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Analyzing the Titans’ re-signings: Lavelle Hawkins

After looking at Craig Stevens earlier in the week, I’ll turn my attention to the Titans’ second biggest offensive re-signing of the offseason, wide receiver Lavelle Hawkins.

While his contract did not meet my critera for one of the team’s top financial commitments this year, as he would rank 15th in cash and 20th in cap, he’ll still be making a fair bit for a player I was skeptical last offseason would make it from 19 to 20 career receptions. I did eventuallycotton on to the fact that he would make the team and have a role in the offense, though I still don’t think he makes it to 47 catches withoutKenny Britt’s injury. Make it he did, though, and the Titans saw enough to bring him back.

As I noted in the post I did when he signed his extension, his performance by Football Outsiders numbers was pretty lousy. That’s sort of interesting, at least to me. Individual receiver data frequently reflects a receiver’s role in the team as much as his own personal skills; a player like Steve Smith has gone from ranking in the top five to ranking in the 50s and back to the top again as the level of quarterback play in Carolina has waxed and waned.

What makes the Titans interesting, though, is their receivers clearly fall into separate tiers in terms of their efficiency numbers, and those tiers seem to be unconnected to their frequency of usage. Kenny Britt, in the limited time he played, was thrown the ball a ton, and put up some outstanding numbers. Nate Washington was targeted relatively frequently when Britt was in the lineup and even more after he went out, and heput up slightly above-average efficiency numbers. Hawkins and Damian Williams, on the other hand, ranked in the bottom 15 of qualifying receivers.

Looking at Williams and Hawkins in slightly more granular detail, we see a way to distinguish the two. One of the numbers in Football Outsiders Almanac 2012 is receiver +/-, which measures how many passes a receiver catches in comparison to leaguewide catch rates of throws of a similar distance, with some adjustments from our charting data. To account for usage, here’s how the Titans’ top four receivers ranked in +/-, if they were thrown the ball 100 times:

Receiver +/-
Kenny Britt +10
Lavelle Hawkins -0.1
Nate Washington +2.5
Damian Williams -8.0

The lesson? As always, that Kenny Britt is awesome. (And 2011 wasn’t a fluke; he put up a virtually identical +/- rate in 2010.) When you add in that YAC data is very average for each of Hawkins, Washington, and Williams (Britt is awesome, though his long catch-and-run against the Jaguars kind of skews his small sample size), you get a broader picture. The conclusion, and I stress this is a tentative one, is that Damian Williams was truly a below-average performer in 2011 while it’s not so much that Lavelle Hawkins is bad as that the Titans throw the ball to him in positions that are more unlikely to produce success.

While this doesn’t mean I’m a big fan of Hawkins’ play, because I think better players don’t post efficiency rates quite that awful (Hawkins ranked 85 of 91 players), the numbers do seem to support a feeling I had during the season that Hawkins caught a lot of little 5-yard passes that even a good receiver might have struggled to do much with. He just wasn’t necessarily quite as awful as you’d think. I only had the inklings of this idea when I put together my 2012 target estimate, but as long as Chris Palmer’s offense has those throws in it, some receiver will catch them and very likely post mediocre at best efficiency numbers, and I think that’s going to be Lavelle Hawkins. I’ll just have to remind myself that, well, it’s not all his fault.