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What Will Mike Wallace Bring to Minnesota?

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The Daily Norseman examines Mike Wallace’s time in Pittsburgh and Miami as well as the trends in Norv Turner’s offense, to gauge his fantasy football prospects with the Minnesota Vikings.

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Back in the 2013 offseason, the Vikings were short on wide receivers and heavily pursued free agent wide receiver Mike Wallace, reportedly offering him more money than the Miami Dolphins.  Wallace chose to sign with Miami (apparently to avoid the cold weather), which ultimately lead to the Vikings signing Greg Jennings away from the Green Bay Packers as a backup plan.  Fast forward 2 years and it's not immediately clear which team came out ahead as their combined 2-year stats are pretty similar:

Combined Receiving Stats 2013-2014 Seasons

Name

Receiving Targets

Receptions

Receiving Yards

Receiving Average

Touchdowns

Fantasy Points per Game

Greg Jennings

198

127

1,546

12.2

10

7.0

Mike Wallace

267

140

1,792

12.8

15

8.5


I think it's safe to say that both free agent receivers disappointed their teams the past 2 seasons, although Wallace was targeted more and had slightly better production with Ryan Tannehill than Greg Jennings had with Ponder, Cassel, Freeman and Bridgewater.  It seems the Vikings were correct in identifying Wallace as the better free agent option, and it makes sense that the Vikings chose to trade for Wallace this past offseason, giving up a 5th round pick on those grounds alone.  But as I'll explain below there is more to it than that.  In any case, the Vikings attempted to restructure the remaining portion of Greg Jennings 5-year contract after the trade, but when negotiations broke down Jennings was simply released.  In a weird twist of irony, Jennings signed with the Miami Dolphins after exploring all options as a free agent which will make for an interesting analysis between these two receivers over the next couple years as they trade places in their respective teams.  Never-the-less, what can we expect from Mike Wallace in Minnesota, especially from a fantasy football perspective?

The first thing to look at in order to answer this question is to determine how Mike Wallace functioned in his past offenses to better understand his fantasy football production.  In 2009 as a Pittsburgh Steeler, Wallace was a rookie, but played in all 16 games seeing a total of 638 out of a possible 1,077 snaps (59%).  Despite being behind Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes on the depth chart at the time, he garnered 72 targets and finished as the 27th best wide receiver in standard fantasy leagues in total points (#33 in points/game).  He became a full-fledged starter for two years in Bruce Arians offense during the 2010 and 2011 seasons functioning as the number one receiver with the most snaps in the offense.  In Arians offense during the 2010 and 2011 seasons, Wallace was utilized in a way that took advantage of his strongest asset: speed.  Arians was influenced heavily by legendary offensive coordinator Tom Moore, who is well known for orchestrating the lethal passing offenses with Peyton Manning and the Colts (where Arians was the QB coach).  Moore didn't really have a "scheme" so to speak, but he utilized aspects of the Air Coryell offense and his philosophy was literally: "you do what your players can do."  Arians used Mike Wallace primarily as a deep threat in Pittsburgh where his 4.3 combine speed could be utilized best.  He was recently quoted as saying, "We never, ever want to pass on the home run to complete a short fade."

If you look at some of the statistics for Mike Wallace while he was in Pittsburgh you can see how this offensive philosophy played to his strengths by looking at where he was targeted.  It also helps that Wallace was the perfect fit for Arian's typical wide receiver.  In any case during his rookie year Wallace was third on the depth chart, but still functioned primarily as a deep threat.  Of his 72 targets that year, 38% of them came beyond 20 yards from the line of scrimmage and 81% came beyond 10 yards.  In 2010, he had 100 receiving targets.  Of those, 37% came beyond 20 yards of the line of scrimmage, and 67% came beyond 10 yards of the line scrimmage.  He had roughly the same role in 2011 with 111 receiving targets, and 27% coming beyond 20 yards of the line of scrimmage and 57% coming beyond 10 yards.  His 2011 season saw a slight drop in deep targets from the previous two years, but the majority of his targets still came beyond 10 yards at the very least.  In 2011 he did see a large uptick in targets 0-10 yards out in the middle of the field, presumably on slants and shallow crossers, which lowered his receiving average a bit (see table below).  But otherwise, Mike Wallace was essentially going deep the majority of the three years he spent under Bruce Arians and he was quite effective as a deep threat in fantasy football, finishing as a top 15 receiver as a starter:

Mike Wallace Fantasy Production Under Bruce Arians

Year

Targets

Receptions

Receiving Yards

Receiving Average

Receiving TDs

Rank in Fantasy Points/Game

2009

72

39

756

19.4

6

33rd (7.2)

2010

100

60

1,257

21.0

10

8th (11.9)

2011

111

72

1,193

16.6

8

15th (10.7)

In 2012, Arians was let go and found a new home in Indianapolis while the Steelers hired Todd Haley as their offensive coordinator to replace him.  Haley brought a run-heavy, West Coast style offense that was frequently criticized as being "dink and dunk."  When Arians left, he took the deep ball passing attack with him and Mike Wallace suffered immensely.  In 2012 Wallace had 119 targets with 34% of those targets being beyond 20 yards and 52% beyond 10 yards.   While the deep ball percentage seems to be in line with his earlier shares, Wallace saw the largest share of his targets come from less than 10 yards out from the line of scrimmage in his career: 48%.  In fact, over a quarter of his targets came in the middle of the field between 0-10 yards.  In Haley's offense, they tried to utilize Wallace's speed less as a deep threat, and more as a way to generate yards after the catch.  On those 31 targets at the middle of the field, he generated 121 yards after the catch, the most of his career from that depth of target.  But at the end of the day, the way Haley used Wallace was very different than the way Bruce Arians used him and he was not nearly as effective in his fantasy production as his receiving average and fantasy points per game both drop dramatically:

Mike Wallace Fantasy Production Under Todd Haley

Year

Targets

Receptions

Receiving Yards

Receiving Average

Receiving TDs

Rank in Fantasy Points/Game

2012

119

64

836

13.1

8

28th (8.7)

The Steelers let Mike Wallace go in free agency and it's understandable since he wasn't a good fit for Todd Haley's offense.  The Dolphins signed him during the 2013 offseason, and unfortunately Wallace had two different offensive coordinators in the two seasons he was there, neither of which prescribed to a vertical passing attack.  In 2013, Mike Sherman was the offensive coordinator running another West Coast style offense, again of the "dink and dunk" variety, very similar to the one that Todd Haley ran actually.  Wallace was used in almost the exact same way in Miami as he was during the final year in Pittsburgh and the results should not be surprising.  He was heavily targeted in 2013, getting 142 targets (by far the most of his career), but only 25% of them came beyond 20 yards off the line of scrimmage and only 58% of them came beyond 10 yards.  His receiving average takes another dip downwards in Sherman's offense and so does his fantasy value:

Mike Wallace Fantasy Production Under Mike Sherman

Year

Targets

Receptions

Receiving Yards

Receiving Average

Receiving TDs

Rank in Fantasy Points/Game

2013

142

73

930

12.7

5

32nd (7.9)

Sherman was fired after the 2013 season and the Dolphins brought in Bill Lazor.  Lazor came to Miami having worked under Chip Kelly the year before, and while the Dolphins utilized some of the up-tempo, "spread offense" style attack Kelly is known for, they also employed a significant amount of West Coast style schemes as well.  For some inexplicable reason Bill Lazor did not take advantage of Wallace's primary skillset: deep speed.  As this article points out, receivers in Lazor's offense need to have the following skills: to be precise and have good timing on their routes and have run after catch ability.  And because his offense stretches the field more horizontally than vertically, they don't need to have great straight-line speed.  I think we can understand why the Dolphins were willing to trade Wallace, because those traits don't fit him at all.  They do fit Greg Jennings however, and it's no surprise that he's now a Dolphin.

In any case, of the 115 targets Wallace received last year in Lazor's offense, only 21% of them came beyond 20 yards of the line of scrimmage, the lowest share of his entire career.  The largest share of his targets, 37%, came between 10 and 20 yards off the line of scrimmage which is a huge change in role.  So while it was hoped that Lazor might be able to utilize him in a similar way as Bruce Arians (because of the Chip Kelly connection), the fantasy production from his earlier career never materialized.  That said, Wallace managed to find the end-zone significantly more often in 2014 which helped out his fantasy value quite a bit:

Mike Wallace Fantasy Production Under Bill Lazor

Year

Targets

Receptions

Receiving Yards

Receiving Average

Receiving TDs

Rank in Fantasy Points/Game

2014

115

67

862

12.9

10

23rd (9.1)

As you can see Wallace's receiving average is virtually unchanged when compared to Sherman's and Haley's offenses, and the biggest difference in fantasy production is that he doubled his touchdowns.  In a nutshell, when Wallace is used in a vertical passing attack, where his targets are primarily beyond 20+ yards, he has proven to be effective and very productive for fantasy football purposes.  Under Bruce Arians from 2009-2011 that was his role and he performed very well.  But when he is utilized in a short-passing, West Coast style offense as he was under Todd Haley, Mike Sherman and Bill Lazor from 2012-2014, then his fantasy production leaves a lot to be desired.

So if Mike Wallace is most productive as a deep threat, is he a good fit for the Vikings and Norv Turner's offense?  The short answer is: yes.  The Vikings no longer run a "West Coast" style offense, of the kind run by Darrell Bevel and Bill Musgrave.  Turner runs an Air Coryell offense which is a complex system-based offense that is also sometimes called a "vertical offense."  It has a lot more in common with the offense Bruce Arians ran in Pittsburgh than it does with a West Coast offense.  While the West Coast style offense stretches teams more horizontally and is based on timing and precision, the Coryell offense is based around forcing a defense to defend the entire field.  In fact, the deep pass is usually one of the first reads on nearly every play.  While there are also timing and precision elements involved, the goal "is to have at least two downfield, fast wide receivers who adjust to the deep pass very well, combined with a sturdy pocket quarterback with a strong arm."  While Wallace is only 6'0", his 4.3 deep speed seems tailor-made for the Air Coryell offense.

The Air Coryell offense was designed by Don Coryell, and there is an excellent history of his offense written by Danny Kelly over at the Field Gulls.  But what we really care about is how Norv Turner implemented this offense and how his receivers have fared in fantasy football.  Turner landed his first offensive coordinator position in 1991 with the Dallas Cowboys where he installed his version of the Air Coryell offense.  Since then he was spent time with eight different NFL franchises over 24 year career both as an offensive coordinator and a head coach, and he used Air Coryell at every stop.  So, to figure out what kind of statistical production Mike Wallace might be in for, I tracked the fantasy football production of Turner's #1 receivers in every offense he's been involved with either as an offensive coordinator or a head coach.

Norv Turner's #1 Wide Receivers in Air Coryell Offenses

Year

Team

Wide Receiver

Height

Weight

40-yard Dash

FFpG

1991

Cowboys

Michael Irvin

74

202

4.5

12.1

1992

Cowboys

Michael Irvin

74

202

4.5

11.2

1993

Cowboys

Michael Irvin

74

202

4.5

11.0

1994

Redskins

Henry Ellard

70

175

4.4

10.8

1995

Redskins

Henry Ellard

70

175

4.4

8.0

1996

Redskins

Henry Ellard

70

175

4.4

7.1

1997

Redskins

Leslie Shepherd

71

185

n/a

5.6

1998

Redskins

Leslie Shepherd

71

185

n/a

8.4

1999

Redskins

Michael Westbrook

75

221

n/a

10.7

2000

Redskins

Albert Connell

72

184

4.4

5.9

2001

Chargers

Curtis Conway

73

196

4.4

10.3

2002

Dolphins

Chris Chambers

71

210

4.3

6.1

2003

Dolphins

Chris Chambers

71

210

4.3

10.2

2004

Raiders

Jerry Porter

74

220

4.4

9.3

2005

Raiders

Randy Moss

76

210

4.25

9.3

2006

49ers

Antonio Bryant

73

188

4.57

5.7

2007

Chargers

Vincent Jackson

77

230

4.46

5.0

2008

Chargers

Vincent Jackson

77

230

4.46

9.8

2009

Chargers

Vincent Jackson

77

230

4.46

10.7

2010

Chargers

Malcolm Floyd

75

220

4.47

6.6

2011

Chargers

Vincent Jackson

77

230

4.46

10.6

2012

Chargers

Malcolm Floyd

75

220

4.47

7.0

2013

Browns

Josh Gordon

75

225

4.52

14.2

2014

Vikings

Greg Jennings

71

197

4.42

6.8

Average

73.458

205.08

4.43047619

8.9

Median

74

206

4.46

9.3

There are several noteworthy statistics to mention about this list of wide receivers.  First, the size and speed combination is all over the map with a height range between 71 and 76 inches.  Weight is a little bit more problematic to compare since the data goes back over 20 years and the diet, exercise, strength and conditioning regime for athletes has changed dramatically over time.  But even so, they fall in a range of 175 to 230 pounds, a huge range.  Even the 40-yard dash has a pretty wide range from as fast as 4.25 to as slow as 4.57.  In other words, going back over 20 years in Norv Turner's offenses reveals almost no consensus for a "proto-type" of size and speed combination for a "#1 receiver."

Second, the fantasy production is similarly all over the map ranging as low as a 5.6 average per game to as high as a 14.2 average per game.  The "per game average" mean of all Turner receivers is only 8.9, but that number is a little deceiving.  First off, the low per game averages can be explained away for the most part.  Starting with Leslie Shepherd in 1997, he only started 9 games and played in 11.  That was also significant for Henry Ellard as it was the last meaningful year for him as a Redskin after a long and productive 15-year career.  As you can see in the table, Ellard was the leading receiver the previous two years and his production dropped off a cliff in 1997.  Leslie Shepherd was sort of the leading receiver by default that year.  Then in 1998, Shepherd started all 16 games as the true #1 receiver and he increased his fantasy production by 50 percent.  I feel it's worth tossing 1997 out of the equation.  Then in the year 2000 we see another odd dip in fantasy production with Albert Connell leading the way.  In 1999 Michael Westbrook emerged in Turner's offense as a vertical threat leading the team in fantasy points.  Albert Connell also managed to notch more than 1,000 yards receiving in 1999 as well.  But in 2000, without Westbrook (he was injured) to complement him, Connell wasn't able to replicate the same level of production.  It's possible that we could throw that year out as well.  In 2006 we see Turner try to fit Alex Smith into the Coryell offense (he has no deep ball) with only Antonio Bryant and Arnaz Battle as receiving options out in San Francisco.  While I'm sure they all gave it their best effort, the talent level just wasn't there to fit the scheme.  Bryant was the slowest receiver Turner has ever worked with, and while he had a few productive seasons, 2006 was not one of them.  Battle's best year was 2006, which tells you everything you need to know.  It's worth considering tossing out 2006 as well.  It's also easy to explain away the lack of production with the Chargers too.  In 2007 the Chargers leading receiver was actually Antonio Gates, and it was Vincent Jackson's first year as a full-time starter.  But after the learning curve, the following year his production skyrockets.  In 2010, Jackson was injured and Malcolm Floyd valiantly tried to fill in.  Floyd did marginally better in 2012 when Jackson left in free agency when he knew he was destined for the #1 role.  And of course, we all know how 2014 went with the Vikings as Turner arguably didn't have an ideal scenario either, what with the quarterback shuffle early in the season, Peterson getting suspended, Patterson not developing, injuries on the offensive line and to Kyle Rudolph, and no bona-fide deep threat.

So if we pull all of those less than ideal situations out of the equation (1997, 2000, 2006, 2007 and 2014) it changes things pretty dramatically.  Suddenly the average fantasy points per game jumps up from 8.9 to 9.7, and the median jumps up from 9.3 to 10.2, both representing nearly a full fantasy point per game increase.  This might be considered cherry picking, but I would explain it simply as, when Turner has his ideal scenario to work with the scheme seems to work much better.  So there is reason to be optimistic that his system can work with the right players.

The next step was to run some correlation data analysis on this group of receivers to see if there was any relationship between career fantasy numbers and height, weight or 40-yard dash times.  I left Leslie Shepherd and Michael Westbrook out of the analysis since I couldn't locate a 40-yard dash time for them.   But what I discovered is that the 40-yard dash time had virtually no correlation to their fantasy points, but that the height and weight measurements seemed to correlate at an R2 rate of 0.35 and 0.48 to fantasy points respectively.  Granted, it's not a strong correlation, but there does seem to be something to be said for being tall and heavy in Turner's offense. But, if I also remove Albert Connell, Antonio Bryant and Greg Jennings from the equation due to the "less than ideal situations" as explained above, then we also begin to see a slight correlation between fantasy production and 40-yard dash times with an R2 rate of 0.37.  Not real strong, but certainly better than nothing.  It's noteworthy though that the height/weight correlation disappears when those players are removed.

In any case, if height and weight matter, then it's worth pointing out that Mike Wallace is neither tall (only 72 inches) nor heavy (only 200 pounds).  In fact he is 2 inches shorter and 6 pounds lighter than the average Turner receiver.  I'm not sure if this is significant, but Wallace's primary attribute as a receiver is his 4.33 40-yard dash speed, and it's unclear if there is a correlation between speed and fantasy production.  But if there is, he has that working for him at least.  Interesting side-note, the two heaviest receivers currently on the Vikings roster are Charles Johnson (215) and Cordarrelle Patterson (220) while the fastest is Mike Wallace (or at least, it was back in 2009).  The tallest is an undrafted free agent by the name of Gavin Lutman (76 inches).

So where does that leave us?  Well, there is always going to be an element of unknown when trying to project fantasy production, but knowing that Norv Turner's leading receiver tends to average roughly 9 fantasy points per game (or nearly 10 in ideal situations), that seems like a pretty good baseline in which to start.  In Bruce Arians offense, Wallace averaged 9.9 fantasy points per game (or 11.3 as a starter), and in the variety of West Coast style offenses in which he played, he averaged 8.6 fantasy points per game.  So a projection of 9-10 fantasy points per game in Turner's vertical offense would seem reasonable for Wallace.  While his size and weight might hold him back a little bit and justify a projection lower than Turner's average, his speed makes up for it to close the gap.  Do I think he can return to his starter days in Pittsburgh?  Maybe, but I feel a projection pretty squarely on the average for Turner receivers seems appropriate for Wallace.

That leads me to project Wallace to average 9.5 fantasy points per game, which would put his year-end total at about 152 fantasy points, or squarely in the "Wide Receiver #2" range.  I would rank him probably in the 10-20 range for wide receivers in 2015, assuming of course that the Vikings offense stays healthy and on the field the whole season (I'm looking at you Peterson, Rudolph and the offensive line).  He is exactly the kind of "#2 receiver" you want to target in fantasy drafts though, because his return to a vertical offense, and the fact that he will likely be the #1 receiver in Minnesota makes his upside pretty good.  In other words, there is potential for him to return to 2010 and 2011 production levels now that he is back in an offense that can take advantage of his deep threat skills.  But don't go overboard, because he's only 6'0" and 200 pounds and he's also heading into his age 29 season, which is typically the year most NFL players begin a slow, inevitable decline to irrelevancy.  He's likely not going to be a top 10 receiver in fantasy football in Turner's offense, but I do feel he'll be more productive than he was in Miami, for at least the next couple of seasons.