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Will Jeremy Maclin be a 1,000 yard receiver for the Kansas City Chiefs?

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Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

This is a question we will be revisiting throughout the year: will Jeremy Maclin be a 1,000 yard receiver? Can he be one in this offense, with Alex Smith throwing him the ball? Does it even matter? If Maclin does reach that goal, it will be proof of A, B, and C narratives; if he doesn't, the X, Y, and Z narratives will gain credibility instead. Fill in the variables as you please. Blah blah blah.

While I think yardage totals are over-hyped, the underlying questions are important, and the 1,000 yard benchmark is a kind of signal of everything else going on. What is more fascinating, therefore, is what the question itself can reveal in the process of answering it.

From my perspective, Maclin's chances of getting to 1,000 yards will be mainly affected by two factors:

  • Alex Smith's willingness to throw deep
  • the offense's target distribution

Of course, other things will play a role, too: the offensive line's growth or lack thereof, injuries to any of the various starters, the availability of uncrustables, etc. These factors are worthy of discussion in another post, perhaps. For today, we move on...

The deep game

What will be in this thread is charts, charts, and more charts. If what you want is film review, I recommend checking out our very own MNchiefsfan's breakdown of Jeremy Maclin's entire breakout 2014 season with Philadelphia. This post is an attempt to complement that one by taking a closer look at the numbers.

To start, here are some charts, as promised, on the distribution of targets across the field for various receivers and quarterbacks in the NFL. Pro Football Focus (PFF) provided the data and I simply corralled it all together into one place for convenience.

The first chart is the total targets of the top 10 quarterbacks of the 2014 season as graded by PFF's pass grading and where those targets were aimed on the field.

LOS = line of scrimmage

nfl_average_target_dist..0.png

As you can see, the middle of the field is the most popular place to throw the ball. This will probably always be true. Targets here are high percentage and elite offenses successfully utilize the sidelines in order to open up space for those high percentage throws in the middle. Even the best quarterbacks in the league throw a majority of their attempts somewhere between the hashes. If you can make a defense fear your deep game and your sideline game, despite these areas resulting, on average, in more interceptions, less completions, etc., then you can scheme your way into the middle of the field and have your way with an easy game of catch. Your receivers will look sure-handed, your quarterback accurate, the chains will continuously move.

You can also see that these same quarterbacks are throwing 60 percent of their stuff nine yards or less from the line of scrimmage. Again, it's not too surprising. It is sometimes thought that you might use this or that tactic with the goal of opening up your deep game; but, really, you should use your deep game -- which will always be low percentage and riskier -- to open up your short game because if you can excel there then things become easy.

The hope with a guy like Jeremy Maclin is not that the Kansas City Chiefs will suddenly become a team that relies on the deep ball, but that having even a half-way competent deep game will make things more spacious for Travis Kelce and Jamaal Charles underneath. The Chiefs, by the way, have arguably the worst deep game in the league.

So how does Alex Smith compare? The percentage discrepancy won't "wow" you, but keep in mind that even a small percentage point here or there, over the course of a season, can be the difference between wins and losses, between touchdowns and 4th downs.

blue = league; red = Smith

smith_total_5_years_targ._dist..0.png

These charts include The Phoenix's total pass attempts over the past five seasons. As we know, Smith is consistently throwing the ball shorter than his NFL counterparts.

If you click this link, you will gain access to a Google doc page with those five seasons broken down individually. Notice two quick things:

First, that Smith's percentage of attempts behind the LOS increased heavily once he started working under Reid. Andy loves that screen game.

Second, that Smith's 20+ yard throws go from 12 percent in 2010 -- before Jim Harbaugh's San Francisco hiring; right at league average -- to a steady downward decline each year, reaching the nadir of this most recent season, where Smith attempted a mere 5.7 percent of his passes deep.

The kind of deep ball ineptitude we witnessed in 2014 is not something even Alex Smith is used to seeing.

What we saw last year was an exacerbation of Smith's clear tendency developed over four seasons to not throw down-field. A combination of factors made Smith more reluctant than ever to do so. The wonderful thing to gather from this data is that attempting about six percent of your passes deep is not just half of the league average, but it's a good 40 percent below Smith's five-year average. The kind of deep ball ineptitude we witnessed in 2014 is not something even Alex Smith is used to seeing. Mere random chance would likely cause more deep attempts and more success at in 2015, because things can't get much worse. The addition of Jeremy Maclin simply ensures that any new success is less about chance and more about talent. Kansas City does not have to "over"-rely on the deep game, or Maclin, to begin utilizing it respectably.

A "worse" year for Maclin is a "better" year for Kansas City?

It is a strange irony of a team sport as complex as football that one man's production can be evidence of the team's shortcomings. Maclin's deep success looks great for his stats and makes him worth every penny of his new contract, but the Philly passing game as a whole was by various measures similar-or-worse than Kansas City's, despite having Maclin as a weapon and relying less on the short passing game.

There are multiple paths to efficiency and productivity in the NFL. Different approaches can produce winning results. Both teams had winning seasons in 2014, yet perhaps the biggest difference between them was that Philadelphia wide receivers caught touchdowns and, believe it or not, during the course of my thorough research I discovered that no Kansas City wide receiver caught a touchdown in 2014. That will come as a surprise I think to most of us here at AP. I know the information shocked me. My first thought was how such a bizarre statistic could go so severely under-reported by the mainstream press.

But, unless you're reporting on the Chiefs, wide receiver stats don't tell you what didn't happen when a particular wideout was targeted. By that I mean, wide receiver stat sheets involve catches, touchdowns, yards, YAC, maybe even drops, but they do not inform us of what happened when the football failed to reach the receiver's hands. Team stats, of course, take all of this into account:

Maclin was targeted a lot last year. 140 times. That was near the top of the league. So were Maclin's yards and touchdowns. What wasn't so good was Maclin's catch rate: he only hauled in 60 percent of his targets. Somehow, however, he also only had one (1, uno, une, WON!!!) drop. Incredible. What the heck was happening, then, on the other 40 percent of his targets? He certainly wasn't dropping them...

  • Nick Foles going deep last year was 19 of 59 with 9 TDs and 6 INTs.
  • Mark Sanchez was 13 of 37 for 2 TDs and 4 INTs.
  • Alex Smith went 8 of 24 for 2 TDs and 2 INTs. (I am pretty sure both those INTs came against Tennessee on Donnie Avery targets).

Maclin produced five of his touchdowns on passes travelling at least 20 yards -- but his team also suffered five interceptions. Altogether, Eagles quarterbacks threw seven interceptions when targeting Maclin, the most of any receiver in the league. From a Maclin stat perspective, nine catches for 356 yards, with five touchdowns and zero drops on deep balls is awesome. From a QB perspective, 9 of 34 (26 percent) with five touchdowns and five picks is a lot less awesome.

One of the variables for Maclin's production here is the fact that Alex Smith only threw four interceptions from Week 2 to Week 16. I just can't imagine Smith ever throwing five interceptions while targeting one receiver -- especially deep. While this has nothing to do with Maclin's value (it says much more about Sanchez, Foles, and Smith), it does have something to do with the simple fact that a similar season of production for our new No. 1 might come at the cost of a worse season for our signal-caller. That won't be a worthy trade-off. Perhaps, we should expect instead a better year for Alex Smith, but at the cost of a "worse" one for Jeremy Maclin.

Maclin vs. Bowe

Here is a similar target distribution chart as above for Maclin's targets last year and Dwayne Bowe's over the last two:

maclin-vs-bowe_chiefs.0.png

* Bowe's total targets above equal 203, whereas below they equal 191. I double-checked my arithmetic and everything was the same. I have always been good at math, so I am not sure why there is this 11 target discrepancy. Excuse me, 12 target discrepancy.

The lack of Bowe targets behind the LOS is interesting. With the addition of Maclin, Reid can now run WR/RB screens with just about every offensive weapon on the roster: Charles, DAT, Kelce, Wilson, Davis, and now Maclin. If you thought Reid loved the screen game before...

Bowe was also not really a threat deep, or at least was never getting open enough for Smith to pull the trigger. The two began to show some fantastic timing this past year on comebacks, but other than that the main route I recall the duo being effective with was the slant.

The benefit of Maclin is, therefore, obvious. Referencing again MN's film breakdown, we know the entire route tree will be open on Smith's strong side, providing options that Bowe failed to. Maclin will be a bigger threat in the deep and short passing game. Most importantly, perhaps, Reid's rekindled flame knows how to get open. If Maclin can get separation, Smith will get him the ball.

From 2013 to 2014, Bowe's catch percentage (the percent of his targets that turned into catches) was 61 percent. Maclin's last season was 60 percent. At first glance, of course, they are about equal -- but this tells us very little. As we know, Maclin had one drop all season over 140 targets, while Bowe had 15 drops in two years on 191 targets.

What accounts for the similar catch percentage when one guy is dropping 14 more passes? Well, two big things:

First, quarterback accuracy. A more accurate quarterback will give his guys more chances to drop passes. Pretty simple.

But, the bigger fact, in my opinion, is how far the ball is thrown. Alex Smith is an accurate quarterback, but it is expected that you be accurate when throwing short passes. The further away your target is, the more inaccurate you become. If we know that Maclin's average target was deeper than Bowe's, then it makes sense that the quarterbacks throwing to Maclin would be less accurate on average than Smith was to Bowe. This would affect how many chances Maclin had to catch balls.

In fact, if you remove Maclin's deep targets, the job for his quarterbacks gets easier, and his catch rate improves to 70 percent. Therefore, while Maclin might produce less down-field, he could make a lot of that up on more shallow routes. It will be a question of the total number of looks he gets -- and Maclin should get his fair share of targets all over the field, not just 20 yards down it.

I won't try to make any bold predictions from the following chart.

I won't try to make any bold predictions from the following chart; I will simply provide it for consumption and people can freely speculate as to its relevance. What can be said at a minimum is that Maclin will likely not receive 140 targets this season. Bowe had 101 in 2013 and that was in a pass-heavy year and prior to the emergence of Travis Kelce. Chief-blinders-on recently wrote an excellent post on Maclin detailing some of these points further. Check it out.

highlighted names = receiving targets likely to be relevant in 2015

2013-2014_chiefs_receivers.0.png

Conclusion

Reliance on the screen game in Andy Reid's first two seasons has not been ideal, but it does look like a conscious decision, born of some combination of Reid, Smith, and a struggling o-line. The lack of deep attempts, however, is a clear flaw. I think we know Reid and Smith would both like more balance in terms of the pass distribution around the field. Maclin gives them that chance.

None of the information above suggests Reid has an issue dialing the plays, and we know Maclin is capable. Smith, on the other hand, while more effective than many when he chooses, rarely chooses -- and this is a contradiction which will have to work itself out. Whether it's been a lack of weapons or a lack of time, Smith has only ever shown confidence in select receivers and in select instances.

The good news on that front is he showed quick chemistry last season with Wilson and Avant, so perhaps Maclin can produce deep immediately. His familiarity with Reid's system, ability to create separation, and demonstrated intelligence bode well for that possibility. So does the fact that this will be Smith's first time playing in the same system for a third year. Last year was a year of small but noticeable improvement for Smith and the offense -- don't let the sacks or lack of wide receiver touchdowns fool you, this offense on the whole looked and felt better in Reid's second year against stronger competition -- which means there is some hope for another step forward in 2015.

As to the title question, will Maclin get 1,000 yards? My money is on Travis Kelce. But Maclin should be very close -- and if he can join Zeus or The Monarch or whatever we're calling Kelce, this will be one hell of an offense. I think the moral of the story is: regardless of how many yards Maclin gets, his presence is a benefit, and that should manifest into greater offensive production, even if Maclin's own production takes a dip.