Can Josh Doctson Overcome His Inefficiency?
In the life that most of you know me, I’m a football writer, but in one of my other lives, I’m a gamer: a player, designer, aficionado. I like to listen to or watch others playing games because it gives me that much joy to be around the activity itself.
The only thing that pains me about gaming is when I see people playing inefficiently. I want to jump in, grab their cards or pieces, and help them reallocate their resources more effectively (but that would just get me uninvited to game night).
That’s why it pains me so much to see a player like Washington wide receiver Josh Doctson – who has so much talent bursting out of his pores – wallowing in the kind of inefficiency he had in the 2017 season.
The beginning of Doctson’s NFL career could not have gone much worse if it was being scripted. In early June of 2016 – the beginning of minicamp – he injured his Achilles’ tendon and remained out for all but two games in his first year in the pros. In those two contests, Doctson saw a grand total of seven targets, converting just two to catches for a ridiculous 66 yards.
This has been the entirety of his career thus far in a nutshell.
In 2017, Doctson’s story was basically the same: come into OTA’s and training camp injured (Achilles’, hamstring, and groin), start the year slow (three targets in the first three games), and end up overall impactful but inefficient (502 receiving yards and 6 touchdowns on 35 catches – with 78 targets). The rates of production certainly don’t look good, but his scoring was pretty impressive, considering everything else.
Just how effective was Josh Doctson in his first “full” year?
We can check his value added in terms of numberFire’s signature metric, Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP describes the contribution a play (or player) makes to their team’s chances of scoring. By adding down-and-distance value to the box score production, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.
One thing we can note is that Doctson’s inconsistency was perhaps his most defining trait. His 44.87 percent catch rate was dead last among the 54 wide receivers with at least 75 targets this year, with just a middling 24th-best Reception Success Rate (the percent of catches converted for positive NEP value). Doctson didn’t make plays often at all, but on average when he did, they were solid plays – not just downfield bombs or highly-valuable touchdowns.
When we look at Doctson’s Reception NEP per target (a measure of his average value per play), though, it becomes clear he had a season that was anything but stable. The table below shows his production in this metric, as well as his ranking among receivers who saw at least 75 targets.
Doctson was in the bottom-10 of the league's high-volume receivers in average value on receptions. This metric does depend a certain amount on the value provided by the quarterback and offense as a whole, and losing talented former offensive coordinator Sean McVay dampened the Washington offense this year – 2016’s schedule-adjusted Passing NEP per play of 0.25 plummeted to 0.08 this year. Still, Doctson’s rate was well below the average Washington wide receiver this season, which came out to 0.62 Reception NEP per target.
It turns out not catching the ball is a bad skill for a wide receiver, and Doctson hasn’t proven consistent enough to thrive on red-zone targets and downfield plays. Despite first-round talent and a recent draft pedigree, he just hasn’t been good so far. He’s the perfect example of misspent resources right now.
You Sank My Battleship
I don’t like to imagine that Doctson’s early-career inefficiency will plague him for the rest of his career, but it’s tough to see a major rebound from this kind of start. The historical comparisons for his debut are not very encouraging.
I searched through numberFire’s database for wide receivers since 2000 matching Doctson’s numbers this year: at least 75 targets, a catch rate below 45 percent, a Reception NEP per target rate below 0.56, and a Reception Success Rate of 86 percent or below. Including Doctson, eight player-seasons that fit the bill, shown in the table below.
|Year||Player||Team||Targ||Targ NEP/Targ||Rec NEP/Targ||Catch Rate||Rec Success|
None of these players ended up as household names. Chris Chambers is perhaps the most notable of the bunch – having played for 10 seasons in 153 career games – and he only averaged 0.64 Reception NEP per target in his career (just worse than what Mohamed Sanu did this year).
Perhaps even more terrifying for Doctson’s future prospects is fellow former early-round “tools” selection Greg Little's appearance on this list, in his career-defining 2013 season with the Cleveland Browns. Little’s 0.31 Reception NEP per target still stands as the fifth-most inefficient mark in numberFire’s records since 2000.
No matter who you compare Doctson to – whether on this list or among his modern-day peers – things don’t look good for his career so far. Few receivers have been so inefficient in so many ways and come back to have a long and substantial career.
I’m not expecting Doctson to outright thump history in this game, but if he can just draw even before he’s out of the “Not For Long” NFL, that would be quite a victory from this point.