As I was sitting down to write my third installment for the Sophomore Slump (Busters) trilogy involving the wide receiver rookie class; I found it very difficult to justify a possible slump for guys who didn’t exactly galvanize the fantasy world.
My trend of three players pertaining to each positional category didn’t breakdown accordingly either. I found there were four rookie wideouts that posted statistically comparable numbers during their rookie campaigns. As a result of this I came to the conclusion that I will be writing spotlight articles for each individual over the next few weeks. I felt a more precise and in-depth breakdown of their strengths and weaknesses, and potential growth opportunities would broaden the evaluation of these players. Why read about rambling pertaining to four guys in one article when I can stretch the first year madness into four separate pieces!
On that note, you are Just-in time for the first of Four Quarters: Justin Blackmon.
The Wide Receiver position has come to be fairly unpredictable from a fantasy perspective outside of a handful of superstars. The plethora of talent throughout the league has made it very problematic to accurately pinpoint mid-tiers and rankings. Unlike the quarterback and running back positions it is not unlikely to see very peculiar names grace the top 10 points leaders from each individual week to the next during the NFL season. It becomes very frustrating for owners – especially people lucky enough to have depth filling their benches – to confidently adjust their lineups without second guessing themselves.
For this reason only it becomes very imperative that you precisely analyze the mid to later round wide receivers so you can accurately draft the next potential “BOOMS” at this position. A lot of these breakout players are 2nd and 3rd year guys developing right before our eyes, and hopefully not on other people’s rosters.
As the 5th overall selection in the 2012 NFL Draft, Justin Blackmon was easily the most highly touted rookie wideout heading into the season. There was no doubt about his physical dominance at the collegiate level, but his 6’1-210 pound frame would not be able to over-power the likes of NFL defenses. His exceptional hands and pure athletic ability however; are factors that landed him amidst the top picks entering the league. If only the Jacksonville Jaguars could’ve foreseen the equivalent value a supplemental draft pick would’ve produced for their organization – foreshadowing.
Combined with his off the field issues in the preseason surrounding his aggravated DUI arrest, Blackmon got off to a very sluggish start to begin the year, and a lot of that can arguably be contributed to the quarterback play of Blaine Gabbert. The lack of faith we all had in his QB was evident before he ever graced an NFL field, but many believed Blackmon would build instant rapport with Gabbert, and surely be the go-to guy that the Jaguars had been missing. He was expected to immediately fill the WR1 void in Jacksonville, and with the “opportunity” – paired with his skill-set – should come instant success.
Reality unfortunately did not cooperate with expectations.
Fast forward to the All 22 tape I watched this past weekend of every Jaguars game during the regular season – I know, it was difficult – focusing predominantly on Blackmon. He played an average of over 90% of the offensive snaps for the Jags this past season, but the production was very sporadic aside from the last four games of the year. Rookie growing pains are acceptable, but 4 catches for 31 yards over his first three games is just plain pathetic. Throw in the fact that Blackmon didn’t catch his first NFL touchdown until Week 9, and calling his career launch a sluggish start is quite generous.
Mike Mularkey put it best when he said this about Blackmon before the season began:
“When he knows what he’s doing, he’s very good. When he doesn’t, he’s lost.”
It was evident Blackmon had no clue what he was doing once the regular season started. It was apparent watching film because he ran many poor and wrong routes, and just looked completely confused out on the field of play. He didn’t seem to make very decisive or sharp cuts, was very slow coming out of his breaks, and had plenty of trouble separating from defensive backs. As appalling as he looked I still feel like we should give him some type of break, because seriously, Gabbert was his quarterback.
Blackmon struggled mightily playing on the outside due to his lack of burst off the line, and inadequate acceleration trying to make plays lined up with top corners. I found this quite surprising because his 4.46 timed 40 isn’t the slowest of receivers, but it was obvious his speed is at full sprint, and he lacks initial quickness. Incorporate the absence of quickness with poor route running, and then throw in Gabbert, and you have the recipe for his early disaster of a season.
One of his largest detrimental factors was actually not personal fault, but organizational blame: Blaine Gabbert. I could go on for days about the lack of chemistry, over-throws, under-throws, and wretched overall pass and catch efficiency, but nobody cares to read about what they already know of Gabbert. I did however, create a bar graph showing Blackmon’s production – or lack thereof- with Gabbert, and the rise after Chad Henne took over in Week 11. The Green line obviously identifies the switch from Gabbert to Henne.
Aside from his Week 13 performance, Blackmon’s production grew quite significantly over the second half of the season with Henne under center. Yes, Blackmon did progress, and became growingly comfortable within the offense, but his targets, receptions, yards, and touchdowns were all much more commendable. Of His 865 receiving yards on the season, 615 of them came from throws by Henne, and 4 of his 5 touchdowns as well. I know players mature and develop as their rookie campaigns progress, but those numbers don’t lie. I must mention though, that 27% of that production came in Week 11 alone. It is hard to discount those statistics regardless.
The injury to Gabbert was not the only aiding factor in Blackmon’s progression; moving him into the slot was very beneficial.
If you don’t know about “Playing the Slots” then I suggest you look up my man C.D. Carter.
The move to the slot was vital for Blackmon; 503 of his total receiving yards on the year came from the slot, and his 1.72 YPRR from the slot was good for 8th overall in the NFL this year. Crossing routes and finding open holes to sit in really boosted Blackmon’s production and camouflaged his weaknesses that were unavoidable playing on the outside. The emergence of Cecil Shorts as a deep ball threat really opened up the middle of the field for Blackmon too. This helped to get the ball in his hands while he was in full stride, and didn’t leave him having to try and create his own separation and make cuts after the catch. This is where Blackmon was able to utilize his strength and break a few tackles that created some big plays for his team. His YAC were nonexistent early in the year, and that changed drastically with his transition within the offense.
The one drawback to his slot play was that 6 of his 8 drops on the year came over the middle, and 5 of them were within 0-9 yards of the line of scrimmage. Watching the film he seemed to be a bit weary of the linebackers and safeties, and definitely heard footsteps on a lot of those drops. If he is going to be an effective receiver moving forward he is going to have to show those exceptional hands and play much more confident going over the middle. I could see him being scared 20 years ago, but with the “touch rules” being implemented to promote safety for “defenseless receivers” he has to be more aggressive going after the ball.
His sub-50% catch rate has to improve next season regardless of his quarterback, but he had zero drops on deep throws of 20 yards or more. Only 4 of his 20 deep targets were catchable though, but he made the most of his opportunities. Unfortunately the health of Laurent Robinson and Cecil Shorts towards the end of the year didn’t leave the Jags with many receiving options, but Blackmon was able to hit his stride, step up his game, and really show solid consistency as the season came to an end. I hope the momentum carries into next year, and the new coaching staff realizes the team was onto something by moving Blackmon into the slot. His 129 targets led the team, but we would like to see more than 64 catches from opportunity like that.
I honestly believe Blackmon can be very productive, and use his strength to turn simple routes into major yards, but I do not believe he is ever going to be in the same discussion as players like Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, AJ Green, and a few others to cut the list short. His draft tag of 5th overall seems quite steep after seeing identical production out of much later picks in the same draft, but it shouldn’t turn out to be a complete waste.
I want to say I can see his numbers and overall production elevating during his sophomore season as he grows as a player, an individual, and as a student of the game, but the Jaguars new staff announcing they will give Gabbert another year to prove himself really leaves a black cloud over his head. Jacksonville would like us to believe this false sense of hope, newly designed logo, and proud team spirit will make their players faster, stronger, and better…but let’s be realistic. Blackmon is going to be a solid receiver in this league as long as his strengths are optimized and his weaknesses are worked on. The yards will be there, the touchdowns should come, and the skills will be refined, but Justin Blackmon is unfortunately only going to be as good as his quarterback’s deficiencies allow him to be. Do not sleep on this kid because he may surprise some of us next season, but the simple fact is we can’t count on him either.