Posted December 19, 2013

The All-22: Keenan Allen’s remarkable rookie season in San Diego

AFC West, San Diego Chargers, The All-22
Keenan Allen has 63 catches for 931 yards and seven touchdowns.

A leading OPOY candidate, Keenan Allen has 63 catches for 931 yards and seven touchdowns. (Denis Poroy/AP)

The San Diego Chargers may not make the playoffs (they have to win out and get some help) and Keenan Allen may not win Offensive Rookie of the Year (Eddie Lacy, anyone?), but together that pairing has a bright future.

Because of the knee injury he suffered in 2012 at Cal — and some slow 40 times that occurred as he was still rehabbing — Allen slipped into the third round of the 2013 draft. There, the Chargers absolutely stole him. He’s since become Philip Rivers’ go-to weapon in the passing game, with 63 receptions, 931 yards and seven touchdowns.

The main reason for his success: He entered the NFL with a polished game, leaving college a developed route-runner and a receiver capable of positioning his body to beat defenders. The Chargers have taken advantage of that development in many ways this season.

To fully appreciate what Allen has done this season, I circled back to watch all 63 of his catches. Here’s what I saw …

Let’s start here, with a simple example of why Allen has been so good in his first NFL season:

Allen tri

From left to right, that’s Allen lined up … well, left to right. The Chargers do not hesitate to move Allen around the field, and he’s set up in all of the X, Y and Z spots this year. Quite frequently, as on that first shot, he’ll have one side of the field to himself. But he’s also scored multiple touchdowns out of the slot and in overloaded formations.

Plenty of receivers shift around over the course of the game — Calvin Johnson, arguably the best wideout in football, opened Monday night in the slot versus Baltimore, for example. But not every receiver is capable of doing so, nor does every receiver have the acumen to produce from different areas of the field. Allen, however, showed this potential back at Cal, where former head coach Jeff Tedford allowed his talented receiver to explore the field.

So, Allen was ahead of the game when he landed in the NFL, with experience running varied routes to all areas of the field.

Below, you’ll find a rough chart of where Allen’s 63 receptions have occurred on the field:

Allen chart

Anything stand out?

How about this: There’s not one dot beyond about 25 yards downfield. Rarely have the Chargers asked Allen to stretch the field vertically; when they do, it’s often in the red zone, as evidenced by his TD on a corner route versus Denver last week.

I’d also like to point out the sheer volume of yellow dots inside the numbers and within a 10-yard window. Allen makes a ton of his catches there because A.) San Diego tries hard to get the ball in his hands early, so he can create; and B.) he’s excellent on slants and in-routes, able to get defenders on his back hip so Rivers has somewhere to hit him.

On point A … by my count, approximately 15 percent of Allen’s catches this season have come on underneath crossing routes. There’s nothing fancy or groundbreaking about these routes, but it serves the purpose of clearing some space, thus allowing Allen to create with the football in his hands.

One example below, from San Diego’s game with Indianapolis. The Chargers set Rivers in the shotgun, with a back and a trips formation to his right. Allen lined up alone to Rivers’ left (yellow box, below), then ran a shallow route about three yards downfield.

Allen 4

Essentially, this became a screen for Allen. The running back fired out to pick up a linebacker, while the two WRs and tight end Antonio Gates (the three in that trips setting) released between the hash marks and the sideline. Allen caught the ball coming across the middle, then followed those blockers for a solid gain.

Allen 5

But he usually doesn’t need any extra help generating open space. Case in point, another of the Chargers’ favorite Rivers-to-Allen routes: the slant.

It’s easy to take for granted that NFL receivers will be able to succeed in that route when facing one-on-one coverage. Allen does it consistently. That play above puts on display both Allen’s ability to run crisp, compact routes and his skill at getting around to the football with his hands and body.

Those traits are all put to work when Allen executes deep in routes, too. (Thanks to CBS’ Dan Fouts for providing the telestrator detail here …)

Allen 6

A route like that one requires a receiver to get a good release off the line, then to break off with a sharp enough cut to prevent the defender from coming over the top. Allen excels at it. I counted no fewer than 14 receptions this season off a similar route, plus a couple more coming when Allen faked the cut in and broke back to the sideline instead.

On this play pictured, Washington’s David Amerson was able to run stride for stride with him, but as soon as Allen planted his foot, he had clearance.

Allen 7

Rivers — and San Diego’s scheme — deserves a lot of credit for putting Allen in position to produce this season. That said, we’ve seen explosive rookie receivers such as Cordarrelle Patterson and Tavon Austin slump at times because they require more creative methods for getting them the football.

Allen is an advanced specimen at receiver, especially in terms of his development as a route-runner. He may never be a player who’s going to burn defenses long over and over again, like a Torrey Smith or Josh Gordon. He’ll also rarely have games where the opposition can keep him totally contained.

13 comments
gyffesme
gyffesme

Excellent analysis, my thanks!

KH
KH

Allen is without a doubt the ROTY. Much harder to have a ROOKIE 1000 yard season as a receiver than as a RB. But he'll probably get screwed because of a Green Bay bias. These awards usually are a joke because sportswriters play favorites.

youngnorth77
youngnorth77

Another dumb mistake by the raiders the raiders was actually his favorite team growing up so he said he'll terrorize us for the next ten years

WCoastPro
WCoastPro

Allen would have had a much harder time putting up these numbers if Malcolm Floyd and Danario Alexander hadn't been lost for the season 5 minutes into it. 


Just like with Kurt Warner, injury = opportunity.  

commchf
commchf

I grew up watching Jerry Rice, Keenan Allen reminds me a lot of a young Rice. Durability will be the key.

Alvetica
Alvetica

Eddie Lacy is still in contention?

JoeCabot
JoeCabot

@KHEvery time you chronic complainers need something to whine about your ace in the hole is the word bias.  East coast bias, west coast bias, media bias, big market bias, bias this or bias that.  Now the infamous Green Bay bias makes an appearance!  Brilliant.

Rama
Rama

@KH GB is playing without perhaps the best QB in the game, injured receivers, banged up O-line and they are stacking the box against them. Yet Eddie Lacy is still getting yards - crazy hard yards. Allen has a Top 5 QB throwing to him. Lacy should be the ROTY. Case closed.

Sportsfan18
Sportsfan18

@WCoastPro   that is true, but he HAS produced consistently while on the field as a rookie.  usually, most rookie wide receivers take a bit to begin to flourish.  


apparently, he is wise beyond his years, understands routes, body separation, is able to line up all over and catch passes everywhere on the field etc... all while only being a rookie.


if the others weren't hurt, he would not have had the opportunity.  but even with the opportunity, it still didn't mean that he wouldn't struggle and he hasn't.

donald5
donald5

@Alvetica I think they are kinda hungry for a wide receiver to get the award.  You sometimes see a RB come on the scene and perform really well (although given Lacy's QB and o-line situation, his performance this year is amazing).  However, you rarely see a WR come out of college and perform this well.  He did kinda get thrust into this many touches because of injuries but he catches it when they call his name.  I see reason for both of them.

Rama
Rama

@Alvetica Does 140 hard earned yards and Offensive player of the week take you out of contention?

DillonAustin
DillonAustin

@JoeCabot @KH Eddie Lacy does one thing, he takes a handoff and he runs into a pile.


The skill set Keenan Allen has to possess in order to put up the numbers he is compared to Eddie Lacy who played on a prostyle college team is an absolute joke. If you're really going to bypass Allen without looking at his numbers and skill set then you are absolutely holding to a Green Bay bias.


Make a real case for why Lacy deserves it over Allen. Fact is there isn't one to make. If Rogers were in there that would only mean less touches for Lacy. So Lacy just like Allen is a product of other players injuries allowing him opportunity.


Eddie Lacy is an effin beast, but todays game is built around passing including the way the Packers play. Nothing but respect for Lacy but what Allen has done this year is far more impressive as a rookie than what Lacy as a running back has done as a rookie.