The Dissenting Costanzan #8: Steve Smith, Sr., Philly Brown, and Small WRs

stevesmith

Seinfeld, Season 5, Episode 1, “The Mango.”

George: She’s not faking!
Elaine: How do you know?
George: I know. I can tell. It’s one of my powers. Why? Did you ever fake?
Elaine: Of course. . . .
Jerry: And the guy never knows?
Elaine: No. . . .
Jerry: I guess after that many beers he’s probably a little groggy anyway.
Elaine: You didn’t know. . . .
Jerry: Are you saying . . .
George [to a waitress]: I think I’ll have a piece of cake.

The Dissenting Costanzan is a semi-regular series in which I as RotoViz’s (un)official ombudsman examine or call into question some of the arguments, assumptions, evidence, logic, methodologies, and pop culture references made recently on our site. In general, we at RotoViz desire for our posts to be as Costanza-proof as possible—for them to be able to withstand the bald pessimistic, caustic, and probingly meta-concerned deconstructionist post-postmodern inspection of the most Costanza-like reader imaginable. Why “The Dissenting Costanzan”?—why not???

Steve Smith, Sr.—Is He Actually For Real?

Matt Rittle is something of an institution. My first big Twitter fight with anyone was with Rittle: I had been on Twitter for a couple of months, I had just published my culminating piece on the Rams backfield and “The Shanny Moneyball Strategy”—and Rittle, who wasn’t writing for RotoViz yet, totally thought my central thesis sucked and let me know about it. When he joined RotoViz a couple of months later, I tried to joke with him about the Twitter fight, and he had no idea what I was talking about. He didn’t remember the incident, because what I considered to be a blowout was nothing to him—because he gets in much bigger blowouts on a daily basis. I felt a little like a gum-chewing groupie: “Uhm, hey Joey! Remember me?! . . . Cleveland? . . . 1987? . . . leather skirt???” I was just another one-time Twitter thing to Rittle. That’s what I mean by “institution.” This dude has fantasy opinions, and he spreads them around.

I generally like his ideas. His daily fantasy sports posts last year and his offseason best ball pieces were killer, and I found his pro-Antonio Gates argument convincing during the summer.1 Recently, Rittle has analyzed the Ravens snaps and targets, and I once again agree with most of his insights: Justin Forsett occupies a Shane Vereen-esque pass-catching role regardless of whoever is the between-the-tackles running back; Bernard Pierce is in serious danger of losing future snaps to surging rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro; and Torrey Smith is a great buy-low candidate as someone likely to see an increase in targets.

But the assertion that “Smith, Sr. 2014 is for real”?—I just can’t see it. Even though the concession is made that “the pace of his targets may drop somewhat through the season,” Smith is ultimately presented “especially in PPR formats” as a guy “to buy . . . from an owner nervous at target regression.”

I disagree. I think that Smith is a guy who should-be-nervous owners need to sell.

Maybe I’m just a risk-averse [insert pejorative slang term here], but I think people with Steve Smith on their rosters should be nervous for a variety of reasons.2 Smith indeed might finish 2014 with at least 130 targets—but he might not, as Torrey Smith could see a substantial target increase and if one of the RBs emerges as a workhorse then the total number of targets could decrease.

More importantly, despite the steady diet of targets Smith has received so far—and despite his three TDs, one of which was entirely fluky, another of which was partially fluky, and the third of which was fueled by revenge—Smith has been productive and good but also incredibly lucky and not great. He’s basically been what Kendall Wright was last year—except he’s lucked into a couple of long TDs . . . one of which wasn’t even thrown to him. He’s getting by on volume, but I doubt that he’s likely to see the end zone on a regular basis in the future.

Look at it this way: Wouldn’t you say that Steve Smith has undoubtedly overperformed this year, that he’s played well over his head? If we look at the RotoViz Efficiency App—one of my favorite tools—we’ll see that in Weeks 1-3 of this season, Smith has 0.17 receiving fantasy points over expectation per target (reFPOEPT), which isn’t awful but in wide receivers with at least 10 targets that number doesn’t put him even in the top 35 most efficient players. A few spots ahead of him are Miles Austin, Greg Jennings, Harry Douglas, and Golden Tate. The only category in which we should be pleased to see Smith trail those players is drops. So even with Smith overperforming this season, at least before Week 4 he hadn’t been very efficient.

Why am I not including Week 4 efficiency data in this analysis? Well, pragmatically, as of writing, the Week 4 efficiency data isn’t available yet, and philosophically I think the inclusion of a totally fluke TD in the small sample size would misrepresent what Smith has looked like as a player in 2014. Clearly, Smith’s production to date has resulted more from volume and luck than efficiency—and in my opinion guys who are lucky and not very efficient tend to see their luck and opportunities diminish over extended periods of time.

Additionally, as productive as Smith has been so far this season, he’s still been less efficient than he was over his three years playing with Cam Newton in Carolina. Again, the RotoViz Efficiency App shows that from 2011 to 2013, with 377 targets, Smith had 0.28 reFPOEPT, which is exactly what Andre Johnson, Mike Wallace, Jeremy Maclin, and Percy Harvin had over that same time frame. Pretty good company. Tell me, what does your inner Costanzan tell you? Is Smith in 2014 actually as good as those players?

Let’s look at the RotoViz Efficiency App one more time. From 2000 to 2010, on 1,059 targets, Smith had 0.31 reFPOEPT, which in WRs with at least 300 targets makes him a top 20 efficient player over that time frame, having the same efficiency as Torry Holt and Calvin Johnson. So pre-Newton, when Smith was basically good no matter who his quarterback was, Smith had great efficiency. Then, in his three years with Newton, Smith displayed basically the same efficiency he had for the rest of his career—efficiency comparable to that displayed by other good WRs. Now, post-Newton, in Weeks 1-3, even with Smith getting a long TD, his efficiency with QB Joe Flacco has noticeably declined, and I expect that his efficiency after Week 4 will be much improved, but it’s hard to put too much stock in the efficiency number when it includes a long random TD in such a small sample size. I get that Smith has been productive so far, but he’s been the beneficiary of luck and volume, and with him seemingly overperforming are you willing to bet that he will maintain or improve his efficiency from here?

He’s one of the last guys I’d trade for in any format. I could eat those words, and if you have him you’re probably thrilled with the production he’s given so far, but if you don’t have him I don’t see why you would actively want to trade for him. On a per-target basis, he’s worse than he was the last three years. I don’t like trading for players who are getting worse, even if their production has improved. But that’s just me.

Philly Brown, Little Sidekick?—More like ‘Philly Brown, give a Little Kick to the Side’

Recently, Michael Kershner made the case for Panthers rookie WR Philly Brown as a fantasy contributor in 2014. In the end, Brown isn’t presented as a fantasy savior or potential top 10 receiver but as more of a poor man’s Andrew Hawkins, so given the relative innocuousness of the pro-Brown argument my reaction will likely seem extreme, but . . . Brown is probably one of the last players who should be on anyone’s roster. Based on the argument made for him, I can’t see Philly Brown actually being a consistent fantasy contributor this season—and likely any season.

I won’t even go into detail about how great the historical odds are that an undrafted, small, and slow WR without an actual breakout season in college won’t have a single productive NFL season, much less a productive rookie season. And I’ll only mention that Brown was an injury fill-in when he “exploded” for seven catches, 66 yards, no touchdowns, and a back-breaking special teams fumble in Week 3, saw limited action in Week 4, and isn’t certain to see much playing time in the future. Instead, I want to focus on the degree to which Brown is not comparable to Randall Cobb, Percy Harvin, and Wes Welker, since much of the argument for Brown hinges on direct or implied comparisons to these players.

The pro-Brown argument directly compares Brown’s physical attributes to those of Cobb and Harvin. Here are the combine heights, weights, official 40-yard-dash times, and speed scores for Cobb, Harvin, and Brown.

Name Ht Wt 40 Time Speed Score
Randall Cobb 70 191 4.46 96.54
Percy Harvin 71 192 4.41 101.53
Philly Brown 71 178 4.51 86.05

A couple points of order: In this table, I’ve included only size and 40 time, since those are the only physical features that RotoViz has consistently shown to have predictive quality regarding a prospect’s NFL production. Additionally, you might notice that some of the numbers in this table differ from those in the pro-Brown argument. If you click on the hyperlinked names in the table above, you’ll see that these measurements are pulled directly from each player’s NFL.com combine or draft player profile. In other words, these measurements are as official as measurements get.

Immediately, you’ll notice in this table that Brown is by far the lightest and slowest, which results in a speed score that is not only by far worse than Cobb’s and Harvin’s but is generally well below average. Harvin’s athleticism is legend, and Cobb’s athleticism is certainly sufficient even if it’s unexceptional—but Brown’s timed athleticism is utterly substandard for a NFL player. If Brown were 208 lbs., his 4.51 40 time would be fine—but small WRs generally need to be fast, especially if they are under 190 lbs., and Brown is not only exceptionally small for the NFL but also exceptionally slow for his size, at least if one uses his official combine 40 time.

And maybe you think that the difference between 180 lbs. and 190 lbs. isn’t that big. In the NFL, that difference is huge. Lots of receivers who are around 190 lbs. have success, but in general the only 180-lb. WRs with NFL success are the ones who are fast, for instance DeSean Jackson, Mike Wallace, and T.Y. Hilton. In the NFL the difference between 180 lbs. and 190 lbs. is like the difference between a freshman and senior in high school. In summation, when compared to Cobb and Harvin, Brown isn’t a similar athlete—at least not in the ways that RotoViz has shown matter.

Now, I hear one of your possible objections: the existence of Welker. With a normal playing weight below 190 lbs., Welker has been a success despite his lack of good straight-line speed. The pro-Brown argument says that, for slot players, “it’s more about short area bust, agility, and most importantly route running,” and this might have some explanatory power as to why Welker has had NFL success—but it could also exclude Brown. For instance, Welker is known as a master of the option route. Brown is not—although, to be (un)fair to Brown, he’s not really known for anything.

And what about short-area burst and agility? Here are how Welker and Brown compare.

Name Ht Wt Three Cone Short Shuttle Agility Score
Philly Brown 71 178 7.16 4.22 11.38
Wes Welker 69 195 7.09 4.01 11.10

Clearly, not only was Welker much heavier in his pre-draft workout, but his timed agility was also much better. Maybe Brown has enough short-area burst to be a decent slot receiver—and I haven’t seen strong correlation between agility score and success as a NFL slot receiver—but what’s certain is that, as an athlete, Brown doesn’t really compare to Welker.

And what about college production? I’ve argued before that, with WR/RB hybrid players, market share is not as significant as total production, so I’ll just admit that Brown’s market share numbers are comparable to Cobb, Harvin, and Welker’s numbers—for whatever that’s worth—and move along to a consideration of raw statistics.

Here are the touches, scrimmage yards, and all-purpose TDs that all four guys produced in their two final college seasons.

Name Year Class Age Touch ScrYd ScrTD Ret TD Tot TD Gm
Philly Brown 2013 4 22 67 813 10 0 10 14
Philly Brown 2012 3 21 71 765 4 2 6 12
CoHarWelk Mean NA 2.8 20.2 127.5 1321.7 11.7 1.2 12.8 12.5
CoHarWelk Median NA 3 20 128.5 1301 11 1 12.5 12.5
Randall Cobb 2010 3 20 139 1441 12 1 13 13
Randall Cobb 2009 2 19 133 1020 14 1 15 12
Percy Harvin 2008 3 20 110 1304 17 0 17 12
Percy Harvin 2007 2 19 142 1622 10 0 10 11
Wes Welker 2003 4 22 124 1245 10 2 12 13
Wes Welker 2002 3 21 117 1298 7 3 10 14

The statistical differences between the three established veterans and the rookie are obvious. Cobb, Harvin, and Welker all had multiple seasons of over 100 touches, over 1,000 scrimmage yards, and at least 10 all-purpose TDs. Brown hit the 10-TD mark only once, and he never got anywhere close to 100 touches or 1,000 scrimmage yards.

What’s potentially intriguing is that Harvin and Brown both played for head coach Urban Meyer, Harvin at Florida and Brown at Ohio State. Let’s dig deeper into their receiving and rushing stats. Were the two players used comparably in similar (if not identical) offenses?

Name Year Class Age Rec ReYd ReTD RuAtt RuYd RuTD
Philly Brown 2013 4 22 63 771 10 4 42 0
Philly Brown 2012 3 21 60 669 3 11 96 1
Percy Harvin 2008 3 20 40 644 7 70 660 10
Percy Harvin 2007 2 19 59 858 4 83 764 6

As a receiver, Brown and Harvin were essentially equivalent players, but Meyer—the guy who also used Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps as hybrid weapons at Florida—didn’t see fit to use Brown as a hybrid player. Despite starting out his college career as a RB, Brown wasn’t used much as a rusher in his final seasons. In fact, he never had over 100 yards rushing in any of his college seasons. Cobb, Harvin, and Welker, meanwhile, all broke 100 yards rushing in their final two seasons.

In other words, Brown wasn’t actually a WR/RB hybrid player. He was really just a small former RB almost exclusively playing WR and producing a mediocre market share in the process.

Undrafted, small, slow, backup, ordinary producer in college—does that sound like the type of WR you want on the end of your bench?

Small WRs vs. Big WRs

Look, I understand that with each person you take out on a date you’re not necessarily looking for someone to spend the rest of your life with . . . but you probably are looking for someone you could eventually have sex with, right?

Bigger receivers are historically more productive. Bigger WRs do better in the red zone. That’s important because TDs are important. TDs are more irreplaceable than yards. TDs are what fantasy football is about. In general, in any given matchup, the NFL team that scores more TDs wins. The same goes in fantasy. The lineup that scores more TDs usually wins.

If I’ve gone overboard in belittling Philly Brown and to a lesser degree Steve Smith, Sr. it’s because of what they represent. They are small WRs who at this point (I believe) aren’t exceptional athletes and are unlikely to score TDs consistently.

Small WRs should be rostered in only a few circumstances—a proven producer is available at a discount to historical production, such as DeSean Jackson last year and Percy Harvin this year; a proven producer is available for something close to fair value and other players in that same draft range are relatively unappealing, examples of which are possibly Antonio Brown and Randall Cobb this year and Wes Welker in years past; or a strong athlete and college producer with acceptable draft pedigree is available for cheap in comparison to his NFL potential, such as T.Y. Hilton in his rookie year and (probably) John Brown this year.

Otherwise, rostering a small WR is a bad idea. The odds of his producing are too low and the production he’s likely to yield if he were “useful” would be too unimpressive relative to the risk taken in rostering him—and this is coming from the guy who’s probably the friendliest to small WRs at RotoViz.

Don’t roster someone like Smith, Sr. or Philly Brown. Trade Smith—while his value is high—for a bigger, decent WR who’s likely to be a better source of TDs. Maybe you could even include Smith in a package that improves your RB position too. And drop Brown. You’d likely be better off with Davante Adams, Allen Robinson, Donte Moncrief, or even Da’Rick Rogers, Jeff Janis, or John Brown, if any of those guys are available on waivers. At least if one of those guys hits, he has a chance of hitting big. If Philly Brown hits, you’ll still be looking to upgrade his starting position anyway. Be honest, if eventually you’re starting Philly Brown, you’ll basically be faking it.

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Want to see the previous issue of the Dissenting Costanzan? Click here.
Want to see the next issue of the Dissenting Costanzan? Wait another couple of months.

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Matthew Freedman is a regular contributor to RotoViz and is (not) the inspiration for the character in The League who shares his name. He serves as RotoViz’s (un)official ombudsman in the series The Dissenting Costanzan, and he also co-hosts the RotoViz Radio Football Podcast and writes The Backfield Report and The Wideout Report. He is the creator of the non-Quarterback Dominator Rating and now the Workhorse Metric and is the chief proponent of the RBx6 draft strategy and the No. 1 fan of John Brown, the Desert Lilliputian. If you hate the #LarryDonnell Twitter phenomenon . . .

. . . you now know who to blame.

  1. Of course, it helps that I already agreed with his pro-Gates perspective.  (back)
  2. For instance, if Smith is on their rosters, who else is on their rosters?  (back)