By: Steve Picciano (Twitter: @RandomGrenades)
What the hell is going on around here?
There’s been a rising tide of opinions lately about the Miami Dolphins. The general outlook for their offense, an increased role for RB Jay Ajayi, the expected breakout of WR Devante Parker, the new arrival of TE Julius Thomas, the continued mediocrity of QB Ryan Tannehill and, based on many of these opinions, they all seem to point towards a general decline for uber-Slot WR Jarvis Landry.
As a Landry owner from day 1, some of this talk obviously concerns me. Not only just from a standpoint of overall production, but also because he’s nearing the end of his rookie contract and I must decide if he’s worth a 5-year extension. I’ve also received more than one offer for multiple draft picks, so I also have to determine if it would be better to “cash out” on Landry and prepare for success down the road.
As I’m faced with these options I think to myself, is this even possible? After all, since the moment Landry came into the NFL, he’s established himself as one of the premier Slot WRs in the league. He’s hauled in an average of 96.3 receptions/year on 136.6 targets/year for just over 1,000 receiving yards/year, thereby making him the “go to” WR in Miami’s offense, so could he really be relegated to a role more similar to what Davone Bess had with the Dolphins?
The Big Breakdown
When faced with analyzing so many predicted causes for a player’s decline, you really have no choice but to take them on one at a time to see if they are in fact valid, and how each one *may* affect Landry’s production. That being said, let’s start with the Elephant in the room…
After sitting around for the first few weeks of his second season, Ajayi seemed to figure things out in week 6 and ripped off an impressive three game stretch in which he carried the ball over 20 times in each game, rushed for a combined 529 yards, including two 200+ performances and scored 4 TDs. He tapered off significantly after this stretch, although he did add another 200+ yard rushing performance in week 16. Ajayi owners point to this as proof that he has the ability to become one of the elite RBs in the NFL, and they’re counting on big things in 2017, perhaps at the expense of Landry’s production.
To be sure, there are some things to like about Ajayi’s game beyond hoping that he can hit the 200 yard mark again. According to PFF, he forced 63 missed tackles in 2016, ranking 2nd for RBs. He also averaged 3.46 yards after contact, and produced 70.7% of his yards after contact, both ranking 2nd for RBs. Head coach Adam Gase has even indicated that Ajayi should see an increased role in 2017 to build upon what he showed last season, hinting that 350 carries could be possible. OC Clyde Christensen chimed in to say that Ajayi could also be 200% better in his pass catching ability. Everything seems like an arrow up, right? Why are there still non-believers? Why is he only being drafted as the 10th RB off the board?
To put in succinctly, Ajayi’s game was still far from dominant, so room for doubt still remains. Let’s see if we can poke some holes in the ever inflating Ajayi balloon.
How about those rushing performances?
By now, you’re probably familiar with the counter-argument to his “big’ game performances, which is, where was he the rest of the time? We all know that the first 5 games were essentially a wash for Ajayi since he was bench in week 1 and had a time-share situation with Arian Foster thru week 5. In weeks 10 thru 15 + 17, Ajayi averaged 17 carries/game, which should’ve been plenty enough to establish a rhythm and turn in some decent production. Instead, he averaged only 60 rushing yards/game, which is 3.53 yards/attempt. He never hit 80 rushing yards in any of those games, broke 70 only twice and scored only 1 TD. To be fair, he faced 4 of the top 11 rush defenses during that stretch, but he also failed to reach 3.0 yards/attempt against some pretty bad defenses in those weeks as well. So the overall let down has to be questioned.
What about his “big” games? Even those appear to be a mixed bag having torn up the Bills’ defense for 200+ yards…twice. We’ve grown to think of Buffalo as having a top-ranked defense in the rex Ryan years, but last year the team was an absolute mess and finished the year with the 29th ranked rush defense, allowing 133.1 rush yards and 1.31 rush TDs/game. When put into that light, 200 yards and 1 TD don’t seem as impressive as it should, even when accomplished twice. His week 7 performance vs. the Jets was impressive as he put up 111 yards and scored a TD, but he was unable to duplicate the effort when he faced them in week 15 as he was held to just 51 yards on 19 carries. Likewise, he was unable to repeat his 200+ performance against the Steelers in the Wildcard game, held to only 33 yards on 16 carries. He certainly got his touches in these games, but couldn’t capitalize, so one may be left to wonder which performance was more realistic.
What about the increased workload?
As mentioned earlier, the coaching staff has hinted at giving Ajayi around 350 carries and expecting his receiving production to be 200% better. While this sounds like a dramatic increase, consider that he had 260 carries in 2016, which was 9th most among RBs, so an increase to 350 would only be 90 more touches, or 5.6/game. Further considering that he had 0 carries in week 1 and averaged only 7.75 carries in weeks 2 thru 5, 350 is very doable without expecting him to carry the ball 30+/game.
I really have a hard time believing that 350 isn’t just an arbitrary number being thrown out by Gase, especially when you don’t see other workhorse RBs hitting that mark. Not even Ezekiel Elliot or David Johnson (322 & 293, respectively) hit the 350 mark despite being ridden like a wet racehorse for all 16 games last year. Total touches, maybe, but not carries alone. For the love of god, Demarco Murray and Shady McCoy didn’t even get to 300 carries (294 & 234, respectively), so I’m not buying 350 for Ajayi.
Clyde Christiansen’s “200% better pass catcher” comment may not translate into Ajayi receiving twice the passing targets either. It may just mean that the staff expects him to do a better job when he’s targeted. Is there the possibility for more targets to the RB? Yes. Seeing as how he was only targeted 35 times, and 2 times or less in 9 games, there’s definitely room for increase. Do I expect him to start putting WRs out of the game plan? Probably not.
How would an increase in workload affect Landry?
I’m a believer that a strong running game opens things up for the passing game and shouldn’t be feared. I believe this holds true for the most part. I don’t see owners selling Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree simply because Marshawn Lynch is now with the Raiders. No one is raising a red flag on Stefon Diggs or Adam Thielen because the Viking drafted Dalvin Cook. Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant are still expected to have big years even with a healthy Le’Veon Bell. So why are people hitting the panic button on Landry primarily because of Ajayi?
The argument I’ve seen most is that many of Landry’s targets are “an extension of the run game.” I believe this is a misunderstanding of commentary made over the years which likens lateral screen passes to “a long handoff.” The reason why these types of screens are considered “handoffs” is because, if executed on time, there is no risk of a defender being able to impede the pass. Obviously, defenders aren’t allowed to start the play on the offensive side of the ball, and if the pass is released in a timely manner, especially against off-man or zone coverage, there isn’t enough reaction time for a defender to intercept the ball. They can possibly get there quick enough to make a tackle behind the line of scrimmage, but the risk of interception is nil. Once you start targeting routes downfield, whether it’s a 3 yard Flanker Drive route, a 5-7 yard Slant, a 12 yard Dig, etc., there’s an increased risk of defender interference with the delivery and therefore cannot be considered equal to a “handoff”.
While Landry is targeted with lateral screens from time to time, many of his routes are actually on the defensive side of the field, and can’t be considered “an extension of the run game.” Let’s examine some of Landry’s route production throughout the 2016 season courtesy of Nextgenstats.com:
Week 3 vs. Browns:
Ajayi: 7 carries (28/1), 0 targets
Landry: 12 targets (7/120/1)
Stills: 8 targets (5/76/0)
Parker: 6 targets (3/51/1)
Week 13 at Ravens:
Ajayi: 12 carries (61/0), 7 targets (6/26/0)
Landry: 14 targets (11/87/0)
Week 14 vs. Cardinals:
Ajayi: 20 carries (48/0), 3 targets (1/15/0)
Landry: 6 targets (4/103/0)
Stills: 7 targets (6/97/1)
Parker: 3 targets (2/14/0)
Week 15 at Jets:
Ajayi: 19 carries (51/0), 0 targets
Landry: 4 targets (3/108/1)
Stills: 3 targets (1/52/1)
Parker: 3 targets (1/17/0)
What we can see here in the charted routes is that, even when Ajayi had his number of touches increased (weeks 13 thru 15), Landry was still able to produce double-digit results. He’s just that talented. We talked mentioned Ajayi’s 63 missed tackles forced, but we have to remember that Landry has forced 48 of his own over the past 2 years, including an AFC leading 22 in 2016.
We can also see that Landry’s routes are quite varied. Yes, 6 of his 14 targets vs. the Ravens were behind the line of scrimmage, but the defense wasn’t giving up any deep that day, as is clearly evidenced by the pedestrian numbers put up by Still and Parker. Also note that this game saw Ajayi with his season high number of targets (7) and receptions (6), and they certainly didn’t come at Landry’s expense. It was Stills and Parker who ended up paying the price.
Mike Randle of Lastwordonprofootball.com posted an insightful take on Ajayi’s performance when facing various defensive fronts:
Ajayi saw a light defensive front (less than seven defensive lineman plus linebackers) in over 40 percent of his carries, yet only ranked 33rd among all running backs in those situations with 5.0 yards per carry. He only faced a stacked defensive front (more than seven defensive lineman and linebackers) 2.7 percent of the time which ranked 70th among all running backs. In those situations Ajayi only managed 1.1 yards per carry, an indictment of his lack of elusiveness and poor offensive line play.
Ajayi did rank ninth among running backs in evaded tackles last year, but that was a result of his high volume of carries. Dividing his evaded tackles by total carries produces his Juke Rate, which at 24 percent only ranked 31st among running backs.
If this holds true, and opposing defenses start to drop an extra defender into the box, it’s actually going to open things up for the passing game, especially for a WR who can sneak behind the SS.
Something else to keep in mind regarding Ajayi’s outlook for 2017 are the defenses he’s facing. As we mentioned earlier, he struggled more than a bit when facing top rush defenses last year, such as the Ravens, Cardinals and Chargers and Jets (ranked 5th, 9th, 10th & 11th, respectively), so it may not thrill Ajayi owners to look at the schedule this year and see that he’ll be facing the Chargers and Ravens again, as well as the Titans and Panthers (ranked 2nd & 6th last year, respectively), and of course the Jets and Pats twice. For all their dysfunction, the Jets really didn’t lose much on the defensive side of the ball, and the Pats quietly finished 3rd in rush defense last year. Ajayi really only faced the Pats once in 2016 as he was held to 5 carries in week 2 for only 14 yards while in the time-share. He got 16 carries in week 17 but only managed 59 yards for 3.6 YPA. Also in the mix of opponents next year are the Broncos and Chiefs, who weren’t ranked highly in terms of rush defense, but may pose a challenge never-the-less.
I’m not going to come out and say there is zero threat from Ajayi. If, for some reason, he truly turns into a 20-25 carry RB who is actually able to convert those opportunities into big yards on a consistent game-by-game basis, then yes, the Dolphins may scale back the passing plays, but nothing we’ve seen so far points to that as 100% being the case.
What about the other threats?
There are several other factors that have to be examined, some positive and some negative. First, we’ll take a closer look at the other members of the Dolphins’ WR corps.
While Stills was the 2nd leading WR on the team last year, it needs to be taken with a grain of salt. For all intents and purposes, I believe we’ve seen Still hit his ceiling. He may be able to duplicate it for a few more years, but under no circumstance would I expect him to break out with a 90/1200/12 season. Let’s not forget that Stills came up as a rookie with New Orleans and Drew Brees as QB. They surprisingly traded him after just two years in what was a surprising move to most. After all, Stills was coming off of a 63/931/3 season and looked to be the speedy deep threat that the team needed. Since that time, Stills has produced rather mediocre numbers with Miami by registering 27 and 42 receptions while seeing 63 and 83 targets respectively in his two seasons there. Believers will point to the 9 TDs he had in 2016, but one has to wonder if he can repeat such a feat. After all, 9 TDs on just 42 receptions is a ridiculous rate, especially for a WR who finished with just over 700 yards.
The front office has seen fit to honor Stills with a new 4-year contract for $32 million. Not exactly WR1 money, but enough to keep him from signing with another team. I’ve seen some speculation that Stills will see some time in the Slot, which he did in New Orleans, but his hands aren’t close to the same quality of Landry’s, so I think any time there will be limited. I believe Stills fills a need as the only true deep threat WR on the team and will be needed to both open things up underneath and capitalize on the long-bomb if the defense over-fills the box. Full disclosure: I also own Stills, so while I hope he can repeat his performance of last year, I’m trying to be as realistic about his outlook as possible.
As we can see with the chart below, Stills was a favorite on the deeper routes, and rightfully so with his speed.
Week 3 vs. Browns:
Now we get to one of the real question marks in Miami’s offense. Parker was a 1st-round draft pick in 2015 that hasn’t yet lived up to expectations. That’s not to say he’s without talent. He battled foot injuries his rookie year and supposed hamstring injuries his second year, although he managed to play in 15 games. Parker boasted good size and speed coming out of Louisville where he was paired with Teddy Bridgewater and had some very good seasons.
Although Parker clocked 4.45 speed at the combine, it takes some time to build up and he’s usually not adept at running away from DBs unless they bite on play-action. What Parker is, is a big possession WR. For the most part, his game has been in the 7-15 yard range. Slants, Digs, Back-Shoulder, Outs and, on occasion, using his longer frame to out-work DBs on Go routes. I know many people won’t want to hear this, but he’s very similar to a rookie WR that I profiled earlier this year, Mike Williams, although Williams incorporates more strength into his game.
Week 2 at Patriots:
Parker made some strides, increasing his catch rate from around 50% his rookie season to 63% last year. Speculation is that he’ll see an increase in targets, and while I believe that’s true, I don’t know if it will be increased as dramatically as people may think. He saw 88 targets last year, which is a solid number given that he was essentially having a second rookie year, but what would the impact really be if they were to up his targets to 100, 110 or even 120? It basically boils down to 2 more targets/game to get to 120, and that’s a 36% increase over last year. Like we said, he’s not going to blow by DBs with his speed, so a reasonable comp to his possession game is really Jordan Matthews, and while Matthews’ production has been solid, it shouldn’t be enough to scare you away from holding on to Landry.
Now here’s someone who may very well threaten Landry’s production. I say that for a couple of reasons. First, although it seems like he’s been playing forever, Thomas just turned 29 years old, and has never had more than moderate injury. He generally operates in the same passing plane as most of Landry’s targets, 1-10 yards from the line of scrimmage, so he may become a comfortable dump-off option for Tannehill and has good ability to work the seam on deeper routes.
Thomas may have a bit of home cooking going in his favor as well. He was the featured TE in Denver when Adam Gase was the OC, and easily had his two most productive seasons during that time posting 65/788/12 and 43/489/12 lines on 90 and 62 targets respectively. His ability is not lost on the current coaching staff who parted with starting LT Brandon Albert to acquire him. Production from the TE position has been sorely lacking in Miami ever since they lost Charles Clay to free agency after the 2014 season.
While it would be nice to think that that business aspect of football is completely separate from the game, we know that’s not true. Landry enters this season in the final year of his rookie contract, and like all players who have posted good production, he is looking to get paid. Miami has said the right the right things about wanting to sign Landry to a contract extension, but very little has been reported on such progress. Landry and his agent have publically stated that they would not negotiate once the regular season has started in order to allow full focus on playing.
According to Spotrac, Miami should have plenty of cap space to work with Landry should they want to re-sign him as they have just over $16 mil in space with just their top 51 players counted. The question is whether or not they feel adequate enough to move on from Landry while saving the money that would otherwise have been spent on his extension.
WR Leonte Carroo, selected in the 3rd round of the 2015 draft, is someone to keep an eye on during the full training camp coming up in two weeks. Coming into this season, the rumors run the full gambit, from being on the bubble to having a lock on the WR4 spot, and I have to lean more towards the latter. He has a skill set that’s a bit different from all three of the presumed starting WRs. Although he isn’t as fast as Stills, he has the ability to get deep, and although he’s not as long as Parker, he has good size at 6’1”, 215 lbs. If the Dolphins can develop Carroo this off-season and begin to work him into the line-up, they may feel comfortable enough in letting Landry walk into free agency, while shifting the offensive scheme to better suit the talent left behind.
While there are elements that could potentially eat into or eventually replace Landry’s production, I don’t believe Miami will do anything to force the matter this year since it would be extremely foolish for a team to intentionally limit the impact of a known playmaker.
The Dolphins will be playing a more difficult schedule (the 6th most difficult based on opponents combined .547 winning percentage), including an uphill battle to contend with the Patriots for the division title, and will need every available resource to make the playoffs for consecutive years.
If there’s a risk factor in the Landry/Dolphins relationship, I believe there’s a higher chance they let him walk into free agency for fear of overpaying for a “Slot” WR. In that case, Landry owners will be faced with the decision to either hold him through the process and hope that he lands with a team where he can be equally as successful as he’s been with the Dolphins, or try to capitalize on any momentum he gains during the season to trade him for different players and/or future assets (i.e. draft picks). I believe attempting to trade him now would, amazingly enough, be selling at a low-point given all the noise that’s coming out of Miami.