by Rivers McCown
Among receivers with 140 or more targets last year, only one had a worse DYAR than Kendall Wright: Mike Wallace. But Wallace was weighed down with a 53 percent catch rate, and Wright was at 66 percent. So, what gives with the poor DVOA ranking?
Bringing up NFL Game Rewind to look at Wright showed a different picture. Perhaps this was a player that had a lot of clear weaknesses, I thought to myself. I fiddled with splits for hours trying to find some kind of major flaw in Wright's game, and unless I was going to be pedantic and talk about his blocking, there really wasn't one. In the right circumstances, I expect to see that catch rate blossom even higher. I would expect to see him used more frequently on deep routes even if he isn't a burner. In short, I kind of see a Wes Welker-type that has more elusiveness in the open field. (Oh, and less scrap. That's contractually obligated in any Welker comparison.) But I'm getting ahead of myself.
To analyze Wright, I watched every throw during the 2013 regular season where our play-by-play data has him listed as the main target. It would have been nice to watch 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 Wright was 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, and 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 because we did not consider certain plays, including:
- Hail Mary attempts
- Clear throwaways by an under-pressure Jake Locker or Ryan Fitzpatrick
- Balls that were tipped at the line of scrimmage
- Targets that listed Wright as the primary receiver in which the quarterback was hit in motion
Here are my observations:
KENDALL WRIGHT'S 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, and "Deep" indicates passes that traveled 16 or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
1. The Titans weren't very creative with Wright outside of the screen game
Tennessee did not tend to do much with Wright that bordered on clever. (I guess the optimistic way of putting this is that they didn't try to out-think themselves.) 112 of the 148 plays the FO database has him as the target were run with 11 personnel: three wideouts, one back, and one tight end. Of those, more than half of them were listed as either "slot left," "slot right," or "balanced" in receiver formation. It was much more rare to see Tennessee move to a trips formation.
However, the Titans built a lot of deception into their screen game. They would have the (usually) right side of their line run-block and throw it to Wright, or they would have Wright start up the field for two or three steps, then come back to meet releasing blockers -- that's how we wind up with him being targeted behind the line of scrimmage in the middle on a few attempts. And as you can see, those plays were fairly successful. (Some of those plays get baked into the left side's numbers.)
The overall numbers are weighed down by the few more "basic" screen designs: one wideout blocking on the outside, bunch formations, and that sort of thing. Given Wright's skill set and the success Tennessee had with these, I'm almost surprised they didn't run more of them. As we looked at Indianapolis last week, I posited that they may have run too many screens to Hilton because their run game struggled. Well, Tennessee had their struggles in the run game too, yet they only ran three more screens to Wright than Indianapolis did to Hilton.
I'm guessing I won't often advocate that a player needed more screen passes, because I tend to think they are game theory counterbalance rather than a real game plan, but Wright would've made me think about running more of them.
WHERE WRIGHT 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 or if there were multiple slot receivers in the play.
2. Wright's Slot and Outside splits don't tell us much
Let me draw you a mental picture of what I consider the prototypical Kendall Wright from last season: Wright is lined up outside of Delanie Walker, close to the left hash. Walker runs a seam route or a deep post, carrying a defender with him -- and if he in any way picks Wright's defender, that's gravy. Wright runs an in-and-out, clearing his way to the sideline, and gets ahead enough in the route to grab a few extra yards on the way out of bounds.
Here's the tricky problem with "outside" versus "slot" distinctions in our charting: in our system, Wright is the outside receiver, regardless of how close to the hashmark he is. So, while the splits are fairly similar (51 percent success rate in the slot, 48 percent success rate outside), they don't really touch on how Wright was actually utilized.
Very rarely was Wright actually split out wide on his own. Wright was actually on the line of scrimmage in just 31 of his 142 targets. Even when he was outside, he was often used with a slot role in mind.
Now, that's not necessarily a good thing. I think there's some truth to the notion that the Titans did him a disservice by pigeonholing him in to that role. But it's important to distinguish between the two so that we don't look at that stat and think that Wright was beating jams left and right. He very well could do that, in my estimation, but that's not what the Titans had him do last season.
WRIGHT VERSUS MAN, WRIGHT VERSUS ZONE
3. Wright was weighed down by his quarterbacks
Unlike when I looked at the Hilton tape, there weren't one or two bad games where a team was able to fully shut down Wright. Some teams got tighter coverage on him than others, but he didn't really struggle with physicality to the same extent that Hilton did.
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Instead, the consistent theme of his season was one of poor ball placement. Wright had a 67 percent catch rate if we look at every pass where he was listed in the play-by-play, but after watching every ball thrown at him, you begin to consider that a minor miracle. There were Jake Locker throws that were hurled at full speed to an uncovered Wright on a crossing pattern. There were wounded ducks from Ryan Fitzpatrick that barely found their way into the area Wright was headed towards. There were multiple balls from either quarterback that made you question why they were even thrown. To put it another way: at no point have I found a player with a -3.7% DVOA on the season reminding me more loudly that we can't escape the context of our surroundings.
Wright was not used very often on deep balls, but that doesn't mean that it has to be a weak area for him. The few that were successful tended to be Cover-2 posts over a middle linebacker that didn't have much chance, but Wright showed plenty of aptitude in separating from deep zones and creating windows for his quarterbacks to throw at. The problem was that, time and time again, those balls would sail harmlessly away. Some excerpts from my notes: "Ball wasn't really close, and could have been placed much better," "Ball didn't have enough velocity to beat these defenders," and "This ball had zero chance." Let's hear it for year four of Jake Locker! And hey, now Charlie Whitehurst is around too!
That's not to say that Wright is in no way complicit in these failures. He definitely doesn't have much separation speed late in his route, and he tends to stumble fairly often. But the quarterbacks are the bigger issue in Tennessee, especially when it comes to Wright's deep ball stats.
4. Wright primarily makes his living with his feet
Wright is a fairly savvy receiver against zone coverage, and he will often create separation with the first three steps of his route, even in the rare instances I've seen him used against press coverage. But the real fun comes when he finds the open field. We had Wright with 13 broken tackles last year -- we're still doing final cleaning on data so we don't have full numbers for last season yet, but that would've put him in the top 10 among all receivers in 2012.
Wright's combination of elusiveness and vision is his main calling card as a receiver. He showcases the ability to make subtle moves to shield himself from hard contact, he's able to figure out the way to get the most yardage intuitively, and he sets up his cuts and shifts without moving his feet backwards or slowing down much.
It's hard to believe that there's still extra room for Wright to grow, but a better quarterback and some extra work would definitely set his peak higher than he statistically showed last season. Despite being among the top 15 receivers in targets last season, Wright was only on the field for 75.1 percent of the offensive snaps. Despite a 66 percent catch rate, there's reason to believe that he could climb even higher with more accurate quarterback play. There's reason to be optimistic about him becoming an average deep target with more reps in that area.
Of course, given that Ken Whisenhunt is in charge of the offense now, and he was willing to sign Dexter McCluster just to try to replicate what happened in San Diego, perhaps we should temper optimism in the short term. Keenan Allen didn't really get many deep looks with Whisenhunt in an passing offense primarily focused on throwing short. Jake Locker is still around. Extra playing time and the willingness to actually play Wright outside could raise his numbers a bit next season, but his peak may be waiting on changes that are beyond what he can control.