Predicting the Production of DeSean Jackson, Eric Decker and Golden Tate
Free agency isn’t yet over — it never really ends, does it? — but the vast majority of the top names have found homes, so we can start to sift through the signings and start to project how the top players will fare in 2014.
Back in March, I examined three free agent running backs who are moving to new teams and are penciled in for larger roles. Today, I want to look at the three biggest wide receiver signings: DeSean Jackson to the Redskins, Eric Decker to the Jets and Golden Tate to the Lions.
I have previously studied how free agent receivers fare with their new teams here and here. In general, established receivers (top 36 in the previous season) who change teams experience a drop in production. The more extensive 2012 study pegs this decrease at around 27%, though the numbers vary by age. In that study, Vincent Jackson turned out to be one of the exceptions that proves the rule. He was the #10 fantasy receiver in his final season with the Chargers and then posted #6 numbers in his first season with the Bucs. As a 29 year-old free agent receiver, the odds were stacked against him, but it certainly didn’t hurt that his targets increased nearly 30% (from 7.1 T/G to 9.2 T/G) once he landed in Tampa.
But back to this year’s crop of free agents. Let’s start with D-Jax, since he has received the most attention this offseason.
Note: Two stats I like to use when attempting to predict a receiver’s production in a new situation are targets per game (T/G) and fantasy points per target (FP/T). If we can narrow down these two numbers when looking ahead, we’ll have a pretty good idea how a wideout will produce with a new team.
After being cut by the Eagles on the heels of a career year, Jackson lands with a division rival. Anyone expecting another 82-1332-9 type season should rein in those expectations. There are a few things working against Jackson in Washington. He's changing teams, which is rarely a good thing for a wideout unless he's moving into a larger role. In this case, he's joining a team with a proven target-hog (Pierre Garcon) and an up-and-coming tight end (Jordan Reed). New HC Jay Gruden does have a reputation for being pass-happy, but the Redskins actually attempted more passes (611) than the Bengals did (587) last season, so the pie may not grow as expected. After Garcon (182), the player with the second most targets was Santana Moss with 79. But it’s safe to say that Jackson is a major upgrade over Moss. Leonard Hankerson, Aldrick Robinson and Josh Morgan combined for 130 targets last season, so there is plenty of work to go around if Gruden wants to feature his new toy.
In Cincinnati, Marvin Jones was second in targets with 80, though Gruden didn’t give him starter’s snaps for most of the season. Jones saw 80 targets playing just 48% of the snaps. Let’s say Jackson plays 80% of the snaps, which would be a 10% drop from his average playing time in 2013. If he sees the same targets per snap rate as did Jones (as the WR2 in Gruden’s offense), he would be targeted 133 times, which would represent a small increase over his workload in Philadelphia (126), since the Eagles only threw the ball 508 times in 2013. It would also be a career high, so keep that in mind.
Here’s a look at how Jackson might fare given varying workloads and per target production:
|Drop in FP/T||93 Targets||103 Targets||113 Targets||123 Targets||133 Targets|
|0% (1.49)||139 (WR19)||153 (WR17)||168 (WR13)||183 (WR11)||198 (WR7)|
|10% (1.34)||125 (WR27)||138 (WR20)||151 (WR18)||165 (WR14)||178 (WR12)|
|Career Avg (1.24)||115 (WR33)||128 (WR25)||140 (WR19)||153 (WR17)||165 (WR14)|
|League Avg (1.05)||98 (WR44)||108 (WR37)||119 (WR32)||129 (WR25)||140 (WR19)|
Jackson posted the #8 FP/T in 2013, but that had a lot to do with the efficiency of Chip Kelly’s offense. Jackson was #8 in this category in 2010, #37 in 2011 and #67 in 2012. His only below average year was 2012. If he posts the league average (1.05 FP/T) on 133 targets, that’s around 140 fantasy points, or about what T.Y. Hilton produced in 2013 as the #19 WR.
Gruden’s offense in Cincinnati only supported two bona fide fantasy starters (at RB/WR/TE) in A.J. Green and Giovani Bernard. With Alfred Morris, Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson and Jordan Reed, we’re hoping for four. (Not to mention the newly signed Andre Roberts, who now appears to be destined for the WR3 role.) The wildcard is Reed, who saw 6.6 targets per game prior to getting injured in Week 11. That was the 11th-highest average among tight ends. Gruden didn’t target a single tight end all that often in Cincinnati, but Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert combined to garner 21.8% of the total targets, so things look pretty good for Reed if he plays the bulk of the snaps at tight end.
Garcon led the league with 182 targets, so it’s feasible that he’ll see his role diminish and some of his targets distributed to Jackson and Reed. A.J. Green saw 178 targets under Gruden, and while Garcon is a nice receiver, no one is going to confuse him with A.J. Green. Garcon’s talent doesn’t demand 180-plus targets.
At this point, I think Jackson is a good bet to finish as a low-end fantasy WR2 (in the #20-#24 range) with some upside, but I don’t see him matching his top 10 numbers from 2013. One important factor that I haven’t yet mentioned is the downgrade he’s likely to experience at quarterback. Robert Griffin III is going to have to bounce back in a big way to match what Nick Foles did last season. I think Jackson’s ADP will settle into the 5th or 6th round.
One nice thing about Jackson is that we know he'll be motivated and focused for at least two games next season -- both meetings with his old team.
In our 2014 Free Agency Tracker, I lamented that the downgrade Decker will see at QB (Peyton Manning to Geno Smith) is like going from dinner at Chipotle to digging through a Taco Bell Dumpster. While the drop off may not be quite that severe, Decker is going from one of the very best QB situations in the league to one of the worst, though the Michael Vick signing certainly helps the potential in the Jets’ passing game. Decker saw 136 targets in 2013, which is slightly below the average of the 32 most targeted receivers in the league. He joins the Jets, who haven’t had a receiver with more than 100 targets since 2008 Laveranues Coles. (TE Dustin Keller did see 115 targets in 2011, for what it’s worth.)
Even if Decker is able to get the league average 139 targets for a WR1 (a top 32 targeted receiver), that would represent nearly 29% of the 480 pass attempts the Jets had last season. This is not an unreasonable number, but Decker’s FP/T will almost certainly drop from his 14th-ranked finish in 2013 (1.43 FP/T). The Jets’ receivers averaged a dreadful 0.84 FP/T last season — the league average was 1.05 FP/T. But again, if Vick is throwing the ball or Geno Smith makes some strides in his second season, these numbers should improve.
Here’s a look at how Decker might finish given the number of targets he receives and what he’s able to do with those targets:
|Drop in FP/T||119 Targets||129 Targets||139 Targets||149 Targets||159 Targets|
|0% (1.43)||170 (WR13)||184 (WR11)||199 (WR7)||213 (WR4)||227 (WR1)|
|10% (1.29)||153 (WR17)||166 (WR14)||179 (WR11)||192 (WR10)||205 (WR5)|
|20% (1.14)||136 (WR23)||148 (WR18)||159 (WR16)||170 (WR13)||182 (WR11)|
|League Avg (1.05)||125 (WR27)||135 (WR23)||146 (WR18)||156 (WR16)||167 (WR13)|
|Jets '13 Avg (0.84)||100 (WR41)||108 (WR37)||117 (WR33)||125 (WR27)||134 (WR23)|
To get an idea of how Decker might fare with Vick (or Smith), let’s take a look at his 2011 season, when he had a combination of Tim Tebow and Kyle Orton throwing to him. That year he caught 44 passes for 612 yards and eight TDs on 94 targets. That resulted in the #38 FP/T (1.16). Not bad. So assuming Decker is on the third line of FP/T (1.14) and is seeing the league average 139 targets, he would post WR16 numbers (or thereabouts). That’s a good bit better than his current ADP, which has him as the #25 WR off the board in the 5th round. (It’s likely that his ADP hasn’t felt the full impact of the Vick signing, but we’re not even sure Vick will start at this point.)
Given the Jets’ run-first mentality, I think it’s more likely that Decker’s targets are in the 119 to 129 range, which would put him at around #18 to #23 at his position. The big question is whether Decker will be able to produce as his team’s WR1, likely drawing the defense’s top corner, or at least most of the attention of the defense in the passing game. This could result in a league-average FP/T (1.05) and a finish in the #23 to #27 range. Still, that’s not a bad return for a 5th round pick.
Of these three signings, this is the one I’m most excited about from an opportunity standpoint, assuming the depth chart doesn't change dramatically before the season. As the Seahawks’ de facto WR1, Tate averaged a meager 6.2 targets in 2013, which is just a bit more than an average real-world WR2. The Seahawks only threw the ball 420 times last season, which is a far cry from the 634 passes that Matthew Stafford hurled in 2013. As the Lions’ WR2 in 2011 and 2012, Nate Burleson was targeted 6.9 and 7.2 times per game. In 2013, Burleson averaged 6.1 targets, but missed much of the season due to his now infamous pizza accident. Kris Durham filled in and averaged 5.3 T/G. I look at Burleson’s workload in 2011 and 2012 as a baseline for Tate, who is better now than Burleson was then.
Tate has averaged 1.21 FP/T over the past three years (and also in 2013); those are top 30 numbers when compared to the 120 or so wideouts who see at least 30 targets in any given season. He has talent and he’s made the most of the limited opportunities he was given while in Seattle. He was certainly helped by a tremendous running game, but the Lions will be able to run it as well. And he’s never had the opportunity to play with another wideout like Calvin Johnson, who draws double coverage on virtually every pass play.
|Drop in FP/T||87 Targets||97 Targets||107 Targets||117 Targets|
|0% (1.21)||105 (WR39)||117 (WR34)||129 (WR26)||142 (WR19)|
|10% (1.09)||95 (WR47)||106 (WR38)||117 (WR33)||128 (WR25)|
|League Avg (1.05)||91 (WR51)||102 (WR41)||112 (WR36)||123 (WR29)|
There’s a good chance that Tate maintains (or nearly maintains) his FP/T and sees 107 to 117 targets as the WR2 in a very pass-happy offense. That would put him in the 6.7 to 7.3 T/G range, so he would even have a bit upside from there. If he can maintain that FP/T and get this kind of workload, a top 25 season is well within reach. He’s currently the #53 WR off the board in the 11th round and is a tremendous value there. With his change of teams, his ADP is going to climb — the question is how far. I’d love to get him in the 8th or 9th round, but his ADP might be in the 7th round by the time draft season is in full swing.
Tate is the rare free agent wideout that has serious potential to increase his production since his situation is improving. He finished #35 and #29 in standard formats in 2012 and 2013, so he’s building on a good foundation. I would love to hear reports that he and Stafford have been working out this offseason. If they can quickly build chemistry, it will certainly ease the transition that seems to bite into the production of so many free agent wide receivers.
Of course, if the Lions draft a WR early, as rumored, all bets are off.
Normally, I shy away from receivers that change teams in the offseason, but each of these players could be attractive at a reasonable price. It's important not to draft Jackson or Decker based on last year's top 10 numbers; that's something that inexperienced owners tend to do. If a player's situation is changing, it's crucial to look at his potential workload and per target production to try to get an idea of his possible success in his new situation. Tate is the one receiver in this group whose situation is clearly improving, though that could change if the Lions draft a top talent at receiver.