Jeremy Maclin Can Be a Fantasy Football Draft-Day Steal Two Years in a Row
Kansas City Chiefs receivers didn't catch a single touchdown in 2014.
Alex Smith can't, won't, refuses to, and hates to throw the ball past the line of scrimmage.
I got it.
But heading into the 2015 season, Jeremy Maclin is being drafted as the 27th wide receiver, so the aggregated fantasy football community is viewing his situation and his value in this game we play as a fringe-starter-worthy at best.
I think that's the wrong way to view him this year, and here's why.
Alex Smith Isn't Really a Downgrade
I know it's a bit odd to think about, but Alex Smith and his lowest-in-the-league average depth of target (aDOT) of 6.0 yards (according to Pro Football Focus) won't exactly be a new type of quarterback for Maclin to play with this year.
Last year, Mark Sanchez managed just an 8.8 aDOT in nine games.
Smith, though, to circle back, saw his aDOT drop to 6.0 from 6.9 in 2013, from 7.7 in 2012, and 8.0 in 2011, and 7.9 in 2010. So, yes, Smith hugs the line of scrimmage with his passes, but his two most recent seasons have been played much closer to the vest than those immediately previous.
And for all the jokes about his play, Smith finished 13th in Passing Net Expected Points (NEP), which is our in-house metric for indicating how many points above or below expectation level a player performed, with a score of 50.66. Sanchez, serendipitously, ranked 14th (49.51).
On a per-drop back basis, of course, Sanchez was better, adding 0.15 points per drop back compared to Smith's 0.10. That 0.10 Passing NEP per drop back, though, was the same score maintained by Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning, and Russell Wilson.
Where does Nick Foles stack up, then? Well, his aDOT of 10.3 made him just one of seven players to maintain a mark above double-digits and play at least 25% of team snaps in 2014. It was with Foles that Maclin got out to his great start in 2014.
Foles' Passing NEP of 15.15, though, ranked 27th, and he managed a per-drop back mark of just 0.05, same as Andy Dalton.
I think the key takeaway here is that Smith played better than most people would like to admit, likely thanks to Kelce. I also think that pointing out the donut in the touchdowns scored by receivers column as the reason to shy away from Maclin is a bit misguided.
Even Dwayne Bowe Was Okay
Another mistake about saying Smith was just bad last year (or since coming into the league, really) is that it omits his actual targets, the players he has been able to throw to during his NFL tenure.
I know I'm probably stretching the boundaries of the word "okay," but Bowe ranked 46th among 77 players with at least 80 targets last year (Bowe had 95) in terms of Reception NEP (68.13). His per-target Reception NEP (0.72) ranked 33rd, which isn't off-the-charts bad by any means. Without cashing in on touchdowns and securing the boosts to NEP that touchdowns inherently bring, those marks are actually pretty promising.
Bowe also posted a Reception Success Rate (the percentage of receptions that increased his team's NEP) of 95.00%. That ranked fifth in the 77-player subset, and he was just one of five guys to be above 93.00%. Kelce was third (95.52%).
The Chiefs had two of the best high-volume players in terms of making consistent, positive gains on the field. That's more important in on-field football than in fantasy football, but the Chiefs have some ability to move the sticks in the passing game.
It's not glorious, but they aren't a dreadful passing attack -- and this was with one of the objectively, subjectively, and everything in between weakest wide receiving groups in the NFL.
How Maclin Fits In
The good news is that Maclin will be the clear-cut top receiver -- even if he contends for touches with Kelce and Charles. And even if Maclin loses a few of the deep plays (he will) just remember that the quarterbacks in Andy Reid's offense in Philadelphia, where Maclin played for four seasons, surely didn't break records with their deep passes.
Plus -- and surely some of this comes from cashing in on deep routes -- Maclin ranked sixth in yards after the catch among receivers last year.
Also, Maclin could be -- as hard as it is to think because of Kelce and Charles -- a bit of a red zone threat. From 2010 to 2012, Maclin saw between 15 and 21 red zone targets with Reid in charge. Maclin recorded a 10-touchdown season in 2010, too.
In Philadelphia in 2010, Michael Vick tallied 407 drop backs and netted a Passing NEP of 56.81, which ranked 11th among the 34 quarterbacks who dropped back at least 200 times -- fairly similar to Smith's 2014 numbers. Kevin Kolb was on the wrong side of zero on his 204 drop backs, racking up a Passing NEP of just -7.27.
Bowe vacated 95 targets, and Kelce will likely (read: rightfully, hopefully, please make it happen) soak up more of those than he did last year, but Maclin is going to get opportunities to make plays and even score touchdowns -- despite what the 2014 iteration of the Chiefs' offense leads us to believe.
Veteran with Upside
Maclin is a unique case this year. There's no mistaking that.
He's got plenty of upside because of his big-play ability. But he's also a veteran with a bit of an injury history.
He's moving to a new team. But he's going back to an old coach.
His quarterback won't do him many favors. But, really, no one else in his past has done that either.
A few things are certain, though. Maclin has averaged double-digit PPR points in every season in his NFL career. Aside from his rookie year, he can say the same in half-PPR leagues, too. He's got the injury-prone tag, but he's only missed five games in his career if you exclude the 2013 season.
It's not pretty, and it's not necessarily confidence-inducing. But Jeremy Maclin can certainly outperform his WR27 price tag this year (just like our projections anticipate) and he can be a draft-day steal two years in a row.