On Monday, Darrius Heyward-Bey was officially announced as a new signee of the Indianapolis Colts. All was well and good, until the fantasy football community began their incessant hand-wringing. Let’s face it, we’re all bored; trying to entertain ourselves with daily fantasy basketball, the NFL draft and, for the few and far between…baseball. That is why it isn’t particulary surprising that several of the fine folks on twitter wondered aloud weather DHB would have a negative impact on T.Y Hilton’s statistical performance.
Hilton’s current ADP, according to My Fantasy League is as the 30th wide receiver off the board, with his average overall position coming in at 75.38. Before the Heyward-Bey deal was completed, I already felt like Hilton was surely going to outperform that ADP. Rotoviz writer Matthew Freedman did a great job here and here elucidating on why Hilton will be a great fantasy option; I am still in agreement with him, even after the deal was completed. After looking at Matthew’s work, it becomes very clear that Hilton will be a useful fantasy player and I don’t believe Heyward-Bey affects that status for 2013.
Once the variables of the Colt’s offense and scheme are stripped away, Hilton is just a better play. The most vaunted skill Heyward-Bey has isn’t even an advantage over Hilton; DHB’s 40 time stands at 4.25, while Hilton’s is only .05 slower, at 4.30. Heyward-Bey will always be an impressive physical specimen, but he isn’t really that much more gifted than Hilton. Despite the hype that has always been placed on Hayward-Bey, both fairly and unfairly, he has never produced the way that Hilton has.
The college careers of the two players paint a divergent picture. Using Rotoviz’s College WR comparison tool, Hilton significantly outperformed DHB in Yards Per Target, Market Share of Yards, was definitively better in Market Share of Touchdowns, and out targeted him all 4 years. DHB did have more of an equal footing in Red Zone TD Rate, but that could easily have been a patter of misusage. The more traditional metrics put Hilton in an even kinder light. Even with rushing yards, Heyward-Bey never posted 1,000 yards from scrimmage; Hilton did so 3 times. Perhaps most damning is that Hilton’s offensive touches increased each year from 55, 63, 89 and 91 while Heyward-Bey’s touches barely changed from 50 to 57 t0 58. Hilton improved each year and become more involved, while DHB plateaued.
Comparing rookie seasons makes Hilton look even better from a pure skills standpoint. The wide receiver position is one that has a steep learning curve and development takes a few season. While this would seem to indicate that Heyward-Bey may be due for a breakout, it would seem to me that Hilton would gain an advantage because his pure skills allowed him to produce as a rookie. Per Pro Football Focus, Heyward-Bey’s rookie year featured a 23.7% catch percentage, 14 total yards after catch, and five drops on only 38 targets. Hilton’s rookie year boasted an impressive 57.4% catch rate, 430 yards after the catch, 5 missed tackles and almost 1,000 yards. Granted, Hilton had Andrew Luck throwing to him; however, a rookie quarterback who completed 53.9% of his passes isn’t enough to guarantee a great season. Oakland quarterbacks completed 48% of their passes in 2009; that difference is not enough to say that Heyward-Bey was just the victim of bad quarterbacking play. To be fair, however, no one should have to play with Jamarcus Russell. Heyward-Bey’s sophmore year wasn’t too much better, with a 43.3 Catch %, 106 yards after the catch, and a 15% deep pass catch rate.
The skill that Hilton seems to be particularly adept at is running deep routes and converting them with efficiency. Per Pro Football Focus, Hilton caught 10 of his 20 deep targets for 6 touchdowns 383 yards. Even in Heyward-Bey’s best season, he couldn’t approach these numbers. Clearly, we have reached a point that we can say that Hilton is a better wide receiver than Heyward-Bey. The question that remains is whether Heyward-Bey is going to vulture meaningful targets from Hilton that will depress his fantasy football value.
The most likely scenario is that Heyward-Bey is going to replace Donnie Avery in the WR3 role. Avery out-targeted Hilton 112 to 88 in 2012, and even though Avery got more targets, Hilton had a far more productive fantasy season. Indianapolis does have a new offensive coordinator, that historically does not integrate vertical passing elements the way that Bruce Arians did; however, no offense is going to be entirely without vertical passing. To neglect the deep ball with Luck’s accuracy and Hilton’s speed would be sheer ignorance. It is precisely because Hilton has shown real report with Luck on downfield passes that we can be assured that Hilton’s fantasy floor for 2013 is what he accomplished in 2012. Heyward-Bey’s acquisition makes it more likely that Hilton actually plays in the slot more than he did in 2012, which would mean in addition to high value deep targets, Hilton would also be getting the short and intermediate targets that stabilize a wide receiver’s fantasy value.
In 2012, Heyward-Bey only ran 119 routes of his 509 out of the slot for an abysmal 43.8% catch rate 16 targets; Hilton ran 205 of his 479 routes out of the slot and caught 64% of the targets he received. DHB is more efficient (if that is a word that can be applied to him…ever) on the outside; this will free Hilton up to be set in motion, play in the slot, as well as playing outside. Hilton’s versatility, relationship with Luck and general skillset are going to mean that Heyward-Bey’s signing are not going to damage his fantasy prospects. Let all the others pass on Hilton to the 8th or 9th round of your redraft leagues and snag a WR2 at a WR3.