• Matt Nein

Pittman Or Pitfall?

Twitter: @mnein9

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!)

USC Trojans

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.”

…. what?

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