Receiver Battle Royale – Part 1

| January 21, 2012

Last season was the year of the backup receiver, one which saw several top fantasy wideouts surpassed by teammates during the season. For example, the Packers, Steelers, Falcons, and Giants all had clear-cut, top-10 receivers heading into 2011. They all wound up with a pair of top-20 receivers instead, and it’s debatable who will emerge as the better receiving threat for each team in 2012.

Looking solely at the season totals for the four pairs of receivers on these teams can be misleading; injuries and midseason depth chart changes have biased those results. Therefore, it’s important to analyze the subset of games from 2011 that most closely resembles the way these teams will utilize their receivers in the future. Ultimately, this will help us decide whether last year’s top draft picks are still the top options for their respective teams in 2012.

Note: All scoring is standard non-PPR and includes points accumulated on rushing and special teams plays.

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Green Bay Packers: Greg Jennings vs Jordy Nelson

The top seven non-quarterback fantasy scorers last season were Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy, Calvin Johnson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Arian Foster, Rob Gronkowski, and—that’s right—Jordy Nelson. While Nelson was hanging out with the top dogs, Greg Jennings was cozying up with the likes of Nate Washington and Ben-Jarvis Green-Ellis. Jennings finished 41st in total points on the WR/RB/TE list. That’s hardly what you were expecting from your elite WR1.

Gm Snaps %Snaps TA/Gm Rec/Gm YPG TD PPG Total
Jennings 2011 13 675 76.0 7.4 5.2 73.0 9 11.5 148.9
Nelson 2011 16 633 58.6 5.8 4.3 78.9 15 13.5 216.3

The biggest issue for Jennings was the week 14 injury that forced him to miss the rest of the regular season. It’s also important to realize that Nelson’s extra 2 points per game (PPG) are heavily skewed by his gaudy numbers at the end of the year. While Jennings watched from the sidelines, Nelson exploded for 277 yards and 5 touchdowns in his last 2 games alone. If the tables had been turned, and Nelson had been out, Jennings would have benefited in a similar way.

Gm Snaps %Snaps TA/Gm Rec/Gm YPG TD PPG Total
Jennings 12 Gm* 12 638 78.1 7.7 5.4 77.4 9 12.2 146.9
Nelson 12 Gm* 12 437 53.5 5.1 4.0 73.0 9 11.8 141.6

* The 12 games that Jennings played in full prior to his week 14 injury. Weeks 1–13 excluding week 8 bye.

Jennings scored more points than Nelson during the Packers’ first 12 games and was on pace to finish the season as a top 5 receiver before he got hurt. The only way that Nelson even came close to keeping up with Jennings was due to his good fortune with the deep ball. Nelson tallied over half of his yards and 7 of his 15 touchdowns on passes thrown 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. That just seems like a perfect storm of success that isn’t sustainable in 2012.

Passes > 20 yards TA Rec Yds TD %TD %Yds
Greg Jennings 17 8 309 3 33.3 32.6
Jordy Nelson 21 15 637 7 46.7 50.4

Jennings isn’t injury prone—he didn’t miss a game in the three seasons prior to 2011. He also isn’t old—he’ll be 28 at the start of the 2012 season. With the exception of his TD count being down in 2009 and his injury in 2011, Jennings has been a consistent performer for five straight seasons. All that is to say, Jennings will remain in my top five at wide receiver for 2012 while Nelson will be a low-end WR2.

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Pittsburgh Steelers: Mike Wallace vs Antonio Brown

Before the 2011 season, fantasy prognosticators were divided on whether Emmanuel Sanders or Antonio Brown would backfill Hines Ward’s inevitable decline. Once the season began, it quickly became clear that Brown was the receiver with the most potential, as Sanders struggled to stay healthy. When Ward left their week seven game with a concussion, Brown took over Ward’s spot in the starting lineup for the rest of the season. Even when Ward and Sanders were completely healthy, Brown held on to the starting spot opposite Mike Wallace.

Gm Snaps %Snaps TA/Gm Rec/Gm YPG TD PPG Total
Wallace 2011 16 940 86.4 7.1 4.5 74.6 8 10.8 173.0
Brown 2011 16 624 57.4 7.5 4.3 69.3 2 7.9 126.9
Wallace 10 Gm* 10 611 88.8 6.7 3.9 58.1 4 8.2 82.1
Brown 10 Gm* 10 442 64.3 8.3 5.1 84.6 2 9.7 96.6

* The 10 games that Brown replaced Ward. Weeks 7–17 excluding week 11 bye.

Brown rose to the occasion over those last 10 games, exceeding expectations by outscoring Wallace by 1.5 PPG. Despite playing 24.5% fewer snaps than Wallace over that stretch, Brown had 12 more catches than Wallace on 16 more targets. Wallace’s extra touchdowns kept his fantasy numbers close to Brown’s, but Brown outgained Wallace by 26.5 yards per game (YPG). The TD gap would have been even closer if Wallace hadn’t vultured a touchdown intended for Brown on this week nine play against the Ravens.

I don’t expect the lopsided touchdown trend to continue in 2012. For one, Wallace scored most of his touchdowns early in the season before Brown was in the starting lineup, failing to reach paydirt in seven of his last nine games. Besides, Wallace has only been in the league one year longer than Brown, and 2010 is the only other year that Wallace led the Steelers in receiving. It’s easy to envision Brown continuing his high YPG trend, playing a higher percentage of snaps, and snagging more TDs in 2012. I have both wide receivers outside of my top 10 next year, but I’m taking Brown over Wallace as my WR2.

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Atlanta Falcons: Roddy White vs Julio Jones

Entering the 2011 season there was a lot of speculation about Julio Jones’ value and his impact on the value of Roddy White. The latter was still drafted by most as a top-five receiver while Jones was a mid-round addition with potential. Now that the season is over, the conversation about the Falcons’ top two receivers is very different. Jones edged out White 11.3 to 11.1 in PPG. Numbers like these coupled with Jones being an exciting, young talent will cause owners to reconsider the “elite” tag that White has held for several years. It might even lead some to draft Julio Jones ahead of Roddy White in 2012 drafts. Jones does have a lot of indicators pointing towards an upward trend, and he is slightly bigger and significantly younger than White, who will turn 31 during the 2012 season. Jones needed three fewer games in 2011 to score the same number of touchdowns as White, and Jones is a bigger rushing threat. If you extrapolate Jones’ 11 full games over 16 games, he would have been the 5th ranked WR/TE.

Gm Snaps %Snaps TA/Gm Rec/Gm YPG TD PPG Total
White 2008 16 948 87.8 8.9 5.5 86.5 7 11.1 176.8
White 2009 16 989 88.5 9.5 5.3 72.1 11 11.1 177.5
White 2010 16 959 81.9 10.4 7.2 86.8 10 12.3 197.2
White 2011 16 1039 90.6 10.9 6.3 81.0 8 11.1 177.6
Jones 2011 13 719 77.4 7.0 4.2 73.8 8 11.3 147.5
White 11 Gm* 11 707 90.8 11.9 6.9 87.6 6 12.0 132.4
Jones 11 Gm* 11 651 83.6 7.5 4.6 84.9 8 13.0 143.3

* The 11 weeks that Jones played full games. Weeks 1–4, 9, and 12–17.

These are all encouraging signs for Julio Jones’ value, but don’t let this cloud your vision regarding Roddy White. The veteran had more points than Jones in 10 of the Falcon’s 16 games in 2011, and White has been a top-10 WR/TE four years in a row. Jones missed more games in his rookie year (three) than White has missed in his entire, seven-year career (zero). In the 11 complete games that Jones played, White averaged 4.4 more targets and 2.3 more catches per game than Jones. To top it all off, unlike Jordy Nelson—whose numbers were greatly inflated during Jennings’ absence—White’s numbers were actually better across the board when Jones was healthy.

So it’s okay to get excited about Julio Jones, but don’t get cute and draft him over Roddy White in 2012. I have White just outside of my top 5 and Julio Jones just outside of my top 10. With Jones going through his first full offseason of conditioning, I envision both Falcons receivers staying healthy in 2012 and benefiting from playing a full slate of games opposite each other.

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New York Giants: Hakeem Nicks vs Victor Cruz

At the start of 2011, owners generally drafted Hakeem Nicks as their WR1 and left Victor Cruz to rot on the waiver wire. However, week two injuries to Mario Manningham and Domenik Hixon opened the door for Cruz to ascend the depth chart in New York, and he seized the opportunity. Once Cruz took over the starting role opposite Nicks in week 3, Cruz outscored Nicks by a whopping 3.9 PPG. The stats are even more lopsided after their week 7 bye, when Cruz outscored Nicks 150 to 92. Cruz ultimately danced his way into the record books, shattering the Giants’ single season franchise record for receiving yards.

Gm Snaps %Snaps TA/Gm Rec/Gm YPG TD PPG Total
Nicks 2011 15 977 94.8 8.5 5.1 79.5 7 10.7 161.2
Cruz 2011 16 774 70.1 7.6 5.1 96.0 9 12.9 205.9
Nicks 13 Gm* 13 847 94.5 8.5 5.0 79.4 6 10.7 139.2
Cruz 14 Gm* 14 736 75.9 8.4 5.7 108.5 9 14.6 204.2

* All of the games after week 2. Week 3 was Cruz’ first start.

After watching all of the crazy, highlight-reel catches that Victor Cruz made this year, I thought his stats might be padded with an unsustainable amount of big plays, much like Jordy Nelson. However, an analysis of Giants’ passes caught 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage reveals a much more sustainable trend. Only a third of Cruz’ yardage came from deep throws. Nicks actually leaned on bombs more heavily for 42% of his yardage.

Do I think Cruz will break his own franchise record for yards in 2012? No. Do I think he’s the Giants receiver you want in next year’s draft? Definitely. Much like Mike Wallace, Nicks’ track record is not so longstanding that he deserves to maintain his elite status from 2011 drafts. Plus, Cruz is likely to have less competition from his teammates next year since Manningham and Hixon are both unrestricted free agents. I have Cruz inside my top 10 for 2012. Nicks is a solid WR2 in the early teens.

As you confidently take Victor Cruz as your WR1 in next year’s draft, just kick back, relax, and remind yourself that you can’t spell “victory” without Victor.

Be sure to check out part two of this article for and in-depth comparison of the receivers in Dallas, Denver, Oakland, and Baltimore. Share your thoughts and chat with Austin on Twitter @AustinNFL.

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  • wintermute

    Your analysis is spot on, excellent work. However, I believe that your narrative may change if you factor in the playoffs for the Cruz/Nicks comparison. For Jennings vs. Nelson, Wallace vs Brown and White vs Jones the playoffs confirmed / continued / correlated with what the regular season showed. But for the NYG WRs we see that Nicks has ascended significantly relative to Cruz. Nicks has approximately tripled the yardage total, doubled the receptions (do not know targets), and has a 4 touchdown lead over Cruz (up to the SFO game). Nicks is producing merriment and well-mannered frivolity among NYG fans while Cruz is a bump on a log these last two important games.

  • nkorzun

    I think the Steelers like Sanders better than Brown in a 2 WR set offense. Brown and Wallace will fly off the shelves next year but if and it’s a big if Sanders stays healthy he will be the Steal.

  • wintermute

    The Cruz vs Nicks battle has extended into the playoffs with Nicks winning rounds 1 – 2 and Cruz taking round 3. Here’s how they stack up through three playoff games:

    Nicks 18 on 30 for 335 and 4TDs
    Cruz 17 on 27 for 244 and 0TDs

    • Austin Lee

      Nicks definitely had the better postseason. I’m pretty psyched about that because it hopefully means that Cruz will slip several spots to my pick in some drafts. ;)

      Post Season Totals…
      Nicks: 28 catches on 43 targets for 444 yards and 4 TDs on 280 snaps (93.3%)
      Cruz: 21 catches on 31 targets for 269 yards and 1 TDs on 278 snaps (92.7%)

      The 17 games they played in together in reg season and playoffs after Cruz entered starting lineup in week 3…
      Nicks: 93 catches on 154 targets for 1477 yards and 10 TDs on 1127 snaps (94.4%)
      Cruz: 95 catches on 140 targets for 1697 yards and 10 TDs on 947 snaps (79.3%)

      It really comes down to deciding which of these two trends is more likely to continue into next season. I still like the longer trend and Cruz, but it’s easy to see why someone would get more excited about Nicks because of his playoff performance. Both receivers are great picks. It’s interesting that their snap counts were almost identical in the playoffs. Nicks missed a few plays due to shoulder issues, but I don’t think he missed enough plays to account for the big increase in Cruz’ playing time.