Robby Anderson Has Been Quite a Find for the New York Jets

Entering the 2017 season, the New York Jets had the least talented roster in the NFL. With pretty much that same roster, the Jets have four wins in their first nine games -- a total some didn’t think they’d reach in 16 tries. To get there, some of the players on that roster had to outperform expectations.

Arguably none have done that more so than wide receiver Robby Anderson.

Anderson not only leads the Jets in targets (57) this season, he’s one of of 31 wide receivers to see at least 50 targets through the first nine weeks. For Anderson to even be in that group is surprising enough. For him to be succeeding among them is, well, unexpected for a former undrafted free agent from Temple in his age-24 season.

Taking the Lead

Among the aforementioned group of 31 receivers, Anderson is sixth in Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) per target. That’s to say, when the ball is thrown in Anderson’s direction, good things happen. By Reception NEP per target, he’s only behind the likes of T.Y. Hilton, Marvin Jones, Kelvin Benjamin, Brandin Cooks, and Tyreek Hill

In his rookie season, Anderson showed that his best skill was the ability to get behind the defense. What happened after that was a mystery between inaccurate passes (he was being thrown the ball by Ryan Fitzpatrick and Bryce Petty), drops (he had six, per Sports Info Solutions charting from Football Outsiders, a 7.7 percent drop rate), or a catch a little over half the time (53.8 percent catch rate).

Through 2017, the Jets have somehow upgraded at quarterback with Josh McCown, and Anderson has improved his catch rate up to 54.4 percent. His drops are still there but less of a problem -- he’s been credited with 3 drops for a 5.3 percent drop rate -- especially since his volume has continued to increase over 2016. Where those drops and incompletions have come are also vastly different than his rookie year.

Below is a chart of Anderson’s catch rate by depth of target, per The green line represents Anderson’s 2016 while the orange line is the league average. There’s a nice spike in the 15-25 yard range, but Anderson was well below average -- and increasingly so -- 30 or more yards down the field, where 24.4 percent of his targets came in 2016.

Now take a look at his 2017. There’s an odd dip between 5-10 yards, but Anderson has been above the league average on everything past 15 yards down the field.

Anderson hasn’t been getting thrown at as often super deep down the field -- just 14 percent of his targets have come 30 or more yards from the line of scrimmage -- but the Jets are still using Anderson as both their number-one receiver and top deep threat.

Per the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Anderson has been responsible for 37.1 percent of his team’s air yards this season. That’s the seventh-highest rate in the league and puts him in a group among some of the league’s best wide receivers. Here’s the top-10.

PlayerTeam% of Team Air Yards
Antonio BrownPIT45.02%
A.J. GreenCIN39.88%
DeAndre HopkinsHOU39.67%
Dez BryantDAL39.23%
Julio JonesATL39.05%
T.Y. HiltonIND37.88%
Robby AndersonNYJ37.11%
Michael ThomasNO35.60%
Marqise LeeJAX35.26%
Alshon JeffreyPHI35.03%

Expanding the Red Zone

While he stands at 6’3”, Anderson isn’t exactly a red zone threat. He has just four targets inside the 20 for only one reception, though that was a touchdown. Still, the Jets are either going to tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins (five targets) or spreading the ball around -- Jermaine Kearse and Bilal Powell have three targets each, Matt Forte and backup tight end Eric Tomlinson each have two.

What the Jets have done with Anderson -- and also Kearse -- is extend the concept of the red zone a bit. While Anderson has only four targets inside the 20, he has 11 from inside the 30, which leads the team. He has two additional touchdowns from that far out, too. Adding on those extra 10 yards but also treating it like a red zone opportunity, allows Anderson a little more room to get behind the defense. It’s worked perfectly the past two weeks.

Here Anderson is against the Atlanta Falcons' Desmond Trufant from the 25 in Week 8. Anderson was the isolated receiver to the right (bottom of screen) across from Trufant with two receivers on the opposite side. At the snap, Anderson froze Trufant and got outside with a stutter step. The near safety stayed in the middle of the field ,and it was too far for the deep safety to travel after starting on the far hash. Five or 10 yards closer and there might not be enough to set up the route and separation.

This past week, the Jets did the same thing against the Buffalo Bills' Tre'Davious White. The Jets motioned Anderson to the right, and he only needed a slight hesitation off the line to get behind the cornerback after White crept close to the line before the snap. Again, the two receiver side kept the deep safety on the far hash with too much ground to cover once Anderson broke free.

From the 30, Anderson has a Reception NEP per target of 0.94 opposed to his 0.64 mark inside the 20. McCown is also a better passer in that area, with 0.20 Passing NEP per drop back and 10 touchdowns from inside the 30, instead of 0.13 with 6 touchdowns inside the 20.

The Jets' offense is far from perfect. They still rank just 19th in total offense, per our schedule-adjusted metrics. But there have been bright spots, and the ability to rely on Anderson has been one of them.

For Gang Green, this season was always going to be about figuring out which pieces of the roster were worth building around as the team retooled. There’s been unexpected team success along the way, but sifting through the talent is still the main goal. Anderson has been a heck of a find and should be one of the pieces the Jets are most excited about going forward.