Reception Perception: Understanding Jordan Matthews' Painfully Slow Start

Matt Harmon looks at the disappointing Jordan Matthews under the Reception Perception microscope and finds some intersting results.

Outside of Odell Beckham and Mike Evans, there weren’t many sophomore wide receivers the fantasy community was more excited about than Jordan Matthews. He was neck and neck with Brandin Cooks for the third second-year receiver off the board in fantasy leagues, and almost always drafted inside the top 15 of the position.

So far, no one is pleased with what Matthews brought to the table in 2015. With only 398 yards and one score in seven games, in addition to a reel full of Football Follies level drops and miscues, Matthews is one of the most disappointing players of the season’s first half. We know the offense hasn’t done him any favors, but Matthews certainly must shoulder some of the blame.

Reception Perception painted Matthews’ 2015 outlook as a positive one. It showed he had a specific role, but had the necessary skills to thrive in that. Given what we’ve seen this year, it’s time to put Matthews back under the Reception Perception lens, and re-contextualize his outlook. To do so, we’ll look at his games against Dallas, New Orleans and Carolina this year. All provide a different level of statistical output, and strength of matchups.

Alignment Data

Before we proceed, we need to get one thing out of the way. Yes, Jordan Matthews is 6’3, weighs over 210 pounds and blazed a 4.46 at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine. His college production, and physical measurements put him in rarified air. Per Mockdraftable.com, his athletic measurables make him comparable to Larry Fitzgerald and Demaryius Thomas.

Now, just toss all that information out of the window.

Reception Perception is about quantifying what a player does on the field, regardless what type of receiver they profile as. With those variables out of mind, we can get a better picture of what is going on with Jordan Matthews.

We hit on this in Matthews’ rookie year Reception Perception analysis, but it bears repeating. The Eagles identify Matthews as a big slot receiver, and he’s only tasked with executing plays from the inside. Over the three games sampled here, he took 92.4 percent of his snaps from the slot, and was off the line of scrimmage for 87.7 percent of them. This is the exact same deployment method used for this player from last year; nothing changed.

Jordan Matthews was never going to replace Jeremy Maclin. Despite his status as a high draft pick, and a favorite of Chip Kelly, the team never planned for him to assume that outside field stretcher role. It was up to players like Josh Huff and Nelson Agholor to help fill that Maclin void, and neither has been up the task this season.

It is incredibly difficult to run your offense through a slot receiver, no matter how big or athletic they are. Look at Green Bay and Miami this season. The mighty Packers are the 28th ranked offense in the NFL, and only 13th in points scored, both flying well under their usual standards. While it hasn’t crippled the team, the unit doesn’t carry the same explosiveness or vigor with Randall Cobb instead of Jordy Nelson as the top threat. The Dolphins struggled to get off the blocks running their offense through Jarvis Landry. The team quickly turned around when the running game took more of a focus, but their passing offense still leaves much to be desired without an outside No. 1 receiver.

Both Cobb and Landry are excellent NFL players, but an offense is inherently limited when the passing game flows through players of their archetype. We also rarely see slot receivers post big numbers in fantasy in offense that arne’t highly functional. Landry’s numbers dipped when the Dolphins’ unit was in the tank, while players like Wes Welker, Cobb and Julian Edelman have all posted their big numbers while attached to great quarterbacks.

With the understanding that, despite not looking like these players, Jordan Matthews falls right into this archetype of receiver, we can better understand what’s gone wrong this year. Stop caring about what he profiles as. Trying to examine him through any lens other than just what he is does a disservice of expectations on him, and leads you off on the wrong investigative path.

Target Data

Involvement was one of the biggest selling points for this player coming into the season. While Jordan Matthews averages nine targets per game, that number is on the slight decline from early in the season. In two of the three games sampled here, he only had seven targets in each, his lowest mark of the season. On the flip side, the Eagles are gaining back a big of their offensive pace, ranking 14th in the NFL in plays run, despite living near the cellar to start the season.

Both realities influence Matthews’ low target per route rate of 19.3 percent. Many expected Matthews to push for the top 10 most targeted receivers in the NFL this season. In an offense that gets the ball out quick, deploying a quarterback who throws accurately when Matthews runs his routes, it seemed like an easy conclusion. He’s on pace for 144 targets this season, but the per route figure is unimpressive with the context of how often he’s on the field and running a pass route. Targets haven’t bee an big issue, but he hasn’t filled hopes of anyone who thought he’d be a complete target share hog like Julio Jones, DeAndre Hopkins or even an Allen Robinson.

Of course, let’s not bury the lead here. The drops are the one issue that stands out the most for Jordan Matthews right now. In these three games, he dropped a whopping 21.7 percent of his targets. The number is inexcusable, and untenable for an offense.

The cause for the drops is something of a mystery. Recent news implies there may be an undisclosed hand injury. Yet, you can also tell when watching him play, that the miscues are getting in his head. Ever since a pass clanked off his hands and into the arms of an Atlanta defender that ended their Week 1 loss, the mistakes just keep piling up for Matthews. That drop looked quite similar to a just as costly one he committed in college. Perhaps we’re seeing a demon reappear.

Whatever the cause, this is something that must get fixed for Matthews to meet his potential. Personally, I’m not someone that factors drops in as a knockout punch in my wide receiver evaluations. However, the drops must come with a steady dose of “trump card” plays that make living with the miscues worth it. Due to the nature of his game, Matthews doesn’t offer those to counter-balance the drops.

Success Rate Versus Coverage and Route Analysis

If you weren’t convinced by his snap data that Matthews plays nothing like his physical profile would lead you to believe, investigating his route running should help.

 

Of the 119 routes Matthews ran over this three game sample, 38.7 percent of them were slants. You probably don’t need telling that that is an astronomically high rate. He goes out on a slant more than double his next highest pattern, and more than four times as often as his third most run route.

Chip Kelly crafted this role for Matthews early on in the process of his rookie season, and that’s near all he’s asked to do. It sure worked in his rookie season. On the vast majority of his pass plays, Matthews just runs a simple drag or slant through the middle of the field. The idea is for Matthews to use his intelligence to find holes in zones, and after the catch skills to be an easy extension for the offense. While there is value in that role, the route percentage charts hits home just how often that is all he does.

For context, Jarvis Landry, whom the entire community knows mostly ran short drags and slants as a rookie, ran the slant on 34.1 percent of his charted routes from his 2014 Reception Perception sample. It boggles the mind of those who can’t view football players outside of what they see on a spreadsheet, but those two are essentially the same player from a tactical standpoint. Landry gets a slight advantage because he’s more reliable, and plays better in traffic. Matthews held a 33.3 percent contested catch conversion rate in this sample.

Even in his limited assignments, the Eagles second-year receiver just isn’t executing.

 

(SRVC denotes success rate versus coverage for each route. PTS indicates how many PPR fantasy points a receiver earned on each particular route)

As a fan of Matthews going back to his Vanderbilt days it pains me to say, but this is one of the ugliest multi-game SRVC charts in the history of Reception Perception. Every route falls below the charted NFL average SRVC score, and most of them don’t even come close.

On his most run route, the slant, Matthews managed a mere 56.5 percent SRVC score. Outside of the screen, receivers typically score the highest on slant routes. Running them so often, and finishing with such a poor mark is painfully disheartening for Matthews’ outlook. If the offense was functioning at a higher level, and threatened more teams deep, he’d have more room to operate and get open on these patterns. Yet, that is not the reality, and what this shows is that Matthews is simply too easy to defend.

Despite his size and speed, his vertical route scores are just dreadful. Between a 29.4 and 16.7 percent SRVC on nine and post routes, respectively, we see that this player just cannot get deep. If the Eagles and Sam Bradford ever want to incorporate down the field passing, they’ll need it to come through Nelson Agholor. Jordan Matthews just isn’t that guy.

We see clearly that Matthews’ issues go beyond the drops and the functionality of his offense. Scoring that poorly isn’t sole a by-product of your surrounding, it’s an indictment of a receiver’s own poor play.

(Red indicates the figure is below the NFL average, Green is above and Yellow is within one percentage point)

Much like on his route-by-route scores, these numbers are hard to look at. A 37.5 SRVC against man is horrific. While this look into Matthews’ 2015 is obviously not a full eight game sample size, the worst mark recorded by any receiver over the full 2014 charting was a 31 percent SRVC against man. The owner of that poor mark: Justin Hunter of the Tennessee Titans.

In conjunction with his SRVC against man, Matthews’ score against press coverage should put to bed once and for all any idea that he could succeed as an outside receiver. His SRVC against man as a rookie (59.8 percent) was below average, and hinted at this reality. Yet, his score against press coverage (85.7 percent) was in the upper 90th percentile, and gave some hope. Technique-wise in his second season, he’s regressed, and is far too easily jammed off the line.

His score against zone coverage last season (77.8 percent) showed that he could capitalize on the matchups given by his role in Kelly’s offense. His rate fell to 55.1 percent this year as the field keeps getting tighter under the Sam Bradford-led, Jeremy Maclin-less unit.

Going Forward

Of course, we’re not burying Matthews’ career on such short notice just because of his SRVC scores from early this season. However, it would be foolish to assume natural progression any longer, or continue to ignore the clear message of what archetype of receiver he falls along.

Reception Perception really helps clear up what’s gone wrong with Jordan Matthews so far this season. We can put his flaws into the light, and we now know without much doubt what he can and cannot do well. But what Reception Perception does not tell us is whether things get better from here or not.

Matthews can certainly get back to producing on stable level, even if he’s not the type of transcendent talent you can run an offense through. No one should be shocked if Matthews start playing well again, after scratching out the drops and getting out of his own head, but no one should naturally assume that happens.

Even if he does pick up his own individual play, whether he starts producing on a statistical level to what many hoped entering this season, will be up to his surroundings. As mentioned, there is just no one to stretch the field in the Eagles offense right now. The scariest player on that side of the ball is running back Ryan Mathews, and he’s (foolishly) used as a bit player only. If Matthews is to get on track in the stat sheet, oddly enough it doesn’t depend on his own play. He’ll either need Sam Bradford to start dealing at a Tom Brady like level, or for Nelson Agholor to accelerate in his development. The latter could certainly happen, and he’ll need to be the long-term answer as the top wide receiver in this passing game. However, Agholor assuming a bigger role and excelling in it ahead of his curve is far from a given.

Nine weeks into the NFL season, it’s hard to tell yourself a story where Jordan Matthews suddenly starts meeting our expectations. Too many things have to happen both within his own body of work, and with the surrounding players. However, Matthews’ 2015 has taught us a lot about him and the wide receiver position in general. We now have a better understand of what type of wide receiver Matthews is by studying his game closely. Additionally, we can remember in future instances to always dig beyond the box score and what a player looks like a paper. While measurables and athletic ability are important, if you can’t optimize them on the field, they shouldn’t be counted as some sort of bonus. Matthews can still be a good player, but just not the one his measurables lead you to believe he is. I'll personally be rooting he finds his groove again.