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Dorktown: Why didn’t the NFL want Rueben Randle?

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The Giants’ Rueben Randle was an overachieving wideout who elevated his quarterback’s numbers. At just 24, he seemed to have a long career ahead of him. But then, for reasons we can’t explain … he never played again.

Rueben Randle

The New York Giants invested a second-round pick on LSU wide receiver Rueben Randle in the 2012 NFL Draft. He had a relatively anonymous rookie season as his team’s No. 4 receiver behind Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, and Domenik Hixon.

The next year, Hixon signed with Carolina and Randle moved up a rung as Big Blue’s No. 3 wideout, and he responded with over 600 receiving yards while scoring six touchdowns. That was better production than any other No. 3 wideout in the league outside of Jerricho Cotchery and Wes Welker (who, like Randle, was catching passes from a Manning bro – only Welker’s was league MVP). In fact, the Giants’ youngster had a stronger season than the majority of the league’s No. 2 WRs:

In the 2014 offseason, they said goodbye to Nicks and drafted Randle’s former teammate in Baton Rouge, a fella by the name of Odell Beckham Jr. A torn patellar tendon suffered by Cruz in Week 6 created a larger role for Randle, and he responded with over 900 receiving yards, which trailed only T.Y. Hilton and Alshon Jeffery among his fellow 2012 draft classmates. It also would’ve led the Saints, Titans, Chiefs, Dolphins, Chargers, Cardinals, Seahawks, Browns, Rams, Vikings, Raiders, and Jaguars:

That brings us to 2015, the final year of Randle’s rookie contract. In that season, Randle produced a tick under 800 receiving yards and was one of just 20 wideouts to haul in at least eight scores. The average NFL pass attempt during the 2015 season gained 7.3 yards; the average pass attempt that came Rueben Randle’s way yielded 8.9 yards.

When that outstanding 8.9 yards per target is combined with his 8 receiving touchdowns, he joined a group of just 10 other players (a list constituted by the likes of Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, A.J. Green, Gronk, and Randle’s star teammate, Beckham) that hit both those marks that year. To join such a limited club at something as fundamentally relevant for a wide receiver as efficiently generating yardage and finding the end zone is certainly nothing to sneeze at.

Here are those figures for all 137 players that were targeted on at least 50 passes in 2015:

The man stacks up well! Also, here is the passer rating Eli Manning generated by receiving target:

His passer rating that season across the 90 times he threw to Randle was 102.9, a number that was a bit better than Tom Brady’s 2015 passer rating. But on his 528 non-Randle passes, that figure plummeted nearly 11 points to 92.0, a number that was a bit worse than Jay Cutler’s 2015 passer rating:

Randle emerged from this season primed to hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent in March 2016, alongside fellow wide receivers such as Cincinnati’s Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu.

With all three operating in similar roles as secondary wideouts on teams with a superstar (Beckham, A.J. Green) leading the pack, Randle more than doubled Sanu’s receiving yardage total with the two Bengals combining for half as many receiving TDs as Randle (while Randle generated about a yard more per target than both Sanu and Jones):

Let’s use fantasy points — with [(touchdowns x 6) + (yards from scrimmage x 0.1)] being their applicable formula for 2015 — as a loose indicator of productivity (which also enables Sanu to get credit for his couple rushing scores) to see the relationship between that and their ensuing contracts in 2016 free agency:

Within the first 24 hours of free agency, large deals were given to Sanu and Jones that had a combined value north of $70 million with over $34 million in guarantees. A full two weeks into free agency, Randle settled for a 1-year, $3 million contract with the Eagles that included just $500,000 in guarantees.

For reasons that lack a whole lot of clarity, Randle’s Eagles contract was just a drop in the bucket to what Sanu and Jones extracted from the Falcons and Lions, respectively. The discrepancy of how much more productive Randle was in his contract year combined with his guarantees amounting to a minuscule fraction of Sanu/Jones’ is nothing short of glaring.

Sanu’s stunning proficiency as a passer on gadget plays from prior years aside, Atlanta paid him handsomely for what he can do as a wide receiver. And the bottom line is that to this day, two of Randle’s four career seasons were more productive than any of Sanu’s eight career seasons, despite the latter moving on to play with an MVP quarterback in Georgia.

Randle also had zero medical red flags, having never missed even a single game in any of his four seasons; that’s juxtaposed against Jones who’d missed the entire 2014 season with foot and ankle problems.

And whereas Randle’s QB performed much better when throwing to him vs. not throwing to him, it was the opposite in Cincy:

Granted, Randle then had what was surely an underwhelming offseason and preseason in Philly. Having made a minimal financial investment in him, the Eagles decided to go another direction, cutting him in August ... and no one ever picked him up heading into the 2016 regular season.

No one even gave him a shot amid the non-stop roster churn during the season when players’ injuries and ineffectiveness have teams making constant personnel changes. Regardless of how lousy someone may look in the summer, that kind of regular season résumé has always led to, at the very least, a low-risk flier from someone at some point when the games become real. For the entire season, that never happened.

The Bears did sign him the following offseason, but they placed him on injured reserve with a hamstring ailment during the preseason before releasing him from his contract a few weeks later. The 2017 season came and went, again without Randle ever latching on to a 53-man roster for even a single week, which effectively ended his career.

Its final chapter -- that 2015 season -- saw him join just nine other players in reaching 700 receiving yards and 8 receiving touchdowns in their last season (with the circumstances behind their exit from the game listed):

Eight of those nine had their NFL careers end either voluntarily or via injury or arrest. The only other player to be so productive and then have his career end against his will while healthy and lacking legal entanglements was Terrell Owens.

And here’s the huge, obvious difference: age. Owens turned 37 during that season (to say nothing of his decade-long reputation as a distraction). Randle’s final year occurred at the still-extremely-tender age of 24. It’s that precocious youthfulness that really makes this especially bizarre.

All of the other nine players were at least four years older in their final season than was Randle. Not only has no player his age or younger for their final year in the NFL ever posted as many receiving yards or touchdowns as Randle did, but since 1970’s AFL-NFL merger, no one that young for their swan song has even had a particularly comparable season, as we can see with fantasy production being used as a barometer:

And Randle’s still the only one of them whose career ended for reasons other than injury, legal entanglements, or dental aspirations. On top of suiting up for each of his team’s 64 games while under contract, his seemingly worst relevant transgression as a human being was arriving late to a meeting in 2014, leading to clock colonel Tom Coughlin benching him for the 1st quarter of a November game in Jacksonville.

It’s theoretically possible that he had potential opportunities after his Chicago stint and wasn’t interested at that point. It’s unlikely, but for the sake of argument even if that were the case, that wouldn’t make how the contractual events of the 2016 offseason unfolded any less mystifying.

He’s been criticized at points for things such as route running or drops. But any sort of shortcomings in these areas would be reflected and accounted for in his yards per target and/or his quarterback’s passer rating when throwing to him. And as we’ve already seen, he still passed those metrics with flying colors.

Regardless, one can still believe he wasn’t quite as good as the numbers might suggest. That’s fine. But he wasn’t so much worse that he shouldn’t have taken the spot of one of these 180 wide receivers who occupied the NFL’s 53-man rosters as the 2016 season kicked off: