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.
03 May 2012
by Mike Tanier
When it comes to scouting prospect tape, "better late than never" is a wise adage.
The Seahawks drafted West Virginia pass rusher Bruce Irvin in the first round, and many of us invoked the dreaded r-word ("reach") because we had him listed as a mid-round value, if we had him listed at all. Don’t judge us harshly: it is hard to form a coherent opinion within a ten-minute window.
Soon after the draft, the Jets said that they would have taken Irvin if the Seahawks had not. Several teams with 3-4 schemes and defense-minded coaches apparently had Irvin high on their draft boards. Pete Carroll and Rex Ryan can both be wrong about a player, but it is a safer bet that the rest of the draft intelligentsia overlooked something, whether it was Irvin’s actual potential or the attributes that would make him appealing to coaches. (Those are not always the same thing).
So let us watch some tape together. This first cut up is from the West Virginia-Pitt game.
About 16 seconds into the clip, Irvin gets put on the ground by the Pitt left tackle. It happens again at 47 seconds. The Pitt tape was the one I watched pre-draft; the only one, because I did not think Irvin would be a first-round pick. In between those two pancakes, he shows his wheels by chasing Pitt quarterback Silversun Pickups down from behind. But two pancakes in 47 seconds were enough for me to say, "yeah, little pass rush guy, fast, gets clobbered a lot, no need to do serious investigation."
It is important to note that Irvin is playing defensive end on these snaps. As a 245-pound defensive end, he is going to be pancaked. When the Mountaineers put him in the Wide-9, he generally looked much better.
The Pitt footage gets better as the game goes along. At about 3:57 you see a fine example of the quickness with which Irvin works back inside against his blocker. He beats the left tackle off the edge, and once the blocker sets wide, Irvin swivels inside and flushes Sunny Delight from the pocket. Irvin executed this move a few times earlier in the game, but here it gets the worn-out left tackle completely crossed up. Note the quickness and body control of the move: head, shoulders, hips and thighs all moving as one. Sometimes, a young pass rusher’s "inside move" has his shoulders moving inside while his torso changes direction. There’s a real suddenness and agility to Irvin’s move.
Irvin makes a similar move to record a sack of Soleil Moon Frye at about 4:47. The late-game footage has Irvin chasing the poor quarterback all over creation during a final desperation drive while the left tackle watches.
Now, let’s check out the bowl game against Clemson. This cut-up is apparently all over the Seahawks blogs. Like the Pitt game, Irvin starts slowly in this game. Irvin gets washed down the line on a long Clemson run at about 38 seconds. At about the one-minute mark, he gets a hurry – and should draw a holding penalty – with his inside move. There’s a comical offside penalty at 1:15; Irvin went to the Michael Vick Sliding Academy.
Doug Farrar pointed me to the play at the two-minute mark: Irvin is taken wide by the left tackle, but loops completely around the field and chases the scrambling Tajh Boyd down from behind. Irvin displays wide receiver-caliber speed on this play. Jon Gruden even gushes about Irvin’s speed on the replay. The next play, at around 2:40, is more impressive to me because it is yet another example of Irvin’s exceptional inside move, this time resulting in a sack.
What we see, again and again, is a pass rusher who is able to make his left tackle take an incredibly wide set, then work back inside of that blocker, before the blocker can initiate any real contact. That last part is key: keep watching the tape, and you see Irvin avoid blocks, bounce off blocks, or make a pass rush move or two before he gets blocked.
That is what the Seahawks and Jets were looking at. Both teams have no problem putting a "designated pass rusher" on the field for about 40 snaps per game. Neither Carroll nor Ryan will put an Irvin-type at defensive end, let alone inside the tackle’s shoulder, where Irvin lines up at times on these cutups. Neither team was concerned about Irvin’s one-dimensionality, because that dimension includes a very critical skill: the ability to threaten the edge of the pass protection with elite speed and change-of-direction quickness.
Now, after watching all of that, I would rather have Melvin Ingram or Courtney Upshaw. SackSEER was rather lukewarm on Irvin with its 11.1 sack projection, though Nathan Forster’s "boom or bust" assessment sounds accurate enough. None of us in the draftnik world are Ryan or Carroll, however, or their personnel guys. It’s not just that they have more film, more interview opportunities, and more resources. They also have a playbook. They can take Irvin and say "he will go here, here, but not here." The rest of us have to make a kind of one-size-fits-all projection. We do the best we can.
So "reach" was a strong word. Maybe we should say "specialized pick."
Here is a little more Irvin footage if you're interested.
The first thing that goes through my mind after the last selection of the first round of the draft is: where will I go to get a drink?
To be precise, this year my first thought was "why didn’t the Giants select Rueben Randle, Stephen Hill, or Coby Fleener?" There were funny, informative, pre-written scouting reports locked and loaded in my hard drive, all of which would have made fine capstones to the live blog. Instead, I had to scramble after David Wilson, who looks like just another scat back, albeit a good one. The Jets and Giants obligingly took Hill and Randle in the second round, but that was of little use to me on Thursday night.
The first round ended just minutes after 11 p.m., and the Wilson report was posted by 11:15. My editor punched my proverbial timecard almost immediately. Where do I go to get a drink?
It is fun to get a manhattan in Manhattan: made with rye, not bourbon, so it has that dry bite. Rye is a fashionable drink these days, with all the craft distillers making their own versions. That causes confusion and expense, but it also means the bartender is not just going to glug Jim Beam rye into the glass and shrug his shoulders. But Thursday night did not feel like a manhattan night in Manhattan.
There are a handful of good places to get a drink in Manhattan. Okay, there are tens of thousands: chic places, trendy places, shady places, even cheap places if you look hard enough. Historic places. Once in a while, I splurge for a 20-dollar cocktail at the Algonquin, because writing jokes about Janoris Jenkins’ sex life makes me James Thurber. But that is not a post-draft kind of hangout, unless you are drafting some sort of manifesto on the lively arts. And it was blocks in the wrong direction.
This draft was a beer draft: it was quick, smooth, and effervescent. All I wanted at 11:30, the time I hit the street, was the frosty taste of a job well done, weeks of preparation resulting in a well-executed live performance.
A place called the Harvest Brewery lies just a block from Radio City Music Hall. It is tourist-friendly without being a freakin’ Hard Rock: standard-issue brew pub décor and menu, India Pale Ale and Oatmeal Stout and burgers with slightly offbeat toppings. It gets the job done.
Except that when I walked in, the bartender told me that I missed last call.
Let’s reset the math. I left Radio City Music Hall by 11:30. Harvest Brewery is a block away. The draft sent hundreds of thirsty sports fans onto the streets about 27 minutes earlier. The Rangers won Game 7 of a hockey playoff 18 blocks away; 18 blocks are like 18 miles in Manhattan, but there were obviously some happy Rangers fans wandering around in search of wings and beer. The Devils were in overtime. The bar and tables were rather full, though not overflowing.
This is Manhattan, before midnight. Not Manhattan, Kansas. Manhattan Manhattan, a few blocks from Times Square and the theatre district. Last call, 11:30 p.m.?
The bars in Mount Ephraim were still open, for heaven’s sake! I stood, mouth agape and watering, thirstily eyeing the taps, the bottles, the merry hockey fans with full drinks and plates of pub grub. What gives?
Reflecting on the event, I could have sworn that the bartender, before telling me I was out of luck, made a quick gesture toward his neck, as if he were pointing to a lanyard. I was still wearing my press pass. Fans at the draft also got lanyards from a credit card company: if they were spotted wearing them, they won some prize, like an interest rate below 22.7 percent or something. The fan lanyards looked a lot like the press lanyards. I wonder, were they shooing away fans who were at the draft? Did they not want oddballs with their faces painted in Redskins colors sullying the good name of an establishment that caters to Rangers fans?
Stranger things have happened. This weekend, I am covering the Phillies-Nationals series and the Nationals’ effort to keep Philly fans out of the ballpark. Maybe Harvest Brewery has some Take Back the Pub initiative in place. Maybe a Jake Locker fan slugged a Cam Newton fan there last year.
In any case: farewell, Harvest Brewery. You have lost my business until the next time I am one block away and thirsty, which will probably be next April, assuming I can get to your fine establishment before it stops serving liquor at dusk. I found another place for beer and wings, though it too was quiet, as were other places I poked my head into on my way back to the hotel.
City that never sleeps, indeed.
Thanks to everyone who came to Football Outsiders for our chats on Thursday and Friday. We had a great crowd and lots to talk about!
If you did not check out the Google Plus chats at the New York Times Fifth Down blog, here is a link to the replay. Judy Battista and I shoot from the hip, with the help of teenage blogging sensation Brad Wolff, who was in Salt Lake City and not in school for some reason. Look carefully at the background when I am speaking and you can see a roll of toilet paper over my right shoulder. A lot of people in this house have allergies, and it is more convenient than tissues at times, but I really need to do some cleaning.
Blech. What a dull list! When we did the quarterback top fives, we could at least lead off with Drew Brees and Archie Manning, and there were worse third and fourth options than Bobby Hebert and Aaron Brooks. If we ever get to receivers, we have Danny Abramowicz, Joe Horn, Marques Colston, Wes Chandler ... an interesting group. These guys are just weak.
The Saints had ten different leading rushers in their first ten seasons, with no duplicates. Jim Taylor led them with 390 yards in 1967, their first year and his last. Then came Don McCall with 637 yards. Andy Livingston made the Pro Bowl with 761 yards the next year.
Then, go see for yourself at Pro Football Reference. It is a parade of nobodies, many of them gaining about 600 rushing yards in their Lead-the-Saints season. In 1975, Michael Strachen led the Saints with 668 yards. He is only relevant because I found some footage of Peyton Manning getting interviewed about his father at age three, with Cooper making faces next to him, and Peyton is wearing a tiny Strachen jersey.
The man who broke the string was Chuck Muncie, who led the team in 1976 and 1977, then had a mammoth year in 1979, with 1,198 yards and 40 receptions. Muncie was high on cocaine the whole time. George Rogers also had major, well-publicized cocaine issues. Ricky Williams preferred marijuana, and while we can fill the message boards with arguments about the relative health hazards and severity of habituation between the two drugs (though it may be more fun if we don’t), Williams’ substance abuse choices inarguably affected his career. All three were early first-round picks by the Saints; there is no grand connection here, just a strange, sad coincidence.
A fourth high pick, Reggie Bush, did not need drugs to be a nitwit.
So, we are left with this list:
A boom-or-bust big back, McAllister had exceptional size and speed, but his success rates hovered around 43 percent, and DVOA never thought much of him. McAllister ranked 13th in DYAR and 21st in DVOA in 2003, his 1,641-yard season.
McAllister is the Saints all-time leading rusher, by a margin of over 1,800 yards. It is an incredible feat for a player with such a modest career.
2. Chuck Muncie
A big back with great hands, Muncie and Manning lifted the Saints out of the deepest pit of awfulness and got them to around .500. Muncie was, by his own admission, higher than a cumulus crowd the whole time. Muncie later turned his life around, after a jail term. His career was impressive, even with all of his problems. Drugs probably cost him a bust in Canton.
3. George Rogers
Rogers caught just 55 passes in his career. Only Michael Turner has fewer receptions (51) among running backs with more than 6,000 rushing yards. Rogers looked like Earl Campbell in his first two seasons, then tailed off quickly before moving to the Redskins, where he filled John Riggins’ role as the big overrated guy who scores goal line touchdowns.
Turner and Rogers fill a unique ecological niche in the running back biosphere: power runners who are so inept in the passing game that they have negative receiving value. DYAR gives Turner exactly two yards above replacement for his career, but our metrics are scraping against small sample sizes when dealing with a back who catches six passes per year, and DYAR is not designed to calculate the value of having to leave the field or block on every single passing down. Turner may be climbing out of the category; let’s wait and see.
There are no comparable backs to Rogers and Turner among the top-75 all-time rushers. Riggins caught about 20 passes per year early in his career. Larry Csonka fits roughly the same mold but caught 106 passes. Steve van Buren has fewer receptions, but now we are going back to the true T-formation. Brandon Jacobs is similar, but at a lower success level. Most backs with such rudimentary receiving skills have a hard time claiming regular roles long enough to crack 5,000 yards. Turner and Rogers are pretty special. Anyone who saw Rogers in his brief prime would agree.
Hilliard gained 1,262 yards in 1989 and hung around for several years before and after as a committee back. Hilliard threw four touchdowns on option plays in his career; his quarterback rating was 141.4.
5. Fred McAfee
McAfee led the 11-5 Saints with 494 rushing yards in 1992. He then faded quickly, and he appeared to be on the same career path guys like McCall and Livingston followed in the 1970s. McAfee bounced around the league for a while, reinventing himself as a special teams captain. He returned to New Orleans and spent seven seasons as the Saints’ personal protector, a fullback on the kick return team, a part-time return man, and general special teams ace. If we ever open the Special Teams Hall of Fame, McAfee will join Steve Tasker, Bill Bates, Gary Stills, and a select handful of others in the non-specialist wing.
McAfee is fifth so we do not have to sort from among the masses. Reggie Bush could easily be fifth once you account for his receiving and return value, and strip away all the baggage. However, it is illegal to say charitable, or even fair, things about Bush on the Internet. Tony Galbreath was a great receiving fullback whose numbers bear some surface similarity to Bush’s. I could rank Galbreath ahead of Bush and keep my blogger’s card, but I am just too tired to compare one complementary receiver-back to another across 40 years of history right now. (Sorry.)
Rueben Mayes was great as a rookie in 1986, had a fine follow up season in a strike year, then faded fast. His career looks almost exactly like Rogers’, but with nowhere near the same peak. Ricky Williams trudged through three productive years, hating every minute of it.
Pierre Thomas or Mark Ingram could easily make this list with a few good years. The Saints have had three different leading rushers in the last three seasons; it will be four if Ingram leads the team in 2012. Franchises have a funny way of falling into old habits.
83 comments, Last at 08 May 2012, 9:55pm by LionInAZ