When a player with the buzz-generating prowess of WR Terrell Owens joins your team, dozens of questions come with the acquisition. Nearly three months after Owens signed with the Buffalo Bills, we're still trying to answer some of these questions; others will obviously have to wait until the start of the 2009 NFL regular season.
Whether naysayers want to admit it or not, Owens has historically made his teammates much better - statistically speaking - during transitional years in his career. We've already examined Owens' effects on quarterbacks and projected Trent Edwards' 2009 stats based on that data. There's one other player that stands to benefit statistically from Owens' presence that we have yet to discuss, and that player is incumbent No. 1 wide receiver Lee Evans.
Using in-depth (but not nearly complicated) stats analysis, here's how we see Owens making Evans better - again, from a statistical standpoint - in 2009.
Step One: Chart Owens as 'Top Dog'
In 1997, the best receiver in the history of the game, San Francisco's Jerry Rice, was lost for the season after recording just seven receptions in under two games. In that year - Owens' second in the league - he established himself as a legitimate receiving threat, and didn't look back even when Rice returned to full health.
From 1998 through 2008 - a full ten seasons when throwing the Andy Reid-shortened 2005 season out the window - Owens produced monstrous numbers at the receiver position. Again, discounting 2005, Owens caught at least 60 passes every year - even playing alongside Rice for three of those seasons. It was during this period that Owens established himself not only as a game-breaker, but perhaps as a franchise-breaker as well. Still, the stats are undeniable; during those ten seasons, Owens averaged 81 receptions, 1,190 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Still, Owens is coming off of his worst season statistically since 1999, when the 49ers went 7-9 and both he and Rice finished with under 850 receiving yards. There are concerns that Owens' skills are diminishing. We factored in a 15% decline in production in the event that the rumors are true - and we certainly hope they aren't. Factoring that drop in against the average, we peg Owens to produce 69 receptions for 1,010 yards and 10 TD next season.
Step Two: Chart Owens' running mates
In the ten years outlined above, Owens played with six players that could be considered No. 2 options to Owens on those given teams (not all are receivers): 49ers receivers Rice, J.J. Stokes and Tai Streets; Eagles RB Brian Westbrook; Cowboys WR Terry Glenn; and Cowboys TE Jason Witten. In the ten seasons that those six players spent playing second fiddle to Owens, they combined to average 72 receptions, 858 yards and 6 TD. That means that on these ten teams, Owens and his top running mate combined for 153 receptions, 2,048 yards and 18 TD on average.
The last time the Bills approached that type of production with their top two receivers was 2004, when the combination of Eric Moulds and Lee Evans caught 136 passes for 1,886 yards and 14 TD. The last time Buffalo exceeded that production was in 2002, when Moulds and Peerless Price combined for 194 receptions, 2,544 yards and 19 TD. Stat machine Drew Bledsoe quarterbacked both of those duos.
Step Three: Determine Growth in Transitional Years
During our Edwards analysis, we identified five years in Owens' career as points of transition for the enigmatic receiver: 1997 (Rice hurt), 2001 (first year without both Rice and QB Steve Young), 2004 (first year in Philadelphia), 2006 (first year in Dallas) and 2007 (first full year with Tony Romo). Those same five seasons are applicable in this study of second receivers.
In '97, both Owens and J.J. Stokes were thrust into the limelight as both were counted on to replace an active legend. In 2001, Stokes again became a No. 2 receiver when Rice left town. 2004 made Brian Westbrook a household name as the Eagles made a Super Bowl run. WR Terry Glenn closed out his pro career playing next to Owens in 2006, and Jason Witten - though very productive even with Glenn in town - assumed a much more prominent role as the Cowboys' second receiving threat.
In those five seasons, Owens' four running mates, on average, caught 23 more passes for 185 more yards and 2.5 more touchdowns. The only receiver that did not benefit greatly was the already-established Glenn, who caught 8 more passes in '06 than in '05, but saw both his yardage and touchdown totals drop slightly. The '97 figures are skewed as well thanks to the tremendous opportunity afforded by Rice not being on the field; the dramatic increases in production that Owens and Stokes saw were therefore scaled back when figuring the above fluctuations.
So what could Evans' stat line look like next season? Find out after the jump.
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In 2008, Lee Evans caught 63 passes for 1,017 yards and three touchdowns - leading the Bills in all categories - despite a first-year starter at quarterback and little help from his teammates in the receiving game.
Factoring in the transitional change line (+23 receptions, +185 yards, +2.5 TD), the average line of a No. 2 receiver playing next to Owens over the past decade (72 receptions, 858 yards, 6 TD), and a little something we like to call the "Terry Glenn Effect," we project Evans' 2009 totals at 71 receptions, 1,050 yards and 6 TD. Allow us to break things down further:
* The "Terry Glenn Effect" - As explained above, Glenn was quite clearly the one receiver that did not benefit greatly from playing next to Owens. Glenn's playing style was also eerily similar to Evans' (though, in our biased opinion, we think Lee is the better player). Therefore, we tempered the line down a bit to factor in the idea that Glenn - a unique player amongst the transitional group - may not have seen a major stats increase simply because of the type of player he is. For that reason, Evans didn't see major increases in receptions (+8) and yards (+33), but did see a jump in touchdowns to six (+3) simply because he's been a touchdown machine with a consistent threat playing next to him (16 TD in two seasons playing next to Eric Moulds). We don't believe he'll come close to approaching the massive stats increases that the transitional group produced, which may have been skewed by players like Westbrook (+36 receptions) and Witten (+32).
* Combining our projected totals for Owens and Evans, Buffalo's new dynamic receiving duo will catch 140 passes for 2,060 yards and 16 TD next season. Compare that to the two-player average over ten years (153 receptions, 2,048 yards and 18 TD), and it looks like the Bills could approach those averages quite comfortably.
* Yes, we do feel pretty uneasy about projecting such gaudy (for Buffalo) statistics. Buffalo's got a third receiver in Josh Reed that has developed a great rapport with Edwards and has 107 catches over the last two seasons to prove it. He'll get some numbers as well. The team also has three running backs - one of whom (Fred Jackson) is currently lining up in the slot at OTAs - that present great receiving options out of the backfield as well. For a check-down quarterback, no less. If Owens and Evans are going to approach these projections, the Bills will either be throwing the ball a lot, or they'll be hitting their first or second options far more frequently than not.
Oh, and before you ask - in the five transitional seasons, Owens' teams averaged 2.4 more wins than in the previous season. 9-7, here we come!