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Plaxico Buress to the Jets

Posted by Chase Stuart on August 2, 2011

Over the weekend, the New York Jets signed Plaxico Burress as a cheaper alternative to fill the void left by Braylon Edwards. Buress and Edwards have had very similar career paths: From Michigan to Lake Erie to New York, these tall wide receivers have been in the news and teasing us with their talents for a decade. How do they compare?

Category                   Buress              Edwards              Edge

Ht/Wt                      6'5, 226            6'3, 211             Burress

Michigan School            Michigan State      Michigan             Push (MSU under Nick Saban)

Sophomore year             65--1013--8         67--1035--10         Push

Junior Year                66--1142--12        85--1138--14         Edwards

Senior Year                Entered Draft       97--1330--15         N/A

1st-team All-Conf.         Twice               Twice                Push

Last college game          13--185-3 in 37-34  10--109--3 in 38-37
                           win over Florida    loss to Texas        Burress

College hardware           Two Bowl MVPs       Biletnikoff Award    Edwards

Drafted by Lake Erie       Pittsburgh          Cleveland            Burress
franchise in…   

Third year breakout        78-1325-7           80-1289-16           Edwards

Breakout more impressive   Tommy Maddox        Derek Anderson       Edwards
because he played with   

Found out the hard way:    NFL rules, college  Helmet can't be used 
                           rules, different    as a reception device Burress

Touchdown rate             Every 9.2 catches   Every 8.4 catches    Edwards

Guilty of...               Criminal possession Driving while
                           of a weapon         intoxicated          Edwards

Super Bowls + Pro Bowls    One                 One                  Push

Brush with greatness       Game-winning TD to  Fisticuffs with 
                           defeat Pats in SB   LeBron's entourage   Burress

Edwards just edges out Burress, 6 to 5. But Jets fans -- and fantasy football owners -- are forward thinking. They want to know how Burress will play in 2011. As usual, I don't know, and you don't know. At this point, it's wild speculation. But we can look to the past to get some sense as to what sort of path Burress' career might take.

What's notable about his 2011 season?

  • He has not played professional football for the past two seasons
  • His last season of pro football came at age 30 or later (Burress was 31 in '08)
  • He was a starter for the majority of his team's games in his last season prior to being out of football

    How many players match that list? Since 1970, only six players. Deion Sanders is the most notable; "Prime" returned to the NFL after three years off and played two injury-filled and non-eventful seasons in Baltimore. Giants' center Brian Williams missed two years due to eye surgery; he returned in 1999 and was productive, but was released by the team after the season. He never played in the NFL again. Greg Townsend had seven seasons with double digit sacks for the Raiders. He "retired" after the '94 season at the age of 33 due to struggles with weight -- he had put on nearly 50 pounds since entering the league. He returned at age 36, playing four games with the Raiders, but did not start a game or record a sack in his only year back. Rich Tylski spent six seasons at right guard with the Jaguars and Steelers, last starting 10 games for Pittsburgh in 2001. He was out of football for the next two years, and came back for one season with the Panthers, where he mostly played as a reserve. Nine-time Pro Bowl linebacker Maxie Baughan played the last five seasons of his career under George Allen in Los Angeles. In 1974, Allen, then head coach of the Redskins, lured Baughan back after being away for three full years. He played in just two games as a player-coach. Quarterback Chris Miller retired after the 1995 season following a series of concussions. He went 2-1 playing for the post-Elway Broncos in 1999, before retiring for good.

    That list doesn't inspire much optimism for Burress' prospects in 2011. What if we lower the starting requirement to just staring a handful of games in the player's last season, and only look at wide receivers? Just two players enter the picture. Atlanta's Brian Finneran was a solid possession receiver for the Vick Falcons at the turn of the century. He missed seasons in 2006 and 2007 due to ligament tears in his left knee. He came back in '08 at the age of 32; he caught 21 passes for 169 yards, and has posted similar numbers the past two seasons. Jets wide receiver Derrick Gaffney (father of Jabar Gaffney) played from 1978 to 1984 for New York. During the 1987 strike, Gaffney crossed the picket line and played in two games for the Jets, catching one pass.

    Okay, so far, not so good for Burress fans. But what if we flip the question on its head? What if we start with players who played well in one season and were also out of football in the prior two seasons? I looked at all players who had an AV of at least 8 points in a year immediately following missing two seasons of football (playing in another professional league does not count). How many players met that criteria since the merger?

    Just one. Garrison Hearst broke his ankle in a playoff game against the Falcons following the 1998 season. The prognosis was that he would never play again, but after two years away from football, Hearst came back and rushed for 1,206 yards while earning the NFL Comeback Player of the Year Award. In fact, Hearst is only the fourth player to win Comeback Player of the Year after missing a full season of NFL play. Doug Flutie played in the CFL for years before winning the award with Buffalo in 1998, Joe Johnson missed all of 1999 due to injury and Barry Word went unsigned in 1989 before breaking out for the Chiefs in 1990.

    But Hearst was "only" 30 when he made his comeback. No skill position player Burress' age has ever come close to having a productive season after missing a couple of years of football. Of course, very few productive players ever would even have a chance to be on this last. We are dealing with a severe example of selection bias. Terrell Owens, John Stallworth and Lance Alworth didn't spent two years in the middle of their careers away from the game. So the better question to ask might be: if this was August 2008, what sort of numbers would we project for Burress in 2011?

    I say after the '07 season in an attempt to stack the deck in Burress' favor. Burress missed the end of the 2008 season, but he wasn't having a particularly strong season, anyway. As a result, to look at things in the most favorable light to him, we'll send us back in time to right after Burress' last full season. I'm going to use the ranking system that I used in my greatest WR ever series. Here is how Burress has ranked each year of his career:

    Yr Tm Age G Rec Yd TD ACY TmAtt ACY/A nfl avg Value
    2000 PIT 23 12 22 273 0 383 439 1.16 2.16 -329
    2001 PIT 24 16 66 1008 6 1458 454 3.21 2.25 438
    2002 PIT 25 16 78 1325 7 1855 551 3.37 2.21 635
    2003 PIT 26 16 60 860 4 1240 532 2.33 2.16 90
    2004 PIT 27 11 35 698 5 973 358 3.95 2.30 406
    2005 NYG 28 16 76 1214 7 1734 558 3.11 2.24 485
    2006 NYG 29 15 63 988 10 1503 523 3.07 2.21 422
    2007 NYG 30 16 70 1025 12 1615 544 2.97 2.24 396
    2008 NYG 31 10 35 454 4 709 491 2.31 2.21 32

    To find comparable players to Burress in August 2008, we would want to look at any WR who:

    (1) Had between 250 and 550 yards of value at ages 29, 30 or 31 in Year N (For Burress, Year N = 2007); and

    (2) Had between 200 and 650 yards of value in each of the prior two seasons (Years N-1 and N-2).

    There were 20 wide receivers who, from 1970 to 2006, met those two criteria. One of them was the '06 version of Burress, so we will remove him from the list. The other 19 players, in Year N, had an average age of 29.95 and an average value of 410 yards. In Years N-1 and N-2, their average values were 429 and 445. In other words, these 19 players probably had similar outlooks to the one we would have had for Plaxico Burress four years ago. How did they do four years (in Year N+4) after the season in question?

    Player Year N Value age N-1 Val N-2 Val N+4 Val N+4 Gm
    Plaxico Burress 2007 396 30 422 485 0 0
    Donald Driver 2006 525 31 349 431 0 15
    Eric Moulds 2004 522 31 238 637 0 0
    Keyshawn Johnson 2002 313 30 569 452 56 16
    Jake Reed 1997 442 30 580 282 0 16
    Brian Blades 1995 332 30 487 346 0 0
    Cris Carter 1994 541 29 562 292 432 16
    Anthony Carter 1990 430 30 319 587 0 4
    Eric Martin 1990 284 29 525 577 0 10
    Anthony Carter 1989 319 29 587 504 126 15
    Wesley Walker 1986 425 31 261 223 0 0
    Tony Hill 1985 539 29 408 340 0 0
    Ken Burrough 1979 363 31 218 622 0 0
    Mel Gray 1978 357 30 459 453 0 5
    Harold Jackson 1977 460 31 525 580 0 16
    Gene A. Washington 1977 440 30 217 350 0 0
    Reggie Rucker 1976 453 29 370 220 74 16
    Fred Biletnikoff 1974 386 31 397 624 0 16
    Roy Jefferson 1972 307 29 454 389 0 14
    Charley Taylor 1971 339 30 562 577 348 14
    Average 409 30 426 449 52 8.7

    Only 5 of the 19 WRs registered above average seasons. In any given year, around 40-45 wide receivers will register above-average seasons in this system, so the odds were heavily against Burress from being a top 40 season in 2011 even if he had played in the NFL for each of the past three years. And, remember, this is using Burress' 2005, 2006 and 2007 seasons as his baseline, essentially ignoring any decline he may have showed in 2008.

    The short version of this post: the Jets would be unrealistic to expect anything more than a mediocre season from Burress in 2011. Wide receivers don't age as quickly as running backs, but 34 years old is still pretty old, especially for someone who hasn't been keeping himself in professional football shape. Consider that Carolina's Steve Smith, Santana Moss and Deion Branch will all be 34 years old... during the 2013 season. An aging wide receiver who has been out of football for two years is a longshot to pay serious dividends. On the bright side, if the Jets need a touchdown in the final minutes of the Super Bowl, Sanchez will have more than enough players to target.