The ongoing argument about whether or not Eric Decker can be a team’s top receiver just got a whole lot nastier. That’ll happen when you go from catching Peyton Manning’s passes to Geno Smith’s ducks.
Late Wednesday night, the consensus top free agent wide receiver inked a five-year, $36.25 million deal - $15 million guaranteed – with the New York Jets. The fantasy football world couldn’t be more devastated.
Whether you believe Eric Decker is a legitimate number one pass-catcher or not, you can’t be happy about this move. The man clearly had inflated numbers over his last two seasons in Denver, sure, but the hope was that a reasonable situation would still be in Decker’s future. Instead, as it stands today, Decker’s quarterback in 2014 will be the one who ranked dead last according to numberFire metrics a season ago.
I’ve already written about Decker’s potential as a team’s go-to target. In the end, our numbers point to him being a great complimentary player, and one who is likely to succeed in the right situation.
And now, that’s precisely the problem.
The Jets’ Quarterback Situation
There are plenty of rumors indicating Michael Vick will be a New York Jet next season, and while that’s still nothing to get overly excited about, it certainly would be an upgrade over Geno Smith.
Yes, Smith was a rookie last season, and yes, you should only expect his game to progress into his sophomore campaign. But don’t let that optimism blind you from the horrendous season he put together in 2013.
Before we dig into his numbers though, let me get the biggest pro-Geno argument out of the way. We like to make excuses for young quarterbacks, and sometimes those excuses are valid. For Geno Smith, the justification for his bad rookie season was that he didn’t have any sort of help – the supporting cast was lacking.
I agree. In fact, it’s probably safe to assume that the Jets had the worst group of receivers in the NFL a season ago. In terms of Reception Net Expected Points, which measures the number of points added by a pass-catcher on receptions only, no Jets receiver ranked in the top 50 last year. Jeremy Kerley, the team’s “best” receiver, ranked 51st, Santonio Holmes finished 63rd and David Nelson was 73rd. For reference, Jeremy Kerley’s Reception NEP numbers were similar to Brandon LaFell’s. Yikes.
Are the wide receivers the number one blame for Geno Smith’s season though?
Surely it was part of it, but let’s not overstate the impact. If you failed a group project in college, are you just going to blame your peers? Of course not – you played a major role in that failing grade, too.
And Geno Smith did play a big role in the Jets struggles. Last season, he finished dead last among all quarterbacks within our Passing Net Expected Points metric, and of the 30 quarterbacks who dropped back to pass at least 300 times, Geno Smith tied for the worst Passing NEP per drop back rate.
Digging even deeper, since 2000, we’ve seen 629 quarterbacks drop back to pass at least 100 times. Geno Smiths’ 2013 season, in terms of Passing NEP, ranked 609th.
Over this same time frame, Smith’s first year ranked as the ninth-worst rookie campaign from a quarterback with at least 200 pass attempts (40 passers). The players he finished ahead of? David Carr, Chris Weinke, Kyle Orton, Chad Hutchinson, Blaine Gabbert, Andrew Walter, Jimmy Clausen, and Bruce Gradkowski. Players who had better rookie seasons than Geno Smith analytically? Christian Ponder, Kyle Boller, Josh Freeman, Sam Bradford, Joey Harrington and Ken Dorsey, just to name a few.
So while we can certainly say Geno Smith didn’t have much help, you could also argue that it didn’t really matter – he was still really, really bad. And a lot of the guys on the list above didn’t have much help either. Just as a good wide receiver can be a quarterback’s best friend (I’m looking at you, Megatron), a good quarterback can make the most of his mediocre situation.
This isn’t to say that Geno Smith can’t improve, and we should only expect improvement after the team signed Decker. However, if history is any indication – and it always is – Smith is not going to be what many want him to be in New York.
Receiver Performances for the Jets
Funny enough, Geno Smith’s rookie season numbers were nearly identical to Mark Sanchez’s from an advanced analytics perspective. I will admit that he was a bit better on a per drop back basis, but Passing NEP-wise, Smith and Sanchez were just one point apart.
I’m not saying that’s what Jets fans get to look forward to with Geno Smith, but if he doesn’t improve, we could be looking at another offensive dumpster fire. During Sanchez’s four years as a starter, he broke the -59.00 Passing NEP mark just once. For context, that’ll make you a bottom three starter just about any year. The 2010 season was the only one where Sanchez was half decent, posting a 4.81 Passing NEP score. That ranked 25th among all quarterbacks with 100 or more drop backs.
As a result, the wide receiver play on the team suffered dramatically. The highest reception total from a Jets receiver since Sanchez entered the league came from Jerricho Cotchery in 2009, where he caught 57 passes. The best season, in total, came from Braylon Edwards in 2010 – Edwards put up 53 catches for 904 yards and seven touchdowns. That season, Braylon’s Reception NEP ranked 23rd in the league.
The Jets haven’t had a wide receiver haul in more than Edwards’ 904 yards since 2009 though, and the highest touchdown total from a wide receiver on the team over this time has been eight.
You could put it together yourself, but combining the best seasons from a Jets receiver within each relevant fantasy category – receptions, yards and touchdowns – you’d see a stat line of 57 catches for 904 yards and eight scores. That’s 195.4 full-point PPR points, which would have ranked 28th among fantasy receivers in 2013.
I’m not exactly saying this is Eric Decker’s ceiling next season, as Decker is probably the best receiver the team has had over the last five years (at least arguably), and Geno Smith may come out of nowhere and outperform Sanchez’s metrics.
But even if Geno is more efficient, the team’s consistent low pass-to-run ratio is going to handcuff any sort of upside for Decker.
Rex Ryan, like Sanchez, joined the team in 2009. Since, the Jets have been a competitive team – especially defensively – but they also have never had higher than a 1.32 pass-to-run rate. And in four of Ryan’s five seasons, the Jets’ ratio has been under 1.10. For some perspective, a ratio of 1.10 would have ranked 27th in 2013.
And we should expect a run-heavy approach to continue into 2014. According to Rotoworld.com, it's been reported that the Jets are trying to limit Geno Smith to fewer than 20 passes per game next year. That's about 320 pass attempts for Geno Smith this upcoming season, which is 96 fewer than what Colin Kaepernick saw in the league’s most run-heavy offense this past season.
Even if Geno Smith makes the most significant jump our numbers have ever seen from a quarterback in Year 1 to Year 2, the passing game’s fantasy outlook won’t automatically see an increase in production due to the team’s obvious love for pounding the rock. And that’s terrible news for Eric Decker.
Decker in 2014
To many, the one saving grace for Decker is the fact that he scored eight times in 2011 for Denver while Tim Tebow and Kyle Orton were quarterbacking. But please (please!) don't let that touchdown total overshadow what actually happened that season.
As mentioned in my article on Decker from last week, of the 127 seasons since 2000 where a receiver had between 90 and 100 targets (Decker had 94 in 2011), Decker's Reception NEP ranked 109th. And if you look at the 626 seasons where a receiver had 90 or more targets, Decker's 2011 campaign ranked 589th. So, sure, he scored eight touchdowns, but he also was really, really inefficient.
And while this won't be a popular statistic, the 2011 Broncos ranked 29th within our Adjusted Passing Net Expected Points metric - when adjusted for strength of schedule, they weren't the worst passing team with Orton and Tebow. Their adjusted number was -64.81, losing almost 65 points through the air compared to what a team would do in a similar situation. In 2013, the Jets finished just 10 points better, ranking 28th. It's not as though Decker is being placed in this superior situation when comparing it to the 2011 Broncos, and if the reports are true about Geno's potential volume in 2014, the Jets could be just as run-happy.
I haven't even mentioned the fact that he'll be facing tough AFC East corners next season, is now the focal point at receiver for opposing defenses, or that no New York Jets wideout had more than two top-24 (WR2) weekly performances in PPR leagues last year (Week 17 aside). And actually, New York Jets receivers saw just six totalweekly top-24 games a season ago - that's as many as Victor Cruz and Mike Wallace had individually.
We all wanted him to go to Indianapolis. It would have been a fantasy football dream, making the position that much deeper. But now, in New York, Eric Decker's fantasy value has completely gone away. It's not just because he isn't a true number one receiver, either.