The Most Impressive Under-the-Radar NFL Seasons From 2013

Kellen Clemens had a very underrated 2013 campaign filling in for Sam Bradford.

The NFL offseason is in a sad place. We’re weeks removed from the start of the hectic free agency period, and because the draft was pushed back this year, we still have over three weeks until the Texans make their number one overall selection.

I love baseball, don’t get me wrong, but we need a little more football in our lives.

So to keep the excitement going about the game with the pigskin, I decided to look back at our 2013 database and analyze some of the players that no one is talking about – guys who performed well, but perhaps weren’t flashy.

To do this, I’ll be looking at numberFire’s Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. In essence, NEP looks at the number of real points a player adds for his team over the course of the season, based on his performance on each individual down and distance and game situation. To read more about the metric, click here.

Keep in mind that our NEP metric is offensively-driven, so the list below is going to consistent only of players on that side of the ball.

Anquan Boldin, Wide Receiver

Why he’s on this list: Led the league in Target NEP

I’ve written a couple of articles on Boldin already this offseason, so I’ll keep this one short (you can view both articles here and here). No player in the NFL was better within the Target NEP metric than Boldin last year, as his 88.76 score was over five points better than Demaryius Thomas’. What this means is that Boldin effectively added 88.76 points for the 49ers on all of his targets, which is an impressive feat considering Colin Kaepernick wasn’t a top-five quarterback in Passing NEP, and that Boldin’s old enough to be your father.

As I’ve said many times, Boldin’s effectiveness within the Target NEP metric just shows his sure-handedness and ability to pick up gains when his team needs him most. In fact, Anquan finished 2013 with the 10th-most first down receptions among wide receivers, and of those top 10 players, only Calvin Johnson and Josh Gordon picked up first downs at a higher rate. Given the fact that he wasn’t targeted as much as those receivers, he was able to be more efficient, capturing this top rank in Target NEP.

Tony Romo, Quarterback

Why he’s on this list: Finished ninth in Passing NEP per drop back

I’m not necessarily a Romo backer, but I do hate the lack of love he receives given his late-game breakdown perception. He’s a good quarterback, and even when he doesn’t get a lot of love – like in 2013 – he still performs well.

Among all quarterbacks with 200 or more pass attempts, Romo finished ninth in Passing NEP on a per drop back basis, ahead of players like Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady, Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton. Though what’s really insane about his per drop back number this year is the fact that it was Romo’s lowest of his career. In other words, a top-10 quarterback season is Tony Romo’s worst year as a starter.

Can we please give him a little more respect?

Dexter McCluster, Running Back

Why he’s on this list: Finished sixth among running backs in Reception NEP

Every website labels McCluster as something different, but for the purposes of this article, I’m calling him a running back. That’s reportedly where his new team wants to use him, anyway.

Though McCluster didn’t contribute a whole lot to fantasy teams this past season, he still caught 53 passes for over 500 yards. He only ran the ball eight times, which is why it’s strange to place him as a running back within this list, but keep in mind that he saw over 110 attempts back in 2011 with Kansas City.

Among all running backs, McCluster finished sixth in Reception NEP. Sure, he was used as a wide receiver more than most other backs in the league, but the only runners to see more points added on all receptions were Jamaal Charles, Danny Woodhead, Knowshon Moreno, Matt Forte and Darren Sproles. If McCluster sees more volume with his new Titans team – which should be the case – he could be a decent fantasy sleeper.

Kenny Stills, Wide Receiver

Why he’s on this list: Led 30-plus reception receivers in Reception NEP per target

Logically, big-play receivers are going to be more efficient when looking at Reception NEP – you’re not penalizing a guy for an incomplete pass, as you’re looking at the points added by a player on receptions only. And when a vertical receiver sees little volume with one of the best passers in the game, you get Kenny Stills, efficiency extraordinaire.

Stills was tops within the Reception NEP per target metric among all 30-plus reception receivers last year because of those aforementioned items, but that’s not a bad thing. It tells me, someone analyzing the metrics, that, if he were to see more volume, there’s potential for him to be a super relevant fantasy wideout. Certainly if he sees more volume, we’d expect his yards per reception to dip – of his 32 catches last year, 15 of them went for 15 or more yards, and six of them for more than 30. But given his age, the quarterback throwing him passes and potential new opportunity as the Saints' number two receiver, don’t be surprised if you see Kenny Stills as a popular middle to late-round pick in fantasy drafts next year.

Tony Gonzalez, Tight End

Why he’s on this list: Finished second among tight ends in Reception NEP

Gonzo didn’t get a ton of love in the fantasy world this year, despite finishing fourth in standard-scoring points among all tight ends. But more importantly, when Gonzo caught a pass, only Jimmy Graham did more with the football.

Like Romo (and no, I’m not comparing Tony Gonzalez’s greatness to that of Tony Romo), I think we overlook the normal season for players. The norm for Gonzalez became an 80 catch, 800 yard season, which he hit yet again last year. As a result, he had a middle-of-the-road campaign Reception NEP-wise when compared to the rest of his career, which was the second-best during a season with pretty good tight end play.

James Starks, Running Back

Why he’s on this list: Led 50-plus attempt running backs in Rushing NEP per rush

James Starks finished the 2013 season with the fourth-highest Rushing NEP score among all running backs. Now, that doesn’t mean he was better than players like Jamaal Charles or Adrian Peterson, considering Starks saw just 89 touches compared to the 250-plus attempts lead running backs typically see. Had he gotten the rock more, there’s no way his legs would have stayed fresh enough to see such high efficiency scores.

But nonetheless, Starks had a fantastic 2013 season given his role. Over 37% of his touches went for five or more yards, and almost 15% of them went for 10 or more. That led Starks to having the best Rushing NEP per rush score among all runners with 50 or more attempts. And of the players with similar volume – 60 to 115 touches, let’s say – Starks was only one of two running backs to reach a cumulative Rushing NEP score greater than 10. The other was Donald Brown.

Kellen Clemens, Quarterback

Why he’s on this list: Added more points to the Rams offense than Sam Bradford.

Clemens is probably my favorite under-the-radar player on the entire list, only because there seems to be a large divide between Sam Bradford believers and non-believers. I’m part of the latter group, and Clemens’ 2013 campaign is part of the reason why.

Below is a chart displaying the numbers between Clemens and Bradford. For reference, Success Rate measures the percentage of passes that contributed positively towards a player’s Net Expected Points total.

PlayerDrop BacksPassing NEPPassing NEP/Drop BackPass Success Rate

As you can see, the two quarterbacks’ performances were nearly identical. But one thing that goes unnoticed with that chart is the strength of schedule the two guys faced. If we were to look at the Rams’ Adjusted Passing NEP numbers – the adjusted piece means that it’s been fixed for strength of schedule – we’d find that Sam Bradford, before his injury, led the Rams to the 22nd-best passing offense with an Adjusted Passing NEP score of 6.85. From the time of his injury until the end of the season, the Rams passing offense jumped three spots within the metric, and finished the year with a 29.52 Adjusted Passing NEP. The difference between the numbers, 22.67, is the number of points the Rams added through the air above expectation with Kellen Clemens under center.

Kellen Clemens was better.

Sure, under Sam Bradford, the Rams didn’t have a secured number one running back, and the offense was young and inexperienced. But it’s still very interesting to see that Kellen Clemens, all of the external pieces aside, performed at a better rate than Bradford did when you factor in strength of opponent.