Beware of Pro Bowlers and preseason busts

After the NFL Draft is over, fans are starving for any information they can get on their favorite team. Excitement rises exponentially as soon as training camp begins, and visions of sugar plums, er, playoffs, dance through their heads.

A cottage industry has developed around the scrutiny of events at NFL training camps and preseason games in professional media and Twitter fans. None of us are immune to trying to read tea leaves. Who is on the sidelines and not participating today? Who is on the field with a red jersey? Who gets reps with the first team? Who wins/loses 1v1 battles? Who sees action in pre-season games and who doesn’t? Who plays but doesn’t stand out (looking at you, Kenny Golladay)? Does the backup quarterback outplay the starter? Who are the very drawn busts? Who are the once unknown nuggets? Is the team better than last year?

NFL coaches learn a lot from practices in training camps and preseason games. The problem is that the rest of us can’t easily tell what we’re learning. New York Giants head coach Brian Daboll has been masterful in his pressers communicating elements of interest and tempering expectations while implying that what we see from the outside is not necessarily what ‘they get inside. For example, how do we read the tea leaves in this statement by Brian Daboll?

“Collin Johnson, David Sills, they’ve stepped up their game. And they’re in the game, not just to be a team but to play.

As Ed Valentine talked about it, this may be a message to several underperforming or unavailable players such as Kenny Golladay, Kadarius Toney and Sterling Shepard that they shouldn’t consider themselves indispensable. Likewise, Alex Bachman, he of 13 catches on 16 targets, 139 yards and 2 touchdowns in 2 preseason games, was not included, but Daboll indicated at another point that Bachman earned more chances with his game.

On the other hand, Daboll may not be unhappy with players like Golladay. In his Monday press conference, he declined to criticize Golladay when asked about his zero-in-21 snap goals, saying the goals depend on how the defense plays and the quarterback’s reading progressions. What will really happen to Golladay this season?

Pre-season performance vs. regular season

You know how things have gotten out of control in the insatiable world of the NFL when you realize that (a) Pro Football Focus has rated every player for every preseason game since 2013, even if games don’t count, and (b) the writers (looks in the mirror) nevertheless find ways to use this information. Turns out, last Sunday wasn’t the only time Golladay wasn’t targeted in an NFL preseason game. In 2019, Golladay only played one pre-season game for the Lions, and that was his stat line:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

Nineteen snaps, including 18 as a receiver, zero targets and a 51.8 PFF rating (suggesting he may not have traveled the greatest routes to open up). If you were a Lions fan in 2019, you might have been more excited about rookie Travis Fulgham, who led the Lions in the preseason with seven catches on nine targets for 147 yards.

In the regular season, however, Fulgham played just 39 snaps in three games and were only targeted three times with zero receptions. He left at the end of the year. Meanwhile, Golladay finished with 65 receptions on 113 targets for 1,190 yards, a league-leading 11 touchdowns and a season-leading 79.9 PFF rating. This is despite Matthew Stafford missing the second half of the season through injury.

Who won the repechage?

In 2021, the boo birds were out early for No. 5 draft pick Ja’Marr Chase, who had big problems with drops and caught just one pass in the preseason. He was the lowest-ranked rookie wide receiver (30.1 PFF receiving rating) in the 2021 class by a wide margin heading into the season. Here are the final 10 PFF pre-season WRs:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

Here are now the top 10 PFF WRs (minimum 40 targets) after the 2021 regular season:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

(Actually, those 10 were the only WR rookies who had at least 40 targets in 2021, although 15 were drafted on Days 1 and 2.) Chase put his disastrous preseason behind him immediately in Week 1 and then had an amazing rookie season . Amon-Ra St. Brown, an afterthought in the deep ranks of WR prospects who lasted through Round 4 and was 9th-worst of the preseason at 57.8, finished the second-highest-ranked WR rookie in the regular season. The Giants’ ever-criticized Round 1 pick Kadarius Toney, the fourth WR picked who didn’t play a single down during the preseason, nevertheless finished fifth overall with a 74.4 rating. Nico Collins, second-worst among rookies in the preseason, finished ninth-best in the regular season.

Meanwhile, the 2021 Rookie “Preseason Pro Bowlers,” i.e. those with the highest preseason ratings (Khalil McClain, Terrace Marshall Jr., Javon McKinley, Brennan Eagles , Shi Smith) disappeared during the regular season. McClain, McKinley and Eagles did not appear in any NFL regular season games. Smith did but was only targeted nine times with six receptions for the season. Only Marshall, a highly touted prospect who was injured for part of the season, had any real impact on the stat sheets.

Las Vegas Raiders vs. Miami Dolphins

Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

This year’s WR rookie preseason Pro Bowlers are in PFF rank order Erik Ezukanma (pick No. 125, PFF receiving rank 90.5, pictured above), Jalen Virgil (UDFA, 90, 4), Jared Bernhardt (UDFA, 88.1), Khalil Shakir (No. 148, 87.4) and Kendric Pryor (UDFA, 81.9). George Pickens (No. 52, 75.5) and Drake London (first WR drafted at No. 8, 73.6) are the closest among marquee WR rookies to these unheralded players.

Bachman (82.3), Sills (75.5) and Johnson (73.3) all rank up there with the best performances in the NFL this preseason. But that’s not unusual at this time of year, as the numbers above show. It’s also not unusual for established receivers to perform poorly in the preseason and then come forward once the bell rings, as Golladay did in 2019 for the Lions. We’ll know what Daboll sees and thinks in about a week. It would be great to have another Victor Cruz-type feel-good story in the Giants wide receiver room this season. But don’t bet on it.

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