Is Marques Colston Still a No. 1 Receiver?

Cian Fahey@CianafFeatured ColumnistJune 29, 2014

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An argument can be made that New Orleans Saints wide receiver Marques Colston is one of the best receivers in the NFL.

Colston entered the league in 2006 as a seventh-round draft pick out of Hofstra. He immediately became a productive receiver in Sean Payton's offense, as he and Drew Brees established a relationship to contend with any other quarterback-wide receiver tandem of the time.

His first regular season in the NFL resulted in 70 catches for over 1,038 yards and eight touchdowns. He had immediately surpassed the expectations of a late-round draft pick.

After eight seasons in the NFL, Colston has 607 receptions for 8,337 yards and 63 touchdowns. Those numbers give him the seventh-most receptions of any receiver during that time, the ninth-most receiving yards and the third-most touchdowns.

Needless to say, Colston was the Saints' most consistent and effective receiver. Their No. 1 receiver, if you like.

SeasonReceptionsReceiving YardsTouchdowns

In 2013, the then-30-year-old endured the worst season of his career. He was more productive than he was in 2008, but that is because he missed five games instead of one that year. While Colston was on the field more often, it must also be noted that he was playing at less than 100 percent entering the season.

Colston's total of 943 yards was his lowest since 2008, but furthermore, he had his lowest number of receptions (75) since the 2009 season, and he tied his career low for touchdowns (five) that he had previously set in 2008.

At the very least, Colston did finish strong in the playoffs. The Saints played two games in the postseason, one against the Philadelphia Eagles and one against the Seattle Seahawks.

Colston was quiet against the Eagles. He saw just three catchable targets and finished with 16 yards on two receptions. It was in the divisional round where Colston's production came. Against a vaunted Seahawks defense, the veteran receiver had 144 yards and a touchdown on 11 receptions.

Producing against the best secondary in the NFL and one of the best defenses the league has seen in a decade or two is not something many receivers in the NFL can do.

Interestingly, the Seahawks defense was actually a very good matchup for Colston. The Seahawks play a huge amount of zone, and they don't move their cornerbacks around the field to trail specific receivers. This meant that Colston could avoid Richard Sherman on the outside and work against zone coverage from the slot for most of the game.

This is where Colston is at his best.

Cian Fahey

This chart looks at all of Colston's catchable targets from the 2013 season. It includes plays that were ultimately negated by penalty, so Colston had 1,145 receiving yards on 93 receptions last season for six touchdowns, according to this chart.

Of those 93 receptions, an incredible 67 came against zone coverage. Those 67 receptions went for 794 yards, or 69.3 percent of his total yardage. Of those yards, 446 came when Colston lined up inside of the numbers, as did five of his six touchdowns.

Colston is an outstanding slot receiver who excels at finding the soft spots in zone coverage. He and Brees have an excellent understanding that has been developed over years of experience playing together.

However, while Colston excels against zone coverage, he appears to have a fatal flaw against man coverage.

Twenty-six of his 93 receptions came against man coverage, but nine of those didn't even go for 10 yards or more. Twenty-one of those 26 receptions came on plays when he lined up in the slot. Those plays accounted for 294 yards, meaning Colston had just 57 total yards against man coverage when he lined up on the outside last season—57 total yards on 17 targets and just five receptions.

A clear definition for the term "No. 1 receiver" does not exist. With that in mind, it's impossible to definitively decide if Colston is a No. 1 receiver or not. If we solely look at his production, then there is no argument.

If we apply a little more context, then the decision becomes a lot harder to make.

More than any other position in the league, production at the wide receiver position hinges on factors out of the player's control. Obviously, the individual playing the position has to be very talented to be productive, but he is also affected by the offense he plays in, the routes he is asked to run, the quarterback he plays with and how the defense sets itself up to stop the receiver.

The majority of receivers are dependent on quality service from the quarterback position to be consistently productive. Only a handful of players have proven that they can produce in spite of who is passing them the ball.

Throughout Colston's career, he has played with a future Hall of Famer and a record-breaking quarterback: Drew Brees.

Brees makes Colston's job easier because he is very accurate, but also because he consistently throws the ball on time and is adept at manipulating the coverage with his movement in the pocket.

Even when his receivers don't get open, Brees can use his understanding of ball placement and his anticipation to put the ball in a spot where only his receiver can catch it.

The quarterback is obviously very important. We can see that directly affect the receiver on a weekly basis. Scheme is more difficult to understand as we watch games because routes are run off screen more often than not, but that is important too.

If you were to argue that context is overblown, then the point you'd complain about is the impact of other receivers and how the defense sets up to stop specific receivers. Let's examine this hypothetical:

The Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots are playing each other during the 2014 season. Roddy White and Julio Jones are both healthy, while Darrelle Revis is back to his best for the Patriots. Revis follows Jones around the field for four quarters, so Jones only has two receptions for 10 yards. Meanwhile, White finishes the game with 10 receptions for 160 yards and two touchdowns working against Alfonzo Dennard.

In this situation, the production says that White is a No. 1 receiver, and Jones is not. It doesn't take into account the fact that the Patriots identified Jones as the No. 1 and used the best cornerback in the league to stop him.

While every team in the league doesn't have a Darrelle Revis-caliber cornerback (so obviously this is an extreme scenario), most teams in the league do adjust their coverages and game plans for specific receivers on a weekly basis.

This is where the debate on Colston's quality is created.

He has been one of the most productive receivers in the league over the last eight years, but he has also played in arguably the most diverse, high-powered offense in the league—an offense that has masked his very specific limitations.

If you expect No. 1 receivers to be productive no matter their assignment or supporting cast, then it's hard to argue that Colston qualifies.

Using Pre Snap Reads' method of analyzing cornerbacks vs. receivers in man coverage on every snap (shown below), we can see that Colston was almost completely shut down by the better man cornerbacks in the NFL last season.

ReceiverSucces vs. ShermanSuccess vs. RevisSuccess vs. PetersonCombined Success Percentage
Michael Crabtree3/6NA3/843%
Calvin JohnsonNA4/76/1742%
Vincent Jackson2/6NA7/1641%
Larry Fitzgerald4/101/8NA28%
Andre Johnson4/12NA5/2326%
Steve SmithNA4/226/1726%
Anquan Boldin4/203/113/1223%
DeSean JacksonNA1/53/1322%
Chris Givens1/80/85/1321%
Marques Colston0/51/111/79%
Roddy White0/51/7NA8%
Kenny Stills1/81/80/45%
Harry Douglas0/50/6NA0%
Pre Snap Reads

Colston faced Darrelle Revis, Patrick Peterson and Richard Sherman on 23 qualifying man-coverage snaps last year and failed to create separation on all but two plays.

While nobody ever really gets the better of Sherman or Revis, and Peterson is also a high-quality starter, Colston's numbers here highlight just how poor he was in relation to other receivers. It's no surprise that Colston's catch percentage falls from 81.4 percent in the slot to 69.2 percent on the outside.

In the slot, Colston is quick enough and big enough to take advantage of lesser physical talents. On the outside, he lacks a top physical trait to create separation. Therefore, he must battle for more contested catches on the outside.

Colston is 6'4" and officially listed at 225 pounds. Coming out of college, he ran a 4.5 40 time, so he was never an exceptionally fast straight-line sprinter. A lack of great athleticism was likely a big factor in why he fell so far in the draft.

He has proven to be athletic enough to be effective in the NFL, but his timid nature when playing the ball in the air negates his size too often.

When you look at a receiver such as Anquan Boldin, you understand how he is able to bully defensive backs for the football because of his size. However, Boldin extended his career into his 30s because he also has an aggressive attitude to attacking the ball in the air.

This my-ball-mentality is what allows bigger receivers such as Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant and Alshon Jeffery to get the most out of their size. When you're that big, you'll always have an advantage, but the player who attacks the football as early as possible generally is the one who wins in contested catch situations.

Colston had 13 contested drops last season and saw 15 pass deflections on targets that were deemed catchable. Now you wouldn't expect him to win in every single one of those situations, but he did drop just one catchable target when he was open, and at his size, you would expect him to be more efficient.

Too often, Colston would allow the ball to go across his body so he could catch it with his hands angled at the elbow. This would make the actual catch easier for him, but it also cost him opportunities to win the ball more often.

Even when Colston extended his arms or worked back to the football to catch it at the earliest possible point, he did so timidly and didn't show strength to fight off more aggressive defensive backs.

Because Colston regularly lined up in the slot and often pushed tight to the line of scrimmage when the Saints had three receivers to one side, he often faced slot cornerbacks and linebackers in coverage. He consistently failed to use his physical advantages against these players.

Rookie cornerback Nickell Robey went undrafted before the 2013 season and was forced to fight for a place on the Buffalo Bills roster during training camp. Even though he is a very talented cornerback, he primarily had to fight for his spot because he is 5'7".

Robey became a quality starter for the Bills because he plays bigger than his size. Somewhat fittingly, he was able to knock the ball away from the 6'4" Colston on this play because Colston plays small.

Even though Colston is running down the seam and expecting the ball to drift over his outside shoulder, he should recognize that Brees' pass is slightly underthrown and Robey is in a good position to attack it. Instead of waiting on the ball, he needs to attack it over Robey and catch it with his hands extended away from his body.

Colston allows Robey a clean opportunity to reach up and tip the ball away.

Brees is a very accurate quarterback, but he's not perfect, and too often Colston expected perfect passes to fall exactly where they were supposed to instead of being aggressive through contact. Whether that was a result of his foot issues is unclear, but it appeared to be more of an approach issue than a health problem.

Everything in analysis is relative, and it's clear that Colston wasn't as effective as his peers in contested situations during the 2013 season.

Colston's positives shouldn't be lost in the negatives. Producing against zone coverage is very important, and it takes awareness, intelligence and quickness to consistently find the soft spots fast enough for the quarterback to throw you the ball.

The beauty of Sean Payton's Saints offense has always been that it has a plethora of weapons with different skill sets to stretch the defense.

In 2014, tight end/wide receiver Jimmy Graham is expected to return and be fully healthy. Graham will be the focal point for defenses as they try to contain his overwhelming physical talent. First-round pick Brandin Cooks will be asked to replace and potentially improve upon the departed production of Darren Sproles.

Relatively young receivers Kenny Stills, Nick Toon and Joseph Morgan will have opportunities to establish themselves in different roles.

If the Saints offense is as effective as the design suggests it can be, then defenses will be forced to mix up their coverages on a play-by-play basis. You can't simply play man coverage against Graham and Cooks all day because both have specific physical traits that make them matchup problems.

That should give a healthy Colston plenty of opportunities to pick apart zone defenses.

Colston is the great barometer for the term "No. 1 receiver." Chances are, if you believe that production is the overriding factor in judging a wide receiver and that production is all a receiver needs to be considered a No. 1, then you probably consider Colston to be one.

If you put more of an emphasis on the player's situation and how the defense attempts to contain him, then you're more likely to consider Colston a good, but flawed player who will never be considered among the best in the league at his position.

For a former seventh-round draft pick, the fact that Colston's name can be put in that debate suggests that he has already had a great career.

Furthermore, the only opinion that really matters in this situation belongs to the team that Colston plays for. The Saints clearly believed that Colston was a No. 1 receiver who would stand the test of time when they gave him a five-year contract worth $36.3 million with $17.7 million guaranteed.


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