Wide receivers are known as the “shiny hood ornament” of the NFL because largely their production is tied to their quarterbacks; even a wide receiver like Larry Fitzgerald or Andre Johnson have had abysmal seasons with ineffectual quarterbacks behind center. Furthermore, great/good wide receivers have left for greener pastures in free agency only to be met with an icy reception; Greg Jennings became the latest ex-Packer to move to Minneapolis and needless to say his production suffered when it was Christian Ponder and Josh Freeman throwing him the ball as opposed to Aaron Rodgers.
On the flip side, it almost seems like you can throw just about anybody into a jersey and make them a productive wide receiver if they are being fed the ball by Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees or Tom Brady; wide receivers without enormous physical talent Wes Welker, Pierre Garcon and again Jennings have all had great careers even if they don’t look like Calvin Johnson. Of course, it’s not like a wide receiver is nothing without his quarterback, the question is how much.
The receiver I was most interested in was Jarrett Boykin; an unheralded, undrafted wide receiver out of Virigina Tech who initially signed on with the Jacksonville Jaguars only to be cut after a couple weeks. After being picked up by the Packers, he was one of the surprise rookies to make the squad in 2012 with the likes of Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, James Jones Jermichael Finley, Donald Driver and Greg Jennings all on the roster.
I’ll be the first to say I didn’t notice his name on the transaction wire nor did I predict him to make the roster in 2012 (this was the year of the Torey Gurley vs. Diondre Borel debate) nor did I think he would he do much on the field, and needless to say I, along with just about everyone else was in for a pleasant surprise. Now with two years under his belt, people are legitimately thinking of him as a viable #2/#3 receiver; he’s definitely not a #1 who can take the top off of a defense nor is he the shifty guy catches everything, but he’s a great role player who does everything good enough to contribute on a consistent basis. Considering his rise from unknown prospect to perhaps one of the up and coming wide receivers, is this a product of good talent or a good quarterback?
Normally, it’s essentially impossible to differentiate between the two but in 2013 Boykin, along with all the other receivers essentially had half a season with Aaron Rodgers behind center and another half of a season with some other guy not Aaron Rodgers behind center. My initial assumption was that wide receiver production would naturally fall without Aaron Rodgers but that the better the wide receiver, the less the fall. To put it another way, if Calvin Johnson was catching balls from Peyton Manning you would expect fantastic production, but if “Blame” Gabbert was throwing him the ball, Johnson will still be able to produce but obviously not at the same level. Compare that to just an average receiver and you would expect the difference in production in Johnson to be less.
To look at that I compiled a list of all the Packers receivers in 2013 who played significant snaps and saw how they fared with Aaron Rodger and without Aaron Rodgers using ProFootballFocus receiving grades. I only used regular season games and excluded the week 9 game against Chicago since Rodgers got injured in that game and it’s likely that the Packers were just winging it after that. I’ve also excluded Jermichael Finley and Randall Cobb since they were placed on IR before Rodgers’ injury so there really isn’t any data of them playing without him.
The results are actually quite surprising. Of all Packers receivers, the player who suffered the most without Rodgers was actually Jordy Nelson, who went from about 15 times better than the average wide receiver to essentially an average receiver without Rodgers. Boykin on the other hand also saw a drop in efficiency going from 6 times better than average to 3 times; while still a significant drop, definitely better than Nelson. James Jones ironically got better without Rodgers, but this is likely more due to the fact that Jones was battling leg injuries early in the season and only really started getting up to speed by the end of the season when Rodgers was out.
Keep in mind that Jones graded negatively regardless of who was throwing him the ball; so its likely that injury was more important than quarterback for Jones in 2013. The other surprise is that tight end Andrew Quarless got better without Rodgers; my initial assumption was that maybe without Rodgers’ ability to throw deep Quarless got more snaps as a safety valve but in reality Quarless got just about the same number of snaps before and after Rodger’s injury. Another possible explanation is that Quarless was due for a rise in grade simply because Jermichael Finley got hurt right before Rodger’s injury and his production would have been higher with Rodgers than without him.
I would say that best comparison is with Nelson because they play the same position and also Nelson had a relatively healthy season as well. In that sense there are a couple of interpretations; first off is that Boykin is a better wide receiver than Nelson. Nelson is definitely a top 10-15 wide receiver in the NFL so it seems unlikely that this could be the case. Another possibility is that Boykin and Nelson have different skill sets that decrease differently without Rodgers; Nelson is known as a deep threat and Matt Flynn doesn’t have the arm to push the ball on deep routes. While this is true, Nelson also plays a lot in the slot and is an accomplished slot receiver as well so it’s not as if Nelson is really pigeon holed into that role and the Packers played a very conservative game without Rodgers anyways.
My best guess is that Nelson is a lot streakier in his production than Boykin; Nelson will have very good games but can also have very poor games (wide receivers typically don’t get noticed when they have a bad game unless they drop a lot of balls, for instance a wide receiver could fail to get separation all day against a defender and its likely no one would notice) and naturally Rodgers boosts the chances of Nelson having a good game. Boykin on the other hand likely is a more consistent albeit less explosive player; so while he maybe doesn’t benefit as greatly with Rodgers throwing him the ball, he’s able to produce with a less accomplished quarterback.
In the long run, obviously as long as Rodgers stays healthy, Nelson will continue to have better production than Boykin, however Rodgers is an injury risk at this point in his career with multiple concussions and now a broken and healed clavicle to worry about. To answer my initial question, no Jarrett Boykin is not a replacement level player who simply got lucky in playing with a fantastic quarterback; he is an accomplished receiver in his own right who can contribute to the Packers offense. This is a player who made the roster with a fantastic preseason showing in 2012 and it wasn’t Rodgers who was throwing him the ball.——————
Thomas Hobbes is a staff writer for Jersey Al’s AllGreenBayPackers.com.