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Fun with stats: Marcedes Lewis

Marcedes Lewis was a joy to watch in 2011.  He put up a great individual season:  58 receptions, 700 yards, 12.1 yards per reception, and 10 receiving touchdowns.  In addition, Lewis was also outstanding as a blocker in the running game, routinely handling defensive ends or 3-4 OLBs.  Simply put:  Marcedes Lewis had an outstanding 2011 season.  But just how good was it?

Tight ends in today's game are very different than they used to be; in the early days of the NFL, tight ends blocked far more often than they ran pass patterns.  This trend started switching in the 70s with players like Ozzie Newsome and Dave Casper, and continued into the 80s with guys like Kellen Winslow.  Throughout the years, the position became more and more of a receiver until Shannon Sharpe basically turned the position into a gigantic wide receiver that lined up on the line.  More and more Sharpe clones sprung up, including Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, and Dallas Clark; tight ends that could catch the ball as good as any receiver, but usually weren't much in terms of blocking.

Using Pro Football Reference's player season finder, I decided to look into how good Marcedes Lewis' 2011 season was historically.  His stats ended up as very round numbers:  700 yards and 10 TD.  These would be easy parameters for a statistical study; however, these numbers would also put Lewis at the very bottom of the list of players provided.  I decided to relax the yards criteria to 560, which is 40 yards per game in a 14-game season and 35 yards per game in a 16-game season.  This seems like a fair minimum yardage total to me, though obviously this is a very arbitrary number.  For touchdowns, I decided to keep ten as the minimum criteria for my study.  Ten touchdowns is a supposedly important number for NFL fans; when a receiver has ten touchdowns, he's said to be a "red zone monster" or some other iteration of that nickname.  That's not to say that ten is actually some sort of magical number, but for the Jaguars, only two players have ever reached this plateau:  Reggie Williams and Marcedes Lewis.  If Reggie Williams can do it, it's a reasonable minimum threshold for this study.

Due to the dramatic shift in the way tight ends have been used, I expected my stats to be very skewed toward the 90s and 2000s with players such as Antonio Gates and Dallas Clark dominating the stat-sheet.  I expected very few seasons to meet my criteria from prior to 1980, but I expected something in the neighborhood of 50 to 60 results that met my criteria in total.  As a tight end that blocks just as often as he runs a pass pattern, I figured Marcedes Lewis would easily have been surpassed statistically by players such as Gates and Clark.

Using the aforementioned criteria of 560 yards and 10 TD in a season, I used the player season finder to figure out how many tight ends in NFL history had had a season that met those criteria.  You may be surprised by the results:

2010:  Antonio Gates
2010:  Marcedes Lewis
2009:  Dallas Clark
2009:  Vernon Davis
2009:  Visanthe Shiancoe
2008:  Tony Gonzalez
2007:  Dallas Clark
2005:  Antonio Gates
2004:  Antonio Gates
2003:  Tony Gonzalez
1999:  Tony Gonzalez
1999:  Wesley Walls
1998:  Shannon Sharpe
1996:  Shannon Sharpe
1996:  Wesley Walls
1992:  Ernest Givins
1983:  Todd Christensen
1983:  Paul Coffman
1981:  Kellen Winslow
1976:  Dave Casper
1972:  Rich Caster
1967:  Jerry Smith
1965:  Pete Retzlaff
1961:  Mike Ditka

That's it.  Count 'em:  24 results in NFL history that had both 560 yards and 10 TD in one season.  That's some pretty good company.  In terms of individuals, there are multiple results by the same person, so overall only 17 tight ends have ever met the criteria of 560 yards and 10 TD in one season.  Want to shrink the results even more?  Post-merger:  eliminate Smith, Retzlaff, and Ditka.  Casper and Caster's stats were good enough that using 40 yards per game in a 16-game season wouldn't eliminate them, so let's use 640 yards instead of 560:  eliminate Shiancoe and 2007 Clark.  Now that we've monkeyed with the stats a bit, we need to ask:  what does this tell us?

First off, I was very surprised at the lack of tight end seasons that met my criteria.  Part of that problem is the 10 TD barrier; if I relax that to 8 I get a whole lot more results.  That said, 560 yards and 10 TD seemed like something that would get met pretty much every year by some tight end of another; apparently I was mistaken.  In terms of Marcedes Lewis, this tells us a few things:

  • He's become very proficient in the red least for one season.  Prior to 2010, his career high in touchdowns in a season was...2.  That's a huge jump; it would be foolish to simply assume that Lewis' new baseline is double-digit touchdowns.  Though it's obvious he's become more proficient in the red zone, the fact is that the stats merely SUGGEST that; they don't PROVE it.
  • Lewis had a season in elite company while also functioning as an excellent blocker.  Of the other players on the list, many of them (Gates x3, Clark x2, Sharpe x2) are or were very poor blockers and basically functioned as a third or fourth wide receiver that simply lined up next to the tackle.  Clark runs many plays out of the slot; he's basically a big slot receiver.  This makes Lewis' inclusion on this list impressive, as he didn't become less effective as a blocker despite his receiving numbers.
  • Of the 24 seasons on my original list, nine of the players were younger than Lewis when they put up the numbers matching my criteria.
  • As I thought, Lewis was near the bottom of the list in terms of yards per game; he checked in at 22nd out of 24 with only 43.8 yards per game.  Retzlaff in 1965 led the list with 85 yards per game; 2010 Antonio Gates was second with 78.2.

Overall, it's safe to say that while Marcedes Lewis has always been an outstanding blocking tight end, this year he took a major step toward becoming one of the NFL's best all-around tight ends.  Though his 2011 stats don't signify a permanent change in performance levels, they definitely suggest that Lewis will continue to progress as a receiver while maintaining his blocking prowess.  Lewis will likely ask for a large extension, and based on his progression as an offensive weapon to this point, I'd say an extension is certainly warranted.  Letting Lewis leave would be a huge blow to the Jaguars.  In short...PAY THE MAN!


*Disclaimer:  the statistical thresholds used in my study are EXTREMELY arbitrary; they hold absolutely no meaning.  Statistics can be used to tell a story any way you'd like.  I came up with my expectations and thresholds before actually running the data, so that makes it a little less arbitrary, but it doesn't in any way eliminate that aspect of the study.  If you decide to run your own study, please make sure to come up with the criteria players must meet to be part of your study BEFORE you run the numbers; checking the stats first is a logical fallacy and will provide you with nothing but arbitrary endpoints and useless data.  That's not to say the data I've given you isn't a whole lot more useful; it's simply for fun...hence the title.  Enjoy the post.