What Does Adding Anquan Boldin Do for the Lions' Offense?
We're getting down to crunch time for NFL free agents as training camps start to open across the league. If they're not signed yet, you can bet that player's jitters will be pumping in full effect.
Anquan Boldin can breathe a bit easier now.
Former 49ers, Ravens and Cardinals' WR Anquan Boldin plans to sign a 1-year deal with Lions, per sources. Two sides now finalizing deal.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) July 26, 2016
His name had been linked to a laundry list of teams during the offseason, so you knew he'd find a home eventually. That home just happened to be a place with the Detroit Lions where they were looking for another set of hands to help fill the void left by the retired Calvin Johnson.
But questions remain about Boldin even after this signing, given the fall off in his final season with the San Francisco 49ers. Can Boldin still make a difference as he enters his age-36 season? Let's take a look.
An Inefficient 2015 Season
You knew there had to be a reason that a guy with 74 career touchdown receptions to his name was still on the market this late in the game. You need not look further than his 2015 analytics.
We can measure this by using numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP), the metric we use to track the efficiency of both teams and players. For wide receivers, our main focuses are on Reception NEP -- which shows the expected points added on balls the player caught -- and Target NEP, which deducts the expected points lost on incompletions and interceptions when that player is targeted. By both of these metrics, Boldin had a wretched campaign last year.
Among the 48 wide receivers who saw at least 80 targets in 2015, Boldin ranked 44th in Reception NEP per target. This put him right ahead of his new teammate, Golden Tate, and just a few slots ahead of the much-beleaguered Davante Adams. That's not exactly the best company to keep if you're looking to spin yourself a fancy new contact.
The quick rebuttal to this would be that this performance is linked to quarterback play, and that's absolutely true. Colin Kaepernick's and Blaine Gabbert's struggles would have an effect on Boldin's metrics, and we should account for that. But even when compared to his teammates, Boldin lagged.
numberFire's JJ Zachariason discussed why Boldin was still unsigned earlier this month. He compared Boldin to the rest of the 49ers' receivers, and it showed two things. First, they were a significant amount better than him. Second, it was the worst Boldin had performed relative to his teammates since an injury-plagued 2009 season. Here's the chart JJ used, which shows that things were straight brutal for Boldin.
|Year||Team||Boldin Rec NEP/Target||Team Rec NEP/Target||Difference|
If this were one random year for a wide receiver, it might be fine to dismiss it. Boldin missed a couple of games due to injury and dealt with extreme fluctuation at quarterback, so a bit of a struggle is expected. But when that dip comes in a player's age-35 season, it's fair to assign extra weight to it.
The Lions know all this, though, and they likely didn't sign Boldin to be what he was five years ago. So let's see how he fits in with this re-done Lions receiving core.
A Lackluster Group
If you'll remember from above, Tate was even less efficient than Boldin in terms of Reception NEP per target in 2015. Now, they're on the same team. Matthew Stafford also has Marvin Jones to throw to, but it's fair to be a bit skeptical about this offense as a whole.
This table shows the receiving metrics of those top three receivers. Remember, all three had different quarterbacks, which will play a heavy role in their marks, especially with Jones as Andy Dalton was one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the league last year. And to add a little context, Johnson's numbers are also there to show what exactly the Lions are trying to replace.
|Receiver||Targets||Reception NEP/Target||Target NEP/Target|
In case you had already forgotten, Calvin Johnson -- to his final day -- was stupidly good.
This does a couple of things. First, it shows that the Lions' offense should be expected to take a step back without Johnson. Second, it shows that Boldin's presence on the offense really isn't going to do a whole lot to improve the outlook.
Boldin should see volume in the offense simply out of a lack of alternatives. No other receiver currently on the roster saw more than Jeremy Kerley's 26 targets, so there is still a void Boldin can fill. The question is how well he'll fill it, and if last year is any indication, optimism should be low on that front.
This signing also shouldn't affect the outlooks of Tate and Jones too terribly much. Although Boldin will see targets, that duo was never going to control the entirety of the team's targets at wide receiver to begin with. It may reduce their roles a tiny bit, but given Boldin's lack of effectiveness last year, the impact of that would figure to be minimal.
With a team in a spot like the Lions -- trying to replace one of the greatest ever -- it makes sense that they would take a gamble on a guy like Boldin. He has a track record of success, and he's not necessarily too far removed from those days. But in looking at least year's numbers, there isn't a whole lot of reason to get excited about Boldin's signing, and it leaves lingering questions about this offense's ability to thrive in the post-Johnson era.