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The Dissenting Costanzan #7: Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, and The RotoViz Mission

demaryius_thomas

Seinfeld, Season 6, Episode 6, “The Gymnast.”
Jerry: You find yourself in the kitchen. You see an éclair—in the receptacle—and you think to yourself, “What the hell, I’ll just eat some trash.”
George: No . . . it was not trash.
Jerry: Was it in the trash?
George: Yes.
Jerry: Then it was trash. . . . Adjacent to refuse is refuse. . . . Was it eaten?
George: One little bite.
Jerry: Well, that’s garbage. . . . You, my friend, have crossed the line that divides Man and Bum. You are now a Bum.  

The Dissenting Costanzan is a regular series in which I as RotoViz’s (un)official ombudsman will 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???

Demaryius Thomas over Calvin Johnson? I Don’t Totally Disagree

Jacob Rickrode recently posted a piece (implicitly) arguing that wide receiver Demaryius Thomas should be drafted before Calvin Johnson, and he supported his argument with a cold six-pack of reasons. After reading, I found that I generally agreed with the reasoning. It’s probably the best piece I’ve read this summer about the merits of selecting a wide receiver before Megatron in fantasy drafts. But a few points exist about which I have some questions.

The article starts by emphasizing how safe of a pick DT is, highlighting quarterback Peyton Manning’s ability to support (or create) WR1s in 13 of 14 years. It’s true that Thomas is a safe pick—but is any WR a safer pick than Megatron? Just head over to Pro Football Focus and look at what Johnson has done on the Lions throughout his career. In 2008, on the NFL’s first ever 0-16 team, with some rancid combination of Dan Orlovsky, Jon Kitna, Daunte Culpepper, Drew Stanton, and Drew Henson “throwing”1 him the ball, Johnson still managed a 78-1331-12 season to finish as the #3 WR overall. In 2010, with Shaun Hill and Stanton starting 13 games combined as a tag-team replacement for injured Matthew Stafford, Johnson went 77-1120-12 (in 15 games) to finish as the #6 WR. For the two years after that, he was the #1 WR overall. And then in 2013, despite missing two games, he finished as the #3 WR overall.

Here’s a table using data pulled from PFR:

Name

Year

Age

G

FantPt

PosRank

Pts/G

Calvin Johnson

2011

26

16

265

1

16.6

Calvin Johnson

2013

28

14

219

3

15.6

Demaryius Thomas

2013

26

16

225

2

14.1

Calvin Johnson

2012

27

16

220

1

13.8

Demaryius Thomas

2012

25

16

197

5

12.3

Demaryius Thomas

2011

24

11

80

56

7.3

Over the last three seasons, Johnson has handily outproduced Thomas on a points-per-game basis (in standard scoring). His two best years are markedly better than Thomas’ top year. In fact, Johnson’s worst year is almost as good as Thomas’ best year—and it’s noticeably better than Thomas’ second-best year. Even if we look only at last year, when DT was part of a prolific offense, Megatron still outscored him by a 1.5 pts/g.

Now, maybe you’ll look at this table and think that it’s not fair to compare Megatron’s mid-career years to Thomas’ early years in the league, the first two of which were played with Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow as his QBs. Fine. Let’s see what happened in the seasons when these guys were the same age—and let’s see what QBs they played with.

Name

Year

Age

G

Pts

PR

Pts/G

QBs

Calvin Johnson

2011

26

16

265

1

16.6

Stafford

Demaryius Thomas

2013

26

16

225

2

14.1

Manning

Calvin Johnson

2010

25

15

189

6

12.6

Hill, Stanton, Stafford

Demaryius Thomas

2012

25

16

197

5

12.3

Manning

Calvin Johnson

2009

24

14

136

21

9.7

Stafford, Culpepper, Stanton

Demaryius Thomas

2011

24

11

80

56

7.3

Tebow, Orton

Calvin Johnson

2008

23

16

207

3

12.9

Orlovsky, Kitna, Culpepper, Stanton, Henson

Demaryius Thomas

2010

23

10

40

92

4.0

Orton, Tebow

Every year Megatron outproduced DT, sometimes marginally, sometimes massively, and almost always with inferior QBs. It doesn’t really matter if DT is a safe pick. What matters is whether he’s a safer pick than Megatron—and on the basis of what they’ve done in their careers I don’t think we can say that Thomas is safer.

But really what we care about is 2014, not 2010-13. How will the two compare this season? As a point in DT’s favor, his contract status is briefly mentioned by the article. Here it is quoted in full:

Thomas will be a free agent in 2015. His next contract could be the largest of his career so there is plenty of motivation for a big season in 2014. Even if you believe recent studies that say the contract year doesn’t matter, it can’t hurt right?

Let’s set aside the possibility that maybe a guy could play worse because he’s in a contract year—and let’s deal directly with the potential non-pertinence of this point: If recent studies say that playing in a contract year has no bearing on performance, can this point legitimately be used as justification for a contrarian action? Probably not.

Even if you believe recent studies that say that jumping off a tall building while wearing a Superman shirt won’t affect the outcome . . . do you actually need me to finish that sentence?

I could be nitpicking, because this was the smallest point in the whole article—but when a bold argument is made it deserves not to be supported by evidence that likely means nothing.

Thinking that flowers on a blind date might lead to sex—that’s one thing. Thinking that flowers at a funeral might lead to death—that’s something else.

I won’t debate that Megatron could experience target regression in 2014—although it’s possible that new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, never having had a weapon in New Orleans like Megatron before, will deploy him as some unholy Jimmy Graham-Marques Colston-Lance Moore hybrid that sucks up targets harder than Mega Maid sucks air in Spaceballs.2

And I won’t debate that Demaryius’ target total could increase this season—although it’s possible that career target-magnet Wes Welker will get more of Eric Decker’s former targets than people expect. And I won’t even debate that Manning is more efficient with Thomas than Stafford is with Johnson—although I do think that using RotoViz’s AYA App to look at Johnson’s production with Stafford for all of Stafford’s post-rookie seasons, not just the last two years, would’ve been better.

What I’ll debate is whether Thomas has the higher ceiling. If he did have more upside3, choosing him before Johnson could be justifiable, even if Johnson were safer. But I don’t think Thomas has more upside.

Here are the 2014 projections for both players pulled from RotoViz’s WR Similarity Scores App:

Standard

Calvin Johnson

Demaryius Thomas

Low

11.1

9.6

Median

13.5

11.9

High

15.3

14.8

Johnson’s projections are higher across the board. But, hey, DT was the #1 PPR WR last year. Maybe the standard scoring format isn’t for him.

Half PPR

Calvin Johnson

Demaryius Thomas

Low

13.5

12.2

Median

16.1

14.6

High

18.4

17.8

Well, that’s not full PPR.

PPR

Calvin Johnson

Demaryius Thomas

Low

15.8

14.8

Median

19.2

17.3

High

21.6

20.9

So maybe it’s not a slam dunk that DT has the higher ceiling (or floor) after all.

I can see how Thomas finishes the season ahead of Johnson, and I don’t totally disagree with the decision to select Thomas before Megatron in redraft leagues. But wearing shoes with wings doesn’t mean that you can fly when you run. Know what I’m saying?4

Wes Welker: Scene One, Take Two, Action!

Last week, I argued that Wes Welker is one of the most undervalued PPR WRs of 2014. Justin Winn, with Costanzan insightfulness, wrote a brilliant rebuttal suggesting that Welker is probably too risky to draft. And Winn could very well be right, stating that he owns “zero shares of Welker so far this year.” As it turns out, I also don’t own any Welker shares to date, as he’s often been snagged a few picks before the spot in drafts where I’d want to take him at the value I seek. But that doesn’t mean he’s not undervalued.

The rebuttal piece noted that I didn’t explicitly mention Welker’s concussions last season or his increased chances this season of suffering more (and more severe) concussions. I didn’t mention the concussions for two reasons: 1) Rightly or wrongly, I view concussions as miniature Black Swans. They’re hard to predict, they can strike at random, and even if a player’s chances of suffering one in the future are increased I think the overall odds of him suffering a concussion are still low. 2) I think Welker’s injury risk is already more than baked into his average draft position. It’s why a guy who’s been a top-15 WR for the past seven years and was the #21 WR last year despite missing three games is being selected as the #25 WR this year. To me, the concussion risk is implicit in Welker’s ADP. If not for the concussions, I don’t see how his ADP wouldn’t be higher, especially with Decker now gone. But since Welker still seems likelier than not not to suffer a concussion next year—lots of previously concussed players return to the football field and have stellar un-concussed careers thereafter—I view Welker’s ADP as an opportunity, not a sign of his impending demise.

The rebuttal piece also notes that Welker, if injured, could be shelved for a prolonged period of time because the Broncos “probably won’t rush him back now that they have replacement options,” with those options being Emmanuel Sanders and potentially Cody Latimer and Andre Caldwell. While I agree that Sanders is likely Welker’s future replacement—for 2015—I have a hard time believing that, if Welker were actually healthy enough to play, the Broncos would be content to leave one of the decade’s most prolific receivers on the bench in favor of a glorified Harry Douglas.

Peyton Manning is a beast. When premium meat is available, you feed the beast. Welker is premium high-end WR2 meat. Sanders, based on his career so far, is something akin to chopped liver. If Welker can play, he will play.

One more thing—since turnabout is fair play—in all this talk of injury we’ve discussed only Welker and his odds of missing time. What about other Broncos receivers? What are their odds of injury? There’s the possibility that DT, Sanders, or Julius Thomas could miss time to injury, and if that happens—if only one of those three guys misses time—then Welker’s usage will skyrocket. Are Welker’s odds of injury in 2014 worse than the odds of any one of those guys individually? Probably. But are his odds worse than all of their odds put together? Probably not. If injury strikes, it could hit Welker—but it could just as easily strike one of the other Denver receivers. Welker’s not the only receiver at risk on the football field.

The rebuttal also suggests that, based on his career 5.71% TD/rec rate, Welker will likely score about five TDs next year, assuming he’ll have 90 receptions. I’ll get to the assumption that Welker will have only 90 receptions later. Here, I want to question the 5.71% TD/rec rate. I doubt that it’s applicable. It includes Welker’s 96 pre-2007 receptions with Miami on which he scored only one TD due to usage that is now unrepresentative of how he is used. Basically, the 5.71% includes numbers that do not apply to the player we now know. Check out these stats from PFR:

Wes Welker Receiving Statistics, 2007-13

YearAgeTmGRecYdsY/RTDR/GY/GTD/GTD/R
200726NWE16112117510.58773.40.500.071
2008*27NWE16111116510.536.972.80.190.027
2009*+28NWE1412313481148.896.30.290.033
2010*29NWE15868489.975.756.50.470.081
2011*+30NWE16122156912.997.698.10.560.074
2012*31NWE16118135411.567.484.60.380.051
201332DEN137377810.7105.659.80.770.137
TotalsNANA106745823711.1477.077.70.440.063
Mean29NA15.1106.41176.711.06.77.077.40.450.063
Median29NA16.0112.01175.010.77.07.073.40.470.063

You’ll see that Welker from 2007-2013 has a 6.3% TD/rec rate, which is high enough (on 90 receptions) to bring his TD total close to six. But, more importantly, I believe that the TD/rec rate that truly matters is not Welker’s but the historical rate existing between Manning and all of his previous “Welker function”/small/slot receivers. To see how Manning did with all his prior Welker-esque WRs, I combed through PFR’s franchise data for the Colts and the Broncos, starting with 20025 and ending with 20126 Here’s how Manning has done with all his pre-Welker Welkers:

Manning's Welker-esque WRs, 2002-12

PlayerYearAgeTmGRecYdsY/RTDTD/RHtWtWR on Team
Wes Welker201332DEN137377810.7100.137691903
MeanNA27.4NA12.137.9465.512.34.00.10570.9191.73.1
MedianNA27NA154154311.630.111721973
Brandon Stokley201236DEN154554412.150.111711973
Austin Collie201025IND95864911.280.138732002
Blair White201023IND13363559.950.139742054
Anthony Gonzalez201026IND256713.400.000721935
Austin Collie200924IND166067611.370.117732002
Anthony Gonzalez200824IND165766411.640.070721933
Anthony Gonzalez200723IND133757615.630.081721932
Brandon Stokley200630IND488510.610.125671723
Brandon Stokley200529IND154154313.210.024711973
Troy Walters200529IND161415210.930.214671724
Brandon Stokley200428IND1668107715.8100.147711973
Troy Walters200327IND153645612.730.083671723
Brandon Stokley200327IND6222119.630.136711974
Qadry Ismael200232IND144446210.530.068721963

Let’s note the ways that these guys are similar to and differ from Welker. Like Welker last year, they’ve collectively been Manning’s #3 WR, with similar weight and playing in a similar number of games. But none of these guys—with the exception of Austin Collie in his injury-shortened 2010—was as central to Manning’s offense, and none of these guys are as prolific as Welker is. They averaged more yards per reception—but Welker had many more receptions. Most pertinently, all of these inferior pre-Welkers had an outstanding average collective TD/rec rate of 10.5%. The median was 11.1%. But Welker’s was even better at 13.7%—right in line with Collie’s 13.8% from 2010.

But as good as Collie, Brandon Stokley, Anthony Gonzalez, Blair White, and others were at scoring TDs with Manning, it makes sense to me that Welker is better. He’s simply the best WR of the group. So, you know, Welker might not regress as a TD-scorer in 2014, and if he doesn’t he would score 12 TDs next year on 90 receptions. But let’s say that he does regress. If so, I think it’s likelier that he’ll revert more to the 10.5% TD/rec of Manning’s pre-Welkers than to his own career 5.71%. Manning makes scorers out of his slot receivers, and if Welker is his slot receiver we should expect him at least to do roughly what his predecessors have done. If Welker turns 10.5% of his (theoretical) 90 receptions into TDs in 2014, he’ll score (over) nine TDs. That’s regression I can live with.

The rebuttal notes that Manning and the entire offense is sure to experience negative regression. That’s highly likely. I went to PFR and looked at all QBs to have at least 40 TDs passing in a season prior to 2013, and then I looked at how these QBs did the following year.7 Here are the results:

Season

Age

G

Cmp

Att

Cmp%

Yds

TD

Int

YN Mean

27.8

15.9

383.7

583.7

65.8

4875.6

45.2

14

YN Median

28

16

378

578

65.1

4806

45

14

YN+1 Mean

28.8

16

385.8

603.2

64.2

4580.8

33.2

14.5

YN+1 Median

29

16

396.5

608.5

65.1

4631

34.5

14.5

So these QBs tend to complete the same number of passes (and maybe more) in Year N+1, with a similar completion percentage. They accumulate fewer yards passing—though not egregiously fewer—and they have an almost identical number of interceptions. Where they really regress is in TDs, losing 10-11 in Year N+1. So let’s say that Manning, who had 55 TDs passing last year, has only 44 this year. And let’s (optimistically) say that the Thomases combine for 29 TDs, with DT getting one per game and Julius getting one more in 2014 than he got last year. That’s optimistic—but potentially realistic. And then let’s say that, of the 15 unaccounted for TDs, Manning throws two to running backs. Now, of the 13 remaining TDs, let’s give six to Sanders—in a career year, that’s what he scored last season. That still leaves seven TDs for Welker. It seems realistic to say that Welker has a decent chance of scoring seven to nine TDs in 2014.

Regarding the rebuttal’s assertion that 90 receptions is what we should expect from Welker in 2014, I think that 90 receptions is low—not simply because Welker averaged 112 receptions per year in New England—but because he showed in New England that, when he’s a team’s #2 WR, he can handled that volume—and unlike last year, when he was pacing for 90 receptions as Denver’s #3 WR, 2014 should see Welker return to his standard role as a team’s #2 WR—and don’t even try to tell me that Sanders will be the Denver’s #2 WR: He’s going to be the lesser Donte’ StallworthJabar Gaffney hybrid to Welker’s 2007 Welker and DT’s 2007 Moss. With Decker gone, Welker should see more targets and catch more passes, and the last time one of Manning’s pre-Welkers was his #2 WR, Collie put up a 58-649-8 stat line in just over half a season of action—and that was with Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon having good seasons and Dallas Clark and Jacob Tamme collectively going 104-978-7. Even factoring in the likelihood that DT and Julius are more productive than Wayne and Clark-Tamme, I think that the example of Collie—on top of Welker’s time in New England—suggests that Welker could have a top-12 season as Manning’s #2 WR.

The rebuttal makes a good point in saying that I was optimistic to dismiss the 2014 projection of Welker made by RotoViz’s WR Similarity Scores App. To clarify my position, I should say that I didn’t mean to imply that I’m rejecting the projection outright. I meant to say that, of all the players in Welker’s comp group, he himself is the most important comp, not because he will (necessarily) recreate his top-3 2011 season but because (I believe that) what he has done over the last seven and especially the last three years (as a guy over 30) is more relevant to his 2014 season than is what a group of other players (who may not be comparable to Welker in style) did years ago. Doesn’t that seem right?

I mean—and now imagine that I’m George Costanza, years after the timeline of the show, married, sitting at Monk’s Café talking with Jerry over a cup of over-roasted coffee—if I want to know what dinner my wife is making tonight, doesn’t it make more sense to think about the dinners she made in the past few months than the meals that other wives made their husbands years ago? George is getting upset!8 I don’t think that the comp group is irrelevant. I just think it’s not as relevant to Welker as his own history is.

The rebuttal was right to imply that comparing Welker to Cordarrelle Patterson wasn’t particularly actionable, since C-Patz is going about 20 spots before Welker. I was trying to suggest that Welker represents an arbitrage opportunity on C-Patz, in that he’s cheaper and has a decent chance of outproducing him—but it’s probably better to look at Welker in comparison to the WRs around his ADP, and the rebuttal specifically mentions Decker, Torrey Smith, Mike Wallace, and Kendall Wright. Let’s start there—but since Decker is going about 20 spots after Welker, I don’t think he should be included in the group—and, without Decker, Welker has the group’s highest low, median, and high scores. On top of that, you know what Welker is and what he can do. I guess you could draft Smith, Wallace, and Wright and hope that they turn into Andre Johnson, DeSean Jackson, and Antonio Brown, but might it not be better just to draft Welker as the #25 WR and know that you’ll probably get the Welker who’s been a high-end WR2 for years?

The rebuttal closes by suggesting that drafting Welker is a half measure in that Welker is “a middling receiving option for a team” for whom you will need to pay “a significant price for both limited upside and limited security.” Perhaps. I’m probably not objective when viewing Welker, because for much of the past seven years Welker has been a middling half measure on a lot of my successful redraft teams. For many people, Welker has been desirable because of the security his consistency provides, and at his ADP, even if his upside is limited, Welker won’t need to do much (if anything) outside the ordinary of what he usually does for him to provide a nice return on investment.

I’m not saying that Welker will certainly have a WR1 season—but Welker’s being drafted as the #25 WR and the worst PPR positional finish he’s had in the last seven years is #21—which he got last year . . . despite missing three games . . .and being his team’s #3 WR. Before last year, he was a PPR WR1 in five of six years—and the year he wasn’t, 2010, was the year immediately after his ACL injury, when he was recovering, and he still finished as a WR2—and remember that all of Welker’s WR1 seasons came with him operating as his team’s #2 WR. He’s now Manning’s #2 WR. You might not think it, but Welker is elite. Of all the undervalued PPR WRs of 2014, he might not be the most undervalued, but he’s probably one of them.

The RotoViz Mission: Not to Split the Infinitive

Now that I’ve spent thousands of words going at Rickrode and Winn, I want to say that I’m extremely fortunate to be tasked with the organizational privilege of thinking critically about the work of other RotoViz writers, many of whom, especially the newer contributors to join the site within the past six months or so, have been producing exceptional work on a regular basis

In particular I think that Rickrode and Winn have been killing it. Both guys provide actionable analysis and more importantly both make arguments. Everything, implicitly or explicitly, is always already an argument—but these guys don’t tiptoe around their subjects. They create thesis statements, they gather and present evidence, and they seek to persuade their readers in a strong manner. They bring it.

Not every piece needs to say that a player is overrated, underrated, etc.—some of the pieces that simply collect and provide information and new metrics and/or perspectives are among my favorite—but I think that more RotoViz writers could follow Rickrode and Winn’s lead. I would like to see more pieces in which people make explicit and structured arguments about players and strategies.

From the beginning, RotoViz has been an argumentative site. Just look at all the pissing matches we get in on Twitter. To be contrarian means that one is inherently argumentative—but I think at times we lose a little of our argumentative edge, either because we don’t want to offend people, we don’t want to risk opening ourselves up to criticism by saying something definitively that turns out to be wrong, or we don’t want to write a post on an unpopular subject that might not generate subscriptions or page views.

I’m not saying that we need to piss off people or write about ubur-esoteric aspects of fantasy sports. I’m saying that, when we can, we consciously should seek to make bold arguments that push the boundaries. We need to boldlygo boldly where no other fantasy analysts have gone before.

Probably the most significant and influential RotoViz piece of the last year has been Shawn Siegele’s extraordinary introduction to the Zero RB Strategy. It was a great idea, and it was argued forcefully. And, not coincidentally, it’s probably been one of the most popular and monetarily successful RotoViz pieces of the last year. It’s done well because it inherently required a strong argument and it was bold.

Collectively, as a site, we need to ensure that we produce enough hard content. Not pieces that make people say, “I can’t read this,” but pieces that make people say either, “F*ck, I’ve got nothing,” or, “F*ck no, that’s wrong, I’ve got to say something.” If I’ve gone at Rickrode and Winn hard, it’s because their material was strong and it made me up my Costanzan game.

We all can up our games. Let’s be bold—like a naughty schoolgirl.

Want to see the previous issue of the Dissenting Costanzan? Click here.
Want to see the next issue of the Dissenting Costanzan? That’s mighty bold of you.

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, writing The Dissenting Costanzan, and he also writes The Backfield Report and The Wideout Report. He is the creator of the non-Quarterback Dominator Rating and the RBx6 draft strategy and is a fan of the Desert Lilliputians.

 

  1. read: shot-putting  (back)
  2. A RotoViz first, I believe—an embedded video in a footnote—it’s like the tootsie roll inside a cherry lollipop:

      (back)

  3. Notice that use of the conditional?  (back)
  4. I don’t even know what I’m saying.  (back)
  5. Tony Dungy’s first season as head coach in Indianapolis.  (back)
  6. Manning’s last season without Welker.  (back)
  7. I adjusted out Tom Brady’s 2008 season and Kurt Warner’s 2000 season due to many missed games as a result of injury and Dan Marino’s 1987 season due to a substantial number of games missed as a result of the player strike.  (back)
  8. And, with that, I just lost my one female reader: My wife.  (back)

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