Is Andre Johnson Being Undervalued in Fantasy Football?
Out with the old and in with the new.
This is typically the mantra in NFL front offices, and even more so for fantasy football managers.
It seems as though every offseason, NFL general managers and fantasy football players alike are on the lookout for players nearing that inevitable point of no return in their careers, avoiding the more seasoned veterans in the league showing even the slightest hints of falling off this cliff regardless of their overall track record.
This is the very reason why the Houston Texans released just a few months ago one of the best wide receivers of all-time in All Pro wideout Andre Johnson, and why he is now being drafted in the middle rounds of fantasy football drafts for this upcoming season.
But now as a member of the high-powered Indianapolis Colts offense, the question on many minds is whether Johnson can find a way to turn his career around. As we'll soon see, all Johnson may need to do this is a little Luck on his side.
The Luck Factor
If you look at Andre Johnson's numbers on a year-to-year basis throughout his career, it becomes evident that he's pretty much followed what I've written previously is the typical career arc for elite wide receivers.
His per game averages for yards, receptions, and Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) reveals that just like the typical elite wide receiver, his production peaked in his age 26 season and remained at an elite level (within 80% of peak production) for the next six seasons before the start of a steady decline for the next few years.
Briefly for those unfamiliar, NEP is our measure of a player's efficiency by quantifying his contributions to his team's chances of scoring above or below expectations. A positive score means a player helped his team improve their chances of putting points on the board, while a negative score means precisely the opposite.
This dip in production and lack of efficiency is likely the reason why the Houston Texans decided to part ways with their All-Pro wideout.
Not much reason to be optimistic for his prospects with the Colts, right?
But those ready to write off Andre Johnson for the 2015 season would do well to realize that another elite wide receiver, Reggie Wayne, followed a similar career arc for his first 11 seasons before seeing a brief resurgence in his 12th year in the league.
Wayne saw his production go from a seven-year low of 75-960-4 in 2011 to a 106-1,355-5 mark in 2012. So what facilitated this turnaround?
Playing with Andrew Luck.
While Wayne had to catch passes from the likes of the retired Kerry Collins and Curtis Painter in 2011 -- whose combined -0.19 Passing NEP per attempt was a poster child for inefficiency and ranked at the bottom of the league that year -- playing with the quarterback out of Stanford in 2012 must have been a breath of fresh air for him, as Luck's 0.06 Passing NEP per drop back was already well above the league average of 0.03 for all signal-callers since 2000.
It helps to have a quarterback that knows what he's doing.
And when we look at the signal-callers Andre Johnson has had to play with the past two seasons, it's obvious that Johnson will enjoy a similar upgrade at quarterback that Wayne saw three seasons ago.
While Case Keenum, Matt Schaub, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Ryan Mallett have combined for -0.027 Passing NEP per attempt the past two seasons, Luck has only improved his play. Luck's Passing NEP per attempt has gone from 0.06 his rookie year to a career-high (and top 10) number of 0.17 last season. And going into his fourth year in the league, there's little reason to believe Luck will be slowing down anytime soon, to the likely benefit of Johnson's productivity.
Johnson himself commented on the disparity between his past quarterbacks on the Texans and the Colts' quarterback, calling Luck "Probably the best quarterback I've ever played with."
So while a little past his prime, Johnson's role in the Colts' offense (which we'll discuss shortly) and having Luck as his quarterback gives him a strong chance of having a bounce back season in 2015, making him a valuable asset for fantasy football next year.
Filling the Reggie Wayne Role
The need for someone to play Wayne's role on the Colts offense is evident in the sheer volume of targets that still came Wayne's way in 2014 (116 to be exact) despite multiple injuries hampering him throughout the season.
This was best exemplified by the play-calling in their Week 13 game against the Cleveland Browns last season when, despite playing with a torn tricep, Wayne still received eight targets, of which he managed to haul in just one of these passes for a five-yard gain.
Why this reliance on Wayne?
Well, when we look at Luck's passing distribution in 2014 we see that Luck demonstrated a preference for the short game, with 72.2% of his pass attempts coming within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. Thus, Wayne's high volume of targets was due to the fact that he was asked to operate in this exact same region of the field, with the majority of his receptions (66.1%) coming in this very area.
Viewed in this context, the signing of Andre Johnson and his role on the Colts' offense becomes more and more clear
Standing at a towering 6'3" and 230 pounds, Johnson is more than capable of using his size and strength to outmuscle defenders for jump balls and short passes. Indeed, looking at the distribution of his receptions last season, we see that nearly three-fourths of al his catches came within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage.
It's therefore obvious that the Colts brought in Johnson to give Luck an experienced receiver he could trust and rely upon in the short passing game, which -- as we just discussed above -- is the same part of the field that Luck prefers to throw to.
And on this note, there are encouraging signs that Luck and Johnson are already in sync with each other as head coach Chuck Pagano has been quoted as saying: "There's no thinking... One knows where the other's going to be. They know the exact spot to put it."
From all this it's clear that while Johnson may have lost a step as he celebrates his 34th birthday before the season starts, his ability to take over Wayne's old role and contribute in the short-passing game along with his quickly-developing chemistry with the Colts' franchise quarterback will ensure that Johnson plays a huge role for the Colts in 2015.
As Andre Johnson takes over Reggie Wayne's highly productive possession receiver role on this team, with his size and physical talents still at his disposal, there's little reason to believe that Johnson won't be able to at least match the numbers Wayne put up in his first season with Luck. And with a current ADP of 43 as the 18th wide receiver off the board, Johnson has the potential to give savvy fantasy football managers willing to look past his age WR1 production for the price of a low-end WR2.