Cincinnati hopes he gets it together in the middle now that any thought of moving last year’s rookie sensation Vontaze Burfict inside has been kiboshed. Maualuga is a heavy hitter but remains a two-down linebacker who is unreliable in coverage and often a step slow to fill gaps in the run game. In other words, he is a less-naive Manti Te’o.
Relying on Harrison’s intensity and anger over being unceremoniously dumped by Pittsburgh makes good copy, but is iffy strategy given his age and diminished skills. The Bengals are also taking a risk at strong safety, where they are hoping a rookie, third-round draft choice Shawn Williams out of Georgia, can step in immediately. Williams was a productive and fiery leader at UGA, where he notably called out his underperforming teammates at midseason. The Bengals have had great success with players from between the hedges, but asking Williams to start and play well may be as foolishly optimistic as hoping Harrison rekindles his 2008 season.
Cincinnati ignored the plethora of veteran safeties available in free agency, so if Williams isn’t ready, Taylor Mays or Jeremy Miles will have to play, and neither has proven he can. Chris Crocker will doubtlessly be waiting by his phone.
The Bengals can’t be expected to hit the same bonanza in their UFA class as they did last year with Burfict, but there are a couple of interesting prospects. Auburn’s Onterio McCalebb is a speed demon who could challenge for a kick-returner spot, and the running back played some defensive back at his pro day in order to maximize his potential value. The Bengals also went hard after linebacker Jayson DiManche of Southern Illinois, a sleeper prospect with freakish athleticism and solid production (he had 15 tackles for loss and eight sacks in 2012). DiManche has some physical similarity to Harrison -- he will get the chance to understudy the real thing in camp.
The much-maligned Steelers line did improve a touch in protecting Ben Roethlisberger in 2012, rising from 20th to 15th in Adjusted Sack Rate and giving up five fewer sacks overall. But Big Ben still took a pounding, missing three games after the beating he received against Kansas City. Meanwhile, run-blocking numbers fell off a cliff -- the Steelers plummeted from third in Adjusted Line Yards in 2011 to 27th in 2012.
Granted, a weak running back corps didn’t help, and the Steelers drafted Le’Veon Bell to bolster that position. But the line remains a question mark, especially if the injuries that have struck in recent seasons hit the unit again. Case in point: last season’s top draft pick, guard David DeCastro. Double-D tore up a knee in the preseason and missed much of the year. He and center Maurkice Pouncey, in theory, provide a solid 1-2 punch up the middle, but only if they stay upright. Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams, the team’s young and talented tackles, also both missed significant time to injury in 2012.
The lack of depth and experience behind the starting five has to be worrying to new offensive line coach Jack Bicknell, Jr. Bicknell prefers longer, more athletic linemen, so vets Willie Colon and Max Starks were let go. So was Doug Legursky, though that was more performance-based. Left guard Ramon Foster doesn’t particularly mesh with Bicknell’s system, either, but he was re-signed anyway, showing how anxious the team was to retain bodies with some experience.
The line wasn’t bolstered during the draft, leaving the top backup as Kelvin Beachum, a 2012 seventh-rounder who played poorly in the preseason last year. Former Texans lineman Antoine Caldwell, who can play guard and center, was in for a visit before the draft, and may be of renewed interest in Pittsburgh before camp opens in July.
In order to further the running game, the Steelers signed Curtis McNeal out of USC, a back who suffered as a senior from the Trojans’ offensive line issues and general malaise. As a junior, McNeal was productive, with 1,005 yards and six touchdowns. Utah wide receiver Reggie Dunn will remind Steelers fans of the departed Mike Wallace in at least one trait -- Dunn ran sub-4.3 forties at his pro day. Dunn could step right into a kick return job in Pittsburgh, as he set an NCAA record with a pair of 100-yard-plus returns in a game against Cal last season. The Steelers had the inside track on Dunn as his father is close friends with former Pittsburgh wideout Louis Lipps. And if lineman Mike Golic, Jr., makes the team, a distinct possibility (see above), expect to hear much about the Steelers’ offensive line on ESPN Radio, where Golic, Sr. brays every morning in drive time.
(Parts of this article originally appeared on ESPN Insider.)
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