Why the Kyle Shanahan Top Wide Receiver Narrative Just Isn't True

Andre Johnson, Santana Moss and Pierre Garcon all saw a ton of targets in Kyle Shanahan's offense. But that doesn't mean their high-volume seasons were because of Kyle Shanahan.

We all know Julio Jones is really good at football. No one would fault you for taking him early in your fantasy football drafts this year, and few would argue if you called him a top-five wide receiver in football.

But when you're making a pro-Jones argument for 2015, can you please leave the "Kyle Shanahan feeds his X receivers" out of the discussion?

There's a narrative out there that now-Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's offense goes through his top receiver. Just do a quick Google search, and you'll find countless articles on the topic.

It's true that, as the Texans' offensive coordinator during the 2008 and 2009 seasons, Shanahan's offense went through stud wideout Andre Johnson. In both of those two campaigns, Johnson was targeted 171 times. Then, when Shanahan moved on to the Redskins, his 2010 season saw Santana Moss hit the 145 target mark, while the 2013 team watched Pierre Garcon haul in 181 targets, the most in the NFL.

To many, this is enough to conclude a couple of things. First, because these top receivers are being fed, it's assumed that Shanahan's offense is built around these guys. Second, because these players are seeing so many looks, other pass-catchers in the offense may take a hit.

I don't understand this logic.

Andre Johnson Saw Nothing Unique

Let's start with Shanahan's time with the Texans. As I mentioned, Andre Johnson saw 171 targets in the two seasons with Shanahan. But rather than attributing this to the offensive coordinator, why aren't we pointing at the fact that Andre Johnson is a potential Hall of Fame talent, and the team had absolutely nothing else to throw to at the wide receiver position?

YearPlayerTargetsPer Game
2008Andre Johnson17110.69
2008Kevin Walter955.94
2008Owen Daniels1016.31
2009Andre Johnson17110.69
2009Kevin Walter705.00
2009Owen Daniels587.25

The table above shows the target breakdown among the highest-targeted players on the Texans while Shanahan was the offensive coordinator. Kevin Walter -- a seventh-round draft pick who played 10 years in the NFL, never reaching a 1,000-yard season -- was quarterback Matt Schaub's second-best wide receiving option.

Of course Andre Johnson is going to be a highly-targeted receiver in that offense.

What's interesting, too, is that these seasons weren't even out of the ordinary for Johnson.

YearGamesTargetsPer Game


In 2010, the year following Shanahan's departure to Washington, Andre Johnson averaged a grand total of .07 targets per game fewer than he did during his time with Shanny. Had Johnson seen just one more target that season, he would have had the exact same per-game mark as he did in 2008 and 2009.

What's more is the fact that Johnson exceeded this volume in 2013 (seeing a similar percentage of team targets at 29.1%), when he was 32 years old, and he came awfully close in 2012.

All of this is to say that Kyle Shanahan probably wasn't the reason Andre Johnson was fed in Houston -- Andre Johnson was fed in Houston because he's a beast of a football player who played on a team with Kevin freaking Walter as the number-two wide receiver.

Picking and Choosing in Washington and Cleveland

Let's run through the same exercise with the aforementioned Santana Moss and Pierre Garcon seasons.

YearPlayerTargetsPer Game
2010Santana Moss1459.06
2010Chris Cooley1267.88
2010Anthony Armstrong865.73
2013Pierre Garcon18111.31
2013Santana Moss794.94
2013Jordan Reed596.56

Hopefully you can spot the error folks are making here, because it's similar to the Andre Johnson example above. Do you really expect the Redskins to throw a high number of passes to Anthony Armstrong, who was not only a rookie in 2010, but hasn't played an NFL snap since 2012? Or, in 2013, should we have expected Robert Griffin III to not gun it towards Garcon when his other option was Santana Moss? After all, after Moss' big 2010, he wasn't really the same wideout thanks to natural age decline.

Should we really credit Shanahan for this volume?

Not only that, but what I find most interesting about this Kyle Shanahan narrative is that it ignores about half of his tenure as an offensive coordinator in the NFL. If you talk to a football analyst who believes in this "Shanahan feeds his X receiver" notion, they'll point to Andre Johnson's two years in Houston, Santana Moss' 2010 and Garcon's big 2013 in Washington.

But Kyle Shanahan was an offensive coordinator in the NFL in 2011, 2012 and 2014, too.

Take a look at the target breakdown of his top receivers in each of these campaigns.

YearPlayerTargetsPer Game
2011Jabar Gaffney1147.13
2011Santana Moss957.92
2012Josh Morgan734.56
2012Pierre Garcon686.80
2012Santana Moss624.43
2012Leonard Hankerson577.13
2014Andrew Hawkins1127.47
2014Miles Austin736.08
2014Taylor Gabriel724.50

Given the timing of when these seasons occurred, you may look at this list and see no true number-one receiver -- perhaps that's why there's no high-volume receiver.

But that's precisely the problem here. We shouldn't pick and choose where the narrative fits. If Shanahan's X receiver truly gets top-tier targets strictly because of the scheme, shouldn't that be the case in more than four of seven seasons?

Draft Julio Because He's Good, Not Because of Shanahan

Two things seem obvious: (1) Kyle Shanahan's offense feeds his top wideout when that player is a strong option on a team desperate for wide receiving help, and (2) when Kyle Shanahan actually had a decent top target, said player generally didn't have a valuable wide receiver beneath him on the depth chart.

That's not entirely the case in Atlanta.

Roddy White is not the Roddy White of old. And it's because Roddy White is old. But he's still going to be -- and you don't need numbers to back this claim -- the best number-two wideout Shanahan has coordinated at the NFL level.

And even if this narrative was a thing -- even if Kyle Shanahan's offense relentlessly feeds the X receiver -- let's not pretend there's a ton of potential growth for Julio Jones in terms of volume. A year ago, only Antonio Brown and Demaryius Thomas had more targets than Jones, and just six receivers saw a higher percentage of team targets.

If the reason you're drafting Julio Jones in August is because of the increase in volume, I think you're being foolish. The real reason you should be drafting Jones is because he's a transcendent talent who has proven to be one of the most impactful wide receivers real and fantasy football.