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The case against Jeremy Maclin

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Jeremy Maclin is very average and fans shouldn't be too excited for his return.

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Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

[This is my second post for BGN and I look forward to engaging my readers in the comments section and on Twitter @ByAJRodriguez.]

On Wednesday, I named Jeremy Maclin my #1 all-time least favorite Eagle. A few readers dismissed me as a purveyor of hot takes. People thought it was a bad joke.

As I said originally, I know he is a solid player (and now I’ll even add that he seems like a good guy with an amazing life story as well). But for number of reasons, I can’t help but find him to one of the most frustrating players I’ve ever had to root for.

To me it is clear: Maclin is a relatively average receiver.

My distaste for his play is wide-ranging. This is a long two-part piece that cannot be rushed through. Part One outlines his expectations and how his stats paint a misleading picture, and Part Two analyzes his skill deficiencies in-depth.

Part One:

The first set of expectations created for Maclin were those of being a first-round pick. A weapon at receiver and returner. Someone supposed to go top 10 who fell to 19. Someone worth trading up two spots for, even if his skill set overlapped with DeSean Jackson’s. Because he was just that good.

My skepticism began early, though it was mild. While his college numbers were indeed ridiculous, he came from college program that ran a passing attack that made Chase Daniel look like a star (101 career passing TDs). If everyone knew not to draft Daniel because it was the system inflating his stats, how could I be confident Maclin wasn’t half smoke-and-mirrors too [1]? Plus he was potentially fragile having already suffered a torn right ACL as a medical redshirt freshman and a hyperextended left knee at the combine.

But I'm not a scout. I reserved judgment.

Then:

  1. He held out. (Admittedly, I don’t hold this against him too much at all. Under the old CBA, this wasn’t uncommon.)
  2. After coming into his first camp eight days late, he looked very unspectacular in the preseason. He flashed no return ability, and in my judgment, looked not just nervous (as probably every rookie is), but visibly scared.
  3. He played just 8 snaps in the regular season opener, with no catches. Jackson had started from Day 1 in his rookie year, and the Eagles needed just two offensive plays before Jackson had a 47-yard catch. Maclin needed two games to get any type of catch.

I certainly didn't make up my mind up on Maclin after a preseason and two regular season snaps. That’d be stupid. My point is simply that it was quickly apparent he was in a different tier than Jackson talent-wise.

Yet to this day, it seems many people have refused to give up on the notion that while Maclin lacks Jackson’s flash, he is somehow sneakily quite good, in ways only fans who watch more closely can appreciate. I don't buy it.

For instance, the following fact, via the master of fun yet deceptive facts, was such a popular tweet because it was so surprising:

(Dez Bryant also joined that list this past year.)

My response:

As with many things with Maclin, look closer and it’s never quite as impressive as it seems.

  1. Tidbits like these are often deceptive because they are created using something essentially the same as the multiple endpoints trick.
  2. The original tidbit is based on regular season and playoff stats (sneaky). If we stop counting playoff stats [2], all 5 other players remain on the list but Maclin falls off.
  3. Maclin was young (20) when he was drafted. He and everyone else on the original list needed four seasons. Let’s take away his head start by changing it from "under 25" to "within the player’s first 4 seasons."
  4. Let’s also take out the receptions requirement in order to stop penalizing players for efficiency.

And now we have a list of 38 players, and Maclin’s not on it.

But yes, Maclin indeed has good "counting stats" (cumulative totals). What aside from talent can be causing this?

  1. Maclin played in the pass-happiest era of NFL history...
  2. Under the #4 pass-happiest head coach in league history...
  3. During two of that coach’s worst seasons where his team had to pass even more usual because they were often trailing.

So I’m sure he’s been valuable in your fantasy league, but in real life, his value isn't nearly as high as his fantasy value. Let's break down why.


Part 2: Analysis of on-field play

Maclin simply isn’t exceptional in any facet of the receiver position. Speed, size, hands, run after catch, blocking, return ability, health, even effort… Nothing.

#1: Speed.

Admittedly not the most important trait for a wideout, this might be Maclin’s only above average trait. And it’s just that: merely above average. His speed is nowhere near the weapon it is for DeSean Jackson. This would be fine if he had other strengths, but he doesn’t.

#2: Size

Maclin is small (6’0", 198). Bigger than Jackson, yes, but still small for an NFL receiver (~34th percentile).

On this note, I don’t believe him to be a great red zone receiver [3]. While he has 27 TDs in 4 seasons, on how many of these TDs did Maclin actually make a play, or do anything Reggie Brown couldn’t do?

http://cdn2.vox-cdn.com/imported_assets/2292876/1-sd.gif

http://cdn1.vox-cdn.com/imported_assets/2292882/2-nyg.gif

http://cdn1.vox-cdn.com/imported_assets/2292888/3-atl.gif

http://cdn2.vox-cdn.com/imported_assets/2292894/4-buf.gif

http://cdn2.vox-cdn.com/imported_assets/2292900/5-bal.gif

http://cdn1.vox-cdn.com/imported_assets/2292906/6-det.gif

http://cdn0.vox-cdn.com/imported_assets/2292912/7-dal.gif

I don’t think defenses would lose track of him so easily if they respected him more.

But of course, other receivers get some freebie touchdowns too. Yet compared to teammates and receivers, Maclin's "easy touchdown" rate was comparatively high. To estimate a baseline, I watched every touchdown by DeSean Jackson, Riley Cooper, Reggie Wayne, James Jones, and Greg Jennings from 2011-13 [4] and made judgment calls on whether they did anything an average receiver wouldn't be expected to do. Note that the receivers I chose to watch are teammates or receivers similar in size to Maclin. I'm not even comparing him to bigger receivers who we might expect to score their touchdowns by outleaping defenders.

In my inherently subjective evaluation, Maclin had 10 easy touchdowns of his 27 career TDs. (The 7 gifs above were the most egregious examples.) The full results:

Easy_tds_chart_medium

I know this isn’t a perfect method of evaluation. And he's still put up his fair share of more legitimate scores. This particular exercise was not meant to prove he's bad, but it does provide more evidence that his TD output is further inflated by factors other than talent.

(Also, if you don’t want to trust my judgment calls, here’s a list of all the plays I watched and how I marked them, for transparency’s sake. [Take notes, PFF. {5}])

Now let’s take an in-depth look at his 2012 season to evaluate the rest of his "skills."

#3: Hands Maclin dropped 11.7% of catchable balls. League average of all WR was 9.7%.

And while I don’t put weight on the concept of clutchness, we all remember his crucial drop in the 2011 Atlanta game.

#4: Run after catch:

Maclin has been disgraceful after the catch.

His yards after catch per reception was 4.2, compared to a league average for all WR of 4.5.

Part of this is related to his inability (or is it willingness?) to break tackles. Via PFF, he had 3 forced missed tackles in 2012 on 68 touches (.044 per touch). League average for all WR was more than twice that, at .108 broken tackles per touch. In my "easy touchdown" research, I saw Reggie Wayne break more tackles in a single play than Maclin had all season!

http://cdn3.vox-cdn.com/assets/4784572/Wayne.gif

But beyond rarely needing more than one guy to bring him down, Maclin often doesn't need any defenders to tackle him. Jimmy Kempski has brilliantly dubbed him "Self-tacklin’ Jeremy Maclin" for far too many plays like this.

http://cdn3.vox-cdn.com/assets/4784644/Self_2.gif

And if you think Maclin's contact aversion ought to at least help him protect the ball, Maclin has still fumbled 1.1% of his career touches, essentially the same as the league average for wideouts of 1.2%.

And like his drop in the Atlanta game, Maclin had a very unclutch fumble in the 2011 San Francisco game.

#5: Kick/Punt Return:

The Eagles have lacked production from kick returners the last few years. and Jeremy Maclin was not the solution. In 8 career KO returns, he has 18.3 yards per return (no touchdowns). League average those years was 22.5.

As a punt returner:

Punt_return_medium

Wow. And if you want to yell "small sample size!!!" go ahead. If he were good, those samples wouldn't be so small.

#6: Blocking:

Some people seem to assume that since Maclin is (slightly!) bigger than Jackson and less of a diva, he must a a good blocker. But that's not how it works. Tommy Lawlor watches Eagles games as closely as anyone, and he agrees Maclin has been maddening as a blocker.

http://cdn3.vox-cdn.com/assets/4784652/Aww_shucks.gif

Yes, I believe McCoy is yelling at him for that pathetic effort. That was the 4th quarter of the season opener after the disappointing 2011 season, down 6 points. And Maclin prevents a big touchdown run (Ward was last man to beat) because he doesn’t want to try to block T.J. Ward.

#7: Health.

Maclin has torn his right ACL twice now. I’m in the process of trying to prove this following assertion with data, but based on intuition as well as the limited results I have so far, Maclin is almost certainly significantly more likely than average to sustain another ACL tear (hopefully full post where I prove and quantify the size of the risk to come soon). Combined with the fact that he's also hyperextened his other knee twice (once at combine and once in 2010 training camp), his knees in general are a pretty high concern to me.

#8 Miscellaneous:

He has to be good at something. At least he draws a lot of penalties, right? Maybe not! PFF posted the top 20 WR by penalties per route run, and he didn’t make the list, to the astonishment of many Eagles fans. My theory: We just notice his drawn penalties more than others because he begs for flags while running his routes, and has a penchant for celebrating flags with more enthusiasm than some other players celebrate TDs.

http://cdn2.vox-cdn.com/assets/4784668/Celebrate.gif

And on the topic of PFF, he is quite poorly regarded by their grades (-13.2 Overall on 1003 snaps, ranked 101 of 105 WR who played 25%+ of snaps). And Football Outsiders agrees he's been below average (-6.4% DVOA).

#9: Effort:

In addition to the pathetic block attempt from earlier...

http://cdn2.vox-cdn.com/assets/4784692/Token_INT_Effort_5.gif

Remember fans ripping DeSean Jackson for failing to pursue Shaun Prater after a pick in last year's Viking's game? Is that much better than this token effort?

http://cdn0.vox-cdn.com/assets/4784700/Pinkston.gif

Remember criticizing Jackson for alligator arms in the 2010 Bears game, even though it was just a month after he'd sustained a concussion? And of course Todd Pinkston is legendary for his solitary alligator arms incident.

But if you those things while wearing a #18 jersey, fans will never give up on the idea that you're a good all-around receiver.

Conclusion

In this process, I suppose I have figured out Jeremy Maclin’s one elite skill: tricking people into thinking he’s a really good receiver.

Maclin's production is deceptive. He lacks skills, and most inexcusable is his lack of effort.

Now entering his 5th year, I fail to see anything that makes me excited about Maclin's return. I'll be happy to be wrong, but I'm unable to be optimistic.

FOOTNOTES

  1. Yes, just off the top of my head, Dez Bryant and Michael Crabtree have also done well coming out of systems where QBs have had inflated passing stats.
  2. For those who like to say you win playoff games with players like Maclin not Jackson, and for those who like using win-loss record as a player stat and treating playoff production as extra-important (not me), Maclin is 0-2 in the playoffs. Jackson is 2-4.
  3. I’d love to see proof but that big receivers become disproportionately more valuable relative to smaller receivers as you get closer to the goal line.
  4. Not using multiple endpoints or anything tricky in deciding to make limit my research to 2011-13. Game Rewind just has less play-by-play integration for 2010 and 2009, and it takes too long find what you’re looking for. So I did Maclin’s whole career (2009-present), and everyone else just got 2011-13.
  5. I totally get it’d be a nightmare for PFF if they posted grades for individual plays and fans and players constantly wrote in to them to dispute such minute details. But I’d love to see one game, from a past season even, get graded completely transparently.

Opposing Views

I know not everyone here at BGN feels the same way I do about Maclin. Here are some other BGN pieces that are more in favor of the Eagles receiver: