Should a Receiver-Needy Team Acquire Jeremy Maclin or Eric Decker?

We’re into the summer doldrums of the NFL calendar, but got a small dose of excitement over the last week. Two top wide receivers are in limbo: Jeremy Maclin officially hit the free agent market last week, and has been making the rounds to potential suitors; and Eric Decker – initially expected to be released by the Jets – is now reportedly the subject of trade talks.

It’s fair to assume that the two receivers will cost roughly the same in terms of a new contract, as both are at, or approaching, 30 years old and have been productive – when healthy – throughout their careers. Decker isn’t a free agent, so his cost is currently higher in draft capital, although I’d put a low likelihood on the Jets gaining more than a late-round pick for his services.

The receivers share fairly similar box-score stats, both averaging around 70 yards per game over the last four years. But Decker has been a more dominate touchdown scorer. While box score stats are good at measuring the effect a receiver has when he is targeted and catches the ball, it doesn’t fully capture his influence on the entire offense.

To assess the value of Maclin and Decker, I’m going to use one of my favorite metrics that solves the issue of how to assess the impact of a wide receiver even when he’s not being thrown the ball.

Neil Paine developed WOWY (with or without you) in a post for Football Perspective, then worked with FiveThirtyEight colleague Benjamin Morris to refine and apply WOWY to the case for Randy Moss being the greatest receiver of all time. The key to the WOWY concept is that you’re controlling for passer quality by focusing on the difference in performance for individual quarterbacks when they are playing with or without a particular receiver. This allows you to assess not only the benefit when throwing to a particular receiver, but to account for that receiver’s effect on the entire passing game.

Historical Perspective

Looking at Maclin and Decker through the WOWY framework, the results are impressive.

maclin_decker_wowy

* In order for a quarterback to be included in the receivers average WOWY calculation, he must have played at least eight games with and without that receiver.

I’ve written about how the loss of DeSean Jackson may have been the biggest explanation for the rise and fall of Chip Kelly, so it’s no surprise to see him contributing mightily to passing efficiency in terms of both yards and touchdowns. Randy Moss and Andre Johnson are also in the most positive, upper-right quadrant.

Maclin and Decker aren’t slouches. Maclin adding a bit more than Decker to his quarterbacks’ yards per attempt, and vice-versa for touchdown percentage. In fact, Decker leads all receivers (who have played with at least four different quarterbacks) in how much his quarterbacks have improved their touchdown percentage.

Closer Look

We can also look at the effect these receivers had on the individual quarterbacks to get even more context.

First, let’s start with Maclin.

Quarterback

AYA Diff

Yards/Att Diff

TD% Diff

INT% Diff

Alex Smith

0.7

0.5

-0.1

-0.6

Donovan McNabb

1.1

0.9

0.1

-0.5

Mark Sanchez

1.5

1.3

0.7

-0.1

Michael Vick

1.2

1.0

0.7

-0.1

Nick Foles

-1.3

-0.8

-1.7

0.5

Maclin’s quarterbacks have improved consistently, but how much we should attribute that to Maclin is a complicated question. What’s most interesting is that Maclin suffered greatly from missing Nick Foles’s magical 2013, and then returning from injury the following year when Foles returned back to earth. Foles also lost the services of DeSean Jackson in the year Maclin returned, which likely caused a portion of his fall.

I think it’s safe to say that Maclin has generally benefited his quarterbacks’ passing efficiency,  with Foles being a possible outlier.

And now we turn to Decker.

Quarterback

AYA Diff

Yards/Att Diff

TD% Diff

INT% Diff

Geno Smith

1.4

0.2

1.3

-2.1

Kyle Orton

-0.3

-0.2

1.0

0.7

Peyton Manning

1.1

0.4

1.6

-0.8

Ryan Fitzpatrick

0.9

0.5

1.1

-0.4

Kyle Orton was the only quarterback Decker played with who didn’t see an improvement in yards per attempt, but Orton only played nine games with Decker, a relatively small sample. The most impressive trend in the numbers is that Decker’s quarterbacks universally improved in touchdown percentage. This likely isn’t a fluke considering the touchdown scoring prowess Decker has displayed throughout his career.

Conclusion

The difference between scoring touchdowns and field goals is critical in football, and we have seen that yards are much more replaceable than touchdowns when a team loses its top receiving option. Decker could be a true difference-maker that regard, so I’d lean towards signing him over Maclin if the price is roughly in the same range. But Maclin also profiles as a strong contributor to an NFL passing offense, and the team that lands him should be happy with its investment.

3 thoughts on “Should a Receiver-Needy Team Acquire Jeremy Maclin or Eric Decker?

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