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How strange was the Strange pick? A statistical analysis and projection of Jaguars rookie TE Brenton Strange

Many fans were skeptical of Jaguars second-round pick Brenton Strange. But do the numbers justify the doubt?

Jacksonville Jaguars Rookie TE Brenton Strange at  Offseason Workout Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images

When the Jaguars drafted Brenton Strange with the 61st overall pick, reactions among Jacksonville fans were… mixed.

More optimistic members of the fanbase pointed to his athleticism, while others argued that the Jags should have addressed a need at cornerback. Most consensus draft boards didn’t even have Strange as the top tight end available -- that honor went to new Pittsburgh Steeler Darnell Washington, another Jaguars fan favorite who was drafted 93rd overall. The Cowboys selected Michigan’s Luke Schoonmaker three picks before Strange’s name was called.

However, Dougie P disciples were (marginally) less skeptical. After all, the mastermind of one of the most TE-friendly offenses in Philadelphia seemingly hand-picked Strange out of a strong tight end class. There must be something that he, general manager Trent Baalke, and the other coaches/scouts involved in the decision saw that we didn’t.

While we don’t play professional football, some of us do play professional math. So, we decided to take a closer at Brenton Strange look using the help of my trusty friend – computational statistics.

Methodology (The nitty gritty):

To produce some realistic forecasts for Strange’s rookie year, we started by looking at TE prospects in the past 10 years who joined similar schemes, were given similar prospect grades, or demonstrated similar strengths and weaknesses.

But we also went one level deeper: many of the predictions you are about to read are based on an analysis of the NFL Next Gen Stats (NGS) scores given to TE prospects of the last 10 years. These models take into account data points such as college production, athletic profile, combine and pro day performances, and other metrics to assign each draft prospect three scores: a production score, athleticism score, and compound score.

The NGM Scores don’t always align with consensus draft grades — for example, both Hunter Henry and O.J. Howard received higher prospect grades (7.0) than Jaguars tight end Evan Engram (6.4), but Evan Engram received higher NGS scores in every category. Here’s the interesting part: advanced statistical analyses show that NGS score tends to be more predictive of rookie year success.

So, despite Brenton Strange’s lower draft grade, how do his NGS scores match up?

To measure how Strange compares to recent TE prospects, we used a statistical test of similarity to using NGS scores. In technical terms: we represented each recent TE a multi-dimensional data point incorporating multiple domains of the prospect’s NGS score and took the Euclidean distance from each point to the “Brenton Strange” point to represent prospect similarity. In normal terms: the closer the point was to the “Brenton Strange” point, the more similar the prospects are.

Findings (What does it mean?):

When sorting the list of all TE prospects who were drafted in the last decade by degree of similarity, we found some notable names on the “similar prospect” list — recently drafted tight ends Daniel Bellinger (5th-most similar), Tyler Conklin (8th), Dalton Schultz (9th), Chigoziem Okonkwo (12th), and former Jaguar Josh Oliver (16th).

Who was most similar? None other than star Eagles tight end…. Grant Calcaterra. Huh.

An interesting note: none of the top 39 most similar tight ends were drafted in the second round. Only the 40th most similar tight end, Drew Sample, was a second-round pick. Based purely on this information, it’s fair to wonder whether Strange may have been a bit of a reach.

Now, I know what you are all certainly thinking at this point: what about multicollinearity?*

Or, perhaps more reasonably, you are asking: So what?

* (If you indeed were wondering this, 10 nerd points for you. The VIF score of each variable confirmed that there weren’t multicollinearity issues here)

Similar Prospects:

1. Grant Calcaterra: Calcaterra’s NGS scores were the most similar to Strange’s out of any TE from the last 10 years. Strange received production, athleticism, and compound scores of 65, 77, and 66 respectively, compared to Calcaterra’s scores of 65, 79, and 68. With that being said, it’s not exactly a 1:1 comparison. Both are explosive playmakers, but Strange is a much better blocker, received a higher prospect grade, and will likely be more involved and higher on the depth chart than Calcaterra was in Philly.

Rookie Stats: 9 targets, 5 receptions, 81 yards, 0 TDs

2. Tommy Tremble: Tremble may sound familiar because a few analysts across the league listed him as Strange’s NFL pro comparison. The two tight ends have similar athletic profiles and play styles, and they were given nearly identical NFL prospect grades. While Strange had better college production, the Panthers’ Tremble was given higher NGS scores.

Rookie Stats: 35 targets, 20 receptions, 180 yards, 1 TD

3. Drew Sample: Out of all of the second-round tight ends in the past 10 years, Sample may profile as the most similar prospect to Strange. Their prospect grades and NGM scores are similar, though Sample profiles as more of a true “Y” tight end and didn’t display Strange’s level of athleticism and pass-catching ability.

Rookie Stats: 6 targets, 5 receptions, 30 yards, 0 TDs

Other similar prospects:

Daniel Bellinger: 35 targets, 30 receptions, 268 yards, 2 TDs

Dalton Schultz: 17 targets, 12 receptions, 116 yards, 0 TDs

Tyler Conklin: 7 targets, 5 receptions, 77 yards, 0 TDs

Rookie Projections (bar injuries):

An important point: what I’m about to predict here is simply Strange’s rookie year performance. This isn’t meant to forecast his career success, and we’ve seen that rookie success doesn’t always equate to career success. I love Evan Engram (drafted in 2017) as much as the next Jags fan, but it’s hard to argue that he’s had a better career thus far than George Kittle (also drafted in 2017) despite having a much better rookie year.

With that disclaimer, let’s get into it.

Floor Scenario

Consider all that’s changed in the Jaguars’ offense this offseason. With the arrival of Tank Bigsby and D’Ernest Johnson alongside Travis Etienne and JaMycal Hasty, we may very well see running backs have a significant collective role. Calvin Ridley will likely hold the majority of target shares as Trevor’s newest WR1, giving Christian Kirk and Zay Jones more favorable matchups. All of these factors mean fewer targets for the tight end group.

In this scenario, Doug Peterson sticks with mostly 1-TE packages, and Engram takes another step forward, cementing himself as one of the league’s top-tier tight ends. Strange, on the other hand, disappoints and finds himself as the odd man out. On the blocking side, he struggles to improve his footwork. On the pass-catching side, his route-running remains less-than-stellar. The Jags still try to get him involved initially, but he underwhelms in practice and fails to distance himself from OTA standouts Luke Farrell or Gerrit Prince, to whom he winds up forfeiting much of the TE2 responsibilities.

Floor stats: 7 targets, 4 receptions, 66 yards, 0 TD

Ceiling Scenario

Doug Pederson does what Doug Pederson does: use his best players. Strange becomes the ying to Engram’s yang, and they complement one another beautifully. Engram takes advantage of his speed and finds himself running many of the vertical, down-field routes. Strange becomes a reliable short- to mid-range pass-catcher and shows us all why he was deserving of a second-round draft pick. His ability to catch contested passes may get better with coaching, but where he really shines are the moments when he’s able to use his elite-level strength to make big plays after the catch. Perhaps more importantly, Strange demonstrates his versatility and becomes the Jaguars’ primary inline blocking tight end.

Ceiling stats: 30 targets, 26 receptions, 271 yards, 3 TDs

Realistic Projection

Yes, most of the tight end prospects similar to Strange displayed some rather underwhelming rookie-year statistics. But the fact that two players may have similar strengths, athleticism, or college production doesn’t mean that they are going into the same scheme or situation. And while blocking ability may be less eye-catching than pass-catching ability, it’s equally important and can’t always be captured with statistics.

Moreover, teams simply don’t use second-round picks on players that they don’t plan to involve in the offense. Strange has had some impressive moments in OTA’s thus far, and the coaching staff certainly plans to use him.

Rookie year projection: 20 targets, 13 receptions, 174 yds, 1 TD

Final Thoughts:

To the fans who aren’t yet on the Strange bandwagon: I get it. Looking at the stats above, it’s far from a sure-fire pick, particularly for the second round. But while his role in this offense right out of the gate remains to be seen, the Jaguars drafted him for a reason and clearly have high expectations. Under Doug Pederson’s tutelage, he has the potential to be a valuable and explosive addition.

So let’s just see how this plays out.