Thursday, December 09, 2010

The NFL's Least Important Position

Wide receiver is the most fascinating position in football because it is populated by the best athletes in the game – and in truth, the world – yet there is no standard position on the field that carries less importance. The value of wide receivers has been proven to be minimal. Instances in which the departure of a WR has done significant damage to his team’s passing game are difficult to recall – Plaxico Burress with the 2008 Giants is the only notable one over the last several seasons. But over and over again we see little damage done when a big-name WR leaves his team via retirement, free agency, trade, or injury.

The thing about wide receivers is that because of the way football is structured, their success is dependent on the play of their quarterback and offensive line. Wide receivers need an intelligent, accurate passer as well as linemen that give that passer time to get the ball to them. If any of these positions don’t do their job, wide receivers will not get a chance to make a play. Every position in football is synergistic, but none quite so dependent as the wide receiver.

Another interesting aspect of the WR is that he is the player on the team most likely to draw headlines for boorish, malcontented behavior. Why is this? One theory is that throughout his life, the WR has been the best athlete around. Nobody can run as fast or jump as high as him. But now he is in the NFL, and he might only touch the ball five times a game – if he’s one of the best. Time after time he busts his ass sprinting down the field and then running back to the huddle without seeing a ball or camera pointed in his direction. He will be invisible on 90% of the plays, yet he has to expend maximum effort on most of them. He risks his neck routinely, performing the most delicate and skillful actions on the field all while a 240 lb speeding bullet is headed straight toward his head intent on smashing into him with as much force as possible. And the WR may begin to realize that everything he does really doesn’t matter that much, certainly not as much as what his quarterback and left tackle are doing behind him.

Finally, the WR is the most easily replaceable of all NFL players. There is always someone lurking on the waiver wire or unemployment line ready to step in and play as well as the man he is brought in to replace.

The irrelevance of the WR has been illuminated this season by a variety of players in a variety of different situations. Consider these case studies:

Mark Clayton, St. Louis

Baltimore, who brought in big-name WRs Anquan Boldin and TJ Houshmandzadeh in the offseason, traded Clayton to the Rams for peanuts right before the season. Clayton practiced with the Rams for less than a week and then caught ten passes for 119 yards in their first game. He snagged two TDs the next week and posted solid production the next two before going down with a season-ending injury in week five. What happened to the Rams passing offense – which had already suffered injuries to #1 WR Donnie Avery and #2 Laurent Robinson as well as some of their backups – after Clayton went down? It got better. Sam Bradford has posted a higher passer rating in five of the last six games than in any of the games he played with Clayton. Meanwhile, Boldin (who was an absolute monster in the games he played for his former team, Arizona) and Houshmandzadeh have posted Clayton-like numbers in Baltimore. Bradford’s numbers confirm two things – 1) it doesn’t matter who your WRs are if you have a competent quarterback driving the car and 2) Sam Bradford is going to be one hell of an NFL quarterback.

Dez Bryant, Dallas

The Cowboys were one of the best teams in the league last season. Their first draft pick this year was the prodigiously talented Dez Bryant, a physical freak who looked like a beast amongst boys in college and still looks like a man amongst boys in the pros. Bryant is a contender for Rookie of the Year, yet Dallas has slipped from contender to a 4-8 mess. Wide receiver doesn’t matter – the ‘Boys have lost eight games because their defensive players decided to suck, a few of their offensive linemen were injured, and they quit on their coach.

Dwayne Bowe, Kansas City

Eight weeks ago Dwayne Bowe dropped a touchdown pass against the Colts that cost 1) the team a chance to win the game 2) gamblers who took the Chiefs and the points a devastating loss vs the spread 3) hundreds of thousands of fantasy owners a critical touchdown. Bowe then dropped an easy ball on the very next pass. He was vilified throughout the next week by the fans, chastised by the media, and left for dead by fantasy owners. After that Colts game Bowe’s season totals were, in four games as Kansas City’s #1 WR, 9 catches for 98 yards and one touchdown.

Bowe has been on an incredible tear ever since, one of the greatest stretches a wide receiver has ever had. Bowe scored thirteen touchdowns in his next seven games and is now the #2 WR of the 2010 fantasy football season. What the hell happened?

Dwayne Bowe didn’t stop dropping passes. He even dropped a couple during his 13-catch, 170-yard, 3-TD performance last week in Seattle. What happened was Bowe’s team started playing some tougher competition, got behind more often, had to throw, modified their offensive philosophy, and called his number quite a bit more than they had during the first four games. Bowe was never one of the league’s best #1 WRs or one of its worst; his numbers, like those of all wide receivers, are situationally dependent.

Brandon Marshall, Miami

Few players in the NFL are as obviously gifted as Marshall, a physical freak who put up some of the biggest numbers in the league his last three seasons in Denver. But Josh McDaniels and the Broncos grew tired of his antics and shipped him to Miami for a couple 2nd-round draft picks. McDaniels has made a number of well-publicized personnel gaffes, but trading Marshall for two 2nd-rounders is his highlight. Because wide receiver doesn’t matter, and the Broncos have gotten a stunning Pro-Bowl season from journeyman Brandon Lloyd in Marshall’s absence. The Dolphins, grinders of the NFL, have been desperate for a big-play WR for years. Marshall came riding in on a golden horse, but for all his talent, he has scored just one touchdown this season. The Dolphins offense looks no different than it did the last two seasons. The Broncos have continued to get great production from their WRs…yet Denver is still one of the worst teams in the league. Because wide receiver doesn’t matter.

Terrell Owens, Cincinnati

T.O., who turned 37 on Tuesday, is quietly having a nice season. Owens is third in the league in receiving yards. Yet by all accounts, Chad Ochocinco is the most potent Cincinnati wide receiver and T.O.’s sterling numbers are a direct result of opposing defenses rolling defenses in 85’s direction. T.O.’s big numbers have come from his limited coverage along with the 2-10 Bengals constantly trying to rally from big deficits.

Vincent Jackson, San Diego

Jackson went for 2,265 yards and 16 touchdowns over the last two seasons, so he decided to hold out for big money this year. The Chargers laughed and told him to go fuck himself. Then Legedu Naanee got hurt. Then Buster Davis went down for the season. Then Malcom Floyd went out. Then Antonio Gates got banged up. Then Patrick Crayton was lost for the season. And somehow the Chargers have actually gotten steadily better throughout the season. Philip Rivers has made a mockery of the wide receiver position, proving that it does not matter who runs routes for him. Rivers is the one with the power. Vincent Jackson can thank Rivers for making him a big name and he can thank Rivers for demonstrating that he is no more valuable than Seyi Ajirotutu.

Deion Branch, New England

Branch was the MVP of Super Bowl XXXIX, which of course should never happen since wide receiver doesn’t matter. He followed that performance up with a nice 2005 campaign in which he caught 78 balls for 998 yards, then held out of training camp demanding more money. The Patriots laughed, traded Branch to the Seahawks for a 1st round draft pick, laughed again, watched him put up very pedestrian numbers in Seattle for four and a half seasons, chuckled demeaningly, traded Seattle a 4th round draft pick to get him back, then guffawed uproariously – especially after Branch went off for 9 catches, 98 yards, and a TD in his first game back with the Pats. During Bill Belichick’s tenure, the Patriots have never spent a 1st round draft pick on a wide receiver. During Matt Millen’s tenure as GM of the Lions, Detroit spent four 1st round draft picks on wide receivers. Millen’s eight-year tenure with the Lions coincided with the worst eight-year record in NFL history.

Randy Moss, New England/Minnesota/Tennessee

The story of Randy’s career, and its 2010 microcosm, should be the subject of a much greater piece. Few football players have ever exhibited as much overwhelming talent as Moss. Few have been as explosive, and none have ever caught as many touchdowns in one season as Moss did in 2007. But it should be noted that season came when Moss was aligned with an All-Pro quarterback and left tackle.

2010 record for the three teams Moss has played for while Moss has been on the team: 4-9

2010 record for the three teams Moss has played for without Moss: 16-8

The Wide Receiver Rankings

102. Chansi Stuckey
101. Brian Robiskie
100. Ted Ginn
99. Buster Davis

98. Blair White
97. Greg Camarillo
96. Early Doucet
95. Brian Hartline

94. Roy Williams

93. Jordy Nelson
92. Sammie Stroughter
91. Jordan Shipley
90. Greg Lewis

89. Patrick Crayton
88. Brian Finneran
87. Emmanuel Sanders
86. Darrius Heyward-Bey

85. Kevin Walter
84. Terrance Copper

83. Jacoby Jones
82. Roscoe Parrish
81. Laveranues Coles
80. Antwaan Randle El
79. Brandon Stokley

78. David Anderson
77. James Jones
76. Brandon Gibson

75. Nate Washington
74. Julian Edelman

73. Justin Gage

72. Earl Bennett
71. Devery Henderson
70. Mohamed Massaquoi
69. Deon Butler
68. Nate Burleson
67. T.J. Houshmandzadeh
66. Josh Morgan

65. Anthony Armstrong
64. Harry Douglas
63. Brad Smith

62. Pierre Garcon
61. Deion Branch
60. Jacoby Ford
59. Devin Hester
58. Louis Murphy

57. Austin Collie

56. Jason Avant

55. Randy Moss

54. Mike Thomas

53. Johnny Knox
52. Lance Moore

51. Mike Sims-Walker
50. Michael Jenkins
49. Steve Johnson
48. Braylon Edwards
47. Bernard Berrian
46. Malcom Floyd
45. Jabar Gaffney
44. Robert Meachem
43. Vincent Jackson
42. Mark Clayton
41. Jerricho Cotchery
40. Legedu Naanee
39. Danny Amendola
38. Donnie Avery
37. Steve Breaston
36. Davone Bess
35. Eddie Royal
24. Terrell Owens

34. Mario Manningham

33. Santana Moss

32. Derrick Mason
31. Mike Williams (Seattle)
30. Chad Ochocinco

29. Jeremy Maclin

28. Kenny Britt

27. Percy Harvin
26. Michael Crabtree
25. Wes Welker
24. Brandon Lloyd
23. Lee Evans

22. Steve Smith (Giants)

21. Mike Williams (Tampa Bay)

20. Dez Bryant

19. Sidney Rice
18. Marques Colston
17. Hines Ward
16. Donald Driver
15. Steve Smith (Panthers)
14.. Santonio Holmes
13. Dwayne Bowe
12. Mike Wallace

11. Reggie Wayne

10. Miles Austin

9. Hakeem Nicks

8. DeSean Jackson

7. Greg Jennings

6. Anquan Boldin
5. Brandon Marshall
4. Roddy White
3. Calvin Johnson

2. Andre Johnson
1. Larry Fitzgerald

Week Fourteen Picks

Also like:

REDSKINS +2 over Bucs
Browns +1 over BILLS
Seahawks +5.5 over NINERS
Bengals +8.5 over STEELERS
Patriots -3 over BEARS
Ravens -3 over TEXANS
Dolphins +5.5 over JETS

If forced to choose:

Colts -3.5 over TITANS X
Falcons -7.5 over PANTHERS
Packers -6.5 over LIONS
Raiders +4.5 over JAGUARS
Broncos -5.5 over CARDINALS
Eagles -3.5 over COWBOYS
Giants -2.5 over VIKINGS
Rams +9.5 over SAINTS

Lock season record: 1-0
Really like season record: 2-1
Also like season record: 28-19-1
If forced to choose season record: 71-65-2
All games season record: 102-85-3


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm trying to figure out what the exclusion of Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon from your list means. That Peyton Manning is so important to the Colts that the guys who catch his passes shouldn't even be called wide receivers? I think Wayne and Garcon certainly merit a ranking, if not top 20 status.

7:40 AM  
Blogger Hammer Player a.k.a Hoyazo said...

Forget DeSean Jackson much?

9:03 AM  
Blogger GnightMoon said...

Screwed up and posted this before it was ready, no slight to any of those players, sorry guys, will edit and repost with all the rankings

9:37 AM  
Blogger Schaubs said...

+1 on the Reggie and Pierre comment and Hoy is right about Desean.

Why in the world Evans and Driver listed so high?

9:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You've also misstated the situation with respect to Ochocinco and T.O. Most opposing teams are treating T.O. as the number 1 receiver. Case in point, the Jets put Revis on T.O. for the full game against the Bengals.

9:54 AM  
Blogger Ryan Wanger said...

I had never thought about this much, but you just blew my mind. Thanks for the enlightenment.

Agree that Driver is not top 10. But I could see being biased by the insane catch and run he had last week.

11:08 AM  
Blogger Zach said...

Love the points you made about WR, and will forgive you, given your note here about not being finished, for forgetting the #1 WR in football - Andre Johnson

11:11 AM  
Blogger Hammer Player a.k.a Hoyazo said...

Also wondering your pick on the Chargers - Chiefs game this weekend. Will you be posting that once you know whether or not Cassel will be playing?

Like your points about the WR position. It is funny how these guys are always the ones stomping around and making a big fuss about stuff. For some reason the biggest headcases in sports almost always end up being NFL wideouts.

11:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


8:17 AM  
Blogger Jeremiah said...

Great post.

Interestingly enough, the NFL Network's #1 player of all time is Jerry Rice.

Just as interesting: he had 2 hall of fame QBs throwing to him for the bulk of his career.

7:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great pic of Branch

7:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Jerry Rice is almost certainly the exception that proves the rule.

Take a look at the ridiculous gap between his numbers and all other WRs, his ridiculous consistency, as well as how much better Montana's numbers are with Rice compared to without.

The overall point, however, is a good one.

10:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think in general, I'd make it a policy to never trade for a player with the Patriots. I would just assume their good play is inflated by better coaching...kind of like how I would never trade for a power forward playing with an all star point-guard.

7:19 PM  
Blogger GnightMoon said...

Kind of like how people never trade with GnightMoon in fantasy football or Settlers of Catan, L.

9:23 PM  
Blogger GnightMoon said...

Rankings have been updated.

9:28 PM  
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