OTA practices are always difficult to judge when it comes player performance, especially younger players. This is a time of the season where teams are installing their offense, refreshing players on some different fundamentals, getting rookies and new players adjusted to the way the team does things, and host of other basic things.
One thing we can take aways from things like OTAs is the progression of some of the players who were injured a year ago and how they are responding to being back out on the field. A player that appears to be responding well is tight end Anthony Fasano.
TE Anthony Fasano is quietly putting together a good camp. He looks healthy and is catching everything. Had a fingertip catch today
— Terez A. Paylor (@TerezPaylor) June 5, 2014
There hasn’t been a lot of chatter about Fasano as a key piece to the Chiefs offense, but don’t be fooled by what he can do for Andy Reid and the Chiefs. A healthy Fasano with a year of Reid’s scheme under his belt could mean big things for the Chiefs passing offense in both production and flexibility.
Much was made about Alex Smith‘s low average “air yards” per attempt – a number designed to show how far down the field a quarterback is throwing the ball down field. Many use the number as argument towards Smith having a “noodle arm” or not taking enough risks downfield. And while Smith could certain afford to go downfield more, the number indicates some other issues within the Chiefs offense. One being that the Chiefs got next to nothing out of their tight ends.
Tight ends are commonly used as safety blankets for quarterbacks in the NFL. Smith is famous for how frequently he targeted Vernon Davis in San Francisco, and the Trent Green built his Chiefs career by tossing the ball hundreds of times to future hall of fame tight end Tony Gonzalez. Last season the Chiefs basically played without a tight end in the passing game due to injuries. The result was Smith having to find another safety blanket in the passing game. His name was Jamaal Charles.
Charles was targeted 104 times by Smith last season, meaning one in every five passes (1 in every 4.88 attempts to be exact) went Charles way. The vast majority of those attempts were behind or at the line of scrimmage, either in the screen game, quick passes to the flat, or dump offs when no one was open down field. When one of every five passes is going behind the line of scrimmage or at the line of scrimmage it shouldn’t be a surprise when an “air yards” stat is as low as Smith’s.
To give you an idea of how much not having a tight end to throw to impacted Smith’s air yards statistics, here’s his average air yards per attempt for the last three seasons.
2012: 4.26 (7th highest in NFL)
This is where a guy like Fasano can help expand the offense. He’s not a “featured” type player who is going to create mismatches for you like a Gonzalez or Davis. What he can do is be the guy who can be the safety outlet, attack the middle of the field in the mid-range game, and a red zone weapon. From the time Fasano turned it a full-time starter in 2008 to 2012, Fasano averaged 11.9 yards per catch and totaled 23 touchdowns. Most all of those 23 touchdowns came in the red zone.
Converting some of those safety valve passes to Charles behind the line of scrimmage to 5-yard dump offs to Fasano not only improves Smith’s meaningless air yards stat and saves Charles some extra hits, but it also allows the offense to move down field at a better rate. In Fasano’s limited action with the Chiefs last season, he averaged 6 yards gained per target and converted 12 of his 33 targets into first downs. This a valuable asset to have that the Chiefs sorely missed for most of the season.
Travis Kelce is the high ceiling guy who can create the mismatches. Dwayne Bowe is the “number one receiver” who can make the big plays. De’Anthony Thomas is the dynamic slot guy who can turn a short screen into a 80-yard touchdown. Those are the players that get a lot of the attention. But guys like Fasano play a crucial role in setting those players up for big plays and keep drives alive. It is good to hear Fasano looks healthy and back to his old ways.