The statistics used in this column are those acquired from the Reception Perception methodology for evaluating wide receivers. Use the #ReceptionPerception tag on Twitter to follow all the analysis from the series.
If you believe in something, you should not hide your feelings. Being intentional, direct and upfront with conclusions are necessary to developing successful real life interactions and situations. Likewise, if you have confidence in your professional process, there’s no need to duck from your conclusions; confidently let your findings fly for the world to see. I believe in my process for evaluating wide receivers, Reception Perception, very strongly. As such, the conclusions I draw from the work are ideas we can all learn from, even if you disagree with them. So I decided to put together a “greatest hits” compilation of the findings from this offseason, and where they’ve led me to plant my flags for the upcoming fantasy season.
I have plenty of Reception Perception takes, and you can find them in my work here at Footballguys, Backyard Banter and NFL.com. However, the ones outlined in these two “planting flags” posts are the ones I stand by with unwavering conviction. The data collected indicates something so strongly that I have no choice but to follow down the path it leads. In parts one and two, the opinions provided are of the “take it to the bank” variety. Again, you may feel free to disagree, and please let me hear it if they turn out to be misses come season’s end. I’m open to being wrong, as always, and will gladly learn from any potential mistakes made in Reception Perceptions’ third year in existence. Nevertheless, let’s dive into which players I am firmly planting a flag for their 2016 outlook.
The Vikings receiving corps will be much improved
The Minnesota Vikings were dead last in the NFL in pass attempts last year with just 454. That was over 100 fewer than the league average of 571.8, a number that continues rising every season. Adrian Peterson at the center of the squad or not; Mike Zimmer wants to build his teams this way, even if he’s pushing his young quarterback to be more aggressive as he grows.
However, should they ever choose to do so, Minnesota has the horses in the receiving game to be a pass-first team.
Laquon Treadwell was a top wide receiver prospect in the 2016 NFL Draft. Reception Perception never bought into the narrative that Treadwell couldn’t separate. A lack of measured athletic testing in pre-draft workouts or even subpar speed has little to do with the art of separation. Treadwell has the combination of pristine technique, short-area quickness and physicality to consistently work free on the outside. That is exemplified in his 74.6 percent success rate versus man coverage, a top-five score among the 21 charted prospects.
Treadwell’s highest performing routes in success rate versus coverage were the slant, curl and post (a pattern the Vikings are installing more of just for him). All of those route fit well with what Teddy Bridgewater does as a middle of the field, timing-based passer. He also had the second-highest contested catch conversion rate in the class, a dominant trait none of Bridgewater’s receivers boasted to this point.
In due time Treadwell will be the lead-dog in this passing game and future No. 1 NFL receiver. However, for this year, he might play second fiddle to another supremely talented player.
One of my biggest whiffs in recent years was my misevaluation of Stefon Diggs coming out of college-just another piece of evidence of why I need Reception Perception as a guide not just my eyes (limited access to all-22 for that draft). In racking up 419 yards and two scores in his first four pro games, Diggs showed right away that he would be far better than my low expectations. Yet, his second-half slowdown, where he never topped 70 yards again, had many wondering if he was just a flash in the pan.
Diggs’ Reception Perception numbers revealed that he actually improved as a player as the season went along, when his data was just decent through his first two games. He ran a go-route on 22.1 percent of his routes through those first two games, but finished the year with just a 12.2 percent rate. Dialing back those deep patterns pumped up Diggs’ overall success rate versus coverage numbers. His 71.3 percent rate when facing man is the fifth-highest mark among rookies charted over the last two years, ahead of Amari Cooper and Martavis Bryant, and trailing only Odell Beckham, Tyler Lockett, John Brown and Allen Robinson.
Stefon Diggs has the Reception Perception backing as a player who could explode in a major way if he ever gets the requisite targets. Whether that comes this year, or down the line, is another proposition. When Treadwell catches up, this offense will be hard to deal with.
Lastly, Charles Johnson might just be a thing again. He ran with the starters all through the offseason over Treadwell and scored a long touchdown in the first preseason game. His 2014 Reception Perception painted quite an optimistic picture about his future. He posted an above average success rate vs. man and press coverage and had one of the highest go-route scores in histroy (an elite 70 percent) That obviously did not come to fruition, but it looks like that ability is still somewhere inside him. If he can contribute as as the eventual No. 3, that’s just gravy. A Diggs, Treadwell and Johnson playing at his potential trio could be deadly.
A.J. Green will have a career year
We all know A.J. Green is a great player. That’s been apparent since his rookie when he went over 1,000 yards, and then proceeded to do so every year following. You won’t be surprised to know his Reception Perception data is tremendous. However, I think some might be surprised that his data is right in line with the Tier 1 receivers in fantasy.
Green’s 71.8 percent success rate vs. man coverage and 77.8 percent vs. man are among the league-leaders. He earned elite separation scores in the short to intermediate game, but also carries an 88 percent and 58.2 percent marks in success rate vs. coverage on post and go-routes showing the ability to win downfield. His 88.9 contested catch conversion rate is one of the best scores in series’ history.
With so many targets vacated from the Bengals offense, and a new player hurt seemingly every week, Green is on track for a career year. His Reception Perception shows he can handle the type of target load that Julio Jones saw in 2015.
People will forget they ever thought Keenan Allen was anything but a true No. 1 receiver
Keenan Allen still seems like he gets put in a box because of his combine numbers and shallow yards per reception marks. It’s true that in 2015, Allen did play a hyper-specific possession receiver role. Of the 298 routes charted for his Reception Perception sample, 58.4 percent were slants, curls, and posts. But does it matter if you only run a small sample of the route tree if you cannot be stopped on those patterns? Allen’s success rate vs. coverage scores on those patterson of 86.2, 88.4 and 80 percent suggest he’s a chore to deal with.
Allen’s 77.1 percent success rate vs. man coverage is a top-three score in the NFL, behind just Odell Beckham and Antonio Brown. His 79.6 percent success rate vs. press and 82.6 contested catch conversion rate show he’s a dominant receiver able to win on the outside against any form of defender.
The Chargers leaned heavily on Allen last year, targeting him on 31.2 percent of the routes he ran in his Reception Perception sample. There’s little reason to believe he won’t handle that kind of workload again this year. Keenan Allen is a true No. 1 receiver in every sense of the term and will produce like one this season.
The winds of change will blow through Seattle
If you follow Reception Perception then you know by now his rookie year data brings to mind dreams of an Allen Robinson-like future. His 77.6 percent success rate vs. man coverage is the second-best rookie season number ever charted and he earns separation in the short game (87.8 percent on curls) and down the field (55.3 percent on go-routes).
Tyler Lockett has the skill-set of a budding superstar through the lens of Reception Perception. He profiles as a future No. 1 receiver with an elite-level ceiling. A player with this type of data could go beserk any year, especially when paired with a deadly efficient quarterback. However, Lockett’s fellow starting receiver, Doug Baldwin, is a player who already went beserk just last year.
Baldwin caught 14 touchdowns on just over 100 targets in a career year during the 2015 stretch run. Many people are expecting a massive statistical regression. However, Reception Perception likes Baldwin, as well. Baldwin posted a strong 69.1 percent success rate vs. man coverage while taking over 83 percent of his snaps from the slot. He showed the ability to excel in that position. He scored a 90,9 percent success rate on “improvisiational routes” which quantifiies the chemistry he and Wilson share on the off-script broken plays.
Seattle hasn’t revolved around the passing game for most of Russell Wilson and Pete Carroll’s time in Seattle. Howver, Reception Perception shows they now have a dynamic one-two punch at receiver to make the transition this year. Yes, Seattle receivers haven’t done much damage in recent years, but they’ve never had a duo like this before.
DeVante Parker won’t meet the optimistic expectations
The Dolphins first-round pick from 2015 ended his rookie season on a massively high note. He made highlight catch after highlight catch. But it’s those big plays that are clouding the judgement of observers when projecting him for this season.
DeVante Parker’s Reception Perception evaluation was quite nightmarish. Primarily playing the outside X receiver role, Parker failed to get open on anything close to a routine basis. Parker’s success rate vs man coverage (42.9) was poor but his success rate vs. press coverage was truly disastrous, as his 38.9 percent score was the second-lowest in series’ history. His contested catch conversion catch rate (53.8) was below the league-average and, outside of the screen, he did not score above the NFL average in success rate vs. coverage for any route on the tree.
Of course, he was on the way back from a preseason injury, but be assured that his data did not improve by such leaps and bounds as the year went along.
Sterling Shepard will shine as Odell Beckham’s sidekick
Sterling Shepard was bar-none the best route runner in the 2016 NFL Draft, which will help make him an instant impact player. Reception Perception helps quantify that reality, as he was far and away the leader in success rate vs. man (82.8) and press (91.1) coverage among the charter prospects. He's a detailed technician and a chore to cover regardless of the defender's game plan.
The label "slot receiver" should no longer be a pejorative term -- especially in high-volume passing offenses where the interior short-area receiver eats up targets. Shepard fits the bill in both respects. He played 67.7 percent of his Reception Perception snaps from the slot. The rookie took the majority of his limited snaps in the preseason opener from the interior.
In 2015, the Giants ranked 13th in the NFL in passing percentage and were in the top-10 in pass attempts in both of his seasons with Ben McAdoo at the helm. Every report out of Giants OTAs has Sterling Shepard as a lock for a starting spot across from Odell Beckham and Victor Cruz struggling to get back on the field. With Shepard's unique route polish for a rookie, it's no surprise that he's acclimating quickly to the league. Shepard's most commonly run route in his Reception Perception sample was the slant, at 27.4 percent of his 212 routes. Those are staples of the west coast offense McAdoo employs, and it's just another positive indicator in Shepard's path to instant success.
The way he plays the game and the fit in the offense are unique for Shepard. Reception Perception preaches that we should not rule out a truly special rookie season for this player.
Bruce Ellington will shock the world
Bruce Ellington only ran 77 routes in his Reception Perception sample, which is way under what is normally acceptable, but he did score out above average at defeating man (70.6), zone (80.4) and press coverage (80.3). He's a tenacious player and profiles as the type of athlete that Chip Kelly coveted in his time with the Eagles, which explains why the head coach was quick to praise him after studying film on his new team.
The third-year receiver will man the slot position in Kelly’s offense. Jordan Matthews racked up 229 targets in his two years playing under the former Eagles head coach. While Reception Perception is in on the Torrey Smith bounce back, he’s never been the type to rack up catches. Ellington could easily push for 70-plus receptions in this offense.
Mike Evans puts it all together this season
The fact that Mike Evans' success rate vs. coverage score jumped from his rookie to sophomore year might surprise some considering the consensus holds that he had a down season in 2015. Evans posted a league average 62.9 percent success rate vs. man coverage as a rookie but leapt up to a strong 68.9 percent last season. Many point to a lack of touchdowns and drops as a decline in play but Reception Perception illuminates that might be a false narrative. Evans actually improved as a technical route-runner in his second season when compared to his first. Reception Perception helps quantify that.
Evans also improved as a deep threat with a 61.2 percent success rate on go-routes after a mark in the low 50’s as a rookie. He also maintained an upper echelon contested catch conversion rate with a 78.9 mark. Evans registered an 88 percent success rate on comeback routes while running them on 8.9 percent of his routes, both well over the NFL average. It is another data point that helps support the claim that Evans was actually improved as a route-runner in his second season. He registered a poor 64.3 percent as a rookie but took a major leap last year. It's a small point, but a really encouraging one.
With a secure target share and attached to a young quarterback, 2016 will be Evans’ year. If his touchdown production from a rookie marries his improved route-running as a second-year player, he could dominate the NFL on way to a top-five finish. That is well within his range of outcomes.
Don’t fear the Allen Robinson regression
All we’ve heard all offseason is that Allen Robinson will experience regression. If you know the Reception Perception series you know what it predicted for Robinson after a strong showing as a rookie. So perhaps there is some bias in the response, but I don’t think you should buy that at all.
He scored at the rate of an A.J. Green or Dez Bryant-type of star as a rookie, and he got even better in his second season. Robinson’s success rate vs. man coverage jumped from 71.7 to 73.6. His zone coverage mark stayed within 0.3 percentage points while his press mark jumped from 77.2 to 78.9, a top-five score in history.
Robinson was already adept at separating at all levels of the field, but took yet another step as a second year player. It just so happened to be in the two areas key to making big plays. His go-route score jumped from a below average 45.3 percent as a rookie to a strong 59.2 last season. His contested catch conversion rate went from a passable 64.3 to a much more dominant 75 percent rate. Robinson proved he is every bit as dominant down the field as he is in the intermediate game.
Of course, it is hard to score 14 touchdowns in back to back years. However, we could easily see Robinson’s catches (80) and yardage (1,400) improve this year. He’s good enough to catch 100 passes in a season at some point. There’s not logic in the Jaguars taking targets away from him.
No one should balk at the idea that Allen Robinson is already a top-five wideout in the game, or at least right in that conversation. After dominating Reception Perception as a rookie, he took another huge leap in key areas last year and apparently that improvement continued into training camp this offseason. This isn’t the type of talent you put artificial limitations on. Allen Robinson is the type of talent at the wide receiver position that you bet on every single year.
Dorial Green-Beckham fell behind Tajae Sharpe early in minicamp and was recently traded away to the Philadelphia Eagles. The football world at large was more obbseesed with Green-Beckham’s fall than Sharpe’s rise. It’s time to reverse course on that.
While on the surface it seems hasty to promote a fifth-round pick up the ladder to an NFL starter this fast, but looking back on his history as a prospect, it's not too shocking he’s already making that leap. Alongside Sterling Shepard, Sharpe was one of the most experienced route runners in this class in the Reception Perception evaluation on the 2016 receiver prospects. Sharpe and Shepard were the only receivers to chart out above the prospect average at running the following routes: outs, comebacks, and flats.
It was easy to propose that the balance of their route assignments would help them get on the field early, and allow them to become fast favorites of their NFL coaches. With that in mind, we shouldn't be so shocked to see Sharpe and Shepard running as clear starters and getting praised for their route-running already.
Sharpe's Reception Perception also showed he beat press coverage at an above-average rate and was right in line with the average at winning contested catches. Although his true strength and appeal lay with his ability to play multiple receiver spots. Sharpe took 48 percent of his sampled snaps at right wideout, 21.9 percent at left and 29.5 percent in the slot. He can play any of the receiver positions, and that is just another reason he's catching the eye of a coaching staff in search of receiver depth.
Donte Moncrief will remind you that he already broke out
The Colts wideout vastly improved each step in his career as a technician. After struggling to consistently run routes in college, he showed great detail as a rookie posting above average 66.7 percent success rate vs. man coverage and 79.3 percent against zone. He held steady on his man coverage score in his second year but improved from an average press coverage score to a strong 70 percent rate. He did all this while dialing his go-routes down from a whopping 35.6 percent usage rate as a rookie to just over 18 percent while running the entire route tree in his second season.
A complete player who earns separation all over the field, Moncrief is ready to explode this season. He was already breaking out last season when Andrew Luck was under center and before the team ran into Carolina and Denver before the quarterback went down.
The Colts stand to run a highly concentrated passing offense this season, as there is little depth behind their top-three and even Dorsett as the third receiver is still unproven. Think back to the New York Jets last year, who funnelled over 50 percent of their targets to Eric Decker and Brandon Marshall. Moncrief will play that 1b to Hilton’s 1a, or his overwhelming physical gifts might win out.
Either way, Donte Moncrief is the easiest breakout receiver to identify this season. His steady improvement as a route runner will finally be plain for the world to see now that his quarterback is healthy and ready to feed him 130-plus targets.