Josh Gordon Is a Value - Footballguys

Josh Gordon is regarded as one of the riskiest picks of 2018 fantasy drafts. Matt Waldman makes the case for Josh Gordon as a value in Gut Check No. 440.

Josh Gordon is a value. Even with an ADP higher than any production he's remotely delivered during the past five years, he's worth the risk.

With Todd Haley and Tyrod Taylor running the Cleveland Browns, Josh Gordon will be no worse than a top-20 fantasy receiver in PPR leagues if he starts 16 games. Fantasy owners believe it — Gordon's average draft position tells the story — but many fantasy analysts don't. 

Gordon is one of the most polarizing players among the Footballguys staff. After this article, my buddy Jason Wood will be swearing a blood oath to protect Footballguys subscribers from what he believes is a reckless take and tell them to run as far from it as possible. 

Especially when he learns that yours truly believes that a mentally and physically healthy Josh Gordon will be a top-5 PPR option if Tyrod Taylor performs to the level he did with Sammy Watkins in 2015 — and that's far less of a stretch than critics of Taylor characterize. 

This analysis is for fantasy owners with at least a moderate amount of risk-friendly behavior who have figured out a draft strategy where Gordon will be one of their targeted high-risk options. There's no doubt that Gordon is a high-risk option even if fantasy owners are taking him as a top-50 pick. 

Gordon's addiction is the only argument you need as a naysayer. One of the best things that addicts do is relapse. When looking at the aggregate, chances are high that Gordon will again.

According to an eight-year study of nearly 1200 addicts where according to Psychology Today, "They were able to follow up on over 94 percent of the study participants..." Gordon fits the basic profile of an addict who still has a strong chance of relapse: 

  • Only about a third of people who are abstinent less than a year will remain abstinent. 
  • For those who achieve a year of sobriety, less than half will relapse (Gordon's status). 
  • If an addict can reach 5 years of sobriety, his chance of relapse is less than 15 percent. 

It's more than enough to scare anyone off Gordon as a top-50 fantasy pick. However, there are compelling reasons to take issue with those who pile onto this analysis with skepticism about Gordon, Taylor, and the Browns offense.   

If Gordon doesn't relapse, the individual and collective pieces of the Browns offense provide a context where Gordon's average draft position is the winning side of the argument — and will likely be seen as a value pick when we look back at 2018.  

the Browns offensive line is better than advertised

Offensive line evaluation one of the muddiest endeavors in football analysis. Even so, there are situations where the context of how the game works can enhance or invalidate the data.

The Browns gave up 3.1 sacks per game in 2017 — among the worst in the league — and it isn't a one-year anomaly. Cleveland had the league's worst sack rate in 2016 and the third-worst in 2015. 

A vital factor contributing to all three years worth of these putrid sack rates has been quarterback and receiver play. Quarterback drops and receiver routes are linked and have specific timing. 

Broadcast analysts refer to a quarterback's internal clock for gauging pressure. It's an idea rooted in the basic timing of route progressions. Most play designs want the quarterback to get rid of the ball or run three seconds after the snap. 

Here's the timing that coaches teach developing quarterbacks in the passing game. The amount of time listed next to each act is the expected amount of time lapsed from the snap. These times are the points where the quarterback should be releasing the ball, moving the next route, or taking action to earn yards on his own or throw the ball away. 

  • Five-step drops from center or three-step drops from shotgun: 1.8 seconds. 
  • A hitch after the first read during the drop to turn to the second read in the route progression: 2.2 seconds.
  • A hitch after the second read in the route progression to locate the third read: 2.6 seconds. 
If the ball isn't out of the quarterback's hand after three seconds, coaches encourage quarterbacks to seek an opening outside the pocket so they can buy time for receivers to work to open grass, tuck the ball an run, or throw the ball away. This is true for all levels of football. 
 

The longer a quarterback remains in the pocket, the more likely that the defense wins the play. When a quarterback and his receiving corps are young, lack rapport due to frequent changes with personnel, and lack proven skill reading defenses, the quarterback spends too much time in the pocket with the ball in his hand and it leads to bad outcomes. 

No matter how skilled the offensive line is, if it's playing with a young and/or less skilled quarterback who holds onto the ball too long in the pocket — and lacks the skill to extend time outside of the pocket — the line will be blamed for a lot of sacks that were the fault of the quarterback and his receiving corps.

When taking a second look at the Browns' sack rates between 2015-17, quarterback and receiver play factored greatly. Cleveland did not have a quality veteran quarterback start more than five games during this span. Robert Griffin's nine games in 2016 don't apply, because he never developed into a quality veteran after the debacle in Washington.  

The last time Cleveland had a veteran player at least 14 games was Brian Hoyer during the 2014 — and the Browns 1.9 sacks per game was tied for fifth-lowest in the league. In 2014, Cleveland's receiving corps feature veteran options with proven experience as route runners and readers of defenses, including Miles Austin, Travis Benjamin, and Andrew Hopkins, and it's two most talented options were Taylor Gabriel and Gordon. Gabriel was second on the team in yardage and Gordon only played five games. 

In 2015, the Browns' receiving corps was a mishmash of inexperienced players and limited (or troubled) veterans who shouldn't have been relied upon as primary receivers. Travis Benjamin was the team's most productive receiver and veteran reserves like Hawkins and Brian Hartline had to earn significant playing time. 

In 2016, Cleveland's corps was almost as young and raw as its 2017 quarterback depth chart. Other than Hawkins, the rest of the depth chart was rookies or first-year starters at the position: Terrelle Pryor, Corey Coleman, Ricardo Louis, Rashard Higgins, and Jordan Payton. There was not a single veteran starter of note on the roster.

This is a travesty of team management. Although fans think coaches develop players in the NFL, it's rarely the case. Most coaches are there to help players learn the scheme and perform in the system. Cowboys receiver Cole Beasley tweeted this spring that position coach Sanjay Lal was the first NFL coach he's seen in Dallas actually teach the fine points of route running. Before Lal, Beasley said that Cowboys receivers learned on athletic skill or a mishmash of whatever technique they brought from the college game. 

Top college prospects are more athletes than refined players. Talk to enough people in the NFL, and it becomes clear that veterans do the bulk of teaching when it comes to the techniques that help pro athletes become pro players. 

The inexperienced skill players in the passing game did as much to hurt the Browns offensive line as the line did in its own right. This year, the Browns have skill players capable of reducing the amount of time that the ball remains in the pocket. 

Tyrod Taylor: Debunking the myth

Taylor and the Browns offensive line are an excellent match in terms of storylines because bad receiver play has hurt the reputation from each entity. The general view of Taylor is that, as a quarterback, he's on the low-end of the spectrum of NFL starters. When the purview is fantasy and boxscore production, this has been true. 

However, there are common myths about Taylor that are too simplistic and don't account for the dynamic nature of football that limit our view of the statistical potential of the player and his surrounding talent. For Taylor, these myths include a lack of field vision, not seeing the middle of the field fast enough, and a run-first mentality. 

Kyle Posey debunked these myths about Taylor at the Rookie Scouting Portfolio in 2016:

I’m not here to make it seem like Taylor is without flaws. He certainly is not. He can be much more patient in the pocket.

His mechanics can get out of whack affecting his accuracy. He can be more consistent all around. Does Tyrod miss throws? Like every other quarterback, of course. However, saying he hasn’t developed field vision simply isn’t true.

You have to understand what an offense asks it’s quarterback to do before you can evaluate the player. Buffalo’s passing offense is reliant on play-action, specifically rolling Taylor to give him a run option, deep shots down the field, isolation routes outside of the numbers, and quick swing passes or stick routes to the tight end to get it out of his hands quickly.

This offense doesn’t routinely lean on him to scan the field. Before week 16, Taylor has only attempted 24 passes over the intermediate part of the field per Pro Football Focus.

RSP Publisher Matt Waldman asked if I had any good examples of Taylor throwing over the middle of the field. It would be the best way to debunk this criticism and it was a good question.  

Throwing between the hashes usually requires your quarterback to make one additional read. It requires a variety of skills such as waiting for a receiver to clear the linebacker to make the throw or holding a safety with his eyes so he can go to the opposite seam. Sometimes it's awareness of where the routes are supposed to break and the ability to locate the open space after maneuvering from pressure. Here are five throws showing Taylor’s ability to survey the field in different aspects that involve vision, knowledge, and poise.

This analysis offers several examples of Taylor doing things that lazy analysis claims he can't:

  • Reading multiple levels of the defense with patience. 
  • Relocating receivers downfield after avoiding heavy pressure. 
  • Pre-Snap/Post-Snap field reads that accurately spots illusions defenses try to present. 
  • Quick decisions in compressed areas of the field. 
  • Playing with a throw-first mentality. 
  • Reading the entire field.

The 2015 season was Taylor's best year in Buffalo, earning over 3,600 total yards, 24 total touchdowns, and 6 interceptions. It was also the one year where Taylor had healthy starter-caliber talent:

  • Sammy Watkins: 13 games, 96 targets, 60 catches, 1,047 yards, and 9 touchdowns. 
  • Robert Woods: 14 games, 80 targets, 47 catches, 552 yards, and 3 touchdowns.
  • Chris Hogan: 16 games, 59 targets, 36 catches, 450 yards, and 2 touchdowns. 
  • Charles Clay: 13 games, 77 targets, 51 catches, 528 yards, and 3 touchdowns.
All three starters were quality route runners and their roles complemented the offense. Woods and Hogan could play the slot and work downfield, which uncapped Watkins' potential in the deep game. 
 
In 2016, the receiving corps lacked the health and experience to develop a rapport with Taylor:
 
  • Watkins: 9 games, 52 targets, 28 receptions, 530 yards, and 2 touchdowns.
  • Woods: 13 games, 76 targets, 51 receptions, 613 yards, and 1 touchdown.
  • Hogan: Gone.
  • Marquise Goodwin: 16 games, 68 targets, 29 catches, 431 yards, and 3 touchdowns.
  • Charles Clay: 16 games, 87 targets, 57 receptions, 552 yards, and 4 touchdowns. 
The only starter who built on his 2015 season was Clay — and not by much. The 2016 season was Goodwin's first year of extensive playing time. Woods' production took a slight decline, and Watkins couldn't stay healthy and his production was a fraction of his 2015 totals. 
 
Despite these changes, Taylor's production in 15 games nearly matched his 2016 total — still earning 3,600 total yards, 23 total touchdowns, and only 6 interceptions. On a per-game-production basis, Taylor's totals were better in 2016 despite turnover with the receiver depth chart.
 
The downfall of Taylor had more to do with the new coaching staff in Buffalo than Taylor. SB Nation and Football Outsiders writer, Charles McDonald provides details at the 18-minute mark of this week's episode of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio Podcast where he recapped his presentation on film and stats at MIT's Sloan Sports Analytics Conference:
 
I spent a good chunk of time talking about the Bills' offensive drop-off from 2016-17. In 2016, in terms of points per play, they were top-10 even though their passing offense wasn't great. They had such a diverse and explosive running attack under [Chargers head coach] Anthony Lynn.
 
They were able to run one of the best offenses in the league without being able to throw the ball [as effectively and consistently as other top units]. It was a straight-up triple option attack and they were killing people because it's hard to defend and these are [successful] concepts that we're seeing in college that are being implemented in the NFL. 
 
It was so bizarre when that coaching staff got cleared out...based off 2016 film and 2016 numbers, you have something that you do really well, which is run the ball with a diverse option attack and have defenses on their heels for the entire game [with your rushing attack]. But when this new coaching staff came in, they pretty much scrapped all of that and made it a very bland, under center running game with maybe a couple [of] option [plays]  here and there, and their offense plummetted off a cliff in terms of stats. 
 
When people say Tyrod Taylor is the reason why the Bills' offense was so bad last year, it was good in 2016 and he played a big part in that. They had the best rush offense in football by a considerable [margin]...why would you stop doing all of that?  
The Bills were among the worst in 2017 in running-back stuffs, but the year before, Buffalo's use of Taylor as a runner and passer on option plays and play-action rolls to threaten the edge. This placed opponents at an inherent numbers disadvantage on a lot of alignments where against other teams, they'd be even with the offense or even have a numbers advantage.
 
Another thing that hurt Taylor in 2017 but wasn't his responsibility, was the receiving corps. They may not have dropped a high volume of receptions relative to the league, but that's because Buffalo's attempt totals were among the lowest in the league. This collection of inexperienced and transient options drops per attempt was the second-worst rate among playoff teams and among the worst in the league overall. 
 
Taylor is unlikely a fantasy QB1 in starting lineups for 12-team leagues in 2018. However, his play will elevate the output of the Browns' offense.
 
He takes care of the football, buys time outside the pocket and earns a lot of yardage with his legs. These skills will instantly make the Browns offense more efficient, increase its time of possession, and generate more big plays 
 
In the NFL, an explosive play is a 12-yard run or a 16-yard pass. Based on the research of Packers' former head of research and development, Mike Eayrs, explosive plays are the key to sustained drives and scoring points: 
 
  • Teams executing an average NFL drive of 6-6.5 plays without an explosive play scored a touchdown 0 percent of the time and a field goal 9 percent of the time. 
  • When teams executing an average NFL drive with one explosive play included, they scored a touchdown 29 percent of the time and a field goal 20 percent of the time — a 40 percent gain in scoring probability. 
  • When teams earned two explosive plays they scored a touchdown 52 percent of the time and a field goal 25 percent of the time — a 77 percent scoring probability. 
Taylor has learned no less than 5 yards per attempt as a runner as an NFL starter. He earned 14 explosive runs in 2015; 18 in 2016; and 12 in the bland offense of 2017. While Kizer earned 5.4 yards per rush 12 explosive runs as a rookie, he also threw 22 interceptions — nearly 4 times Taylor's season average as a starter. 
 
Kizer also lacked a veteran receiving corps and proven offensive coordinator. This year is different.  
 

Jarvis Landry and Todd Haley

Fantasy owners look at Landry and only see a high-volume, low-efficiency yardage producer from the slot. He's a reliable security blanket for them. Football fans appreciate his hard-nosed physical play as a runner and blocker. 

Landry rarely offers big-play excitement, but the Browns haven't had a quarterback-receiver combination in the middle of the field that can create on- and off-script with the skill of Landry and Taylor. In addition to the short passes against mismatches set up by pre-snap motion that is little more than a glorified a running play, Landry specializes in reading the middle of the field and making quick adjustments with his quarterback. 

This is vital for Taylor, whose athletic ability to prolong plays outside the pocket and find open passing lanes is uncommon. Finding open creases on- and off-script will keep drives alive and put shallow an intermediate defenders into coverage binds that will open the field for Landry's teammates —  namely Gordon, who is a terror in the open field on intermediate crossing routes that will often work behind the slot receiver.

Haley is known for crafting balanced offenses that can score. While it was a chore for him in Kansas City compared to his work in Arizona and Pittsburgh, Haley lacked a quality starting quarterback, and he eventually pushed the Chiefs offense to the upper half of the league. 

Haley also has a track record for working with difficult players and getting the most from them. Haley coaxed a career-year from perennial underachiever Dwayne Bowe during his first season as head coach. Bowe, earned 2,117 yards and 12 touchdowns during his first two seasons in the league before faltering the year before Haley took over the role. 

Bowe credited Haley for challenging him to get in shape and play to his ability. Bowe responded with 72 catches, 1,162 yards, and 15 touchdowns. He followed it up with 81 catches, 1,159 yards, and 5 scores during Haley's final year. 

The Steelers brought Haley to Pittsburgh to prolong Ben Roethlisberger's career. Although a contentious relationship, Roethlisberger gradually, if not begrudgingly, accepted Haley's changes, produced more from the pocket, and piloted an explosive and balanced offense. 

Haley isn't afraid of confrontation. If you've ever worked with someone in a high-pressure environment where an argument with them can end in a screaming match that could horrify anyone within earshot, but you're having beers after the shift like nothing happened because the issue was solely about work, then you understand Haley.  

Look for Haley to get the best from Taylor and even if Taylor's best isn't much more than what we've already seen in Buffalo, it will be an upgrade to Kizer as a vertical passer.

Projecting the Taylor-to-Gordon upgrade

Gordon caught 42 percent of the passes that Kizer targeted in Gordon's direction last year. It's a low figure and it's convenient to excuse the lack of production because Kizer was a rookie and Gordon was coming off a long layoff. However, the tape reveals that Gordon's play was not the issue. 

As long as Gordon doesn't relapse, he should be even better. This is why the argument that Gordon hasn't done anything significant on the field for five years has no validity. You can cite the history of players who've had shorter layoffs or concoct a data-based argument, but any correlation found won't constitute an argument for causation. There are too many variables at play to accept that kind of argument. 

It's best to look at Gordon's performances — including many of them in which he was playing drunk or high. We love to label great athletes as "freaks," but that's bestowed way too often. Meant strictly as a back-handed compliment, the fact the Gordon could dominate top cornerbacks with career backups throwing to him while playing drunk or high is almost on the level of Doc Ellis throwing a no-hitter on LSD. 

When Gordon returned to the field sober, he still played like an elite receiver. The addition of Taylor will be huge for Gordon despite Taylor lacking elite accuracy. 

What Taylor brings to Cleveland is a productive track record as a vertical passer based on the volume of opportunities that he earns. Taylor poses enough of a threat on the ground that it creates easier play-action opportunities that either get Taylor outside the pocket or generate a man-coverage look for Taylor's primary receiver.

Despite the fact that Taylor began his starting career in Buffalo and was working with second-year receiver Sammy Watkins, Taylor's vertical connection with Watkins was markedly better than Kizer-to-Gordon.  

In 2015, Watkins caught 62 percent of his targets from Taylor and 54 percent during an injury-riddled 2016. We're going to use this information to create a range of outcomes for Gordon. However, if you're seeking a more statistically-rigorous method, Adam Harstad's article on projecting Gordon is the place to go. 

Returning to the path ahead, Gordon earned 43 targets, 18 receptions, 335 yards, and a touchdown in 5 games last year. Extrapolating the performance to a 16-game season the totals are 138 targets, 58 catches, 1,072 yards, and 3 scores. Those totals would have placed him 25th among PPR options last year — 5 fantasy points below Dez Bryant and 5 points above Cooper Kupp

With the more experienced and successful Taylor replacing the raw Kizer, let's use the range of catch rates to adjust Gordon's 2017 performance and extrapolate that date to a full season. 

Using Watkins' 2016 catch rate of 54 percent as the low range of potential outcomes and applying it to Gordon's targets and yards per catch during those 5 games, an adjusted Taylor-to-Gordon total is 43 targets, 23 catches, 356 yards and 2 touchdowns. Extrapolate those totals to a full season and Gordon's adjusted totals with Taylor are 138 targets, 74 catches, 1,138 yards, and 5 touchdowns — 217.8 fantasy points in PPR that would have made Gordon the No. 16 receiver. 

If we use Watkins' 62 percent catch rate of Taylor's targets in 2015 as the variable, the adjusted totals are 43 targets, 27 catches, 481 yards, and 4 scores. Extrapolate those totals to a full season with Taylor, and Gordon has 138 targets, 86 catches, 1,539 yards, and 13 touchdowns — 317.9 fantasy points in PPR that would have made Gordon the No. 1 receiver. 

Kizer-to-Gordon vs. Taylor-to-Gordon Extrapolated to 16 Games

QB-WR Combo (Catch Rate) Targets Rec Yds Tds PPR Fpts 2017 Rank
Kizer-to-Gordon (41.8%) 138 58 1072 3 183 25th
Taylor-to-Gordon (53.8%) 138 74 1138 5 217.8 16th
Taylor-to-Gordon (62.5%) 138 86 1539 13 317.9 1st

Gordon's career average catch rate is 52 percent, which is what Harstad used to estimate Gordon's totals. However, that rate was working with rookie quarterbacks, Brian Hoyer and Jason Campbell. A higher expectation should be afforded to Taylor. 

Although Harstad considers the addition of Landry as competition for targets, the addition should be seen as an enhancement to production and production efficiencies if applying the context that they have different roles that complement each other. Landry's presence creates binds for zone coverage — do they drop to the prescribed depth or cheat to get a hat on Landry early? Eventually, they cheat and Gordon earns single coverage or open space behind them across the middle. 

The quarterback's manipulation of safeties and linebackers becomes easier to sell because there are two proven threats the opponent must contain and they're often too much of a mismatch to play straight-up with one defender. This duo will also create easier opportunities for Corey Coleman, David Njoku, and Antonio Callaway in the same way that Marvin Jones Jr and Golden Tate allowed Detroit to put Kenny Golladay in the slot and let him run simple routes against physically overmatched defenders for big gains. 

Drafting (and Missing with) Gordon isn't apocalyptic

Gordon's pre-training camp ADP of 40 as the 18th receiver off the board is polarizing for analysts who lean heavily on data. If judging Gordon heavily on the precision of his technique and athletic ability that he displayed last year, the ADP is correct — and even accounts for a relapse. 

If Gordon's ADP remains stable, and he falls to that 40th spot, he'll be available to those with picks 9-12 in a 12-team league near the 9-12 spots of the late-third and early-fourth round. These are the potential options fantasy owners can pair with Gordon or take instead of Gordon (players in bold type are recommended options; italicized players offer risk but get the benefit of the doubt): 

Unless you're in a superflex format or quarterback scoring favors early-round passers, you can wait until at least the ninth round to pick your first passer. Although Allen Robinson and Alshon Jeffery have talent, neither are in an offense where expectations should be as high as Gordon. Jeffery finally played a full season and was the No. 23 option among PPR receivers.
 
Considering that Sammy Watkins, Michael Crabtree, Robert Woods, and Emmanuel Sanders are among the proven options available 2-3 rounds later, getting a rehabbing Robinson paired with a second-year quarterback in a new offense also seems costly by comparison. It means the only receivers that are worth considering ahead of Gordon are big-play or high-volume options who already have an established rapport with their system and quarterback: Tate and Jones. 
 
Diggs gets the benefit of the doubt with Kirk Cousins because Cousins has a good track record with slot receivers like Jamison Crowder. Even so, if you've drafted running backs with your first two picks, there are still valuable receivers on the board. These are potential starting lineups you can build if you take Gordon:  
 
  • Gordon-Jones-Watkins
  • Gordon-Tate-Woods
  • Gordon-Jones-Crabtree
  • Gordon-Tate-Sanders
If you nab Gordon early in the third round, that also looks appealing because you probably took one of Le'Veon Bell, Ezekiel Elliott, David Johnson, or Todd Gurley in the first round. You could target A.J. Green or Doug Baldwin in the second round, take Josh Gordon in the third and still have a shot at Derrius Guice, Royce Freeman, Sony Michel, Mark Ingram II, or Dion Lewis.
 
This route would still give you a strong chance of landing Gordon-Jones-Watkins, Gordon-Jones, Sanders, or Gordon-Jones-Woods to pair with the likes of Green and Baldwin. That's high-upside lineup with consistent producers and a potential league-winner.
 
When considering the value of the surrounding talent in a draft, the price of taking a shot at Gordon near his ADP and failing doesn't match the doom and gloom that Gordon naysayers bemoan. He doesn't dictate the shape of your opening strategy nearly as much as if he were a top-24 pick.
 
There's too much upside to ignore. Gordon remains an excellent player on the field and the data cannot capture it due to sample size and history. Therefore, the default conclusion is to downgrade him without considering the on-field context of his play. 
 
The Browns' upgrade at quarterback and slot receiver will facilitate quicker decisions so the line isn't expected to do more than any line should. This pairing will also limit mistakes and keep drives alive. 
 

Gordon's addiction is the only compelling issue not to draft him. The rest is a bemoaning of past history despite the fact that the most important variables changed. It's why he's an unlikely value.