by Rivers McCown
Sometimes a player is in a position where success is hard to come by. The Jacksonville passing game in 2013 was a gaping vortex of failure. Any time the Jaguars had an advantage in a one-on-one matchup, the lack of talent on the rest of the field nullified it. Especially when Blaine Gabbert was leading the charge.
So it's not surprising that Cecil Shorts had the lowest DVOA of any receiver with more than 100 targets. Chad Henne was his best quarterback. His offensive line lost both of their starting tackles, to injury and trade, midway through the season. That's a tough scenario for any receiver.
What was surprising to me was the way the Jaguars used Shorts, and how that helped feed the lack of success. The playbook didn't engineer many easy targets for Shorts -- that offers more hope that he could blossom under better circumstances. There's little chance that he's a star, but his ceiling might be higher than you'd expect from the numbers.
I watched every throw during the 2013 regular season where our play-by-play data has Shorts listed as the main target. It would have been nice to watch every snap he played, too. But I wanted to study more than four players, so I had to find a way to shorten this.
I looked at where Shorts 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:
- Hail Mary attempts
- Clear throwaways by an under-pressure Blaine Gabbert or Chad Henne
- Balls tipped at the line of scrimmage
- Targets listing Shorts as the primary receiver in which a defender hit the quarterback during his throwing motion.
In this case, these definitions nullified a sizable number of Shorts' targets. In 2013, eight percent of Shorts' targets were throwaways, tips, or changed by a rusher that hit the quarterback.
Here are my observations:
CECIL SHORTS' 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. Meet Dr. Backshoulder
Complicating the matter of evaluating Shorts is the fact that a large percentage of his targets ran to his back shoulder. I counted off around 20 balls that quarterbacks aimed to that angle. This seemed to be a play-calling decision.
My intuitive read of the situation was that these balls helped lower Shorts' catch rate. To bastardize a common term, the "strength of schedule" of his routes in 2013 was much higher than most receivers. To back me up on this, I called on Matt Waldman to ask his opinion on back-shoulder balls. He added this:
I think back shoulder fades are in a range of moderate to great difficulty. If the placement of the target is good enough for the receiver to stop, turn, and catch the ball with his back to the defender while reaching for the ball away from his frame, I think that's a middle of the road reception. If he has to contend with the defender in any way, the target grows in difficulty. If the target forces the receiver to work into the defender's personal space to win the ball, that is a difficult catch.
With Chad Henne and Blaine Gabbert around, most of these throws were not flawless. Shorts showed the ability to fight over defenders and win these balls. But showing the ability and showing the consistent ability to do it are two different things.
WHERE SHORTS 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. Some plays in the charting project include two or three "slot receivers" by this definition.
2. No slot Shorts
This makes sense, as Shorts' physicality is a defining characteristic of his game. He's not easy to jam at the line -- he lined up on the line of scrimmage 72 percent of the time. His listed 200-pound frame is, in theory, powerful enough to absorb a lot of punishment.
I wouldn't call Shorts a zero as a deep receiver, but he's never going to win on pure speed. He's someone who needs to layer some moves together or catch a defense napping. Because of this, I'm interested in what would happen if the Jaguars decided to give him some more snaps in the slot. That way he wouldn't be dealing with constant contact and would see fewer snaps against man coverage. (Which segues into the following chart...)
SHORTS VERSUS MAN, SHORTS VERSUS ZONE
3. Shorts' weakest attribute, and the one that will keep him from being a great receiver, are his hands.
Despite showing off the ability to win physical battles, Shorts had a troubling number of drops last year. He had nine according to our game charting project. And that doesn't include about ten defensed passes that some would call catchable. (We just give credit to the defenders on these, but that doesn't mean that the balls weren't there on Shorts' person.)
So, he's dealing with bad quarterback play, he's dealing with the difficulty of his targets. But he also earns that low catch rate with his own hands. Part of me wants to give him credit for playing hurt most of the season. (He went on IR after Week 14, due to hernia issues.) But his catch rate was only 52 percent in 2012, a healthy season, so I have my doubts.
What Shorts is -- at this point -- is a physical receiver with the ability to make tough catches. But his game also has the inconsistency to make it hard to run an entire offense through him. The Jaguars seemed to have an internal dilemma about him in the middle of the season. They phased him out of the attack plan a bit after the bye (eight targets in Week 10 and 11 combined), before going back to him in Week 12.
4. And yes, like most people, Shorts looks better without Blaine Gabbert
Shorts, on targets thrown by Blaine Gabbert: 44 percent catch rate, -32.0% DVOA, -53 DYAR.
Shorts, on targets thrown by Chad Henne: 56 percent catch rate, -10.2% DVOA, 18 DYAR.
Despite the hands, there's definitely a place in the NFL for a player with Shorts' skill set. The question is: where? I would place him as a bottom-tier second receiver, with the caveat that I think he's a good third receiver. The hands will always give him some annoying inconsistency. But with some better matchups inside and better quarterback play, I could see a more efficient season in the future.
It's hard to speculate on if that'll happen in Jacksonville before the draft happens. The Jaguars will likely at least have the option to pick Johnny Manziel, if not Teddy Bridgewater or Blake Bortles. Shorts is going into the last year of his rookie deal, and it says something that the Jaguars haven't extended him yet. The organization has recently shown aggression re-signing middle-tier players they like. (Just ask Sen'Derrick Marks and Chad Henne.)
Regardless, Shorts can be a good complementary receiver at the NFL level. He just isn't meant to be a 120-target option.