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Chicago Bears’ Number Mill: Free agent receivers, Part One

On my ongoing number mill series, I will grind through the bark of NFL statistics in the hopes of turning negative logs into positive planks...constant.

NFL: AFC Championship-Jacksonville Jaguars at New England Patriots
One of my favorite potential Bears targets, Marqise Lee shows off his YAC attack in the AFC Championship game.

Somebody recently pointed out that putting "Bears" "number" and "plunge" in the same sentence conjured frightening thoughts in the mind of Bears' fans, so I decided to rebrand my ongoing statistical looksie series.

Everybody knows the Bears need help at the wide receiver position. In fact, looking at the mock draft landscape, I've begun to wonder if this is the only thing about the Bears that most people know. The draft is certainly one place the Bears can, and should, look to find help for Mitchel Trubisky and Matt Nagy's offense. But until April comes, it's worth thoroughly investigating the free agent market.

The best way to start is of course to watch all the game tape available on every free agent. I'm too lazy to do that. Instead, I've collected as many relevant statistics as I could to help separate out the best candidates—and calculated a couple of my own! In Part One, I will address the top two teirs of receivers: those I refer to as the Top Hogs and the Proven Producers.

Below is a chart of all the wide receivers currently set to become unrestricted free agents in 2018. With the exception of yards after catch (YAC) these are career stats. I chose to do career stats because many of the lesser known free agents have limited opportunities each year and I wanted a bigger sample size for them. I limited YAC to 2017 (unless otherwise noted) because it's a stat that is not as readily available, and since it took more work to collect, I only collected one year (again, laziness).

At the bottom of this chart, I put averages of the top 10 receivers (by total yards) from the 2016 season for reference.

The First Tier: Top Hogs

The highest profile receivers who might hit free agency are Allen Robinson, Sammy Watkins, and Jarvis Landry. There's no question that all three of their players are talented, but each of these receivers' and their agents are going to have some hungry money-grubby expectations for a new contract and the important question is whether any are worth that contract.

Of the three, Robinson is the one who has proved he can succeed as an elite #1 receiver with a 2015 performance that featured highlights including 14 touchdowns, about 10 yards per target, and 1400 receiving yards while attracting double teams for at least the second half of the season. Watkins and Landry have shown they can lead a team in yards, but not convinced me they can carry an offense the way Robinson has.

Because of that, Robinson's stats are less interesting to me. He had a down season in 2016, which hurts his numbers, but he's a stud who's made both Blake Bortles and Christian Hackenberg look like quality starters, and I'm definitely going to be high on him if he becomes available.

The numbers for Watkins do interest me. He's been a mix of exciting and dissapointing through his career, and I'm honestly not sure how much of the disappointments have been because of missing time due to injuries or actually bad play. Looking at his production on a per reception and per target basis, it's clear that he has played well when he's on the field.

My favorite stat for measuring a player's potential to succeed with more opportunity is yards per target, and Sammy Watkins tops the pack with an impressive 8.8 (just 0.1 below the average among top receivers). This stat combines both catch percentage and yards per reception in a beautifully consolidated representation of efficiency. It's biggest limitation, however, is that it is bias towards players who get targeted only in limited deep play passes—opportunities that don't come often but tend to have a high average reward when they do come. Watkins certainly gets a partial bump for his frequent use as a vertical threat, but he also deserves credit for the 5 yards after catch he averages. When you account for his yards after catch, his average depth of target is actually isn't much deeper than the average top receiver (just over a yard).

Jarvis Landry, on the other hand, does not impress in the yards per target category, having one of the lower scores on the list at 7.1. This is certainly in part due to how he is used in the Dolphin's offense, being forced-fed targets on screens and shallow routes in the hopes he can make magic after the catch with his athleticism, elusiveness, and physical running style. However, his efficiency in 2017 was even worse than his career values represented in the chart, where he averaged 8.8 yards per reception and only 6.1 yards per target, which would be one of the worst values on my list.

Landry is not one of the worst receivers on the list, and he's an example of the opposite bias in terms of yards per target, since his average depth of reception in 2017 was a shocking-low 4.6 yards. His yards after catch in 2017 were decent, at 4.2, and it might be more fair to compare Landry's production to that of running backs because he has a very high catch rate and is targeted in what amounts to long handoffs before doing his best to make yards after the catch. Ultimately I think Landry's ability to catch anything within range and make yards after the catch would be valuable to the Bears, but I don't think that value will match his asking price, especially since the most productive Bears' receiver last year also works best from the slot.

The Next Tier: Proven Producers

If Allen Robinson and Sammy Watkins are unlikely to hit free agency, and Jarvis Landry doesn't measure up to his sticker price, what does the next teir of proven yet not elite receivers have to offer?

Jordan Matthews numbers aren't going to wow anybody, but they are better than I expected given how much he seemed to be a disappointment to Philadelphia and then had a silent season with the Bills. In terms of the Bills, his disappointment comes from a number I don't have on the above spreadsheet: his per route production. Yards per target is a good combination of efficiency stats, but it doesn't fully account for how well a player gets open. Certainly how open a receiver is will effect his catch percentage, and his yards per catch given more opportunity to gain yards the more open you are, but it doesn't adjust for the player who doesn't get targeted because he's not open.

To account for that, the best stat is one of Pro Football Focus' signature stats, yards per route run (it's signature because while snap counts are readily available, the number of routes run, as opposed to blocking snaps, is not regularly reported). Jordan Matthews had an embarrassing 0.91. From the slot, the number dropped to 0.77. For comparison, Deonte Thompson had 1.48 and Julio Jones led the league with 3.08. This stat is affected by many things besides whether a receiver gets open, including who a quarterback favors and how often a player is just running a route to clear space. And probably in Matthew's case, it has something to do with Tyrod Taylor's aversion to throwing to the middle of the field, a region where many if not most of Matthew's routes attempted to stake their claim.

Overall, Jordan Matthews is a talented player whose value may be at an all-time low, but my general response to him gets lumped into the "slot receivers not necessarily much better than Kendall Wright" category. There's at least potential to get excited about if the Bears do sign him.

Of this teir of receivers, the one that has caught my curious eye the most is the Jaguars' second free agent receiver, Marqise Lee. One nice thing about liking this guy is that the odds that the Jaguars keep both him and Robinson are fairly low, which makes me feel optimistic that the Bears could get their paws on one of them.

Lee does not excel at my favorite stat—yards per target—but neither does his teammate Allen Robinson, and it's possible the Bortles-led air attack might have something to do with this. Even so, his yards per target have improved over time, and over his last two seasons that average was up to 7.7.

The stat that does draw me to Lee, is his impressive average YAC for an outside receiver. In a recent article about the most encouraging stats from the Chiefs offense, I noted that last year the Chiefs' receivers had the greatest separation when targeted—and it wasn't close. I expect Nagy's offensive scheme to also excel at getting receivers open in space, which means having receivers who can capitalize off of their space with proficient YAC attacks will be especially valuable to the Bears. Most of those receivers play in the slot, so the idea of a physical 6'1" outside receiver with good YAC numbers certainly draws my interest.

Having already established that I believe Allen Robinson is a legitimate stud, I decided to compare the two more closely, considering they play in the same offense. For this comparison, I compiled their stats for the years 2015 and 2016, years when they were both on the field at the same time, playing with the same quarterback at the same highs and lows of his career.

The numbers, aside from production, are remarkably similar. This doesn't mean Lee is as good as Robinson—after all, for most of these two years, Robinson was attracting double coverage and Lee was benefiting from it—but it is encouraging to see his numbers keep pace with someone that I see as a veritable super stud. Note: you may have noticed that the reception percentage and yards per target seem high. That's because I used PFF's numbers for targets, which excludes balls they deem throwaways and balls tipped before reaching the receiver. I thought this might help adjust for some of the negative Bortles bias in these stats.

Taylor Gabriel is another intriguing target with the most impressive average YAC value on the chart. Before the Brittan Golden truthers point out to me that his number is the highest, Gabriel's is more impressive because had more YAC last season than Golden has in his career. Also, I am secretly hoping Golden goes to the Saints following Rob Crisp so I can relive one of my favorite preseason moments when both were on the Cardinals and they lined up next to each other and I was reminded of one of my favorite breakfast cereal jingles. What can I say, I "can't get enough of that Golden Crisp."

Back to Gabriel, he's a quick, undersized receiver with the speed to beat a defense deep that is always going to be valuable to have on your team. At his worst, he's the perfect 4th receiver to rotate in and keep the defense off guard. If I recall correctly, there were some times in the 2016 season that Kyle Shanahan put Crisp in for Julio Jones to run a couple go routes and tire out Julio’s defender before bringing Ju back in to feast. If I don't recall correctly, he should have done it. I think Gabriel has the potential to be uniquely effective in the Bears offense and I'd love to see him added to the receiver arsenal.

A couple of names that have been brought up frequently by Bears fans don't measure up to me when I look at the numbers: John Brown and Paul Richardson. Both have the same discouraging combination of low yards after catch and low completion percentages. In both cases, their 2017 catch percentage was lower than the career average listed (55% for Richardson and a cringeworthy 38% for Brown).

Paul Richardson does have a good value for yards per target, but he is definitely benefiting from the deep receiver bump. To explain the significance of the deep receiver bump, I will simply point out that Markus Wheaton had over 8 yards per target at Pittsburgh, where he was primarily used as a deep target. Ultimately, Richardson is young and talented and might thrive with the Bears, but I'm not ready to sign him to a healthy contract and notch him above Meredith on the depth chart as some as suggesting.

Next time on Number Mill...

This concludes Part One of the free agent receivers number mill. For Part Two, I'll dig into the less heralded names on the list, looking for some high upside propositions and hidden gems that the Bears might be able to polish up.