Is Indianapolis the Right Destination for Andre Johnson?

Andre Johnson reportedly is looking to shift to a new team in the AFC South. What does he bring to the table for the Colts?

The NFL has been on a three-day free agent bender already, and it doesn’t look to be slowing its pace any time soon. Thanks to the “legal tampering” period before free agency officially opened today, we’ve found out about roster drama, signings, and trades that sound like they’re coming from a Pixy Stick–addled kid playing Madden on Rookie mode.

Tucked in between Ndamukong Suh taking his talents to the South Beach and Jeremy Maclin torching fantasy owners’ hopes and dreams, Houston Texans’ living legend Andre Johnson was released by the team after 12 years of exceptional –- if injury-staggered –- production.

Reports say the aging star receiver traveled to Indianapolis today to meet with Colts’ brass. With the Colts’ own aging star receiver, Reggie Wayne, on his way out of town, what does Andre Johnson bring to the table as a new weapon for Andrew Luck? What impact does this potential signing have for both the Colts and Johnson himself?

A New Tenant in Wayne Manor

As I mentioned before, as Johnson potentially enters the scene at Lucas Oil Stadium, Reggie Wayne is taking his curtain call. One of the last stalwarts of the Peyton Manning era, the soon-to-be 37-year-old receiver has plied his entire trade with the Indianapolis Colts since being a first-round draft pick in 2001. Much like Johnson, he was one of the faces of the franchise and a stabilizing presence for over a decade.

His departure certainly leaves a personality and leadership void on the team for a veteran receiver to fill, but it also leaves a high-volume role open in a high-volume passing offense with an exceptional young quarterback. How will Johnson step into this opportunity?

The table below shows Wayne’s production over the last five years in terms of Net Expected Points (NEP), numberFire’s signature metric. NEP is a way of representing traditional production with a more accurate context put on them, based on the change in probability of a team scoring on any drive that each play makes. By using this system based on expected points, we see a more accurate representation of the true contribution a player makes to his team.

Wayne’s production over the last five years is below in Reception NEP and Target NEP, and we line up Andre Johnson’s next to it as well. Will Johnson be up to the challenge in this Indy offense?

PlayerRecReception NEPTargetsTarget NEPReception NEP/Target
Reggie Wayne395414.83677103.910.61
Andre Johnson425426.73678169.220.63

On nearly the exact same amount of targets over the past five seasons, Andre Johnson has actually caught more passes, produced more raw Reception NEP, been a more reliable passing option by Target NEP, and has even outpaced Wayne in per-target Reception NEP. In all of his raw statistics, Johnson is far superior, and even in his rate statistics (Reception NEP per target, catch rate) he is by far the better of the two.

While Johnson was the number-one (read: only) option on a bad passing offense for many years, Wayne received the same amount of targets as Johnson. In fact, I don’t think anyone in their right mind would argue that Reggie Wayne had a harder time with Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck as his two primary quarterbacks, whereas Johnson had to deal with a clown car of eight different replacement-level passers in just the last four years alone.

Johnson, therefore, seems quite suitable as a replacement for Wayne in this offense. He should provide an excellent possession target for Andrew Luck and another solid outside option for the Colts in the passing game.

Holy Hot Stove, Batman

One small problem with an exact plug-and-play, though: Andre Johnson has almost exclusively played the “X” receiver role in his time with the Texans. Reggie Wayne was a little more position-versatile, so while he typically played the “X” in his earlier years, he began to shift inside to the slot more and more under Bruce Arians and Pep Hamilton. That said, his team- and position-mate T.Y. Hilton also naturally occupied a slot receiver role, so Wayne was still most often the "X" in the Colts’ offense; Johnson will only operate as a boundary receiver.

How does this affect the Colts’ plans at the other receiver positions?

With other outside receiver Hakeem Nicks also departing in free agency, Johnson can safely occupy one outside role while the “Z” is filled by some combination of sophomore Donte Moncrief and CFL standout Duron Carter. Hilton will likely remain mainly a slot, or “Y”, receiver. The Colts are a team that run a lot of two-tight end sets, however, so I expect one of Moncrief or Carter to get bumped off occasionally when tight end Coby Fleener checks into the game. Still, there will be plenty of value to go around in this high-octane offense.

There’s no disputing that Andre Johnson should thrive over the next year or two if he signs up to wear the blue-and-white. If the Colts make this move, this might be a sign that –- while loudly heralded –- Carter is nothing more than depth to this regime, or that, while loudly heralded, Moncrief is still extremely raw. Regardless, the Indianapolis doesn’t seem to be worried about developing them too much right now.

The Colts see a window of winning right now, and they want to take advantage of it; Johnson offers them the best way to do that if he joins their squad. Johnson, I’m sure, will see something similar if he decides to ride along Andrew Luck and further add to his own legend.