The Linehan Effect 2: Calvin and Dez

| 2 years ago

The Linehan Effect 2: Calvin and Dez


megatron-calvin-johnsonCalvin Johnson most likely will not be the highest scoring fantasy wideout next season.

Calvin Johnson is the most likely to be the highest scoring wideout in fantasy next season.

Both of those statements can simultaneously be true, yet the first is fact while the second is little more than a widely held belief. We are going to mainly focus on the former statement, since the latter tends to be a mind-closer.

Odds are that the scoring leader will come from a group of several receivers that individually are tough to argue as likely to out-produce Calvin Johnson. It is even harder to contend that any are more physically gifted. Yet, if fantasy was solely decided by talent it would be infinitely simpler and, quite frankly, pretty damn vanilla.

Since we would hate for things to be boring, and it makes sense that it is smarter to bet on “The field” instead of Johnson, who then is the leading candidate to challenge him for fantasy pass-catching dominance?

Quibbling over which elite receiver deserves to be placed atop preseason rankings is something like arguing about the best way to serve bacon, or the identity of Derek Jeter’s hottest girlfriend. While there are few wrong answers, inevitably someone will say “bacon-wrapped Mariah Carey” just to be different.

But we are in the depths of February, and this is what we do. At least it is when the shoveling is finished, or we are not participating in loosely educated dart-throwing contests known as MFL10s.

Last season, the difference between the top fantasy wideout, Denver’s Demaryius Thomas, and the fifth best, Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown, was 15.8 points in PPR leagues. At just a hair under one catch per game, we are not necessarily talking about enormous gulfs in output when assigning seasonal rankings. The slightest hiccup in opportunity can scramble the order in which these top wideouts finish. That fact most clearly demonstrates why no single pass catcher, not even Megatron, is more likely than not to outscore all of his peers.

The difference in fantasy points between Johnson and Dallas’ Dez Bryant last season was just 9.9 points, albeit with Johnson playing in two fewer games. There will be more than just a slight hiccup for both in 2014.

Better Dez Ahead

The effect that Dallas’ new play caller, former Detroit offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, will have on the Cowboys was examined recently. Among other items, his projected influence on increasing snap totals and the resulting production boost for Tony Romo and DeMarco Murray were highlighted. Linehan’s impact on Bryant should be no less dramatic.

While in Detroit, Linehan presided over an offense that allowed for Johnson to reach statistical heights commensurate with his talents. From a personnel perspective, there are several similarities in the structure of Dallas’ current offense, with an undisputed Alpha wideout chief among them.

Even if Linehan was not joining the Cowboys in 2014, many things were already trending up for Bryant. He saw more opportunities in 2013, despite Dallas’ offense running 92 fewer plays than the prior season.

Bryant

DAL Plays

Dez Snaps

Targets

Tgts/Game

RZ Tgts

Points

2012

1049 (8th)

951

137

8.6

14

300.7

2013

957 (32nd)

959

156

9.8

21

294.5

Bryant was on the field for nearly 10 percent more of the Cowboys’ snaps in 2013 (93.6% versus 83.7%). It was the first time in his career that he cracked the 90 percent snap barrier, and it is a trend that will continue. Johnson barely came off the field under Linehan’s direction. If games in which he was injured are removed, his snap rates rarely were below 95 percent, and regularly pushed 100.

We also should not forget that according to myfantasyleague.com 2013 average draft position data, Bryant was the number three wideout chosen, and was typically picked in the early part of the second round. That buzz was fueled in part by an atomic second half of 2012 that saw him score nearly 200 fantasy points (196.9) in the final eight games.

When those totals are added to his first eight 2013 contests, Bryant put up a 353.6 point full “season” that would rank second only to Johnson’s 2011 campaign (361.1 points) during the PFF era (2008 – present). Highlighting arbitrary endpoints can be enlightening, but you run the risk of cherry picking data to fit a narrative. The above example is a little bit of both, as it demonstrates what Bryant already was capable of.

Room to Grow

Conveniently, the area in which Bryant most needs to improve to surpass Johnson is clearly illustrated when examining how Megatron was used by Dallas’ future play caller. Over the last three seasons, Johnson has averaged 2.8 more yards per reception than Bryant, a figure that swelled to 4.5 in 2013.

Deep Targets (%)

2013

2012

2011

C. Johnson

36 (24.3%)

46 (23.1%)

35 (23.2%)

D. Bryant

27 (17.3%)

24 (17.5%)

19 (19.0%)

Clearly Megatron’s offense called for him being targeted 20 or more yards downfield at a higher rate than has Bryant’s. This has contributed to the discrepancy in their respective receiving yardage, as well as in their average depth of target figures (aDOT; below).

aDOT

2013

2012

2011

C. Johnson

15.4

13.8

15.2

D. Bryant

12.3

12.1

12.7

That is noteworthy because the two appear to be equal, or at least have progressed in that direction, when it comes to what they do once the ball is in their hands. Consider their respective yards after catch per reception marks (YAC/Rec.), and tackles that were broken or avoided altogether (MT).

YAC/Rec. (MT)

2013

2012

2011

C. Johnson

5.6 (13)

4.2 (12)

5.6 (14)

D. Bryant

5.7 (15)

5.1 (14)

4.9 (12)

Their relatively comparable run-after-catch skills kick off a string of comparisons in which the younger wideout matches, or even surpasses, his more highly acclaimed counterpart.

Of at least equal importance as yardage, and most would contend that it is more so, is touchdown production. This is an area in which Bryant has held his own against Johnson over the past three years, which includes Megatron’s 16-score 2011 campaign. In fact, Bryant has one more touchdown during that time (34 versus 33) despite seeing 18 fewer red zone looks (50 versus 68).

The intrepid Rich Hribar broke down 2013 red zone efficiency by team and player, including a look at touchdown conversion rates inside the 10-yard line, in this piece for XN Sports.

In it we can see how Bryant’s 16.3 percent advantage on Johnson when it comes to converting targets into scores from inside the 10-yard line aligns with Dez’s 16.8 percent lead over Megatron when it comes to total red zone efficiency. In fact, Bryant’s 56.3 scoring rate led the NFL in efficiency inside the 10-yard line, with the exception of Pittsburgh’s fluketastic slot receiver Jerricho Cotchery’s 60 percent, and Dallas’ wideout was third in overall red zone performance (47.6%).

Our own Mike Clay birthed the opportunity-adjusted touchdown (oTD) metric, which measures players’ scoring opportunities by weighing all carries, passes, and targets, in an effort to improve upon traditional red zone statistics. His recent look at 2013’s pass catchers shows how, unlike last season when he scored 6.2 fewer touchdowns (5) than his oTD (11.2) projected him to, Johnson made good on his expected production with 12 scores against an 11.2 oTD. Bryant, on the other hand, outpaced his oTD (6.7) by a good margin in 2012 when he caught 12 touchdowns, and surpassed it again in 2013 when he scored 13 with an oTD projection of 11.

Scoring is obviously predicated on more than just a receiver’s personal ability. Bryant has demonstrated that he is adept at converting chances when they arise, and the opportunities have consistently come despite fluctuations in his offense’s overall play count. This is not an area where he loses appreciable ground to Johnson, if any at all. That is more impressive when you consider that, although Bryant is larger than average for a wideout, Johnson has three inches and 15 pounds on him – significant advantages when it comes to red zone scoring.

One area of Bryant’s game that has dipped over the last two seasons is his drop rate. At least he is in good company, as it is comparable to the game’s best wideout. However, as we saw above, Johnson runs deeper routes on average and it should be kept in mind that targets further downfield tend to be tougher to haul in.

Drop Rate (rank)

2013

2012

2011

C. Johnson

10.6 (32nd)

10.3 (20th)

6.8 (16th)

D. Bryant

10.6 (31st)

10.7 (22nd)

1.6 (1st)

Despite that fact, it can be argued that Bryant has been more helpful to Romo of late than Johnson has been to Matthew Stafford. The Cowboy has caught and surpassed the Lion over the last few years in wide receiver rating, which is what a quarterback’s rating is when targeting a particular pass catcher.

WR Rating (rank)

2013

2012

2011

C. Johnson

93.0 (18th)

92.2 (18th)

125.8 (3rd)

D. Bryant

104.9 (12th)

123.2 (3rd)

110.8 (8th)

Of course it should be kept in mind that Romo has consistently outperformed Stafford by nearly every statistical measure. This includes his quarterback rating in 2011, when Johnson’s wide receiver rating outpaced Bryant’s, and Stafford benefited more by targeting his star wideout than did Romo. Whatever the general perception of Tony Romo is, Stafford has clearly not been his equal as a passer and, at least for the near term, Bryant can claim the better quarterback.

Detroit Evolving

It was mentioned earlier that both Bryant and Johnson are in for a significant hiccup in their circumstances in 2014. For Johnson, it goes beyond simply losing Linehan’s scheme. The Lions’ new offensive coordinator, Joe Lombardi, has already said that he will base Detroit’s offense off of the New Orleans Saints’. On the surface, that sounds beautiful and in time it may prove to be.

The Saints spread the ball around and use a wider variety of personnel groups than the Lions have since Johnson emerged. Just once since Lombardi joined New Orleans’ offensive staff has a Saints wideout matched the 84 receptions that Johnson had in just 14 games last season (Marques Colston; 2010), or grabbed double digit scores (10; Colston; 2012). Colston never surpassed 80 percent of his offense’s snaps during that time. Jimmy Graham has been the focal point of the offense, and he is yet to crack the 70 percent snaps barrier. Although Lombardi should be able to improve his mechanics, Stafford is not going to morph into Drew Brees anytime soon.

Obviously Lombardi is not going to try to fit a round peg into a square hole and treat Joe Fauria as if he is Graham, or deploy Johnson in the exact way as Colston. Despite the more deliberate pace at which the Saints substituted personnel, they ranked just behind the Lions in pass attempts the last few seasons. Johnson undoubtedly will still be a focal point of Detroit’s offense. However, to expect the conditions to remain unchanged is akin to sticking one’s head in the sand. He may not bring his grandfather’s Lombardi Sweep to New Orleans, but things will be different under this offensive coordinator, and they were extremely accommodative for Johnson already.

The Dez Dynasty

Despite the fact that Bryant is more than three years younger than Johnson, and a solid case can be made that the Cowboy will overtake the Lion in 2014, their relative prospects in dynasty leagues are less clear.

Bryant boasts the better quarterback as of now, but one who will be 34 before next season and recently underwent surgery on a herniated disk. Dave Halprin made a compelling argument that Romo was playing injured the entire season in this excellent post for Blogging the Boys. If the surgery is not successful, all bets are off – and not just when it comes to dynasty leagues. Stafford, on the other hand, just turned 26, undoubtedly has ample raw talent, and has rid himself of a ridiculous injury-prone label from early in his career.

Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones may have been able to strike oil in his younger days, but as his own general manager, he has mostly struck out. He favors paper-thin rosters that are headlined by big names, and his management of the team’s salary cap has been an abomination, to be kind. Dallas is in awful position to augment their talent, or even hold onto what they have, and that bodes poorly for Bryant’s dynasty league prospects.

Wideouts’ career arcs are longer, so the fact that Johnson is 28 is nowhere near the knock on him that it would be for a dynasty league running back. Although Lions’ general manager Martin Mayhew certainly has his detractors, and deservedly so, a properly trained ferret has a fighting chance of outmaneuvering Dallas’ current man in charge.

Projecting Bryant to outscore Johnson in 2014 is one thing, and the (very early) bet here is that he will. However, choosing his situation in Dallas over the next several seasons is far dicier.

Training Camp Is Five Months Away

There is much ground to cover before anyone should be definitively ranking players for the 2014 season. From Romo’s surgery to Johnson’s prospective supporting cast and every unforeseeable misdemeanor arrest in between, these receivers’ outlooks will be altered several times before any rational individual drafts a fantasy team of consequence.

Yet if we open our mind to the fact that the wideout with his name atop the final 2014 scoring leaders will probably not be Calvin Johnson, the time between now and September will be a lot more interesting.

Pat Thorman is a Lead Writer for PFF Fantasy and was named 2013 Newcomer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. You can follow him on Twitter at @Pat_Thorman

  • Dan Williamson

    Excellent article, Pat. As noted, Romo is the wildcard in all this. Linehan is fantasy gold for the passing game and Bryant is exactly the sort of talent he can mold into an uber-star. Let’s hope the Dallas pass D stays crappy as well while the run D improves so we can get the maximum number of plays for that offense.

  • Cameron Connally

    That was simply fascinating. Thank you.