Possible Breakout Player Of 2011: Bengals WR Jordan Shipley

Jordan Shipley #11 of the Cincinnati Bengals puttin' on some shake-and-bake (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Here's the snap...Dalton back to pass...it's a blitz!....Andre Smith gets pancaked...and under pressure Dalton dumps the ball off to Shipley, who worms his way for a 9 yard gain.

Get used to that, kids.

While Josh selected Bernard Scott, Paul chose Geno Atkins, and Jason picked Michael Johnson, I'm gonna go with the first guy who popped in my head when we started our discussions here about possible breakout players for next season: Jordan Shipley.

Now, this pick might test the limits of the definition of "breakout" player a bit. Shipley was a guy the team was lauded for drafting (a steal in the third round of the 2010 draft) who had a very nice college career, which translated into a very nice rookie season, the season he was pretty much expected to have. By all accounts, Shipley is a smart guy and a hard worker, so with a year of NFL experience under his belt improvement is logical and expected -- it just becomes a question of kind and degree. Not only do I think his objective numbers will increase, I believe he'll become a lynchpin in the team's new West Coast Offense. As evidence, I feel as though I can largely rest my case on the mock play-by-play that lead off this post, or with this haiku:

a fluttering ball

Shipley bounding in traffic

Lewis keeps his job

But if neither of those rock you, there's more after the jump.

Shipley is certainly no hidden treasure. Let's rehearse the numbers again: last season his 52 catches, 600 yards, and 30 first downs led all AFC wide receivers (second in the NFL on all counts), while his 3 TDs were tied for second in the AFC. He also proved to be durable, missing only one contest after getting jacked up by T. J. Ward.

When Shipley was drafted, the immediate comparisons made were with former Colt Brandon Stokley and the gritty Wes Welker, as we saw in NFL.com's 2010 draft analysis: "Shipley is an ideal slot receiver candidate [...] and could develop into a Wes Welker-like playmaker in the Bengals' offense." So, in the midst of the T.Ocho carnival, the Bengals got exactly what they hoped for from a guy slotted to be a slot receiver.

And there are a lot of reasons to believe he'll take on a more prominent role next season: a suspect offensive line, a rookie QB, and the installation of a WCO that values quick, short passes. Also, we don't know what we're going to get out of this team's wideouts. Assuming the departures of Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco, we're left with all of 21 career NFL receptions between presumed starters Jerome Simpson and A. J. Green. Simpson was a forgotten man for two and 3/4 seasons and may disappear into the shadows of playbook intricacy once again. Green has been touted as a superfreak receiver, but at one point so was Peter Warrick. So, besides Andre Caldwell, who's role on the team is uncertain at the moment, Shipley is the most experienced receiver on the roster. He's also the most reliable.

Unlike baseball, which has all kinds of fantastic stats to measure a player's clutchiness -- like a batter's average on balls in play (BABIP) against left-handed specialists in the eighth inning or later, with a 2-2 count, on the road, in a night game, with two outs and a runner in scoring position (RISP) -- football has no equivalent measurements of a player's grit or timely performance. But, as we reported here a few days ago, last season Shipley proved to be a highly dependable receiver, with the lowest dropped pass rate in the NFL -- like low as in zero. Shipley didn't muff single ball sent his way, and as Khaled Elsayed on Pro Football Focus suggests, '[t]hat’s the kind of dependency that should make life a lot easier for a potential rookie starter at quarterback in Cincinnati." Oh, and Shipley also never fumbled the ball, all of which add up to make him a very attractive target for Andy Dalton and a guy Jay Gruden can organize some plays around, and I'm not the only one who thinks so.

Shipley also just got married, and while I don't know how that might possibly help his performance it certainly can't hurt, unless he injures himself on his honeymoon, if ya known what I mean (wink, nudge, guffaw). Aaaaannnnyway...

How good will Shipley be next season? He's certainly capable of having a Welker-like year, but that will depend on Dalton or Other QB's development. And while Shipley would love to have Carson Palmer back, it ain't happenin', so in the meantime, without the benefit of Tom Brady or Peyton Manning's pocket presence and accuracy to aid him in 2011, I anticipate Shipley producing something between Stokley's best season with the Colts (68 catches, for 1,077 yards) and Welker's worst season with the Patriots (86 for 848). If I had to put a number on it, I'd guess something like 80 catches for about 900 yards.

But maybe Stokley and Welker are unrealistic comparisons. Maybe the better comparison to make is with the Rams Danny Amendola, as Joe pointed out the other day in a comment thread when he suggested that "Rookie QBs and any QBs for this point, love the slit WR and TE. Over the middle and underneath are the easiest and most visible routes to throw to. Shipley and Gresham should be key factors in Dalton’s progression."

Here's some unnecessary math: In his 2009 rookie season, Amendola grabbed 43 balls for 326 yards and one TD. A low yards per catch average of 7.6 accounts for the low overall yardage total, but give him Shipley's average of 11.5 per catch and he's at 495 yards. Shipley played in one more game as a rookie than Amendola, so add in a game's worth of catches (about 3), multiply that by Shipley's YPC to arrive at roughly 35, and then add that to the 495.That makes for a line of 46 catches for 530 yards, fairly close to Shipley's 52 for 600, and that was with a QB carousel in St. Louis of Marc Bulger, Kyle Boller, and Keith Null.

What does all that mean? Well, in a Lewis Carrollinian Wonderland where those figures make any sense, Amendola theoretically had a similar kind of rookie year to Shipley. Then the Rams drafted Sam Bradford last year and Amendola became the team's leading receiver, with 85 catches for 689 yards. If Shipley develops a similar rapport with Dalton (i.e., a rookie QB looking to quickly get the ball to a reliable target), my 80 for 900 prediction is certainly within range. So if Amendola was a breakout player last season, Shipley could easily be one next season.

p.s. If Shipley lays a sophomore egg, I reserve the right to change my pick to Ryan Whalen.

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