Advice

Can Keenan Allen Thrive in a Crowded Receiving Corps?

The Los Angeles Chargers made waves on draft day, selecting Clemson’s Mike Williams seventh overall. For a team loaded with pass catchers including Antonio Gates, Hunter Henry, Tyrell Williams, Travis Benjamin, and Dontrelle Inman, the move signified a lack of faith in Keenan Allen’s ability to stay healthy and produce at a WR1 level.

This has predictably impacted the perception of Allen in fantasy football circles. A volume receiver as many see it, Allen will have a difficult time carving out the targets necessary to make good on his considerable promise, and that’s assuming he stays on the field all 16 games for the first time in his career.

The skepticism is valid.

However.

Dating back to his freshman year as an 18-year-old in the then Pac-10, the one thing Allen has done even more reliably than miss time is dominate production. Beyond the injury red flags and volume concerns hides one of the best bets to be 2017’s wide receiver darling. The kicker is, his history is too checkered — and the Chargers’ commitment to bolstering the WR corps too strong — for anyone to care.

Early Production

Let’s start with what Allen’s accomplished at the NFL level to date. Using the Game Splits App, we can isolate Allen’s career 16-game pace.

Keenan2

A 244-point season would have been good for WR12 last year, as top-end WR scoring was down across the board. To add context to the 135-93-1105-7 line, Doug Baldwin posted 94-1128-7 on 125 targets.

Most notable, since Allen has only played nine games over the past two seasons, 29 of his 38 career games (76 percent) came at ages 21 or 22.

So a receiver entering his physical prime at age 25 has a career 16-game average — accumulated almost entirely at super young ages — that would have been good for a WR1 season in last year’s NFL. Don’t worry, we’re just getting started.

Worrying About Competition

When Allen began at Cal as an 18-year-old true freshman, he joined a wide receiver corps featuring junior Marvin Jones. He played alongside Jones for two seasons, had one more year at Cal, and was off the NFL. He missed a combined four games over two of his three seasons in college, meaning he’s played just one season dating back to high school where he’s suited up for all of his team’s games.

But when he’s played, he’s always dominated production. Here is a table of the market shares of both Allen and his highest-producing teammate, only in games Allen has played, dating back to his freshman year. To be clear, the numbers for his teammate only include games where Allen was active. I’ve included two Chargers playoff games from 2013 as well.

Year Age GP MS Trg MS Rec MS Yd MS TD Teammate MS Trg MS Rec MS Yd MS TD
2010 18 (FR) 11/12 n/a 0.27 0.25 0.31 M.Jones n/a 0.27 0.34 0.25
2011 19 (SO) 13/13 n/a 0.40 0.42 0.35 M.Jones n/a 0.25 0.26 0.18
2012 20 (JR) 9/12 n/a 0.36 0.36 0.50 C.Harper n/a 0.17 0.18 0.17
2013 21 17/18 0.21 0.20 0.26 0.29 A.Gates 0.21 0.20 0.18 0.11
2014 22 14/16 0.25 0.24 0.22 0.15 A.Gates 0.17 0.18 0.18 0.37
2015 23 8/16 0.25 0.27 0.26 0.22 D.Woodhead 0.14 0.16 0.16 0.11
2016 24 1/16

(Allen was injured at the two-minute warning of the first half in Week 1, 2016. Grain of salt, but he exited the game with a 7-6-63 line that was good for over 40 percent of the targets, receptions, and yards Philip Rivers had racked up.)

Allen had no problem keeping up with Jones in his first semester on campus, catching the same amount of balls for fewer yards, but more TDs, in the 11 games he played. By his second season, he was easily outshining a future starting NFL wideout’s senior season.

It was no different when he came into the NFL. Sure, the Chargers didn’t have other great WRs surrounding Allen, but outplaying Antonio Gates at the age of 21 still speaks volumes.

In games he’s played, Allen has caught at least 20 percent of his team’s completions, yards, and touchdowns, plus seen at least 20 percent of his team’s targets, despite generally being extremely young relative to his peers, in basically every season since he entered college. The only exception is his TD rate in 2014, which seems to be the impetus for the belief he isn’t a big TD threat, but also coincided with one of the most prolific scoring tight ends in NFL history having one of his best seasons. Gates caught 37 percent of the scores in games Allen played that year.

Allen sometimes gets knocked for being unathletic, but the data tells us he possesses skills — perhaps footwork, route-running, or something along those lines — that ensure he always has his quarterback’s eye.

The Projection Problem

Here’s one thing I learned last year while doing more extensive projections than I’d ever done:1 Receiver corps that appear crowded in the summer don’t necessarily lead to an equitable spread of targets; conversely, those that look empty often see players emerge. In other words, the observed distribution of targets doesn’t seem to have nearly as much to do with how good we think a team’s WR3 or WR4 might be – how deep they are at WR – but has more to do with how much the guys at the top earn.2 Things trickle down from there.

A decent example is last year’s Baltimore Ravens. With crowded WR and TE groups, projecting them seemed impossible. My inclination was to spread targets in any projection such that Kamar Aiken, Breshad Perriman, and even backup TEs like Crockett Gillmore were projected to see decent volume. But Mike WallaceSteve Smith, and Dennis Pitta each accounted for over 100 targets, while Perriman and Aiken combined for 116 targets (25 of which came in the two games Smith missed) and no other TE saw more than 20.

A healthy Keenan Allen, entering his age-25 season, should see 25 percent of the targets, just as he did at age 22 and 23. Even when he was younger and less established than his competition for targets — and regardless of his specific skills and athleticism — he’s always commanded substantial volume when he’s been on the field. He still has the WR1 contract and pedigree and is still playing with the same starting QB he’s been with since he entered the league.

Does that come at the expense of Henry, who despite tying for the league-lead in TE touchdowns, had just 36 catches on 53 targets? Is it because Mike Williams needs time to develop? Maybe one or more of Tyrell Williams, Benjamin, or Inman pull a Kamar Aiken? I’m not sure how it’ll play out beyond Allen, but I’m comfortable projecting at the top. The scenario where Allen leads the league in targets becomes less likely — I’m not arguing more competition should be ignored — but the effect on his most-likely outcome is simply more muted than many assume.

A Keenan Allen 2017 Projection

San Diego threw 580 passes last year, slightly above the league average of 572. That’s not overwhelming volume for a team that went 5-11, but they did lose a number of games where they played extensively with a lead.

In 2015, they went 4-12 and threw a massive 667 times. In 2014, with a 9-7 record, they threw 574 times. You have to go back to 2013 to find a season where they threw fewer passes than league average.

While they look like a team that could see a jump in wins in 2017, their investment in the passing game is notable here. It’s hard to imagine a team with this injection of WR talent suddenly becoming run-heavy. Still, I’ll admit this is a tough situation to gauge, so let’s start a projection at 575 pass attempts.

Using visuals from Josh Hermsmeyer’s Air Yards, we can see how Allen’s targets frequently come close to the line of scrimmage.

Keenan Allen Target Distro

Even adjusting for the depth of those targets — and shorter targets tend to be easier to catch — Allen has displayed a better-than-league-average catch rate.

Keenan Allen Catch Rate

He’s also shown a better-than-league-average RACR — which Josh has called the stickiest efficiency metric he’s ever found (but includes catch rate, so there’s some double counting here) — across depths throughout his career.

Keenan Allen RACR

If we give Allen 25 percent of 575 pass attempts, that’s 144 targets. If we grant him his career catch rate, we’re looking at a 99-catch season.

Allen posted 14.8 yards per reception in his rookie year but was at 10.2 and 10.8 the next two years. Again staying conservative with a 10.5 YPR and keeping him as a low TD guy, we might come up with a projection in the ballpark of 144-99-1040-6 or 239 PPR points. That’s a tick down from his career 16-game averages referenced above but would still have been WR12 last year.3

I do think there’s some potential for San Diego to be a bit more pass happy than 575 attempts, though. First of all, they appear to be building an arsenal of receiving options that will give them flexibility should injuries strike again in 2017. Secondly, they didn’t bring in much running back help behind Melvin Gordon.

Something like 620 attempts in 2017 wouldn’t be crazy, nor would Allen, at 25, being more like a 27.5 percent share guy than the 25 percent he’s shown before. (Again, I understand there is competition in town. If there wasn’t, I’d probably be projecting 30 percent.)

That’s more like a 170-target, 117-reception projection. I also think there’s plenty in his college and rookie season statistics that argue he has a high-TD season in him, despite the addition of Williams and the presence of both Gates and Henry.

Give him 12 yards per reception and a solid TD rate and you’re around 117-1400-9, or 311 fantasy points. Honestly, I still don’t think that’s his ceiling, but that would have been WR6 in 2015 or WR1 in 2016.

Conclusion

We’ve loved Allen around these parts, for various reasons, for a long time. His injuries have been tough to swallow both as fantasy footballers and fans. They paint a good picture for why people have been getting off the wagon this offseason.

Keenan Allen ADP

His ADP is still pricey in the third round. But unless you think the story of Allen’s career was told before he turned 25, it isn’t hard to imagine him beating the cost in 2017. I’m generally less risk averse than most when it comes to injuries, but honestly it really doesn’t matter to me if he gets hurt again in 2017. I’m going to keep betting on Allen until I see 16 games, because I believe in the numbers we’ve seen, and I’m confident the production will be there when that time comes.

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  1. And then tracking those projections and the detailed assumptions I made.  (back)
  2. Or in some cases just the offense.  (back)
  3. Of course, elite WR production was down last year, and could very well rebound in 2017. Back in 2015, that would have been more like the WR16 season.  (back)
By Ben Gretch | @YardsPerGretch | Archive

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