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The football world got its first devastating loss of the 2016 regular season when reports confirmed that Keenan Allen would miss the rest of the year after tearing his ACL in the first half of Week 1. The Chargers star wideout was featured in the Reception Perception flags planted article as someone who would make people forget they ever saw him as anything other than one of the NFL’s true No. 1 receivers.
Alas, we won’t get to enjoy that sort of dominant season from Allen and are now left with nothing but hope that he will return next season for a wild comeback story. The Chargers, however, need to proceed forward through the next 15 games on their schedule without his assistance. No offense loses a talent like Keenan Allen and gets better, it’s a net negative for all of the players involved, San Diego does have some interesting options to step up in his absence.
The first and most obvious candidate to see an uptick in usage is Travis Benjamin who the Chargers signed away from the Cleveland Browns in free agency this offseason. Of all the receivers on their roster he’s the only one who has any history of extensive production.
Benjamin hung around on the Browns roster for several years after Cleveland selected him in the fourth-round of the 2012 NFL Draft. He didn’t make much noise outside of special teams until 2015 when he went off for 68 catches and 966 yards. His work in that contract season netted him a four-year deal with the Chargers.
Many in the football world were willing to write off Benjamin’s performance early in the 2015 season as a fluke occurrence; they were just a collection of big plays made with Johnny Manziel heaving long balls. However, Reception Perception revealed that his ascension was a legitimate and he would not be going away soon.
The explosive plays died out in time, but were replaced with more steady production. By years’ end, Benjamin had over 120 targets and was south of 1,000 yards. As the season went on, Benjamin rounded his game into more of a complete player’s abilities. Benjamin’s full-season Reception Perception sample illustrates his development:
Of course, the nine-route is well represented at a 24.5 percent rate of his 257 routes. Benjamin is one of the NFL’s fastest players and a dangerous vertical threat. However, we can see here he ran several other routes with a high frequency. The slant is next most often run route at 19.5 percent, followed by the curl and post.
That’s a rather stripped down set of assignments, as no other route run (outside of the screen) checked in above the NFL average. However, what Benjamin did in 2015, he did quite well. And frankly, it’s more than enough for what San Diego was set to ask of him:
(SRVC denotes success rate versus coverage for each route. PTS indicates how many PPR fantasy points a receiver earned on each particular route)
Benjamin’s 65.1 percent success rate vs. coverage (SRVC) on nine routes was a top- five score in series’ history. He’s a dangerous deep threat when just straight up streaking down the field. However, his post route score of 75.8 was well above the league average, showing there’s more to his vertical game than just straight speed. Benjamin is dangerous at the sharp break points of inward routes.
The same phenomenon is evident in his 80.4 percent success rate on slant routes. Any score on slants above 80 percent is quite good, and nearly eight percentage marks above the league average. Here’s where Benjamin will need to take on a larger portion of responsibility with Keenan Allen down for the count. The Chargers run a quick, up-tempo and timing-based passing game. Allen ran slant routes at one of the highest rate in the NFL during the 2015 season, as did Stevie Johnson. Benjamin can no longer just play the Malcom Floyd role of the field-stretcher; he will need to help move the chains in the short to intermediate game.
Luckily, his Reception Perception reveals he is capable of that. His score on slant routes shows that he can flash open on quick releases and be an option in the short passing game. However, perusing the rest of his route chart we see he has a strong score on comeback routes. Now his usage rate was just under the league average, so the sample is limited, but this is a positive indicator. The comeback is one of the more difficult patterns to earn separation on. One flip of his game tape shows Benjamin showing the nuance combination of technique and the quickness to execute this pattern. With this score in conjunction with his slant and vertical scores, we have enough reason to believe Benjamin can step up to take more on his plate than originally intended in Allen’s absence this year, though he’s not even half the player of the wideout he’ll replace.
While we’ve spoken posivitly about Benjamin here, it’s not hard to see he’s not a complete player. His success rate vs. man coverage (64.1) overall is just over the league average, while his press marks (68.9) are right in line with league average and his one score (70.5) is below it. His contested catch conversion rate of 25 percent is one of the worst ever charted in series history and in the bottom 10 percentile of scores. Benjamin will need some help if the Chargers wide receiver corps is to remain productive, even if he’s set for a positive season with his usage on the rise.
Tyrell Williams is a popular candidate to take on some of the work. Williams is a rangy athlete who curshed his Pro Day out of Western Oregon and fits right in line with the archetype of wide receiver the Chargers clearly like. In his Week 1 Reception Perception results he posted a success rate vs. coverage score over 53 percent on his vertical routes, above the league average. Don’t be surprised if his role continues to evolve as the season wears on and he establishes himself as a true starter by year’s end.
Dontelle Inman didn’t set the world on fire when Keenan Allen went down last year, but he’s a solid player who should slot into a role the Chargers need. Inman took 68 percent of his Week 1 snaps from the slot and looked like the replacement for the injured Steve Johnson who wnet down in training camp. Johnson is one the NFL’s best route runners and looked like he would be a volume hog as a slot receiver for the Chargers this year. Inman isn’t he player Johnson is, but he scored near the league average on multiple short to intermediate routes in Week 1. He won’t be special, but won’t be a liability either. He’s hung around in this system for multiple years for a reason, after all. Inman isn’t being discussed enough in the wake of Allen’s, and could post multiple five to seven catch outings in a high-volume passing offense that will need to compensate for a below average defense.
The Chargers are a far cry from the once strong unit that they boasted at the start of the 2016 training camp season. They lost their star No. 1 receiver and slot maven technician to season-ending injuries. It is hard for any team to withstand that. San Diego’s offense will suffer as a result.
However, the team does have options and depth to replace them. Benjamin should slide into the top spot, and proved he possesses the capabilities to be more than just a deep threat for this team if they ask him to, even if it is not ideal. Tyrell Williams has tantalizing upside and flashed it in glimpses in the opening week of this season. Inman could end up being a poor man’s Steve Johnson, and rack up volume in the slot.
The Chargers suffered a loss in Keenan Allen no team should have to endure. But Reception Perception reveals that there are multiple assets on this team that we need to keep watching. All hope isn’t quite lost in San Diego’s receiving corps, even if the outlook is much darker now than it was a few days ago.