Praising Penny: Super Bowl XLVII TE Projections

If the NFL were Inspector Gadget, then Dennis Pitta would be Penny. But is Inspector Gadget/Vernon Davis the better way to go?

After a week of quarterback projections and running back projections and wide receiver projections, we're finally to our final skill position: the tight ends.

This potentially could have been a much more exciting article (Gronkowski vs. Gonzalez, anyone?), but instead we have Vernon Davis vs. Dennis Pitta, a battle of the No. 15 and the No. 7 tight ends in terms of fantasy football this year. They have 12 combined touchdowns (less than 0.4 per game), nine combined games of one catch or fewer, and neither one has led his team this postseason in single-game targets.

And we expect these two starting tight ends to be two of the most active players on the field on Sunday and play a major role in deciding this game.

How do we figure that? It's all in the numbers, baby! It's a Super Bowl XLVII preview like only numberFire can: behind the stats.

Inside the Numbers

Before we proceed to break down this bad boy, let me give a brief explanation of what these numbers you'll see mean. NEP refers to Net Expected Points, one of the main statistics that numberFire uses to determine a player's effectiveness and worth to his team.

I broke this down in a past MVP Watch article, but here's the short version: you want to add points to your team, right? Well, every situation on the football field has an expected amount of "points" that the average team would score on that drive. How much does each play with a certain player increase or decrease that expected total? That's NEP.

From there, we can analyze the numbers a bit further. Since passing is more efficient than rushing at increasing an expected points total, passing NEPs are often positive (above league-average) while rushing NEPs are often negative (below league-average). Since QB scrambles are often big gains since the defense is expecting a pass, QBs often have higher NEP per rush totals than RBs. A player's rushing "success" rate can be determined by seeing how often their rushes increase a team's expected point total. And a player's catch rate is simply the percentage of targets his way that he was able to corral in.

Baltimore TEs by the Numbers

Contrary to what many believed he would do entering the season, Dennis Pitta played a crucial role in the Baltimore offense this season. 17 percent of Flacco's throws went his way during the regular season, as did 32 percent of his touchdown tosses. But more importantly, he played a crucial role in how the Ravens spread the field.

If Torrey Smith and his trusty speed are Inspector Gadget and freak-of-nature Anquan Boldin is Brain, then Dennis Pitta has to be Penny - the over-the-top game doesn't work without him underneath to tie the entire operation together. And the numbers back me up.

Dennis PittaTargetsReceptionsNEP/CatchCatch RateTotal Adj. NEP
Regular Season93610.6965.6%64.55

The most interesting numbers for me are the NEP/catch and catch rate statistics. Remember what we said yesterday about the Baltimore receivers? That whole "chuck it up and hope one comes down with it" deal that resulted in a high NEP/catch mark and a low catch rate? That doesn't quite hold for Pitta.

With a catch rate of 65.6 percent, Pitta led Baltimore's top four receivers (excluding RB Ray Rice) during the regular season. But he also performed that feat while not stretching the field; despite a touchdown rate of 7.5 percent of his catches (highest on the team), Pitta still managed a lower NEP/catch average than Torrey Smith (0.72) and Anquan Boldin (0.80).

Normally, this would be the point where I'd say, "Yeah, but he's a tight end," except that the league's tight ends did not have an NEP/catch rate that low either. Of the 18 tight ends with at least 50 receptions this season, eight of them had higher NEP/catch marks than Pitta. And that comes in spite of NEP-boosting touchdowns: only five tight ends registered more than Pitta's seven.

So during the regular season, Pitta's job on the Ravens was clear: the underneath man and safety valve, similar to Ray Rice's pass-catching role out of the backfield. The Ravens still stretched the field with him occasionally (he had eight 20+ yard catches on the season), but he was used more often as the glue guy underneath. Joe Flacco/Chief Quimby approves.

Despite his high playoff NEP per catch rating, he has still served the same role for Baltimore in the past three games. His catch rate is still over ten percent better than Smith or Boldin in the playoffs, and his long catch is only 24 yards. But of Pitta's ten playoff catches, seven have been for first downs and an additional two have been for touchdowns. That's all he needs to make Chief Quimby happy again.

San Francisco TEs by the Numbers

But if San Francisco is the real Inspector Gadget scenario, then the roles change a tiny bit. In this scenario, the 49ers rushing attack is Penny - without Frank Gore or Kaepernick's ability to take off, this offense simply couldn't function. Michael Crabtree, meanwhile, is Brain, the master-of-disguise that can change from a high-catch rate possession receiver to a downfield threat at the drop of a hat. But that leaves Vernon Davis as... oh yes, the Inspector himself.

Davis can disappear at times. He can go through a stretch where he six catches in six games (as he did at the end of the regular season). There are times he looks lost. But in the end, he still gets it done because of his freak athletic ability and solid hands.

Vernon DavisTargetsReceptionsNEP/CatchCatch RateTotal Adj. NEP
Regular Season61410.7867.2%47.60

The Inspector's been able to step up his game in the sixth and seventh seasons; after a career-high 70 percent catch rate last year, Davis' 67 percent rate this represents the second-highest ratio of his career. And he also knows how to go big or go home - his 0.78 NEP per catch rate is equal to Randy Moss and just behind Michael Crabtree's 0.85 NEP/catch mark.

The important thing for Davis though is targets: will he simply get the balls thrown his way? Recent history says yes. He's tied for second on the Niners in targets in each of their two playoff games thus far, behind only Michael Crabtree.

And despite having a low playoff NEP/catch rating due to a drive-ending non-converted third down or two, they're still using him to stretch the field (31 yard catch against Atlanta) and in the red zone (had the game's only receiving TD against Atlanta).

Of course, with San Francisco, it's also a smart idea to watch out for Delanie Walker, the second tight end in San Francisco's high-catch rate, short passing system. Walker had more targets than Davis over the final three weeks of the regular season, and he finished the year with 61 percent of Davis's targets. However, a 2-for-7 catch rate so far this season inspires little confidence, and our projections see him with only 0.86 receptions on the game.

The Projections

ReceptionsReceiving YardsReceiving TDs
Dennis Pitta5.2460.480.32
Vernon Davis4.0456.160.31

Pitta's projected 5.24 receptions would make him the leading pass-catcher in the game for either team. That's not a testament to his targets; that's a testament to what he's expected to do with his targets, especially considering his ten percent higher catch rate than Smith or Boldin from both the regular season and the playoffs. And considering that Baltimore threw the ball on 56 percent of their regular season offensive plays while San Francisco did only 47 percent of the time, it's not unexpected to see Pitta as the leading catch man.

Davis, meanwhile, is projected for his second-straight 4+ reception day, a feat he hasn't performed since Weeks 10 and 11 on the season (Week 11 was Kaepernick's first start). But we expect his catch rate to return to the mean, and we also expect him to average more yards per catch than Pitta based on their regular season performances.

Whether you're Inspector Gadget or Penny, both are needed for a successful operation. But which one will be captured and which one will do the saving on Sunday? That's why they play the game.