Pittman Or Pitfall?
The 2020 WR draft class has the makings of being potentially one of, if not the, best WR class in recent memory and certainly rivaling that of the 2014 class. We saw Justin Jefferson re-write the rookie record books, Chase Claypool bullied his way to a top 24 finish playing as the WR3 on his team, and CeeDee Lamb looks like he is on his way to becoming a perennial top 12 dynasty WR.
Then there are those rookies who woefully underperformed and disappointed fantasy managers. Players like Henry Ruggs, Bryan Edwards, Denzel Mims, and Jalen Reagor will be under the microscope in 2021 to see if they can recapture some of the hype they were receiving just one year ago.
Then there are those WRs that finished somewhere in between. Players like Laviska Shenault, Jerry Jeudy, Gabriel Davis, and Michael Pittman Jr all showed flashes last season but for one reason or another could not find the consistency needed to give fantasy managers complete confidence for a potential investment this offseason.
Michael Pittman, I think has one of the more interesting cases from this ‘middle tier’ group. The Jaguars added Marvin Jones Jr among several other smaller names. The Bills added Emmanuel Sanders and have a healthy Isaiah Hodgins returning. Jerry Jeudy will revert to the Broncos WR2 role with the expected return of Courtland Sutton. As for Michael Pittman though, no competition was brought in for him to compete with. Are we too low on the potential sophomore year breakout for Pittman?
The QB Situation
The first and most obvious question that needs to be asked is whether Carson Wentz will bounce back from his horrid 2020 season. If Wentz can’t simply be a game manager at a minimum, then no Colts player will have a good fantasy season including Pittman. I however believe that Wentz can return to some former version of himself. I’d be hard-pressed to believe he will ever recapture his 2017 form, but I think Wentz will float between QB14 and QB17 for the remainder of his career.
With the assumption that Wentz can be ‘fixed’, the next piece of the puzzle we need to understand is figuring out what the offense will look like. For four seasons straight now, Indianapolis will have a different starting QB. In 2018 it was Luck, 2019 Brissett, 2020 Rivers, and now in 2021, it’ll be Wentz. The offenses under Rivers and Brissett looked much different than they did with Luck at the helm.
As for the new-look Colts offense under Wentz, I think we will see a similar offense as we did in 2018 with Luck. As we can see from that chart above, Rivers and Brissett were more of a ‘dink and dunk’ type of QB while Wentz and Luck pushed the ball downfield more. We’ve heard it from Frank Reich and Nick Sirianni countless times about how they tailored an offense to the skill set of their QB.
In 2018 the Colts were 2nd in pass attempts, in 2019 they were 25th, and in 2020 they were 19th.
During the two years Reich was in Philadelphia with Wentz, the Eagles ranked 6th in pass attempts in 2016 and 13th in 2017. The Eagles were on their way to another top 6 finish in pass attempts in 2017 until the offense had to be adjusted mid-season with Wentz suffering a season-ending ACL injury. It is no secret that Frank Reich loves to throw the ball and he loves for his QB to push it downfield.
(This in turn should help open more holes along the offensive line for JT to burst through!)
So, for those of you analytical guys that hedge your bets more so based on what a sheet of paper says rather than watching film AND looking at the numbers, please help me understand why many people in the industry find Pittman’s profile to be ‘subpar’. In my eyes, he checks every box.
Height – 76 Inches
Weight – 223 lbs
40 Yard Dash – 4.52
Speed Score – 111.2 (93rd)
Catch Radius – 10.29 (89th)
College DOM – 32.8% (61st)
Best Season Receiving Yards – 1275
College Target Share – 26.5% (79th)
BOA – 20.9 (38th)
The only metric he doesn’t meet on this list is breakout age, which if you know me you know that I have a problem with how heavily some people weigh this metric as an indicator of potential success. I do think using BOA as an indicator should be a part of the formula, however, I have seen many big-name analysts use this as a major portion of their process and that I think is a faulty process. But I digress, that is an entirely different conversation for another day. The underlying point is that Pittman meets 8 of the 9 major analytical thresholds of predictive success.
One of the better metrics I've seen that correlates to potential success is Y/RR. I've seen people use a threshold of anywhere between 2 and 2.2. Pittman had a Y/RR of 2.32.
Jax Falcone is one of the most respected dynasty analysts on Twitter he has a great thread on what it takes to become an elite dynasty WR. Like the thresholds above, Pittman meets all of his except for BOA.
Another argument I have seen against Pittman is that; “Pittman barley outproduced Amon-Ra St. Brown his junior year and St. Brown was a 4th round pick so therefore Pittman is probably bad.”
Not only is this a lazy argument, but there is also a lot more to the Trojans 2018 season than what meets the eye. In 2018, JT Daniels led the USC Trojans to a stellar 5-7 season while being one of the lowest graded QBs in the nation. Daniels completed under 60% of his passes and only threw for 14 TDs to go along with 10 INTs. Jack Sears even outplayed Daniels and he only started one game. There was also a big difference in WR usage as well. Pittman was an outside receiver who worked more downfield while St. Brown was used more in the slot and underneath.
Pittman saw 29 targets of 20+ yards downfield while St. Brown saw only 19.
Pittman saw 25 targets under 10 yards while St. Brown saw 44.
I think it’s also important to note the kind of routes Pittman was running. Of his 77 targets in 2018, 48 (62%) of them went for 10 or more yards downfield while only 29 (38%) came under 10 yards. Pittman was the primary downfield threat during his career at USC. (Remember this for later …)
Remember last year when I wrote an article about Chase Claypool and how he played with very bad QBs for his entire career? Bad QBs can make good WRs look bad. If we are going to make the argument for Jerry Jeudy and Laviska Shenault playing with bad QBs last year, then the same kind of argument should be afforded to Pittman. A bad QB will tend to get the ball out quickly and look underneath more than throw it downfield.
In 2019, Kedon Slovis took over for the Trojans and we saw a much better passing attack and the correct WR hierarchy prevailed. Pittman led the Trojans in (and by a wide margin) targets, receptions, receiving yards, receiving TDs, YAC, as well as had the highest QB passer rating when targeted.
Pittman was then drafted at 34th overall by the Colts in 2020 and this past April the Lions selected St. Brown 112th overall. I think it’s clear which one the NFL values more.
The 2020 Draft
One of the craziest things, in my opinion, is not the fact that Tee Higgins is getting a lot of hype (he most assuredly deserves it), but that Michael Pittman is barely getting any. Higgins went 33 overall in the 2020 draft while Pittman went one pick later at 34. I think we can safely assume that most NFL teams probably had a first-round grade on both guys and view them in the same light.
I do think however, the Colts view Pittman much differently than most would think.
Frank Reich had this to say after the draft:
“I’m not sure this guy’s not the best receiver in the draft. That’s how strongly I felt… We wanted a big body. We wanted a guy who was physically tough — not just a big body. Who would do the dirty work, who would block, who’s really good at the contested catches, the 50-50 balls going down the field. He just showed all that on tape.”
Colts’ owner Jim Irsay later added that:
“Frank has been doing backflips for this guy for two months.”
Reich also said after the draft that the Colts took multiple calls from teams in regard to trading the 34th overall pick but they didn’t feel that Pittman would still be available later in the draft so they stood pat and turned the card in.
I think one of the other takeaways from the 2020 draft is that the Colts selected Pittman before Jonathan Taylor. I understand that teams follow a process, their draft boards, team needs, etc., but there is reason to believe that they couldn’t have lived without Pittman and risked losing out on Taylor. The Colts planned to take Taylor at 44th overall but ended up trading with Cleveland at 41 overall to select him. Yes, I understand that they also love Taylor because they traded a lot to move up 3 spots, but what if Cleveland had said no? Rumors suggest Jacksonville was going to take Taylor at 42 had he been there. You, the reader, probably view Taylor as one of the next best RBs to come through the NFL, as do I. It seems though, that the Colts' number one priority in the draft was to get Pittman while potentially risk losing out on Taylor. They obviously love both players tremendously and both Taylor and Pittman will be cornerstones of the Colts offense for years to come, however, I am just trying to emphasize how infatuated this franchise is with their new WR.
2020 Season Recap
As I mentioned in the intro, Pittman didn’t have a great rookie season, he didn’t have a bad rookie season, he had an okay rookie season and showed flashes along the way. He played in 13 games last season totaling 40 receptions for 503 yards and 1 touchdown. Of the 13 games he played in, he started 8 games. In those 8 games, he averaged 5.25 targets and 45 receiving yards. These aren’t really averages to get excited about but when you look a little deeper you’ll find that the Colts were 23rd in team pass plays per game, Rivers (the check down specialist) ranked 28th in air yards per attempt, and also finished 19th in total QBR. When you have a QB who doesn’t throw often, doesn’t push the ball downfield, and is middle of the pack when it comes to efficiency, I can certainly understand how it would be difficult to put up great numbers. TY Hilton was the leading WR for the Colts last year with 762 yards, only 259 more than Pittman. Had Pittman not missed 3 games and potentially started all 13 that he played instead of 8, there’s no doubt in my mind he would have led the Colts last year in receiving.
My biggest takeaway from his 2020 season however was his route tree. Remember when I said he was the big-bodied downfield threat at USC? Well, last year he only saw 7 targets (10.6%) of 20+ yards downfield while he saw 47 targets (71%) under 10 yards.
(Photo Credit: Matt Harmon)
As we can see here from Matt Harmon’s, Reception Perception, Pittman primarily ran underneath routes and routes where he could get the ball in his hands on the run. As a result of this, Pittman not only led the rookies in yards after the catch per reception, but he also led the entire NFL (minimum 50 targets). Pittman played the entire 2020 season playing to his ‘weaknesses’ and not playing to his strengths. What I see is a player who got better at his position doing things that really weren’t in his comfort zone and not only excelling at it but leading the league.
(Photo Credit: Matt Harmon)
We can see here that when Pittman was utilized as the big-bodied downfield threat, he was as good as advertised. What I didn’t expect to see was how good he was at the underneath routes. Pittman also recorded zero drops during his 2020 campaign.
The 2021 Breakout Season
If you’re not convinced that the Colts like Pittman yet, they doubled down this offseason by adding no one to the WR room (no I don’t count the 7th round pick Strachan). They had an opportunity to sign players like Marvin Jones, Sammy Watkins, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Kenny Golladay, and AJ Green to name a few and they didn’t. They had an opportunity to draft a WR highly and they didn’t. They had an opportunity to trade for Julio Jones and they didn’t.
In fact, recently during GM Chris Ballard’s media tour, the first name out of his mouth when asked about the WR room was Pittman. He was quoted saying:
“I'm betting on Michael Pittman, who I think's got a chance to be really good.”
We can believe this because the Colts brought in no competition. The staff, front office, and ownership all believe in him and this WR core as a whole. We need to be taking Pittman more seriously.
With Reich being united with Wentz, I believe that Pittman will be what Reich wanted Alshon Jeffery to be in Philadelphia. Pittman compares favorably physically to Jeffery but even more so to future Hall of Famer, Mike Evans. Pittman has the size and profiles as your typical alpha X WR.
Not only do Evans and Pittman compare physically, but their playstyles are also very similar. One of the things that makes Evans so good is that when it comes to jump-balls/fades you don’t often see him highpoint the football but rather he boxes out the defender and uses his size/strength combination. Pittman plays the same way.
In 2017 Alshon Jeffery saw 131 targets, caught 69 receptions for 1008 yards, and had 12 receiving TDs. Firstly, this is an abysmal catch rate at only 52.7%.
Pittman had a catch rate of 68.2% and a true catch rate of 87% last year.
Of Jeffery’s 131 targets, 28 of them (21%) came 20+ yards downfield, 49 targets (37%) came under 10 yards, and 54 targets (41%) came between 10-19 yards.
Will Pittman see 131 targets in 2021? ABSOLUTELY HE WILL.
Now with a 17-game season, in order to reach 131 targets, he will need to average 7.7 targets per game which should be the expectation regardless. In the 8 games he started last year, he averaged 5.5 targets per game, and if we extrapolate that over a 17-game season that’s 94 targets. I don’t think him seeing 2-3 more targets per game is crazy nor is 140 targets out of the question.
As I’ve alluded to before, Pittman now has a QB (paired with a coach) that likes to push the ball downfield rather than check it down and Pittman’s route tree should expand dramatically this season because of that. Not only will he get to continue to work on becoming a complete receiver with his shorter routes, but he will get to play to his strengths in 2021 as well. I believe that Pittman will finish as a top 24 WR in 2021 and will be one of the most consistent producers at the position over the next 5-7 years.
In the most recent ADP from DLF, Pittman is currently going as WR44 and the 90th player overall. WRs going around him are Curtis Samuel, Will Fuller, Robby Anderson, and Terrace Marshall. Not one of those four WRs is the WR1 for their respective team or has the potential to be a true alpha for their team. When you get into the 8th, 9th, and even 10th round of a startup, and a potential alpha WR is still left on the board you take him 8 days a week.
Even though Pittman is going just before 100 overall in dynasty ADP, he is going after 100 in best-ball ADP according to UndergogFantasy. Here we can see that the Colts are projected to be one of the top five scoring offenses in 2021. There is absolutely no reason to fade an alpha X WR with a QB who can actually make all the throws.
Trusting The Franchise
One of the more overlooked facets of fantasy sometimes is just trusting that a franchise knows what they’re doing.
Look at the last 3 WR1’s for the Colts. Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, and TY Hilton. Back in December, TY had this to say on the PatMcAfeeShow:
"Marvin did it for Reggie, Reggie did it for me, so it's only right I do it for Pitt and the rest of these guys coming up."
There has been very little turnover in the Colts' WR room over the last two decades plus. The Colts have been one of the best-run franchises since Jim Irsay took over and they’ve gotten even better under Ballard. Trust that the Colts know what they’re doing. Pittman has all the talent in the world and if the Colts are betting on Pittman, you should too.