I guess what I am trying to suggest here is that people sometimes find peculiar ways to utilize the resources they have at their disposal.
In a similar manner, we often have to wonder about the way that NFL teams choose to make use of the talent on their rosters. While I could rant for days about offensive linemen, and my continued faith in the neglected and potentially misunderstood Eric Kush, that probably isn't a subject that interests many people. Instead, we will focus today on the wide receiver position, which has a bit more flash to it.
Despite our attempts to try to quantify a player's abilities, and predict NFL success, we always struggle with the fact that we can't guarantee that someone will get an opportunity. We still believe that Da'Rick Rogers was a legitimate NFL talent. The statistics that are available from his brief appearances encourage us to believe that he was a superior player to his former Tennessee teammates Cordarelle Patterson and Justin Hunter, whom we had very little faith in. Unfortunately, NFL coaches seemed to feel that Da'Rick was a bit of an asshole, a consideration our calculations don't really account for. Skill doesn't trump a winning personality, evidently.
We also still believe that the Jets should have taken Ryan Spadola (who?) a bit more seriously, rather than continuing to give opportunities to Stephen Hill, whom we felt was probably doomed to fail. While betting on an undrafted white wide receiver from Lehigh might seem a bit foolish, Spadola's pre-season statistics in 2013 were quite encouraging. At this point, however, he may never escape the depths of a practice squad. C'est la vie.
These are things that will always be beyond our control. Still, we wanted to take another look at one of our other long-shot receivers, who is still dancing on the edge of semi-relevance. So, we thought we would turn our gaze back to the frustrating subject of Vikings' wide receiver Charles Johnson.
Charles Johnson Vs. Mike Wallace
There are limits to how much we want to criticize Vikings' wide receiver Mike Wallace. After all, he was one our preferred wide receiver prospects in the 2009 NFL Draft. While he has his strengths and weaknesses, we thought at the time that his chances of success were reasonably good. It's true, his salary may have eventually ballooned beyond what we feel is reasonable, but that isn't really what we are here to discuss.
Instead, we are mainly interested in the complicated situation that arose when the Vikings traded for him, prior to the 2015 season. This worried us because of the way in which his arrival seemed poised to interfere with the possible continuing emergence of our other weird prospect Charles Johnson, who was starting to show some signs of life in 2014.
The reason for this concern, was that both players have mostly appeared to thrive in the role of an intermediate-to-deep range receiver. Wallace wasn't likely to interfere with the short range role of someone like Jarius Wright. That's simply not a role where Wallace's strengths appear to lie. Instead, he was most likely to cut into the playing time for Johnson, which would sort of put a crimp in our deranged plans.
What's frustrating about this, is the question of whether Wallace was really a desirable enough acquisition, at this point in his career, to deserve bumping Johnson out of the way. How much of Wallace's desirability hinged on his past successes, and reputation for being a deep threat? How much of this reputation was still justifiable?
While judging a receiver based on his average yards per catch (YPC) is a fairly stupid thing to do, it does appear a bit odd how his numbers have steadily declined in this area, especially after the 2011 season. From 2012 onward, his numbers have been, at best, rather pedestrian.
We can possibly lay some of the blame for this at the feet of quarterbacks like Teddy Bridgewater and Ryan Tannehill, whom he played with from 2013-2015, but that may not explain the entire situation. Even in 2012, with Roethlisberger throwing the ball, Wallace's numbers already appeared to be slipping. His usefulness as a deep threat may have already been eroding.
Like I said, judging a receiver based on YPC probably isn't a great idea. So, let's instead look at the above chart to see his annual Yards Per Pass Route Run (YPRR). Despite my occasional criticisms of PFF, I think YPRR might be a reasonably useful statistic. It has its flaws, but is better than some of the alternatives. It's basically a very simple sort of measure of a receiver's efficiency on a per play basis. A YPRR over 2, generally suggests that a player was having a rather rare and exceptional year. A YPRR under 1, might mean that a player is really just on the fringe of being useful.
We should probably mention that we calculate YPRR slightly differently from the folks at PFF, as they throw out certain plays for mysterious unknown reasons, while we don't. Despite that, the differences in our results are very minor. I have some nagging issues with YPRR, but that's a subject for another day.
Nonetheless, Wallace's numbers here would suggest that his only really exceptional years might have come in 2010 and 2011. Beyond that, he was probably playing at a level that we might associate with a team's 2nd or 3rd receiver, which still isn't a bad thing at all, as long as he is being paid in a manner that fits those expectations. Then we come to his 2015 season with the Vikings, where his numbers really went into the toilet.
The question is, could we have predicted this outcome in 2015? I can't really say that this is the case. While there are issues related to the Vikings' offensive system, and the effectiveness of Teddy Bridgewater, I probably wouldn't have expected Wallace's effectiveness to plummet to this degree. Another year or two of solid but unspectacular production from Wallace probably wasn't an unrealistic thing to bet on. This sort of rapid decline was probably unforeseeable.
Of course, there is the other question of whether maintaining his plateau of "good, but not great" performances, was something that the Vikings should have been investing in. By trading with the Dolphins, to acquire Wallace's services, they also had to take on his salary of $9.9 million for 2015 (which goes up to $11.5 million for 2016 and 2017). It's been quite a while since a salary of that sort was even halfway reasonable for what Wallace delivered on the field, which brings us to the real issue that interests us. Would the team have been better off continuing to give playing time to Charles Johnson (who had a $510 thousand salary) instead?
I think comparing the statistics for these two players, prior to the 2015 season, is kind of interesting. While no individual stat can undeniably answer the question of "Who is the better player?", it may at least spark some debate over what factors the team was considering (or not considering), when they made their decision to trade for Wallace.
Let's start by just examining some of their results from the 2014 season, side by side. We will include their Catch % (the percentage of plays in which they caught the pass, when targeted), Drop % (percentage of passes dropped), YPC (Yards Per Catch), YPT (Yards Per Target), YPRR (Yards Per Route Run) and Target % (percentage of passing plays they were on the field for, where they were targeted by their quarterback).
While there are some differences between these two players, I feel they are at best relatively minor. When it came to Drop %, YPC, YPT and YPRR, Charles Johnson had the advantage. For Wallace, he seemed to take the lead when it came to catch rate and percentage of plays where he was targeted. Personally, we think that the difference in individual catch rate can partially be explained by the depth at which the players caught their passes, since deeper passes tend to be lower probability plays. That would perhaps work in Johnson's favor to some degree. We also have to remember that 2014 was effectively Johnson's rookie season, for whatever that is worth. Regardless, we could spin these numbers quite a bit further, but in the end, the question is fairly simple. Do you believe there was a significant amount of evidence to separate these two players?
So, as we feared, Mike Wallace's 2015 arrival in Minnesota did appear to have a rather dramatic impact on Charles Johnson's playing time (just 94 passing snaps for Johnson, versus Wallace's 517). Instead of potentially becoming the team's primary receiver, Johnson turned into a ghost, only being targeted by his team's quarterback in 6 games, and spending most of his time on the bench. This extremely limited playing time makes a direct comparison of their individual numbers in 2015 a bit more unreliable. Still, we think the statistics are worth looking at.
While we can only speculate on how more playing time would have affected Johnson's numbers, for better or for worse, these results paint a peculiar picture. In every single category, Johnson appears to have been outperforming Wallace. Despite that, the team rarely felt it was worth putting Johnson on the field.
None of this is meant to suggest that Johnson would have had a monstrous season if he had played more, because I don't think that is likely. Still, considering the near parity of their individual Target % results, we could somewhat reasonably propose that Johnson quite likely would have out-produced Wallace in 2015 if given an equal opportunity. In the end, Wallace finished the season with 40 receptions for 483 yards (when we include the post-season). If we extrapolate from Johnson's limited 2015 data, this might have worked out to something like 49.5 receptions for 698 yards if Johnson had been given a similar opportunity, and his other numbers had remained steady. Of course, this is all a bit speculative.
That would work out to a possible 23.7% improvement in receptions, and a 44.5% improvement in receiving yards, over Wallace's 2015 results. It would have also put Johnson's productivity into a range that we consider to be slightly above average, relative to most NFL wide receivers, which is all that we are really hoping to find.
Or, perhaps you think Johnson's results from his limited 2015 snaps wouldn't have remained fixed at their current position. I would actually agree with you on this. Because of the limited sample size of Johnson's snaps this year (again, just 94 passing snaps for Johnson, versus Wallace's 517), it's very hard to say how steady his results would have remained in a larger role. Personally, I suspect Johnson's 2015 catch rate would have dropped a bit, if he had been a bigger focus of his team's offense. On the other hand, I think the rate at which Johnson was targeted probably would have risen slightly, if he was serving as his team's primary or secondary receiver, rather than their fourth or fifth option. If we just averaged out Johnson's 2014 and 2015 results, we might see him with a catch rate of 62.79%, a target percentage of 16.46%, and a YPC of 14.73 yards. By receiving Wallace's 517 snaps on passing plays (including the post-season), this would result in Johnson possibly generating 53.4 receptions (a 33.4% improvement over Wallace's results) for a total of 787 yards (a 62.9% improvement over Wallace). Again, this is just speculation, but I don't think these projections are terribly unreasonable.
Or, maybe we are completely nuts. Perhaps Charles Johnson would have performed as poorly as Mike Wallace. I certainly can't see any reason to suspect that Johnson would have done any worse than Wallace, but we're open to this possibility. Johnson still would have had the advantage of costing about 1/19th of Wallace's 2015 salary, as well as retaining the 5th round draft pick that was traded to the Dolphins to acquire Wallace.
I guess what I'm wondering here is, why wasn't Johnson at least worked into the rotation a bit more, considering how poorly Wallace was performing? It's seems doubtful that he could have done any worse, and most of the numbers would suggest that he might have performed better than Wallace, and at a much lower price.
Charles Johnson Vs. Stefon Diggs
We have no ax to grind when it comes to Stefon Diggs, but we probably have to throw him into this discussion as well. While Diggs didn't make the cut, when we were putting together our list of 2015 Draft prospects whom we felt had a good chance of becoming successes in the NFL, we're always open to the possibility of someone slipping through the cracks and exceeding our expectations. These things happen, from time to time.
While we felt that Diggs had too many risks associated with him to merit a draft pick, we can't deny that he did appear to become a productive player. He also managed to generate a fair bit of hype. So, we thought we should take a closer look at his 2015 results, in the same categories we just examined for Mike Wallace and Charles Johnson.
Now, just for the sake of argument, go back and compare Diggs' 2015 results to Charles Johnson's 2014 results. That way we are looking at two players, both of whom are effectively playing as rookies, and who both received a respectable amount of playing time. In the end, I think it is kind of funny how eerily similar their results actually are, with the only notable difference being their catch rate. Despite that, there seems to be a different set of expectations that some people hold about their individual futures.
Let's take things a bit further though. While people seem rather optimistic about Stefon Diggs' future, there are some weird issues with his 2015 results which I think are worth commenting on. In Diggs' first four NFL games, he had 25 receptions for 419 yards, which averages out to a ridiculous 104.75 yards per game. In his next 10 games, he produced 31 receptions for 327 yards, or 32.7 yards per game. There is obviously a rather huge difference in these results, so let's look at his results from these two periods of the 2015 season.
|1st 4 games||69.44||2.77||16.76||11.63||3.05||26.27|
|last 10 games||65.95||2.12||10.54||6.95||1.04||15.01|
While some might argue that Diggs' numbers dropped simply because he was being targeted less frequently in those final 10 games, which is true, I don't think that necessarily explains what is happening here. After all, it is hard to explain this drop in the rate at which he was targeted, unless some other Vikings' receiver was suddenly becoming a more appealing option, or if opponents started to account for Diggs and shut him down. The other concern for me is the question of why his YPC (a 37.2% drop) and YPT (a 40.3% drop) have plummeted to such a ridiculous degree.
So, what are we supposed to believe that the future holds for Stefon Diggs? Do we bet on him returning to the shockingly good 3.05 YPRR we saw in his first four games? Or, do we bet on the larger sample size of his final ten games, and the rather disappointing 1.04 YPRR he displayed there? The funny thing about this is that many people seem willing to criticize Mike Wallace (deservedly so) for having a disappointing season, while ignoring the fact that for over 70% of the season Diggs' results really weren't significantly better. Despite these concerns, we wouldn't argue with the Vikings using Diggs as a starting wide receiver. After all, it's entirely possible that he was one of the team's better options.
While I have no real stake in how any of this plays out, I'd have to stick to our initial hunch regarding Diggs. His numbers in college made us quite wary of him, and so far the bulk of his playing time hasn't persuaded us to change our mind about how things will turn out in the long run. Those results from his final 10 games are probably closer to what we would have expected of him. We'll have to wait and see what happens next year.
I guess I've been rambling a bit...
Maybe this all seems a bit pointless.
Perhaps it is a bit odd that we would be focused on such a player, whom we admittedly don't feel was likely to enter into the discussion of the league's most productive receivers. Then again, we have some doubts that anybody was likely to do so, playing in the Vikings offense. The team's stubborn focus on giving Adrian Peterson the ball, as well as some possible issues with Bridgewater's development, probably aren't ideal factors for a record setting season by a receiver.
While we have admittedly had some hopes in the past that Charles Johnson could emerge as the next late-round or undrafted receiver to earn comparisons to Victor Cruz, Marques Colston, Wes Welker or Rod Smith, it's entirely possible that this will never happen. Maybe Johnson will just become a good, somewhat above average receiver, which would still be an excellent outcome for a former 7th round draft pick. Maybe he won't. Who really knows?
All we can really say is that whatever potential he might possess won't be discovered by having him sit on the bench, while the players ahead of him continue to under-perform. The possibility that prime years in a potentially talented player's career might be getting squandered somewhat irritates us. There's really only a small window where these players are likely to shine, after all.
It would be nice to think that all the talented players eventually rise up to gain the attention of their coaches, but we have our doubts about this. For every Cameron Wake, who goes undrafted and gets bounced to the CFL, only to return to terrorize the NFL, there are probably numerous other players who never get their shot. The mistakes made in the NFL Draft have far reaching consequences, and those initial impressions that teams form about a player seem difficult to shake.
Think about this for a second. Wouldn't we all agree that former top 10 draft selection, Matt Leinart, was a rather significant failure? Yet, we often seem to forget that Leinart still spent 7 seasons in the NFL. That means that for seven years, somebody was getting bumped off of a team's roster to make room for Leinart. While the player's getting cut to make room for Leinart likely wouldn't have gone on to stardom, it was still a potential missed opportunity to explore other options. It was one less chance, or 7, to look under some rock looking for talent. The only explanation for these decisions seems to have been "Well, Leinart was a former 1st round pick". He certainly didn't seem to possess any other real qualifications. This is why I sometimes hate the NFL Draft, even while I still obsess over it each year. Draft status simply matters more than it should.
At this point though, my hopes are rapidly diminishing as to whether we'll ever discover the truth about Charles Johnson. For now, I'll probably just go back to playing with my Legos, or working on my plans for militarized kangaroos. It might be a more productive use of my time.