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2018 Packers Free Agency: Under-the-radar wide receivers whose stats impress

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Albert Wilson probably won’t be one of the hotter names in the free agent market this spring, but his numbers suggest that he should be.

Oakland Raiders v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

If you pay attention to NFL free agency, you are probably well aware of players like Allen Robinson and Jarvis Landry. My goal is to try and find a few diamonds in the rough in terms of potential free agents, and to do that, I have enlisted the help of a stat I have devised called WROPS. Like its cousin, QBOPS, WROPS borrows from the OPS stat in baseball in that it takes the two most important aspects of a receivers game (catching a high percentage of his targets and gaining yards on those catches) and combines them into one all-encompassing stat. WROPS doesn’t account for the quality of the quarterback throwing the ball, doesn’t care about air yards vs. YAC, and doesn’t care about volume, so including context is important, but it’s a nice tool for picking out guys who may deserve another look.

I tend to examine wideouts in two particular categories, breaking them down by the component pieces of WROPS. The first number expressed is the WROBP component, which scales a player’s catch rate (a value of .300 equates to a 50% catch rate). The second, WRSLG, reflects the yards per completion number, where a value of .400 is about 12.1 yards per catch.

.400/.400

The .400/.400 club (made up of players with a minimum of a .400 WROBP and a .400 WRSLG) are, in baseball terms, your solid hitters with medium power. The first .400 ensures they catch most of what is thrown at them, and the second .400 ensures that they are not simply catching checkdown passes. Baltimore running back Buck Allen caught 76% of his targets, but he only averaged 5.4 yards per reception, good for a .179 WRSLG. That’s awful, and so we don’t care about him. Players like Allen are excluded because they don’t do enough with the passes they catch.

.300/.500

This group is made up of your sluggers, or big-play receivers. They may not necessarily catch every ball thrown their way, but they turn the catches they do make into huge gains. The .300 excludes guys who don’t catch enough of their opportunities. For instance, Alshon Jefferey of the Eagles caught only 47.5% of his passes for a sub-par WROBP of .285, and that is not good enough to make the cut of this group, but if you’re slightly above 50% and gaining a ton of yards with those catches, you’re a deep threat worth paying attention to. Using this method to identify players led me to uncover a few guys who fly under the radar, but who at least in 2017 cranked out big production and just happen to be free agents.

The .300/.500 guys

The Packers could really use a burner and these are their best bets. The .300/.500 group is filled with guys like Julio Jones, Antonio Brown, Rob Gronkowski, and Tyreek Hill, but sprinkled throughout you will find some lower profile names with as good if not better numbers. For instance…

Paul Richardson, Seattle Seahawks

Richardson isn’t exactly a secret, as the big knock on him is injuries. He’s always been an intriguing if imperfect talent when on the field, and he finally put together a solid season in 2017. He played in all 16 games, putting up 703 yards on just 44 catches. His 55% catch rate won’t impress anyone, but his 16 yards per catch would easily make him the best deep threat on the Packers and there is reason to believe his numbers understate how well he played last year. The Seahawks’ offensive line was famously terrible, and deep-developing routes were often undone by defensive lineman instantly getting to Russell Wilson or, at the very least, forcing him to scramble.

Richardson’s spotty history will likely keep his price reasonable, and he’s a perfect fit for a team in desperate need of someone to keep opposing safeties honest.

Tyrell Williams, LA Chargers

It’s important to note upfront that Williams is a restricted free agent and will likely return to the Chargers, but he is worth including on this list as he is one of the league’s most underrated wide receivers. If you CAN get Williams, you should get Williams, who finished 5th overall in WROPS and 15th in DVOA.

Williams is a 6-4, 205-pound burner who caught 62% of his targets for almost 17 yards per reception, and he will turn just 26 next month. The knock on Williams is simply that he isn’t targeted more, but that is a function of how loaded the Chargers are at wide receiver and tight end. Keenan Allen and Hunter Henry soak up targets, and 2017 first round pick Mike Williams of Clemson is waiting in the wings. The fact of the matter is that Williams did enjoy more targets in 2016 when Allen was hurt, and turned that opportunity into a fine 1,000-yard season where he still averaged over 15 yards per catch.

Should Williams be available he is my choice for the best available wide receiver, and given the depth in Los Angeles, there is a chance it’s possible.

The .400/.400 guy

Albert Wilson, Kansas City Chiefs

Wilson has been a consistent role-player for the Chiefs for four seasons, originally signing as an undrafted free agent in 2014. He’ll turn 26 next year and is coming off of a breakout season of sorts that saw him catch 67.7% of his targets for 13.2 yards per catch. By comparison, no Packer with over 15 catches averaged more than 12.0 last season. Wilson is primarily a slot type, but he has surprising big play ability and has occasionally done some damage on special teams. He was 23rd in WROPS in 2017 and an almost exact match for Stefon Diggs in terms of how he was productive on a per-target and per-catch basis. Wilson has an odd build for a receiver at 5-9, 202 pounds, but for having an unusual frame he put up surprisingly good combine numbers and remains a sneaky good athlete.

The Packers are obviously stocked at the slot position with Randall Cobb, a rapidly declining Jordy Nelson, and potentially the return of Ty Montgomery, making the Wilson an odd fit. However, the Patriots have made an industry out of integrating just this type of receiver into their system and I would argue that you can never have too many, especially if the alternative is Geronimo Allison. Wilson is an unrestricted free agent, and he’s likely very affordable.