Don't Ignore St. Louis Rams Receivers in 2014
In Minneapolis, where I live, there’s a very interesting daily occurrence that I don’t believe happens quite as commonly or in the same way anywhere else. You can be riding the bus, walking down the street, engrossed in a podcast; it doesn’t matter. Someone will inevitably come up to you and strike up a conversation. They will be a total stranger, and often they’ll be asking for help finding something – maybe where to catch the northbound 6 bus. If not, you’re likely both caught in a mildly uncomfortable situation – like waiting in line – and they just want someone to commiserate with.
I try not to judge these people or recoil until they’ve spoken to me, until I know their story and why they want to talk to me. More often than not, they ask for money or a cigarette, but sometimes you meet someone who just tells you they love your haircut and ask where you got it. Looking at someone and assuming anything can be very misleading. It’s a change I’ve been making in myself to give people the benefit of the doubt at first, and then get to know who they really are.
With this thought in mind, imagine if the whole group of 2014 St. Louis Rams pass-catchers approached you on the street. Would you turn and run because of how big of a cloudy mess it looks like they are? Or would you look closer, see what they’re really telling you, and try to understand them better? The latter approach is the one we’ll be taking, as we try to make sense of the morass that quarterback Sam Bradford has to throw to. With no true “number one” on the roster, what should we expect from the Rams’ receiving corps this year?
The newest addition to this squad is perhaps the most compelling and frightening member of the team. To examine Kenny Britt's effectiveness, as well as others later, we’ll look at some of our numberFire signature metrics, all of which are based on the idea of Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP is basically a measure of a player’s contribution to his team scoring output. You can read more about it here.
As a Titan back in 2009, Britt earned not only 55.91 Reception NEP (points accumulated solely on plays resulting in receptions for a receiver), but he also had a mark of 0.75 Reception NEP per target (a measure of per-play efficiency for a receiver). This efficiency mark put him just outside the top 20 pass-catchers that year with 70 or more targets; great company. He followed that up with an even better 2010 campaign, which saw him earn 73.40 Reception NEP and a Reception NEP per target of 1.01, which was good for second in the league among pass-catchers with 70 or more targets.
This kind of near-elite production was expected to be Britt’s new norm, but in 2011, he struggled through injury and only received 26 targets. He followed that up with a dismal 2012 that saw him receive a career-high 90 targets and a career low Reception NEP per target of 0.47. Last season included injury as well, but in his limited playing time, Britt still only accumulated an atrocious 0.17 per target Reception NEP. If it couldn’t seem any worse, he actually lost value on all plays he was targeted, earning a -17.33 Target NEP.
Britt has always had the profile and measurables of a top-flight wideout, but his lack of focus on the field, propensity for injury, and decision-making off the field has prevented him from making consistent contributions. His career seems to be very much on the downswing, so I would hesitate at the prediction many are giving that he will start as the top receiver all year.
In his rookie season of 2012, downfield burner Chris Givens produced 50.70 Reception NEP for the Rams. Most of these were exceptionally long touchdowns, as the smaller, lithe receiver was able to convert a few simple passes into big gains. Even his Target NEP was very good (20.09), as he tended to produce even on shorter yardage plays.
His efficiency wasn’t stellar, but it was solid, at 0.63 Reception NEP per target. All signs pointed to Givens being a good, not stellar, contributor in the NFL. His sophomore season showed major regression, though, and his boom-or-bust nature began to be revealed. He still had the third-highest Reception NEP on the team, but his Target NEP slipped to -10.40, and his per target effectiveness dropped to a paltry 0.44.
Part of Givens’ struggles in 2013 can be attributed to scattershot passer Kellen Clemens helming the offense for much of the year after Bradford’s injury. Add in Givens’ own nagging ankle injury – death for a speed receiver – and there’s a perfectly good explanation for his struggles. I still think Givens has a chance to be a great producer for the Rams in 2014 and beyond, once a competent quarterback returns.
Selected with the eighth overall selection of the 2013 NFL Draft, Tavon Austin was expected to come in and make an immediate and dynamic impact with his new team. As most rookie receivers experience, there was a steep learning curve and acclimation to the NFL game. Despite Austin’s blazing speed, he was primarily able to contribute in just the return game his first year. Still, 569 combined rushing and receiving yards with 5 total touchdowns on offense isn’t terrible for Year One.
By numberFire’s metrics, Austin was fourth on the team in 2013 in Reception NEP with 30.69, but third in Total NEP – measuring contributions on all offensive plays – with 40.76, due to his effectiveness in the rushing game too. As a slot wide receiver, though, he will have to become more efficient in 2014, as his Reception NEP per target tied Chris Givens for second-lowest on the team. If he can break out of “gadget play” value and be a more reliable option, he could be a key role player on the team in a few years. His 2014 prospects look fairly unsatisfying, though.
Tight end Jared Cook actually had the highest Reception NEP of anyone on the Rams in 2013 (54.90), as well as an efficient and consistent 0.65 Rec NEP per target (ranked 18th among tight ends with 30 or more targets). Those numbers seem to be right on track with his career in Tennessee as well. He’s always had immense upside, and while that may not ever peak, he remains a steady contributor and solid target for his quarterback.
Secondary receiving options Brian Quick, Stedman Bailey, and Austin Pettis have had their names recently bandied about in the same breath as the word “bust”, but our advanced numbers here show that they are actually contributing very well. These three led the 2013 Rams in Reception NEP per target, and Bailey and Pettis were both in the top three on the team in terms of Target NEP. Quick needs to drastically improve his catch rate in order to receive more playing time, but these receivers should simply be given a chance to grow and play. Their underlying numbers indicate quality contribution (at the very least) is just around the corner.
Quarterback Sam Bradford should return to a full stable of solid, though unheralded receiving options. As long as new acquisition Kenny Britt and sophomore Tavon Austin are not relied on too heavily, 2014 could be a good year for this Rams offense, and we shouldn't judge them until we see what they're made of.