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Player Spotlight: Alshon Jeffery

A tour through the 2017 fantasy outlook for Alshon Jeffery

Pros

  • He’s a true playmaker, and the most gifted wideout the Eagles have had in some time. An often dynamic weapon down the field, Jeffery has shown – at times – the ability to maximize his opportunities into WR1-level production. From 2013-15, he averaged 5.6 receptions, 82.0 yards, and 0.51 touchdowns per game.
  • He’s playing for a contract (again). The fantasy community is generally split on whether this is a major boon, but the fact is that individual player motivations are unknowable mysteries that tend to belong on #NarrativeStreet. Still, Jeffery has every motivation to stay healthy and produce in 2017. He reportedly turned down a multi-year offer from the Vikings in favor of a one-year “prove it” deal, so he’s betting on himself to cash in long-term.
  • Last year’s Eagles showed a propensity to throw and throw plenty. Rookie quarterback Carson Wentz surprisingly threw 607 passes in 2016. The addition of Jeffery suggests that, while that number may not hold for 2017, the team probably won’t be cutting it tremendously. Wentz should still finish with top-12 passing volume, and Jeffery could conceivably draw upwards of 22-23% of that volume. Still…

Cons

  • …his volume outlook is likely being overstated. I’ll dive further into this in a moment, but I simply can’t grasp where the wild offseason projections of massive target volume are coming from. Jeffery will compete for attention with a proven possession receiver, a tight end that draws a hefty share of his own, and at least one pass-catching specialist in the backfield. Besides, the Eagles project to throw a bit less in 2017 anyway.
  • His new quarterback might be awful. Wentz drew a lot of public goodwill after debuting with three strong performances – then proceeded to largely fall on his face over his final 13. (He ultimately checked in at 26th in Football Outsiders’ Defense-Adjusted Value over Average metric.) Wentz threw poorly downfield, he struggled in the red zone, and as a result he produced touchdowns at an exceptionally poor rate. Wentz is still quite young, but this may not be the situation Jeffery needs to rebuild his own goodwill.
  • He’s missed a ton of time lately. Jeffery has notched 16 games just twice over 5 seasons, losing time to a variety of injuries and last year’s suspension. He’s had numerous calf and hamstring woes, including a 2015 tear and multiple pulls, and is a weekly fixture on the injury report. He didn’t miss time with injuries last year, but sat four games after a substance suspension.

Volume & Usage

How much opportunity can we realistically peg Jeffery for in his 2017 home? Let’s start by examining the 2016 Philadelphia passing game, which should dip a bit in volume as it builds in Doug Pederson’s image.

First, let’s note that Wentz threw a surprisingly meaty 607 passes as a rookie, good for sixth-most in football. (A quick aside: 60 of those throws – nearly 10% – came in one game.) And suffice it to say that Pederson found that to be a bit much. Note that Kansas City never threw more than 546 passes over his 3 years in charge of its offense, finishing 20th, 28th, and 29th in attempts. Simply put, the team would probably prefer to pin a little less of its success on Wentz’s arm. After all, he averaged just 33.3 attempts in Eagles wins versus 41.6 in losses. Yes, game flow plays a big part in stats like that, but Wentz contributed plenty by being downright bad in those losses (6.18 yards per attempt and a 7:11 touchdown-to-interception ratio). When we consider that discrepancy and Pederson’s comments, it’s hard to project Wentz to throw more than about 585-590 passes in 2017. That’s solid volume, but it’s not world-beating, and it doesn’t carry upside beyond that 2016 total.

So, how will they distribute whatever volume carries over? In 2016, over the 13 games in which clear No. 1 wideout Jordan Matthews played a full complement, the Eagles’ wideout snaps divvied up thusly:

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In other words, we saw clear WR1 and WR2 options, as well as some reserve bodies of variable usage. Now, here’s the team’s 2016 target distribution among those receivers, compared with the 2016 league average distribution:

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They followed pretty much down the average line, but there should be a few tweaks in 2017:

The Eagles carry much more talent at the WR3 and WR4 spots than they did last year. Dorial Green-Beckham simply wasn’t a WR3-level player, as evidenced by his extreme inefficiency (a puny 5.30 yards per target). Torrey Smith, on the other hand, boasts a career mark of 8.30; in fact, he averaged 8.38 with some of the worst quarterbacking in football over 2015 and 2016. And Nelson Agholor now slides into the WR4 spot; he’s no great shakes, but he’ll almost certainly draw a little more attention than the Josh Huff/Paul Turner contingent. All told, I expect a small yet noticeable uptick in volume for this year’s reserves, which should eat (if only marginally) into Jeffery’s and Matthews’ shares.

It’s telling that Jordan Matthews beat the league average so easily. Matthews exceeded the average for No. 1 wideouts by 3.2%. That doesn’t seem like a big deal on its face, but over a 600-attempt season, it’s a trump of 19 targets (a huge deal). Clearly, he has Carson Wentz’s eye, so we can’t simply stuff him into the margins. The team’s only real slot option and a proven volume guy, Matthews should land slightly on the plus side of the league-average distribution for No. 2 options.

Jeffery himself isn’t the target dominator many think he is. There’s an assumption across the fantasy landscape that Jeffery is a target dominator, a guy who vacuums up his team’s wide receiver targets like a Hoover. But if 2016 was any indication, that’s simply not the case. Last year in Chicago, despite boasting the team’s most proven talent by a mile and a half, Jeffery drew a ho-hum 37.0% of WR targets. That’s markedly below the league average of 40.4% for a team-leading wideout. How confident should we be that he’ll step into a more talented receiving corps – in a brand-new offense – and see his target share soar?

With these numbers in mind, here’s how I’m projecting their targets to split this year:

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Those WR target numbers may seem low, but let’s not forget that the Eagles’ wideouts will again be competing with:

A high-volume tight end corps. Zach Ertz drew the third-most targets per game among TEs last year, and the sixth-most in 2015, while Trey Burton is coming on as a complementary weapon in his own right.

A bona fide receiving back (or two). Darren Sproles has averaged 72 targets over his 3 seasons in Philadelphia, while rookie Donnel Pumphrey is apparently being groomed for some degree of a third-down/slot role.

Last year, over Matthews’ full games, the Eagles sent just 50.0% of their targets to their wideouts, one of the lowest rates in football. My projections shoot that share up to 53.9% – appreciably higher with Jeffery on board, but still on the lower end of the NFL spectrum. And still, both Jeffery and Matthews come up a bit shy of typical WR1/WR2 volume. I’m sure this projection will tweak a bit as the offseason progresses, but as things appear to stand, it’s hard to find truly impressive volume for either.

Jeffery v. Matthews

As I pointed out above, Jeffery wasn’t by any stretch a target hog in Chicago last year. He opened the season clearly behind Kevin White in the pecking order, losing the target battle 36-25 over the first 4 weeks. In fact, over that span, he only carved out a 25-22 edge over Eddie “Who Cares?” Royal. Jeffery pieced together a few high-volume games at midseason, but returned from suspension in Week 15 and was definitively out-targeted by Cameron Meredith down the stretch.

To that end, I can’t imagine him banishing Matthews to the land of wind and ghosts, nor anywhere particularly close. Please, make no mistake: I’m no big fan of Matthews, and any long-term readers of mine know that well. But he is what he is: A generally reliable slot target who can create some mismatches on slower linebackers and smaller nickelbacks. The prospect of Matthews merely fading into the mist while Jeffery thoroughly dominates the passing game seems ill-fated to me. There’s a better chance Jeffery and Matthews combine to push the reserves into nothingness and share a huge volume pie together. Still, as the numbers above suggest, that’s not overly likely.

All told, if you’re investing heavily in Jeffery, you’re probably making a simultaneous investment in Matthews’ volume falling off even further in 2017 than it did in 2016. Matthews isn’t Cris Carter, but he isn’t some reserve-level space-filler, either. I can’t realistically expect his involvement to fall far enough that Jeffery pulls better than a 57/43 split, at best, of their targets.

Splash Play Outlook

As a result, to flirt with fantasy WR1 production, Jeffery will almost certainly have to make his hay with big downfield plays and touchdowns. So, how capable is he of checking those boxes?

I’m not worried about his efficiency, at least in terms of creating yardage. At his best, Jeffery is an elite downfield receiver. Over his 5-year career, he’s produced 69 receptions of 20 yards or more; that’s tenth-best in the league, and more than Dez Bryant or Brandon Marshall can boast over that span, despite Jeffery missing 17 of 80 games. He’s also adept at making difficult catches – according to Matt Harmon’s Reception Perception, he sports an outstanding 81.8% catch rate on contested pace through his 5 NFL seasons. When he’s tuned in and turned on, he’s one of the league’s premier playmakers.

So, I feel comfortable projecting Jeffery to hit or even top 15.0 yards per catch. He generally catches the ball well, and he’s physically capable of destroying shaky downfield coverage. Still, his per-target efficiency could take a noticeable dip in Philadelphia. Jeffery will now catch passes from Carson Wentz, who did a few good things as a rookie, but was a generally inefficient passer who especially struggled when throwing downfield.

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Yes, Wentz was throwing to an uninspiring cabinet of weapons, but those are putrid numbers. Jeffery’s presence will help, of course, and he’ll probably turn more deep balls into catches than last year’s crop. But how many more, realistically? We can’t simply project him to post the same game-breaking numbers he did during his best moments in Chicago; this is a new team with a far less dynamic passer than an in-his-prime Jay Cutler ever was. Also, let’s bear in mind that he’ll be sharing those deep-ball looks with Torrey Smith, an efficient and dynamic downfield receiver in his own right. Smith’s career yards-per-target (8.30) is just a hair off of Jeffery’s, and he’s averaged 0.85 receptions of 20+ yards per game over his 6 seasons.

As Usual, It’s a Touchdown Thing

Unfortunately for Jeffery, Wentz didn’t produce touchdowns very well in 2016, either. It’s not easy to throw 607 passes and just 16 scores, but he managed; his 2.64% touchdown rate checked in at 32nd leaguewide. That was a worse rate than Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brock Osweiler, and Case Keenum all managed. Granted, touchdown rate is a particularly variable stat from year to year, and it will almost certainly rise to some degree in 2017. That’s to say, of course, that it can’t really go anywhere but up. As a rookie, Wentz completed just 49.5% of his passes from inside the 20.

As for Jeffery, he’s never been a strong red zone producer. His career red zone touchdown rate is a mediocre 21.9%, and it’s been even worse over the past 2 seasons (17.9%). That’s a terrible harbinger, considering he’ll likely struggle on deep balls coming from Wentz, who threw just 3 touchdowns from outside the 20 last year. If he can’t spin Wentz’s downfield crappiness into gold, and he can’t outproduce beyond his career norms in the red zone, then it’s hard to see where the touchdowns will come from.

Jeffery still profiles as a strong playmaker capable of overcoming red zone deficiencies to some degree. But he’s only topped 6 touchdowns in a season once, back in 2014 (his last full season). And even in his fantastic half of 2015, he only paced for 8 (on what would’ve been 108 receptions). All in all, his career touchdown rate is a solid 8.6%, but it’s just 5.7% since 2014. I truly can’t see him eclipsing a touchdown rate of 7-8% in a best-case scenario, so unless Wentz makes several major year-two strides, I can’t responsibly project him beyond 6 or 7 scores.

Whirlpool Talk

Injury woes have dogged Jeffery for virtually his entire NFL career:

2012: Lost four games to a hand fracture

2014: Lost half a game, and was limited the following week, to a hamstring strain/pull

2015: Lost entire preseason to a calf strain; lost four games to a hamstring strain/pull; lost one game to an unspecified groin injury; lost two games to a calf aggravation

2016: Nursed a hamstring strain/pull and a knee strain and didn't miss game time but was frequently limited in practice; lost four games to a substance-related suspension

It was encouraging that Jeffery didn't miss any 2016 games due to injury, and Bears GM Ryan Pace actually praised his conditioning last year. But he always seems like a walking time bomb, missing gobs of practice and frequently turning up "questionable" on injury reports. We can't predict injuries, of course, but we can notate guys with long-term injury concerns, and Jeffery has battled troublesome hamstring and other lower-body issues for years. We can't take anything for granted, and it's hard to project him for 16 issue-free games.

Conclusion

Jeffery carries an appreciable ceiling into 2017 – his 2013-15 run was fantastic – but also a floor well below his current Round 3 ADP. If you feel confident he’ll play 15 or 16 games and dominate targets to a true No. 1 receiver’s degree and reach his absolute ceilings in efficiency and touchdowns, then more power to you. He’s a clear-cut top-15 receiver in that case. I just don’t like projecting guys to their absolute ceilings in any case – and I’m especially wary when they’re as unpredictable and inconsistent as Jeffery is. When they’re being shoehorned into a relatively crowded passing game and thrown to by a shaky second-year passer, I’m even less enthused. I see similar ceilings and much stronger floors all over his ADP tier – and a handful coming a few rounds later.

Projections

ProjectorGPReYdTDRuYdTD
Justin Howe 16 72 1097 5 1 6 0
David Dodds 15 73 1044 6 1 9 0
Maurile Tremblay 16 78 1118 4 0 0 0
Bob Henry 14 66 960 6 2 20 0
Jason Wood 16 80 1100 8 0 0 0

Other Viewpoints

Michael Salfino and Anthony Amico engaged in an intriguing Jeffery discussion in early June. Their reasonings largely echoed mine, with great points all around:

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Mike Tagliere of FantasyPros is skeptical as well:

“The glass-half-full approach is that Jeffery took the best guaranteed deal he could get and bet on himself to get a bigger contract next off-season, but if his numbers say anything, it’s that he was never deserving of No. 1 wide receiver money. I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, Jeffery is a solid receiver, but he isn’t the player you might think he is. He should be taken right around the No. 18-20 receiver spot in fantasy drafts.”

While our Matt Waldman is cautiously optimistic:

“Jeffery is a good match for Carson Wentz because the second-year quarterback has inconsistent accuracy as a deep thrower. Jeffery won’t completely mitigate the problem, but he will help turn less-than-pinpoint passes into positive plays. The downside of Jeffery is his difficulty staying healthy… He’s another boom-bust option in the top half of drafts.”