Wide Receivers are a Pain to Evaluate: Part I

My original plan for a post this week was to talk about college football wide receivers and who I think is having the most productive season in college football right now.  But I ran into a problem.  The problem is that wide receivers are a giant pain to evaluate.  In fact, it gets incredibly frustrating to evaluate and project the performance of wide receivers.

Dependent Variables

The first question is what to use as an evaluation metric.  Before you can begin to predict “performance” in any useful way, one has to settle on what “performance” means.  Do you want yards, touchdowns, yards per reception, yards per target, touchdowns per target, fantasy points, what?

The question of dependent variable is crucial to understanding every analysis that comes afterward.  All the conclusions drawn from analyses done will only be relevant to the dependent variable that one chooses.  Therefore, it is crucial that one choose the “right” dependent variable.  Sadly, there is little consensus regarding what the right variable is to use to evaluate wide receivers.  So you’re stuck having to simply pick one.  I pick a witches-brewed version of yards per target. It works for me, but it may not work for you.

Depth of Target

Once you’ve “solved” your dependent variable problem, you run headlong into another one.  Generally, whatever DV you choose is somehow correlated with depth of target.  Wide receivers that get thrown to farther down the field rack up more yards, generally get more touchdowns (that one is a bit tenuous, but I digress), have more yards per reception, and more yards per target.  So now you’re stuck with a problem of understanding how the wide receiver fits into the offensive system regarding average depth per target.  Does this receiver have low yards per target because they are not a particularly good receiver or because they are consistently being asked to be a “chain-mover” out of the slot?  This calculation is impossible in some circumstances and tricky even with witches-brewed data.

Small Effect Size

You know what actually predicts production at receiver? Targets. End. This is a graphic I made showing the relationship between targets and yards in college football.

Targets accounts for around 75-80% of the variance in yards, which means that there isn’t much variance left for differences in ability to do any work.  You could have a pretty decent receiver buried on a roster and they won’t look like much at all *cough cough Jarius Wright cough cough*  And the reverse is also true.  A relatively poor receiver could get a lot of targets and look like a golden god.

So, I wanted to post about wide receivers.  I ended up getting frustrated at the position and writing about my frustration.

Quarterback Carousel

First off, happy Veterans Day, Grandpas. I miss you both.

Now to football. The quarterback carousel continues to spin. Everyone wants to know about how their team will do now that the new quarterback is under center. I’m going to look at three teams this week, the Eagles, Cardinals, and Texans and discuss the probable futures of each team.

Eagles

I am not worried one bit about the Eagles. I’m writing this after the Monday night where Sanchez went crazy, but don’t think I’m overreacting to one game here. Sanchez currently has a crazy high completion percentage for him. I’m fully expecting him to regress. Mark Sanchez has consistently been 4-6% below league average in terms of completion percentage depending on the year. We shouldn’t expect that he suddenly learned some profound bit of information about how to complete more passes. We should expect that he will return to his 4-6% below league average completion percentage over the course of the rest of the time he’s a starter in Philadelphia. But, you know who else was about 4-6% below league average completion percentage? Nick Foles. Honestly, I don’t see Sanchez being a detriment to the Eagles offense. I think Chip Kelly has a plan and that he is nothing if not adaptable. Philly will get through this leaning on their defense and their receivers.

Cardinals

The Cardinals are going to have more of a problem. The drop from Palmer to Stanton is going to be a much bigger drop than the drop from Foles to Sanchez. Stanton is consistently 3-4% poorer in completion percentage and he’s also not as effective throwing the ball down field. Palmer is generally league average in down field throws, but Stanton is more like bottom of the league in that category. Couple that with the fact that the Cardinals have really been punching above their weight up to this point in the season and you have a situation ripe for regression. The Cardinals should be very very worried.

Texans

The Houston Texans are the wild card. I did not see a quarterback switch coming for them. I’m not saying that Fitzpatrick is great. I know I predicted him to be a wildcard to lead the league in passing yards this year, but that prediction wasn’t as much based on him as it was everyone else around him. I believe I called him “serviceable” at the beginning of the year. And I still stand behind that assessment. He’s a little below average in completion percentage, but in an offense that’s more about throwing downfield than the average team we would expect that. Hopkins seems to be having a reasonable season and the team has already won twice as many games as it did last season.

Which is why I was very surprised to see that they’ll be going with Ryan Mallett for the foreseeable future. What exactly can Mallett offer you that Fitzpatrick can’t? Mallett has never started an NFL game and has thrown a total of 4 passes in an NFL game, one of which was intercepted. What can we even know about him?

Actually, we can know something about him since he played his college career recently enough to be part of my data set. I’ve even got a prediction about his career passer rating after four years in the banner up top (2011 draft class). The prediction in the banner is for a passer rating around 65. However, that prediction was based on a model I call “Mk. I” (Everyone seems to name their models and I’m an Iron Man fan). That model worked, but was based on Linear Regression and a data set that wasn’t as expertly cleaned as it could be.

Here’s what we learn about Ryan Mallett. I have a measure of college arm strength that helps differentiate quarterbacks. Mallett has the fourth highest score on that metric in a dataset that goes back to 2007. The three above him are Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck, and Russell Wilson. However, arm strength is icing on the cake of an effective quarterback, but the cake itself. The cake of effective quarterbacking is accuracy and in that category, Mallett falls woefully short compared to the three other quarterbacks mentioned. When Mallett actually completes a pass, it goes for a long long ways. But he has tremendous trouble actually completing those passes. Basically, I see Mallett as Zach Mettenberger amplified. He’s got a cannon arm, but no ability to control it. The “Mk. III” model predicts his passer rating to be somewhere around 71. I think Fitzpatrick might be able to do a slight bit better.

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