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Number Plunge: To separate from the chaff, Wheaton will have to build on his deep threat ability

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This look into Markus Wheaton’s statistics takes us on a tour through YAC, average depth of catch, and Football Outsiders’ DVOA/DYAR metrics

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NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Markus Wheaton has received the largest contract of all the Bears’ free agent receiver acquisitions. I suspect there was some competition for him because of his ability as a deep threat. His combine 40 time was only 4.45, but try telling that to his game tape.

Over his 4 years as a Steeler, Wheaton had overall underwhelming production. He had some strong stretches, particularly in 2015, but never showed enough to become a valuable asset on the team. His potential in Pittsburgh was hindered by a shoulder injury ending his contract year after 3 games, and by continually playing in the shadow of Martavis Bryant. Bryant is a more explosive athlete who seems to be a perfect complement to the Steeler’s offense. Although Bryant has struggled with suspensions, the Steelers have shown more points per game, a higher win percentage, and better stats for both Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown when Bryant was on the field.

The question that concerns me, however, is what value can Wheaton offer the Bears? In order to answer this question, I would ideally want to look at Wheaton’s performance in a vacuum to see what potential he has to perform in a different situation with a new team that has a much superior mascot. With this goal in mind, I’m drawn to look at stats that speak to his efficiency when he was used rather than his overall production. To start, let’s look at Markus’ last full season in 2015, with a focus on yards per catch, reception percentage, and yards per target.

Markus Wheaton 2015 stats by game

My first glance at this season left me pleased by his overall production by disappointed by his reception percentage. This was Wheaton’s best season, and I would love him to repeat this production as the Bears’ number three receiver, but seeing that 56% gave me visions of all the third-string Bears with butter paws that have let me down in so many key moments.

What can’t be ignored, however, is his impressive 17 yards per reception (a number that ranked him 7th in the NFL for 2015) which caused even his poor reception percentage to translate to a very impressive 9.48 yards per target. In many ways, I find yards per target to be the best short-hand for a receiver’s independent efficiency because it combines both reception rate and yards per reception and it isn’t affected by the amount of target’s the player is offered. But in the case of a deep threat receiver, this number tends to be higher, and it’s important not to assume that a deep threat with a high yards/target value would continue that efficiency if they received more targets. There are a limited amount of opportunities to attempt a deep pass in any given NFL game. Giving Wheaton more targets would likely mean giving him more intermediate and short-distance targets that would not produce at the same level.

To get a better sense of how a player is achieving a high yards/reception number, it’s useful to sort the yards in the air from the yards after the catch. I have added these numbers to Wheaton’s career stats by season here. Average depth of target is often reported to quantify how deep of throws a receiver is getting, but it seems to only be available behind pay walls. Instead I give you average depth of catch, which should correlate with ADoT and is easily extracted from reported total yards and yards after catch values.

Markus Wheaton career stats by year

With the exception of his rookie year—when he was catching the ball on predominantly short routes—his yards after catch have accounted for less than a quarter of his total yards. This is relatively low, and his 2015 average depth of catch at over 13 yards confirms that indeed his high yards per catch is due to his quantity of deep targets rather than exceptional elusiveness after the catch. Looking at his career as a whole, his most impressive numbers drop considerably, and his yards per target falls from top-10 to below average at 8.02.

To give a frame of reference for the less common stats I’m reporting here, I have generously provided you with a table including these stats on some of the top #1 and #2 receivers in the league. You are, as always, welcome.

A Football Outsiders’ favorite

In searching for reasons Bears fans might get excited about Wheaton, I came across Football Outsiders 2015 receiver rankings which placed him 27th in DYAR (defense-adjusted yards above replacement) and 30th in DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average). Before high-fiving about the Bears signing of a top-30 receiver, let me share my thoughts on these metrics. This will take a while, and you may want to use this opportunity to visit the restroom or grab a snack and return when I get to my summary.

I love that they use the concept of “value over average.” In a situation where a willing replacement is readily available, an individual only truly adds value if the value they provide is greater than the average value expected from their replacement. I work in a hospital, and I recently took great pleasure in the opportunity to explain this concept to a coworker who was gushing about how great it feels to help people. Bizarrely, they didn’t ask the natural follow-up of whether I thought they provided more help to people than the average replacement would.

The concept of defense-adjustment seems like a good idea since production against a good defense is more difficult and valuable than production against a bad defense.

In theory DVOA tries to answer the question “how much value does this player add compared to what the average player would do given the same opportunities in the same situation?” In Football Outsider’s system, DVOA is measured on a per play basis, reported as a percentage above the mean, and averaged throughout the year.

Defense-adjusted yards above replacement differs from DVOA in a few significant ways. Most importantly, it is a cumulative measurement over the course of the year, which means it is directly affected by how many opportunities a player gets. Second, instead of comparing to league average, the comparison is a replacement-level player—the main effect of this is it will assign value to a player who plays a high volume of snaps at an average level in a way that wouldn’t be tallied if the comparison were average. The third difference is the unit reported, which is yards above average instead of percentage above average, which may be a more immediately understandable quantification of their benefit. In Wheaton’s case, the question they are trying to answer with his DYAR is “how many more yards did Wheaton get during his 2015 season than we would expect from a replacement-level receiver?” That number is 159, which was the 27th best among all NFL receivers in 2015 and put him seven slots below octogenarian Green Bay receiver James Jones with 206 and eight slots above Alshon Jeffery with 126.

I admire what Football Outsiders is attempting, but there are several opportunities for their system to fall short. I intentionally chose the comparison of Jones and Jeffery because they emphasize the fact that going over the rank list does not readily pass the sniff test. Other olfactory catastrophes on the 2015 list include Demaryius Thomas and T.Y. Hilton slumming it down at 60 and 61 while Arizona Cardinals’ John Brown ranks 5th —just above Julio Jones. Perhaps their model upgrades Brown for having sickle cell trait because it increases his resistance to malaria?

These mis-sniffs don’t inherently mean their system is flawed. They are attempting to define value in a better way than the traditional measures, and if their system is truly different and better, I would expect their list to deviate from the current consensus. However, the overall waft of decaying compost does naturally increase my level of suspicion that their system has weaknesses.

The most crucial aspect of the Football Outsiders’ system is how they define value. Traditionally, value is measured in receptions, yards, and touchdowns. Plenty of other metrics are increasingly used including those I discussed above. Football Outsiders has a unique system which values plays on their success or failure. For each target a receiver gets, he receives a score based on whether the play meets an expected target for down and distance (e.g. 45% of distance to the sticks if it’s a first down play or 100% of the distance needed if its a third down play). Partial credit is given for receptions which fall short of the goal, and extra credit is given for plays which exceed 10 yards and, of course, touchdowns. There are certainly benefits of this system compared to simply tallying yards. A second-down reception of 5 yards that moves the chains is undeniably more valuable than a 3rd down reception for 9 yards that leads to a punt. However, this system opens up new opportunity for misattribution of value. There are definitely receiver traits not fully accounted for in other metrics that can affect first down success (e.g. field and situational awareness, “clutch factor” or success in tight coverage) but there are many factors independent of the receiver that likely have a larger effect (e.g. play calling or quarterback decision-making). The system is also limited by the fact that it only looks at plays where the receiver receives targets, and a player’s ability to get open consistently is not included in DVOA and is only secondarily accounted for by the cumulative tallying in DYAR.

A less significant opportunity for misattributing value is in the defense-adjustment. While adjusting for quality of defense makes sense in principle, NFL defensive play is inconsistent within a season and difficult to accurately quantify. A receiver playing a defense on a week when it’s missing an integral player (say Seattle when Earl Thomas is out) will receive a positive adjustment based on the average quality of Seattle’s defense, even if they play poorly that day. There is additional room for error on a per player basis: imagine a WR3 such as Wheaton playing a week 12 game against the Seattle Seahawks where the team does a good job of covering the top two receivers but leaves said third receiver open regularly. That “hypothetical” receiver would be receiving a positive adjustment for playing a great defense even though he personally played against poor coverage. There are ways to adjust a model to try to accommodate for this, but with the small number of NFL games played in a year and with the large number of fluid variables, I am skeptical that the benefit of this adjustment can outweigh the risk of its flaws.

Overall, I find Football Outsider’s DVOA to be valuable but probably more useful in evaluating offensive units than individual receivers. In the case of an individual receiver, it’s best use is probably in understanding the value that receiver is providing to their current team. The DYAR is likely even less relevant to evaluating a player’s potential to thrive on a new team, since it is a cumulative measure rather than a per-play average. Seeing how their model works, Wheaton’s high ranking is likely due to a combination of high first down conversion rate, an additional upgrade for long yardage plays, and a large defense adjustment bump for his 200 yard game against Seattle.

In Summary

Wheaton has showed some potential as a capable deep threat in his 2015 season. The Bears could use a field-stretcher to balance out a strong running game. I don’t project Wheaton to rise up to be a true number two receiver, but he can make big plays from both the slot and outside. If he can fully recover from his shoulder injury and stay healthy, I imagine his ceiling as a valuable rotational deep threat, playing in both the slot and outside and amounting a significant amount of snaps, ideally culminating in an efficiently-earned 800+ yard season besting his peak in 2015. For what it’s worth, Mike Glennon’s 2015 deep pass accuracy was higher than Large Ben’s.