Originally posted on The Colts Authority  |  Last updated 3/31/14
By Ben Gundy In addition to having a name that sounds like a grunge rocking super hero from a bad/awesome 90s movie, Griff Whalen turned himself into a reasonably good receiver last year. After bouncing between the Colts’ practice squad and active roster for the first half of the season, Whalen, a former undrafted rookie who spent all of 2012 on injured reserve, worked his way into a regular role late and finished with 24 catches for 259 yards and two touchdowns, then added seven catches for 93 yards in the postseason. By the end of the year, he was second to T.Y. Hilton in the receiver pecking order. His role was more a reflection of Reggie Wayne’s injury, Darrius Heyward-Bey’s failure and LaVon Brazill and Da’Rick Rogers’ rawness than his own talent, but he made the most of his opportunity. For my second contribution to Colts Authority’s ongoing Dregs of the Roster series, I broke down Whalen’s 54 targets. A few notes: I defined being “open” as having no defender close enough to make a play on the ball when it arrived. Also, because I only looked at Whalen’s targets, the sample is biased toward plays on which he came open; I can’t say for sure, but his overall openness percentage was probably a bit lower than the 59.3% I counted on his targets. And Andrew Luck shares culpability for many of the incompletions, due to bad passes or forced throws when Whalen wasn’t open. Pro Football Focus charged Whalen with just two drops all year, both in the first Texans game. First, here’s a look at Whalen’s productivity by alignment: (“Slot” means at least one receiver was lined up outside Whalen; “wide” means he was the closest receiver to the sideline.) It’s tempting to think of Whalen as a slot receiver, given his smallish stature and sharp route running. But he was much more effective when split out wide. He had seven more catches on four fewer targets, got open far more often and averaged 2.2 more yards per attempt. Of course, some of that had to do with the routes he was running. Whalen specializes in curls and comebacks, particularly when he lines up wide. On those plays, it doesn’t hurt that Luck, who played with Whalen at Stanford, has a great feel for when Whalen will come out of his break. Watch the timing on this curl, Whalen’s first target of the season: That play is Whalen in a nutshell: run sharp route, turn around, catch ball, get tackled. As bad as he is at getting open deep (more on that later), I never understood why defensive backs gave him such Tim Jennings-esque cushions. That’s Brent Grimes, an excellent corner, playing six yards off the line and dropping into a backpedal like he’s up against 1998 Randy Moss. And he wasn’t the only one to do that. Football is weird sometimes. When working from the slot, Whalen tended to run deeper routes and get more out of his catches, but he had a much harder time getting open. As the season went along, he did get better at using his cuts creatively to fool defenders and find space, such as on this play against the Patriots. Luck is hit as he throws, but it still turns into a big gain because Whalen has completely turned Kyle Arrington around: Whalen is a scrappy receiver, but he doesn’t have the strength or explosiveness to fight through jams at the line. He worked his way open on only 6 of 12 targets on plays he started on the line of scrimmage, compared to 26 of 42 (61.9%) when he was off the line. That extra yard or so gives him a better chance to get himself moving laterally and get around the defender. As Rivers McCown wrote for Football Outsiders last week (you should read that piece if you haven’t already), Hilton had similar troubles. This is the difficulty of relying on small receivers and why Rogers and Hakeem Nicks’ ability to contribute will be huge factors in the passing game next year. Despite his small size and frequent struggles beating jams, Whalen is decent in traffic once the ball is in the air. I counted three times when he made a catch despite not being open, including this gem of a boxout on Houston’s Brice McCain: Interestingly, Whalen was more effective when lined up to the right than when lined up to the left, getting open more often and catching a much higher percentage of passes that were, on average, half a yard deeper. Again, those numbers have something to do with Pep Hamilton’s schemes and the routes Whalen tended to run from each side. But they also speak to the offense’s, and Luck’s, right-handedness (in a schematic sense). Here are Luck’s passer ratings when throwing outside the numbers, per PFF (subscription required):  Target Depth Left Right 20+ yards 104.2 117.4 10-19 yards 74.4 72.3 0-9 yards 80.0 90.3 Minus yards 63.4 102.3 He was markedly better almost across the board when throwing right. I’m not quite sure what to make of that, but it does help explain Whalen’s increased productivity on the right. It also would have made Marvin Harrison happy back in the day. Here’s how Whalen did against different coverage types: Unsurprisingly, Whalen doesn’t do particularly well against man coverage, which is what he mostly saw last year. Kansas City’s Brandon Flowers gave him particular trouble, allowing only one catch for 8 yards on six targets. Conversely, Whalen caught all three of his targets against the Chiefs’ Sean Smith for 33 yards. On the other hand, Whalen shines against zone coverages, against which he came open on 7 of his 10 targets and had a couple huge plays. You can almost see his eyes light up when he spots a hole in a zone. Check out the holes he found on some of his big catches; he did an excellent job of accelerating to the gap, then slowing down enough to stay in it: (He’s so open in this next one that he stops completely to wait for the ball.) Whalen did respectable work with three screen passes, turning them into 8, 4 and 9-yard gains (one of the plays I counted as a screen was actually a quick-hitter at the line on which he didn’t have blockers and made his man miss; this is called a “smoke” route, as Matt Bowen explains here). Whalen doesn’t have a ton of wiggle, but he cuts decisively upfield as soon as the ball is in his hands. Watch how quickly he takes off on this screen: Lots of receivers – even Hilton at times – like to Peter-Warrick around behind the line after catching screens and wait to see how their blocks will develop. But Whalen glances at his blocker, sticks his foot in the ground and sprints up the field, which translates to a gain of nine yards before the unblocked defenders can get to him. It’s not flashy work, but it’s classic Whalen. While he’ll probably never catch a 75-yard touchdown, he can pretty consistently get you a handful of yards. Finally, here’s how Whalen’s targets broke down by depth: The Griffer is not good at getting open deep. I hate to keep harping on his shortcomings, but he’s not fast or big and is never going to blow past a cornerback or out-jump someone for a high ball. Yet Luck inexplicably lofted him several passes like this one: Offenses have to be unpredictable, but passes like that to Whalen are wasted downs. Whalen does his best work on midrange passes, particularly over the middle. According to PFF, he caught 14 of 16 targets for 143 yards and a touchdown on passes between the numbers that traveled 0-9 yards, by far his most productive area. This might seem to contradict his struggles when coming out of the slot, but in Hamilton’s offense, slot receivers often go up the seam or break to the outside, while wide receivers run lots of drags and dig routes over the middle. Whalen is absolutely fearless about taking big hits, as you can see here (on a deeper route, but the point remains). Whalen also makes valuable contributions in other areas. He offers steady run blocking (PFF gave him an above-average 1.1 run blocking grade), including a vital one on this Donald Brown touchdown in the Chiefs playoff game: He can do some things on punt returns, too. Again, watch how decisively he heads upfield in that video. With Nicks coming to town and Wayne on the mend, Whalen will likely battle Rogers, Brazill and a rookie or two for a spot on the bottom of the depth chart next year. But my money is on him sticking around for at least another season. He’s the type of guy you love having on the roster: a grinder who contributes on special teams and in run blocking and can manufacture yards when they’re at a premium.
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