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.
19 May 2014
by Rivers McCown
But how much of that is just Andrew Luck being great? The Colts hired general manager Ryan Grigson at just the right moment for serendipity. The time when a no-doubt-about-it franchise quarterback was available at the No. 1 pick. In an era where those players have zero contract leverage, no less. Hilton has been a good find, though he's not a receiver who can win against physical coverage. Allen was phenomenal in his first season before missing almost all 2013 with a hip injury.
Then there's Fleener, a player who gets lumped into Grigson's haul because he is present on a football field. Fleener, the first tight end selected in the 2012 draft, managed just 281 yards receiving in his first season. Last season he played with a well-regarded young quarterback on a team that lost Reggie Wayne for the season. A team that wound up using two undrafted free agent receivers and washout Darrius Heyward-Bey down the stretch. This is an ideal scenario for a breakout, as the team needed somebody to step up and catch some balls.
Instead, Fleener had the second worst DVOA of any tight end with 80 or more targets (-11.3%), ahead of only Garrett Graham.
I looked at where Fleener lined up before each snap, and then gave an educated guess on whether he was facing man or zone coverage. 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 tight end stats page. This is because we did not consider certain plays, including:
Here are my observations:
"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. Generated by play-action
As poor as Fleener's numbers already look, I have to point out that most of his biggest gains of the season came off busted coverages.
Fleener had six gains of 25 or more yards on the season. Two of those came when Fleener released into the flat on play-action and nobody picked him up. Two more of those came on seam routes where the defense blew the coverage. Another came on a pass interference penalty in Week 15 that was dubious, at best. Finally, Fleener caught a 19-yard post route in Week 17 that went exactly 25 yards.
That means almost exactly a third of his receiving yards on the season were a result of scheme or chance, not the player. Not exactly a promising omen for his fantasy football future.
As long as Pep Hamilton runs heavy sets with a fullback and two tight ends, Indianapolis is going to generate some of these plays. But an uncovered player taking a pass in the flat and going for 40 yards isn't a function of that player's talent. If he's making defenders miss along the way, it can be. But trust me, Fleener wasn't doing any of that.
"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. Contested catches are an issue
We only listed Fleener with one drop this season, but that's not indicative of his prowess in that area.
Fleener had a 60 percent catch rate in 2013, and a 54 percent catch rate in 2012. Those aren't impressive numbers for a player who makes most of his catches as an underneath receiver.
The reason is that Fleener struggled on contested balls. He doesn't use his frame well to box out defenders, and he is also susceptible to dropping the ball after getting hit over the top. We marked 11 of Fleener's targets as "defensed" in our charting project. A few of those are good plays on the ball by zone defenders, but I counted seven of them as plays where a trailing defender broke up the route. Some of those balls were broke up because Fleener didn't box his opposite number out well enough. Others were shots that dislodged the ball after Fleener had already caught it.
Luck tends to be just a tad streaky in games. It's one of his few flaws as a quarterback. He can string together a poor half of throws and make some poor reads. (I would cite the first halves of Week 4 in Jacksonville, Week 8 in Houston, Week 9 against St. Louis, and Week 11 at Arizona as evidence.)
But the primary reason that Fleener has middling catch rates is himself.
Obviously we don't have the actual play calls. These charts are educated guesses and should not be considered gospel.
52 of the 88 targets we've listed for Fleener come on underneath routes, curls, or comeback routes. It strikes me as unlikely that Pep Hamilton's offense split Fleener's targets up like that by chance. Hilton was very good at winning deep, but no other receiver on the offense stepped up and played well in the intermediate area. Of those 52 targets, I listed 36 as either "Flat" or "Drive" receptions -- quick crosses.
I wouldn't suggest that Fleener can't be a deep receiver. He's not a bad route-runner, and he can get some separation at the top of his routes. But that's more in the "flashes" stage than a known factor. He doesn't do it with consistency.
I don't know why Hamilton has soured on using Fleener for deep or intermediate routes. My guess is it has something to do with the tight-coverage problems. Outside of the big YPA gains he had on those blown coverages, there's nothing to recommend about him as a deep option.
4. JAG is a re-run tonight
So let's draw the full picture here.
We have a player who, in the midst of a receiver shortage for his team, can't be an effective target. 42 of his targets came in a five-week post-Wayne stretch from Week 10 to Week 14. He mustered just a 45 percent success rate as a bigger part of the offense in those games.
We have a player who showed no special ability to get open, break tackles, or otherwise alter the game outside the structure of the offense.
Hakeem Nicks is now on board, and Wayne and Allen are coming back from their injuries. There's no guarantee that Fleener sees opportunities in 11-personnel packages. Based on the evidence we have of his play, it would be understandable for Hamilton and Chuck Pagano to cut his snaps.
Fleener isn't a bad player -- he's a bit player. He's been an unreliable target. He's not a special blocker. Not exactly the return you're hoping for from a second-round pick. More like the kind of player who can help an offense as a lower-tier option.
In other words: his best skill thus far has been his ability to stay on the field.
5 comments, Last at 20 May 2014, 12:58pm by turbohappy