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Just The Sports: Steve Johnson and Jacob Tamme: Why Their NFL Production Should Not Surprise Anyone

Just The Sports

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Steve Johnson and Jacob Tamme: Why Their NFL Production Should Not Surprise Anyone

Seemingly out of nowhere, former University of Kentucky teammates, Buffalo Bills wide receiver Steve Johnson and Indianapolis Colts tight end Jacob Tamme, have exploded onto the NFL landscape this season. After receiving very little playing time his first two seasons in the NFL, Johnson is currently 8th in DYAR (226) and 15th in DVOA (13.3 percent) among the 82 wide receivers who have been thrown at least 45 passes. Tamme had also been little used during his first two seasons, catching only six passes over that time frame, until an injury to Dallas Clark forced him into the Colts' starting lineup. Once there, he acquitted himself quite nicely and despite only being targeted by Peyton Manning in seven games, Tamme still ranks 10th in DYAR (97) and 17th in DVOA (13.7 percent) among the 47 tight ends who have been thrown at least 21 passes.

Whenever two players like Johnson and Tamme have breakout seasons, it is always worth delving into their pasts and seeing if there were not hints that they were capable of such levels of production. Then, armed with that knowledge, we should be able to better predict what other players would be valuable assets if only given playing time.

Unsurprisingly, in both players' college careers, they put up numbers that they have largely carried over into this season.

Steve Johnson started his college football career at Chabot College before transferring to the University of Kentucky, arriving on the campus for the 2006 season. That year, Johnson was barely used. He was only targeted for 20 passes that season, as most passes for the Kentucky football team headed in the direction of Keenan Burton and Dicky Lyons, and caught 12 of them for 159 yards for a catch rate of 60.0 percent, 13.3 yards per catch, and 8.0 yards per pass target. For a receiver playing in such a limited capacity, the Kentucky Wildcats could not have asked for much more.

His senior season in 2007 was really when Johnson came into his own. Johnson did not lead the Wildcats in receptions with his 60 grabs because that honor went to Keenan Burton and his 66 catches, but Johnson did lead Kentucky in receiving yards (1,041), yards per catch (17.4), receiving yards per game (80.1), and touchdowns (13). Additionally, Johnson posted a 59.4 percent catch rate and Kentucky quarterbacks enjoyed 8.4 yards per pass attempt whenever throwing in Johnson's direction.

For his Kentucky career, Johnson caught 59.5 percent of the balls thrown in his way, had an incredible 16.7 yards per reception, and gained an impressive 9.9 yards per pass target.

Compared to his current NFL season totals of a 59.5 percent catch rate, 13.2 yards per reception, and 7.9 yards per pass target, there is not much difference between Johnson in a Kentucky Wildcats uniform and Johnson in a Buffalo Bills uniform. He is catching passes at an identical rate; only the fact his routes for the Bills are not as deep keep him from exactly duplicating his Kentucky production.

Disappointingly, the play-by-play data for Kentucky's games in 2004 and 2005 are either non-existent or unreliable so I was unable to examine Tamme's catch rates, yards per reception, and yards per pass target for his entire freshman and sophomore seasons. For those interested, Tamme caught 45 passes for 412 yards those two seasons.

The two seasons, 2006 and 2007, for which there are reliable play-by-play data, Tamme produced at a very efficient rate. Tamme was targeted 123 times and had 88 receptions, giving him an amazing catch rate of 71.5 percent. Since he accumulated 1,005 yards on those 123 targets, Tamme gained 8.2 yards per pass target and 11.4 yards per reception, very productive numbers for a tight end; he had a 10.9 yards per reception when his freshman and sophomore seasons are included.

For the Colts this year, Tamme has a 67.6 percent catch rate (46 receptions on 68 targets), 6.6 yards per pass target, and 9.8 yards per completion. When compared to just his junior and senior seasons, it seems as if Tamme has come up pretty short of equaling his production at Kentucky, but it could very well be that the numbers he is currently putting up for the Colts are even more similar to what he did over his entire Kentucky career.

This looks especially likely when considering that for the 12 of the 22 games he played his freshman and sophomore years for which I do have reliable play-by-play data, Tamme's catch rate was only 60.5 percent, his yards per catch was 10.7, and his yards per pass target was 6.5.

When those games are added to his junior and senior seasons, his catch rate drops from 71.5 percent to 68.9 percent, his yards per pass target drops from 8.2 to 7.8; we already know his career yards per completion without play-by-play data so there is no need to mention it here. Those numbers are closer to what he is doing for the Colts so it is more than likely that with all the play-by-play data, we would see that Tamme is basically producing at the same rate for the Colts as he did for the Kentucky Wildcats.

How Steve Johnson and Jacob Tamme have performed this season for their respective NFL teams in relation to how they performed while in college demonstrates once again just how much more valuable actual performance on the field is than any type of measurable such as the 40-yard dash when trying to predict how a college athlete will play as a pro. By using their college numbers, we should have been better able to project their NFL ability, which would have made seasons that seem like breakouts completely ordinary and expected, especially when one considers the fact that Steve Johnson and Jacob Tamme are not doing anything this season they have not already done in their football past.

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