The NFL has incredible, consistent annual turnover. This is bound to happen with over fifty players to a roster, a hard salary cap and non-guaranteed contracts. While we can scour tape and player box scores for potential breakouts, this exercise misses one massive factor: opportunity.
The Wide Receiver Opportunity Index (WROI) gauges the new opportunities gained in the passing game via players leaving. For example, the Lions lost Hall of Famer Wide Receiver Calvin Johnson, so it’s not surprising they lead the 2016 WROI, meaning they have the biggest target gap, which would lead to the biggest opportunity for a WR breakout in 2016. One thing to remember is a statistic is only as good as its use. New Lion Marvin Jones and returning pass catcher will likely split Megatron’s targets with Eric Ebron and the pass catching backs. Since Tight Ends are used differently than Wide Receivers (most of the time) and RBs are generally playing out of their backfield, the loss of a TE or RB was not gauged.
Who would have thought that losing one of the greatest receivers to ever play the game would put the Detroit Lions at the top of the WROI heap? That was sarcasm. There is a massive hole to fill in Detroit, and as we have seen in 2014, Golden Tate is up to the challenge without Megatron. 192 targets (between Johnson and Lance Moore) is a massive amount to distribute, meaning that Tate and new WR Marvin Jones will get the opportunity to get massive amounts of targets. Tate had 128 last year, so 150 seems like his floor. That gives 125+ to Jones, as well. With an off-season to install Jim Bob Cooter’s short toss offense that will give more opportunities to receivers near the line of scrimmage. The biggest beneficiary? Eric Ebron, given that he is the only receiver worth his salt over 6’2”. That means lots of red zone targets, which means lots of touchdowns.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers situation is peculiar because they are top-five in terms of production lost from wide receivers last season, but they’re the only team returning a top wide receiver at the position. With the Pack cobbling together Jordy Nelson’s lost production from guys like James Jones, there is some room for growth for guys like Davante Adams. That production won’t come from lost targets, since it’s undoubted that Nelson will get all of Jones’ 99 targets and more. Instead, having one of the best wide receivers in the game and a healthy Eddie Lacy should grow the pie for the Packers.
The Vikings’ loss was 100% the lost season from Mike Wallace in an aborted experiment with a deep threat when your quarterback is the heir to the Lord Checkdown Fortune. They’re in the bottom half of the league in terms of production lost, but it’s unlikely they recreate the same game plan with Laquon Treadwell as they had for the outgoing Wallace. Treadwell is in the Anquan Boldin mold, which is perfect for Teddy Two Gloves. The Vikings will more than outpace the lost production from forcing the ball to Wallace, and most of it will go towards their first rounder Treadwell.
The Bears got zero production out of their first-round wide receiver last season, but a lot of those targets were absorbed by guys like Marc Mariani or Josh Bellamy. Here’s the rub, though: Alshon’s injuries got him only 94 targets last year, and other receivers had 187 combined. Jeffery should get a massive bump in production, but 187 WR targets need to be spread to Jeffery, Marquess Wilson, Eddie Royal and Kevin White. White is likely to get the bulk of these, but if you figure 30 targets each to Wilson and Royal, and 40 more to Jeffery, that leaves only 87 targets for White. They’ll likely force more White’s way, but there isn’t that much left of the pie. They promoted QB Coach Dowell Loggains to OC, meaning the offense isn’t drastically changing. There may not be enough to go around for White to break out.
The NFC North runs the entire gamut of the WROI, from the Lions, who lost a Hall of Fame receiver (and more) to the Bears, who lost nothing and are bringing in a receiver that spent last year on the IR. Of particular note is that every single team in the NFC North has an extremely player who did not play a snap for them last season that will step in immediately to take targets (Marvin Jones in Detroit, Jordy Nelson in Green Bay, Laquon Treadwell in Minnesota and Kevin White in Chicago).
This is the first in an eight-part series (one for each division!). Check back tomorrow as we explore the opportunities afforded to wide receivers in the NFC East.