Alshon Jeffery and the bond between Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall
Cutler, as Marshall’s teammate in Denver from 2007-08 and in Chicago in 2012 and 2013, has had heart-shaped eyes for the hulking 6’4” 230-pound pass catcher. Cutler has made no bones about his unerring willingness to force the football to Marshall – double and triple coverage be damned.
No one would question Cutler’s infatuation with his on-again-off-again teammate, but after Alshon Jeffery’s breakout 2013 campaign, early average draft positions (ADPs) show that mock drafters are assigning the Bears’ receivers with equal value.
Jeffery, in fact, is being taken a few picks before his elder pass-catching teammate, according to early MyFantasyLeague ADP data.
Is that warranted? Is landing Jeffery roughly the equivalent of investing in Marshall in 2014 re-draft leagues? I think a good place to start in answering that question would be an examination of Cutler’s connection with his duo of big, fast wideouts in 2013:
|Player||Targets||Receptions||Fantasy Points per Target/Rec||Cutler's AYA|
Note: All fantasy points and projections in this article are in reference to a PPR scoring format.
Adjusted yards per attempt (AYA), for the unitiated, is like traditional yards per attempt with some handy-dandy built-in fixes for touchdowns and interceptions. AYA helps us better account for the negative effects of a pick and the positive impact of a score.
The above numbers give us at least two important insights into how Cutler used Jeffery and Marshall during their first season under Marc Trestman: Marshall remains Cutler’s security blanket, and Jeffery’s efficiency is good news for those drafting Alshon as a top-10 fantasy receiver.
The target disparity isn’t nearly as large as I thought it’d be, thanks to a couple games – including a Week 5 game in which Jeffery drew 13 targets – that saw defenses deploy single coverage against Alshon.
The most concerning part about Cutler’s target distribution can be found in the feast or famine nature of Jeffery’s opportunities. Alshon saw eight or fewer targets in fully half of his 2013 games – a far cry from two games that saw Marshall field fewer than eight targets.
That's probably not shocking to fantasy owners, but once again, these receivers are being drafted in the same part of early drafts. Investing in Jeffery at the same price as Marshall would indicate that Alshon owners are anticipating a more even target distribution in 2014.
Maybe that’s warranted, but it’s predicated on a marked change in how Jeffery was utilized in Trestman’s scheme, and how Cutler operates as head of said scheme.
That’s not to say that things don’t change when Trestman is involved. The quarterback whisperer who once turned Rich Gannon into a top-flight fantasy option helped Cutler post his highest fantasy points per pass attempt (.54) in 2013 since his outstanding 2010 campaign in Denver.
Trestman’s offense has always supported three viable fantasy pass catchers, as seen during his days as offensive coordinator in Oakland in the early 2000s (Raiders receivers Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, and Jerry Porter combined for 225 receptions in 2002). Last season it was Marshall, Jeffery, and Matt Forte reaping the fantasy benefits of Trestman’s system.
Jeffery’s top-9 finish among PPR receivers in 2013 was made possible not by his connection with Cutler, but his production with Josh McCown at the helm, as seen below.
|Player||Targets||Receptions||Fantasy Points per Target/Rec||McCown's AYA|
McCown’s AYA when throwing to Jeffery jumps off the screen as incredible and unsustainable. That’s not to say that Alshon’s 2013 performance was fluky – it wasn’t – but an AYA that high might give fantasy owners some pause. Many elite fantasy receivers post long-term AYAs in the 8.5-9.0 range.
Another (small) red flag: 570 of Alshon's 1,421 receiving yards (40 percent) came on deep passes, or throws of more than 20 yards. Only one receiver -- A.J. Green -- had more yards on long throws in 2013. This doesn't scream regression, but it might whisper the word.
I’m not charging that Alshon can’t post hefty numbers once again this season; it’s just that his 2013 stats were inflated by a few nuclear performances, a couple of which came when McCown had taken over in the oft-injured Cutler’s stead.
I create projections for every player this time of year – some projections showing likely outcomes indicating where the player would rank with the more conservative numbers, and high projections showing where he might finish in a best case scenario.
High projections are most useful among late-round selections – guys who, if they fail to hit those high projections, won’t wreck your fantasy team. The safer projections are best used to evaluate early and middle round players. It’s those guys who must have a high fantasy floor. I know I’m not breaking any news here when I say that you’re in a much tighter spot if you swing and miss on your first few selections.
Alshon Jeffery Range of Possible 2014 Outcomes
|Jeffery FP/T||136 Targets||144 Targets||151 Targets||158 Targets|
|1.48||201 (WR32)||213 (WR25)||223 (WR19)||233 (WR19)|
|1.58||214 (WR23)||228 (WR19)||238 WR(18)||250 (WR16)|
|1.68||228 (WR19)||241 (WR18)||254 (WR15)||265 (WR14)|
|1.78||242 (WR18)||256 (WR15)||269 (WR14)||281 (WR10)|
|1.88||256 (WR15)||271 (WR13)||284 (WR9)||297 (WR8)|
I chose this fantasy point per target (FP/T) range because Jeffery's career FP/T is 1.8, so I'm allowing room on each side of that number. It would undoubtedly be a fantasy football disaster if Alshon is in the 1.5 FP/T range in 2014.
I mention these median and high projections because my median prospects (1.68 FP/T) with maximum targets (158) for Jeffery put him outside WR1 range (at WR14), meaning Alshon, the sixth receiver off draft boards, wouldn’t come close to meeting his draft day price. Jeffery’s high projection (1.88) with 158 targets would leave him at WR8, which is hardly stellar for where he’s being drafted.
It comes down to this: Jeffery’s asking price leaves very little room for equity, and his floor (to me) is a lot lower than a lot of fantasy owners would like to think.
Brandon Marshall Range of Possible 2014 Outcomes
|Brandon Marshall FP/T||155 Targets||160 Targets||164 Targets||167 Targets|
|1.6||248 (WR16)||256 (WR15)||262 (WR15)||267(WR14)|
|1.68||260 (WR15)||269 (WR14)||276 (WR13)||281 (WR10)|
|1.75||271 (WR13)||280 (WR10)||287 (WR9)||292 (WR8)|
|1.82||282 (WR10)||291 (WR9)||298 (WR8)||304 (WR5)|
|1.9||295 (WR8)||304 (WR5)||312 (WR3)||317 (WR2)|
Marshall, meanwhile, has a median projection (1.75 FP/T) that would make him WR9 this season with 164 targets (his 2013 total), and a best-case scenario (1.9 FP/T) in which he’d finish at WR2 if he can increase his targets to 167. This FP/T range originated from Marshall's production during his seasons with Cutler at quarterback (1.8). It's a good starting point that he likely won't exceed by a whole lot, thanks in part to the glut of targets he's bound to see once again heading into his age 30 season.
These likely ranges of outcomes say Marshall has both a higher floor and a higher ceiling than Jeffery. That’s why I’ll likely target Marshall and fade Alshon unless and until Jeffery's ADP drops into the WR12 range.
I don’t think it will.