Will Kyle Shanahan Ignore Mohamed Sanu Like His Other WR2s?

May 03, 2016
Will Kyle Shanahan Ignore Mohamed Sanu Like His Other WR2s?

During the offseason, the Falcons signed wide receiver Mohamed Sanu to a five year, $32.5 million deal to start opposite Julio Jones, but will Sanu be used enough to be a viable fantasy starter?

The narrative goes that Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan feeds his X receiver (Jones) voluminously at the expense of his Z receiver (Sanu). Let's take a look at Shanahan's WR1/WR2 splits since he took over as Houston's offensive coordinator in 2008:

Note: Number in parenthesis is amount of games played in corresponding role.

Kyle Shanahan WR1/WR2 Splits
Year Team WR1 Tar/G WR2 Tar/G Diff WR1 Tar MS WR2 Tar MS Diff Tot Tm Tar/G WR1 WR2
2015 ATL 12.7 5.1 7.6 33% 13% 20% 38.6 Julio Jones (16) Leonard Hankerson (8), Roddy White (8)
2014 CLE 8.9 5.3 3.6 28% 17% 12% 31.2 Andrew Hawkins (10), Josh Gordon (5), Miles Austin (1) Miles Austin (9), Andrew Hawkins (5), Taylor Gabriel (2)
2013 WAS 11.3 4.9 6.4 30% 13% 17% 37.5 Pierre Garcon (16) Santana Moss (16)
2012 WAS 6.4 4.0 2.4 23% 15% 9% 27.2 Pierre Garcon (10), Josh Morgan (6) Josh Morgan (10), Santana Moss (6)
2011 WAS 7.6 6.4 1.1 21% 18% 3% 36.2 Santana Moss (12), Jabar Gaffney (4) Jabar Gaffney (12), Terrence Austin (2), Donte' Stallworth (2)
2010 WAS 9.1 5.6 3.5 24% 15% 9% 37.2 Santana Moss (16) Anthony Armstrong (15), Roydell Williams (1)
2009 HOU 10.7 4.7 6.0 29% 13% 16% 36.4 Andre Johnson (16) Kevin Walter (14), Jacoby Jones (2)
2008 HOU 10.7 5.9 4.8 32% 18% 14% 33.9 Andre Johnson (16) Kevin Walter (16)
8 year Avg. 9.7 5.2 4.4 28% 15% 13% 34.8

Since Shanahan's first year as OC in 2008, his teams have targeted WR1s 12.5 percent more than WR2s, much higher than the league average of 5.5 percent more during that span. Much of what we perceive as coaching tendencies are just responses to personnel, however. A closer look reveals that discrepancy may be even greater with the Jones/Sanu pairing.

Shanahan is Just Not That Into WR2s

Shanahan really only had four full seasons of a true number-one X receiver: 2008, 2009, 2013, and 2015. In each of those four years, his WR1 averaged 10 or more targets per game. Jones has averaged 10 targets per game for three years and counting, so it's safe to say that he will again be over that mark in 2016, barring injury. In that case, what's left for Sanu?

WR1 Tar/G WR2 Tar/G Diff WR1 Tar MS WR2 Tar MS Diff Tot Tm Tar/G
When WR1 Averages 10+ Tar/G 11.3 5.2 6.2 31% 14% 17% 36.6
When WR1 Averages <10 Tar/G 8 5.3 2.7 24% 16% 8% 32.9

When Shanahan's had a 10-plus target per game WR1, he's targeted that WR1 a whopping 17 percent more than his WR2, which is over 11 percent higher than the league average differential of 5.5 percent.

Even in years when he hasn't had a dominant WR1, Shanahan has targeted his WR2 only 16 percent of the time -- still lower than the league average of 18 percent. It's not looking good for the former Bengal.

Is Sanu Good or Overpaid?

The counter argument is that the Falcons signed Sanu to a big contract, so they likely plan to use him. While Sanu's "real" contract is two years, $14 million (the Falcons don't owe him any guaranteed money after 2017), $7 million/year is still a premium price to pay for a WR2.

However, the Falcons may have simply decided that with only six draft picks and huge holes on defense and at tight end, it was better to overpay for the four year veteran than use an early pick on a young WR. Indeed, the Falcons spent their first four picks on defense and TE, adding only WR Devin Fuller in the seventh round.

A case could also be made that Sanu is the best WR2 Shanahan has ever had. But is he really?

Kyle Shanahan Primary WR2 Career Numbers
YPT YPC TD% Catch Rate Drafted
Miles Austin 8.49 14.6 5.96% 58.1% undrafted
Santana Moss 8.11 14.0 5.21% 57.7% 16
Kevin Walter 8.09 12.3 4.62% 65.8% 255
Leonard Hankerson 8.09 13.2 5.17% 61.5% 79
Anthony Armstrong 8.08 18.3 4.10% 44.3% undrafted
Roddy White 7.89 13.4 4.58% 58.7% 27
Jabar Gaffney 7.55 12.7 3.18% 59.3% 33
Josh Morgan 7.33 12.2 3.44% 59.9% 174
Mohamed Sanu 7.20 11.8 4.42% 61.0% 83

Of Shanahan's nine primary WR2s, Sanu ranks dead last in yards per catch and ranks in the bottom half in TD percentage and draft slot. More importantly, even with the third-highest catch rate, Sanu still ranked dead last in yards per target. In fact, washed up versions of Austin in 2014 (7.78) and White in 2015 (7.22) both averaged more yards per target than Sanu has over his entire career. Regarding Sanu as the clear-cut best WR2 Shanahan has ever had is a stretch, at least until Sanu proves otherwise.

The best stretch of Sanu's career was a 18-299-1 line over three games when A.J. Green was injured in 2014, but Sanu needed 10.7 targets per game to do that -- a number he likely won't sniff barring an injury to Jones.

Sanu's 2016 Fantasy Outlook

The highest percentage Shahahan has ever targeted his WR2 is 18 percent. Eighteen percent of the Falcons' 38.6 targets per game from 2015 works out to 6.95 targets per game, which is likely a best-case scenario in which Sanu remains Matt Ryan's second read all season long. In 2015, only four WRs cracked the top 36 in PPR points/game averaging less than seven targets/game: Doug Baldwin, John Brown, Ted Ginn, and Willie Snead. Brown and Ginn are deep threats who do a lot of damage on a per-target basis unlike Sanu, while all four of the aforementioned wideouts played with a QB a notch up from Ryan.

Then there's Atlanta's Pro Bowl running back, Devonta Freeman, a Shanahan favorite who was targeted 17 percent of the time when active -- 4 percent more than Atlanta's WR2s last season and 2 percent higher than WR2s over the span of Shanahan's career. Freeman often lined up out wide last season, and it's conceivable he'll continue to be the team's No. 2 option given the talent discrepancy between he and Sanu.

Tight end Jacob Tamme was himself Atlanta's number-two read for a portion of last year, and his year-long target market share (14 percent) was also higher than Atlanta's WR2s. And the only offensive player the Falcons picked on the first two days of the Draft was Stanford TE Austin Hooper, a pass catching TE with good hands, route running skills, and college production.

Given Shanahan's tendency to marginalize his WR2, Sanu will have to elevate his play significantly in order to truly take advantage of his opportunity with the Falcons. Even if Sanu is used to the greatest extent Shanahan has ever used his WR2, it may be tough for Sanu to produce meaningful fantasy numbers given that he is a low yard per target underneath receiver with a well below average career red zone TD rate (18.6 percent). Sanu's current ADP outside the top 50 WRs makes sense, as he'll likely need an injury to Jones to be a fantasy starter.

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