13 September 2011

Examining the Saints' WRs in Colston's Absence

With the recent injury to Marques Colston that will keep the Saints' leading WR sidelined for a minimum of four weeks, I thought it would be a good time to examine the Saints WRs and further speculate about how the offense will adapt in the short-term. 

In short, my feeling is that the Saints will increasingly split Jimmy Graham out wide and move him off the line of scrimmage. This might necessitate the addition of another TE to the roster; if the Saints sign a TE this week, it will be a good indication that Graham will absorb a portion of Colston's role within the offense. It's also entirely possible that I have no clue about what I'm speculating. 

More obviously, this stretch without Colston will finally allow Adrian Arrington to play extended minutes. After a few years on the practice squad, Arrington seems to have broken through onto the every day roster. Now that he has an opportunity to contribute, Saints' fans will see first-hand the results of his development on the practice squad. 

But what about the existing core of the Saints' WRs? 


Below is a sampling of data on the Saints WRs who have significant sample sizes: Henderson, Colston, Moore, Meachem. 

What will the Saints lose in production with Colston sidelined? Historically, how have the Saints other three top WRs performed? Of Henderson, Moore, and Meachem, who is most likely to see an increase in opportunity and production?

This first, basic graph displays each WR's receptions by game over the course of their individual careers. Specifically, this tells Saints' fans what they already know: Colston has been the most consistent, highest-producing Saints WR over an extended time period. 

Henderson's trend is marked by mostly low activity with periodic spikes in production; Meachem's graph is the most volatile; and Moore's trend is mostly stable and consistent.  

A quick overview of the Saints' WRs, as expressed by traditional statistical metrics is as follows:

As you can see, Colston leads in three of the four categories and mostly by a substantial margin. Judging from this, his relevance and value to the offense should not be underestimated. And as noted in last week's game summary, the Saints were 1-4 without Colston when he missed a stretch of 5 games in 2008. 

The other noteworthy fact from this chart is the age of the Saints' top four WRs. While not exactly "old" by NFL standards, it seems reasonable to think the Saints could benefit from an infusion of youth at the position sometime in the near future. 

To delve a little deeper, the chart below employs advanced stats on the Saints' WRs. These statistics are courtesy of Advanced NFL Stats (for more detailed explanations of these stats and a whole lot more, go here).  To provide some context, I included the 2010 league leader for each statistical benchmark. A brief explanation of each stat succeeds this chart: 

Catch rate simply measures the percentage of passes intended for a WR that were caught. Is it surprising that, by this simple metric, Meachem has the best hands on the team? 

Success rate defines the percentage of plays that an individual player is directly involved in that are considered successful (specifically, those plays that contribute to EPA [see below for explanation]). Again, Meachem checks in above his teammates in terms of the frequency of his "successful" plays. 

WPA stands for "win probability added" and measures the impact of individual plays on the game's outcome. Specifically in reference to the Saints, it's simple to understand that Meachem's high WPA comes from his big-play ability, which when utilized, is highly influential in Saints' victories. 

Moore's low WPA, conversely, likely relates to the fact that Moore catches lots of short and intermediate passes, and those plays aren't as impactful on the game's final result. 

EPA stands for "expected points added" and measures the impact of individual plays on the score of the game. This is partly an "involvement" metric in that the EPA score assigned to each player is an aggregate value based on the total number of plays in which they're directly involved.

Colston's significantly-higher EPA lends credence to the fact that he is always centrally-involved in the offensive game plan, and very efficient in the process. On the other hand, Moore's low EPA stems from the fact that for a portion of his Saints' tenure, he's been a role player. 

It's worth noting that in 2010, Lance Moore finished 3rd in WPA and 4th in EPA among all NFL WRs. This reveals both Moore's growing involvement in and value to the current offensive system.  But with Moore still nursing a lingering groin injury, how effective will he be early in the season? 

Lastly, both WPA and EPA are context-sensitive and account for the importance of game-specific situations, instead of vacuum-judging each play as equal in nature. Of the four stats listed above, WPA is probably the most important. 

In analyzing the data, it becomes obvious that Robert Meachem is best positioned to fill the shoes of Colston. According to the numbers, he catches the highest percentage of passes directed to him, and his plays result in the highest rate of success. Most importantly, his contributions are highly influential on the game's final result.

Simply put, over the course of his career, Meachem's advanced metrics exceed those of his teammates in every category except for EPA (where he ranks second). 

Perhaps with a larger role in the offense, Meachem will fully blossom into the elite WR that he was drafted to become. In 2009, Meachem delivered a stretch of impressive performances giving fans a glimpse of his true potential when healthy and involved. In 2010, Meachem labored through lingering injury issues which limited his production. 

Now in 2011, it's Meachem's time to arrive as the team's next elite offensive playmaker. The numbers suggest this as reality.  


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