Numbers don’t lie...except when they do.
Numbers can be manipulated. Numbers can be distorted. And most dangerously, numbers can cloud a reader’s judgement by not telling the complete story.
As ESPN fantasy football analyst (and Syracuse University graduate) Matthew Berry states in his annual “100 facts” column, numbers only tell half-truths.
“I can talk up or talk down any player I want. I just have to choose the right stats for the job,” Berry writes. “There's very little in this world at which I'm good, but one thing at which I am fantastic? Manipulating stats to tell the story I want them to.”
Which brings us to Syracuse Orange wide receiver Amba Etta-Tawo.
As you already know by now, Etta-Tawo came to Syracuse as a graduate transfer and produced one of the greatest statistical seasons in all of college football. Despite catching passes from three different quarterbacks, Etta-Tawo ended up setting the Syracuse single-season record for receptions (94), receiving yards (1,482) and receiving yards per game (123.5).
Etta-Tawo was also one 10 Biletnikoff Award semifinalists, which is given to the nation’s most outstanding receiver.
2016 Receiving Yards Leaders
|1. Trent Taylor||Louisiana Tech||136||1,803||13.3||12|
|2. Zay Jones||Eastern Carolina||158||1,746||11.1||8|
|3. Taywan Taylor||Western Kentucky||98||1,730||17.7||17|
|4. Richie James||Middle Tennessee||106||1,625||15.5||12|
|5. Carlos Henderson||Louisiana Tech||82||1,535||18.7||19|
|6. Dede Westbrook||Oklahoma||80||1,524||19.1||17|
|7. Corey Davis||Western Michigan||97||1,500||15.5||19|
|8. Amba Etta-Tawo||Syracuse||94||1,482||15.8||14|
|9. Anthony Miller||Memphis||95||1,434||15.1||14|
|10. James Washington||Oklahoma State||71||1,380||19.4||10|
However, while those numbers are prolific, they also don’t tell the full tale. Despite finishing as one of the top receivers in college football last season, Etta-Tawo isn’t projected to be taken in the first round. Or the second. Or the third. Or the fourth. Or even the fifth.
Although Etta-Tawo averaged 123.5 receiving yards and a touchdown per game last year, he isn’t expected to be drafted until the sixth round, according to CBSSports.com.
The question that many Syracuse fans have is, why? Why is someone who was in contention to receive the award for the most outstanding receiver in college football projected to be taken after 160 other players?
To find that answer we need to look past the numbers he produced last season, and fully evaluate Etta-Tawo as a NFL Draft prospect.
That’s an Ugly Terp
The first, and most obvious, knock against Etta-Tawo is the fact his college football career was seemingly nonexistent prior to his arrival at Syracuse. While at Maryland, not only was Etta-Tawo far from the star receiver he was at Syracuse, he was barely even a serviceable one.
Just how poor was Etta-Tawo’s final season at Maryland? He caught nearly 5x more passes and finished with nearly 7x more receiving yards in his lone season at Syracuse. After primarily working as a starter in his first two seasons, Etta-Tawo was sent to the bench and ended up only starting two games in his final year at Maryland.
Whiles his numbers as a Terp as a whole weren’t great, they are even worse when you consider the fact Etta-Tawo’s play decreased every season. Furthermore, over the 2014 and 2015 season Etta-Tawo had nine combined drops to just 30 catches – an issue that would continue to plague him even during his prolific lone season at Syracuse.
The System or the Player?
The fact that Etta-Tawo went from an overlooked receiver who lost his starting job in his final season at Maryland to one of the most productive in the nation lead many to question just how much of an impact Syracuse coach Dino Babers’ system had on Etta-Tawo’s breakout campaign.
Babes runs a “veer and shoot” offense, one that features an uptempo style of play and relies heavily on a deep-ball passing game from a shotgun formation. Big, tall receivers who succeed in catching long passes typically flourish in Babers’ offense – as was the case with Etta-Tawo, who stands at 6-foot-2, and 202 pounds.
He finished the season as one of the top deep-ball receivers in the nation, gaining 687 yards on passes that traveled 20+ yards (No. 8) and catching eight touchdowns on similar deep passes (No. 7), according to Pro Football Focus. Of course, since Babers’ offense catered to Etta-Tawo’s strengths, the question remains: how much of Etta-Tawo’s production was Etta-Tawo and how much of it was a product of the offensive system he played in?
Raw and Limited
While there’s no doubt Babers’ offense allowed Etta-Tawo to flourish as a receiver, it also limited him as well. Babers is well revered as a coach for maximizing the talent on his rosters. For Etta-Tawo, that meant utilizing his size and success bringing down deep passes.
As a result, Etta-Tawo predominately only ran go routes, limiting his experience as a route runner. While he was able to have incredible success doing so at Syracuse, it’s unlikely he’ll have the same good fortune in the NFL if he remains such a one-dimensional player.
As previously mentioned, Etta-Tawo has a well-documented issue with drops – something that plagued him throughout his time at Maryland, Syracuse and even Senior Bowl practices. While there are plenty of talented NFL receivers who overcame problems with dropped passes, it’s simply another red flag for a prospect who is already considered extremely raw and will need time to develop.
At this point – despite his lofty numbers this past year – it should be clear there are a number of concerns with Etta-Tawo. However, this doesn’t diminish Etta-Tawo’s incredible 2016 season nor does it dismiss him as a NFL prospect.
While Etta-Tawo isn’t receiving the same first round grade as Clemson’s Mike Williams, Western Michigan’s Corey Davis or Washington’s John Ross, there is still plenty to like about the Syracuse prospect.
He is one of the best downfield threats in the entire draft, having proven his ability to locate and come down with the ball on deep passes time and time again this season. He also possesses quickness off the line of scrimmage, something he proved by finishing 17th out of 51 participating receivers with a time of 4.49 seconds in the 40-yard-dash at the NFL Scouting Combine – faster than USC’s JuJu Smith-Schuster, a projected second round pick.
And while drops plagued Etta-Tawo throughout his college career, he did appear to fix that issue in the second half of last season, as Etta-Tawo dropped six of first 57 catchable targets before dropping just one of his remaining 44 targets, according to Pro Football Focus. Lastly, while this story started with the notion that numbers can lie, they can also tell the truth, and the fact of the matter is you don’t catch 94 passes for 1,482 yards and 14 touchdowns by accident.
So is Etta-Tawo a prolific receiver or a flawed prospect? The answer is both; he’s an enigma.