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The Jets need Robby Anderson to step up in Quincy Enunwa’s absence. Can they expect it to happen?

Denver Broncos v New York Jets Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

Robby Anderson’s second season in the NFL was a success. It is always encouraging to see the production of a young player trend up.

Anderson’s reception total went up from 42 as a rookie in 2016 to 63 in his second season. His receiving yardage jumped from 587 in 2016 to 941 in 2017. And after only catching 2 touchdown passes as a rookie, he hauled in 7 during his second season.

This raised expectations quite a bit coming into year three. If Anderson’s upward trajectory continued, he could emerge as a legitimate go to guy, perhaps even as one the top receivers in the entire NFL.

During the offseason, fans tend to take lofty dreams like these as a given. Of course each young player is going to continue to get better.

In reality, a player’s progression is frequently not linear. Even if Anderson eventually was to become that type of go to guy, there was always the chance it would happen during his fourth year in the NFL. He wouldn’t be the first promising player to take a step back in his third season and then move forward one year later.

To date, the results for Anderson’s third season have not met those preseason expectations. Through six games, he has only 14 catches for 270 yards. That puts him on pace to finish the year with under 40 catches and 750 yards. Few would have signed up for that at the start of the year, even if 3 touchdowns is a respectable place to be at this point of his career.

The genesis of Anderson’s struggles is up for debate. Many have pointed to the Jets’ offensive scheme. That might have some validity. After all, one of the reported reasons behind the firing of offensive coordinator John Morton was tension caused from his game plans featuring Anderson too prominently. Naturally, his successor was going to feature him less in the offense.

Others have pointed to Sam Darnold’s struggles with the deep ball, which is Anderson’s specialty. This was especially pronounced during Darnold’s first month. In the Jets’ first four games, PFF charted only three deep completions (passes that travel 20+ yards in the air) for Darnold. That was 27th in the league. One was a touchdown to Anderson against the Lions in the opener. Darnold has hit four deep passes in the last two weeks, which helped account for Anderson’s best game of 2018 against the Broncos.

These are valid points to consider when examining Anderson’s relatively quiet 2018 to date, but they might not explain the entire story of Robby’s slow start. Anderson being partially hurt by outside factors and partially hurt by his own performance are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, one key piece of data shows an area where Anderson has regressed in 2018.

Next Gen Stats keeps track of the average separation wide receivers get on their routes. In 2017 Anderson tied for eighth best in the NFL, averaging 3.4 yards of separation per route. In 2018 to date that figure has fallen to 2.6 yards per route.

2.6 yards of separation is not necessarily a terrible number. Part of it does, however, depend on the type of route run. Getting 2.6 yards of separation on a seven yard slant is an enormous window.

By comparsion, on the deep routes where Anderson excels every bit of yardage is important. It isn’t easy to throw deep. The longer the pass, the more difficult it is to throw accurately. Very few passers complete even half of their deep attempts in a given season. Making the window 25% smaller on a downfield passing attempt makes the challenge much greater for the quarterback.

Another piece of data from Next Gen Stats offers a possible explanation for Anderson’s lower rate of separation. He is receiving an average cushion of 7.4 yards from opposing cornerbacks. Only Chris Conley receives a larger average cushion.

Word got out that Robby Anderson became a great deep threat in 2017, and the league has adjusted accordingly. Taking some extra cushion is an effective technique for a cover guy against the deep route. It essentially gives the defender a head start in the race down the field after the snap.

The 7.4 yards cushion defenders are giving Anderson is a full yard more than the 6.4 yards he got last season.

It certainly doesn’t seem like a coincidence that with defenders giving him one more yard of cushion that Anderson is now getting 0.8 yards less separation. Those numbers almost match.

It makes sense to give a cover guy extra room to operate against Anderson. Robby is an excellent deep route runner.

Many of you probably remember a player named Stephen Hill whom the Jets drafted in the second round in 2012. During his brief time with the Jets, many referred to Hill as a deep threat. That seemed to be based solely on the fact he ran a 4.36 40 yard dash at the Combine. It certainly wasn’t based on his ability to actually threaten the defense on deep routes. Raw speed certainly helps, but it alone does not make a receiver a deep threat.

Anderson is indeed fast, but his ability to win deep down the field goes beyond speed. He stems his routes well and shakes defenders with body movements. In the instances this season when defenses have given Robby a cushion closer to the 6.4 yards he got in 2017, he has shown an ability to make them pay.

Take this play against Jalen Ramsey. Pay attention to when Anderson is between the 20 and 30 yard lines. He makes a little move that threatens to break outside. This prevents Ramsey from flipping his hips to run with Anderson to the middle of the field until Robby has eaten up the entire cushion. The situation shifted to Anderson’s advantage, and he was open deep. Darnold simply missed a throw.

This wasn’t some scrub Robby was facing. This came against a guy who was on the All Pro First Team a year ago. It shows his quality as a deep route runner.

One week later, Anderson again got a cushion around the 6.4 he got last season. This time the quarterback didn’t miss. Around the 30, Anderson makes a move suggesting he could break toward the sideline, which Bradley Roby bites on. Anderson runs right past him. Darnold hits him. Anderson runs to the end zone and then does a little finger roll at the goal line.

There is no question that Robby Anderson can run the deep route and that he can hurt a defense that fails to respect his ability as a deep route runner. But this year defenses have shown an increasing respect. And the results have not been good for the receiver. That extra yard of cushion has allowed defenders to sit back and wait for Anderson. Corners have had more time to react to those moves. The result has been less separation.

In the NFL it is easy to take one thing away from the opponent. The question becomes how you respond when your opponent takes away the thing you do best. You have to find another way to produce, and Anderson has struggled to do so.

We will talk more about that later, but I think it is important to note that even had defenses not adjusted there are some signs that Anderson’s 2017 production might not have been sustainable anyway. A deep dive shows that over half of Anderson’s 2017 receiving yardage came during one five game stretch. If you are a go to guy, the team needs you to produce with consistency. There were seven games in which Anderson recorded 40 or less yards. Such high variability in performance through the season suggests there was something bigger going on than the popular, “His production fell at the end of the year because Josh McCown got hurt, and Bryce Petty played quarterback,” refrain. There were plenty of games with McCown where Anderson did not leave his mark.

Anderson was not able to sustain the production of that five game stretch over the course of an entire season mainly because...well that type of production is unsustainable.

The best deep threats in the league tend to haul in somewhere around one deep pass per game. For example, Tyreek Hill has 21 in 22 games since the 2017 season started. During Anderson’s five game hot streak last year, he caught nine deep passes.

Because of the damage deep passes inflict, just a handful can help a player feast statistically over the course of game or even for a stretch lasting a few weeks. But it is difficult to rely upon deep passes alone over the long haul. To explain, we can go back to the low percentage of deep passes that end in completions. Beyond that, even if you are the best deep threat on your team you won’t own on a monopoly on that team’s deep targets. The quarterback will throw the ball to other players down the field. So the opportunities to produce are limited and largely dependent on factors beyond the receiver’s control. All of this is why Anderson can dominate a game against Denver and be so quiet the other five weeks of the season.

Most fans are by nature optimistic. When they see a young guy produce, they get hopeful. They dream of the player continuing to develop. One of the things most frequently done is extrapolating that player’s best stretch of the previous season and saying, “If he can only do that over sixteen games, he will be something special.” But even the biggest Robby Anderson fan in the world would probably have a tough time believing he could sustain an average close to two deep catches per week when Tyreek Hill is averaging around one. Thus those great five weeks from last year are probably an exception to the rule rather than the new norm.

So if Robby Anderson is going to become a go to guy in this league, that stretch from last year between the Atlanta and Carolina games is probably not going to be the roadmap. He will have to diversify his production. And his deep route running might help with that in a way. That extra cushion defenders are providing him might make it more difficult to gain separation deep, but it also opens up extra space underneath for him to work. That means his short routes don’t need to be as crisp to end with a reception as they otherwise might be.

That’s the part of Anderson’s game in need of development if he is to move to the next level as a receiver. Unfortunately to date, the results have not been there. I see people frequently complain that the Jets should throw the ball short more frequently to Anderson if defenders are going to sag off him to take away the deep route, but it isn’t that simple. Short route running is a skill just like deep route running. If it was that simple, every effective deep route runner would also produce on short routes. But we know that isn’t the case.

And in Anderson’s case, it isn’t like his struggles running short routes are something new. We noticed them last season, during the offseason, and during the preseason.

This leads to a simple question that might distress some Jets fans. What if Robby Anderson is simply an NFL role player, not a budding star? We talked about how that five game stretch last year isn’t sustainable, but that stretch is really the foundation of the hopes people have for Anderson becoming more.

In turn I will ask a second question. Shouldn’t Jets fans be happy if Robby Anderson simply is a role player? It is easy to forget that will all of the hype and excitement around him that he was an undrafted free agent. Your first and second round picks are the guys who need to turn into stars. If you find a role player as an undrafted free agent, you should be thrilled. That’s great value.

Thus maybe the problem isn’t so much Robby Anderson as it is the expectations of the Jets and their fans. The Jets have made so many poor Draft picks in recent years that fans are starved for young talent. The second a young player shows any sort of ability, he becomes burdened with atoning for the failures of past Jets youth.

Anderson is haunted by the failure of one specific player, Devin Smith. Smith was a second round pick by the Jets in 2015. You probably know the story. An unproductive rookie year ended with an injury, which was followed by numerous other injuries. In the end, Smith played only 20 games and caught only 10 passes during his Jets career.

Smith was supposed to be a premium deep threat who blossomed into a go to guy. Robby Anderson now must make up for that failure. But it doesn’t seem fair. It isn’t Anderson’s fault that the Jets made a poor (and unlucky) pick with Smith. It was reasonable to expect Smith to develop into a go to guy. He was a second round pick. Putting the same expectations on Anderson seems much less reasonable. Can Robby develop into more? Sure, but even a third or fourth receiver with the ability to wreck the occasional game by getting deep is a tremendous return for an undrafted free agent. Remember, it’s the general manager who needs to make up for the Smith error, not Robby Anderson.

But with Quincy Enunwa out for a month, all eyes will turn to Anderson to carry more of the load in the Jets passing game. If he has it in him, this would be the time to show he can be a more reliable outlet on short passes. If he does adds that to his gifts in the deep part of the field, maybe he can become a go to guy yet.

If not I’m sure the Jets would happily take another hot month on deep routes, even if it isn’t ultimately sustainable.

(Stats on deep passing were from PFF.)