BGA Weekly: Dustin Keller, Wide Receiver (Revisited)

I spent most of last offseason looking back at certain aspects of the Jets’ season by analyzing data compiled from all nineteen games, rather than watching film. For the next few weeks, I’m going to be revisiting some of the more interesting and relevant topics until free agency opens on March 13th. I will be revisiting as many different topics as possible, but welcome your suggestions or requests in the comments.

Back in July, I wrote about Dustin Keller’s 2010 production when he lined up as a wide receiver. This revealed some interesting trends and is of particular interest now, because people are speculating how the Jets will use Keller next season now that Tony Sparano is the offensive coordinator.

Let’s see if the trends identified in 2010 were repeated in 2011 and whether there was a move towards or away from using him in that role, before looking at his effectiveness to evaluate whether its something they should persevere with.

Once again, this article has used data exclusively provided to us from the guys at PFF. Our thanks, as ever, go out to them.

Introduction

Since the Jets hired Tony Sparano, there’s been plenty of speculation about how the Jets will use Dustin Keller in 2012. Sparano’s offenses have a reputation for using a tight end as a dual blocker/pass catcher and blocking is an area of Keller’s game that is still very much a work in progress. Is Sparano going to call on him to block more, change up his scheme to better suit Keller’s skill set or find a different way to use him? Alternatively, could he be a poor fit and therefore a candidate to be traded to another team?

With the Jets likely to see starting wide receiver Plaxico Burress leave in free agency, some have speculated that Keller could see more reps at the wide receiver position, so it’s definitely worth revisiting how he has performed from that position in that past.

2011, his fourth season in the league, saw Keller improve on his career bests for receptions and yardage, as well as yards per catch, and also saw him reduce his number of drops from 12 in 2010 to just four. His catch rate remained consistent: 60% for the third year in a row.

One major criticism levelled in equal parts at him and the coaching staff was the fact that he sometimes seemed to disappear from the gameplan, but they did a better job keeping him involved this year. He was quiet in weeks four and five (three catches for 19 yards) but otherwise was targeted at least four times in every game and had at least three catches or 35 yards.

For what it’s worth, PFF ranked Keller as the 7th worst run blocker in the league in 2011. However, he was 25th in terms of his rating as a pass catcher. He had a poor finish to the season though, with only one positively graded game in the second half of the year.

One other interesting point to note was that he stayed in to block 46 times (just under three times per game), surrendering just three pressures. Over the rest of his career, he had stayed in 52 times in 54 games (less than once a game), so that’s perhaps a sign their confidence in his blocking is growing.

I’ll again be looking at how much of his receiving production came when he was lined up as a receiver as opposed to an in-line tight end, using the same criteria as last year:

For the purposes of the article, I will separate the data from when he was split out wide from the data where he was lined up in the slot. Note: To be treated as being in the slot, it is irrelevant whether Keller was in a three-point stance. Instead, what I am looking for is that he lines up outside the defensive end’s outside shoulder and is therefore not in a position to block him.

Usage rates

First, let’s recap how often Keller was lined up as a wide receiver over the course of the 2010 season.

- Slot receiver: 241 snaps (25% of total)
- Split out wide: 48 snaps (4% of total)

If we just look at snaps where Keller ran a route on a pass play, these percentages increase.

- Slot receiver: 212 snaps (38% of all routes run)
- Split out wide: 37 snaps (7% of all routes run)

Now let’s see what 2011’s numbers looked like:

- Slot receiver: 271 snaps (30% of total)
- Split out wide: 38 snaps (4% of total)

Again looking at snaps where Keller ran a route on a pass play, these percentages increase.

- Slot receiver: 210 snaps (43% of all routes run)
- Split out wide: 29 snaps (6% of all routes run)

In 2011, when running a route, he was a wide receiver basically half the time, a slight increase on last year. It will be interesting to see if that accounts for half of his targets.

Unlike in 2010, his percentage of routes run as a receiver remained pretty uniform throughout the season, rarely falling below 25% or rising much beyond 50%. However, with Santonio Holmes’ suspension and the injuries to Brad Smith and Jerricho Cotchery, it makes sense for his playing time at receiver to have fluctuated last year.

Keller’s 2011 Productivity

First, let’s revisit how the Jets fared in 2010 when they targeted Keller as a receiver, and compare this to when they threw to Keller when he was a tight end.

Tight End – 44-69-515yds, 4TD, 1 int
Wide Receiver – 25-46-294yds, 1TD, 2 ints

There wasn’t too much of a drop off here in terms of how he performed when he was lined up as a receiver. The yards per catch average was the same, although he caught 64% of the passes as a tight end and only 54% as a receiver.

Where it got really interesting was looking at the splits (just using data from when he was in the slot):

Before the Bye Week
- As a slot receiver: 1-6-9yds, 0TD, 1 int
- As a tight end: 22-33-310yds, 5TD, 0 int

At that point, his production had already slowed significantly, following a fast start over the first two and a half games. The Jets therefore adjusted to use him as a receiver more:

Week 8 to Week 13 (inclusive)
- As a slot receiver: 12-16-175yds, 0TD, 0 int
- As a tight end: 6-16-37yds, 0TD, 1 int

At the end of the season, teams adjusted to this and we end up seeing a more balanced split:

Week 14 onwards
- As a slot receiver: 9-21-79yds, 0 TD, 1 int
- As a tight end: 18-23-253yds, 0 TD, 0 int

Now let’s see how that compared with the results in 2011:

Tight End – 35-67-486yds, 3TD, 2 ints
Wide Receiver – 30-52-349yds, 2TD, 1 int

In 2011, the gap between how successful/productive he was as a tight end to how he did as a receiver narrowed significantly, perhaps continuing the trend that developed over the course of the previous season. He was actually more successful as a receiver than in 2011, but – perhaps somewhat alarmingly – less successful as a tight end.

It’s also interesting to note that the completion percentage as a WR (58%) was higher than when he was a tight end (52%). Not only is that surprising, it also reverses the trend from 2010. Average yards per catch was similar for both in 2010, but in 2011 it was – again, surprisingly – more when he was a tight end (13.9) than when he was a receiver (11.6). Even so, the QB rating when throwing to him as a receiver (82.9) was slightly higher than when he was a tight end (78.3).

Nearly all of those receiver numbers were achieved while he was in the slot. Three of the four passes thrown to him when he lined up out wide fell incomplete, but the one completion did go for a 34 yard gain. He also had an 18 yard catch from the half back position, which I have ignored in the above numbers.

It’s again interesting to look at the splits, but before we do, just to give these numbers some context, remember that Derrick Mason barely played in week five and then was gone, after which point Jeremy Kerley got most of the slot receiver reps. Also, Santonio Holmes played a lot more in the slot this season, but especially in the first three weeks where he was there almost 60% of the time (having been in the slot less than 10% of the time in 2010). Finally, we also need to factor in the fact that injuries caused Kerley to miss weeks 11 and 12 and the Jeff Cumberland injury in week three may also have had an impact on Keller’s role.

Let’s investigate how it broke down by breaking the season into four. Once again, I’m omitting the results from lining up out wide:

Week 1 to Week 4 (while Mason was still playing a key role)
- As a slot receiver: 9-12-132yds, 1TD, 0 int
- As a tight end: 9-18-129, 1TD, 1 int

As you can see, in the early part of the season, they had more success finding him from the slot. You’ll recall he did much of his damage in the Jags game over the middle. Let’s see what happened once they turned to Kerley and started reducing how often Holmes was in the slot:

Week 5 to Week 9 (inclusive)
- As a slot receiver: 4-5-32yds, 0TD, 0 int
- As a tight end: 6-13-109yds, 0TD, 1 int

Again Keller was efficient when they looked for him in the slot, but they still looked for him more when he was a tight end, where he did make some good yardage. As you can see they looked for him a lot more over the first four games than the next four:

Week 10 to Week 13 (inclusive)
- As a slot receiver: 7-16-75yds, 1TD, 1 int
- As a tight end: 6-11-61yds, 1TD, 0 int

Over these four games, it flipped the other way. He was looked for more as a slot receiver but was more efficient when they looked for him from the tight end position. These numbers may have been affected by the two come from behind wins they had over Buffalo and Washington, so they would have been running a lot of four wide sets that would have seen Keller in the slot more than usual. In fact, the other two games saw them trailing and trying to get back into the game late. Also, Kerley missed two of these four games injured:

Week 14 onwards
- As a slot receiver: 9-14-76yds, 0 TD, 0 int
- As a tight end: 13-21-153yds, 1 TD, 0 int

Here we return to the same sort of split between TE and WR targets we saw earlier in the year. Again the numbers are slightly skewed by the fact he was thrown to 18 times in the Giants game alone.

Jeff Cumberland

It’s a very small sample, but we can also give some consideration to how Cumberland was used last year. This can give us some clues as to how they might use him next year.

In week one, he was in for 18 snaps – nine as a tight end, one in the slot and eight out wide. He ran just six routes – none as a tight end, one from the slot and five from out wide, including one where he caught a 33 yard pass.

However, in week two, he was in for 24 snaps – 16 as a tight end, three in the slot and five out wide. This time, he ran eight routes, with one from out wide and the rest all from the tight end position.

In week three, he was only used as an in-line TE before suffering a season ending injury on his sixth snap. This shows how versatile he can be and how they can vary up how they use him to create mismatches, which they did successfully in each of the first two games.

Conclusions

It’s clear that against certain teams, Dustin Keller can line up in the slot and make plays. He was used slightly more in that role this year and increased his production and efficiency. At times when other receivers are unavailable due to injuries, Keller seems to be used to fill the void to an extent, but not as a direct replacement because he still carried out his role as a tight end in the Schottenheimer offense.

What I said last year about him not being the finished article still applies and with him having now played four years in the league, that’s disappointing, especially with the Jets in a situation where they’ll need to think about whether to retain him with his contract up at the end of this season. It was encouraging to see him reduce the number of drops last year, but his progress as a blocker has been very slow and he does seem to have lapses of concentration or struggle to get separation in certain matchups.

However, he has still been a productive weapon in the passing game and, although he’s not a typical Tony Sparano tight end, Sparano does get his tight ends involved in the passing game, so perhaps he will be able to get the best out of Keller, who should be especially motivated because it’s a contract year.

I think to look upon him as a potential replacement for a slot receiver – notwithstanding the fact that the Jets appear to have a promising young one in Jeremy Kerley – is a little misguided. When Keller plays in the slot, it’s often from a one back formation where there are three other receivers, so the personnel is no different from a normal three WR set – Keller has just moved off the line and into the slot. It’s not like he is taking reps away from another receiver very often, although his comfort level in that role does enable him to do that on occasion.

Therefore, I don’t think a full time conversion to slot receiver is ever going to happen, but these breakdowns show that he can be used effectively in that way, which means you perhaps don’t need as much depth at that position as some other teams. To be successful in 2012, Keller is still going to have to produce from the tight end position as well.

Next week on BGA Weekly: Grading TJ Conley’s season based on ANPP. Otherwise, keep those ideas coming!




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