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Andy Reid views wide receivers as a position of luxury

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We dig deep into Andy Reid’s history to discuss how he views the wide receiver position.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs-Training Camp Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

I have recently been gathering information to write my Sammy Watkins prediction for 2018.

But along the way, I asked myself, “Why don’t I write articles about the things I uncover while doing research?”

So this article will be just that: a study of Andy Reid’s wide receivers.

Because I was focused on generating a prediction for Watkins, we’ll be looking at the WR1 and WR2 positions on Reid’s teams.

Andy Reid – how to build a team

In a 2016 Sports Illustrated article, Jenny Vrentas took a deep look into interviews for NFL head coaching jobs.

Reid was one of the coaches to whom Vrentas spoke, and Reid said that when he interviewed to become head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, he told them what he needed to build a winning football team:

I want two offensive tackles, a quarterback, two pass rushers, two corners, and I’ll figure the rest out.

Notice something about this list? Reid doesn’t say he needs a wide receiver. Not even one.

The truth is that on an Andy Reid team, the wide receiver position is a luxury — one that Reid builds over time. We’ll talk more on this later.

Reid’s Receivers - some history

Let’s start off by taking a look at Reid’s starting receivers through his career as a head coach — and remember, we’re looking at solely WR1s and WR2s.

If you don’t like history, then skip through this section. However, I think there are some nuggets in here that are definitely worth your time:

Charles Johnson – A WR1 in 1999 and 2000, Johnson (6’0” and 200 lbs.) was a former first-round pick acquired in free agency after playing five solid seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Torrance Small – Drafted in the fifth round in 1992, Small (6’3” and 209 lbs.) was a career WR2 who played for Reid in 1999 and 2000 after being acquired via free agency. He was in the twilight of his career while playing for the Eagles.

Todd Pinkston – Pinkston (6’3” and 175 lbs.) was second-round pick by the Eagles in 2000. Pinkston played WR1 for the Eagles from 2001 to 2003, and then moved to WR2 when Terrell Owens was brought to the team in 2004.

During his career, Pinkston faced a lot of criticism for being afraid to go over the middle. After he gave up on what seemed like a catchable ball in a game against the Redskins on December 12, 2004, ESPN analyst Joe Theismann said, “This is a great way to lose your job as a receiver in the National Football League!”

Many thought Pinkston played it safe due to his extremely low weight. In 2005, Pinkston suffered a torn Achilles and never recovered.

James Thrash – Thrash (6’0” and 200 lbs.) was an undrafted free agent who was originally signed by the Eagles in 1997. After being cut by the Eagles, he played four seasons with the Washington Redskins before returning to the Eagles in 2001. He was a WR2 for Reid through 2003. In 2012, ESPN’s Scott Prather described Thrash as the most average player ever.

Freddie Mitchell – Mitchell never made it as Reid’s WR1 or WR2, but I felt it important to include him since he is one of two wide receivers Reid took in the first round of the NFL Draft. Mitchell spent his whole career with the Eagles, playing for Reid from 2001 to 2004.

Mitchell was known to have a hot head and constantly talked trash. During a 2004 divisional playoff win over the Minnesota Vikings, Mitchell had five receptions for 65 yards and a touchdown. In a press conference after the game, Mitchell said, “I just want to thank my hands for being so great.”

Mitchell kept talking throughout the postseason, and leading up to the 2004 Super Bowl between the Eagles and New England Patriots, Mitchell ran his mouth about the Patriots secondary. After the Patriots won the game, Bill Belichick fired back. “All [Mitchell] does is talk. He’s terrible, and you can print that. I was happy when he was in the game.”

This — combined with Mitchell’s anger over the signing of Terrell Owens and a knee injury — led to the end of his NFL career.

Terrell Owens – I won’t spend much time on Owens. His successes and failures have been well documented, and we all know how great a player he was. T.O. played for the Eagles in 2004 and 2005.

Reggie Brown –Brown was drafted in the second round by the Eagles in the 2005 NFL Draft. During his rookie season, he was forced to assume a starting role to replace an injured Terrell Owens. Brown answered the call and played well in 2005 and 2006.

Brown then went to sign a six-year contract in 2006, but he never lived up to the deal. Injuries and improvements to the WR roster (specifically Desean Jackson) led Brown to eventually, be phased out of the offense. In 2010, Brown was traded to the Buccaneers but never saw the field and his career ended shortly afterward.

Donte’ Stallworth – Stallworth was a highly-talented receiver that played WR2 for Reid during the 2006 season. Drafted in the first round by the Saints in 2002, Stallworth was 6 feet, 197 pounds and was known for his ability to stretch the field. The Eagles acquired Stallworth by trading a LB, Mark Simoneau and a fourth-round pick.

Stallworth had numerous issues throughout his career in the NFL which culminated in 2009 when Stallworth was charged with vehicular manslaughter and a DUI for running over a pedestrian while having a BAC of 0.12 the morning after a night of partying. Stallworth’s lawyers believed he could have been resolved of the charges, but Stallworth chose to accept the felony because he believed it to be the morally right thing to do.

Kevin Curtis – Kevin Curtis is one of the smartest NFL players ever according to the Wonderlic score; he scored 48 out of 50. Curtis also ran a 4.35 40-yard dash and he played for Reid from 2007 to 2010. Curtis was the WR2 in 2007 and the WR1 in 2008.

Curtis played for the Rams in 2006, but was signed by the Eagles in free agency. Like many of Reid’s other WRs, Curtis was undersized standing at 5 feet 11 and 186 pounds.

However, Curtis’ first year with the Eagles was quite a feat by Reid. Curtis had 1,110 receiving yards when his prior career best was 801 yards. With Kevin Curtis, Reid took a second/third string receiver from another team and converted them into a serviceable WR1 — quite an accomplishment.

Unfortunately, Curtis’ time with the Eagles was cut short due to injuries in 2008, 2009 and 2010. I wonder how much Curtis could have contributed for the Eagles had he stayed healthy.

Desean Jackson – Jackson was drafted by the Eagles in the second round of the 2008 draft. Jackson was 5 feet 10, 169 pounds, and ran a 4.35 40-yard dash. Jackson started the 2008 season as the Eagles WR2, and played 2009 to 2012 as Reid’s WR1.

Jeremy Maclin – Maclin is the last (and second) WR Reid has taken in the first round. Maclin was a smaller receiver with great hands and athletic traits when coming out of the draft.

Dwayne Bowe – We all know who Bowe is. Reid acquired a past his prime Bowe when he began coaching for the Chiefs.

Donnie Avery – Avery was supposed to run the “DeSean Jackson” role for the Chiefs offense when he was acquired as a free agent. Unfortunately for the Chiefs, Avery was on the downward swing of his career when he joined the Chiefs and he never contributed as much as a typical WR2 should have.

Albert Wilson – Undrafted out of college, Reid was able to use Wilson in a pinch as WR2 in 2015 and 2017 as other players on the Chiefs roster were injured. Wilson is an undersized receiver with impressive speed, strength and quickness for an undrafted player. All that said, Wilson definitely falls in the category of fringe NFL starting receiver talent.

Tyreek Hill – Hill was taken in the fifth round of the NFL Draft and possessed extreme speed and quickness while being undersized for a WR. Hill plays Reid’s traditional stretch WR1 very well, much to the likes of the DeSean Jackson role in prior Reid offenses.


To summarize, the following receivers were taken by Reid via a trade or free agency:

Charles Johnson, Torrance Small, James Thrash, Terrell Owens, Donte’ Stallworth, Kevin Curtis, Jeremy Maclin, and Donnie Avery.

The following receivers were drafted by Reid’s teams and played WR1 or WR2:

Todd Pinkston, Reggie Brown, Jeremy Maclin, Albert Wilson, Tyreek Hill.

Throughout Reid’s career as a head coach, he has been more than willing to use undersized receivers.

It also looks like Reid has had much more success with free agent WRs than he has with drafting his own receivers. — We’ll touch on that in the next section.

Drafting and acquiring wide receivers

To see how Reid values the WR position, it may be useful to look at how he drafts them:

As you can see from the graph, it appears Reid prefers mid-round wide receivers, particularly the fourth round, when compared to the average NFL team. It also shows Reid’s front offices do not prefer to spend late-round picks on WRs.

The graph tells me if a skilled WR is available, Reid’s front office will take him in the early rounds if they fall to him. However, the fourth round is where Reid has a large uptick in selections. The fourth round usually houses fringe NFL talent, which leads me to believe Reid thinks his scheme can win with below-average wide receivers.

Using the information from the history section above, in 19 seasons as a head coach roughly 62 percent of Reid’s primary No. 1 and No. 2 WRs have been free agents. I’m not sure what the league average is, but that seems like a very high percentage.

Reid’s modus operandi towards wide receivers appears to be the following: Let’s draft guys in the mid-rounds, and keep an eye open in free agency. In fact, the signing of Sammy Watkins was a total Reid move given Reid’s past, and more of us should have seen it coming.

Rankings

Below is a list of the yards per game, and yards per reception for Reid’s receivers over the years. The goal is to see how Reid stacks up against the rest of the NFL in terms of his wide receiver friendliness.

A purely average team should have a WR1 ranked around 16th, while the same purely average team would have a WR2 ranked around 48th. Note, in both the graphs, you’d prefer the lines to dip below the green dotted line.

We’ll start by looking at WR1...

The lines dip below the green dotted line in 2004-2005 (Terrell Owens), and 2009-2012 (Desean Jackson). Other than that, it’s not uncommon to see Reid’s No. 1 WR be well below average in terms of NFL production.

Maybe there’s something to the narrative that Reid’s offenses aren’t usually WR friendly.

Now, let’s look at the WR2 position:

As you can tell, the No. 2 WRs are under the dotted green line more frequently. It’s apparent that Reid’s system is favorable to the second wide receiver.

It could also be noted the narratives around Reid appear to be true:

  • Reid’s system doesn’t really have a prototypical WR1/WR2 mixture — both WRs contribute, almost equally at times.
  • Reid’s system isn’t historically geared towards WR production.

Reid’s WR production issues can be further displayed by this table:

Andy Reid WR1 and WR2 Percentage of Receivers with Stats Above Average

Stat Percentage
Stat Percentage
WR1 - Y/G 25%
WR1 - Y/R 40%
WR2 - Y/G 40%
WR2 - Y/R 60%

Y/G = Yards per Game
Y/R = Yards per reception

To help interpret the table, let’s convert the first row of the table into a sentence: Andy Reid’s No. 1 WRs have had above average yards per game production 25 percent of the time.

This also means that Reid’s No. 1 WRs underperform compared to the average in terms of yards per game 75 percent of the time.

Long story short, the majority of Reid’s starting WRs have not achieved above average production (unless you look at WR2 stats for Y/R).

The only two pairs to provide above average production were the combinations of Owens/Pinkston-Brown and Jackson/Maclin.

With and without Reid

Remember that Sammy Watkins prediction I was talking about at the start of this article?

While trying to think of a means to predict Watkins’ numbers, I chose to look and see how other free agent receivers did with and without Reid as their head coach. The goal is to see if Reid’s system is friendly to wide receivers.

Knowing that Reid’s WRs usually have lower than average production, it might follow that Reid’s starting receivers also fare worse while playing for Reid.

The following table shows Reid’s WR1 and WR2 positions and whether or not they fared better with or without Reid as their coach in certain statistical categories. These numbers are based off career averages with and without Reid as head coach:

Did These Free Agent WRs Play Better With Reid as their Head Coach?

Name Y/R Y/G TD/G
Name Y/R Y/G TD/G
Charles Johnson No Yes Yes
Torrance Small Yes Yes Yes
James Thrash No Yes Yes
Terrell Owens Yes Yes Yes
Donte' Stallworth Yes Yes Yes
Kevin Curtis Yes Yes Yes
Desean Jackson No Yes Yes
Jeremy Maclin No No No
Dwayne Bowe No No No
Donnie Avery Yes No No

Every single one of Reid’s receivers during his time in Philadelphia had more statistical output with Reid than without.

I’ll dig deeper with these numbers when we go through Watkins’ projection, but for now, all we need to know is Reid’s WRs do better with him as their coach.

During Reid’s era with the Chiefs, each of his receivers actually fared worse. However, Bowe and Avery were at the back end of their careers and Maclin’s great 2014 season with Chip Kelly helped skew the numbers.

It’s somewhat weird to think Reid’s starting receivers are low in productivity but still play their most productive football with Reid as their coach. Let’s just chalk it up to the legend that is Reid; yet another peculiarity to add to his repertoire.

If there’s anything I’ve noticed about several Reid teams, he takes average WRs and squeezes everything he can get from them. It’s quite amazing.

About that team building

Remember earlier, when we mentioned Reid’s statement about what he needs to build a winning team?

I want two offensive tackles, a quarterback, two pass rushers, two corners, and I’ll figure the rest out.

When you’re building a house, you often start with the most important items first. The foundation is set, the walls go up, the plumbing and electric work are installed and eventually the TV (a luxury) is brought in.

Reid views tackles, quarterbacks, pass rushers and corners as the key elements to building a football team. Much like a contractor builds certain components of a home in order, Reid also works to build his football teams in a similar manner.

Knowing this, it should come as no shock it took Reid’s Eagles six seasons to stockpile a group of receivers that consisted of Terrell Owens, Todd Pinkston and James Thrash – a group that many teams envied at the time.

It should also come as no shock it took Reid’s Chiefs six years again to establish a stockpile of receivers consisting of Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, Chris Conley, etc. The 2018 Chiefs, much like the 2004 Eagles, are in luxury WR territory in terms of how a Reid offense goes.

It just takes six seasons.


Stay tuned for the next article, where we use some of the information gained here to predict Sammy Watkins’ (and maybe a bit of Tyreek Hill’s) role in 2018.