The Redskins have struggled through uneven times. In recent times, this is probably best exemplified by the seven game winning streak — the stretch that fueled optimism for the offseason — that was bookeneded on both sides by three game losing streaks.
It would seem that any attempt at separating the 2013 Redskins from the 2012 Redskins or 2008 Redskins or 2001 Redskins or 1992 Redskins is probably guilty of some degree of overanalysis. The game of professional football has changed violently over the last twenty years; Washington's place within the game has remained pretty much the same. Neither a top five pick in the draft nor a playoff berth is a good indicator of where this team is.
I think that 2013 3rd round draft pick Jordan Reed may be the first indication that times may be changing. He just may be good enough to save the Redskins 2013 season.
It's going to take a careful (if not painful) look back in order to understand why Jordan Reed's breakout game last Sunday is so important to this team. This franchise has done quite well in the draft with its first round selections, at least when it has held on to it's top selelctions. Allowing for inevitability with Robert Griffin III, the last first round draft pick of the Redskins that failed to become at least a three year starter for the team was Patrick Ramsey back in 2002. Even in the case of Ramsey, injury played some factor in him falling short of starting for the Redskins for three seasons. And while Ramsey proved not to be worthy of a first round selection, you have to go back to 1996 to find the last time the Redskins selected a guy who couldn't play in the first round: the fame-less Andre Johnson.
Given the track record of first round success, you would naturally expect the overall rosters to be stronger than they have been. Problem is: the Redskins have totally given back any value they've created with good drafting in the top round with a large list of busts and non-contributors in the second and third rounds. In order of Approximate Value, the best second or third round (refered to henceforth as "mid-round") selections in this 22-year timeframe: LB Derek Smith, OT Jon Jansen, CB Fred Smoot, G Derrick Dockery, G Tre Johnson, LB Rocky McIntosh, C Cory Raymer, TE Chris Cooley, RB Ladell Betts, and TE Stephen Alexander. That list produced a single pro-bowler (Cooley) and only about half the players on that list went on to enjoy large second contracts. This is inexcusable production when you consider that teams are gifted 2+ mid-round picks by the league every year.
The Mike Shanahan drafts have hardly been immune to this plague. Trent Williams looks to be on path to be the best LT in the history of a franchise that had a borderline hall of famer in Joe Jacoby, and another guy in Chris Samuels who enjoyed a nice, long, pro bowl filled career. But the rest of the 2010 is a wash: Perry Riley hasn't developed into a valuable player, and Selvish Capers is the only member of that draft still on a NFL roster.
Ryan Kerrigan is a very valuable complementary rusher/do-it-all edge player, but Jarvis Jenkins, Leonard Hankerson. Roy Helu, Aldrick Robinson, Chris Neild, and the rest of the class have not been able to separate (although there are three plus members of this class who may be the best options on this team the rest of the year). The quantity of the 2011 draft class looks different, but the quality looks to be about what we have come to expect.
Robert Griffin III was almost more of a targeted acquisiton you might see in a trade or free agent signing rather than a draft pick, but the rest of the 2012 class looks to fall in line in terms of disappointing expectations. It's nice to get a stud in the sixth round any time you can, and for all we know, Alfred Morris is going to have a bunch of pro bowls in his future. But if he settled in with a Stephen Davis-type career, that wouldn't be shocking either.
Jordan Reed may be the rare player who stars as a rookie, without coming from a first round pedigree. Tight ends that have done that in recent seasons include Jimmy Graham (3rd round), Rob Gronkowski (2nd round), and Aaron Hernandez (4th round), all from the 2010 draft. Loosening the standards a bit gives you Dwayne Allen (3rd round, 2012), Jordan Cameron (4th round, 2011), Jermichael Finley (3rd round, 2008), and Brent Celek (5th round, 2007).
I went to the advanced stats to get more context on Reed's start, and those numbers through just five games push him towards the better end of that group of comparables. He ranks 5th in Football Outsiders DYAR, despite having just 30 targets. On a rate stat basis, DVOA says he's more or less been the Jimmy Graham of the Redskins. Advanced NFL Stats uses something called Expected Points added as it's main evaluation tool. Reed ranks second in the NFL, ahead of even Graham, by EPA. Pro Football Focus has Reed graded out as the 7th best TE in football this year, although he has the highest catch rate among any TE. His 9.9 yards per target figure ranks him behind only Graham and Vernon Davis this year.
That's a fantastic start to a rookie season when you can't point as anyone (except Graham, maybe) and say: he's better than our guy. But I was much more interested in looking at historical seasons by guys under the age of 25 and seeing if Reed's start might be historic. To find comparable seasons, I'm going to regrees Reed's rate stats a bit. I'm looking at the same metrics as before, but the baselines I'm looking at are over 170 DYAR, over 50 EPA, or a +14.0 full season grade from Pro Football Focus.
An out-of-nowhere breakout season hasn't been that rare of an occurance since 2009. Jermichael Finley was fantastic as a second year player in 2009, then Rob Gronkowski had the greatest single season ever by a TE in 2011, the same year that Jimmy Graham came from nowhere to lead the league in every category, non-Gronkowski division. This season, Julius Thomas and Jordan Cameron have joined the party.
But those players were merely young, developmental prospects. To do what Jordan Reed has done so far as a true rookie, only one player on that list got anywhere close, and that's Gronkowski. And even those marks set by Gronkowski in 2010 are fairly attainable for Reed: 42 catches for 546 yards and 10 TDs, a 71% catch rate, 9.3 yards per target, 243 DYAR, and 42.6 EPA. That's Gronk's rookie year. Reed looks likely to catch him in every category except touchdowns. Even that mark isn't unattainable.
The other historically great TE rookie seasons in NFL history are almost exclusively from first round draft selections: Mike Ditka for the 1961 Bears, Keith Jackson with the 1988 Eagles, and Charley Young with the 1973 Eagles. And while we may not see a TE season as strong as Ditka's '61 from a rookie, Jordan Reed's start puts his season path just a bit shy of some of the better names of all time in their best seasons. Like Gronkowski, the hope is that this start is only the beginning. And more importantly, that Reed is the primary weapon that Robert Griffin III needs to become the quarterback he can be.
The metrics all agree: this is going to work.