Has Keenan Allen Already Hit His Ceiling?

After a huge rookie season, is it fair to expect more from Keenan Allen?

Somewhere in San Diego’s surprising run to the playoffs last season, there was the makings of a star receiver in Keenan Allen. Allen, a 2013 third-round pick out of the University of California, broke out as the leading target in one of the league’s best offenses. Coming into the draft, he was viewed as a talented receiver, but concerns about a knee injury that only allowed him to play nine games in his last college season dropped his draft stock. But even though many perceived Allen as talented, no one expected him to produce one of the best seasons from a rookie receiver in recent memory.

With such an impressive debut, it’s fair to wonder if Allen can continue to get better, or if 2013 was his ceiling.

Winning The Ball

Using our Net Expected Points metric, Allen had the 17th highest Reception NEP in 2013. That number doesn’t tell the full story of how efficient he was though. Allen had 0.93 per target Reception NEP, which was tied with Anquan Boldin for the highest average among receivers with at least 100 targets.

Allen also did that with a 68.27 percent catch rate, trailing only Julian Edelman among receivers with the same 100 target cutoff. However, Allen’s Success Rate (percentage of plays resulting in a positive outcome for the offense) was 12 percentage points higher than Edelman’s - 90.14 percent to 78.1 percent. Allen wasn’t just good for stretches, he was good on just about every play when he was involved.

This production wasn’t from fluke plays or garbage time, either. A lot of this play-to-play consistency was due to Allen’s ability to fight for ball in tight coverage. He became one of the best receivers in the league last season at coming down with 50-50 balls, as well as an amazing ability to catch off-target passes. Some of that became a learned skill playing two years with half-brother Zach Maynard at quarterback at Cal. Maynard struggled with accuracy for the majority of his college career.

With that skill, San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers gained enough trust in Allen throughout 2013 to throw the ball up, knowing Allen would likely come up with a catch. The trust became more evident as the season went on, since Allen wasn't much of a factor for the first three games. He didn't even play Week 1, and had just three receptions for 30 yards through Week 3.

In Good Company

Allen finished the season with 71 receptions for 1,046 yards, one of 12 players since the merger to have a 1,000 yard receiving season in his rookie year. And four of those other receivers had his rookie season after 2000. Let’s take a look at the metrics behind those four seasons in the table below

YearNameRecReception NEPTargetsReception NEP per Target
2003Anquan Boldin101120.301640.73
2004Michael Clayton80100.911220.83
2006Marques Colston70111.671150.97
2011A.J. Green6597.941150.85
2013Keenan Allen7196.421040.93

While this is a small sample of receivers, there’s 26 combined other seasons from these pass-catchers that we can look at to see how they fared after their first year. Three of those four receivers have established pretty good - if not spectacular - careers. Of those four, only Michael Clayton failed to have another season with a Reception NEP higher than his rookie year. Clayton was a promising rookie in 2004, drafted 15th overall, but after injuries plagued his 2005 and 2006 seasons, he was never able to come close to recreating his 2004 performance. His next best season came in 2008, where he totaled 34.53 Reception Net Expected Points on just 38 receptions.

The other three receivers have all continued to be productive players throughout their careers. Boldin’s 2013 was his first with a higher Reception NEP than his rookie year, but to that point, he had two other seasons above the 100 mark (a typical top 10 or 15 wide receiver season), and only one season under 50. Marques Colston had a Reception NEP above 100 in five of his next seven seasons after his 2006 rookie year. A.J. Green is the bizarro version of Michael Clayton, improving his performance in each of the past two seasons.

That leaves us with a group consisting of one receiver who completely fell off the map, two who remained productive in just about every subsequent season, and one who has established himself as one of the best receivers in the game. It’s also worth noting another player who just missed this cutoff with a rookie season in 1998 had a pretty nice career for himself.

That would be Randy Moss.

To 2014 and Beyond

There’s no reason to assume Allen will suddenly become unproductive in 2014. In fact, our projections have him slightly outproducing his rookie season stats. We’re currently projecting 77.25 receptions for 1,077 yards and 8.42 touchdowns this season, all above his 2013 totals.

Allen will continue to be the top target in an offense that’s likely to play at a faster pace under new offensive coordinator Frank Reich. The Chargers offense ran the 11th-most plays in the league last year, and that number is likely to go up this season. There won’t be a drastic change in volume, but Allen should benefit from more targets this year.

Going forward, the Boldin comparison will be an interesting thing to keep an eye on. Around the time of the draft, Boldin was a popular name coming up as a comparable style of play to Allen. He has speed to get open, but won’t be a burner downfield. They can both play physical and win those battles for the ball. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Allen follow the similar type of success Boldin had, especially early in his career. Allen will also have the benefit to being his team’s top receiver, something Boldin didn't have.

With room to improve - especially with his play-to-play consistency - 2013 should not be considered the best of Keenan Allen. While there’s still an unknown of what his ceiling will be, we shouldn’t be expecting his floor anytime soon.