The other day on ESPN sports radio, Colin Cowherd was off on another one of his rants, this time about Aaron Rodgers, and how everyone wants to consider him an “elite” NFL quarterback based on his stats, despite the fact that he’s never won a playoff game.
To paraphrase Cowherd (I can’t remember his exact wording): This isn’t baseball where stats dictate everything and common sense is forgotten.
And yet, football is stat-driven. Dan Marino never won a Super Bowl, but will always be considered an all time great QB. Fantasy football is even more stat-centric. Everything is based on stats produced.
And … if you’re savvy enough, stats can be a valuable key to help you predict future fantasy trends, players on the upswing and decline, and make you a better overall evaluator of talent. This week’s statistical breakdown concerns new trends for receivers, tight ends, and passing games in general.
With four weeks of the 2010 NFL season in the books, a quarter of the fantasy football season, it is definitely a good time to start getting concerned about players that are underperforming.
For example, Marques Colston. Projected by many to be a top 12 fantasy receiver in 2010, Colston has been a non-factor for the most part this season. On the surface, we could just say that he’s underperforming and will come around at some point. In fact, there’s little doubt that he’ll have a big game or two at some point.
But WHY is he struggling to produce through four weeks? That’s the question fantasy owners need to be asking and researching, in order to determine when, and if, he’ll bounce back to early-season expectations.
This is where stats can help paint a picture of what is going on behind the scenes. Colston plays for New Orleans, a team that is notorious for spreading the wealth in the passing game.
Last year, Colston was the team’s top receiver with 70 receptions, 1074 yards and nine TDs. Not shabby when considered from a distance, but look at the rest of the story. The Saints finished 2009 with 378 receptions (all but 15 belonging to Drew Brees), divided amongst 16 different players. Logically, that would equate to approximately 24 receptions per player. Except, an interesting nine different receivers had double-digit receptions for the Saints in 2009 … seven of which had well over 30 each.
Colston’s 70 may look impressive considering he had 19 more than Devery Henderson, who finished 2009 with 51 catches. However, to better compare what Colston did to the rest of the WR field in the NFL, it is important to look at percentages, to put him on an even playing field with receivers in offenses that don’t pass as much as the Saints. Colston’s 70 catches in 2009 meant he caught 18.5 percent of Drew Brees’ completions in 2009.
That percentage is where I want to focus. How does it compare to other top fantasy receivers in 2009? Andre Johnson led all fantasy scorers in fantasy points. He had 101 receptions. The Texans finished with 399 completions. Johnson caught 25 percent of his team’s completed passes. In fact, out of the top 20 fantasy scoring receivers in 2009, all of them were more involved in their respective team’s passing game than Colston.
For more perspective: Randy Moss caught 22 percent of his team’s total completions in 2009. Wes Welker had 33 percent of the Patriots’ completions. Tom Brady had just eight more receptions than Drew Brees in 2009.
What’s this all mean? First, that Colston does more with less. A good trait, but one that is hard to sustain over the course of a season. Especially, when you are competing with a slew of other able bodies for attention.
So Colston’s slow start this season means what in the grand scheme of things? He hasn’t been as lucky in 2010. He has 18 receptions in the first four games, just 15 percent of Drew Brees’ 118 completions. Less than last season, yes, but when comparing it to the 11.4 percent of Brees’ passes he caught in 2008, the 15 percent in 2010 is looking more realistic than one would anticipate.
Another disconcerting factor, is how the ball is being distributed. As mentioned previously, the Saints had nine players with double digit receptions in 2009. Through just four weeks of 2010, they already have six, headed by Jeremy Shockey’s 20.
So while Colston posted top 20 fantasy numbers among wide receivers in 2009, he had to do so with less attention from Brees than other top receivers had from their signal callers. Colston was able to produce thanks to some big gains and nine TDs. While it is certain that Colston will find pay-dirt soon in 2010, and will continue to break a long one here and there, the increasing lack of consistent receptions makes him a week-to-week gamble, and not a surefire fantasy WR2, like most were envisioning.
Particularly, when looking at receptions per completions percentage (RC%) across the league so far.
Rising pass catcher Mark Clayton has caught 24 percent of the Rams’ completions in 2010, showing he’s heavily relied upon in the passing game. Considering the Rams’ success this season, expect Clayton to be used heavily in the offense and to see continued fantasy success.
Anquan Boldin, drafted after Colston in many drafts, has been solid through four weeks, and that isn’t surprising when looking at his RC%. He leads the Ravens with 27 catches, which is 32 percent of what Joe Flacco has completed so far in 2010.
Wes Welker, another receiver taken after Colston in a lot of leagues, partially because of injury concerns, has caught 31 percent of Tom Brady’s completions.
Mike Williams, the Tampa Bay rookie who was a late-round flyer in most league formats, has caught 22 percent of the Buccaneeers completions.
Nate Washington also has caught 22 percent of his team’s (the Titans) catches to date in 2010.
Mike Thomas, a sleeper in some fantasy circles, leads the Jaguars with 24 percent of the squad’s completions. (see more in this table)
The RC% has also helped highlight some of the emerging young tight end sensations in the game today. Dustin Keller has caught a gaudy 31 percent of the Jets’ overall completions this year. Tony Moeaki has 29 percent of Matt Cassel’s completions. Brandon Pettigrew has 20 percent of the Lions passing game in his corner. Zach Miller has 27 percent of the completions in Oakland.
But the best part of looking at a receiver’s RC% four games into the 2010 season, as suggested by Colston, is to help us better identify the teams that spread out the ball. A receiver is only as good as the opportunities he receives, and while certain teams have been proficient in overall passing attacks, their quarterbacks spread the love so much, it makes using a receiver from that team a weekly high risk/high reward proposition.
I’ve already highlighted the concerns in New Orleans. Sure, Lance Moore has looked good in a couple games. Devery Henderson had some nice stats. Shockey leads the team in receptions. However, you never know who will be the breakout guy from week to week. For all we know, Robert Meachem could use the Week 5 favorable match-up with Arizona to bounce back into the fantasy stratosphere.
Similarly, Chicago, under Mike Martz’s tutelage, has been spreading the Skippy on multiple slices of bread. Looking past Matt Forte’s team-leading 16 catches to date and unexpected upswing of tight end Greg Olsen (15 receptions), the Bears receivers are lead by Johnny Knox (12), Earl Bennett (12) and Devin Hester (9). Not too many front-liners there in terms of being the main cog, in what was supposed to be a high-scoring passing attack. Knox and Bennett are both catching 18 percent of Chicago’s completions. Will one receiver emerge from this clot of pass catchers and be a reliable weekly fantasy start? It’s looking less and less likely.
Brandon Lloyd and Eddie Royal are faring better in RC% so far this year for Denver and its new-found passing dominance, but don’t look past the fact that the Broncos already have six players with double-digit receptions in just four games.
Seattle is a team that has very little worthwhile weekly fantasy starters, and the receiving corps is no exception. The team is currently lead in receptions by John Carlson’s 14 catches, which is just 18 percent of the team’s 78 total receptions. Receivers Mike Williams and Deion Branch have 11 and 13 catches, respectively, but there are five receivers all within four receptions of each other.
To get a deeper look at how each team is doing in terms of receivers and RC%, check out this table, which lists each team’s top receiver to date in terms of total receptions in 2010, the team’s total completions through the first four games and what each top receiver’s percentage of catches per total completions currently is.
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