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Julio Jones is typically the main driver of the Falcons offense. Last year, he had 33% of all Atlanta targets, and in 2014, he had 28% of Atlanta’s targets in the 15 games he played. But, as Adam Harstad noted, Jones has just under 20% of Atlanta’s targets this year.

Entering the season, Jones had averaged over 100 receiving yards per game over his previous 57 games, while the book on Matt Ryan was that he had reached his ceiling (or was on the downward slope of his career).

But this year, Ryan leads the league in yards per attempt, while the Falcons lead the NFL in both points and yards. If I told you that before the season, you would probably have guessed that Jones had about 500 yards, but in fact, he’s having a below-average year by his standards: he’s averaging a career low 63 yards per game, likely due to a calf injury that kept him to just 16 yards last week.

But right now, Ryan is averaging 9.4 yards per pass on throws to Jones, and and 9.5 yards per pass on throws to everyone else! Regular readers know I am not a fan of yards per target, but it is interesting to look at in certain situations. Let’s take a look at Atlanta’s breakdown: [click to continue…]

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Predictions in Review: NFC South

During the 2013 offseason, I wrote 32 articles under the RPO 2013 tag. In my Predictions in Review series, I review those preview articles with the benefit of hindsight. Previously, I reviewed the AFC West, the NFC West, and the the AFC South. Today, the NFC South.

Who Will Win 2013 Head Coach of the Year, July 25, 2013

For reasons that are not quite clear to me, I have an unusual fascination with the Coach of the Year award. There’s no harder award to predict in all of sports, since the winner is essentially the coach of the team that had the least predictable (in a good way) season. Still, I threw my hat into the ring in 2014 and predicted that Sean Payton would win Coach of the Year. Here is what I wrote in July:

Rob Ryan is now in charge of a defense that ranked last in yards allowed, net yards per attempt allowed, rushing yards allowed, rushing yards per carry allowed, first downs allowed, Expected Points Added, and defensive DVOA. The 2012 Saints also ranked 31st in points allowed. Ryan himself won’t fix that, but first round pick Kenny Vaccaro should begin to help the problem secondary.

But the real reason for optimism is the always explosive Saints offense. Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham, and Darren Sproles are three of the more unique players in the NFL, and help give the Saints an outstanding passing offense. Of course, New Orleans passing attack was great before either Graham or Sproles arrived, as the Brees/Payton engine (with a dash of Marques Colston and Lance Moore) is at times unstoppable. …

Predicting who will win AP Coach of the Year is a fool’s errand, but I’m willing to put my chips on Brees and Payton leading the Saints to the playoffs in a “bounceback” year. The real question is whether that will be enough to convince the voters to select Payton.

As it turned out, Payton did lead a resurgent Saints team from 7-9 in 2012 to 11-5 in 2013; unfortunately for him, a playoff berth was not enough to get him Coach of the Year. That honor instead went to Ron Rivera, although in my eyes, Andy Reid was an immensely more deserving choice.

What can we learn: In week 16, the Panthers defeated the Saints on a touchdown pass with 28 seconds left in the game; had New Orleans won that game, the Saints would have finished 12-4 and won the division and a first round bye, knocking Rivera’s Panthers down to the 5 seed. Would that have been enough to swing the COTY award to Payton? Probably not, although it likely would have meant Reid would have won the honor. The Coach of the Year award remains impossible to predict.

Did you just grab my torch?

Did you just grab my torch?.

Julio Jones and Roddy White star in Stealing The Torch, July 31, 2013

My other three NFC South posts were more walks down memory lane than predictions. The Falcons post was a look at other star wide receiver tandems that were similar to Julio Jones and Roddy White in 2012. This was a fun way to look at comparable receivers, but there was nothing fun about the Atlanta offense in 2013.  Jones averaged 116.0 yards per game last year, but that came over just five games. A foot injury suffered against the Jets in week 5 ended what looked to be a special season: Jones was leading the league in receptions (41) and was second in receiving yards (580) at the time. White, meanwhile, had an absymal start to his season that dragged on for months.

Hamstring and ankle injuries caused White to miss three full games and hampered his production in most of the others. At the end of November, he just 20 catches for 209 yards; at that point, the Falcons were 2-9, and I won’t fault you if you put Atlanta on “ignore” for the rest of the year. But White exploded with 43 catches for 502 yards in December, joining Josh Gordon (658) and Alshon Jeffery (561) as the only players with 500+ receiving yards in December 2013.

The Steve Smith Post, August 7, 2013

In August, I decided to compile the loose odds and ends I had collected on Steve Smith over the years. When the time comes, I plan on using that post to augment Smith’s Hall of Fame case. Unfortunately for Smith, the time may be coming sooner than he’d like. On December 1st, I wrote that Smith’s poor production may have been a reason for why Cam Newton’s numbers had declined.

Smith has had largely the same role in the Panthers offense for years, so it’s not unreasonable to compare his advanced metrics from each of Newton’s seasons.  In 2013, Smith caught 58.2% of his targets, which is in line with his production from 2012 (52.9%) and 2011 (61.2%). However, Smith started running much shorter routes — according to NFLGSIS, his average reception came just 8.9 yards downfield in 2013, compared to around 12 yards over the prior two years. Smith’s YAC also decreased (which is unusual, as shorter passes tend to lead to more YAC, making this another bad sign); as a result, his yards per target dropped from 10.8 in 2011 to 8.5 in 2012 to just 6.8 in 2013.  It was a down year in a Hall of Fame caliber career. Smith turns 35 in May; unfortunately, it seems safe to suggest that the best is behind him.

Can Tampa Bay Win the NFC South With the Worst Passing Attack?, August 13, 2013

Just about everyone assumed the Bucs would have the worst starting quarterback in the NFC South. What interested me was the rest of the team. The question I posed was more trivia than analysis: how often does the team with the worst passing attack in the division wind up winning the division?

The answer: Since 1950, only nine teams pulled off that feat, with nearly half of them coming since the league moved to a four-teams-per-division-for-each-division format in 2002. No team pulled off that feat in 2013, although the Panthers ranked 3rd in the NFC South in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt. The team that ranked last in the division was, of course, the Bucs.

The Bucs ranked 32nd in NY/A and finished the year 4-12. But remember: Tampa Bay faced the hardest schedule in the league in 2013. Early DVOA estimates project the Bucs for 7.7 wins in 2014, and there are reasons for optimism in Tampa Bay in 2014.

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Did you just grab my torch?

Did you just grab my torch?

Randy Moss and Cris Carter. Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce. Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison. From time to time, a franchise with a star wide receiver manages to draft another one. At that point, we just wait and see how long it takes the young pup to steal the spotlight. Everyone succumbs to age, and eventually, the torch will be passed to the younger receiver. Even the GOAT wasn’t immune to Father Time (well, at least while he was in SF), as Terrell Owens eventually surpassed Jerry Rice as the 49ers top wideout.

Last year, Julio Jones and Roddy White both finished in the top 12 in fantasy points scored by wide receivers (using the formula 0.5 point per reception, 0.1 points per yard, and 6 points per touchdown). Since 1970, there have been 20 different pairs of wide receivers who met the following criteria:

  • Each wide receiver finished in the top 12 in fantasy points (using a 0.5 PPR scoring system)
  • The receivers were at least four years apart in age; and
  • The younger receiver was 26 year old or younger.

2012 FalconsJulio Jones (23) and Roddy White (31) (Matt Ryan)

Let’s start with the most recent entry.  At just 23 years old, Jones has established himself as one of the game’s best wide receivers.  White is presumably on the downside of his career, but he’s had a remarkable run.  Wide receiver numbers must be adjusted for era, but here’s a fun stat: White has topped 80 catches, 1100 yards, and 6 touchdowns in six straight seasons (2007-2012), a feat previously accomplished by only Marvin Harrison and Jerry Rice.
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Matt Waldman and Sigmund Bloom are once again running the RSP Football Writers Project this off-season. Last year, a salary cap value was assigned to each player and we were asked to assemble our team within the confines of a salary cap. You can see my team here, but my basic philosophy was to invest heavily in building an elite passing offense. One of the questions we had to answer was who were our stars and why did we pick them? I wrote:

Peyton Manning is the key. With an elite quarterback and competent weapons, you can just about pencil your team in for the playoffs. With Jimmy Graham and Victor Cruz, I’ve got one player who ranked in the top three in receptions and one in the top three in receiving yards in 2011. Those three can form the cornerstone of the offense for the next three-to-five years.

This year, the RSP Football Writers Project (you can see the draft recap here or follow the picks on twitter here) is being run as a 32-team start-up draft with fantasy football style serpentine order that includes a third-round reversal. Trades are not allowed and the player pool will consist of veterans only (i.e., no players available in the 2013 draft).

We were told the draft order was random, although I choose to believe that I was assigned pick #32 because of my performance in last year’s project. Having the 32nd and 33rd picks in the draft placed me in a unique position, and I figured I’d explain my team-building methods here.
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