You don't see many fifth-round rookie wideouts with real expectations, but Tajae Sharpe is one. Tennessee's poor history of developing wideouts has led to a rare opportunity that Sharpe can seize this season.
29 Apr 2014
by Rivers McCown
Washington saw its offense regress in 2013. Regression met Robert Griffin's premature return from injury. Between Griffin, Kirk Cousins, and a patchwork offensive line, the Redskins couldn't threaten deep passes.
And then there was Pierre Garcon, somehow breaking Art Monk's team record for receptions in a season. Garcon fought through a foot injury and his personal performance didn't suffer at all.
In this case, "somehow" is by receiving a league-high 181 targets. "Somehow" relates back to the supporting cast of receivers that Washington had around Garcon. As in, "somehow Santana Moss is still in the NFL." And, well, there's also the fact that garbage time was quite common with the 2013 Skins. That'll help the counting stats.
I looked at where Garcon 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 wide receiver 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. Garcon and the Screen Game
I didn't watch much of Washington this year beyond their mandated NFC East primetime appearances. (We're all trying to forget those.) So what surprised me while Rewinding them was just how successful the Skins were on screens with Garcon.
This is where we need to filter out the context. The Shanaclan Washington offense utilized short passes and option plays almost to a fault in 2013. So, opponents tended to play more zone than usual. They tended to load bodies close to the line of scrimmage. To me, this makes Garcon's screen stats even more impressive. He had more space to operate with if he got past the first wave, but the degree of difficulty to get there was high.
I gained a lot of respect for Garcon as a runner. He's not flashy, but his vision is above-average. His standout trait is that he's a pretty powerful wideout at his listed 210-pound frame. He was able to bowl over the smaller bodies at safety and corner in the middle of the field with consistency.
As I said when I was looking at Kendall Wright tape, I'm not much for wideout screens as an offensive staple. But given how well Garcon did on them in spite of how defenses played Washington, I'd definitely use them as often as they did in 2013.
(As an aside, there was one screen in Week 14 where Trent Williams actually pushed a defender right into Garcon. It was hilarious.)
"Slot" plays include all plays in which a receiver was inside of another receiver, regardless of how tight to the line he was. Some plays in the charting project include two or three "slot receivers" by this definition.
2. Welcome to Cover-3
During the Robert Griffin weeks, defenses reacted to the zone-read offense by putting eight in the box often. Garcon's side of this is that he often saw a lot of Cover-3, with zone defenders clogging the underneath lanes.
The one route that Washington ran that beat this with any consistency was play-action followed by a Garcon post. Garcon notched a 54 percent success rate on 28 attempts up the middle with this, which is why he was able to make strides in the deep middle. As you can see above, deep left and deep right were areas where Washington had little success throwing at Garcon.
Garcon can stay ahead of people in the deep passing game, but Washington wasn't able to take advantage of that. Some of that is because the Skins became focused on trying to protect Griffin once it was clear that the offensive line was not good. (Some would say they became too focused on this.) But, some of it is also because the throws just weren't there for Garcon.
Garcon had just two gains of 30 or more yards on throws Football Outsiders considers "deep" that weren't post routes. One of those was when Garcon fooled Robert Alford on a double move. The other was when he caught an awful Griffin throw right off the defender's back. (The officials called the defender for pass interference, too.) He's not a burner, but it was evident that the deep ball's absence was not his choice.
3. The weak point of Garcon's game is making contested catches
Garcon's physical talent is evident on the ground. His power is a factor in every underneath play.
That's why it was so baffling to see him struggle to make contested catches. Drops aren't a real issue -- we counted six for him, which is fine considering how many targets Garcon had. But on slants and quick ins that weren't against zone, Garcon wasn't able to finish on some solid balls he got.
Shielding off defenders was the main problem for Garcon. Garcon had plenty of practice dealing with balls that were early or late this year. That's why we list 19 of his incomplete targets as defensed. But let's just say that he's not the optimal target on a third-down slant the defense can anticipate. His concentration gets disrupted when defenders are bearing down on him at times.
4. Going Forward with Griffin
It was clear that last season, Robert Griffin wasn't the same player as he was in 2012. Place blame on the Shanahans, the decision to play Griffin at less than 100 percent, and even the offensive line to a smaller extent. He favored his healing leg and there were countless throws that he didn't have a good base on. Washington spent the first few weeks of the season pretending that Griffin was healthy enough to run the 2012 scheme. That also looks foolish in hindsight.
So with Jay Gruden now in charge, the calculus will change. The bottomless Dan Snyder money pit brought in DeSean Jackson to be the new No. 1 receiver, and Jordan Reed will (presumably) be healthy for a full season. Early indications in Washington lean towards a de-emphasis of the run game.
The hanging question is: Will Griffin benefit enough to let Garcon produce numbers similar to 2013 again? I'd expect the target numbers to go down, but the efficiency numbers to bounce back closer to what they were in 2012. It's kind of odd that Garcon has blossomed out of the shadow of Peyton Manning. Garcon had sub-56 percent catch rates in all three full seasons he played in Indianapolis.
Garcon's role within the new system is going to be guesswork. Defenses will no longer be able to key on him. Gruden loves the screen game, so Garcon should continue to get plenty of work on that front. I would peg him as more of a good No. 2 receiver than a true No. 1 based on what I watched. Now Jackson is there to make that a reality, and both of them should enjoy the arrangement. As long as Griffin gets fixed, anyway.
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