Geno Smith, Stephen Hill and The Deep Ball

You probably spent a couple FAAB dollars on Stephen Hill after his 5 reception, 89 yard, 2 touchdown performance in Week One against the Buffalo Bills. You also probably dropped him after his 2 consecutive zeros. However, relying on rookies in redraft leagues is very rarely going to pay off for you. In Jon Bales’ book “Fantasy Football For Smart People: What The Experts Don’t Want You To Know” he notes that since 2000, only Eddie Royal, Mike Williams, Torrey Smith, Julio Jones and A.J Green finished as fantasy starters in 12 team leagues.

Second-year wide receivers are an entirely different story. Unlike the thoroughly disproven “third year wide receiver breakout” theory, there is a little meat to the second year wide receiver breakout.  From JJ Zachariason’s book “The Late Round Quarterback: 2013 Edition”: ‘If anything this data shows us that second-year wide receivers may be more valuable than third-year guys. Receivers like Torrey Smith, Cecil Shorts, Randall Cobb all finished in the top 24 at wide receiver for the first time…In 2011, Antonio Brown and Dez Bryant both showed they were relevant in their second year.’ Zachariason also notes that Jeremy Maclin, Kenny Britt, Desean Jackson, Mike Sims-Walker and Calvin Johnson all made their leap into the top 24 in their second season. A possible name for that list in 2013: Stephen Hill.

Reasonable Upside

If Mark Sanchez maintains the Jets starting job for 16 games, it’s pretty unlikely that Hill winds up being a ‘breakout’ fantasy wide receiver. Braylon Edwards 2010 season is probably Hill’s extreme upside in that scenario (904 receiving yards, 7 touchdowns, WR21). On the other hand, if Geno Smith becomes the starter early on, or is just given the job week 1, Hill instantly becomes an incredible sleeper. I created a custom Sim Score for Hill, using only games where he received 5 or more targets.

Standard Half PPR PPR
Low 3.1 4.2 5.3
Median 7.3 9.1 11
High 9.7 11.7 13.6

Obviously, that table is a little cherry picked, but I think it accurately represents Hill’s reasonable upside. The floor is going to be very low in that offense, regardless, but ceiling is just prodigious. The following is from Shawn Siegele before the 2012 draft: “Hill’s Height-adjusted Speed Score of 125 is the 6th best on record. His .46 Dominator Rating was second best among 2011 WRs, although it’s worth questioning whether the formula accurately applies to such an extreme ball control squad. Hill wasn’t nearly as dominant as Demaryius Thomas – whose .55 DR was among the best ever – but scouting downgrades due to his lack of raw numbers are probably overblown. Scouts question his polish and suddenness off the line, but those same concerns were voiced for Calvin Johnson and seem pretty silly now.” Johnson only ran a 40 at this pro day, and due to injury, Demaryius Thomas didn’t participate and finding an accurate 40 time for him is quite a hassle. Regardless, Hill is built in the same general physical mold of the other 2 Georgia Tech deep threat. They all stand higher than 6’3 and they played the same role and had some of the same concerns coming into the league (inability to run routes, lack of burst off the line)

The statistical community realizes what a rare prospect Hill is. His physical measurables are absolutely outstanding and despite playing in a ball-control offense, he was beyond impressive when he got the ball. In Hill’s senior season, he averaged 29.3 yards per reception which lead the country by a full 8 yards. He is a deep threat of the rarest degree, which we got to see a flash of last year, even with Sanchez. 26.1% of Hill’s targets were 20 yards or further down the field and on 3 catchable balls, he caught 2, for 1 touchdown and 60 yards (per PFF). However, Hill was playing with one of the worst quarterbacks in the entire league at throwing the deep ball. Not only does Sanchez have poor arm strength and accuracy (35.7% deep accuracy percentage per PFF) but the Jets coaching staff have done him absolutely no favors in terms of development.

Football Outsiders has developed a metric entitled ‘Playmaker Score‘ that shines rather favorably on Hill as well. Essentially, the metric is FO’s signature way of evaluating WR’s based only on recorded data with no scouting input. Vince Verhei wrote after Hill exploded in week one last year that ‘Between his stellar production at Georgia Tech and his dazzling performance at the Combine, Hill wound up with a higher Playmaker Score than any other prospect we’ve found. Initially we guessed that Hill’s statistics might have been skewed by Georgia Tech’s triple-option offense, a run-dependent scheme in which most passing plays were deep lobs to Hill in single coverage. However, based on his performance against Buffalo, it seems that Playmaker Score has found a winner in Hill.’ Given that Hill scored so highly and has at least flashed at the NFL level (unlike other superstars the metric predicted, such as Jon Baldwin).

For those who need some context for the data, the famed Matt Waldman broke down Hill’s ability as a deep-threat receiver completely here and concluded that “Hill catches the ball with his hands extended from his body at a full sprint, controls his body effectively to stay in bounds, and he’s not distracted by the prospect of physical play. Speed, hands, ball tracking, body adjustment, boundary awareness, and height are all skill that coaches covet from wide receivers – especially X receivers who are asked to stretch the field and dissuade opponents from blitzing them.” Despite being a raw prospect, Waldman seems to believe that Hill possesses the baseline needed qualities for an NFL wide receiver who specializes in the deep ball. Perhaps most encouraging is that Hill is physical down the field, something that many college receivers struggle with when trying to translate to the next level.

Hill’s slow development wouldn’t be particularly shocking, given the limited route tree he ran in college and others with his physical profile. In email correspondence, Siegele noted that Hill compares to Vincent Jackson, who has the 3rd best HaSS on record. This is Vincent Jackson’s performance his first 3 seasons:

Year Age Tm Pos G Rec Yds Y/R TD
2005 22 SDG 7 3 59 19.7 0
2006 23 SDG wr 16 27 453 16.8 6
2007 24 SDG WR 16 41 623 15.2 3
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 7/31/2013.

In Jackson’s 2nd and 3rd seasons, he finished WR53 twice before leaping up to WR12 in his 4th year. While the yards weren’t there for Jackson, the touchdowns were. Ironically enough, Jackson played with a rookie and 2nd year quarterback going through his growing pains. If Hill is lucky, he will be in the same situation. While these numbers paint the picture of a dynasty buy, there is still a good chance that Hill provides redraft value.

Elephant In The Room

Mark Sanchez is not a good NFL quarterback. He doesn’t make his receivers better (in fact, he probably makes them worst) and many in the both the analytics and scouting community believe he would struggle as a professional. The back-to-back AFC championship games led Rex Ryan and the Jets to halt Sanchez’s development as a passer and made the team reliant on the running game and defense, which is okay for winning games, but not good for the fantasy prospects of wide receivers on the team.

On the other hand, Geno Smith profiles as a good-to-above average NFL quarterback. Again, Shawn Siegele did the heavy lifting and found what the average stat line for an NFL quarterback looks like their final season as an NFL starter. Geno was not only above the line, but the best of the 2013 QB class.

Average NFL Starter 8.7 3.5 3.9
Geno Smith 9.2 7.0 4.34
E.J. Manuel 8.8 2.3 -0.66
Matt Barkley 8.6 2.4 5.76
Ryan Nassib 8.1 2.6 0.81
Tyler Wilson 8.0 1.6 6.40
Zac Dysert 7.2 2.1 -3.45
Matt Scott 7.1 1.9 5.15
Mike Glennon 6.9 1.8 -0.77

(Stats courtesy of Shawn Siegele)

For what it’s worth, Geno’s A/YA was better than Sanchez’s and his INT/TD ratio was 2 times better than Sanchez’s. This is relevant to Hill in that the better his quarterback is, the more opportunities the offense will get and the better the balls he sees will be. Particularly, Geno seems to be at least adequate at throwing the deep ball, which is where a majority of Hill’s fantasy value would theoretically come from. At this stage in his career, Hill is a pretty rudimentary route runner and probably won’t excel with precise routes or running through the middle of the field.

The following table was provided by John Pollard from Stats, INC.

When throwing the ball more than 16 yards down the field, Geno was 33 for 81, completing 40% of his passes for 15 touchdowns. Perhaps most impressive is that out of 1,157 possible yards down the field, 77% of those were Air yards (897 yards). That speaks pretty well for Geno being exactly what Hill would need to succeed at the pro level. Given that Hill isn’t a very precise runner, but a big, fast bad ball-type player, a quarterback willing to give him a chance to make the play, it would seem intuitive that more Air Yards=better. Waldman wrote in the 2013 RSP that “Smith has enough arm strength to make every throw from the traditional route tree and there’s opportunity to tighten his stance and develop better arm strength, which gives him some upside.” While obviously Geno’s game is far from perfect, from a physical attributes level, the film community seems to agree with my sentiment that Smith is able to get the ball down the field, at least semi-effectively.

If you still aren’t convinced in Geno’s ability to be an above average quarterback, check out “Cracking The Geno Code” over at The Banana Stand. Given that ‘highlight tapes’ are about as imperfect of a way to evaluate talent as their is, in this game against Baylor, Geno flashes the sort of arm talent that is needed to make a deep threat receiver a viable fantasy player.

Despite being basically only a deep threat, Hill gained 15.2 yards per target in his senior season and caught 51.6% of his targets. Football Study Hall has a metric titled ‘Real Yards Per Target‘ (per FSH: what your per-target average would have been had your %Standard-Down correlated to the national average) and Hill’s 15.7 Real Yards per Target is in the top 1 percentile since 2005. He is at his most effective when he is getting the ball deep down the field, in one on one situations with corners or safeties. As a pro, Hill’s aDOT was 14.6 yards down the field, compared to Sanchez’s overall 9.4 aDOT.

A Simple Hypothesis

Stephen Hill, from the advanced metrics that correlate highly to NFL success, is the best wide receiver on the Jets roster, and it’s not close.  Take a look at him compared to the other options (that aren’t ancient and already injured. Looking at you Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards).

Player Height (in) Weight (lbs) 40 Yard Bench Press Vert Leap (in) Broad Jump (in) Shuttle 3Cone Dominator Rating
Stephen Hill 76 215 4.28 14 39.5 133 4.48 6.88 0.46
Jeremy Kerley 70 189 4.56 16 34.5 120 3.99 6.7 0.3
Jeff Cumberland 76 249 4.5 20 35.5 118 4.39 6.89 0.16
Clyde Gates 73 192 4.31 16 40 131 4.17 6.87 N/A
Ben Obomanu 73 205 4.45 NA 38 116 4.23 7.18 0.19

The popular meme amongst the fantasy football community is that the tight end is the rookie quarterbacks best friend. That is among the truisms that the casual football player believes to their very core; just like many other truisms, it simply isn’t based in reality. Jason Lisk found on the Pro Football Reference blog several years ago that there isn’t any truth to that. In fact, the study found that 23.8% of the rookie quarterbacks targets went to the WR1. If Santonio Holmes isn’t healthy and Braylon Edwards is still 30 (sources: still 30), Hill has a clear route to the WR1 in that offense. For what it’s worth, all of the rookie quarterbacks (minus Brandon Weeden and RG3) had higher than league average aDOT’s in 2012.

The idea is pretty simple: while Jeremy Kerley will likely be Smith’s binky if/when he is given the starting job, Hill profiles better as a fantasy player. The only way that Kerley ends up being consistently startable in a 12 team league is if he is literally force fed targets and I don’t see that being likely; he’ll be a low-ceiling, high floor type of guy. Hill, on the other hand, has a ceiling as high as it gets. Smith clearly possesses legitimate arm talent and Hill is the sort of physical specimen that can locate a ball that isn’t necessarily placed perfectly. Whereas the rest of the Jets skill position players aren’t good enough to make Geno look better, but Hill is far enough above replacement level in the physicality department that he has the ability to do so. Just as Vincent Jackson has made a living turning low percentage down the field plays into plays advantageous for the offense, Hill could function in the same role for the Jets.

If it comes out that Geno is starting week 1 for the Jets, I will move Hill up dramatically in my WR’s rank; on the same side of the coin, if Sanchez is benched and Geno becomes the starter, I’ll add him on every roster. Hill is easily in the top 5 of the ‘Waiver Wire Watch List’ players. As a dynasty buy, it doesn’t come more attractive than Hill; freshly paired with a potentially elite young quarterback.