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

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In 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.

Dallas Cowboys v Philadelphia Eagles
Ready to make the leap? Brice Butler showed terrific efficiency in Dallas despite limited opportunity.

Previously on Number Mill: FA Receivers 1, Chiefs Offense, Dontrelle Inman, Markus Wheaton, Cam Meredith

Monday, I talked about some of the top receivers scheduled to become available in free agency. While I think some of them are worth the price tag, the real place you can find value in free agency is signing somebody who is ready to “make the leap” and thrive in a new system with increased opportunity.

Ryan Pace has certainly shown a propensity to look for this value in free agency—at times to his discredit—and I suspect he will make at least a couple similar bets on promising young free agents this year. So what receivers might fit the bill?

Today, I’ve sorted my chart based on yards per target, rather than yards per game, since this statistic helps me look for efficient producers who might not have had a lot of opportunity.

Tier 3: Crouched and ready to pounce?

Albert Wilson is probably the most obvious player in this group. He’s a 25 year old 5’9” slot receiver who had his best year this fall under Matt Nagy in Kansas City. His production also increased after Nagy took over play calling, getting over half of his 554 season yards in the final 5 games. According to the NFL’s NextGenStats, Wilson had incredible separation at the time of target (4.1 yards) leading the Chiefs who in turn led the league. Wilson’s 7.8 yards per target is good for a slot receiver, and his 5.7 average yards after catch is terrific.

Since Wilson had his best production at the end of the 2017 season, I decided to look at those games individually. Below is the last 6 games (he started being used more the week before Nagy took over).

The last 6 games of Albert Wilson’s 2017 season. The 2nd to last row shows this 6 week production projected to a 16 week season, and the last row shows the 5 games excluding his incredible week 16 performance.

To be honest, looking at these numbers dropped my excitement about Wilson a little. Half of these games are very disappointing in terms of reception percentage, especially for somebody who is—on average—wide open when targeted with the ball. Most of the production was found in an incredible week 16 game, incidentally when Patrick Mahomes was playing quarterback. Every receiver has ups and downs when you look on a game-to-game basis, but I couldn’t help looking at what his production would be without that incredible game (last row) and the results were pretty disappointing.

In Wilson’s defense, projecting his final 6 games over the course of a season shows an efficient ~900 yard season from a reliable slot receiver, and that’s certainly a valuable proposition. Also, looking at Wilson’s yearly targets and reception percentage from PFF data shows 56 targets as opposed to the NFL’s 63, which means 7 of his targets were deemed throwaways or tipped/batted balls. I expect at least a few of those came on the low percentage games but don’t have the game by game numbers.

My looming questions on Albert Wilson are two-fold, if he hits free agency, why did the Chiefs let him go when they are certainly shallow at wide receiver as well? And how much of his production and effective yards after catch are a product of Nagy’s system, as opposed to him making the system look better?

Brice Butler is the obvious stand-out on the above list in terms of yards per target. He’s a 27 year-old 6’3” undrafted free agent who originally played for the Raiders before moving to the Cowboys in 2015.

The Cowboys almost exclusively used him as a vertical threat, which partially explains his impressive yards/target value. Butler openly criticized the Cowboy’s personnel use this year, focusing on Dez Bryant but also mentioning he can do more than run nine routes. This may concern some Bears fans about his character, but watching our team use their personnel poorly this year, I wouldn’t blame any player who called them out. It also means he’s less likely to be re-signed by the Cowboys, which could be good news for the receiver-hungry Bears.

Watching Butler’s tape, he has the speed to beat corners deep and is able to fake corners well with subtle moves to get behind them. He finishes off his routes with good body positioning and height at the catch point. I saw a couple of drops but nothing in 2016 Bellamy territory. On tape, it’s clear why he’s a successful vertical receiver.

Below I separated Butler’s production by year, hoping to see an upward trend. His rookie year was the worst,and 2017 was his best, but otherwise there isn’t much of a trend. I noticed Butler had an especially large discrepancy between NFL and PFF targets, so I posted his last three years using PFF data below, and the numbers are very impressive for a deep ball receiver.

Brice Butler’s stats by year.

Butler wasn’t invited to the combine, but his Pro Day 40 time was clocked at 4.37. Even if that’s off by a tenth of a second, it’s still impressive speed for a 6’3” 215 lb receiver. Butler has shown he can perform as a vertical threat, which makes him a valuable commodity if that’s all he is. I believe he’s also earned the right to get more opportunity to show what he can do. He looks to me like an undervalued outside receiver with the potential to make a leap with the right opportunity, and I’d love to see him in Navy and Orange.

Ryan Grant is 27 years old coming off a career year in Washington. Grant was drafted by Washington in 2014 and seems to have been just a little too deep on a crowded depth chart to make an impact before this year. He’s 6’0” and not particularly fast, but he’s a smooth, technical route runner with sure hands and performed well as a possession, chain-moving, slot receiver for in D.C.

Grant’s 2017 numbers are more impressive than the career numbers listed on the spreadsheet, with 69% reception rate and 8.8 yards per target. If you trust the two targets PFF discounts, this bumps to 71% reception rate and 9.1 yards per target. It’s worth noting now, that although I’ve given PFF target numbers for a few highlighted players, I didn’t use them for the overall spreadsheet, so it’s not entirely fare to compare them—many of the players on the list would receive at least a small bump in their reception percentage and yards per target.

Overall, Grant is a reliable slot receiver with some decent run after catch ability who is still young and could be a valuable addition to the Bears. He is also a valuable member of a Washington receiver corps that isn’t as deep as it used to be, so I’d be surprised if they don’t try to get a deal done before the Bears would have a chance.

Tier 4: Leap of Faith?

The final tier of players are numerical standouts with limited production over several years in the NFL. It’s possible one of these was just undervalued or misused by their prior team and primed for a breakout. It’s also unlikely. Given the Bears have a real need at receiver, I’d prefer they save their roster space (even their training camp roster space) for people who have a greater chance of contributing.

Having said that, a few names do stand out. Both Jeremy Butler and Brittan Golden have impressive yards per target values and YAC values. Golden is older at 29, and I already explained why his best fit is with the Saints, but Butler may catch the eye of the value-minded Pace. Butler (27, 6’2”) was undrafted in 2014 and has bounced around between the Ravens, Buccaneers, Jets, and Bills. He was placed on IR with the Bills in 2017, so the injury will have to be evaluated. The Bills also desperately need receivers, with Bears’ castaway Deonte Thompson playing an integral role in 2017, and I imagine they are likely to hold on to him if they see any value there.

Finally, Brenton Bersin (27, 6’3) has a decent career yards per target as a Panthers’ roster bottom dweller, and Brian Quick (28 6’3”) has a decent YAC but failed to stand out on the Jeff Fisher Rams and only played 77 snaps for 8 receptions during his one year at Washington. Of the two, I find Quick a little more appealing since he hasn’t had the opportunity to show what he can do in a real offense.

Tears of Joy?

That’s all the number-churning for free agent receivers I have for you folks. This exercise has definitely made more more excited about the potential for Bears to find contributors in this free agent class than I was before. Even if the top two free agent prospects stay with their team, there’s some solid prospects that could upgrade the Bears’ receiver position and at least prime the team to round out the group with the right draft pick.

And there’s depth at receiver in this draft, especially in the category of quick, elusive receivers that the Bears should covet. Coincidentally, there will be lots more on that group to come at WCG, so do stay tuned!