Why Anquan Boldin Is Better Than You Think

Anquan Boldin is among the best players at his position over the past decade, yet somehow doesn't get the respect he deserves.

If I asked you to name the top-five active NFL wide receivers in terms of receiving yardage, I'm sure that Calvin Johnson, Reggie Wayne, Andre Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald would be among the answers you'd provide. In fact, I polled Twitter and those names came up in nearly every response, despite Calvin not even being among the top-five (he's eighth). About two-thirds of the responses missed two of the savvy veterans in this elite company, and one of them continues to be under-appreciated among fantasy players and NFL pundits.

Steve Smith Sr. and Anquan Boldin were the names that appeared on the fewest responses to my quiz on social media, and that should come as no surprise. This duo of older receivers have gotten to their yardage totals in different ways, as Smith has averaged nearly a yard and a half per reception more than Boldin over their careers. The big, slow FSU product has always been viewed as a possession receiver and a chain-mover, while the diminutive Smith is viewed as a big-play guy and a firestarter for offenses.

This is why everyone was happy to jump back on the Steve Smith bandwagon this season once he proved he had enough left in the tank to play a couple more seasons in a different uniform, but Anquan Boldin hasn't been the topic of discussion in fantasy or real NFL circles all that often this year.

That should change.

Historical Perspective

To put Boldin's career into context, let's compare him with some of his fellow top-10 active leaders in wide receiver yardage brethren and see how their cumulative Net Expected Points (NEP) data stacks up.

PlayerRecRec NEPRec NEP/RecRec NEP/TargetSuccess Rate
Calvin Johnson601866.861.440.8091.68%
Reggie Wayne10491259.341.200.7589.80%
Steve Smith8831080.781.220.7185.39%
Anquan Boldin9091034.301.140.7086.91%
Larry Fitzgerald8901063.891.200.6986.63%
Andre Johnson9751072.301.100.6887.18%
Brandon Marshall755828.891.100.6685.70%

Boldin is right at home in per-target efficiency with these other great receivers, as he outclasses Larry Fitzgerald in nearly every area and has a leg up in one category or another on virtually every receiver on this list apart from Wayne and Megatron, two first-ballot Hall of Famers when their time comes five years after retirement.

His success rate (which measures how often a receiver's reception gains positive NEP for his team) is indicative of his chain-moving ability, while his per-reception NEP production reveals that he's actually made more of an impact on the game than just getting chunks of yards for first downs. On a per-catch basis, he's added more expected points to his team's drives than Johnson and Marshall, who are often viewed as better "big play" targets than Boldin.

But Boldin is at the tail end of his career, so we can't really expect him to keep playing at a top-five receiver level, right?

Better With Age

This season Boldin is actually better in terms of Reception NEP per target than he is for his career as a whole, and he's currently 11th among the 20 receivers in the NFL with 75 or more targets in that statistic. He's just fractions of an expected point shy of young guns Sammy Watkins and Kelvin Benjamin, and big-play threat Jeremy Maclin, despite being old, slow, and playing for a slightly below-average passing offense in San Francisco.

Boldin stands out among this group of 20 highly targeted wideouts in terms of success rate, in which he ranks fourth. Over 92% of Boldin's receptions this season have resulted in positive NEP for his team, which is a better rate than Jordy Nelson, T.Y. Hilton, and Demaryius Thomas have earned so far this year.

And when compared to his notable teammate, Boldin shines even more. Michael Crabtree was considered by many to be the better option in the San Francisco offense, and fantasy draft results from this summer reflected that sentiment, yet Boldin averages 0.2 NEP more per target (five throws to Boldin will earn, on average, one expected point more than five throws to Crabtree), and has a 12% edge in success rate.

He's the most consistent and productive receiver on his team, among the best in the league in multiple metrics, and has a long track record of being one of the best receivers in the NFL. And that's only part of the reason why he's going to be key for fantasy teams down the stretch.

Searching for Fantasy Gold

During the offseason, Boldin was ridiculously undervalued, being drafted as the 48th wideout off the board in MFL10-style drafts at My Fantasy League from August until the start of the season. He was taken after Tavon Austin, Cecil Shorts, and Riley Cooper in MFL's popular season-long leagues but now ranks 20th in standard scoring leagues among receivers.

In other words, he was drafted as a bench receiver, has performed like a WR2, and has a very favorable schedule ahead. Yet somehow, ESPN and Yahoo show Boldin as being less than 100% owned in their fantasy formats. If you're in a league where Boldin is unowned, fix that immediately, and if your trade deadline hasn't passed yet, consider these facts and head to your trade screen as soon as possible.

Over the next six games, Boldin will face zero offenses in the top-15 in the NFL in our Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP rankings. The 49ers Week 11 opponents, the Giants, rank 16th, while his other remaining matchups during the fantasy season include Washington (28th), Seattle twice (24th), Oakland (27th), and San Diego (30th) in Championship Week for most leagues (Week 16). That's as easy of a schedule as a receiver will ever get, and Boldin's ability makes him a very attractive option as the season draws to a close.

Boldin's volume in the San Francisco offense has been consistent all year, but he has seen a recent spike, with 31 targets in his last three games. He has been better than Michael Crabtree in nearly every measurable facet of the game of football so far this season, and with important games ahead, that will likely factor into the playcalling and decision-making by the 49ers coaches.

There may be no receiver in the NFL who is as under-appreciated as Boldin, so whether you're a fan of the game with an eye on the tight race for the playoffs in the NFC or a fantasy player in need of a starting wideout for the stretch run, it's time to pay closer attention to one of the best to play the wide receiver position over the past two decades.