Will DeSean Jackson Be a Top Fantasy Receiver in Washington?
“No player in NFL history has switched teams within same division after he had at least 80 catches and 1,200-plus receiving yards in the previous season.”
That stat was courtesy of ESPN’s Adam Schefter. And it was in response to DeSean Jackson, a career-long Philadelphia Eagle, signing with their rivals, the Washington Redskins.
Whatever your feelings are towards Jackson and the recent reports surrounding his off-the-field life, one thing’s for sure and can’t be disputed: the dude can ball. Though inconsistent at times, D-Jax has proven that he can be one of the league’s best deep-ball threats, capable of taking it to the house on any play. And really, the Redskins could use that type of playmaking ability in their up-and-down offense.
Admittedly, up until last season, Jackson’s been an overrated fantasy asset. Before Chip Kelly, D-Jax reached the 1,100-yard mark just once over five years, typically scoring just four or five times in a season. It’s not as though he was a PPR machine either, never seeing more than 62 catches in a single season before last year happened.
But looking at high-level statistics like yards, touchdowns and catches won’t necessarily give us a glimpse of what Jackson can do in Washington. Saying “he was overrated” is poor analysis. So let’s dig deeper – let’s take a look at some of numberFire’s advanced receiving metrics to see the kind of receiver Washington is getting, and the type of fantasy impact Jackson can have with his new team.
Jackson’s Historical Metrics
Before I slap a chart on here and start writing about it, I want to first talk about numberFire’s main football metric, Net Expected Points (NEP). A measure of the number of points a player adds to his team over the course of a season, NEP looks at individual down and distance and game situations to determine the influence a player has on his team. You can read more and see an example of it in action here.
Like I mentioned in my Eric Decker piece a few weeks back, receivers are always tricky to analyze with metrics, as they rely heavily on their quarterback’s play. However, putting everything in context helps, and that’s what I’m here to do.
We use three main receiving metrics, among others, to help determine how well a receiver is performing: Reception NEP, Target NEP and Reception NEP per target. Simply put, Reception NEP looks at the number of points a player is adding on receptions only, while Target NEP puts a value to how a player performed on all targets, factoring in incompletions, dropped passes and interceptions. Reception NEP per target is an efficiency metric, taking the Reception NEP and dividing it by volume.
Through the years, Jackson’s rankings within these categories among pass-catchers with 30 or more receptions are listed below:
|Reception NEP Rank||Target NEP Rank||Reception NEP per Target Rank|
By no surprise, he’s been a pretty productive receiver. Because of his big-play ability, Jackson rarely does poorly in Reception NEP. After all, the metric looks at points added only on receptions, so if he’s consistently catching the deep ball and seeing enough volume, that number will be high.
He’s been a little all over the board with Target NEP and Reception NEP per target, but he’s still – pretty easily, too – a top-half receiver within those metrics. His Target NEP was poor during his rookie season, but having high expectations for a rookie receiver isn’t fair. And his metrics took a dive in 2012, but Philly had poor quarterback play that year, finishing 27th in passing according to Net Expected Points. He also missed time, but keep in mind that his efficiency (per target) numbers were still the worst he’s ever seen
Jackson’s best seasons came in 2009, 2010 and 2013, which is no surprise for anyone who’s peeked at his raw numbers.
But they were also three of the four best passing seasons the Eagles have had since the year 2000. Philly’s passing marks during those three seasons, in terms of Adjusted Passing Net Expected Points (fixed for strength of schedule), were 70.04 (2013), 56.93 (2009) and 53.98 (2010). Those numbers may not mean a thing to you, but when averaged, they’d rank as a near top-10 passing offense.
That’s really been the norm for Jackson. Since he’s entered the league, he’s been fortunate to play with top-notch passing attacks nearly every season. In fact, the only time his passing offense ranked in the bottom half of the league was 2012, the year where his numbers dipped dramatically.
And that’s where I become uncertain with Jackson. While any top-tier receiver – fantasy receiver, too – will usually need sound quarterback play (aside from the true studs, of course), Jackson seems to really only be close to a top talent when his passing attack is as well. And that’s fine – he can bring things to a real football field that sometimes doesn’t show up on pretend pigskin stat sheets. But in the one season where Jackson’s passing attack slipped, so did his numbers. Perhaps this is an example of him being the one-trick pony a lot of folks talk about, as he is much more productive when the rest of the field is too.
The strong positive relationship between good wide receiver play and solid quarterback production isn’t uncommon, but we also find plenty of receivers outperforming Jackson’s typical season, all while playing in worse passing offenses. Just in 2013, players like Jordy Nelson, Vincent Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Andre Johnson, Torrey Smith, Michael Floyd, and T.Y. Hilton posted better rankings than Jackson has accomplished through the years, all with passing attacks that ranked outside of at least the top 10.
Now that he’s away from Philly, he no longer has the benefit of playing with Chip Kelly and a typical top-half passing attack. Can his numbers keep up in Washington?
Jackson in Washington
Philadelphia’s passing offense with DeSean Jackson dipped below the 48.23 Adjusted Passing Net Expected Points mark just once during his six years with the team. As I said, that number is typically one that ranks close to the top 10 in passing effectiveness.
Since 2000, Washington has reached that rating just twice.
To be fair, the Redskins have been lacking at the position under center for years. Once RGIII entered the picture in 2012, the team finished with their best passing total, according to NEP, in over a decade. It’s just a shame that we’re still unsure if that total will be reached in 2014, given the way 2013 unfolded.
It’s all a little frightening. Jackson benefits strongly from good quarterback play, and Washington’s currently in a place where we have no idea what to expect. In two years, they’ve once ranked towards the top of the league in passing, and once towards the bottom. And they now have an inexperienced head coach calling plays – one who I detailed as being overrated earlier in the offseason.
Playing it safe, we should assume that Washington’s passing offense isn’t as efficient as the ones Jackson has seen in Philly. RGIII needs to bounce back big time, and Jay Gruden’s passing offenses in Cincinnati, though a little pass-heavy, weren’t efficient. The article linked above takes a look at that in more detail.
The one thing that Jackson would need in Washington to make up for a lack of efficiency is volume. And in truth, while a lot of folks may disagree, I’m not certain he’s going to reach the high-end of his target totals in 2014.
In Philly, the only team Jackson played for that threw the ball fewer than 585 times (drop backs) in a season was Chip Kelly’s 2013 squad. Their pass-to-run ratio was a low 1.11. In Jackson’s five other seasons, the Eagles never had a pass-to-run ratio lower than 1.31, and they averaged 617 drop backs per season. Though Jackson was hurt at times, 120 targets was usually his max.
Jay Gruden, the new head coach in Washington who coordinated and called plays for the Bengals from 2011 to 2013, threw the ball 560, 587 and 616 times (again, these are drop back numbers) while in Cincinnati. The Bengals’ pass-to-run ratio hovered between 1.23 and 1.37, which is lower than what DeSean is used to seeing.
That’s not to say that Jackson won’t see more than 130 targets next season, especially considering Pierre Garcon ended with a ridiculous 182 in 2013. But volume-wise, the offense may not be as pass-happy as some make it out to be, and even if it is, there’s the solid chance that it won’t be any more efficient than what Jackson’s been part of in the past. There's not a whole lot of reason to think he'll reach his 2013 numbers, which ended as low-end WR1 totals in fantasy.
Fantasy Football Outlook
Even in Jackson’s best season, 2013, he finished as a near WR2 in PPR leagues (the number 12 receiver). He was a little more consistent last season than he’s typically been too, finishing with the 11th-most top-24 weekly wide receiver performances.
Traditionally, D-Jax will get you between three and six top-24 weekly receiver games, making his end-of-season totals look a lot better than the roller coaster ride he takes you on each week in fantasy land. I don’t expect things to be much different in Washington, either.
To summarize, Jackson’s been a very solid receiver since entering the league, but has benefitted from playing in one of the more consistent passing offenses in the NFL. And his numbers, albeit in a limited sample, are strongest only when his passing offense is as well. That plays into the idea that he’s a one-trick pony. Though he can do a lot for an offense – like stretching the field – that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet, and that's what fantasy owners should care about.
Washington’s passing offense isn’t as good as Philadelphia’s too, nor has it been over the last six years. Can it be? With the ambiguity surrounding how Jay Gruden will perform as head coach, as well as how RGIII will perform after a bad season – yes. It can be. But I’m not going to bank on it being a top 10 to 15 unit, something Jackson consistently saw in Philadelphia.
The only way Jackson does what he did last season for the Redskins is if he sees a major uptick in volume. And while that may occur, I don’t see it being significant enough to make up for the potential deficiency in the passing attack.
Signing DeSean Jackson wasn’t a bad move for the Redskins – fantasy football production doesn’t always translate to real football production. But for years, fantasy owners have been inflating the value of DeSean Jackson, making him out to be an elite asset. He’s not. That’s not his game. I’d be very surprised to see him finish near WR1 status during this upcoming season, though, as always, we’ll see him have a few monster weeks.