The newest series for the CA Charting Project, the free agent profiles are our attempt to best understand why the Colts front office decided to sign whom they did during free agency. Hopefully, through these profiles, fans and analysts alike can understand who these free agents are, what they bring to the team and what role we can expect them to play in 2014.
As with all of the components of the CACP, we would love your feedback on what you’d like to see examined and explained, whether it be specific players, statistical charting or schemes. Don’t hesitate to comment via the comments or Twitter.
While the Indianapolis Colts had plenty of potential littering their wide receiving corps last season, veteran reliability was scarce. Reggie Wayne was the only veteran receiving target on the team (We’re still pretending Dubstep never happened), and once he was injured, Andrew Luck had nobody who could reliably work the middle of the field.
Fortunately for Indianapolis, T.Y. Hilton developed near the end of the season into not just a dynamic receiver, but a consistent threat. During the Colts’ final five games of the season, Hilton averaged just over eight catches for 122 yards on under 12 targets per game. Because of Hilton’s development, the Colts managed to win their final three games of the regular season, pull off a remarkable comeback against Kansas City in the wild-card round of the playoffs and nearly comeback again against New England in the divisional round.
But, without other threats, Luck was forced to try to do too much, leading to a high turnover rate in the playoffs. The Colts needed to address the issue in the offseason, and Grigson did it, going and getting the biggest name on the free agent market: Hakeem Nicks.
Nicks didn’t get the biggest payday of the 2014 free agent receivers, and he didn’t have the best 2013 season, but he had the most productive past of any of the free agents, and arguably the highest ceiling. At just 26 years old, Nicks still should have plenty of snaps left in the tank, but what quality are the Colts going to get in 2014?
As we did with D’Qwell Jackson last week, today we’re going to compare Nicks’ advanced stats to the other Colts wide receivers for 2014. Before we do that, let’s take a brief look at the usage of the receivers last season, based on where they were targeted on the field.
Take note that Nicks was targeted down the field quite a bit more than Wayne or Whalen, the Colts’s possession receivers last season. Granted, Pep Hamilton’s scheme isn’t full of vertical plays, but it does give credence to the notion of Nicks and Wayne playing different roles in 2014. Now look at Nicks’ numbers compared to Hilton. Hilton was used more often in the very short range (less than 10 yards) due to his speed after the catch, while Nicks was targeted more in the intermediate range. That intermediate range was a gaping hole last season after Wayne went down, so Nicks’ arrival is very welcome. Based on their 2013 targets, the different skillsets of Nicks, Wayne and Hilton should be perfectly compatible in three-receiver sets.
Snap-count wise, Nicks, Wayne and Hilton are the only ones on the team with extensive starting experience. Obviously for Hilton I use the word extensive a bit loosely, but compared to the other three young receivers’ experience, Hilton is Troy Brown.
For a starting receiver, some of Nicks’ numbers from 2013 were alarmingly low, but had more to do with Eli Manning playing like hot garbage than Nicks’ play. Nicks’ low DVOA, DYAR and QB Rating when targeted all were severely impacted by Manning’s high interception rate. It didn’t help that Manning didn’t throw a single touchdown to Nicks, but threw seven picks when targeting the veteran wideout. Manning’s been awful for the last two years, and those three stats in particular have high correlation with quarterback play.
It’s illustrated even more severely when we look at those same stats for Nicks over his five-year career.
The other numbers, on their own, are worth fleshing out.
Nicks’ Pro Football Focus grade was the biggest red flag for me. Plenty of good receivers still manage to put up positive grades with poor quarterback play, but Nicks’ usually stellar grade dropped off in 2013. The biggest reason may have been drop rate, of which Nicks had his worst season in his career. His drop rate was tied for 67th among 94 qualifying receivers last season after finishing eighth in the league last season.
Drop rate is one of those things that can fluctuate, but Nicks was noticeably unfocused for much of 2013, possibly due to the state of the passing offense and the team in general (more on this later).
I’m a big fan of yards per route run, a PFF-created stat that measures production in regards to opportunity. Rather than just measuring plays on which a receiver is targeted (which ignores a receivers’ ability to get open in the first place), the stat measures every play. While it can certainly be affected by quarterback play, YPRR is one where receivers still generally make their mark. For example, Andre Johhnson, Justin Blackmon, Kendall Wright, and Victor Cruz all had terrific YPRRs despite playing with awful quarterbacks.
So, it’s encouraging to see that while 1.7 YPRR was Nicks’ worst of his career, it still is a solid number, and put Nicks in the top third of wide receivers last year. Despite the down year, Nicks produced at a relatively efficient level. The yards were there, but the touchdowns were not, which is what brings down his DVOA, DYAR, etc.
Hakeem Nicks is built to be a possession receiver. At 6’1″, 208 pounds, he has an thick frame that can absorb hits over the middle. Combine that with his famous hand size (10 1/2″) and quickness off the line and you get a receiver built for slants, curls and comebacks. Having the prototype right in front of them, the Giants realized that and utilized him in that manner. Of the six full games I watched of Nicks, I’d estimate that 80% of his routes came on the aforementioned routes. He’d also occasionally run fly patterns down the right sideline or skinny posts down the middle, but the vast majority of the Giants’ gameplan for Nicks relied on him beating press coverage at the line of scrimmage and catching slants out in front of him, or seeing off-man coverage and coming back to the ball.
Remember those baseball mitts of hands Nicks has? It’s what allows him to do this pretty consistently:
When a ball was out in front of him, Nicks has the hands to reach out and pluck it from the air. He did show some difficulty adjusting to balls thrown behind him, however, and he’ll need to have a strong rapport with Andrew Luck in order to be a consistent threat. Nicks did have some maddening drops when he lost focus in a few games, but there he has no physical limitations when it comes to catching the football.
Once he does catch the ball, he has the strength (and willingness) to absorb a hit.
Now, strength to absorb a hit isn’t necessarily the same thing as the strength to catch a ball in traffic. Nicks, from 2013 tape at least, doesn’t have the strength to consistently win 50-50 balls with defenders. If a defender got his hand on Nicks’ arms or hands at all when he was attempting a catch, I never saw him complete the catch. If Nicks didn’t win at the line of scrimmage, it usually wan’t worth throwing to him.
Of course, he won at the line of scrimmage a lot. Nicks’ best trait is his ability to beat press man with his quick release and physicality, creating space enough so he could get a clean catch. He also had a veteran awareness of where he should be against zone coverage, or when it was time to pull back for a back-shoulder throw.
That type of awareness was rare among the Colts’ young wide receivers last season, and it caused problems at times with the offense. Da’Rick Rogers in particular caused two interceptions by not correctly reading the coverage or making a lazy cut. Nicks is no Reggie Wayne when it comes to route-running, but it’s adequate considering he still has the quickness to win at the line of scrimmage.
Now, while Nicks does a good job of catching passes he can see in front of him, and he has decent agility for his size, he struggles to track deeper balls in the air and can fail to adjust quickly to jump balls. It hampers him from being a true threat down the sideline as well as contributing to some of his end zone problems.
Take this play for example. It’s a simple fade from about six yards out, and Nicks has position on the cornerback.
Nicks sees the ball all the way, but he can’t quite get his off hand around and in position for the catch in time. The inability to get both hands together before the ball got there showed up on a few over the shoulder passes as well, and Nicks failed to stop, plant and leap in time to fight Richard Sherman for this jump ball, resulting in an interception.
But Nicks’ jump ball limitations weren’t the only reason he failed to reach the end zone in 2013. Nicks’ also doesn’t have great top speed. He ran just a 4.63-second 40-yard dash at the combine in 2009, and it shows up on his deep catches down the middle. He’s not slow, and he can get behind a defense, but rarely can he get enough separation to break free over the top.
Then, of course, Eli Manning also just missed him on several wide open throws down the right sideline.
Things like Eli’s misses, the team’s incompetence and Nicks’ own injury issues from 2012 lingering may have caused some complacency in Nicks as well. He was visibly disinterested at times last season, showing little effort to run a convincing route if the play was designed to go to the other side. It showed up more late in the season, as the Giants’ season went downhill and Nicks possibly realizing his impending departure.
There was friction with the team last offseason, as Nicks skipped OTAs and sat out for parts of training camp. Tom Coughlin was notably miffed with Nicks by the end of the season, perhaps a reason why the Giants opted to let him leave:
“He had certain things happen this year to him. I’m not talking about injuries. I’m just talking about being in situations where the ball would be there and perhaps a couple of times he didn’t go for the ball.”
Now healthy and playing for a contender, the hope is that any mental issues that held Nicks back last season will fade away. If they do, Nicks has the hands and savvy to be an exceptional possession receiver and occasional deep threat. Considering that the Colts desperately needed another possession receiver to rely on on third downs last season, Nicks should fit in well. He’s never going to be a consistent double-digit touchdown guy, but last year was an aberration. If he’s healthy, he’ll find the end zone on more than one occasion this year.