What Happened to Keenan Allen in 2014 and Can He Rebound in 2015?

After a stellar rookie season, Keenan Allen's stats took a step back in 2014.

With a stellar group of rookie receivers entering the league in 2014, it would be easy to forget about some of the top rookies from 2013. Keenan Allen was one of those players, but Allen did little on the field to help himself not be forgotten during the 2014 season.

Allen’s 2014 -- 77 receptions, 783 yards and 4 touchdowns -- would be a decent season for many but looks so disappointing in the wake of his 2013. During that year he became the 17th receiver to record 1,000 receiving yards in his rookie season and first since A.J. Green in 2011. Of course that was followed by Odell Beckham Jr., Kelvin Benjamin and Mike Evans in 2014. On one of the best passing offenses in the league, expectations were high for Allen to continue performing as one of the top receivers in the league.

Using our Net Expected Points metric (NEP), we can get a better look at how much Allen dropped off in 2014 instead of looking at the decrease in yards and touchdowns. NEP measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average player would be expected to score in each scenario using historical data. It helps show how a player performs versus how he’s expected to perform.

Allen even called himself average in 2014 earlier in the offseason. Taking a look at the numbers below, that might have been graded on a curve.

YearRecRec NEPTargetsTarget NEPRec NEP/TargetCatch Rate

Even without a full grasp of these numbers, the disparity would be enough to explain itself. Dropping 41.1 percent in Reception NEP from year-to-year is never great, especially with a 8.5 percent increase in receptions. His target value is even more concerning with a 105.8 percent decrease in Target NEP while his targets increased 16.3 percent. Allen’s Reception NEP per target was on par with James Jones (0.48) with a similar amount of targets (121 to 111). Jones was released earlier this offseason by a wide receiver needy Oakland Raiders team.

Keenan Allen didn’t magically become a late-career James Jones in one offseason. Allen will still only be entering his age-23 season in 2015. Still, the decline in production during 2014 is much too hard to ignore, so let’s try to find out where it came from and if it can be fixed.

Quality of Competition

Some of the offseason analysis surrounding Allen focused on how he faced tougher competition in his second season compared to his rookie year. In five of his 14 games played last season, Allen went against a cornerback who was voted to the All-Pro team following 2014. As the team’s number-one receiver, Allen faced Richard Sherman, Brent Grimes, Darrelle Revis and Chris Harris Jr. (twice). He also got Patrick Peterson in the season-opener against Arizona.

While many receivers would struggle with that type of opposition week-to-week, it’s not that Allen simply couldn’t compete against those top flight corners. In a Week 14 game against Revis and the New England Patriots, Allen was held to just three targets, two receptions and three yards. Since Revis is a corner who will follow around the opposition’s top receiver, there was no way to avoid the matchup.

Pointing to the three targets, though, reflects Revis’s impact on the game, but overstates a perceived inability for Allen to work against a top corner. San Diego entered the game knowing Revis would shadow Allen and the offense was structured to take advantage of other matchups during the game. Allen had the ability to get open against Revis but was not always Philip Rivers’ first read.

Take a look at this play. Allen (at the top) is able to get open across the middle, but Rivers’ read wasn’t to his side. Sure that’s just one play and any receiver could get open against any corner for one lay during a game, but there were multiple times Allen could and did get open but wasn’t targeted.

The Chargers had three other players in 2014 who were targeted at least 90 times. Allen was the best target, but he wasn’t the only one. That’s not great for Allen’s individual stats, but it helped keep San Diego ranked ninth in Adjusted Passing NEP for the season.

Unintended Targets

Per-target metrics can be great to look at in order to find a receiver’s role on the team, but there can be some noise involved in the target numbers. Allen saw a team-high 121 targets, but not all of them were catchable balls. Take the play below during the Week 13 game against the Baltimore Ravens. On the official stat sheet, Allen is listed as the target but is nowhere close to where the ball went, which was right into the hands of linebacker Daryl Smith.

This isn’t enough to say Allen’s decline in per target metrics isn’t concerning -- it is -- but a few of these and other throwaways might not make the drop quite as bad as it seems.

Big Games

What could be concerning is Allen’s lack of big games during the 2014 season. Allen had five 100-yard games during his rookie season, but that dropped to three in his sophomore year. Those three games came against Jacksonville, St. Louis and a depleted Baltimore secondary. With that, Allen’s number of bad games increased, too. In 2013 Allen had only three games with fewer than 30 yards receiving. In 2014, that shot up to five. In three of those five games he was targeted more than five times.

Sometimes those games were just a play away from crossing the line of bad to good. Take this play against the Jets. In the game Allen had three receptions for 25 yards. On this play, Allen was just fingertips away from at least a 30-yard catch.

It’s a play where he does a great job adjusting to the ball, something he excelled at in college thanks in part to an inaccurate quarterback. This is a play Allen probably would have made in 2013 and will probably make more often than not in future opportunities. Earlier in the game, Allen nearly had a 22-yard touchdown on a jump ball in which Allen beat the corner at the high point but had the ball taken away for an interception when hit by a safety on the way down.

They’re two plays that don’t count but also two that show Allen was much closer to big plays than a first glance at his stats may indicate.

What’s Next?

Allen will still likely lead the team in targets, but the abilities of Malcom Floyd and Stevie Johnson, San Diego’s two other receivers this season, could continue to eat into Allen’s overall production.

Still, expectations will be high for the San Diego passing offense, even as the run game should be much more effective than last year (28th in Adjusted Rushing NEP). Where Allen fits is most likely somewhere between his first two seasons.

We have Allen projected for 85.88 receptions, 1,003.84 yards and 5.6 touchdowns. That places him as WR25 overall in fantasy. While that certainly wouldn’t rank him as one of the best receivers in the league, there is potential for a higher ceiling with a few more breaks than last season.