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Spotlight: Greg Little

posted by Dave Larkin on Jul 15th


Dave Larkin's thoughts

Greg Little's rookie season was much maligned by some for the catches he didn't make - the drops. In truth, a 61-reception rookie year is, by most wide receiver standards, respectable. The talented former North Carolina Tar Heel had to endure his rookie season without a full offseason and was only a few months removed from a torn ACL. Not to mention the fact that he didn't play a down in 2010 due to an NCAA suspension. That doesn't sound like a recipe for success, but despite the tumultuous rookie year are better things on the horizon in 2012 for Greg Little?

New Quarterback, New Opportunity

A common refrain last season among defensive coordinators was how predictable and easily defended the Browns offense truly was. It was so simple, in fact, that defenses began to cheat their safeties up towards the line of scrimmage and dare Colt McCoy and his receiving options to beat them over the top.

More often than not, McCoy - and indeed the Browns' skill players - could not answer the bell. Good offenses with skilled quarterbacks make adjustments to counter-act the over-aggressiveness of the opponent; the Browns, in their simplicity, could not do that. That, as well as a distinct increase in the temperature of one Mike Holmgren's seat, forced the Browns' hand in the NFL Draft. They selected quarterback Brandon Weeden, a player who took Oklahoma State to the brink of a national championship in college.

What does this mean for Greg Little?

Colt McCoy has been unseated as the starter; it is now Weeden's job to lose. Weeden will bring more vertical stretch to the Browns' offense and will allow more opportunities for Little, who has shown his downfield speed on occasion in his rookie year. Moreover, Little will provide a more reliable target on the short to intermediate routes that Weeden is so comfortable going to, and as long as he can clear up his concentration lapses and avoid drops, his prospects look promising on paper.

An Analysis of Little's game

Greg Little is most comfortable playing the 'Z' receiver, the possession role. One of the pre-eminent draft experts Russ Lande had this to say about Little leading up to the 2011 NFL Draft:

"Little has all the talent to become a productive starting receiver who makes a lot of big catches and flashes the ability to make big plays running after the catch, but he will always struggle to stretch the field to make big plays deep."

- Russ Lande, former NFL scout

When I viewed a few of Little's games in 2011, what jumped out was his suddenness in and out of his breaks on the short patterns. He may lack elite explosiveness out of his cuts, but he has more than enough disguise and mystery built in to his route-running to be encouraged about his ability to take this up a notch in 2012.

The overarching point here is that Little has the potential to be a dynamic, run-after-catch receiving option. With a more accurate and confident quarterback under center, there is no reason why Little cannot flourish in this role and be an Anquan Boldin-light for the Browns.

Lack of Competition at WR

Trawl through the depth chart and you will find a lack of legitimate talent at the wide receiver position in Cleveland. Joshua Cribbs is one of the most exciting return men in the league and is a terror with the ball in his hands in open space, but his overall ability as a receiver has not been fully tapped into by the organisation. Mohamed Massaquoi has never lived up to his talent, failing to top 36 receptions in any of his three seasons. Although the word on second-year athletic tight end Jordan Cameron is good, there is no guarantee that he can make as huge a leap as the likes of Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski made from year one to year two. That leaves Little as the best option at wide receiver in this offense, hands down. Both he and Weeden will learn to rely on one another, or this offense will sputter.

UPDATE: The Browns coughed up a future second round choice in the 2013 NFL Draft to select former Baylor wide receiver Josh Gordon. The six-foot-three, 224 pound prospect hasn't participated in game action since 2010, a season in which he caught 42 passes for 714 yards and seven touchdowns.

Gordon projects to be an immediate contributor and could be exactly what the offense needs to stretch the field, complementing Greg Little's production on shorter patterns. However, Gordon is still raw, and will probably struggle as most rookies do.

The Trent Richardson factor

Recent reports have expounded on the already abundant truth that this year's version of the Cleveland Browns will be a run first, run second and possibly run third offense. This does not bode well for Greg Little's prospects, one would surmise. Former Alabama running back and third selection overall by the Browns, Trent Richardson, will be the centrepiece of the attack. Richardson is a potential once in a decade type of talent at the position - and the Browns will feed him the rock. While the Browns may wish to control the clock, thereby limiting the opponent's possessions and shortening the football game, that may not be the most realistic endeavour.

The development of chemistry between a rookie quarterback, a rookie running back and the rest of the offense will take time, and the Browns have a very difficult schedule including the NFC East and AFC West. The upshot of this tough schedule is that the offense will be playing from behind and will be forced to go through the air, increasing opportunities for Greg Little. The Trent Richardson factor could be greater than we anticipate at this stage; the Browns offense could conceivably turn out completely and become a punishing ground game that knocks the stuffing out of defenses. And it could be a bumbling mess in the early going, only to gracefully dovetail into the semblance of a potential future juggernaut.

My bet is that the Browns will be forced to grow up quickly in 2012 - and that growth will be channelled through the Weeden-Little connection. A sizzling sophomore season is the upside for Greg Little.

Positives

  • Infinitely more dynamic at the quarterback position, the Browns will be far less predictable offensively. If the play-calling under Brad Childress can maximise Brandon Weeden's strengths, Greg Little could be the primary benefactor.
  • The void of talent at the receiver position apart from Little will dictate more targets for the former Tar Heel, who excels in the intermediate range of the field. The recent addition of Josh Gordon in the supplemental draft will help Little in the long run.
  • Little has had sufficient time to get his football legs under him and, after a full offseason, should be fully back in football shape and more in tune with what it takes to be a professional.

Negatives

  • The Browns' offense has failed to produce a wide receiver of any quality since Braylon Edwards' 1,000 yard season in 2007 and has become known as something the equivalent of a fantasy wasteland for receivers.
  • Little, despite his value as a short- to intermediate target, has little big play upside and will need accurate passes and run-after-catch touchdowns to produce 50+ yard plays.
  • The Browns' innately conservative offense under Brad Childress could skew the rushing attempts upward, leaving Little with fewer targets thrown his way.

Final thoughts

The Browns' offense has many question marks surrounding it, but Greg Little is one of the bright spots. Little can excel at the 'Z' receiver with Weeden under center, thriving on routes in the 5-20 yard range. With the right work ethic, Little could end the season as a viable low-end WR2, limited only by the growing pains of this offense.


Quotations from the message board thread

To view the entire Player Spotlight thread (there's a ton of fantastic commentary in there), click here.

Just Win Baby said:

According to ProFootballFocus, there were 115 WRs who played at least 25% of their teams' offensive snaps last year. Among those WRs, PFF rated Little as follows:

#114 overall, the second worst WR, ahead of only Legedu Naanee.
#115 receiving, the absolute worst.
Tied for #91 in blocking.

Combine that with his past character/off field issues and his lack of experience at WR, which puts him behind at his own position, and I'm really not getting all the positive hype.

Some people seem to think that the fact that he didn't play WR much in college is somehow a positive. I don't think there are many examples of guys who didn't play much WR prior to the NFL becoming top NFL WRs. Why are people convinced Little will be an exception?

Some people seem to believe the passing game will be much improved over last year. It seems more likely the running game will be improved, which should lead to fewer passing attempts. But what really matters is how much they will improve on their 3090 passing yards and 16 passing TDs last season. My guess is they won't improve much. In which case, I don't see too much improvement in Little's performance.

Last year, Little had 61/709/2 receiving on 120 targets. I expect his targets to be relatively similar and his catch percentage and yards per reception to go up a bit. I doubt the passing TDs will change much; it's much more likely that any additional TDs will go to Richardson.

sspunisher said:

Little pretty much only played WR for one year in college but he played it successfully and showed great flashes. And he wasn't a DB or QB. He was a RB, that's a huge difference. No matter what anyone says, Little's 2011 season was a success, regardless of the circumstances. He's shown more in his rookie year than Hester and Randle El have in their entire careers. I'm going to stop comparing them b/c it doesn't do Little justice.

Just to keep things simple:

McCoy's Yards Per Attempt: 5.9 Per Attempt. Only Blaine Gabbert was worse.
McCoy's completion percentage: 57.2% (Bottom 5 in the league)
14 TDs and 11 INTs.

Weeden's Yards Per attempt WILL be higher. That's the only assumption I'm making and it's a fair assumption to make considering the gap between his arm and McCoy's arm is absolutely huge. Other than that, even if Weeden throws for the worst completion percentage in the entire league next year (somewhere around 55%), he'll still make Little more fantasy relevant than McCoy did last year.

NJ said:

I've seen these PFF "ratings" posted several times now with regards to Greg Little and I have to question exactly how relevant these stats are to predicting future fantasy stats. I mean first off, I'm somewhat puzzled as to how they actually do their ratings, its seems that they actually watch every play and rate each game individually and total them up for the season and they admit there is some subjectivity to doing it that way. Because from a stats perspective, I see clear inconsistencies in their week to week ratings of players. For instance, Little's best game was week 15 when he had 5-131 including a 76 yard TD. If I look at a comparable game for Calvin Johnson, week 5 he had 5-130 including a 73 yard TD, yet the PFF rating for Calvin in that game was over 3 times higher than Greg Little's rating for an almost identical fantasy stat line. No doubt due to the fact that Little had 3 more targets than Calvin did so Calvin had the better catch% but a rating over 3x greater for almost identical stats seems a little off to me, if not downright useless from a fantasy perspective.

Most people are already aware of Little's drops and low catch% last season and feel it was due to both poor play from McCoy and a lack of concentration/focus on Little's part and that he should improve in that area this year, if PFF is using catch% as one of the main indicators when coming up with their "rating" then of course Greg Little is going to be one of the worst as he had the most drops in the league last year, but like TDs, drops are extremely hard to predict season to season, if you look at PFFs "Drop %" stats there are many guys that go from bottom 10 in the league to top 10 year to year without explanation, I think Greg Little is likely to improve significantly in this PFF rating if he gets rid of the "dropsies" and if Weeden is even slightly more accurate than McCoy was.

Even more evidence that they use catch % heavily in their ratings is just taking a look at Jordy Nelson, Nelson was amongst the bottom 10 in the NFL in 2010 with 11 drops out of 77 "catchable" balls thrown his way and like Little he had a low TD per catch ratio as they both only caught 2 TDs thus Nelson's 2010 PFF "rating" that year had him ranked in the 60s, in 2011 Nelson only dropped 2 passes and he jumps to number 4 in their "ratings", if you were following their ratings in 2010 you would have clearly missed out on Nelson's 2011 breakout season because of his drops the year before.

Also, because Little only had 2 TDs last year I see people projecting him for ~75 catches and only like 3 TDs which is just off IMHO. TDs are one of the hardest predictors year to year and can fluctuate greatly and people seem to over-react greatly in this area every year. As already pointed out Jordy Nelson only gets 2 TDs in 2010 so everyone projects him for that in 2011 and he gets 15 and now everyone projects him for double digit TDs again this year. Just look at a guy like Bowe, he averages 5-7/year his whole career, then blows up for 15 last season, everyone projects double digits again and he only gets 5, now I see some FBG staffers projecting him for 4 this year? It's just a crazy over-reaction to one years worth of stats.

I looked up every WR that had 75+ catches over the last 10 years in the NFL and only about 10% had less than 5 TDs so I think that's a fairly good indicator of how many TDs you can expect a guy to get on average based on the number of catches you project, just based on past history I don't see why anyone would project a guy to catch 70-75 passes and only 3 TDs? I think if he catches 75 balls he gets 5-6 TDs easily with an outside shot to get a few more than that.

karmarooster said:

Rather than arguing semantics, here are my thoughts.

Hester played CB and PR/KR in college. Nanee and Randle El played QB in college. Little played RB.... you know who else did? Percy Harvin. Although he's smaller, Harvin has some similar power in his lower body.

Rookie year for Harvin was somewhat similar to Little last year, albeit with a much higher catch rate. (For reference, Harvin's career catch rate is 68%; as a rookie it was 65%).

As a rookie Harvin posted 60 for 790 and 6 TDs. He's improved every year and was awesome last year, but had a great boost from his rushing stats. I doubt Little will see anything close in terms of rushing attempts, but there are other similarites. Harvin played last year with a strong-armed rookie QB, a superstar RB, and not much else on offense. Sound familiar?

As such, something along the line of Harvin's 2nd or 3rd year receiving stats are within reason. I expect Little to improve his catch rate - everything was against him last year (the lockout, the position switch, and the QB situation). Call it another 120 targets with a 55-60% catch rate and that's 65-72 receptions, with a slightly higher YPC of 13 and that's 845 to 936 yards. IMO those are fairly cautious projections. The upside is something like 75-80 receptions for 1,000-1,000 yards.

Current ADP is at WR38, and that would justify the more cautious projections. If he hits his upside, he could be a solid WR2 at a discount WR3 price.


Greg Little projections

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