Fantasy football is a game of numbers. Be it production on the field, advanced metrics or combine measurements, seemingly every qualitative aspect of the game can be turned into a quantitative one. But just shy of a year ago, when it came to soon-to-be rookie receiver Keenan Allen, seemingly only one number mattered – 4.71.
For those who don’t remember, that’s the injury-aided 40-yard dash time (in seconds) recorded by the former University of California Golden Bear at his personal pro day. Once thought of as a surefire first round prospect, Allen’s stock quickly plummeted into that of a third round “possession” receiver, one whose future outlook no longer excited us as it once did. Not to be outdone by “real life” football, Allen even fell out of the first round of many dynasty rookie drafts, as he was suddenly labeled as a player who just “didn’t jump off the screen.”
Long story short, the masses were proven wrong, and definitively so. Allen lapped the rookie pass-catching field en route to recording only the second 1,000-yard season by a freshman wideout, along with the Bengals’ AJ Green, in the past several years. This output saw the young Charger finish second in the race for Offensive Rookie of the Year, behind only Packers’ running back Eddie Lacy.
Speaking to his production, consider the table below.
The raw numbers are phenomenal, but as always it behooves us to dig a little deeper. Despite the 17th highest yards-per-catch statistic (amongst players with at least 50 receptions), Allen still caught an extremely high proportion of his passes (67.6%). This manifested itself in the form of a mind-boggling 10.0 yards-per-target (YPT) statistic, a number only slightly trumped by stars Josh Gordon (10.4 YPT) and Jordy Nelson (10.3 YPT) amongst the PPR top 30 receivers. This efficiency is also seen in his PPR points-per-target (PPT) statistic, as Allen sported a sublime figure of 2.13 PPT.
Continuing, Allen’s season wasn’t buoyed by a couple of “fluke” performances. In fact, consider his seasonal splits, broken down into quarters (plus playoffs):
After a slow start (Allen didn’t play in week one), his subsequent splits would’ve seen him ranked as the WR4 (games 5-8), WR25 (games 9-12), WR18 (games 13-16) and WR10 (playoffs) in terms of PPR points-per-game relative to the seasonal stats of all receivers. While the second quarter was clearly his best, Allen posted starter-worthy statistics for nearly the entire season, often as a mid-range WR2 or better. Allen’s finish as the PPR WR18 was well-earned.
So by virtue of blowing all this smoke up Allen’s you-know-what, it’s fair to wonder why I’m burying the lead. Given what’s written above, how could Keenan Allen possibly still be underrated? Once again, let’s go back to the numbers.
Shown above is a table listing the YPT and PPT rookie numbers for the consensus “Big Six” wide receivers. Also seen is how those numbers relate to what Allen was able to do in his freshman campaign (“Allen % Change” columns). Frankly, the results are staggering.
With the exception of Julio Jones’ 10.0 YPT, Allen’s metrics bested every other listed number, often by approximately 20% or more. In fact, Jones was truthfully the only one of the six who even came close to Allen’s production. Simply put, by comparison the “Big Six” look awfully small.
Of course, as with anything in life and fantasy football, there needs to be a way to normalize the numbers at which we’re looking. We’re familiar with the phrase “it’s all relative,” so how can we get these numbers on the same page? In an attempt to do so, consider the following statistics:
Previously I had introduced an efficiency metric for quarterbacks called passing points-per-attempt, or PPA for short. To derive these numbers, one simply needs to take a signal caller’s fantasy points (solely from passing) and divide them by the total number of pass attempts (QB PPA column). This gives a true insight into a quarterback’s efficiency on a per-play basis, elaborating upon common quantitative convention.
An offshoot of this metric is the ability to derive a quarterback’s PPA solely when targeting just one player (PPA to WR column). Those values are also listed in the table above, as well as how those numbers compare to each quarterback’s overall PPA. Once again, Allen fits right in with fantasy’s elite.
Sure, Philip Rivers’ 0.65 PPA was easily the best value in the table, but Allen still managed to make him look 23.1% better. While this wasn’t even close to the best value in the table (Jones, Green and Gordon all managed to make chicken salad out of chicken you-know-what), it slotted in just below Dez Bryant’s 26.3% difference, and was actually above the numbers put forward by Calvin Johnson and Demaryius Thomas. Allen certainly benefited from strong quarterback play, but it wasn’t the reason why he was so successful.
By now it’s clearly been shown that advanced metrics support Allen as having elite potential which rivals that of fantasy’s royalty. Nevertheless, he’s not being valued as such, as evidenced by the recent February ADP data:
Yes, Allen is currently being selected as an early second-round player, as well as the ninth overall wide receiver. This sees him fall only below the “Big Six” wideouts, as well as promising young players Alshon Jeffery (WR7) and Randall Cobb (WR8). But is it possible we’re still missing the boat?
In a similar vein, Gordon’s strong 2012 rookie season turned him into a prime candidate for an off-season rise in value, but he generally topped out as a fifth or sixth round selection in 2013 dynasty startups. Anyone who took the plunge likely received ridicule at the time, but was ultimately rewarded with one of this past season’s best fantasy performances. Put succinctly, he proved he belonged amongst the top tier of dynasty assets.
Why can’t Keenan Allen be the next player to perform that feat? Sure, his second round price tag is already suggestive of an upper-echelon assessment, but with another excellent performance in 2014 he could very well be the guy who turns the “Big Six” into the “Bigger Seven.” Considering this very real possibility, I firmly believe there’s a strong argument to be made that Allen’s value hasn’t come close to topping out.
Convention is a tough thing to break, but subtle undercurrents of deviation are already suggestive of a larger changing of the tides. Even Calvin Johnson, the near consensus “most valuable asset” over the past few years, has seen his worth drop a few spots to that of the WR3, behind Green and Gordon. If an inhuman, teflon being like Megatron can lose value, isn’t anything possible? Bob Dylan warned us that “the times, they are a changing” a long time ago, and I think we should heed his word – given Keenan Allen’s phenomenal rookie season, why not start by admitting we might still be underestimating the guy?
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