Greg Jennings: The Minnesota Vikings Wide Receiver to Own
As we get ready to enter the NFL free agency period, the fantasy football community is in the throes of a passionate love affair with Minnesota Vikings second year receiver Cordarrelle Patterson. In a recent (way too early) industry mock draft I took part in, Patterson went at pick 4.06. I've seen him go as early as the late third round in other mocks. Fortunately in our recent mock, Patterson went in the sixth, which is at least understandable.
To an extent, I get it. Patterson has a first-round NFL draft pedigree, his talent jumps off the screen, our most recent memory of him included six total touchdowns in the final five games of 2013, and now our old pal Norval Turner brings his famed vertical passing game to Minnesota. The dots are easy enough to connect for those predicting a 2014 Patterson breakout.
While I'm as intrigued by Patterson's shiny new toy potential as the next fantasy football degenerate, I would beg fantasy owners to exercise caution. For Patterson to return third- or fourth-round value, a lot has to go right. And it may take more than the combination of Cordarrelle's freakish raw talent and Norv's ingenuity.
To be clear, I'm a huge believer in Norv Turner's presence meaning great things for pretty much all of Minnesota's offensive skill players. If you do not already possess this belief, you must immediately read Jeff Miller's piece on the fantasy impact of Norval calling the shots in Minnesota. Go ahead, I'll wait.
In that piece, numberFire's resident mustache enthusiast unequivocally proves that Norv's presence is cheery news for his team's number one wide receiver. I'm just not so sure that Patterson, at this stage of his development, is ready to be the number one wide receiver in Norv Turner's offense.
Norv, you see, likes to chuck it deep. Since 2007, his quarterbacks have finished outside of the top nine in deep passes (attempts 20 or more yards down field) only once. Last season, the unholy trinity of Brandon Weeden, Jason Campbell, and Brian Hoyer would have finished sixth in the category.
Patterson's average depth of target, courtesy of Pro Football Focus, was only 8.5 yards in his rookie season. As C.D. Carter recently pointed out on XN Sports, Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd didn't have an aDOT below 17.0 when they performed as top wide receivers within Turner's San Diego teams. Last season, Josh Gordon's aDOT was 14.3, tops amongst wideouts who saw at least 50% of their team's snaps.
Most importantly, those numbers carried over into our Net Expected Points metrics as well. In 2013, only 13 wide receivers with 20 or more receptions finished with a Target NEP total lower than Patterson's. In fact, every time Patterson was targeted last season for the Vikings, he was losing points for the team. While you may want to blame that on the play of his quarterbacks, keep in mind that Patterson's Target NEP was lowest among all Vikings wide receivers a season ago.
In order to make hay as a deep threat in the NFL, a receiver has to be able to get off the line of scrimmage, develop moves that enable them to get past pressing corners, understand how the opposing corner back is playing, and adjust to late rotations by safeties. In short, they have to run their routes well and that's always been difficult for receivers to master early in their career.
Route running ability (and general football smarts) happened to be the biggest knock on Patterson coming out of Tennessee. While it's fair to assume some improvement in his sophomore year, it would be taking an awfully big leap to think Patterson will wrap training camp with the acumen to truly thrive as a consistent deep threat in Norv Turner's offense.
If Patterson is going to have a fantasy impact, it will continue to be on bubble screens, hitches, slants, shallow routes, and designed runs. With a player like Patterson, the goal is to get the ball into his hands as quickly as possible, and let him weave through defenses with his deadly vision and ankle breaking moves after the catch.
While Carter's article highlights wide receiver comps with low aDOTs and high yards after catch numbers (most notably Percy Harvin) who were able to post WR1 seasons, you won't find any that have thrived in a Norv Turner offense. That's not to say Norv won't adapt to Patterson's strengths (after all, his first course of action as Vikings OC was to famously design 10 plays for Patterson), but isn't it more likely that one of the best route runners in the game, and an established deep threat would be the ideal candidate to flourish under Turner's play calling?
Is Greg Jennings the Value Pick?
It was only a year ago that the Vikings paid Greg Jennings $18 million guaranteed because he is one of the best wide receivers in the NFL. You'll remember Jennings as the fantasy stalwart who ranked inside the top 10 in total receiving yards, yards per game, receiving touchdowns, and yards per reception from 2007 to 2011. Perhaps more interestingly given the current circumstances, Jennings caught 49 passes of more than 20 yards during his time with the Packers, averaging 42.2 yards a catch, the best mark in the league during that time.
Much of the shine has worn off Jennings after an injury plagued 2012, his departure from the Green Bay Packers offensive juggernaut, and a predictably underwhelming 2013 debut in purple and gold. Those factors combined with all the hype around Patterson have created an exceptional buying opportunity. In the same mock that Patterson went at pick 4.06, I gladly snagged Jennings at 9.10 (one pick after Harry Douglas for context). If that difference in average draft position doesn't normalize by August, a bunch of lucky folks will be paying bargain basement price for their WR2.
Jennings is no stranger to running routes down field. Some may argue that Jennings doesn't have much to offer without Aaron Rodgers throwing him the ball exactly where it needs to be, but a look beyond the traditional numbers shows that he would have likely maintained WR2 production all year long in 2013 had he not been forced to withstand Christian Ponder's awful play for half the season (Ponder's -14.7 Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) total was 12th-worst in the NFL amongst quarterbacks who threw at least as many passes as he did).
Some advanced stat nuggets from Jennings' 2013 that would suggest he can still be very useful for fake football purposes:
- His 326 yards after catch ranked 24th at wide receiver.
- He posted .64 Reception NEP per target, which tied him with T.Y. Hilton for 21st at wide receiver (minimum 100 targets). Jennings high ranking in this efficiency category is telling because it shows he was still maximizing the targets he received.
- His 6.85% drop rate on catchable balls was 17th-lowest in the league at wide receiver.
- Per PFF, Jennings' quarterbacks had a 79.8 rating when they threw him the ball, ranking him ahead of Pierre Garcon, Andre Johnson, and A.J. Green, to name a few.
- Very importantly, he had a solid 33% catch rate on targets of 20 or more yards – good for a top 20 finish among receivers with at least 18 deep targets.
The Vikings recently locked up Matt Cassel on a two-year deal, presumably to give them a respectable bridge to their QB of the future. Cassel may not be Aaron Rodgers or Brett Favre, but he made the Vikings competitive, and was worlds better than Ponder (and the disastrous Josh Freeman) last season. Cassel's presence as Minnesota's starter, and his potential fit in Norv's offense are a big deal for Greg Jennings. Even just a couple of weeks ago, our own JJ Zachariason noted that Cassel's best fit was in Minnesota.
If there's one thing that Cassel does well, it's throw the deep ball. Cassel had a 97.7 QBR on deep pass attempts last season. And even if you hate QBR, when you factor in dropped passes, he completed 47.4% of his 20 plus yard attempts – good for sixth-best in the NFL.
Cassel's chemistry with Jennings is undeniable. In the six games started by Cassel, Jennings had 34 receptions for 413 yards and three scores. In the nine games started by Ponder and/or Freeman, he had 33 receptions for 391 yards and one touchdown. Jennings was every bit a fantasy WR2 with Cassel in the lineup – numbers that should be easy to sustain when we factor in the pending Norv Turner bump.
To put a bow on it, Greg Jennings is one of the best receivers to play in the NFL in the past eight years. In fact, he's had three seasons with a Reception NEP score of 100 points or higher, which is usually a top 10 to 15 Net Expected Points total among wide receivers. And the only time he's scored noticeably low within numberFire metrics was 2012, a season where he missed eight games.
Jennings is guaranteed to benefit from the aggressive vertical passing game Norv Turner is bringing to the Vikings. While he may not possess the size of some of Norv Turner's past WR1s, he makes up for it with savvy route running and great hands. He has been a top deep threat in the league as recently as 2010. Not only does he get to shake the stink of Christian Ponder and Josh Freeman next season, he (presumably) gets to play with a passer whom he enjoys a strong rapport.
I don't want to condemn Cordarrelle Patterson because I love to watch him play, but he might currently be the worst fourth-round draft pick in all of fantasy football. Video game numbers will be there in the handful of games where he's able to break a big play (or two...or three), but I'd venture to guess he'll leave you staring at just as many three-reception, 40-yard box scores when he's unable to hit the home run.
If you're going to invest in a Vikings pass-catcher for next season, make it the one who stands a chance of exceeding his draft day price tag. Patterson's ceiling might be third-round value, but you shouldn't have to pay the expectant price – not when you can draft the Vikings actual WR1 five or six rounds later.