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The statistics used in this column are those acquired from the Reception Perception methodology for evaluating wide receivers. To see full results of the project’s first full offseason, check out the tables at Backyard Banter. Additionally, use the #ReceptionPerception tag on Twitter to follow all the analysis from the series. Every week at Footballguys I'll profile one receiver whose recent numbers stand out as interesting. If you have a suggestion for the column, file it on Twitter.
Few receivers enjoyed the last month like Alshon Jeffery. Finally healthy after shaking a nagging hamstring injury, Jeffery averaged 9.3 receptions, 138 yards and scored two touchdowns in his last three games played. Jay Cutler targeted him on an eye-popping 39 percent of his throws, and fantasy owners reaped quite the reward.
As we head into the second act of the 2015 season, enthusiastic questions abound with the Bears receiver. This is his first true stretch as his team’s top threat with Brandon Marshall out of the picture, and we must know how he’s succeeding in his new role. There’s also the question of where does his game place him among the current excellent pantheon of NFL wide receivers. Is he well rounded enough to now be considered in the elite tier of Dez Bryant, Odell Beckham, Antonio Brown, Julio Jones? After all, he is producing at their level. The Bears and NFL observers would like that answer, as Jeffery is set to hit free agency this offseason, provided Chicago doesn’t slap him with the franchise tag.
In order to gain answers to these new founded questions, and properly praise him for a dominant stretch, we’ll put Alshon Jeffery under the Reception Perception microscope.
It should surprise no one that the 6’3, 230 pound Alshon Jeffery takes most of his snaps at the X-receiver position. The majority of his snaps come from the outside, and on the line of scrimmage. However, and credit to the coaching staff for this, he plays in the slot a bit more than usual this year.
New Bears offensive coordinator, Adam Gase, called plays for Denver last year, where he made great use of Demaryius Thomas. Gase often moved Thomas around the formation to put him in positions to win despite technical deficiencies in his game. Now in Chicago, Gase appears to have the same goal in mind with Jeffery, who played 23.2 percent of his snaps in the slot over this three game sample.
This is what has the fantasy world all-abuzz about Alshon Jeffery; he’s one of the most heavily targeted players over the last month. Indeed, on a per route basis, his involvement in the Bears offense is off the charts. While this is not a full Reception Perception sample, Jeffery’s 41.7 percent target per route rate is a mind bender. High-end No. 1 receivers clocked in with targets on 32 percent of their routes as a high mark in 2014. Cutler only has eyes for Alshon Jeffery since the big wideout returned from his early season hamstring injury.
However, Jeffery isn’t just putting up raw stats solely on the back of his target volume. He’s been efficient with his chances, recording a reception on 27.2 percent of his pass routes in this three game sample. That would be another high-mark when compared to recent data. Jeffery will drop a pass every now and again, but when you consider just how much he is fed the ball, it’s hard to hold that against him. He more than makes up for the occasional drop committed with what he does when he catches the ball.
Success Rate Versus Coverage and Route Analysis
Here we really want to dig into just what type of player Alshon Jeffery is. While Cutler currently treats him like a top-five NFL receiver, does he carry that potential? A close look at his routes gives a convincing answer.
Unbalanced would be the best way to describe Jeffery’s route percentage chart from this sample. 69 percent of his 103 routes run over these three games were nine, curl and slat routes. All three fit his skill set quite well.
The nine and curl route are best called for a big receiver who knows how to use their frame. Even if they can’t burn a corner, a quarterback can throw his receiver a 50/50 ball on the vertical patterns, while boxing out smaller defenders comes easy on curls. The slant is another popular route for these big pass catchers. The size advantage provided over defensive backs comes into focus on these routes where a receiver gets a quick hitting reception. Jeffery was out “in space” on 9.3 percent of his routes in this sample, and was only brought down on first contact 60 percent of the time, a solid score. Get the ball in the hands of your big X-receiver on slants, and let him move the offense.
However, you can’t ignore just how limited this route tree is. Outside of those three routes, just a handful of other patterns get sprinkled into his assignment. There are only small lists of tasks you realistically want to ask of Alshon. He’s not going to run every route in the book.
Of course, one concept Reception Perception consistently reminds us is that a receiver (especially one built like Jeffery) doesn’t need to run every route in the book to be a great player. The name of the game is executing what you’re assigned, not who does the most.
(SRVC denotes success rate versus coverage for each route. PTS indicates how many PPR fantasy points a receiver earned on each particular route)
Jeffery’s score on vertical routes of a 64.3 percent SRVC is quite impressive. Again, this isn’t someone we think of as a speed player. However, he uses size, length and leverage to create separation on deep fly patterns. He put up the most PTS on the nine, demonstrating his big play potential, and ability in traffic.
The slant and curl route scores show that he’s not simply a big, stiff mover. Jeffery has some agility to his game, and can separate using quickness. Whether it’s a sharp, timing-based break on a curl, or a flash at the stem of a slant, Jeffery has the shake to get free for positive SRVC marks on both patterns. The curl carries his second highest PTS mark, which is another route that requires some catches in traffic. It also shows what a key cog he is for Cutler in the passing game, being deployed as a reliable target for his quarterback in the short to intermediate areas.
Again, it’s hard to put too much stock into what he does on any other route, because of how infrequently he ran them. However, he didn’t post a sterling, or well above average score on any other route (outside of one flat) to warrant consideration that he can be any more than what he’s asked to be.
The only mark that would raise some eyebrow from a casual observer was his success rate vs. man coverage.
Jeffery’s SRVC against man of 63.5 percent hovers just around the charted average for the full 2014 receiver database. It falls below the mark of elite big receivers like Dez Bryant or Julio Jones. His marks against press are not poor, but do fall outside of that elite tier. While not a liability here, Jeffery isn’t so fluid for his size that he can routinely separate at a well-above average rate from man-to-man coverage.
Of course, Jeffery’s biggest strength as a player helps negate his good but not great SRVC against man numbers:
There’s the phrase “he’s always open above his head” and if it applies to any receiver, it’s Alshon Jeffery. Jay Cutler can have faith that if he puts in near Jeffery’s zip code, he’ll come down with it in 80 percent of contested situations. The charted average in 2014 hover in the mid-60 percent range, making Jeffery’s score on the elite end (Jarvis Landry’s 88.9 percent was 2014’s best score).
Reception Perception’s best attribute is how the different data points contextualize the others. If you just look at his average SRVC against man score, you’d be tempted to knock Jeffery down a few pegs. While the score is enough to keep him off the high-end tier, his contested catch conversion rate shows that even if Jeffery doesn’t consistently separate, his strength nullifies his “weakness”.
One of the hottest receivers in the NFL, it was worth studying Alshon Jeffery to see just where he falls in the pantheon of current NFL receivers. While his limited route tree and SRVC against man scores keep him off the Dez Bryant, Odell Beckham, Antonio Brown, Julio Jones tier, it’s hard to put many above him in the next group.
While he doesn’t run a full route tree, his scores were quite good on the patterns he is assigned. Jeffery’s contested catch conversion rating illuminates his obvious best trait, the ability to come down with a vast majority of the passes thrown his way in traffic.
His current target rate is a hard one to keep up, but Jay Cutler and Adam Gase have no reason to alter the Alshon heavy passing distribution. They’re following the Just Throw It To Your Good Players philosophy to a perfect pitch, and their star receiver is rewarding them for it. Jeffrey is also talented enough, as his route SRVC numbers and catch per route rate show, to continue producing even if his target share comes down a tick.
One interesting note, Jeffery’s Reception Perception data over this three game sample strikingly mirror Kelvin Benjamin’s 2014 numbers to a tee (outside of drop rate). Did you forget about him? From their insane target per route rate, the SRVC against man, limited route tree, to a negating contested catch conversion rate, Benjamin compares quite favorably to Jeffery. If the big Panthers wideout can bring a little more nuance to his game, and recover fully from a preseason ACL tear, he could have a similar statistical output in 2016 to Jeffery’s monster three game stretch.
As for Jeffery, this three game Reception Perception sample helps solidify where he stands as an NFL player. In his first true burn as a No. 1 receiver, Jeffery passes the test. As he plays out the rest of his contract season, he should only grow in value with each passing contest. He’s one of the best receivers in the league, growing in stature, and most importantly, one of the more fun players at the position to watch.