Are Two Great Fantasy Football Receivers Being Overlooked in Baltimore?
In the great American classic movie Mean Girls, there are three girls who are known as "plastics." The plastics are considered to be the most beautiful, rich and desirable girls at their high school. While much of the attention and affection is given (rightly) to the queen bee of the group, Regina (played masterfully by Rachel McAdams), what most of the guys in that school failed to realize is that her friends Karen and Gretchen were amazing catches as well! You know, if you're into the mean, dumb, shallow-but-hot schtick.
Yes, Regina was the ultimate catch in that school, but most people were so infatuated with what they couldn't have that they failed to realize her two friends were just as available and likely more attainable than Ms. Plastic herself!
We seem to have a Mean Girls-like situation brewing in Baltimore. People are so distracted by the prettier and more popular offenses and receivers in the NFL that they seem to have forgotten that opportunity abounds for this new-look Ravens offense. Joe Flacco may not be as sexy as Andrew Luck or Aaron Rodgers, but does that really mean he can't support a top-20 receiver or two in 2015?
What do the numbers tell us about what we can expect?
Wading Through the Mess
Joe Flacco threw for 3,986 yards and 27 touchdowns last year, and his top wide receivers aren't being drafted until picks 98 and 109 in current drafts. Renowned quarterback whisperer and new offensive coordinator, Marc Trestman, made it a habit in Chicago to make sure both Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery were productive fantasy assets, yet there is seemingly no belief he can do the same for anyone in Baltimore.
This is a guy who turned Scott Mitchell into a great quarterback, Jake Plummer into a playoff quarterback, Rich Gannon into an NFL MVP, and Jay Cutler into a joke. In his defense, Cutler just wasn't very good. You can't win them all.
Since 2011, and with more conservative coaches and play calling, Flacco has consistently flirted with 4,000 yards and will most likely do it again (our projections expect him to throw for 3,844 yards). Then again, he could just as easily exceed that number in 2015.
Last season, 12 teams eclipsed the 4,000-yard passing barrier. Of them, the only not to have a 1,000-yard receiver would be Drew Brees, Philip Rivers and Ryan Tannehill, but these are the rare exceptions, and injuries played a role for the Saints and Chargers. But unless you're buying the Kamar Aiken and Marlon Brown hype, Flacco doesn't seem a likely candidate to spread the ball around at the expense of elevating one or two of his targets.
The Ravens also need to replace 171 targets following the departures of Owen Daniels and Torrey Smith. While Aiken is a nice player, he doesn't seem in line for a drastic uptick in targets. Here's where things get a little tricky.
It was clear last season that Steve Smith Sr. slowed significantly down the stretch after a torrid start. In terms of our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which quantifies a player's production relative to league expectation level based on historical performance, his 0.63 Reception NEP per target was significantly lower than the average (0.88) of the top 10 receivers in that category with over 100 targets.
Often, players in his range are young players looking to find their footing in the NFL (such as John Brown at 0.66 or Kelvin Benjamin at 0.67) or older players clearly on the precipice of decline (such as Roddy White and Larry Fitzgerald at 0.65).
While it isn't unprecedented for veteran receivers to post rebound numbers at some point in their career, that is much closer to being the exception than the rule. More often it signifies that the player has become more of a possession target than a player capable or producing at the same level as more dynamic talents.
Still, Smith was a top-20 receiver last year and is the number-one target on an above average passing offense (Baltimore ranked seventh last season in schedule-adjusted Passing NEP per play). He's currently being drafted as the 39th receiver off the board, though, amidst speculation that his snaps could decrease in 2015.
Given Smith's ADP, you might expect that another Ravens receiver was getting all the love, but you'd be wrong! First-round draft pick Breshad Perriman is being drafted around the ninth round as the 43rd receiver off the board.
He steps in to replace Torrey Smith, who in 2014 produced a very good Reception NEP per target of 0.88. That mark ranked eighth among the 62 receivers who saw at least 75 targets in 2014. However, the downfield threat's catch rate continues to hover around 50 percent, and it was a career-best 53.26 percent last season. That ranked 53rd among the 75-plus target receivers last year.
His career catch rate is just 49.47 percent, which is subpar despite his production when he does catch the ball. This was likely one of the reasons Baltimore was okay to see the young receiver walk in free agency, something that came as a surprise to many.
His replacement is Breshad Perriman, and I apologize for the love affair that is about to follow. Much of that love is also expressed in this great post draft report on the former Central Florida receiver. Here are some of the athletic comparables for Perriman.
|Julio Jones||WR||6' 3"||220||33¾"||9¾"||4.34||17||38½"||135"|
|Kevin White||WR||6' 3"||215||32⅝"||9¼"||4.35||23||36½"||123"|
|Breshad Perriman||WR||6' 2"||212||32"||9¼"||4.27||18||36"||127"|
|Darrius Heyward-Bey||WR||6' 2"||210||33⅝"||9"||4.3||16||38½"||126"|
|Cordarrelle Patterson||WR||6' 2"||216||31¾"||9"||4.42||37"||128"|
Those are some intriguing athletes with immense upside, but the comparison that seems the most relevant in terms of situation is Julio Jones, which I believe is the ceiling for Perriman. Here's why.
As a rookie, Jones walked into an offense that had an established veteran in Roddy White and a 4,000-yard passer in Matt Ryan. He finished as the 17th-ranked receiver by season's end after seeing 96 targets. Those targets were third on his team, with White receiving 180 and Tony Gonzalez getting 116.
The Ravens have a similar offense, minus the Hall of Fame tight end unless Dennis Pitta has an unexpected resurgence after hip injuries have devastated his career. Or I guess perhaps rookie Maxx Williams could break the mold and be the rare player to produce in his first season at that position. But more likely, the talented Perriman steps into Torrey Smith's vacated targets (92 last year) with an upgrade at offensive coordinator and an additional 79 targets still up for grabs.
Let's compare the two offenses.
|Team||Pass Plays||Passing NEP||Adj PNEP/P||Pass TDs||Pass Yards|
The 2014 Ravens were actually the more efficient offense on a schedule-adjusted per-play basis, and the expectation is that Trestman will add more to this passing game. If the rookie receiver is as talented as the Ravens think he is, the situation is tailor-made for him to emerge as a top-20 fantasy receiver. And remember, he is being drafted as the 43rd receiver off the board!
Of course he could bust, but nothing in the data really suggests that we should bank on that outcome. He's big, strong and explosive, and there is a difference between having bad hands (Darrius Heyward-Bey) and concentration drops (Terrell Owens). Perriman doesn't fight the ball like the former, even if he drops an occasional pass. This is an exceptionally talented player who was stuck in a terrible college offense with a quarterback who couldn't hit Perriman in stride on his best day.
Making Sense of Things
While Flacco has never supported two top-25 receivers in a single season, he also hasn't had the talent around him that he has this season. Throwing to Jacoby Jones and Marlon Brown isn't a fair indication of what Flacco is capable of.
In fairness, Flacco's Passing NEP per drop back and Pass Success Rate (the percentage of drop backs that led to positive NEP gains for Baltimore) declined in each of the four seasons 2009 to 2013 before improving to career bests in 2014, but if the 2014 Flacco is here to stay, then the opportunity for Perriman is immense. That Perriman isn't in the same conversation as rookies Kevin White or Nelson Agholor is seemingly overlooking the fact that he has a better quarterback and arguably just as good an opportunity to produce.
As for me, I'm willing and happy to grab either as bench players on my team. Their productivity is going surprise many, but I won't be caught off guard.