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Why the Chiefs should probably let Albert Wilson walk

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Analysis of Wilson’s stats, his film and a salary estimate

Kansas City Chiefs v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Albert Wilson had a career year in 2017. No one can deny that.

After years of being largely maligned by Chiefs fans (one year removed from loving his potential), Wilson’s fortunes have turned and he has become the most talked about potential free agent the Chiefs could lose. There are rumors that multiple teams, in particular, the Bears, are very interested in Wilson’s services if he hits the market. All this less than a year after Chiefs fans were generally screaming that he should be cut. Life, as they say, comes at you fast.

The general consensus I’ve seen among Chiefs fans on Twitter and in the comments here is that it would be good if the Chiefs could retain Wilson. A vocal segment, at least in my mentions, believes that he could blossom into a very good player with Patrick Mahomes at quarterback. A larger, but just as vocal, group believes that Wilson was a clutch performer for the Chiefs last season and a bigger part of the offense than most realize.

Here are the common things I hear about Wilson from fans who want him retained:

  1. Wilson’s impressive day with Mahomes at the helm (10 catches for 147 yards) is a foreshadowing of things to come if Wilson remains with the Chiefs, as he and Mahomes “have a connection.”
  2. The Chiefs offense swooned without Wilson around (we all remember that horrific offensive display in the middle of the season), demonstrating his importance.
  3. Wilson is a reliable performer who helped move the chains and knows the offense and is also a fantastic blocker.

We all know that very last point (about Wilson’s blocking) is true. In fact, I think it’s about time we all have a gif, and what better gif than watching Wilson lay out Aqib Talib?

That’s just good stuff.

However, Wilson isn’t without detractors. There are those who believe the Chiefs would be just fine if he moved on, particularly if he commands any kind of heavy price. That segment of the fanbase cites Wilson’s drops and catch radius as their primary reasoning, with the idea being he’s a replaceable player.

So which is it? Is Wilson good or not good? What was his role in the offense? How hard would it be to replace him? Is it true that his big day with Mahomes reflected loads of untapped potential that we’ll see unlocked if Mahomes-to-Wilson remains a thing in 2018?

As always, I’m uncomfortable letting questions linger, so to the film we go.

I reviewed every route Wilson ran in five games of 2017, including his career day in Week 17. The goal was to try and figure out Wilson’s strengths and weaknesses while ascertaining whether he’s a guy who “moves the needle” or is more a product of the system.

While the film review is the most important aspect of all this, I charted wins, losses, and neutral snaps while watching Wilson. I also charted drops, potential yards lost, and “saves.” What those terms mean are as follows:

Win- Beating his defender against man coverage and gaining clear separation, making a great catch against good coverage, or finding the soft spot in zone coverage (not to be confused with being “schemed” open in zone coverage, a subtle but important difference).

Loss- Unable to separate at all against man coverage or against zone in which it’s really a one-on-one situation.

Neutral- Plays Wilson was asked to block, ran a route that took him into defenders naturally (as a decoy or otherwise), or failed to “win” or “lose” in a noticeable way. This includes times where the route combination got Wilson open rather than his own ability.

Drops/yards- You know... drops. And yards lost (estimated conservatively) due to them.

Saves- A play in which Wilson bails out a bad quarterback throw by making a tough catch. This is a new “stat” I’ve started to track.

Let’s talk about what I saw with Wilson, starting with the numbers and then diving into the film.

There are some things we can take from those numbers, but in this case, I’d urge a bit of caution about putting too much weight on them. The main reason for this is that the Chiefs faced a lot of zone coverage in some games, which made it tough to really track wins and losses. Additionally, Wilson’s unique role with the Chiefs (which we’ll get into shortly) resulted in more “neutral” snaps than I would have expected.

However, it is undeniable that Wilson’s win percentage isn’t as high as I’d like. Given that I expect a “good” corner to lose between 20 and 25 percent of the time, extrapolating that to wide receiver tells me I want the receiver to win more often than that (or else he’s making the opponent into a “good” corner, if you follow). The loss percentage is impressively low, which is nice, but a bit skewed given his role.

What surprised me (and could be telling) is that in five games, I didn’t see a single catch I thought was worthy of charting as a “save.” That matters to me. Now part of it may be that Alex Smith (and Mahomes in his game) did a good job avoiding inaccurate passes. But it tells me that Wilson wasn’t ever asked to create something out of nothing, or do more than what the team set him up to do (at least in terms of tough catches).

That matters when considering value above replacement: if a guy isn’t being asked to do much that is really rough, it shouldn’t be tough to replace him.

And that’s where we’ll move into the film with Wilson. Because the reality is, there just wasn’t a TON that he was asked to do that I can’t picture a plethora of other receivers doing.

Wilson isn’t without his strengths. Even when fans were quite down on him, it was always worth noting that he’s good when it comes to yards after the catch.

It’s been said before, but Wilson is built more like a running back than a wide receiver, and his running style is pretty unique as well. Once he’s got the ball in his hands, Wilson is more capable than most receivers in the league at creating extra yards with good open-field vision, solid cutting ability and good core strength to break tackles. He’s tough to corral for defenses, and that’s a big deal in Reid’s offense.

In fact, I would call YAC ability Wilson’s absolute top trait. He’s good enough with the ball in his hands that you could even refer to it as “running ability.” The Chiefs have used Wilson on jet sweeps and even right out of the backfield in the past, with decent results. There’s definitely value in a player you can move all over the field and use of various gadget plays to create unpredictability.

Another good trait for Wilson is the ability to create separation in specific circumstances. He’s not a great “multi-cut” route runner, or even a particularly good one, but on one cut and go routes he does a nice job.

Wilson has some natural quickness in specific circumstances (not all, which we’ll come back to), and is able to use it to beat defenders at the line and on his first cut.

This ability to win quickly extends to his best route, the whip route (or pivot), which he used repeatedly in 2017 with success.

I’m not sure why this is, but Wilson looks quicker and more polished running the whip route than any other route in the tree. It’s a bizarre “best” route to have, but it is what it is.

Another thing to appreciate about Wilson is the fact that contact doesn’t bother him too much, especially for a “smaller” receiver. Wilson’s stout build and strength allow him to brush off contact pretty well without getting tossed out of his route, and he’s also quick enough on his feet to just avoid pressing defenders.

Another strength Wilson has is solid speed and explosion off the line. There’s a reason Wilson is often able to get behind defenders.

As I say in the tweet here, if being a deep threat were JUST about speed, Wilson would be a very reliable deep threat. He’s consistently able to get behind defenders with his burst off the line and decent top speed (though watching him next to Hill he tends to look slow, but that’s not really a fair test for anyone).

Wilson played all over the field in 2017, even before Chris Conley went down, and appears to know how to play every receiver position on offense. He also, from what I could see, was never out of position or in a miscommunication with his quarterback (not a given, just ask Demarcus Robinson). He has a solid knack for finding (or at least looking for) open spots in zone coverage and knows when to break off his routes and play schoolyard ball. These are all valuable traits and reflect the years Wilson has spent in Reid’s offense.

And again, there’s the blocking.

I understand that people are cynical about blocking praise when it comes to receivers, but in Wilson’s case, it is well earned. He’s a very good blocker, both on screens and in the running game, and both are quite important at times in Reid’s offense. Wilson shows good effort, solid technique and tenacity combined with a mean streak. All of which combines for multiple “plus” plays throughout the season that don’t end up on the box score.

So all that sounds great, right? I must be in favor of the Chiefs bringing Wilson back, right?

Well...

The Bad

The problem with Wilson isn’t in what he can do, it’s in what he can’t do.

Wilson has always had and continues to have a limited catch radius. While he’ll occasionally make a good catch in which he has to stretch, it is not something you can count on him to do consistently at all. He is also pretty poor at tracking and adjusting to the ball down the field, an utterly crucial skill as a deep threat.

The combination of those two weaknesses negates a lot of what Wilson could be as a field-stretching fast guy. The reality is it’s tough to trust him down the field because he requires a very good throw in order to make the catch. The preference (at least for me) is a guy who can adjust to a ball that is off-target because the farther down the field you get, the less accurate the throws will be. The ability to adjust to and catch an inaccurate ball is what separates fast guys from legitimate deep threats (see Hill, Tyreek).

Additionally, while Wilson does demonstrate some quickness on certain routes, it’s on a limited tree. When he’s asked to perform more than a single cut, his footwork suffers and he doesn’t look nearly as quick in his routes. That’s a real problem, in that it limits what you can ask him to do.

If you watch Wilson next to Hill, it appears by my eyes that Hill is already the superior route-runner, and considering Hill is a second-year player not known for that skill... well, it’s worrisome.

Wilson’s limitations as a route-runner are largely hidden by the role he plays in Reid’s offense, and Reid’s ability to scheme players open.

While I appreciate the fact that Wilson went to the correct spot and made the catch in the above play, this isn’t anything that dozens of other receivers can’t do. And again, when you’re talking about value above replacement, that kind of thing matters.

Wilson also seems to slow down in intermediate zones when asked (as I alluded to earlier) to perform more than one cut or when he’s asked to do more running between cuts. It’s as though his explosion in go routes and 1-cut routes doesn’t translate when he’s asked to change direction at top speed. Again, that limits the routes he can run effectively.

That’s where I land with Wilson: he’s a player who isn’t bad by any means and has some strengths (YAC, some speed on go routes, blocking, certain short routes), but he also has some pretty serious limitations (poor catch radius, doesn’t adjust well to the ball, lacks ability in most intermediate routes to change direction quickly) that prevent him from being more than what I’d call a “decent” player. He’s absolutely a guy you like having on your team... but based on what I’m seeing, you don’t want him to be more than your fourth option in the receiving game (which is where Reid had him before Conley got hurt, and arguably fifth behind Kareem Hunt).

Now, I need to address some of the reasoning people give for saying they think Wilson will explode in 2018. We need to talk about the Denver game.

I just don’t see Week 17 as a reason to believe Wilson will become a star with Patrick Mahomes. The reality is that many of Wilson’s yards that game came due to good-to-miraculous plays by Mahomes or scheming by the coaches. Take Wilson’s first catch, for example.

Wilson doesn’t really “win” on his route here so much as Mahomes manages to fire the ball into the perfect spot at just the right time. That’s 17 yards that are 90 percent on the quarterback, as all Wilson did was turn around, not even achieving much separation. The catch was made easier by the ball placement. Any NFL receiver should make this catch.

Another example came later on in the game for 19 yards.

On this play, Wilson doesn’t get open on his own. Rather, the route combination puts him in a vacant zone and Mahomes draws the underneath defenders away with his eyes and body language. Yes, Wilson gains three or four extra yards, but the majority of this is not Wilson doing anything particularly impressive.

Between Mahomes making some absurd throws and Reid’s offense creating easy opportunities, Wilson’s big day was, in my opinion, in large part something that most “decent” NFL receivers could have pulled off.

Of Wilson’s 147 yards receiving that day, I pegged 88 of them (about 60 percent) as coming on plays where Wilson “won” his route, and that was borderline (as I gave Wilson credit for winning on a 19-yard play that was iffy). In truth, Wilson was more the recipient of Mahomes playing a good game and Reid calling a good game than he was creating yards. Because of that, the Week 17 game doesn’t do much to change my opinion of Wilson. I think most decent receivers would have performed just as well.

Another argument I’ve heard regarding Wilson, before I get to the final portion (what I’d pay for him), is that the offense plummeted when he was injured and rebounded when he returned. I’ve tried to determine the truth to that idea, and I just can’t make it fit.

The Chiefs played in multiple games in which the passing attack struggled with Wilson fully healthy: the first Chargers game, part of the first Broncos game, the Bills game (arguably the ugliest of the year), the second Raiders game, and of course the playoff game (though that was a tale of two halves, as we all know). Additionally, in the game in which the pass offense sprang to life (the Jets game), Wilson was largely a non-factor, with three catches on five targets for 27 yards.

Finally, the offense’s most dominating stretch (four of the first five games of the season) came during the time when Wilson was playing half the snaps and in a much more limited role. He was, interestingly enough, about as productive in that limited role statistically as he was later on in the year when his snap count was considerably higher.

All of this is a long road to a short thought: I can’t find any real relationship between Wilson’s presence on the offense (by itself) and the offense playing better. I think perhaps the cumulative effect of losing Conley and Wilson hurt, but overall, the offense’s success and failure appeared to rise and fall what we always thought it rose and fell on: the play of Smith, Kelce, Hill and Kareem Hunt, along with Reid’s play calling and the offensive line. Wilson was a side note.

And you need side notes on a good offense. None of this is meant to denigrate Wilson’s role last season. He helped win games, make no mistake. The issue is simply one of cost. And here’s where we get to the business portion of the NFL. You should not ever, ever overpay decent players, especially in a market where plenty are available.

The bottom line

The wide receiver market is pretty flush with talent, especially now that Sammy Watkins and Allen Robinson are out there (I am not saying the Chiefs should sign them. I’m just saying they increase the available supply). In that market, considering the other needs the Chiefs have and the limited role Wilson played, I could not support paying him more than $4 million a year.

If he’s willing to sign for that? Fantastic.

It would be my preference that the Chiefs keep a guy familiar with the system who is willing to do the dirty work on offense, a good team player who will generate YAC and help move the chains when called upon. However, it appears the climate of free agency may be a good one for Wilson, especially with Matt Nagy in Chicago.

If I’m Brett Veach, I make Wilson an offer between $3.5 million and $4 million a year. Anything over that, and I’d let him walk. While he has some value and strengths as a player, his limitations and reliance on the system make him a loss the team can handle.

The new league year is almost here. I really, really cannot wait to see how this all plays out.

For the first time in years, the possibilities feel endless.