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Finding the above-replacement level receivers at Ohio State

Is the next Michael Thomas already on the roster?

NCAA FOOTBALL: JAN 01 College Football Playoff Semifinal - Allstate Sugar Bowl Photo by John Korduner/Icon Sportswire/Corbis via Getty Images

According to 247 Team Talent Composite, Ohio State had the second-best overall team talent level in the country and the second-best blue chip ratio. There are enough blue chip players at every position to fill out the two-deep. Ohio State shouldn’t have any issues with overall talent levels in 2018.

Instead, Ohio State’s real challenge is identifying players that are above replacement level. Football Outsiders’ NFL stat, Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement, or DYAR, gets at this idea:

Let’s say you have a running back who carries the ball 300 times in a season. What would happen if you were to remove this player from his team’s offense? What would happen to those 300 plays? Those plays don’t disappear with the player, though some might be lost to the defense because of the associated loss of first downs. Rather those plays would have to be distributed among the remaining players in the offense, with the bulk of them being given to a replacement running back. This is where we arrive at the concept of replacement level, borrowed from our partners at Baseball Prospectus. When a player is removed from an offense, he is usually not replaced by a player of similar ability. Nearly every starting player in the NFL is a starter because he is better than the alternative. Those 300 plays will typically be given to a significantly worse player, someone who is the backup because he doesn’t have as much experience and/or talent. A player’s true value can then be measured by the level of performance he provides above that replacement level baseline, totaled over all of his run or pass attempts.

Essentially, talent accumulation isn’t just recruiting good players, it’s about getting (and developing) great players.

It’s about having a player, even if it’s just one player per position group, who is able to take over a game. While it’s hard to argue that Ohio State hasn’t recruited well at any position group — again, Ohio State had the second-most talented roster in the country last year by almost any metric — there’s an argument that maybe not every position group has a truly dominant player.

And not every position group needs that one player or two that is way-above replacement level. I’d argue that it’s more valuable to raise the overall baseline for the offensive line, or at least to eliminate individual weak spots, than to have one or two absolutely dominant linemen.

Last week’s Buckeye Talk discussed whether there’s a go-to, superstar receiver — a Devin Smith or Michael Thomas — on the roster, or whether it’s possible to have “too many good players” at receiver.

The question definitely isn’t whether the group is talented as a whole. Last year’s top six receivers average a solid four stars, at .9435 points, from the 247 Composite. But if you think about Ohio State’s receivers in terms of DYAR, the challenge is making sure there are above-replacement players relative to the others, and then making sure they get the ball.

Talent-wise, it’s easy to make the case that all of Ohio State’s receivers are above-replacement relative to the rest of the country, but no single receiver has stood out relative to the others in Ohio State’s rotation. Ohio State’s top six receivers last year all had total receiving yards within 241 yards of each other, target rates within 8.6 percent of each other, and five of the six had average yards per catch within 5.4 yards of each other. Essentially, everyone in the rotation was targeted roughly the same amount, caught roughly the same percentage of their targets, and then did roughly the same thing with the ball in their hands. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing — after all, the passing game was fourth overall in passing S&P+ last season. But sometimes a dominant, go-to receiver is needed.

Austin Mack seems like a strong candidate to be that kind of player, but he had just the sixth-most targets on the team last season. Mack had the highest success rate of all receivers besides Parris Campbell (who was targeted repeatedly on mesh routes that functioned as extended hand-offs), with 57.9 percent of his targets resulting in a successful play. It’s also highly possible that a different above-replacement receiver or two emerges just because of the quarterback change and Kevin Wilson entering year two in charge of the offense.

The superstar player doesn’t necessarily have to be a five-star recruit, either. Michael Thomas was a three-star recruit with a .8477 composite rating, and Devin Smith was a three-star too, with a .8895 composite rating.

But, in general, five stars have a higher hit rate for turning in to superstar players. Funny enough, the two teams with the most five stars on their rosters also happened to play for the national championship (Alabama had 18 and Georgia had 11). In comparison, while Ohio State had more four-star players on its roster than any team in the country last season (with 56), they had just the fifth-most five-star players (with 7). I’m using five-star-to-four-star ratio as a shorthand here, but I think it illustrates the question of whether the Buckeyes had enough dominant — not just really good —players at a few position groups. On the flip side, that’s also why next year’s defensive line has the potential to better than last year’s.

Ohio State’s baseline is going to be high at every position, relative to the rest of the country. So again, the big question for 2018 isn’t about overall talent — it’s about talent above replacement. And it’s also about whether other changes, at quarterback, in player development, and any offensive scheme changes in year two for Kevin Wilson, can identify and deploy that above-replacement talent.