Jordan Reed Is Terrifyingly Good at Football When He's Healthy

Washington tight end Jordan Reed's proficiency on the field is unquestioned, and so is his propensity for injury. How good can he be?

The regular season is always filled with career redemptions, out-of-nowhere surprises, and feel-good narratives that help to drive the ever-unfurling story of the National Football League along. In today’s 24-hour news cycle, in fact, it seems like each new week has a theme.

What’s the theme of the NFL’s Wild Card weekend, the first matchups of the playoffs? Heartbreak.

The playoffs are the cold, hard wall that teams hit after the high of clinching a playoff berth or home-field advantage in the waning moments of Week 17. Eight teams enter the Wild Card Round, and only four advance.

For Washington fans, part of the heartbreak was seeing tight end Jordan Reed's first (somewhat) healthy breakout season come to a close at the hands of the Green Bay Packers, even as the third-year pass-catcher devastated the green-and-gold defense for 9 catches, 120 yards, and a touchdown. Washington fans can’t help feeling cheated as spectators by the fact that he’s played just 35 of a possible 49 games in his career so far.

In only his third year in professional football, and having played at least three-quarters of a season for the first time in his career in 2015, just how good can Jordan Reed be?

Stuffing the Stat Sheet

I’ll be honest: it’s sometimes too easy to take players’ statistics and imagine the what-might-have-beens, rather than looking at what actually did happen. Reed’s first two years almost have to be examined through this lens, however, since he’s been injury-riddled and played with the 2014 Washington quarterback carousel.

The table below shows Reed’s box score statistics, prorated to a full 16 games in each of his seasons.

Year Rec Tgts Yds TD
2013 80 105 887 5
2014 73 95 676 0
2015 99 130 1,088 13
Career 99 330 2,651 18

Currently, Reed stands 24th among tight ends since 1960 in career receiving yards in their first three years (1,916) – no small feat, considering this outranks future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez and is just behind Hall of Famer John Mackey.

At this prorated amount, though, he would have been third behind only Mike Ditka and Rob Gronkowski. This is impressive, considering his 2014 slump to a paltry 9.3 yards per reception mark. His 18 touchdowns would place him tied for 11th with Aaron Hernandez and Heath Miller, and -- mind you -- this is with no touchdowns scored in 2014 at all.

There’s one big flaw with this kind of analysis, however, and it’s not that we’re speculating on his upside; simple box score yards and scores don’t often tell the whole story. We use a metric at numberFire called Net Expected Points (NEP) to give context to the production that occurs on the field. NEP helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and show how that player did versus expectation. 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. A 5-yard gain means more on 3rd-and-2 than it does on 3rd-and-10; it should be valued accordingly. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

We can examine Reed’s NEP data in a similar way to the above numbers, looking at how his totals extrapolate with missed workload due to injury. The table below shows his prorated Reception NEP (expected points gained or lost on all receptions) and Target NEP (expected points gained or lost on all targets).

Year Rec Tgts Rec NEP Tgt NEP
2013 80 105 99.75 71.67
2014 73 95 34.20 11.11
2015 99 130 94.90 69.80
Career 99 330 228.85 152.58

Reed’s 163.08 career Reception NEP is seventh among tight ends’ first three years since 2000 (when our NEP data dates back to).

Had he played full seasons, his 228.85 Reception NEP to date would rank behind only Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham in the first three years of their careers. His football ability when healthy clearly ranks among the top at his position, despite one extremely inefficient year in his second season, where he had a 0.36 Reception NEP per target (tying him with Levine Toilolo for 31st out of 32 tight ends that year with at least 40 targets).

This was due clearly to poor offensive production from his team as a whole -- Washington ranked 25th in the league in team Adjusted Passing NEP per play that year, compared to 4th in 2015 -- rather than Reed’s talent alone.

Eat Your Vegetables

So, where could Reed go from here?

His raw talent certainly ranks in the top tier of NFL tight ends, and his team situation is pretty cozy as well, with his 114 targets in 2015 the fifth-most in the league.

His 76.32% Catch Rate from this year was the highest mark among tight ends with at least 40 targets, so it’s unlikely that his catching efficiency could boost much higher. However, his 0.73 Reception NEP per target from 2015 has potential to boost if the Washington offense surges; even among tight ends with at least 70 targets, he ranked sixth out of 24 in this. He could also pick up a few extra targets if he can squeeze a few more games annually onto his ledger.

I did a study about a year ago on the  career arcs of NFL tight ends in terms of NEP, and it does appear that successful tight ends (only 50.67% drafted since 2000 make it to their fourth year in the league) peak and plateau from Year 3 through Year 8 (again, with incremental attrition rates throughout).

This means that we could see Reed stick around his 2015 production for the next five years, if all of his supporting factors remain the same.

The big concern is whether or not he remains healthy, which is why -- for all of his ability and how little mileage he has on his body in the pros -- Jordan Reed remains a swing for the fences in fantasy football. His high upside is only matched by his high risk, but he's a shot worth calling.