What Dennis Pitta's Injury Means for Maxx Williams and Crockett Gillmore
It takes a lot of skill and athleticism to be a musical theatre artist.
I’ve dreamed of getting to sing on a stage in front of thousands of adoring fans, but the one thing I never was able to do was the whole dancing component of the “triple threat.” I still remember one of my teachers in high school recounting to our class about when he was a dancer on Broadway and the legendary Mickey Rooney demanded that his chorus line girls do a high kick “that hits at noon.”
One girl didn’t get her toes pointed straight upward, and she was fired immediately. They then drilled fan kicks for hours after until they were perfect.
I’m glad I made a different career choice, and I bet tight end Dennis Pitta is too.
Poor Pitta, whose hip has been ailing him for two seasons with multiple dislocations and fractures, would be lucky to hit 5 o’clock right now. He was placed on the Reserve/Physically Unable to Perform List to begin the 2015 season, which will cost him the first six games of the year.
One of the first things you do at an audition in the theatre world is figure out the situation you’re being put in: you read the sides they provide for you, you figure out your character, and -- of course -- survey the competition. That’s exactly what we have to do to break down the value of a position opening on a team. So, first, what are they giving to us?
The tight end has been a favored position for the Baltimore offense in the past; Ravens tight ends have averaged a total 130 targets over the past four years. Still, simple averages don’t help us necessarily see a full picture of an offense. We want to see if there are any trends in the data, any movement toward or away from a position.
To that point, the table below shows the Ravens’ tight end production since 2011, including receptions, targets, receiving yardage, standard fantasy points, and -- of course -- numberFire’s signature metric: Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and assign them contextual value so they relate even closer to the game on the field. By adding down-and-distance value, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.
What trends do we see?
|Year||Rec/Tgt||Yards||Rec NEP||Target NEP||FPTS|
First of all, since the heyday of the Ed Dickson and Pitta duo in 2011, the tight end’s usage has been freefalling in Baltimore. They have gone from a share of 25.3% of all of quarterback Joe Flacco's drop backs in 2011 to about 20.6% in 2014. Five percent of market share for the position might not seem monumental, but when you consider that that amount has been sliced four ways between mediocre talents, the Baltimore tight end position can seem like a mess for fantasy purposes.
In addition to volume, we see an immense drop in the value at this position. Dickson and Pitta combined for 95.40 Reception NEP in 2011 and had a very solid combined Target NEP as well. Due partially to the volume dearth between 2011 and 2012, as well as an effectiveness drop (Pitta’s catch rate diminished 7%), they lost nearly 20.00 Reception NEP from their tight ends the following year, an equivalent of almost three touchdowns of value lost.
What we’re really concerned about: the Ravens, whether through injury or ineffectiveness, have lost more than 30 fantasy points in potential from their tight ends over the past four years.
So, should we still care about them?
There’s still hope for this role.
A good actor knows that a strong interpretation can outperform the material provided. Part of that interpretation in football comes from the offensive coordinator, and the Ravens have been gifted with a guru in former Bears’ head coach Marc Trestman.
But how good has Trestman been in the director’s chair when it comes to the tight end? The table below shows the production all tight ends in a season under Trestman have had, using the same framework as before. Might Trestman make this lackluster role Tony-worthy?
|Year||Team||Rec/Tgt||Yards||Rec NEP||Target NEP||FPTS|
It looked bleak as all get out for the jumbo-sized receiver in Trestman offenses early in the 2000’s, but the numbers for his Arizona and Oakland offenses are slightly misleading without a little context: the best tight end he had to work with prior to 2004 was Doug Jolley on the 2002 Raiders.
Jolley clocked in a 32.81 Reception NEP that season, with a very good 28.86 Target NEP to boot, meaning he was almost foolproof when throwing him the ball. The only problem was Jolley still only received 37 targets that year, and then became utterly mundane again in 2003.
What changed in 2004, and resumed when Trestman returned from his Canadian Football League exile in 2013? He had the highly athletic Randy McMichael on his 2004 Dolphins team, and then wound up with Martellus Bennett when he became the Bears’ head coach. In his most recent three years in the NFL, his top tight end has received no fewer than 90 targets in a year.
Finally, we arrive at the competition.
Let’s set the scene: since the 2014 season ended, wide receiver Torrey Smith joined the San Francisco 49ers in free agency, tight end Owen Daniels followed Gary Kubiak to Denver, and Dennis Pitta has become all but lost for the 2015 season. Their absence (including Jacoby Jones as well) leaves 210 targets of Flacco’s 574 drop backs from last year unclaimed -- or 36.6% of their opportunities in 2014. Excepting an outlier 2013 season where he dropped back 662 times, Joe Flacco has had a remarkably consistent average of 565 to 575 drop backs per season. If we assume that average holds, that means 205 to 210 targets are up for grabs in 2015.
We also know that Trestman prefers a solid TE1 role on his team, as Bennett had 94 and 128 targets the last two years, compared to Dante Rosario's 4 and 22. This, to me, means that it’s entirely reasonable to expect a 90-plus target season for a tight end on this team, especially when the receivers opposite of Steve Smith are fighting drops and injury in training camp, doing little to distinguish themselves.
The only question is: who will step into the limelight?
Crockett Gillmore is currently the starter in Baltimore due to his blocking ability, but the Ravens seem to think of him more as a blocker than a receiver; he seems likely to fill the Dante Rosario role eventually in Trestman's offense.
Maxx Williams beats him out by a country mile as a natural pass-catcher and athletic marvel, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see him seize the job with strong preseason showings. He put together a two-catch, 36-yard line in their first game against Saints with the first-team offense, narrowly missing out on an impressive touchdown grab in his third target of the day.
Even if he puts forward the league-average Catch Rate (62.18%), Yards Per Reception (11.63), and Touchdown Rate (4.64%), a fairly conservative 90 target season for Williams would lead to a 56-650-4 stat line. That 89 points was good for the 13th-best tight end finish in standard scoring last year.
I usually exercise caution with rookie tight ends in fantasy football, but without any real competition for opportunities, Maxx Williams could slice himself off a solid share of targets and still leave plenty for his teammates. Going undrafted in almost all formats, you could do much worse with him as an upside flier or Week 1 waiver claim.