Tuesday, March 7, 2017

T.Y. Hilton: All-Pro

By Brad Oremland

Last month, Football Perspective's Chase Stuart and I had a discussion about T.Y. Hilton not receiving any votes for the Associated Press all-pro team. That's an unprecedented snub for a player who led the league in receiving yardage.

As Chase pointed out, the first- and second-team all-pros were all deserving: Antonio Brown (PIT) got 43 votes, Julio Jones (ATL) got 30, Odell Beckham (NYG) 16, and Mike Evans (TB) 6. Brown, Jones, Beckham, and Evans all had great years. I don't think there's anything wrong with voting for them ahead of Hilton. Jordy Nelson (GB) also got 5 votes, just missing the cut, and he had an awfully nice year.

But it's a shame that none of the 50 voters selected Hilton. I think he was overlooked for a combination of reasons that, on the one hand, make sense, but ultimately lack merit. Perhaps most obviously, Hilton's Colts missed the playoffs, finishing 8-8 in a weak AFC South. Of the five wide receivers who got AP all-pro votes, all of their teams had better records, and four of the five made the playoffs.

A related problem is that the Colts were seldom on TV. So even though Hilton was doing great things, few people outside of Indianapolis got to see him doing them. He also doesn't have the same reputation as Brown and Jones and Beckham, or even Jordy Nelson. That left him competing with Mike Evans, but Evans is a totally different style of receiver. He's 6-foot-5, 231 pounds, and even when he's covered he wins jump balls on size and strength. Hilton is listed at 5-foot-9, 180 pounds. He beats defenders on speed and route-running, but you can't force it to him if he's covered. Evans caught 12 touchdown passes this year, compared to 6 for Hilton.

Everyone plays fantasy football now, whether it's a season-long league, daily fantasy, or both. I do, you probably do, and media members hear about it even if they don't participate. Fantasy scoring influences perception. Fantasy scoring is absurd, though, most obviously in its emphasis on touchdowns, and T.Y. Hilton didn't have a dominant fantasy season because he only scored 6 TDs.

Hilton's lack of pedigree and publicity, the mediocrity of his team, and his unexciting TD total held him back from receiving the recognition his play deserved.

Here's what most fans missed while Hilton was flying under the radar. He led the NFL in receiving yards (1,448) and ranked 2nd in receiving first downs (66). He was a big-play threat, who led the league in receptions of 20+ yards (28); four of his six TDs were at least 35 yards. That's another thing: Hilton was the Colts' premier offensive weapon. His three biggest games came in close wins, including two game-winning long TDs late in the fourth quarter. Hilton was the only player in the NFL to score two lead-changing TDs of more than 10 yards in the final 5:00 of the game this season. But it wasn't just lead-changing TDs of more than 10 yards in the final 5:00, Hilton scored two game-winning TDs of at least 35 yards in the final 4:00. There were only five plays like that all season, and Hilton had two of them.

Antonio Brown's biggest games came in easy wins. He had three multi-TD games in 2016, and the Steelers won all of them by at least 21 points. His two highest yardage totals both came in losses. In Week 9 at Baltimore, he had 7 catches for 85 yards and a touchdown, which sounds pretty good. But most of that was in garbage time, against a prevent defense. With the Ravens leading 21-0 in the fourth quarter, Brown had two catches for 9 yards; his 76 yards in the closing minutes (and the TD) were just padding the stats. Antonio Brown is a wonderful receiver, maybe the best WR in the NFL right now, but T.Y. Hilton did more this year to help his team win.

Julio Jones had half of a great season. Through Week 10, he already had 1,105 receiving yards, on pace to tie Calvin Johnson's single-season record (1,964). He didn't finish with 1,964; he finished with 1,409. Partly that's because he slowed down, and partly because he missed two games. In those two games, Matt Ryan threw 5 TDs and no interceptions — with a 134.7 rating — and the Falcons scored over 40 points both weeks. That supports Ryan's MVP Award, but hurts Julio's argument. Julio's 6 TDs are also a red flag for someone on the league's highest-scoring offense. Hilton scored 6 TDs for a team with an above-average offense (411 pts). Jones scored 6 TDs for a team with a historic offense (540 pts).

Let's take a break and watch some highlights. Here's Odell Beckham's 66-yard game-winning touchdown from Week 6. And here's Hilton's 63-yard game-winning touchdown from Week 3.

Hey, I've got nothing bad to say about Odell Beckham. Almost nothing. He needs to be more careful about drawing penalties, and make sure he brings attention to himself mostly by his play. But he's a great player. I chose him, along with Evans and Hilton, for my all-pro team. Is there anything obvious you can point to which shows he was better than Hilton this year? Not really.

This season, Beckham was tagged for two 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, two 5-yard pre-snap penalties, and a 10-yard offensive pass interference. Mike Evans drew three offensive pass interference penalties (plus a fourth that was declined). Hilton wasn't called for a penalty all season. On the one hand, that's not a huge deal. On the other hand, it's another 30-50 yard advantage for a player who already led the league in receiving yards.

I have a hard time explaining Jordy Nelson's 5 votes over Hilton. Well, no, I can explain them, I just think the reasons are weak: reputation and TD worship. Nelson led the league in receiving touchdowns (14). Nelson is a good receiver, and he had a good season. But he ranked 6th in yardage, almost 200 yards behind Hilton, and padded his stats in some big losses. During Green Bay's four-game losing streak, Nelson had 26 receptions for 342 yards and 4 TDs — all above his season averages.

Chase wrote, "I also think it's clear that both GB and the NYG are screwed without those guys [Nelson and Beckham], and I'm not sure it's to the same degree in IND without Hilton." I'm sure some of the voters felt the same way, but in the playoffs, the Packers went 2-0 without Nelson, scoring 38 against the Giants and 31 against the Cowboys. They went 0-1 with Nelson, getting shut out in the first half and scoring 21 mostly meaningless points. Three games is not a significant sample size, but it's consistent with the team's regular-season results, and certainly doesn't support the idea that Nelson was the essential element of Green Bay's offense this season. The Packers had a better record, against a slightly tougher schedule, when Nelson contributed under 40 yards than when he gained 80 or more.

I'm not trying to downgrade Antonio Brown and Julio Jones, or Mike Evans and Odell Beckham, or Jordy Nelson. I'm not even necessarily saying that Hilton had a better season than any of them except Nelson (which isn't an insult to Jordy). But Hilton had a wonderful season that undeservingly escaped the notice of many fans and many sportswriters. That's a shame, and it merits our recognition.

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