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Checking in on the Carolina WR Depth Chart – The Case for Kealoha Pilares

Kealoha Pilares | Carolina Panthers | Flickr - Photo Sharing!

Photo by Football Schedule

Cam Newton is a star. At this time he’s one of the most valuable dynasty QBs one could roster. Despite his up-and-down two seasons in the NFL, he’s still been a top-5 QB both years. While a significant part of his value derives from his rushing ability, he has nevertheless averaged 20 passing TDs and about 3900 passing yards each season, and as he matures those numbers are likely to improve.

To many of us, Newton is either unavailable or too expensive to acquire in dynasty leagues, but an arbitrage opportunity does exist for capturing part of Newton’s production. Like Andrew Luck, one of the other coveted dynasty QBs, Newton has an aging #1 WR, and I think I’ve found the guy with a decent chance of being his T.Y. Hilton. I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but in the future when Newton is flinging the rock . . .

Kealoha Pilares has a chance to be the guy catching it.

As a fifth-round selection in 2011 out of Hawaii, Pilares was the first WR chosen by the organization with Newton specifically in mind. As I mentioned in my piece on Aldrick Robinson, I tend not to roster rookie WRs who don’t crack the top four rounds of the NFL draft. The odds are just too great that these guys won’t have success. (Only in the case of the WRs drafted by the Wide Receiver Whisperer have I allowed myself to transgress this dictum. Ryan Swope, say hello.)

Indeed, even the good under-drafted WRs as a whole tend not to become successful. But the collegiately-productive and physically-capable under-drafted WRs who make it into their third NFL season? About 50% of these guys tend to have success. And since they are usually easily acquirable, they can provide outstanding value.

The late-round third-year gems I target are WRs who 1) had at least 1000 scrimmage yards and 10 all-purpose TDs in their last collegiate seasons, 2) meet certain speed requirements for their weight, and 3) were drafted (if at all) after the fourth round.

These guys don’t come along all that often. Donald Driver was such a guy, and so was Miles Austin. Pierre Garcon was another. And depending on the 40 time you privilege (his combine v. pro day performances) Stevie Johnson was yet another. In short, these guys are rare.

Except this year. In 2011, four such collegiately-productive and physically-capable WRs were drafted after the fourth round. Who are these guys? One of them is the aforementioned Aldrick Robinson, another is Denarius Moore, another will be featured in a later article, and the fourth is Kealoha Pilares. History suggests that perhaps two will have top-30 seasons in the future (assuming that all four of them make NFL rosters in 2013). If one of them turned into the next Driver and another the next Garcon, would those be guys you’d want on your roster, for free?

Why does Kealoha, specifically, out of these four guys have a chance to achieve future success? Just look at the WR depth chart. After the 34-year-old Steve Smith—who can’t last forever, can he?—Carolina has no long-term WRs to speak of. To wit, here’s a list of the WRs in Carolina who are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents in 2014: Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr., David Gettis, Domenik Hixon, and Armanti Edwards. Additionally, the team has drafted only one WR in the last two drafts: the unimpressive Joe Adams. If everything stays the same (and it probably won’t, but just go with me), then the guys presently on the roster slated to start at WR in 2014 are Smith and Pilares. Talk about opportunity.

So much for 2014; what about 2013? None of the guys on the depth chart in front of Pilares are standout guys. Do we really think that LaFell, Ginn, Gettis, and Hixon are destined to keep the speedy and stout Pilares off the field? Let’s look at RotoViz’s (excellent) College WR Comparison App, which I encourage you to check out on your own. It’s one of the best dynasty tools around.

Here’s the heatmap comparing Pilares with LaFell, Ginn, Gettis, and Hixon.

Pilares Heat Map

In his last collegiate season, Pilares averaged more yards per target than any of the others. He garnered the second greatest market share of TDs, behind LaFell. He’s not head-and-shoulders above the others, but he’s certainly not any worse. His 40-time of 4.42 is downright Smithian for a guy who weighed 199 lbs. at his pro day. And his Agility Score of 10.96 suggests his ability to maneuver laterally in tight spaces. He even shows up on Quinton Patton’s comparables.

In 2013, if Smith is injured, or LaFell underwhelms, or Ginn is struck by a bolt of lightning (can you tell that I’m watching The Godfather as a write this?), Pilares is likely to see the field as a consistent receiving option. What’s to say he won’t do well if given the opportunity as an injury fill-in? Isn’t that how Miles Austin broke out? Haven’t the Panthers already had success turning one return man into a stud receiver?

Although Pilares isn’t likely to have the upside of some of this year’s top rookies, there are certain advantages to rostering him: 1) He is easy to acquire, 2) he has the upside that renders him a great arbitrage play, and 3) he is likely to have his future realized sooner than will a rookie. If you draft a rookie WR this year, you may convince yourself to wait anywhere from two to four years for him to develop into a worthwhile player. With Pilares, you’ll likely know within two years (at the most) whether he’ll be a player who will fulfill his potential.

What’s more valuable to your roster?—Tavon Austin in the first round of a rookie draft and a random RB off of waivers, or a first-round rookie RB (Le’Veon Bell, Gio Bernard, Eddie Lacy) and Pilares off of waivers? I think the latter option is better, in part because the difference between them in college production (not certain NFL opportunity) is minimal—and, in fact, in Pilares’ favor.

 Pilares Austin Heatmap

Pilares outdoes Austin in yards per target, red zone conversion rate, and market share of TDs. Additionally, he’s significantly bigger, slightly taller, and not much slower. Austin is certain to have more immediate opportunities than Pilares will, but is he really all that much more talented than Pilares? The numbers suggest that he’s not.

Would I bet on Pilares having a top-30 season within the next five years? No, I wouldn’t. I’d rather bet on Aldrick Robinson. But would I give Pilares the last spot on my roster, just to see if he turns into a starter, especially if A-Rob is unavailable? Yeah, I would.

There are four of these collegiately-productive and physically-capable under-drafted third-year WRs from the 2011 draft class entering the 2013 season. A couple of them are likely to have at least one top-30 season in the future. I think those guys are likely to be Denarius Moore and A-Rob, but one of them could be Pilares—or maybe even the fourth guy. Who is he? Look for the final article in this mini-series soon.

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