When the Colts took Alec Pierce in the 2nd round last season, there were high hopes for the big-bodied receiver. In college, Pierce displayed great athleticism for a big frame and had good traits such as high pointing, winning 50/50 balls and using his body properly like a power forward going for a rebound. The hope was that Pierce would not only take over the #2 role early on, but if he hits his ceiling could eventually become a #1 receiver.
After 31 games, Pierce has done everything but take off. There have been some flashes of great play and he finally broke the 100 yard barrier in Week 14 this season (the 29th game his career), but there has been zero consistency and many metrics show he is below average in many areas. 31 games is a large enough sample size to know what you have and considering the great play of Michael Pittman Jr, Josh Downs and even Parris Campbell before he left, it’s time to start wondering whether or not Pierce can be involved in the long-term plans of the Colts.
Lack of Separation
One of the most important traits a receiver needs to have is separation. There has always been a strong correlation between open receivers and a strong passing offense (for obvious reasons). Unless you have Patrick Mahomes who can fit balls into the tightest of windows, you’ll need at least a yard or two of separation in order to make yourself a viable target. Separation is achieved from good route running and good releases off the line and at the top/stem of the route. Separation is generally a harder thing for bigger receivers since they usually lack the quickness, suddenness and agility to change directions quickly. This is why it’s important for big bodied receivers to have good release skills off the line. DK Metcalf is a very good example of this; he doesn’t run a variety of routes, but he consistently creates and gains some separation on go’s and slants, which is where a lot of his damage comes from. While Metcalf is aided by his godly athleticism, this is still the case for many big bodied guys such as DeVante Parker who does a lot of his best work on the same routes.
Pierce is no exception to this. According to ESPN Analytics in regards to openness, Pierce ranks 122nd out of 134 receivers this season. Last season he was 171st out of 189 receivers. While he has the top end speed, his lack of agility and his lack of quickness is what kills him on many routes. Notice where Pierce does his best work is on go routes since it doesn’t require his hips to sink and his body to change directions sharply.
Another way to measure openness is to measure yards after catch. This is partially affected by the routes that the player runs, but if he doesn’t separate from defensive backs, he is most likely going to be tackled immediately. Pierce only averages 2.2 yards after catch this season, which is amongst the 15 worst in the NFL (for receivers with at least 20 catches).
It’s very clear with the metrics and with the eye test that he can’t gain separation on his routes and it actually limits the coaching staff to what he can run. If a player can’t separate, then he must be a big play complimentary player. This is also not the case with Pierce.
Lack of Big Plays
Pierce doesn’t give the Colts a lot of big plays. To me, big plays can be described by the number of 20+ and 40+ yard plays, including large touchdowns, but also receiver success rate and passer rating when targeted. I will also include his contested catch rate. Pierce’s receiver success rating has him 88th out of 132 qualified receivers. His passer rating when targeted ranks him 173rd out of 211 qualified receivers. His contested catch rate of 55% is around average for plays of his type.
Even on top of those stats, Pierce has only been targeted 6 times in the redzone, which in theory is an area where he should shine since there is less space and requires receivers to be more physical and win more 50/50 balls. In addition to the 6 targets, he has 0 catches. Even last season, he only had 6 red-zone targets and one catch. Imagine your 2nd round, big bodied receiver having only one catch in the red-zone in 31 games.
The one “positive” stat is that he has 15 catches of over 20 yards and 4 catches of over 40 yards over the last two seasons. With 72 catches, that means that 20.8% of his catches go for over 20 yards and 5.5% of them go for over 40 yards. When looking at similar receivers (complimentary big bodied receivers) like DeVante Parker, Terrace Marshall and DJ Chark we see they all fall within that similar percentage range, so at least Pierce is average amongst his peers in this category.
Pierce might be good for a spark every now and then, but it doesn’t happen consistently and without some stability, it will be hard to rely upon him.
Lack of Consistency
A receiver needs to be relied upon week in and week out. If you are a #1 well rounded receiver, then you need to show up for at least a few catches and nice plays each week. Reggie Wayne is the perfect example of a receiver who displayed tremendous consistency, not only year to year with 8 straight 1000 yard seasons, but also having 82 consecutive games with 3 catches of more, which was and I believe still is an NFL record. When you know your top receiver is good for a few catches each game, that brings a tremendous level of confidence to a passing offense.
For slot possession receivers, you’re looking for the same type of thing as a #1 receiver but with less explosive plays. You’re expecting maybe more 3rd downs since historically slots versus nickels have been more advantageous for offenses (as shown by the Patriots for many years).
For receivers like Pierce, it’s a little tougher to measure, but you want to see big plays and first downs consistently, even if it’s just once or twice a game since he’s not targeted a lot. Even without the big plays, you still want to see Pierce get 1 or 2 big catches per game, especially considering the amount of snaps he plays (95% snaps played this season).
This season, Pierce has only one game with more than 3 catches and no games with more than 4. He has 6 games where he registered 0 or 1 catch. Unfortunately, Pierce has been consistent but not for the right reasons. 25% of his big play output came in the Tennessee Titans overtime win and while his impact was valuable as his big catch in overtime set up the game winning touchdown, it’s tough to count on someone who is dorment for so many plays a game. What also doesn’t help is that because of his skillset, he is limited to being a wide out with 87.5% of his offensive snaps coming from that spot (amongst the highest in the league), so there are stretches where you never see him.
You just don’t know what you’re getting out of Alec Pierce on a week to week basis and there aren’t enough explosive plays to justify his worth.
Pierce has a couple more seasons on his contract and for such a cheap amount, there is no reason to unload his contract or even look to trade him unless there was a good offer. With that being said, the Colts need to look for another receiving option since Pierce doesn’t offer much for the Colts. A Brandin Cooks style of player that is more of a speedy deep threat that stretches the defense can be more beneficial for a team like the Colts. They currently have two very good possession receivers in Michael Pittman Jr and Josh Downs and hopefully the Colts keep Pittman, so finding ways to get those guys the ball more is key. Cooks’ ability to stretch the D has allowed Lamb to do more work underneath and it’s one of the reasons why Lamb is having an all Pro season. Pierce offers no value in this regard since he rarely ties up safeties down the field and he doesn’t get a lot of targets. He isn’t a bad player to have in the rotation, but it’s clear the Colts can upgrade that spot in order to maximize the potential of this offense.