D.J. Moore forces a difficult question when it comes to player evaluation and valuation. It leans in on what a coaching staff prioritizes, what a front office has invested in, and what a supporting cast dictates.
Is a good player always a valuable player?
To answer our question, let’s start with what Moore is good at. Moore was the titular WR1 for the Panthers in 2019, though he was out-targeted by Christian McCaffrey across 16 games, as he was the most dynamic receiver, bringing in a team-leading 13.5 yards per reception on 135 targets. On film, Moore’s a wonderful spacing receiver who is at his best working through the windows of zone coverage, where his steady hands outside of his frame, toughness when getting hit across the middle, and vision and feel for space all translate into high-percentage throws off of which he generates quality YAC.
You’ll notice that the majority of Moore’s routes are in-breakers from the outside, which is an important note. Often, we believe players with YAC prowess are natural fits for the slot, from where the shallowest routes are frequently run. But Moore saw only 16% of his snaps come from the slot in 2019, which is one of the lowest numbers for all starting wide receivers, as he worked his in-breakers against zone coverage from Z and X alignments. This proclivity is reflected in Reception Perception, produced by Matt Harmon for The Fantasy Footballers: Moore was fifth in the NFL in route share given to the dig route and 12th in route share given to the slant route. Only one player ran fewer outs and five ran fewer flats.
This matters a good deal when understanding Moore’s breakout 2019 season. Playing with Kyle Allen under center for the majority of the season, Moore ran a route tree extremely conducive to a weak-armed quarterback like Allen. Given Allen’s inability to reach downfield on deep patterns or outside the numbers on out-breakers, he was restricted to the area of the field that was predominantly populated by Moore’s routes. Meanwhile, Moore’s consistency reading and popping into zone windows gelled nicely with Allen’s strength as a timing passer with quality first/second level placement. In short, they fit from a scheme perspective.
To continue to build a picture of Moore’s game with Reception Perception data, we have to now transition the conversation of Moore’s game of in-breaking routes against zone to his game of in-breaking routes against man. Here, there are encouraging signs for Moore’s development as a route-runner, but Moore is still a disappointing receiver against pure man coverage with an incomplete route profile.
The frustrating thing here is that Moore remains athletically capable of running quality routes. I’ve alluded to his YAC ability earlier: Moore is one of the most exciting YAC options in the NFL, standing out as one of the highest YAC/expectation players in recent NFL memory relative to his target depth.
Moore’s elite YAC ability comes from his contact balance, surely, which is not a big part of route-running—but it also comes from his explosiveness, stop/start ability, and long speed to finish plays after he breaks his tackles. These traits should show up when Moore goes to separate from man coverage, and even that contact balance and play strength should come into greater importance when he’s pressed at the line of scrimmage.
But we’re just not there yet. Moore telegraphs cuts by lifting his shoulders and shortening his stride, cannot shed contact against press, and fails to work aggressively for pre-throw leverage that would make the window larger for his quarterback -- a particular issue on red zone reps. Moore is a wonderful contested-catch player for his size, but for some reason, that ability to win through contact does not translate to winning leverage throughout the route. He allows defenders to close throwing windows, both over the top and underneath him, with frequency.
And these are just the routes at which Moore is the best! On late-breaking routes that have a deeper depth of target or nine routes that require maintenance of downfield leverage, Moore’s unwillingness to play box-out ball to create throwing windows or lethargy coming out of his breaks allows for defenders to eat up his space and force Moore again into unnecessary contested-catch situations. These reps would not be as egregious if Moore didn’t have superior athletic ability that should lead to a greater degree of separation, but especially on patterns in which Moore has to return to the football outside the numbers, his sense of timing and spacing seems to be completely off. He was regularly off-rhythm with both Newton and Allen on such throws, which indicates that he isn't processing the landmarks or coverage shells correctly.
At this stage, we circle back to our original question: Is a good player always a valuable player? Moore is a good football player, and his particular skill set helps him win against zone coverage, on in-breaking routes, and with the ball in his hands. Moore’s YAC ability is his greatest strength right now—but in the same article in which Gayle identified his unique strength there, he noted that YAC has a ceiling on its value. As he wrote:
Of the 110 NFL receivers with at least 600 routes run over the past three years, the 10 best in YPRR all recorded fewer than 40% of their receiving yards after the catch. Moore and Los Angeles Rams receivers Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods are the lone receivers ranked inside the top 20 in YPRR with more than 40% of their receiving yards coming after the catch.
Now, Moore is still okay here—he had 392 of his 1,175 receiving yards come after the catch in 2019, which is at 33%. In 2018, with a better quarterbacking situation, that number was at 55%—and I’d imagine with a more accurate passer in 2020, as well as two primarily deep receivers on the roster in Robby Anderson and Curtis Samuel, Moore’s depth of target is going to go down, and he’ll have a higher percentage of his offensive output come from YAC.
This is where the discussion of good play and valuable play comes to the forefront. A similar paradigm considers that at which Moore is skilled, and that at which Moore is valuable. Moore is a skilled YAC player, and he may even be one of the most valuable YAC players among all receivers—but YAC ability as a whole isn’t as impactful as having a large depth of target. Moore’s 11.1 average intended air yards was just around league average and was significantly below that of Samuel’s 14.5 and Anderson’s 15.3.
Furthermore, separation against zone coverage is not as valuable as separation against man coverage, in that separation against zone is easier than separating against man. In Reception Perception, Moore was a 28th percentile separator against man and an 80th percentile separator against zone. Among the top separators against zone that Harmon charted, the other average separators against man coverage were JuJu Smith-Schuster, Cooper Kupp, Julian Edelman, Jamison Crowder, and Hunter Renfrow. Not bad players at all, of course—but all slot options who are somewhere between the primary and secondary target-getters on their teams. None of them a true WR1. So again, while Moore has the skill of working well against zone coverage, it does not have the same value as an equivalent skill against man coverage.
There is reason to be encouraged with Moore’s continued growth. He is young (just turned 23) for a third-year player and has yet to experience quality quarterback play. He just grabbed an offensive coordinator in Joe Brady who will certainly give Moore more slot opportunities and continue to feed him in-breaking patterns, as he also served as the wide receivers coach at LSU when coordinating that tremendous trio of wideouts. Moore got better from Year 1 to Year 2 and will hopefully get better in Year 3.
But Moore has not yet arrived as a titular WR1, even if he gets that volume or gives that fantasy output. Until he can be trusted to regularly defeat man coverage from an average NFL CB1—which, emphatically, he cannot do at this stage in his career—he will continue to fade in games in which he receives star treatment by defenses. We could look back on 2020 and see it as the natural stepping stone of Moore’s inevitable ascension over his contemporaries like Calvin Ridley and Michael Gallup and Courtland Sutton, but this is not yet guaranteed. There’s still meat on the bone.