Which receivers were truly most effective with the ball in their hands last season? We look at the leaders in YAC+ for 2014 and the last nine years.
19 Aug 2008
by Aaron Schatz
In honor of our fifth anniversary, we're running a series of articles looking at the best and worst players in the history of our advanced stats, DVOA and DYAR. If you are unfamiliar with our advanced stats -- perhaps you are a new reader visiting our website for the first time after picking up a copy of Pro Football Prospectus 2008 -- you can read all about them here. The series so far:
Today, we'll be looking at the best and worst games and career totals for wide receivers. In conjunction with this, I've posted all the wide receiver pages back to 1995, with the new versions of DVOA and DYAR. However, I'm having a small problem with my macro that builds tables, and needed to make changes with the opponent adjustments for 1997 and 2006; therefore, those tables are currently missing. Hopefully, I'll be able to fix that within a day.
At the risk of upsetting stats completists, this article concentrates solely on receiving DVOA and DYAR, and ignores rushing DVOA and DYAR. Most receivers only get one or two "carries" each season (some of those carries, of course, are actually "backwards passes" at the line of scrimmage) and that value would not be enough to dramatically change these rankings, with one major exception that I'll note below.
|Best WR Seasons in Receiving DVOA, 1995-2007 (min. 50 passes)|
Notice anything about a lot of these names? Many of the highest DVOA ratings have been put up by third receivers in explosive offenses, where opponents are forced to concentrate on the starters on the outside. Proehl and Hakim in St. Louis qualify, as does Porter playing next to Jerry Rice and Tim Brown. Anthony Gonzalez counts for part of 2007, although he was a starter once Marvin Harrison was hurt. Devery Henderson was a sort-of starter in New Orleans in 2006, but was more of a third or fourth option behind Marques Colston, Reggie Bush, and (when healthy) Joe Horn.
The top two men on the list were also slot receivers, but they didn't exactly put up their numbers in explosive offenses. Northcutt was playing next to those renowned studs Quincy Morgan and Kevin Johnson. Dwight actually started eight games at receiver in 1999 next to Terance Mathis (who had a 1,000-yard season but -7.5% DVOA) and Chris Calloway (who struggled with injuries and had 3.6% DVOA). In PFP 2008 we compare Mathis to Wes Welker, but in 1999, with Tony Martin gone in free agency, Mathis was actually Atlanta's number one wideout.
Increasing our minimum to five passes per game gives us a list that's primarily made up of starters rather than slot receivers.
|Best WR Seasons in Receiving DVOA, 1995-2007 (min. 80 passes)|
Wait, how did Eric Moulds end up with the best DVOA despite a catch rate of just 58 percent? Well, he gets bumped up significantly by a tough schedule; the Dolphins and Jets ranked 1-2 in passing defense DVOA in 1998, and the Bills also played the pass defenses ranked fifth (Oakland), seventh (San Francisco), eighth (St. Louis), and 11th (New England). Opponent adjustments also knock Isaac Bruce down significantly; most people know that the 1999 Rams had one of the easiest schedules in NFL history.
A number of 2007 seasons fall just below the top ten, including Greg Jennings at 31.5% DVOA (11th), Andre Johnson at 29.9% DVOA (18th), and Randy Moss at 29.3% DVOA (19th).
The highest DVOA for a receiver with a minimum of 25 passes belongs to Ricky Proehl in 2000 (70.9%). The highest DVOA for a receiver with a minimum of 10 passes belongs to, I kid you not, David "B.D." Terrell in 2002. Terrell caught nine of 10 passes for 127 yards and three touchdowns for 97.4% DVOA. Greg Camarillo is second with 82.1% DVOA last season.
|Best WR Seasons in Catch Rate, 1995-2007 (min. 50 passes)|
Northcutt's 2002 season is a colossal fluke that sticks out both in his career numbers and in Cleveland's total 2002 numbers. Northcutt somehow caught 78 percent of passes even though he was generally a deep threat, tied for 11th in the NFL with 15.5 yards per reception. Three other Cleveland receivers had at least 50 passes, and not one of them caught more than 60 percent of passes. Northcutt had barely caught half his passes in 2000 and 2001, and after 2002 his catch rate went down every single year until he left for Jacksonville in 2007.
Of course, Northcutt barely makes the minimum with 50 passes; the real catch rate superstar was Wes Welker in 2007. Sure, any Internet blogger with half a brain obviously foresaw Welker's potential to surpass his career highs by seven touchdowns and nearly 500 yards, but did anyone think he would catch more than two-thirds of all intended passes?
Are you as surprised as I am to see J.J. Stokes on the list twice? He's not even there as a slot receiver -- he was a starter in 1997, the year Jerry Rice tore his ACL early in the season.
Now here's the big list, the top 20 wide receiver seasons in total value since 1995:
|Best WR Seasons in Receiving DYAR, 1995-2007|
When I did my first look at the 1995 DVOA ratings back in March, one of the most surprising results was that Michael Irvin's 1995 season came out as more valuable than Jerry Rice's 1995 season. It doesn't seem to make much sense. Not only did Rice set the all-time NFL record for receiving yards, he also had more touchdowns and a higher catch rate than Irvin. The two seasons have moved closer together with the improvements in the stats (Rice was eighth all-time with the old DPAR numbers, and now he's moved up to third) but Irvin still ranks higher. Why?
These are small differences. Rice still had an awesome 1995, but Irvin's was just ever so slightly better.
Now let's look at the worst performances by wide receivers since 1995.
|Worst WR Seasons in Receiving DVOA, 1995-2007 (min. 50 passes)|
One of the current problems with FO stats -- something we definitely know we need to adjust in the future - is that wide receivers who run longer routes will get penalized for their lower catch rates. Because we only have pass length information for the last three years, DVOA has to count an incomplete 12-yard pass the same as an incomplete 30-yard pass. Still, 35 percent catch rate? That's really, really bad. Burress had -53.6% DVOA with Kordell Stewart at quarterback and -35.9% DVOA with Kent Graham at quarterback (his passes were split almost 50-50). Despite being a deep threat, he had only five catches above 15 yards and he fumbled one of those away. Burress has never really had a good catch rate, but he's certainly improved since his rookie season.
As we did with the best receivers, let's look at the worst receivers in DVOA with a minimum of 80 passes so that we can limit our list to starters.
|Worst WR Seasons in Receiving DVOA, 1995-2007 (min. 80 passes)|
I know Bobby Wade played with some of the worst quarterbacks in history (Craig Krenzel, Jonathan Quinn, Chad Hutchinson) but still, he was really, really bad in 2004. The Bears threw Wade the ball 44 times on third or fourth down. Only 13 of those passes converted to move the chains, and only one was a touchdown. Unfortunately, it wasn't a touchdown for the Bears -- it was an interception return for a touchdown by Green Bay in Week 17.
Speaking of the Bears, David Terrell proves here that a good DVOA rating in 10 passes doesn't say a lot about what you will do when given 85. But shouldn't a good DVOA rating in 50 passes say something about what you will do when given 100? Apparently not, if you are going from the Greatest Show on Turf to the Millen Lions like Az Hakim. Hakim is one of four players who managed to go both above 30% DVOA and below -30% DVOA with at least 50 passes in each season. Can you guess the other three? Answer below.
In Irving Fryar's defense, he was 97 years old in 1998.
The lowest DVOA by a wide receiver with at least 25 passes belongs to Reche "Big Eyes" Caldwell, with -59.8% DVOA in 2003. Caldwell caught only eight of 34 intended passes. The lowest DVOA by a wide receiver with at least 10 passes belongs to Anthony Ladd of the 1998 Patriots, the only player in the database who managed the astonishing feat of going without a single catch despite being the intended receiver 10 times. This gives him a perfect -100% VOA, although opponent adjustments make it a -92.2% DVOA. Ladd never played another season in the NFL, although he did go on to some success in Arena ball.
The worst catch rate for a receiver with at least 50 passes does not, in fact, belong to Plaxico Burress. Two receivers were even worse, including a player who had a lot of success later on...
|Worst WR Seasons in Catch Rate, 1995-2007 (min. 50 passes)|
Completion percentage has been at an all-time high over the past few seasons, and this table shows evidence of that. There have been 16 seasons where wide receivers had catch rates below 40 percent with at least 50 passes, but only four of those seasons have taken place since 2001: McAddley, Chambers, Chad Bradford in 2003, and Rashied Davis in 2006.
A special all-time catch rate booby prize goes to Alvin Harper, who went on to Washington for the 1997 season after he had failed as the number one receiver in Tampa Bay. Washington threw Harper the ball 20 times and he caught two passes for a catch rate of 10 percent. At least he managed 65 yards on those two receptions.
Here's the list of the worst receiving seasons of the DVOA Era. If you own a copy of Pro Football Prospectus 2007, you already know who is at number one, and it isn't even close.
|Worst WR Seasons in Receiving DYAR, 1995-2007|
How bad was Chambers in 2006? Between 1995 and 2007, there are 163 different seasons for wide receivers thrown at least 140 passes. The wide receiver who ranks 162nd in yardage is Peerless Price in 2003 with 888 receiving yards -- more than 200 yards ahead of Chambers in 2006 (despite being targeted on a dozen fewer passes).
However, remember how I said that rushing DYAR for wide receivers didn't matter very much when it came to our rankings? This is the one place that isn't quite true. Chambers had 48 rushing DYAR in 2006, so his total DYAR is still the worst ever. However, Peter Warrick led all wide receivers with 80 DYAR in 2000, gaining 148 yards on 16 "rush attempts" (or laterals) with two touchdowns. That means his 2000 season really isn't one of the ten worst of the DVOA Era, which is why I've listed 11 seasons on the table above.
Incidentally, in PFP 2007 we ran a list of the worst DPAR seasons ever and most of them, for reasons we never quite figured out, were from 2003. The changes that improved our individual stats and changed them over to DYAR also improved some of those 2003 seasons so that there is now only one 2003 season in the bottom ten and only three (Hakim, David Terrell, and Reche Caldwell) in the bottom 20.
Before we move on to the best and worst career totals, the answer to the question of which two receivers other than Az Hakim managed seasons above 30% DVOA and below -30%:
|Best WR in Career DYAR, 1995-2007|
| Total Career
(min. 4 seasons)
|Marvin Harrison||12||3,581||Randy Moss||10||318.9|
|Terrell Owens||12||3,234||Marvin Harrison||12||298.4|
|Randy Moss||10||3,189||Reggie Wayne||7||284.4|
|Isaac Bruce||13||2,948||Torry Holt||9||274.1|
|Jimmy Smith||11||2,528||Terrell Owens||12||269.5|
|Torry Holt||9||2,467||Chad Johnson||7||263.7|
|Rod Smith||11||2,357||Michael Irvin||5||233.6|
|Keenan McCardell||13||2,177||Jimmy Smith||11||229.8|
|Tim Brown||10||2,025||Isaac Bruce||13||226.8|
|Reggie Wayne||7||1,990||Rod Smith||11||214.3|
|(only includes seasons with 10+ pass targets)|
The players with the most career DYAR won't shock anyone, although there might be a little bit of surprise at the fact that Randy Moss has the most DYAR per season despite -56 DYAR for the 2006 Raiders. The big name missing here is Jerry Rice, but Rice is 11th in DYAR per season (208.9) and 12th in total DYAR (1,880). Hines Ward sits between Rice and Reggie Wayne.
Three different wide receivers have at least 10 passes in all 13 years of DVOA: Isaac Bruce, Keenan McCardell, and Joey Galloway. A year from now we'll have 1994 and 2008 added to our database, and barring injury, Bruce and Brett Favre will be the only two players to qualify for listing in our stats for all 15 years of DVOA. McCardell is unlikely to hook on anywhere this year but it is interesting to note that he had at least 10 passes in both 1994 and 1993.
|Worst WR in Career DYAR, 1995-2007|
| Total Career
(min. 4 seasons)
|Dez White||6||-321||Dez White||6||-53.5|
|Bryan Gilmore||5||-223||Charlie Jones||4||-48.0|
|Charlie Jones||4||-192||Bryan Gilmore||5||-44.6|
|J.T. Thomas||3||-149||Alvis Whitted||5||-28.5|
|Russell Copeland||3||-146||Kerry Colbert||4||-20.9|
|Alvis Whitted||5||-142||Rod Gardner||6||-17.9|
|Will Blackwell||3||-142||Brandon Lloyd||5||-14.8|
|Jason McAddley||3||-138||Aaron Moorehead||4||-11.9|
|Lawrence Dawsey||3||-134||Bobby Wade||5||-11.5|
|Wayne McGarity||3||-132||Peter Warrick||6||-10.3|
|(only includes seasons with 10+ pass targets)|
And the winner is... Dez White. In fact, White actually is worse than this, because one of his six seasons had exactly 10 passes. Take that season out, and he had -58.3 DYAR per season. On the other hand, White had to play in the ineffectual offenses of Chicago and Atlanta. Perhaps the real worst receiver of the past dozen years is Aaron Moorehead. Yes, none of those four seasons had more than 22 passes, but still -- can somebody please explain to me how on earth you manage four straight seasons of negative DVOA in the Indianapolis offense? Most of the negative value came last year with Peyton Manning at quarterback, not in the final game of previous seasons with Jim Sorgi under center.
Next week, we'll finish out the fifth anniversary special with a look at the best and worst tight end seasons and career totals. I will also be doing a mailbag sometime before the season begins, answering various questions from the comment threads of the fifth anniversary articles.
57 comments, Last at 22 Aug 2008, 2:38am by thestar5