Opportunity Knocks for Owen Daniels in Denver
There is a great metaphor of work ethic and luck, in one of my favorite books, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. It’s the story of Bill Joy, the 25-year-old computer technician who rewrote the UNIX operating system in the early 1980s. He made it so feasible to use that computers everywhere took it on, and so progressive that to this day many still use UNIX. He was responsible for coding the software that allowed you to get online and read this article.
He must have been a genius.
He surely has immense intellect, but what Gladwell suggests is that because of dumb strokes of luck he encountered –- like finding a bug in the computer labs at Michigan University allowing unlimited access –- events conspired to allow Joy to become exceptional.
Similarly, I would never say Owen Daniels has shown exceptional talent in the NFL, yet he’s been a very good producer when healthy. Now all of his stars may finally have aligned, as he finds himself back with his favorite head coach in Gary Kubiak, and in Denver with an exceptional quarterback. Can Owen Daniels become a fantasy star again with Peyton Manning, or will his stroke of luck just prove dumb?
“What you see is what you get." This seems to be the general perception of Owen Daniels as a fantasy player these days: boring, tame, a decent option for you if your idea of an exciting dinner out is a hardboiled egg and a ham sandwich. Is that necessarily true for Daniels? I remember when once a spry young lad out of the University of Wisconsin burst onto the scene in his second season in the NFL with over 90 targets, more than 700 yards receiving and three touchdowns. He’d be on pace for those numbers every year following; that’s one way to tell the story.
The other way is to note that there are some major flaws in his history. He missed 26 games out of a possible 80 between 2009 and 2013, and like much of the Houston Texans receiving corps during that span of time, he was either a yardage racker or a touchdown machine. In only two seasons was he on pace for more than 750 yards as well as 5 or more touchdowns in a single campaign.
With such a piecemeal portfolio, why do I think he’s ready to be an out-and-out fantasy stud? Let’s look at his career, with each season prorated to a full 16 games. The table below shows his receptions, targets, receiving yards, and touchdowns. Years with asterisks by them are prorated from to a full 16 game slate.
|Year||Rec||Target||Rec Yard||Rec TD|
Remember the draft day theories surrounding selecting Rob Gronkowski in the first round of your fantasy leagues the past few years? “10 games of Gronk plus a replacement player will still be better than waiting on tight end.” If we could consider Daniels healthy for a full 16 games every season, we’d have seen some fairly nice years out of him. Let me put it this way: had he been healthy every game of his career and produced at this level, his theoretical 559 receptions would have put him seventh among modern tight ends over a career –- and he’s only 32.
His only season since his rookie year where he would have accumulated less than 90 targets would have been 2014, where he was playing second fiddle to Dennis Pitta for part of the season. Add six more balls thrown his way, and that’s a pace of 90 or more targets every year for the last eight years consecutively; that just doesn’t happen for tight ends. This is proof that head coach Gary Kubiak wants desperately to feed Daniels the ball. The Kubiak offense is total catnip for tight ends, and Daniels has been handpicked by him time and time again.
But that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
Hacking the Mainframe
If Gary Kubiak loves his tight ends, how much more does Peyton Manning enjoy feeding his biggest receiving options on the field? The table below shows Manning’s top tight end options and their box score production each of the last five years. What can Daniels expect to walk into?
|Year||Player||Rec||Target||Rec Yard||Rec TD|
Even in the lowest-producing tight end year of the last five in a Peyton Manning offense, Jacob Tamme saw 85 targets in 2012. That is an incredible amount for a lackluster talent who only started half of those games. Even Julius Thomas was on pace for more than his 2014 production, but he sat for three games of the season and didn’t contribute in Week 17. Daniels should be primed for a wealth of opportunity and scoring chances to come his way solely based on the historical value of the Peyton Manning tight end (patent pending).
I don’t think the issue has ever been Daniels’ talent. Solely the concerns have been with keeping him on the field and the talent surrounding him. Does this hold up, though? Do Daniels’ underlying numbers indicate that he should still have success in Denver? We’re going to put to the test the traditional statistics we saw before with numberFire’s advanced metric, Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP uses the foundational unit of expected points to assess the outcome of each play, which takes into account down and distance and the historical chance of scoring from that point on the field. The player’s production is then recorded based on how much they advance the team probability of scoring throughout the entire game. You can read more about NEP in our glossary.
The table below shows Daniels’ Reception NEP rate statistics over the last five years. Has he declined in talent due to the injuries, or should we consider him ready in the Rocky Mountains?
|Year||Rec NEP/P||Target NEP||Catch Rate||Rec Success %|
It seems pretty obvious that, with age and injury, Daniels’ game has declined somewhat from its peak. However, he’s only two years removed from a two-season stretch with Target NEP scores (NEP gained on all targets to a player; a measure of reliability) north of 25.00, a strong score for a tight end, and he has an average catch rate and Success Rate (what percent of plays he gained positive NEP on) for his position. The most changed of these metrics is his value on a per-play basis (Reception NEP per target), and as his age has advanced, his ability to capitalize on plays has reduced, which is to be expected.
I don’t imagine Daniels will ever be Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham, but this is a player in an offense -- and with the surrounding talent -- that can easily offer him the upside of 700 yards and 8 touchdowns. That’s an easy fantasy TE1, and someone you can bank on later on draft day.