[Site Note- Hal has agreed to be our "stat geek" here at MCM. I felt that Hal was the right candidate for the job, especially after I found out that he is graduating from a little school called Harvard, ever heard of it?, this spring. -Jimmy]
As everyone has likely heard, the Titans signed free agent WR Nate Washington to a 6 year, $27 million contract with $9 million guaranteed. Everyone out there has been waiting for the Titans to finally pay some attention to the receiver position, especially after letting Brandon Jones walk last week, so just the thought of signing a quality WR undoubtedly appeals to most Titans fans. Barring another (highly unexpected) major acquisition at the position, Nate should come in and start immediately opposite Justin Gage this fall.
However, the relevant question at this point in the offseason, with more free agents to be had and the draft still more than a month away, is what does Washington's arrival do to the state of our perpetually downtrodden group of wide receivers? Is he the big play savior we have all been waiting for? Is he an overpaid backup with a troubling tendency for the dropsies? Perhaps something in between? Who is Nate Washington?
After the jump, I will explore what the Stat Wizards over at Football Outsiders have to say about him, as well as other, more conventional stats.
When you look at what the voo-doo statisticians over at Football Outsiders have to say about Nate Washington, it raises some interesting issues. There are two important FO stats to consider with Wide Receivers. First is Defense-Adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR). The Second is Defense-Adjusted Value over Average (DVOA).
This stat estimates how many yards per season a WR will gain compared to a hypothetical "replacement" player (i.e. your average 1st sub at the position across the NFL). For the purposes of last season, the closest thing to the physical embodiment of the "replacement" WR would be Bobby Wade of former Titans fame, judged by his -7 DYAR, which means he gained 7 yards less last year than that theoretical replacement player. DYAR is an aggregate measure of value. It does not take how frequently the receiver is used into account when determining his value, but just provides a normalized overall value for the player for that season. DYAR is simply a more nuanced way to compare a WR's performance across a given season. WRs who are used less often will naturally have lower scores than if they had performed at the same level more often. To give you a range of DYARs, among receivers who were thrown to (targeted) at least 50 times last season, Andre Johnson had the best DYAR at 489 and, unsurprisingly, our own Justin McCareins had the worst at -101.
DVOA is an attempt to find a player's value as opposed to the league average for that position (not to be confused with average replacement.). This is based on how a person performs on a play by play basis, adjusted for the situation and the opponent. For WRs, this can be most plainly summed up as their value, per play when they are targeted (thrown to) by the QB, as compared to the average WR's value in the same situation. The average WR last season according to their measure was approximately Chris Chambers, who had a DVOA of 0.3% (0 is the average). The best player last year (min 50 "targets") by DVOA was Devery Henderson, with a score of 34.5%. The worst was...(pause for suspense)... Justin McCareins with a -31.5%.
*One major caveat with using these stats in reference to WRs is that it does not adjust for QB play. This means, obviously, that WRs who have better QBs throwing to them will have a better ranking in both of these statistical views. However, any statistical measure which tell us that McCareins was, hands down, the worst regularly used WR in the NFL last year has to at least be on the right track, no?
Now, onto Mr. Washington.
Nate Washington's DYAR last season was 65, good for 50th in the league. The first thing that jumps out, in light of our other (non)moves this offseason, is that Brandon Jones had a DYAR of 75 (47th overall). Nate's DVOA was also lower than Jones's (-.9% [44th] vs. 3.2% [32nd]). Later, I will look at the respective price tags on these two guys, because these two statistical breakdowns make our decision to acquire Washington and jettison Jones seem rather curious. Here comes my attempt to explain why the Titans acted this way, using normal stats.
These are the pure stat lines for each guy:
Jones- 41 Receptions/62 targets (66% catch) for 449 (10.2 yds/comp), 1 TD
Washington- 40 Receptions/78 targets (51% catch) for 631 (15.8 yds/comp), 3 TDs
In terms of DVOA, you have to adjust for how the WR was used. Remember, DVOA is a measure of value per play targeted. Nate, for several reasons, was unsuccessfully targeted more often than Brandon. More failed targets means a lower DVOA, regardless of why they are incomplete, whether it be drops, bad throws, pass defense or simply because longer throws are more difficult to complete than short ones. The main reason I see for his sagging DVOA is that Nate was obviously used for pass attempts of much greater length than Jones, which inherently are more difficult to complete. His yards per completion were roughly 50% higher than B. Jones's. For further proof of this effect, I would submit to you that Randy Moss only recorded a DVOA of 0.5% last year, barely above average and lower than both Jones and Justin Gage. Unsurprisingly, his catch % was only 55%.
If you look at WR's who scored plus or minus 2% from Washington in DVOA, you will find that he is in the pleasant company of several other big time deep threats who suffer from low catch %: Randy Moss, Amani Toomer, Chad Johnson, Patrick Crayton, and Chris Chambers. The one thing you can say about Nate that you can't really say about anyone on this list is that he is young and he has never had the chance to be a starter. I'm not sure any sober Titans fans would say we couldn't use any of the guys I just listed.
Even more generally there are a lot of good WR's who didn't set the world on fire in DVOA last year. Toomer, Ocho Cinco, TO, Santana Moss, Crayton, Brandon Marshall, Santonio Holmes, Mark Clayton, Marvin Harrison, Devin Hester, Roy Williams and Braylon Edwards all scored lower in DVOA last year than Nate Washington.
As far as the DYAR measure, Jones and Washington are close enough to be virtually be a wash. However, remember what I said about DYAR being an overall measure of value regardless of how frequently used. Essentially what their respective DYARs shows is that the two were almost equally valuable to the cause of winning. Remember though, Jones was a starter last season, and Washington was stuck behind Holmes and Ward. That means that last year, Washington made a positive contribution to his team's chances of winning that was essentially as valuable as the one Jones made, yet he did it with much less field time. This says that if you put Washington on the field as often as Jones was, he should be significantly more valuable.
Now, to get away from some of the more head-spinning stats I want to look at the primary criticism which I have read and heard about Washington: Drops.
The most consistent criticism that I have read about Nate Washington is that he is prone to drops. The NFL does not publish drops as an official statistic, so finding this information can be tricky. One statistic that you can look at, however, is the catch percentage. As mentioned, Washington was thrown to 78 times last season but only caught 40 passes, for a catch percentage of %51.3, which is not good. However, this method does not take into account good defense or bad throws. It simply give you an idea of which receivers act as reliable possession targets in their system and which act as big play threats-Washington is certainly the latter.
Though any estimation of drops as a statistics is just that- an estimation, who's to say which uncaught passes were inexcusably dropped?- I was able to find one Pittsburgh website which had the rest of his stats correct, and it credited him with 4 drops last season. If that estimate is credible, 5.1% of the passes thrown his way were drops. Here's a list of some notable players who had a higher drop % last season (there are many, many others):
Anthony Gonzalez (8.9%), J. Gage (8.1%), TO (7.1%), Laveranues Coles (7%), Dallas Clark (6.5%), Hines Ward (5.5%)
So to me it seems like the drop thing is getting over played. I think it's especially interesting to point out Coles, since I know a few folks around here have expressed interest in him.
So far this season, the net effect on the WR corps has been to lose Brandon Jones and pick up Washington (the sooner we all forget about McCareins the better). Jones went to San Francisco for a new 5 year, $16.5 million deal with $5.5 million guaranteed, roughly 60% of what we are going to pay Washington. The natural tendency for some will be to consider this as a de facto swap. I think that is a false conflation, but even if you look at it that way, it should tell you two things:
First of all, the Titans decided Brandon Jones "is who we though he was", which is to say, an extremely mediocre slot receiver. His deal with San Francisco was a tiny contract, considering the guy was our 2nd best option last year, so it's pretty obvious they don't think he is going to improve much over the rest of his career
Secondly, the Titans see something special in Washington. Brandon Jones has a better NFL resume stat-wise than Nate Washington. So for the Titans to decide he is nearly twice as valuable long term than Jones says that they are really expecting him to take off once he sees more playing time. The DYAR figures back this up, showing that even with far fewer plays on the field, Washington still had a positive net effect equivalent to Brandon Jones.
The purpose of this post, as relayed by the title, was to try and figure out just what kind of player we are getting in Nate Washington. It has been said by others, and the stats confirm, that Nate Washington is a young, talented receiver who can stretch the field effectively and make big plays when given the opportunity. If that isn't what the Titans have been looking for, I don't know what is. Washington will absolutely punish any teams that try and put 8-9 men in the box to stuff the run, and just that threat is almost as valuable to the Titans as anything he does catching the ball.
Some may try and criticize the choice to spend a lot more for Washington than we would have had to in order to keep Jones. While I think valid criticisms can be made of the decision to let Jones walk to such a small contract, I would hope that this post will help people realize that Washington is not Jones and that such comparisons are inappropriate. Nate has a different skill set entirely, and it is a skill set which has been regretfully absent from our roster for as long as I can remember. Jones has been a Titan for 4 years and had plenty of chances to distinguish himself, yet has done nothing to show he is anything but a mediocre possession receiver. Washington, on the other hand, has never been a starter and still has a lot left to show the NFL.
If Washington blossoms on the Titans' roster, they will have a 25 year old deep threat locked up for the next 6 years at less than $5 million per season. If he is a dud, there is only $9 million in guaranteed money in his deal. The way I see it, the Titans just got a guy with heaps of potential at a position of dire need for a deal that isn't at all risky, and would be a true steal if he becomes even a very good WR over the next few years. He is by no means a silver bullet. Rememeber, he was only the 44th most valuable WR per play target last year by DVOA, and even slightly below average, so a good deal of improvement on Nate's part is being assumed by the front office. The Titans still have a very weak WR group from top to bottom that I think still deserves a 1st or 2nd round pick. But Nate Washington should add that final, down the field dimension to our offense which will open things up all around for runners, as well as other receivers.