Was Anquan Boldin the Most Underrated Receiver This Season?

Anquan Boldin is awesome, regardless of your fandom.

We saw a lot of exciting catches in 2013. Maybe you remember this one from Alshon Jeffery against the Cowboys on Monday Night Football, somehow catching the ball and getting two feet down against two Dallas defenders.

Or maybe you remember Calvin Johnson’s catch against Cincinnati. To a guy like Megatron, a few defensive backs don’t mean a thing.

We’ve got athletic freaks in today’s NFL, from Brandon Marshall to the up-and-coming Josh Gordon.

And then there’s Anquan Boldin. He’s a beast in every sense of the word, but he plays a different game. He’s not flashy, and his highlights usually don’t appear as nice from the casual fan as they do from the eyes of a hardcore one. Instead of leaping over defenders, he's often found catching footballs in tight spaces, rotating his body in ways you never thought a 6'1'', 222-pound receiver could.

He just gets it done.

And during his first season with the San Francisco 49ers, I'm afraid he didn't get enough love. For some reason, it doesn’t seem like enough people are talking about what he accomplished with this team.

Boldin in Baltimore

To begin, let's look at what the now 33-year-old Boldin was able to do in Baltimore. He was limited there – a running squad with a top back, Ray Rice, and a somewhat limited quarterback, Joe Flacco. While there, Boldin had no more than 65 receptions and failed to reach the 1,000-yard mark, something he had done in five of seven seasons prior. In other words, it was clear that Baltimore wasn't ideal to show off his talents.

TeamTarget NEPReception NEP

If you’re unaware, Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) looks at how many points a player adds for his team on catches only. Target NEP, which I usually favor more when analyzing how well a player performed, looks at all targets, not just favoring what the player can do when he has the ball in his hands.

In Baltimore, Boldin was an above average receiver when you look at his ranking compared to all players with 30 or more receptions. But things changed, for the better, this season.

Boldin in San Francisco

When Anquan Boldin was traded to the 49ers, the thought was that he’d complement Michael Crabtree well, but not be the same top target we were used to seeing throughout Boldin’s underrated career. A Baltimore Boldin, perhaps, but the 49ers were a run-first team, and being the third target on that team didn't bring a whole lot of confidence statistically.

But then Michael Crabtree tore his Achilles tendon in May, making Boldin the number one wide receiver on the 49ers squad. Vernon Davis is one of the more versatile pass-catching tight ends in the league, but at receiver, the 49ers were lacking.

Boldin didn’t disappoint. His raw numbers on the season were great, as he caught 85 passes for 1,179 yards and seven touchdowns, but his advanced ones were even better.

TeamTarget NEPReception NEP
San Francisco1st/1526th/152

Anquan ranked sixth in the NFL this year among all players with 30 or more catches in Reception NEP, behind only the elite wide receivers. And in terms of Target NEP, no player added more expected points for their squad than Number 81.

That’s right – you could consider Anquan Boldin as one of the most valuable wide receivers in the entire NFL this season.

You may be wondering how or why, as his stat line was good, but not great. That’s the beauty of NEP. It looks past the standard stat lines, digging into what the player actually contributed on the field.

When a player is able to extend a drive, for instance, he becomes more valuable. Think about it: An offense has a Net Expected Points total of X at a particular down and distance on a football field, and a first down now made that "X" an "X + Y", where Y is the expected points added. Thanks to the person creating that play, "Y" is attributed to them.

Boldin was 10th among wide receivers in first downs this year, compiling eight less than leader Brandon Marshall. In other words, Boldin was expanding drives, being a value to his team.

There are some obvious reasons why both Boldin's Target and Reception NEP totals were so high this year. First, with Target NEP, you have to consider catch rate. After all, if you're looking at all targets, incomplete passes on those targets will be taken into consideration. And of the players with 60 or more receptions this season, Boldin had a catch rate that ranked seventh best in the league.

Plenty of receivers - like, say, Julian Edelman - may see a lot of targets though, but those targets aren't very far down the field. In other words, high catch rates alongside high volume doesn't always translate to production. And that's correct. But Boldin's high Reception NEP shows us that he wasn't just catching the ball a couple of yards from the line of scrimmage and falling over. In fact, of all receivers this year, Boldin tied for sixth in the NFL in 20-plus yard receptions.

In other words, folks, Boldin not only was clutch throughout the season, and he not only was catching the majority of the balls thrown his way, but he was making big plays as well.

Oh, and did I mention that he's consistently been one of the best blocking wide receivers in the NFL?

We get caught up in fantasy football statistics often, overshadowing what actually happens on the football field. Don't let that happen with a guy like Boldin, who has not only been underrated this year, but has been one of the most under-the-radar players in the league throughout his career.