Why Do the Oakland Raiders Love Seth Roberts?

Seth Roberts still profiles as Oakland's third receiver after a lackluster 2016 season, and he's an odd fit on one of the league's top up-and-coming offenses.

There’s been a lot of talk around the Oakland Raiders this offseason, and much of it makes sense. Excitement around luring Marshawn Lynch out of retirement? Sure. Optimism of young team climbing to towards top of AFC? Doable. Massive contract about to be given out to Derek Carr? The market calls for it.

But not everything about this team feels logical. At the top of that list is the love for wide receiver Seth Roberts. In an offense that could compete in an argument for best supporting cast in the league, Roberts is entrenched as the No. 3 receiver behind Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper. He was third on the team with 77 targets in 2016, but he did little with that opportunity. By our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, he was one of the least efficient receivers in the league.

In 2016, 92 wide receivers saw at least 50 targets and among them, Roberts ranked 83rd in Reception NEP per target. The only competition the Raiders brought in at receiver came by way of Cordarrelle Patterson, who ranked 85th in that subset (on 70 targets) last season for the Minnesota Vikings. Oakland did sign tight end Jared Cook, but even that signing was somehow used by Carr to hype up the opportunity for Roberts last week during OTAs.

That's quite a way to talk about a new addition to the team. It's clear the Raiders regard Roberts highly, but his story so far is figuratively and literally a tale of two seasons.

Why The Love?

When the Oakland offense was below average and Carr ranked 29th among quarterbacks in Passing NEP per drop back in 2015, Roberts was quite good statistically. As a rookie, Roberts played a little more than half of Oakland’s offensive snaps -- 53.6 percent -- but was still third on the team with 55 targets.

Overall, he fared well on those looks, ranking 17th in Reception NEP per target among 86 wide receivers thrown to at least 50 times. Cooper and Crabtree, who had many more targets than Roberts, ranked 48th and 68th, respectively. With a solid performance on a decent unit, Roberts might have earned himself some praise heading into the next season.

The problem for Roberts is that while everything else got better in 2016, he got worse. The offense was eighth in Adjusted NEP per play, and Carr was eighth in Passing NEP per drop back. The top two wide receivers both improved by Reception NEP per target, though not by much -- Cooper ranked 44th and Crabtree 49th among receivers with at least 50 targets. Roberts, as a reminder, was 83rd.

Despite more snaps -- 67 percent -- and 22 more targets, Roberts had the same amount of touchdowns (5), just 4 more receptions, and 83 fewer yards in 2016 than he did in 2015.

Cold in the Red Zone

Where Roberts really cost the Raiders in 2016 was with his inefficiency inside the 20, a place in which the Raiders don’t just love him more compared to others in Oakland, they love him just about more than any team loves any other receiver in the end zone.

Last season, 12 players saw at least 20 targets in the red zone. Roberts was one of them and the least efficient of them, ranking last in Reception NEP per target, ninth in catch rate, ninth in Success Rate -- the percentage of plays positively impacting NEP -- and in a five-way tie for the second-fewest touchdowns of the bunch.

PlayerRZ TargetsRZ Catch RateTDsRNEP/TargetSuccess Rate
Jordy Nelson3263.6%110.8890.5%
Kyle Rudolph2560.0%60.9580.0%
Davante Adams2360.9%90.8671.4%
Anquan Boldin2365.2%60.9686.7%
Odell Beckham2343.5%50.570.0%
Michael Crabtree2254.5%61.0591.7%
Emmanuel Sanders2240.9%30.4988.9%
Demaryius Thomas2171.4%40.9480.0%
Seth Roberts2142.9%40.477.8%
Brandon Marshall2133.3%40.4271.4%
Jimmy Graham2040.0%40.71100%
Larry Fitzgerald2065.0%40.7592.3%

Again, like his overall production, Roberts was much better in 2015. He didn’t see as much volume, but he was still second on the Raiders with 10 targets inside the 20. On those 10 targets, Roberts had 5 touchdowns and was worth 1.51 Reception NEP per target. A 50 percent touchdown rate was unlikely to be sustained, but in 2016, he scored less touchdowns on double the targets.

Another thing that disappeared for Roberts in the red zone was his hitch-and-go route. In 2015, 4 of his 10 red zone targets came on some variation of a hitch-and-go. All four were caught, three resulted in touchdowns, with the other caught with just one foot in bounds. The Raiders were so eager to get to Roberts on this route in Week 3 of 2015, they even added a pick from Cooper off the line.

But in 2016, just 1 of his 20 targets came on a hitch-and-go. That was caught, but again, with just one foot in bounds. The only unsuccessful attempts at that route in the red zone were due to the inability to stay in bounds, none of the six attempts were listed as "passes defended," but it’s unclear why they were eliminated in 2016 despite the overall increase in volume.

What’s the Catch?

There's also the issue of Roberts’s consistency catching the ball. Drops on their own aren’t a great indicator of ability. Some players drop the ball more than others, but some also get thrown the ball more than others.

We also never really know what a drop is. Different places chart drops differently, but per Sports Info Solutions charting from Football Outsiders, Roberts was tied for the league lead with 12 drops in 2016. He was tied with his teammate Crabtree, but Crabtree saw 68 more passes thrown his way. This was a bigger problem for Roberts than Crabtree in 2016.

What’s most concerning about Roberts’ struggles with catching the ball is where on the field the drops happened. The passes Roberts saw were, on average, fairly close to the line of scrimmage. He had an average depth of target (aDOT) of 9.4, which ranked 69th among the 92 receivers with 50 or more targets.

The relationship between aDOT and catch rate is fairly correlated, at -0.65 in 2016, meaning the closer a player is to the line of scrimmage, the more likely that player is to catch the ball, which isn't surprising.

On this line, Roberts was a bit of an outlier. While he had the 23rd-lowest aDOT, he also had the 11th-lowest catch rate (49.4 percent). There were 26 receivers who had an aDOT below 10.0, and among them only Roberts had a worse rank in catch rate than aDOT. For example, Cole Beasley was 90th in aDOT but first in catch rate. New Raider Cordarrelle Patterson was 92nd in aDOT but sixth in catch rate.

In 2015, Roberts had a similar aDOT of 9.6 and a much better catch rate of 58.2 percent. However, that catch rate was below the league average and well below what would be expected with passes that close to the line, though he was credited with just four drops that season.

What Does It Mean?

What we have are two rather different Seth Roberts seasons -- one bad and one good -- but the results of those seasons are inverse of the offense as a whole. Oakland is again expected to have one of the league’s better offenses in 2017, and it’s likely Roberts is going to see a decent amount of volume in the passing game.

His main competition for his role is the underwhelming Patterson and, well, maybe himself. But even through the struggles of 2016, the Raiders never lost confidence in the receiver, and it appears he’ll be given every opportunity to live up to his 2015 performance. Last season suggests that might not happen, and for now Roberts might be the strangest regular piece in any of the league's top offenses.