Let’s Revisit Bruce Ellington, 2014’s Forgotten SPARQ Star
If you clicked on this article wondering “who the eff is Bruce Ellington and why should I stash him?”, congratulations, you’re in the right place.
Bruce Ellington is a third-year wide receiver for the 49ers who has recently caught my attention for three reasons.
- Looking through Zach Whitman’s work, I was reminded that Bruce Ellington is incredibly athletic.
- He was astonishingly efficient with his targets in college, even if he had low market share.
- New coach Chip Kelly is intrigued by Ellington.
I know some of what you’re about to read will sound crazy, but I really think there could be a perfect storm brewing for Ellington.
Our friend Zach Whitman recently appeared on RotoViz Radio to discuss SPARQ scores for the 2016 wide receivers.1 In preparation for that interview, I looked back through historical SPARQ scores and noticed this, from the historically great receiver class of 2014:
You read that right. Bruce Ellington was one of the most athletic receivers from that class and SPARQ-ier than Odell Beckham Jr. and Brandin Cooks, who are, respectively, the most and eighth-most productive receivers from 2014. Still don’t believe it? Here are their full Combine results:
Strange, right? And, to be honest, Ellington was a complete afterthought in that 2014 class. But the athleticism is undeniable.
Yeah, but what has he actually done on the field?
The College Résumé
Where the Bruce Ellington dynasty train loses some steam is when we compare his college profile to Beckham and Cooks. There’s a reason Ellington was drafted in the fourth round, while the others were drafted in the first.
For perspective, let’s just focus on their age-22 seasons: Ellington was a non-dominant piece of the South Carolina offense; Beckham won rookie of the year; Cooks put up 1,138 yards and nine touchdowns as a second-year player. Ellington is clearly NOT the same player as Cooks and Beckham, but that doesn’t mean he can’t still be NFL good.
I recently wrote about how low market share can be somewhat forgiven if a player is ultra-efficient with the opportunities they get. In other words, it wasn’t that the player couldn’t carry a collegiate passing game, it’s that they weren’t given the chance to. For Ellington, he made the most of his opportunities. See this table which summarized the final two seasons of these players’ college careers.
Looking at receivers drafted between 2010 and 2014 in the first four rounds, the average yards-per-target in their final season was 9.8 yards. These guys bested that number over their final two seasons, indicating a rare level of efficiency.
Now, consider that Ellington had some special teams juju in college, accounting for 993 career return yards, while also chipping in 148 in the rushing game. It becomes easier to forgive his career trajectory and see a player with an intriguing skill set.
As far as his NFL production, Ellington has mostly remained off fantasy radars, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t flashed. In fact, in his rookie campaign of 2014, the 49ers’ last season under Jim Harbaugh, Ellington scored touchdowns as a runner and receiver, in addition to accumulating 614 kick return yards and 188 punt return yards. Not too bad, right?
I searched Pro Football Reference for rookie receivers with a rushing touchdown, a receiving touchdown, and at least 100 punt return yards and 100 kick return yards. Since the merger, only three rookie receivers have accomplished that: Hall of Famer Tim Brown, Tavon Austin, and Bruce Ellington. Hmmmm.
The Chip Kelly Factor
As you may have heard, Chip Kelly is now the head coach of the 49ers. As you may not have heard, Chip Kelly considers Bruce Ellington one of the more intriguing players he inherits on the San Francisco roster.
Considering that Kelly has shown a propensity for drafting receivers with diverse skill sets, it makes sense that he would like Ellington. Here’s how Ellington compares to the receivers Kelly drafted in Philadelphia.
|WR||School||Rec Yds||Pu Rt Yds||Ki Rt Yds||Ru Yds|
|Bruce Ellington||S Carolina||1586||16||977||148|
Again, my point here is not to say that Ellington is on this level, but rather than Kelly likes players who were asked to do diverse things in college. There are loads of receiver prospects every year who do no running or returning in college, but all of the receivers Kelly drafted, plus Ellington, have that multi-faceted experience.
Then there’s the 49ers depth chart, which is in shambles. The team recently voided Anquan Boldin‘s contract, making him a free agent. And after him, here is their depth chart, via Ourlads:
Do any of these names, besides Torrey Smith, stand out to you? I didn’t think so.
DeAndre Smelter is also on the roster, but he was/is injured, so he is on a different part of the depth chart. Kyle Pollock called him undervalued last year during the draft process, but Smelter missed his entire rookie year, so he’s still an unknown.
Now, consider that Chip Kelly ran three-receiver sets 69 percent of the time last year, compared to the 49ers using them only 41 percent of the time. Also, the Eagles ran eight more plays per game than San Francisco did. With Boldin likely gone, and more receiver snaps available, why couldn’t Ellington be a beneficiary?
Yet, Bruce Ellington is so tremendously overlooked, that even when our own Charles Kleinheksel recently broke down the 49ers depth chart, he skipped right past Ellington. And I don’t blame him for doing so; nearly everyone on planet Earth is asleep on Ellington, but I think it underscores my point that he’s being forgotten.
In closing, if I told you that there was an Odell Beckham-level athlete, who was incredibly efficient in college, on a roster in transition, who you could add right now FOR FREE, why wouldn’t you stash that lottery ticket in your pocket? Whether it’s in dynasty, or as a cheap flier in best ball leagues – where he doesn’t even register in our app – you could do a lot worse than Ellington.
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- a composite metric that boils a player’s athleticism down to a single number (back)