Slot Machines: Danny Amendola Is The Poor Man's Wes Welker
By Scott Kacsmar
Cold Hard Football Facts’ Comeback King (@CaptainComeback)
They’re gritty and they’re pasty
Deceptively fast and hasty
Their career catch rates are crazy
No clapping for the St. Louis Rams and New England Patriots this week. After rebranding the term “slot receiver” in the NFL with Wes Welker, the Patriots are moving on with a younger model in Danny Amendola, who signed a five-year, $31 million deal.
Welker understandably rejected a two-year contract worth just $10 million from the Patriots. Instead, he signed on with the Denver Broncos for a mere $12 million over two years. So now it will be rival Peyton Manning throwing to Welker, which can only make Tom Brady fit to be tied.
What was the point of Brady’s recent contract restructure if they low-ball and lose his favorite receiver?
Not only was he Brady’s favorite and the most-targeted receiver on the league’s top scoring offense, but Welker was historically prolific. His 672 receptions in six seasons with New England are more than all but 42 players have had in their full careers.
Amendola may not even be in the league right now if not for Welker’s success in the slot receiver role.
The Rams, who are the understated other half of the story, likely only gave him an opportunity in 2009 because of how Welker revolutionized the position in New England. Teams were out “looking for their Welker” to dominate the underneath coverage.
Success of any kind should be welcomed by the Rams; a franchise who completed the worst five-year stretch in NFL history when they went 15-65 (.188) from 2007-11. Amendola has hardly dominated, but there is a bizarre stat we will try to resolve.
Since 2010, the Rams are 12-15-1 (.446) when Amendola plays and 4-16 (.200) when he is out.
For a team dying to get back to winning, you would think they might show more interest in resigning a player given that fact. That is unless the stat is fool’s gold and the Rams know better about this often-injured receiver.
But the Patriots just hope this is another case of stealing an underdeveloped player from a bad franchise and maximizing his talent in their system. That worked for Danny Woodhead. That also is exactly what they did with Welker from Miami.
Is Amendola capable of being New England’s next great white hope, or will this slot machine come up as a lemon that breaks down every couple of games while Welker puts Denver over the top?
Let’s look at it from each side.
Amendola is the poor man’s Welker
Expect plenty of comparisons – based on the past, present and in the future when we get new data from those things known as real games – between Welker and Amendola. To paraphrase a classic line, “I knew Wes Welker. Danny, you’re no Wes Welker.”
Sure, Amendola is as close as he can be to Welker’s clone.
Not only did he go to Texas Tech and end up undrafted like Welker, but he has also been a return man, plays with reckless abandon on short routes from the slot, and he is the try-hard, white midget that Welker began epitomizing years ago. Now every white receiver is compared to Welker regardless of how they actually play the game.
Amendola does play a similar style to Welker. He just doesn't play it as well. Welker’s stats for his career are really unlike any other receiver’s, especially when judging on volume and consistency.
Wes Welker - Advanced Receiving Breakdown
You can see the career totals (TOT) and just the New England (NE) years. Welker’s career catch rate (71.18 percent) and his yards-after-catch percentage (52.19 percent) are the highest-documented rates for any wide receiver (min. 400 receptions).
When you look at Amendola’s career stats, they are in Welker’s ballpark.
Danny Amendola - Advanced Receiving Breakdown
Nearly half of his yards come after the catch, and that is a strong catch rate. Amendola only has seven touchdowns, and one came on a fake field goal against Seattle last year that could not be much easier.
But the number that sticks out is 8.81, which is the average yards gained per reception in Amendola’s career. It happens to be the worst average in NFL history for a wide receiver with at least 100 receptions.
Lowest Yards Per Catch by WR in NFL History
Jim C. Jensen
Note: Kansas City’s Dexter McCluster averages 8.31 yards per reception, but he has played running back in his career.
Jim Jensen is an interesting case as he was 6’4” and played with Dan Marino in Miami. But he played multiple positions in his career and arguably should be excluded for that reason.
Even with keeping Jensen, only one other player has been in single-digits, so this is a significantly low average. Welker ranks 18th at 11.17 yards per reception, but that is still 2.36 yards ahead of Amendola.
You could even drop the minimum to 30 receptions, and Amendola would have the second-worst average ever behind only Vikings’ return specialist David Palmer, who averaged 8.64 yards per reception on 73 catches.
With such a poor average, it would seem as though Amendola is padding his reception stats with many failed completions. These are plays where the player fails to gain a minimum percentage of yards towards a first down (45 percent on first down, 60 percent on second down and 100 percent on third/fourth down).
Football Outsiders noted the worst offenders in the 2009 season, and a little-known Amendola made the list with the third-worst rate in the league. It is not as if all of these catches are total failures, but generally they will not help an offense achieve its goals.
Danny Amendola - Failed Completions
Just over 29 percent of Amendola’s receptions have been failed completions in his career. At least it improved last season to more of a league average 22.2 percent, but that is still not as good as the 15.3 percent by Welker (18 out of 118 receptions) in 2012.
People will look at Amendola’s stats and note that he has often been saddled with Bradford at quarterback, who rarely pushes the ball down the field. The Rams have had putrid passing offenses with a lot of poor numbers for the rest of the supporting cast.
Some feel Amendola has the speed to get deep, such as he did to start overtime in San Francisco last year. It was an 80-yard reception (thrown 37 yards in the air) to beat Carlos Rogers one-on-one, but it also did not count because of an illegal formation. That does not wipe out the skill displayed by Amendola on the play.
But overall, Amendola had just five receptions on passes thrown 21+ yards in St. Louis.
Bradford is no mad bomber, ranking dead last in percentage of passes thrown 15+ yards (12.5 percent) in his 2010 rookie season. Amendola had 85 receptions that year, but not a single one came more than 20 yards down the field.
Though, does this not sound familiar? The New England offense, especially for the slot receiver, is designed for a lot of dink-and-dunk passing. It was for Welker, and Amendola may be used on even shorter routes.
Right above Bradford as the second-least vertical passer in 2010 was Brady (14.6 percent). With a receiver not as polished or efficient as Welker, high expectations should be for a season like 90 receptions for 900 yards out of Amendola rather than the 120 catches for 1,462 yards that Welker has averaged the last two years as Brady’s No. 1 wide receiver.
By virtue of going to New England’s system and an offense with more talent everywhere, Amendola’s numbers should improve. His catch rate should rise a few percentage points. He will have more YAC than he did a year ago. His chances of scoring touchdowns improve.
When you watch Amendola catch 12-of-13 targets (in the first half alone) against Washington last year, you see how deadly he could be in New England. That performance was very Welker-esque.
But even if Amendola seamlessly becomes Welker 2.0, the question will be how long until he is on the injury report as he has been anything but durable.
Amendola has only played in 12 games the last two years. He dislocated his elbow in the 2011 season opener, ending his season. Last year he broke his collarbone, returned, then missed more time with a foot injury.
Why all the random, unrelated injuries? That’s just part of playing a physical position and being a smaller player. While Amendola returned again from a foot injury, he finished the season with 12 catches for just 90 yards in the final three games of the season. These guys take a beating underneath. Returning to the field is one thing, but you still have to be healthy enough to play well to have an impact.
That is why Welker’s durability does not get enough praise. No receiver has touched the ball more since 2007, and arguably none have taken as much punishment as Welker. Yet he continues to keep getting up and producing.
Yes, Welker tore his ACL on a non-contact play in Week 17 of the 2009 season. If it happened in Week 1, he too would have missed a full season. The number of games missed for Amendola may be partially bad luck, but the number of injuries causing games to be missed does matter, and it is inferior to what Welker provided.
That insurance of being a high-volume player week after week is why Welker was so successful with the Patriots. On no other team in the league would he be allowed to consistently do the same things. The Dolphins had him running vertical routes. The Patriots instantly made a star out of him in their system.
That is why he seemed like a lock to remain there for the rest of Brady’s prime, but the Patriots do not do business like most teams. That is not an endorsement that they should get the benefit of the doubt for being right on personnel moves either.
Very few offseason moves have gone right for the Patriots since the landmark trades for Welker and Moss in 2007. This one is a risky replacement attempt, and the fact that Welker went to direct competition in the AFC only adds to the story and consequences.
Trying to analyze Amendola’s value to the Rams
While the Patriots will try and get value out of Amendola, let’s try and figure out why he seemingly had so much in St. Louis despite some mediocre numbers as shown above. When nearly 30 percent of your catches are not even helping the team get a first down, something is not right when your team goes 12-15-1 with you and 4-16 without you.
That means the Rams were more than twice as likely to win a game if Amendola played.
The simplest explanation may be that since Amendola was injured in Week 1 of the 2011 season, we have little idea how well the team would have played with him. They were not overly impressive in a 31-13 loss at home to the “Dream Team” Eagles that day.
The Rams finished 2-13 that season without Amendola. Removing those games entirely, that would mean the Rams are 12-15-1 (.446) with Amendola and 2-3 (.400) without him. That feels more reasonable to his added value, but we are talking about 28 games compared to five. That's not good.
Advanced stats give little merit to Amendola’s seasons. Here are his stats and position rank for Win Probability Added (WPA), Expected Points Added per Play (EPA/P), Success Rate (SR%) from Advanced NFL Stats and DVOA from Football Outsiders. The 2011 season was excluded since he only played one game. Stats are for regular season only.
Danny Amendola - Advanced WR Stats
These are terrible numbers, and the only positive has been that there is improvement since his rookie season.
How about some of the big-picture numbers from these games? Here are various splits between the Rams’ games with Amendola and without him.
Danny Amendola's Value to Rams (2010-12)?
Record vs. winning teams
Points per game
Points allowed per game
Passing - comp. %
Passing - YPA
Offense - sack %
Can it once again be as simple as who you play trumping all? With Amendola, the Rams played teams that won 47.7 percent of their games. Without him, the Rams faced teams that won 59.5 percent of their games. That is a big difference. The number of games played against winning teams (11) was even despite an eight-game difference overall.
But then again, with Amendola the Rams scored practically a touchdown (6.3 points) more per game while the defense (3.7 points) does not improve as much. Yards are close on both sides of the ball.
The Rams are much more competitive with Amendola, dropping nearly 10 points per game in scoring differential without him.
Then there are the passing stats. Whether it is the completion percentage, the touchdown-to-interception ratio, sacks or passer rating, the Rams do better with Amendola on the field. Bradford does better, having started 42 of these 48 games. This table shows the passing stats with and without Amendola, as well as the stats on targets specifically to him.
St. Louis Rams' Passing Splits (2010-12)
Of course the completion percentage is going to get a big boost because of all the short passes to Amendola. That also helps with interceptions, as he has only been the target on three such plays. The Rams overall are +6 in turnover differential compared to -7 without Amendola on the field.
Does throwing short, safe passes to Amendola really calm Bradford down enough to where the overall offense is better? Maybe. But it’s still hard to put much value on a guy who only averages 6.09 yards per target for his quarterback.
Keep in mind that little fake field goal touchdown shown earlier is only 0.43 percent of Amendola’s targets since 2010, yet it is the difference between a 86.1 passer rating and a 84.7. Even little Danny Woodcock could have made that play work.
Finally, Pro-Football-Reference has data for Expected Points broken down for each game for each of the three major units of a team. This is an estimate of points per play based on research involving down, distance and field position. Large, positive numbers are the best.
Rams' Expected Points Breakdown
Avg. EPA With
Avg. EPA Without
Well, the Rams play worse on offense, defense and special teams without Amendola, so if it wasn’t obvious from the start, this is about much more than him. But when looking at the differences here, the average defensive performance without Amendola is a bigger drop (-4.83) than the average offensive performance (-4.52) without him is. It’s still very close either way.
Hoping for something conclusive, but this split in record appears to be just a fluky stat that is a matter of the Rams playing better team football against lesser opponents when Amendola is there, and making more mistakes in all three phases of the game against tougher competition without him.
Amendola went from being a cheap way of getting some easy completions and a guy capable of returning kicks – he had consecutive seasons of at least 2,300 all-purpose yards in 2009-10 – to a favorite receiver who was seeing 9.2 targets per game last season.
Apparently that was not enough for the Rams to do a long-term deal for the 27-year-old receiver. If this team has a plan, they hide it very well.
Conclusion: How will this work out?
There will be winners and losers to come from this domino effect of movement around these slot receivers. The impact could easily be felt for the next several seasons, but let’s try and focus on 2013.
Broncos: Welker is in a great situation in Denver with an offense he can thrive in without having to be the featured option anymore. It is hard to imagine this being anything but a success. Giving Manning a durable slot receiver still in his prime is almost unfair to the rest of the league.
Consider last season when a 36-year-old Brandon Stokley caught 77.6 percent of his passes from Manning. That is the second-highest catch rate by a wide receiver since 2000 (min. 40 targets).
The highest belongs to Austin Collie in 2010, when he caught 58-of-71 passes (81.7 percent) from Manning in Indianapolis. Welker is in store for a highly-efficient season.
Rams: So much for building around Bradford in his fourth season. Losing your safety-valve receiver and long-time leading rusher Steven Jackson at the same time is crushing. While Daryl Richardson is an intriguing young back to replace Jackson, there’s really not another Amendola-type receiver on the team, and Bradford is fond of the short stuff.
Bradford may also lose Brandon Gibson, who had 51 receptions and led the team with five touchdown catches last season.
St. Louis is in talks with former No. 1 overall pick Jake Long, but that has not been finalized at the time of this piece. Still, Bradford will need receivers to throw to, and any quarterback needs a bit more than a receiving corps led by Chris Givens.
Amendola’s value to the Rams may be overstated, but for a team trying to climb out of the deepest of holes, it just got harder by not retaining him.
Patriots: You can count on Amendola not having any real impact or strange correlation with New England’s record with or without him on the field. The Patriots enter each season with 10 wins already on cruise control.
But if Amendola can reasonably replace much of what Welker did, then this will pay off in the long run for the Patriots. Amendola is over four years younger than Welker, so age does have to be considered with the contract.
However, time is something Belichick and Brady are running low on. An injury to Amendola leaving him unavailable for a title run a la Rob Gronkowski as of late would be crushing.
New England fans can complain about a dropped pass here and there by Welker, but at least he was there practically every game.
With the success Julian Edelman had in the Welker role, it is likely Amendola will put up numbers in New England. But that success is only possible when he is active, and staying healthy week after week with an increased workload is the biggest hurdle he will have to overcome. The Patriots may be wise not to throw 150-plus targets his way this season.
Welker could have handled that again, but these newer models are not built as sturdily. Would like to think one can appreciate that durability. Apparently it was not valued enough by the Patriots.
Scott Kacsmar is a football writer/researcher who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive. Please send any questions or comments to Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.
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