Is It Time to Sell Keenan Allen in Fantasy Football?

Is Allen's tenure as a reliable fantasy receiver over now that Antonio Gates is back on the field?

Keenan Allen has done very well for fantasy football owners thus far.

In four games, he has turned 46 targets into 33 receptions for 387 yards and 3 touchdowns. Many were able to snag Allen fairly late as a second wide receiver in the fourth or fifth round, which is great considering his return to date.

Ah, well isn’t that the million dollar phrase? “To date.”

We are here to take in the whole picture of Allen and the Chargers, and if you need to sell him now.

The State of the San Diego Chargers

Perspective and context for the San Diego Chargers as whole is necessary. They haven’t actually had any real semblance of consistency on offense outside of Keenan Allen, Philip Rivers, and Danny Woodhead in 2015.

The bar isn’t even set that high, as each of them has turned in a pretty crummy performance, but they’ve at least been on the field. Nearly the entire Chargers’ offensive line is on the injury report, which has led to general ineffectiveness from Melvin Gordon.

Malcom Floyd got concussed in Sunday’s game. Steve Johnson pulled up lame with a hamstring injury of unknown severity in that game as well. Ladarius Green looked good in Week 4 but has been battling concussions.

There's room for Allen, then, to continue being a key to this offense, but with the return of Antonio Gates, it's fair to wonder if Allen can keep up the pace.

Keenan Allen Last Year and This Year

According to our  Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which takes factors such as down, distance-to-go, and the yard line into account (explained in full in our glossary), Allen had the 63rd best Reception Net Expected Points total in 2014 with 56.72.

Some context for you, the two names above him were Robert Woods and Andre Holmes, while the two below him were Heath Miller and Andre Johnson. In four games this year, Allen already has a Reception NEP of 32.51, which ranks ninth in the league.

Keenan Allen relies on volume to provide premium value as opposed to touchdowns. In 2014 Allen only scored four times. You could consider his current pace a regression back to a mean of sorts toward his 2013 pace, but it appears that Allen is primarily used as that intermediate range possession type given his peripherals.

Allen has 17 receptions on plays 1 to 10 yards with in the line of scrimmage, 6 on throws 11 to 20 yards from the line of scrimmage, and 1 on passes between 21 and 30 yards downfield. He has 4 catches behind the line of scrimmage.

Knowing this, let us look at Allen’s Reception NEP per target very quickly for perspective.

In 2014, it was 0.47, and this year it is 0.71. Neither figure is overwhelming, but 2015’s number is significantly better. So he is doing more with the targets he is seeing, though neither number translate to being a top receiver.

Further, only 81.82% of his receptions have added to San Diego's NEP. That Success Rate ranks him 30th among 54 receivers with at least 20 targets through Week 4.

This supports the Keenan Allen narrative of really being a product of volume, and not necessarily an efficient receiver.

Antonio's Knocking At the Gates

Enter: Antonio Gates. Sure, Ladarius Green had a nice catch in the end zone on Sunday, but that is “GatesLand” as far as Philip Rivers is concerned.

On a team that lacks a true north-south runner (okay, that’s a little rude to Melvin Gordon, because he needs a serviceable line before I rain judgment upon him), the Chargers have had to rely on more unconventional methods to find the end zone. Whether that means lining up in the shotgun with the shifty Danny Woodhead to try to beat goal line defenses, or simply throwing the ball more than your average team does in those situations, it appears that the Chargers could certainly use Gates’ presence back in the lineup.

Remember Allen’s growth to having a 0.71 Reception NEP per target? Antonio Gates had a 0.91 score last year.

While the offensive line woes do point to Gates being needed as a blocker more than San Diego might like, the overall injury situation, the need for a big target, and Gates’ established chemistry with Rivers should trump that. Gates is essentially Philip Rivers’ safety blanket. Keenan Allen appears to be filling much of that void right now, but Gates should be a popular hot read for Rivers if his protection breaks down and a ball just needs to get out.

Let’s look back to 2014 for some perspective. Last year the Chargers red zone targets broke down like this according to NFLSavant’s count (which includes penalized plays). 

2014 Chargers Red Zone Targets Touchdowns
Antonio Gates 18 9
Keenan Allen 13 2
Malcom Floyd 13 4
Eddie Royal 11 5
Branden Oliver 7 1
Donald Brown 5 0
Ladarius Green 5 0

You’re smart though, you know that red zone targets don’t necessarily mean the end zone, and they certainly don’t mean that the receiver has the size and skillset necessary to go up and haul in that pass. So you can see the real kicker: Gates turned 18 targets into 11 completions and 9 touchdowns. Allen turned his 13 targets into 7 receptions and only 2 touchdowns (even versus Floyd's 4 touchdowns, and Royal's 5, that's not pretty).

Allen was tied for second on the team in red zone targets, yet was buried on the list of those who found paydirt. This is not encouraging when all of the weapons are there.

In 2014, Keenan Allen had 118 targets, garnering 20.48% of his team's targets, while Gates had 103. So far this year Keenan has been rolling hot with 32.19% of San Diego’s targets. Expect that number to come back down closer to Allen’s 2014 figure depending on the severity of Johnson’s hamstring injury and Floyd’s concussion.

With Allen's performance so far this year, it’s hard to view him as anything lower than San Diego’s “1A” option to Gates’ “1B” overall. Overall is the operative word though because it seems like Allen's more of a between the 20's type of guy for San Diego, and with Gates' return imminent, the results should shift back to look more like 2014.

What Does It All Mean?

So you’ve read some encouraging things about Allen and some discouraging things about Allen and the Chargers in general. What does this all culminate in? What is Keenan Allen moving forward?

It’s really tempting to just go with the timeless “he is who we thought he was.” Few drafted Allen thinking this was going to be what he brought to the table for the whole year. One more touchdown and he matches his 2014 total. Again, some regression might be fair, especially when combined with Gates’ absence for the first four games.

Well, the first four games are over. Antonio Gates is back, and so is his insane red zone presence that has paid off handily for Philip Rivers and offensive coordinator Frank Reich in past years. In all leagues, expectations for the touchdowns should definitely be tempered moving forward, though standard league players will feel that hit the most.

We project Allen to be the 11th best wide receiver for the rest of the season, with 77 receptions, 942 yards, and 6 touchdowns in the pipeline for his owners. Allen owners should heed those numbers, and if you can sell off Keenan Allen as a low end WR1, you should absolutely do so.

You’ll need to do this before Antonio Gates takes his piece of the targets and touchdowns, as Allen’s market share likely regresses back towards his 2014 numbers. You may have a bit more time if Johnson and Floyd are out for an extended period of time, but don’t wait too long to pull the trigger.