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» Catch Radius: Best of the NFC

Part I of our catch radius season finale spotlights the NFC kings of double coverage (Calvin Johnson), the sideline (Jordy Nelson), the drag route (DeSean Jackson) and the red zone (Dez Bryant).

09 Jun 2014

Factors: Ace Sanders

by Rivers McCown

For a long time, I didn't understand why Jimmy Fallon was popular.

He got a late-night show after what I saw as a very pedestrian run on Saturday Night Live. He overlaughed at his own jokes in every sketch. His comedic timing was hit-or-miss. In my mind, he's not classically handsome.

But sometimes, you have to look beyond the surface to understand the reasoning. Fallon is a terrific connector. His enthusiasm is always evident. And, most of all, he's always willing to help and do favors for people in his immediate circle of influence.

I lay Fallon's career out as I introduce you to Ace Sanders because, for the first couple of games of Sanders' targets I watched, I didn't understand why he was on the field. The 2013 Jaguars had a talent shortage, yes, but they stockpiled all sorts of wideouts off practice squads. Sanders was hardly a high draft pick. Why did they devote so many snaps to him? Why do teams continue to fall for these Dexter McCluster types?

The answer became clear as I watched more. Sanders has some rather unique route-running instincts, and his ability to line up just about anywhere gives him a little more versatility. Those traits define a football player that can be helpful for a while, if not exactly useful for a go-nowhere team like last year's Jaguars.

The method

I looked at where Sanders lined up before each snap. I gave an educated guess on whether he was facing man or zone coverage, as well as one for the type of route he ran. This can be hard to tell at times, and I still don't think my eye for film matches up with the best in the industry, but I did my best. I don't come into this looking to make sweeping conclusions based on the data we use. In fact, I don't come into this column looking to have a final say on anything.

The target totals listed below don't quite match the total listed on our wideout stats page. This is because we did not consider certain plays, including:

  • Hail Mary attempts
  • Clear throwaways by an under-pressure Blaine Gabbert or Chad Henne
  • Balls tipped at the line of scrimmage
  • Targets listing Sanders as the primary receiver in which a defender hit the quarterback during his throwing motion

Here are my observations:


ACE SANDERS' SEASON BY FIELD ZONES


"Behind the line of scrimmage" includes passes that traveled less than one yard. "Short" indicates passes that traveled between 1-15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. "Deep" indicates passes that traveled 16 or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Red numbers show a Success Rate of 50 percent or higher. Black numbers show a Success Rate between 40-49 percent, and blue numbers show a Success Rate of 39 percent or lower.

1. The pulpit

Ace Sanders as an outside receiver: 34 targets, 33% success rate
Ace Sanders as a slot receiver: 42 targets, 37% success rate

This probably doesn't read like a humongous difference, but it was evident that Sanders had problems with NFL physicality. More than a few of Sanders' targets were broken up by a delay on his release or at the top of his route. Sanders will get low to the ground. He will fight for the ball. He's just not very strong. Nor should you expect your 5-foot-7, "180-pound" receiver to be.

This was only amplified by Jacksonville's situation last season. With Justin Blackmon suspended, and Cecil Shorts missing a few games down the stretch, Sanders was sometimes given reign on the outside for lack of other options.

Then, of course, there were the bad balls. I threw out 11 balls that targeted Sanders because they were completely uncatchable. I threw out one more ball when I looked at Garrett Graham, but Graham had three more targets. Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne aren't good quarterbacks: film at 11.

Those powers combined, and Sanders wound up with a -28.0% DVOA and a -99 DYAR, both bottom-five among all qualified wideouts.


WHERE SANDERS LINED UP ON HIS TARGETS


"Slot" plays include all plays in which a receiver was inside of another receiver, regardless of how tight to the line he was. (For tight ends, if they are lined up at the LOS, they are counted as inline.) Some plays in the charting project include two or three "slot receivers" by this definition.

2. Here come the pretzels

At times last season, it seemed like Jaguars offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch had taken college football to heart a bit too much. He ran 88 total screens last season, and 15 of them targeted Sanders.

Only four of them gained enough yardage to be considered successful.

As someone who believes in the wide split on screens, I found Jacksonville's horizontal strategy a little too tricky at times. There were delays, there were bunches, but what surprised me most was just how poor the blocking was by the Jaguars wideouts. You'd think that if Jacksonville was going to have their pick of the practice-squad crew, they'd at least be able to find some blocking specialists. Nope!

Between the receivers missing blocks and the splits giving linebackers enough time to crack back on Sanders, this was largely a wasted set of plays. Sanders has the vision to gain extra yardage when he gets the ball in space, but he's not going to make many tacklers miss.


SANDERS VERSUS MAN, SANDERS VERSUS ZONE



SANDERS' ROUTES


Obviously we don't have the actual play calls. These charts are educated guesses and should not be considered gospel.

3. Double back now

Sanders is the rare wide receiver who relies almost entirely on deception.

Take his double move. He isn't so fast that he can burn people on the fly, but he's tricky enough to turn his back on the defender, then get upfield in a hurry to try to hit the seam.

Eventually, teams got wise to this. But as an observer, I thought Sanders did an excellent job of varying his techniques and releases to win the mind game at the line of scrimmage or the first level of defenders. It's not a sexy skill, and you'd much rather have a receiver who actually could box out defenders for the ball, but it's the kind of calling card that's the difference between Sanders and the 80 practice squad receivers who want his job.

4. Is this sustainable?

I'm not going to beat around the bush: of every player I've covered so far, I feel like Sanders has the least physical skill and talent. He's better than his numbers, because Jacksonville was truly an abysmal situation last season. But if you're an NFL wideout without superior skill at contested catches, special speed, or special power, it's hard to become a fixture.

What Sanders has going for him are his mind and his versatility. He conceptually understands the game enough to stick around as a WR4 or WR5 on a good team. Mix him with a creative offensive coordinator that lets him throw a few passes, and you'll get some high-variance goodies in particular sub packages. The Jaguars wound up using him in just about every position in the backfield last season. And despite the fact that linebackers really should know that Ace Sanders won't be blocking, it flustered a few defenses.

Like Fallon, Sanders will never be top of the class. But in controlling what he can and executing what his body will let him do, there could be a long career ahead of him. Antwaan Randle El is the comparison that comes to mind for me.

Posted by: Rivers McCown on 09 Jun 2014

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