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Who has been the bigger bust: Sanchez or Heyward-Bey?

Due to a number of projections I’ve done that have adjusted for schedule, the Raiders and Jets both seem to be really good bets to finish in second place in their divisions this year.  Now, normally picking the second place team in any given division is incredibly difficult: it requires both an obvious winner (in this case, the Patriots in the East and Chargers in the West) as well as a bottom of the division expected to play like bottom feeders (I like the Bills and Broncos this year, but second place will be a mark of over-achievement for either based on expectations).  And in most divisions, you just don’t have a good feeling about picking a second place finisher.  This year, these divisions are the exceptions.

These two teams will play each other this year very early in the season (in week 3, the Raiders home opener), and it’s going to be a big game for both teams: certainly for the Raiders and likely for the Jets.  There will be a tiebreaker at stake here with regards to playoff positioning, and even if these teams end up with totally disparate records (such as 11 wins vs. under .500), the probability of playoff odds will be unjustifiably changed by the outcome of the week three game.

There may not be any other reason to draw a parallel between the 2011 Jets and 2011 Raiders other than their drafting histories.  If the Jets are favored in this game on the road, it will certainly be due to their back-to-back playoff seasons as well as the belief in their young, recently drafted talent such as Mark Sanchez, Shonn Green, John Connor, Matt Slauson, Vlad Ducasse, and Jeremy Kerley on offense, as well as Muhammad Wilkerson, Kenrick Ellis, and Kyle Wilson on defense.  In fact, thanks to the release of DE Vernon Gholston and rather slow development of Ducasse, the Jets have just five out of 22 projected starters (which assumes Shonn Green will “start” and LaDainian Tomlinson will back him up) as players who they themselves have drafted in the last four NFL drafts.  The Jets have a guy playing the GM role, Mike Tannenbaum, and a head coach in Rex Ryan who doesn’t have a reputation for playing veterans over youth just out of preference, so this means the lack of contribution from homegrown talent should be of real concern to Jets observers.

The Oakland Raiders, on the other hand, have a clear reputation for being cavalier with their draft choices and picking impressive physical skill sets over talented, accomplished football players.  The Raiders do not employ a general manager, leaving the finality of their decisions up to Managing General Parter Al Davis, a title selected for himself by Davis.  The directionless, rudderless Oakland Raiders will start 10 out of 22 players on offense and defense selected by the Raiders in the last four NFL drafts, and have retained their contributions from those drafts far better than the Jets have.

There are two biases here in favor of the Raiders, both stemming from lower average finishes.  The Raiders, who finish lower, consistently pick higher in the draft than the Jets, allowing them better position for their last three first round picks: Darren McFadden, Darrius Heyward-Bey, and Rolando McClain, compared to lower first rounders like Wilson and Wilkerson.  But when the Jets have picked high, it’s netted them Gholston and Sanchez.  The other bias is that it’s easier for a draft pick to crack the lineup on a weaker team like the Raiders, which may apply to Wilson’s case.  Still, the disparate drafts of the Raiders and Jets in the last four years are quite staggering.

What should not be biased at this point, is the relative merits of each team’s high selections. Both teams have made catastrophic, franchise-crippling selections at the top of a recent draft, which netted the Jets Vernon Gholston and the Raiders JaMarcus Russell.  While the effects of each selection still can be found on each roster, their actual on-field play will haunt neither team in 2011.  Every team drafts busts in the first round periodically, but if you go and take two consecutive first round busts, you’re creating a roster void for the future that is near impossible to overcome: at some point the development machine that drives a team to the top is just going to stall.

And that’s why I’m writing about the Jets and Raiders today.  Each team has playoff aspirations in 2011.  And each team is desperately trying to overcome the idea that they selected two consecutive top ten busts within the last four years, right as the players from those drafts are hitting their primes.  But the most interesting storyline of this match-up has to do with their work in the 2009 draft.  The Jets spent the fifth overall pick on Sanchez, leaving Josh Freeman on the board for Tampa Bay.  The Raiders spent the seventh overall pick on Heyward-Bey, leaving on the board Michael Crabtree, Hakeem Nicks, and Kenny Britt among others from a class that was much stronger at receiver than anywhere else.  Neither has done very much positive in the NFL to date, but can a reasonable argument be made that Sanchez has been a bust on the level of Heyward-Bey?  And what may we project for either of them in the future?

Heyward-Bey by the numbers

Catch rate: dismal
Yards per reception: above average
Touchdown rate: unacceptable
Match-up difficulty: non-factor
Contribution to running game: very good

Sanchez by the numbers

Completion percentage: unacceptable
Yards per pass completion: above average
Yards per attempt: below average
Touchdown rate: below average
Interception rate: average
Sack rate: above average

The comparison is remarkably close.  Both have a short history of creating infrequent big plays.  Neither Sanchez or Heyward-Bey has a long history of costing their offense in terms of turnovers or penalties.  At worst, each is a total non-factor on their own team.  That may be more concerning for Sanchez because he’s a quarterback, but the story is ultimately the same.  Both players struggle to complete passes relative to their peers and expectations.  When passes are completed, both offer more vertical yards than the average player at their position.  Neither is converting their efforts into yards or TDs at much of a rate, but Sanchez does this at an above-replacement rate while Heyward-Bey has yet to reach an acceptable level for a receiver to justify his role in the offense.  Heyward-Bey defenders can point to the fact that he caught just 9 passes as a rookie with JaMarcus Russell as his primary QB, which is astoundingly poor, but that number jumped to a far more acceptable 26 with an improved QB situation.  Even his staunchest defenders would admit there must be a similar jump this year into the 50 reception range if DHB has a future as an NFL receiver.

To date, Sanchez’ career has been better, but when comparing the statistical records, there’s no obvious reason to expect one to perform better than the other going forward.  Based only on history to this point, both Sanchez and Heyward-Bey appear to be draft busts.  But there’s still cautious optimism that Sanchez can develop given enough of an opportunity to perform.  And in the case of Heyward-Bey, there’s mostly ridicule pointed in the direction of Davis that DHB continues to get opportunities.  And plenty of that criticism comes from fans of the Raiders.

My question here is whether or not there is a significant, important difference between stubbornly playing a highly drafted receiver who continues to struggle with important facets of the game he plays professionally despite flashing ability, and doing the exact same thing with a quarterback drafted in the same year.  The Jets would apparently be guilty of whatever stubbornness the Raiders are in this case, only with a far more limited track record of success in terms of developing young players.  If the Jets are to be defended because the ends justify the means, then the Raiders probably deserve more leniency to develop Darrius Heyward-Bey regardless of what he hasn’t shown in his career to date.

And if the Jets take a sizable step back this year due to a stall of Sanchez’ development, they’ll deserve more leniency only because they made the playoffs with Sanchez in each of the last two seasons, not because they ever proved they would be able to develop him in the first place.

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