D.J. Hackett has quickly become the worst kept secret in Seattle football. After an impressive second season where he led all receivers in DPAR with <50 receptions, he exploded onto the scene in 2006 with the second best DVOA in football, behind only Devery Henderson and his absolutely absurd 23.3 yards per reception. Despite being targeted only 67 times, Hackett still cracked the top 15 in DPAR. Ahead of big names such as Javon Walker, Joe Horn, Anquan Boldin, Andre Johnson and Hines Ward. The one question remaining for Hackett is, now a starter, expected to see 100+ passes, how good can he be?
If Hackett faltered this season, he wouldn't be the first player in the history of DPAR to look untouchable playing out of the slot, but a shell of himself once he was thrust into starting duty. Jeremy McDaniel's 2000 season has an eerie resemblance to Hackett's 2006:
McDaniel (2000): 43 REC 697 YDS 16.2 YPC 2 TD 62.3 CTCH% 24.2 DPAR 45.8 DVOA
Hackett (2006): 45 REC 610 YDS 13.6 YPC 4 TD 67 CTCH% 22.0 DPAR 35.7 DVOA
McDaniel battled through ankle injuries in 2001 and now plays in the Arena Football League. Here's a couple more examples to scare the bejeebus out of you:
Joey Porter (2002): 51 REC 688 YDS 13.5 YPC 9 TD 73 CTCH% 29.6 DPAR 47.1 DVOA
Troy Walters (2003): 36 REC 456 YDS 12.7 YPC 3 TD 69 CTCH% 19.0 DPAR 56.5 DVOA
Porter is still a good receiver, but Oakland is an offensive graveyard and Porter's been at loggerheads with the ownership for quite some time. Walters was at the other end of Peyton Manning, a player making a case for best quarterback in football history. He also was deep into his career and a borderline athlete.
Hackett has had zero personality concerns over his professional and collegiate career. When his program went under at California State University-Northridge he simply transfered to Colorado and not only didn't miss a beat but took his play to another level. Hackett also didn't receive any gifts from Matt Hasselbeck or Seneca Wallace. Both were below average quarterbacks in 2006. Finally, McDaniel, by far the scariest scenario for Hackett, battled ankle injuries his entire amateur and professional career and--likely--eventually, simply lost the cutting ability to be an NFL receiver.
The moral of the story isn't that Hackett is going to collapse or that he'll be out of the league in a couple years, but that DPAR is a fine measure of a player's performance (in context), but not their projection.
So, what is Hack's projection?
Hackett was drafted in the fifth round of the 2004 draft. One in a number of bright spots in a surprisingly productive draft, headed by "Trader" Bob Whitsitt (who, no doubt, has compromising pictures of Paul Allen.) His 40 was nothing to shout about, 4.53, but Hack impressed in a number of other important areas. His vert, 41", is NFL elite. His cone and shuttle (6.8 and 4.1) pointed to the incredible agility he's shown in the NFL. More importantly, he did nothing but produce in college, no matter the program, no matter the QB. Hack is a solid route-runner, has great hands and absolutely explodes out of cuts, helping his ability to separate despite less than ideal speed. 211 of Hackett's 610 yards were accomplished after the catch, indicating in small part an ability to work in the open field.
The problem with looking at his numbers on the whole, though, is that as a 3rd or 4th receiver, Hackett has faced a ton of zone coverage. Much of Hack's seemingly excellent (and recording nearly 35% of your yards after the catch is nothing short of excellent) production was against nickel and dime backs; to a lesser extent safeties and to a much lesser extent linebackers. When he takes the field this fall he will be working against starting cornerbacks, who are quicker and smarter than the competition he has previously faced.
Hackett has started 8 games over the last two seasons, a reasonable sample size to draw some conclusions from. In all 8 of those contests he's been, presumably, the #2 receiver. The teams he has faced over that stretch have been, essentially, league average against #2 receivers (their average ranking, as measured by Football Outsiders, is 15th.) Hackett has averaged 4 receptions per contest, possibly a result of an inability to get open, certainly affected by the fact that though Hackett may have started, he was used in less formations that an average #2. Over those starts he's averaged 57 yards a contest, not great, but 14 YPC, right in line with his career. He's also recorded five touchdown receptions, a good sign for a team in need of a target in the red zone.
None of that screams #1 receiver. It does, however, imply that Hackett isn't going to collapse in full time duties. His DVOA is almost certain to decrease inversely with his traditional stats increasing, but his DPAR can be expected to stay strong. The biggest obstacle Hackett faces is simply getting open. As a slot receiver he was free to pick apart zones, but as a starter he will face much more man coverage. The stat to look for in the pre-season and early regular season is simple receptions. If Hackett can post a few 6-8+ reception games early, you can be pretty certain that Hack is ready to start, perhaps ready for superstardom, but if he stays around four receptions a contest, continues to disappear for stretches between big plays, it might be a good indication that Hack is better suited for playing out of the slot, a position he would continue to be valuable in, just not among the NFL elite.