Will Hakeem Nicks Work in Indianapolis?

Hakeem Nicks hasn't scored a touchdown since December 9th, 2012.

If you didn’t notice, had an NCAA Tournament takeover last week, pushing other sports to the side. It was great for anyone who enjoys the Big Dance (if you don’t enjoy it, then you must have something against drama in sports), but the standard American was missing what is loved most: football.

While our focus was on the tournament, the NFL landscape was still changing. Free agency has brought us plenty of new faces to some very interesting places, and one of those free agents that we have yet to dive into is Hakeem Nicks.

About a week and a half ago, Nicks signed a one-year deal with the Indianapolis Colts, worth $3.5 million with $2 million in incentives. The 26-year-old has had health issues throughout his entire career, and the hope is that the small-risk contract for the Colts will reap huge benefits, as Nicks has shown to be a great wide receiver in the league.

Can it work in Indianapolis?

Nicks Through the Years

Like I mentioned, Nicks is only 26 years old, but you could argue that his knees are more like that of a 40-year-old father of three.

Just taking a look at his career’s injury report makes you cringe. Nicks has missed significant time for his foot, hamstring, ankle, leg, knee, and sometimes a combination of a couple of those. It hasn’t been pretty, as it’s resulted in plenty of missed time and games played where he hasn’t been 100 percent.

It’s difficult to distinguish which games he wasn’t perfectly healthy for throughout his career though. And instead of dissecting that aspect of Nicks’ NFL campaign thus far, let’s just dive into the numbers and see what he’s actually produced for the Giants since his 2009 rookie season.

As you may or may not know, we look at advanced statistics here on numberFire, specifically our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. With wide receivers, the NEP numbers we tend to look at are Reception NEP, Target NEP and Reception NEP per target. In other words, the amount of points added on receptions only, on all targets, and in terms of per target efficiency. For more on how Net Expected Points works, click here.

So how has Nicks performed analytically? In short, he’s pretty underrated. Throughout his five years, the ex-Giant has seen at least 100 targets every season outside of his rookie year, and has produced an average Reception Net Expected Points total of 76.15 per season. To give you some context, that type of production – and remember, that’s on receptions only – would have ranked 34th in the league this past season, just behind Julian Edelman.

And that’s just Nicks’ average, not even accounting for the time he's missed due to injury. While his volume-driven Reception NEP number has hovered around the 76 mark throughout his career, his second and third seasons in the NFL saw 96.27 and 100.88 Reception NEP totals. You’ll find that type of production from a top 15 wide receiver. While that may be more of a ceiling, that’s not bad for a guy who just signed a $3.5 million deal.

This isn’t just the product of seeing high volume either. If you think logically about it, a player with a high Reception NEP score could just be productive based on targets alone. High volume naturally equates to higher reception totals, and higher reception totals allows for a cumulative Reception NEP number to be higher.

But with Hakeem Nicks, he’s actually been really efficient. He’s totaled 380.77 Reception Net Expected Points over his career, and he’s done so on 534 targets, good for a Reception NEP per target of 0.71. Again, to help show what that means, we can look at the 2013 season. And in 2013, that type of efficiency would have ranked 20th out of 45 100-plus target pass-catchers, including tight ends.

Essentially, his reception-based numbers show me that, when healthy, Nicks is an above-average volume receiver. This is important to fantasy football, as we, fantasy owners, aren’t all that concerned with what happens when a wide receiver doesn’t catch the football. But the Colts may need to be a little worried about that with Nicks.

In terms of Target NEP – the number of points added on all targets – Nicks has struggled a bit. As noted, he’s averaged over 76 Reception Net Expected Points per season, but on all targets, this number drops to 28.21. Clearly a Target NEP score will never be higher than a Reception NEP one, but a significant drop between the two numbers shows that bad things happen when a player doesn’t catch the football, such as an interception or a key dropped pass.

Is his drop-off significant? Well, remember how he would’ve ranked 20th out of 45 100-plus target receivers in 2013 in Reception NEP? His Target NEP score would have ranked 36th. And it’s important to note that Victor Cruz, Nicks’ teammate, has yet to have a single season in terms of Target NEP that’s as low as Nicks’ average - this low score on all targets isn’t just a quarterback problem.

A low Target NEP number tells me that he lacks key-play ability (remember, this factors in drops), and perhaps the inability to make plays on poor passes. Or maybe it shows a lack of general motivation. Giants beat writer Dan Graziano, according to Rotoworld, alluded to this, saying that Nicks’ “chief motivation” was to stay healthy last season in order to get paid in 2014. Hmm.

Andrew Luck’s Colts

With Reggie Wayne turning 36 years old next year, it only made sense that the Colts would make a wide receiver splash in free agency. And Nicks could provide a bump in offensive efficiency in 2014.

The Colts, with Andrew Luck under center, have been a tad overrated over the last two seasons. Like I always tell people, it’s not that Andrew Luck doesn’t have unbelievable potential in this league, it’s that we’re placing that potential on his current production in the league. And that’s not a fair thing to do.

During his rookie year, Luck, under Bruce Arians’ offense, led the Colts to a below average 19th-ranked adjusted passing offense (in terms of Passing Net Expected Points). Key turnovers played a key role there – although Luck had good raw numbers, his true production was lacking a bit, especially when you consider the schedule he faced.

Under Pep Hamilton, things weren’t a whole lot better, as the Colts ranked 18th in Adjusted Passing NEP. It’s not that Luck was completely ineffective, especially when you consider what he brought to the table with his legs, but the passing offense was probably a little too loved by the masses. A rank of 18 is what would be expected without their number one receiver though.

All of this is to say that it’s not like this offense was clicking prior to Nicks landing a deal in Indianapolis. It was worth the gamble when you consider what he can do with the ball in his hands, but the Colts know just how big of a risk he is. And if Reggie Wayne, coming off an ACL tear, isn’t ready by camp, Nicks will be a solid backup plan.

If all three of the Colts main receivers – Hilton, Wayne and Nicks – are healthy, all this signing will do is make Indianapolis a more effective passing offense, hopefully forcing Andrew Luck’s numbers to look even better. If all are healthy, however, expect fluctuation week to week in terms of fantasy, as it’ll be hard to judge who will see the majority of the team’s targets. Especially in an offense led by a coordinator that tries to keep things balanced.

Overall, it's hard to argue with the signing. There's little downside given the contract he signed, and knowing that Hakeem Nicks can be a top 10 or 15 wide receiver, as shown by the numbers, the upside is well worth it. His health will determine his fantasy impact, as well as the fake football potential of the other offensive weapons on the Colts in 2014.