Michael Pittman is going into his third year in the NFL and was originally a prospect out of USC that was taken in the 2nd round of the NFL Draft. I’ve personally been lower than market value on Pittman throughout his early career in the NFL. I liked but didn’t love him as a prospect. His production has been intriguing, but I haven’t been all in on him. But as I was evaluating why I still wasn’t a fan of him, I found his surface-level profile very intriguing. He hit 1,000 receiving yards in year 2, made huge improvements after his rookie year, should have a quarterback upgrade, and has minimal target competition. What’s not to like about a young wide receiver with all of that going for him? So, I started digging and as I was going to write a thread on my findings, I found it was just too much information to fit on Twitter. So, follow my journey here into figuring out, do I like Pittman’s value enough to buy into him in fantasy football.
Michael Pittman could be playing with the most competent quarterback he’s ever played with up to this point in his career. Yes, Philip Rivers will be considered a borderline Hall of Famer when it comes to looking at his career holistically. But, let’s be honest, his final season with the Colts in 2020 was very average and it was obvious he was at the end of his career. Then last season, the Colts tried to kick the tires on Carson Wentz and restore him to his MVP caliber of play. It didn’t quite work out and was honestly a downgrade from Rivers.
While Rivers threw for over 4,000 yards and 24 touchdowns in 2020, he ranked 18th in Deep Ball Attempts, 28th in Air Yards per Attempt, 21st in QBR, and 11th in EPA (Expected Points Added). He played very much in the confines of the offense and didn’t push the ball downfield to a deep play, go-up-and-get-it guy like Pittman. Plus this was Pittman’s rookie year with only a COVID-impacted offseason where he still amassed a respectable 500 yards and a single touchdown.
Then we have 2021 with the Carson Wentz experiment. Despite playing in an extra game, Wentz threw for 500 fewer yards, but 3 more touchdowns than Rivers. Advanced analytics were similar: 17th in Deep ball Attempts, 22nd in Air Yards per Attempt, 10th in QBR, and 11th in EPA. Despite the two quarterbacks having similar limitations and regressing in total passing yards, Pittman got a nice sophomore bump with over 1,000 receiving yards and 6 touchdowns.
Now to the new guy in town, Matt Ryan. He has been a 4,500-yard passer more often than not in his career, but also saw a slight step back last year compared to the rest of his career. That being said, he had limited weapons last season since Calvin Ridley took time away from football and Julio Jones left in the offseason. That left his best receiver being the rookie tight end Kyle Pitts, paired with a questionable offensive line that provided a 74.7 protection rate, 32nd in the league. He had similar advanced analytics to both Wentz and Rivers in 2021 ranking 23rd in Deep Ball Attempts, 18th in Air Yards per Attempt, 21st in QBR, and 17th in EPA. But if we look back to 2020 when Matt Ryan still had capable weapons in Calvin Ridley and a still aging Julio Jones. He was 2nd in the league in Deep Ball Attempts, 8th in Air Yards per Attempt, 13th in QBR, and 8th in EPA. This paints the picture of an efficient quarterback that is willing and effective at pushing the ball downfield while still being efficient in other areas.
Despite Matt Ryan’s regression in 2021, he didn’t look to be aging out of the league last year when compared to Philip Rivers in 2020. The change of scenery should do him good while also benefiting Michael Pittman. The question is, was 2021 an outlier due to a pitiful supporting cast around him, or will this be Philip Rivers 2.0. I think it will be somewhere in between. This is still an upgrade for Pittman’s situation as it should mean more red zone trips as an offense and potentially an increase from a bottom 5 passing percentage team.
|Deep Ball Attempts
51 (3.2 p/g) (#18)
60 (3.5 p/g) (#17)
46 (2.7 p/g) (#23)
76 (4.8 p/g) (#2)
Right off the bat, Pittman improved his production from his rookie to sophomore season, getting that sophomore bump that dynasty analysts were ecstatic to see not all that long ago. We’ve been spoiled with wide receivers like Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase breaking records in their rookie year. Even guys like DK Metcalf, Tee Higgins, and AJ Brown went for 900+ receiving yards during their rookie seasons. We, as a community, are no longer looking for that sophomore breakout and are trying to predict rookie year breakouts. Maybe we’re spoiled and this recent run of receivers are outliers. Or maybe this is the new norm and wide receivers are just more pro-ready out of college. If the former is true, then acute dynasty managers can find these diamonds in the rough that are showing legitimate growth early in their career and enjoy the dividends later.
Pittman has an impressive resume under his belt despite the new state of evaluating early-year wide receiver production. As a second-year receiver, Pittman went for over 1,000 receiving yards and 6 touchdowns. Additionally, he ran a route on 98.1% of The Colts’ passing plays, which was the 3rd highest percentage in the NFL. His Target Share was 25.7%, ranking 14th in the NFL. What we can infer from this is that Pittman is involved in a lot of the team’s passing plays and gets targeted often, which is represented by his 129 targets. As a 24-year-old wide receiver, he was already the bonafide WR1 on his team.
Part of the reason that Pittman was the top dog on his team, leading the Colts in just about every receiving category, was due to the lack of target competition. Last season, the next highest target earners were Zach Pascal, Nyheim Hines, and Jonathan Taylor. And it wasn’t all that close either as Pittman about doubled each of their target totals and more than doubled their receptions, yards, and touchdowns.
So what changed this offseason? Well, the Colts added rookie Alec Pierce in the second round of the NFL Draft… Yup, that’s all they added after losing both Zach Pascal and T.Y. Hilton. I’m in the camp that targets are earned, and I think Pittman has earned the targets he’s received thus far. So, in 2022, I expect Pittman to get his, Jonathan Taylor to get his in both the rushing and receiving game, and then the rest of the pie is up for grabs. Plus, as much training camp buzz that is going on with Alec Pierce, he’s still a Group of 5 receiver that never produced a 1,000-yard season in college. He could be a great prospect, but it’s probable that he needs some time to adjust to the speed of the NFL.
So we have a young wide receiver who just had a sophomore breakout season with over 1,000 yards, is only 24, we expect a quarterback upgrade, and has already solidified himself as the alpha receiver on his team. What’s not to like about all of that? Well, despite all of what he has going for him, we still need to see improvement in Year 3 and we need to identify where that improvement comes from.
Why does Pittman need to improve? Well based on his ADP, he’s being drafted as the WR17 after finishing as the WR16 last year. Some may be thinking, as long as he does what he did last year, you’re already ahead! But we’re basically drafting him at his ceiling if we see no improvement. And if we look deeper, he finished as the WR22 in ppg (points per game) with 14ppg in PPR leagues. That basically just tells us that he stayed healthy all 17 games and wasn’t consistently a difference maker in your lineup. And even though his ADP is WR17, he’s being billed as a breakout candidate. For that breakout to happen, we need to identify where those improvements can come from, and if they are likely to happen or if he is already maxed out.
So, we know Pittman ran a route on 98% of the team’s passing plays. The thing is that’s 511 routes ranking 19th in the NFL last year. 511 routes is a lot, but the difference in being 3rd in routes run per team attempt and 19th in raw routes run highlights an issue with the Colts’ playcalling style. The team only threw the ball about 53% of the time which ranked 28th out of 32 NFL Teams. We can look and say they have a better quarterback than last year and that passing volume should increase. And maybe it does, but we know the team will still rely heavily on the running game with Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines. Even looking back to 2020, with Philip Rivers they were ranked 24th. But that’s okay, we don’t need them to be the heaviest passing volume team in the NFL, we just want them to not be bottom 10 again and regress a bit closer to the mean.
It’s not just that the passing play calling isn’t in Pittman’s favor, it’s also the pace of play. The Colts ranked below league average at 21st in offensive plays run. Again, we can look at the quarterback to potentially remedy this and allow the Colts to not rely on their defense as much.
The main takeaway here is that Pittman already has the lion’s share of the Colts’ passing volume pie, and that isn’t likely to change. But to see improvement, we need to see either Pittman dominate the passing volume even more, or we need to see the pie get bigger. It seems likely that the Colts’ passing volume and pace of play will regress to the mean and they will get closer to the league average.
If the Colts don’t increase their passing volume, can Pittman increase the share of the passing game production that he already has? Pittman already dominated the target share and route participation last year, and that’s not likely to change. We saw the departure of the next top target earner, and while TY Hilton was largely a non-factor, it’s worth mentioning that he is gone too. Will Alec Pierce be able to take all of Pascal’s volume? Or does that trickle down to Taylor and Hines? It’s not inconceivable that Pittman is still a beneficiary here. He was 29th in targets per route run, so there is an opportunity here to gain more targets. But, as much as Pittman has taken strides and improved as a player, I’m not quite sure I envision him entering into elite territory in terms of targets per route run or target share. It’s not impossible, but I don’t think it’s a probable outcome.
Pittman is only 24 and entering his 3rd year in the league. He has developed and made strides as a player since entering the NFL and he is not even into his prime years. That development was made crystal clear by Matt Harmon’s reception perception analysis. It shows that Pittman attacks the middle of the field and consistently wins against the defense, whether it’s man or zone coverage. Plus, he boasts a ridiculous 96th percentile success rate vs press coverage, and like Matt says, looks like a legitimate WR1.
It seems like a given that he should take another step this season, but where does that improvement as a player come from to see an improvement in his fantasy game?
The biggest glaring mark is his Yards After the Catch (YAC) ability. He’s never been a YAC player, even in college. Out of his 1082 receiving yards last season, only 341 yards came after the catch, which ranked 22nd in the league. If he could show improvement here, we could also see an increase in his 58th-ranked yards per reception. I think the way we see this come to fruition is more volume and more schemed plays for Pittman. He’s improving every year and his improvements could force the team’s hand in scheming him plays specifically meant to get Pittman open.
Another area of improvement we could see is in the red zone. While this one isn’t so much on Pittman, as he’s already a quality red zone target based purely on his skillset, he received only 17 red zone targets. That ranks tied for 14th in the NFL, which is good, but not elite. He needs to improve upon his 6 receiving touchdowns to really make a case to become a reliable WR1 and difference-maker for fantasy teams. Now, this could also tie back to the quarterback and the team becoming more willing to pass in the red zone with a quarterback they trust. Last season Indianapolis was the most run-heavy team in the red zone, which seems obvious when you have a talented running back like Jonathan Taylor. But if Pittman develops into the wide receiver that we think he can be, he could start demanding more red zone targets and have more schemed plays for him in that crucial area of the field.
We have a young wide receiver that has shown us early production has a chance to be playing with the best quarterback in his career and has minimal target competition. This receiver needs to still take another step to prove to be a true difference-maker for our fantasy teams. How does he take those next steps? He either becomes even more of a target hog than he already is, the passing pie gets bigger and he maintains his target share, or he develops and becomes more efficient with the current slice of the passing pie that he has. I think there is a very good chance that Pittman takes advantage of at least 2/3 of the improvement opportunities that he has in front of him.
With his current Sleeper ADP of WR16, I think he is a more than solid investment. He has shown us his floor and has yet to enter his prime years. Plus, I have to imagine that the Colts regress a bit to the mean and become a more two-dimensional team. Whether that is because of Pittman’s development or the re-emergence of Matt Ryan, who we need to at least see Philip Rivers’ level quarterback play, the regression could help get Pittman into WR1 level performances on a per-game basis.
But, realistically, this could be all we get out of Pittman. He could go down the DJ Moore path where he consistently hits 1,000 yards and is this consistent middle-of-the-road WR2 in fantasy. Consistently showing his ability and talent, but not quite being the level of player to ascend past a bad situation to fantasy stardom (DJM in quarterback purgatory and Pittman potentially stuck in a run-heavy offense with average quarterback play).
I’ve personally come away from this deep dive much more intrigued in taking a shot on Pittman. I’m willing to pay the top-end WR2 price, but think it’ll be difficult to really find market value in existing leagues. He’s most likely already on a roster of a believer and they will be charging WR1 prices. If you can find a market value trade, I’d take the plunge – that’s what I’ll be looking for. But there’s still enough risk there that I’m personally not going to make the overpay.