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What to Expect From WRs in Matt LaFleur’s Scheme in 2018

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What Can Titans Fans Anticipate Based on His Coaching Influences and Their History?

NFL: AFC Divisional Playoff-Tennessee Titans at New England Patriots Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

There has been mucho anxiety expressed by Titans fans this off-season over the lack of effort made by GM Jon Robinson to bolster the team’s wide receiver depth chart. Granted, many are optimistic that Corey Davis will put together a full season of high-level play, which we saw glimpses of during his injury-impacted rookie year. Rishard Matthews has been, for the most part, a model of reliability—and an absolute bargain—since coming over from Miami in 2016, but the consensus is that he’s best counted on as a top-tier WR2. Behind Davis and Matthews only question marks exist, and it’s easy to become concerned when thinking of worst-case scenarios, namely: What if either suffers an injury that forces them to miss significant time?

I wanted to explore the history of wide receiver production within offensive schemes designed by the nearest “branches” on Matt LaFleur’s coaching tree, the younger generation of Shanahan/Gruden disciples, Kyle Shanahan, Jay Gruden and Sean McVay. Those are the names that immediately come to mind when trying to imagine this offense on the field. Specifically, I wanted to see whether their offensive schemes translated into their receiving corps becoming more efficient and effective.

I focused on five specific seasons worth of data that, to me, felt most comparable to LaFleur’s upcoming first outing as Titans OC. To be clear, I selected these seasons before compiling the results in order to avoid cherry picking.

The seasons selected were (in reverse chronological order):

  • Sean McVay’s 2017 season as HC of the Rams
  • Kyle Shanahan’s 2017 season as HC of the 49ers
  • Kyle Shanahan’s 2015 season as OC for the Falcons
  • Jay Gruden’s 2014 season as HC of the Redskins
  • Kyle Shanahan’s 2010 season as OC for the Redskins

I chose these particular seasons because they represented an installation of a new offensive scheme predominantly controlled by the coach listed—exactly what we’ll be getting from LaFleur this year in Tennessee.

With this as my starting point, I compared the individual statistics of the WRs in each first-year offense to their average yearly statistics up until that point in their careers. Usage rate and sheer luck can heavily influence surface-level stats like yards per game, TDs, etc., and we have no real clue what kind of target share LaFleur has in mind for each member of the Titans’ offensive skill positions. Instead, the metrics chosen (yards per target, catch percentage, DYAR, and PFF grade) were meant to paint a picture of how well the offense was maximizing each receiver when they were called upon. To be included, receivers needed to have been targeted 50 or more times in the selected season. Obviously, there was no way to fairly include rookies in my findings, so any first-year contributors were discarded (but more on that later).

Mostly for ____s and giggles, I’ve also presented simple statistical comparisons such as year-over-year change in passing yards per game, QB rating, passing touchdowns and interceptions. These data points are meant to be secondary components of the overall evaluation.

Sean McVay (HC) - 2017 Rams

Receivers Included:

  1. Sammy Watkins
  2. Robert Woods

(Rookie WRs not included: Cooper Kupp)

Watkins

2017 Y/Target: 8.5 / Prior Career Average: 8.9

2017 Catch %: 55.7 / Prior Career Average: 55.4

2017 DYAR: 216 / Prior Career Average: 144

2017 PFF Grade: 76.2 / Prior Career Average: 78.9

Woods

2017 Y/Target: 9.2 / Prior Career Average: 7.1

2017 Catch %: 65.9 / Prior Career Average: 58.8

2017 DYAR: 172 / Prior Career Average: 30

2017 PFF Grade: 83.2 / Prior Career Average: 66.0

It’s unfortunate, at least for the purposes of this piece, that Kupp was a rookie in 2017. He clocked the second-most WR snaps for the Rams last year and may have assisted in making the data more conclusive had there been a baseline to compare to. The good news here is that both Watkins and Woods saw their DYAR rise significantly above their career averages. Simply put, this means that on plays where they caught the ball, they had more of a positive impact (according to this Football Outsiders metric) than they had, on average, per reception previously in their careers. Watkins saw his other metrics remain in line with his career averages, while Woods saw a significant uptick in every metric presented.

2017 Rams

Passing Yards per Game: 251.4
QB Rating: 98.3
Passing TDs: 28
Interceptions: 7

2016 Rams

Passing Yards per Game: 207.1
QB Rating: 69.5
Passing TDs: 14
Interceptions: 20

Kyle Shanahan (HC) - 2017 49ers

Receivers Included:

  1. Marquise Goodwin
  2. Pierre Garcon

(Rookie WRs not included: Trent Taylor)

Goodwin

2017 Y/Target: 9.2 / Prior Career Average: 7.0

2017 Catch %: 53.3 / Prior Career Average: 44.1

2017 DYAR: 155 / Prior Career Average: -4.5

2017 PFF Grade: 80 / Prior Career Average: 61.4

Garcon

2017 Y/Target: 7.5 / Prior Career Average: 7.6

2017 Catch %: 59.7 / Prior Career Average: 60.8

2017 DYAR: 45 / Prior Career Average: 86.9

2017 PFF Grade: 82.5 / Prior Career Average: 75.2

As we saw with Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin drastically improved across the board. An asterisk should really accompany Garcon’s statistics because he only played 8 games for the Niners last season, and all came before Jimmy Garoppolo took over as starting QB. The fact that 3 out of 4 metrics remained in range of his career average (a long, productive career, mind you) despite catching passes from C.J. Beathard may actually say as much, if not more, about the impact of this type of offense on receiver effectiveness. I’m slightly less troubled by Trent Taylor’s omission from this data set than I was by Cooper Kupp’s simply because Taylor only narrowly eclipsed 50 targets (he received 60) and he really only came on once Garoppolo was inserted into the lineup.

2017 49ers (Overall)

Passing Yards per Game: 264.7
QB Rating: 78.8
Passing TDs: 15
Interceptions: 15

2017 49ers (Garoppolo)

Passing Yards per Game: 260
QB Rating: 96.2
Passing TDs: 7 (Projected to 16 games: ~21)
Interceptions: 5 (Projected to 16 games: ~15)

2016 49ers

Passing Yards per Game: 197.9
QB Rating: 83.4
Passing TDs: 21
Interceptions: 10

Kyle Shanahan (OC) - 2015 Falcons

Receivers Included:

  1. Julio Jones
  2. Roddy White

Jones

2015 Y/Target: 9.2 / Prior Career Average: 9.7

2015 Catch %: 67.0 / Prior Career Average: 62.5

2015 DYAR: 343 / Prior Career Average: 220

2015 PFF Grade: 94.8 / Prior Career Average: 84.1

White

2015 Y/Target: 7.2 / Prior Career Average: 7.9

2015 Catch %: 61.4 / Prior Career Average: 58.5

2015 DYAR: 23 / Prior Career Average: 182

2015 PFF Grade: N/A / Prior Career Average: N/A

Jones’ 2015 stats jump off the page at first glance, but his efficiency was comparable in 2013 and 2014. His first and second seasons brought down his averages even though they were exceptional given his age and inexperience at the time. 2015 was his best season up until that point in terms of DYAR and PFF grade, however. He would reset career highs in both during 2016 while still under Shanahan.

For the sake of objectivity, White’s 2015 statistics must be included (I don’t have PFF Elite, so I lack access to retired players’ yearly grades), but it was clear while compiling them that he had begun to decline as a player over the two years prior. 2015 was his last season before retirement, and the end of the line for a once dominant player. For what it’s worth, he still managed to achieve one of his higher single-season catch percentages despite a steep fall off in athletic ability.

2015 Falcons

Passing Yards per Game: 287.6
QB Rating: 87.8
Passing TDs: 21
Interceptions: 17

2014 Falcons

Passing Yards per Game: 297.4
QB Rating: 93.4
Passing TDs: 28
Interceptions: 14

Jay Gruden (HC) - 2014 Redskins

Receivers Included:

  1. Pierre Garcon
  2. DeSean Jackson
  3. Andre Roberts

Garcon*

2014 Y/Target: 7.2 / Prior Career Average: 7.5

2014 Catch %: 64.8 / Prior Career Average: 57.7

2014 DYAR: -14 / Prior Career Average: 64

2014 PFF Grade: 76.8 / Prior Career Average: 72.4

Jackson

2014 Y/Target: 12.3 / Prior Career Average: 9.4

2014 Catch %: 58.9 / Prior Career Average: 54.8

2014 DYAR: 306 / Prior Career Average: 143.5

2014 PFF Grade: 80.3 / Prior Career Average: 74.7

Roberts

2014 Y/Target: 6.2 / Prior Career Average: 6.3

2014 Catch %: 49.3 / Prior Career Average: 54.0

2014 DYAR: -9 / Prior Career Average: -20

2014 PFF Grade: 52.9 / Prior Career Average: 55.1

This season is slightly less useful for these purposes because Gruden took over offensive control from Kyle Shanahan, who was still Washington’s OC the year before. Since both systems were relying on similar principles, this example can’t tell as much about teams implementing this scheme from scratch. Jackson and Roberts were new to this offense, though, so their numbers still have as much relevancy.

Also worth considering: Garcon and Jackson were both coming off career best years. Garcon was in Washington in 2013 under Shanahan, while DeSean Jackson had been in Philly under Chip Kelly. It’s more difficult to evaluate just how much of an impact the offensive system had on their effectiveness and efficiency as they were both clearly in their prime.

Garcon has never been a very efficient receiver, regardless of scheme. That isn’t to say that he’s a slouch or that he hasn’t had a productive career, but as a general trend, he takes more targets to achieve quality raw production than elite receivers. Outside of an outlier season in 2016, both DYAR and his PFF grades have backed this up throughout his career.

Overall, Jackson was able to maintain his efficiency from his elite previous season (and surpass his career averages), despite the change in scheme.

Andre Roberts is bad. That is all.

2014 Redskins

Passing Yards per Game: 278.8
QB Rating: 88.8
Passing TDs: 18
Interceptions: 18

2013 Redskins

Passing Yards per Game: 253.6
QB Rating: 76.1
Passing TDs: 20
Interceptions: 19

Kyle Shanahan (OC) - 2010 Redskins

Receivers Included:

  1. Santana Moss

(Rookie WRs not included: Anthony Armstrong)

Moss

2010 Y/Target: 7.7 / Prior Career Average: 8.5

2010 Catch %: 64.1 / Prior Career Average: 57.3

2010 DYAR: 116 / Prior Career Average: 123

2010 PFF Grade: N/A / Prior Career Average: N/A

The one thing that popped out to me while reviewing Santana Moss’s career trajectory was that by 2010 he had begun to trend downward dramatically in terms of DYAR only to see a noticeable resurgence under Shanahan. Though not his best season, it was definitely one of his better seasons. To accomplish that in the midst of apparent age-based decline says something positive about this offense in my opinion. For Moss, the wheels resumed coming off after this year (though he did have a really efficient 2012 in this same system despite seeing his usage cut roughly in half). As with Roddy White, I couldn’t track his PFF grades due to him no longer being an active player.

2010 Redskins

Passing Yards per Game: 266.3
QB Rating: 78.0
Passing TDs: 21
Interceptions: 19

2009 Redskins

Passing Yards per Game: 237.3
QB Rating: 85.5
Passing TDs: 21
Interceptions: 16

Rookie WR Production in This System

Though Cooper Kupp, Trent Taylor and Anthony Armstrong weren’t included in the career comparisons for obvious reasons, I did want to touch on their production in this system as rookies. While Corey Davis, Taywan Taylor and Tajae Sharpe won’t be first-year receivers, I wouldn’t consider them far off based on actual on-field experience.

Kupp

2017 Y/Target: 9.2

2017 Catch %: 66

2017 DYAR: 272

2017 PFF Grade: 81.3

Taylor

2017 Y/Target: 7.2

2017 Catch %: 71.7

2017 DYAR: 114

2017 PFF Grade: 71.6

Armstrong

2017 Y/Target: 10.1

2017 Catch %: 51.2

2017 DYAR: 134

2017 PFF Grade: N/A

These numbers are really, really good for rookies. For reference:

Davis

2017 Y/Target: 5.8

2017 Catch %: 52.3

2017 DYAR: -88

2017 PFF Grade: 65.3

Taylor

2017 Y/Target: 8.3

2017 Catch %: 57.1

2017 DYAR: 6

2017 PFF Grade: 50.8

Sharpe

2016 Y/Target: 6.3

2016 Catch %: 49.4

2016 DYAR: 23

2016 PFF Grade: 50.3

With all due respect to Kupp, Taylor and Armstrong, Corey Davis is light years ahead of them in terms of talent, physical tool set and overall athletic ability. It’s a crime how inefficient last year’s Titans offense made him.

Taywan Taylor’s college tape was right on par with both Kupp’s and Trent Taylor’s. Barring him struggling mentally this upcoming season, he should perform far better in LaFleur’s system.

Tajae Sharpe is a complete unknown—there’s a chance his efficiency struggles were scheme related, but he may simply lack the athleticism to succeed in the pros.

Takeaways

  • Overall, receivers’ catch percentage increased noticeably and consistently within year one of these offenses. That’s huge in my opinion, because it indicates that receivers are being put in positions to make open, easy catches (by NFL standards) far more often. At this level, a low catch percentage usually means a receiver and his QB are being asked/forced to air it out downfield or complete contested throws and catches.
  • Though the results were not always career highs, DYAR and PFF grade have generally trended upward from a player’s career averages. At the very least, these numbers have rarely diminished except when the receiver in question was obviously in decline due to age.
  • I’m very encouraged by the rookie production of Kupp, Taylor, and Armstrong. It tells me that the learning curve for receivers in this offense is not impossibly steep.
  • On that same note, the raw team stats presented tell me the learning curve is intense for quarterbacks. While Mariota should fare better statistically—expect something in the realm of 275 passing yards per game (or around 4000 total passing yards), a QB rating near 85.0, and a TD/INT split of ~21/~12—I’m backing down on my optimism that he can be a dark horse AFC OPOY candidate in year one under LaFleur. I do think big things are in store for him eventually; he’s the perfect QB for this offense based on his strengths and unique abilities.
  • If I were a betting man, I’d place my wager on big upticks in production for Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor. Rishard Matthews’ raw stats are likely to drop based on the emergence of Davis as target leader, but he should remain just as efficient. As much as I personally root for Tajae Sharpe, I’m out on him unless someone gets injured—4th receivers have done next to nothing in this offense historically.

Thanks for reading!