Anquan Boldin Still Has Plenty Left in the Tank
With the draft completed and the majority of the impactful free agents already signed, most NFL teams know the basic construction of their roster for the upcoming season. At this time of year, transactions are more likely to resemble Thursday morning’s Calvin Pryor for Demario Davis trade, rather than anything of true significance.
There are always exceptions, of course, and this summer, one of those could involve Anquan Boldin.
Entering what would be his age-37 season, the veteran receiver has made no hints that he’s ready to step away from the game. At the same time, there hasn’t even been a rumor about his potential 2017 team in over a month. But even if Boldin serves a limited role somewhere this season, he can have a meaningful impact, because he’s still one of the league’s best threats inside the red zone.
Last season with the Detroit Lions, Boldin was one of the NFL's most targeted players inside the 20, tied for third in the league with two others with 23.
He was also one of the most efficient players in that area of the field per our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. Among the 12 players who were thrown at 20 or more times inside the 20, only Michael Crabtree had a higher Reception NEP per target (1.05) than Boldin (0.96). Boldin was Detroit’s go-to even though at 6’1”, he doesn’t profile as either the towering red zone threat or the shifty slot receiver who tend to dominate that end of the field.
He's a big-time bruiser, and if a defender doesn't get hands on him near the goal line, he’ll easily create separation.
But even if the defender does get hands on him, it might not matter anyhow, because there’s a good chance he’ll be unstoppably physical at the point of contact.
Big-time red zone production isn't new for Boldin, either. On the 2015 San Francisco 49ers team, Boldin was their top threat inside the 20, with 19 passes thrown his way -- Torrey Smith and Vance McDonald were tied for second on the team, with just 7. Boldin put up just 0.76 Reception NEP per target in the red zone that year, which isn’t great overall, yet was an accomplishment relative to the rest of the offense. McDonald was just slightly better at 0.77, while Smith came in at an awful 0.3.
Boldin's only value doesn’t just come from the red zone -- he was 37th overall in Reception NEP per target among the 92 wide receivers who saw 50 or more targets in 2016. At this stage in his career, he’s not going to be the number one target on a team -- he was third in Detroit last season -- but he can still be a useful part of an offense.
So where might he fit? Let’s look at some teams that need a reliable receiver with a nose for the end zone.
Only the New York Jets had a worse time throwing the ball in the red zone last season than the Carolina Panthers. Carolina scored just 13 touchdowns through the air inside the 20, which was tied for the fifth-fewest in the league. Also, the Panthers were worth negative-0.25 Passing NEP per play when they went through the air inside the 20.
Cam Newton’s top two targets were actually quite good -- Greg Olsen (16 targets, 0.91 Reception NEP per target) and Kelvin Benjamin (15 targets, 1.22 Reception NEP per target) made up for 45.6 percent of Carolina’s target share -- and rookies Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel should add a new dynamic, but the Panthers could be looking for a steady receiver who can be a physical presence in the slot.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Kansas City Chiefs were quietly one of the league’s worst red zone offenses in 2016. For a team known to avoid turnovers, they made a lot of mistakes inside the 20. They turned the ball over on 4.2 percent of their red zone plays, while no other team did so on more than 2.4 percent. That rate was also more than double their turnover rate on all plays, which was just 1.7 percent.
Kansas CIty and Alex Smith struggled throwing the ball in the red zone, too, with a negative-0.25 Passing NEP per play, which was third-worst in the NFL. Four Chiefs had 10 or more targets inside the 20, and those performances ranged from average (Travis Kelce at 0.56 Reception NEP per target) to downright awful (Chris Conley at 0.08).
Even as the Chiefs look to move Tyreek Hill into a more traditional receiving role, the team can still use some help on the outside.
What might make the most sense, however, is a reunion with the Baltimore Ravens. Baltimore lost its number two red zone target and overall target leader with the retirement of Steve Smith. Smith trailed just Dennis Pitta in passes thrown his way inside the 20 (13 to 12), but Smith was far superior in production (0.78 Reception NEP per target to 0.42). Baltimore also lost Kamar Aiken and Kyle Juszczyk who combined for 10 targets (7.4 percent).
The Ravens didn’t add any receivers during the offseason and will be hoping for bigger impacts from Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman. Neither of them were great in the red zone, though. While Wallace had a somewhat respectable 0.7 Reception NEP per target on 10 passes, Perriman was a mere 0.38 on just four passes. Overall, the Ravens were a bottom-third team inside the red zone, ranking 22nd in Passing NEP per play and 24th in overall offensive NEP per play.