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.
01 Jan 2013
by Vince Verhei
The 2012 season in a nutshell: Calvin Johnson broke Jerry Rice's record. Adrian Peterson threatened Eric Dickerson's. The league was overtaken by a rookie class likes of which we may never see again. And the best four quarterbacks in football now are the same guys who have been the best four quarterbacks over the last half-decade or so, especially when viewed through Football Outsiders' exclusive statistical lens.
Using our core advanced metrics -- DYAR and DVOA -- we've gone through the full-season totals at each position and identified the best and worst quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends from this past season. There's also a look at which players have had their performance most drastically different from their conventional statistics, as well as those players who have had the biggest improvement or decline in their performance from a year ago.
Our annual disclaimer: Numbers are never perfect. While we certainly believe that our metrics do a better job of analyzing a player's performance than anything else you'll see, there are some things statistics can't account for. We'll point out where the data needs some missing context as warranted. Also, remember that DYAR is a cumulative stat, so players who miss time (like Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick, who each played very well for San Francisco) will find it harder to make it to these leaderboards.
(More information on these statistics is available here.)
1) Tom Brady, New England Patriots: 2,091 DYAR (2,035 passing DYAR, 56 rushing)
2) Peyton Manning: 1,802 DYAR (1,800 passing DYAR, 2 rushing)
3) Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers: 1,488 DYAR (1,395 passing DYAR, 94 rushing)
4) Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints: 1,455 DYAR (1,444 passing DYAR, 11 rushing)
5) Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons: 1,271 DYAR (1,216 passing DYAR, 55 rushing)
Analysis: This is only the eighth time since 1991 (the first year in Football Outsiders' database) that a quarterback has exceeded 2,000 combined DYAR. Brees and Rodgers have done it once each, Manning has done it twice, and Brady has done it four times. Brady ends 2012 with his second-highest DYAR total, and the fifth-highest since 1991. Keep in mind that last season we modified our formula so the league average in any given season always comes out to zero. In other words, even accounting for today's record-setting passing environment, Brady, Manning, Rodgers, and Brees stand out from their peers like nobody else over the past 20-plus years. (Brees, by the way, joins Brian Sipe in 1979 and Lynn Dickey in 1983 as the only quarterbacks to lead the NFL in touchdowns and interceptions in the same season.) Ryan, meanwhile, set career highs in completions, yards, and touchdowns, as Atlanta won the most games in the NFC despite the collapse of their ground attack (which we shall discuss shortly).
1) Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks: 1,014 DYAR (867 passing DYAR, 147 rushing)
2) Robert Griffin, Washington Redskins: 838 DYAR (729 passing DYAR, 109 rushing)
3) Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts: 379 DYAR (255 passing DYAR, 124 rushing)
4) Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins: 39 DYAR (37 passing DYAR, 2 rushing)
5) Brandon Weeden, Cleveland Browns: -266 DYAR (-290 passing DYAR, 24 rushing)
Analysis: Wilson surpasses Matt Ryan for the top rookie quarterback season in FO's database, and becomes the first freshman at the position to surpass the 1,000-DYAR barrier. (Ryan actually edged over 1,000 DYAR passing, but negative rushing value dropped him back below the line.) He also tied Peyton Manning's rookie record with 26 touchdown passes, and when you include his four rushing scores, only Cam Newton (21 touchdowns passing, 14 rushing) produced more combined touchdowns in his first year.
Griffin finishes fourth among rookies in DYAR behind Wilson, Ryan, and Ben Roethlisberger, while Luck is 13th. Luck set a rookie record with 4,374 passing yards, but he completed less than 55 percent of his passes with 18 interceptions, more than Griffin (5) and Wilson (10) combined. Tannehill had a pretty typical rookie campaign, but Weeden was a bust in his first season, and given his advanced age (he's a year and a half older than Matt Ryan), he will need to improve radically in his second season to salvage his NFL career.
1) Mark Sanchez, New York Jets: -663 DYAR (-611 passing DYAR, -52 rushing)
2) Ryan Lindley, Arizona Cardinals: -484 DYAR (-482 passing DYAR, -1 rushing)
3) Brady Quinn, Kansas City Chiefs: -446 DYAR (-442 passing DYAR, -4 rushing)
4) John Skelton, Arizona Cardinals: -325 DYAR (-323 passing DYAR, -2 rushing)
5) Matt Cassel, Kansas City Chiefs: -319 DYAR (-354 passing DYAR, 35 rushing)
Analysis: How bad was Sanchez? He was least valuable among quarterbacks in both passing and rushing value. You'd like to see quarterbacks improving in their fourth season, but Sanchez was worse than ever, and this is a passer who has never ranked higher than 20th at his position, and only once made the top 30. As for the others, well, it's the Chiefs and Cardinals, and they are every bit as bad as you've been led to believe. Skelton deserves special mention: He has now made the bottom six among quarterbacks for three seasons in a row. Obviously, Arizona is desperate for a passer, but it's painfully clear at this point that Skelton does not deserve a spot on an NFL roster.
Better than his standard statistics made him look: Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions
Stafford finished 22nd in passer rating, but 12th in DVOA. (Unlike DYAR, DVOA evaluates players on a per-play basis.) Sometimes these discrepancies can be difficult to explain, but sometimes they're simple: No quarterback faced a more challenging set of pass defenses this season than Stafford, and though passer rating does not account for that, DVOA does. Stafford threw an NFL record 727 passes this season, and 88 of them (more than 12 percent) came against the Chicago Bears, far and away the best defense in the league this year, especially against the pass. He also played the Seahawks, Cardinals, Rams, 49ers, Texans, and Packers (twice), meaning he played more than half his games against teams in the top 10 of Football Outsiders' pass defense ratings.
Worse than his standard statistics made him look: Robert Griffin, Washington Redskins
Griffin led the league in yards per pass with a higher completion rate and half as many interceptions as Wilson, which may have you wondering how on earth Wilson finished higher in our rankings. Strength of schedule is part of it. Wilson had to run the brutal gauntlet of NFC West defenses, while Griffin's schedule was somewhat easier than average. Without opponent adjustments, Griffin's DVOA was five points higher than Wilson's; with them, it was three points lower. Also, Griffin's yardage total was skewed by a small number of very big plays. Many of his completions were actually dink-and-dunk plays. All told, 27 percent of his completions failed to gain meaningful yardage towards a new set of downs. Of the 27 quarterbacks with at least 200 completions, only Jay Cutler, Brandon Weeden, and Christian Ponder had a higher share of dumpoffs and checkdowns.
Most improved: Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams
One year ago we listed Bradford in the next section under "biggest decline," but he took many steps forward in his third season. He finished 16th in passing DYAR, after finishing 39th as a rookie and 43rd in 2011. Bradford averaged more yards and touchdowns per pass than he ever had before, and like Wilson, he had to play against the nasty defenses of the NFC West.
Biggest decline: Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers
Rivers ranked in the top 10 in passing DYAR in each of the past four seasons. This year, he was 22nd. He averaged only 6.8 yards per pass, a full yard below his career average, and that's only counting the plays where he was able to pass at all before hitting the turf. Rivers was sacked 49 times in 2012, 11 times more than he had been in any prior season.
All 2012 quarterback numbers here.
1) Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings: 454 DYAR (459 rushing DYAR, -5 receiving)
2) Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks: 410 DYAR (361 rushing DYAR, 48 receiving)
3) C.J. Spiller, Buffalo Bills: 392 DYAR (301 rushing DYAR, 92 receiving)
4) Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers: 317 DYAR (268 rushing DYAR, 49 receiving)
5) Ahmad Bradshaw, New York Giants: 265 DYAR (230 rushing DYAR, 35 receiving)
Analysis: Not many surprises here. Although Peterson's season wasn't quite as impressive as his yardage numbers would indicate (as discussed last week, he is stuffed for a loss far more often than most elite backs), he still had enough rushing value to top the list of all players at his position despite finishing below replacement level as a receiver. With a surge in the final game, Peterson ends up with the 11th-highest rushing DYAR total since 1991, and the highest since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006. Lynch set career highs with 1,590 yards rushing and 5.0 yards per carry. Spiller averaged 6.0 yards on 207 carries. He and Peterson (6.0 yard average on 348 carries) are the fifth and sixth players in NFL history to top 6.0 yards per rush on at least 200 carries, joining Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson, Barry Sanders, and Jamaal Charles. Bradshaw's an odd case. He had only six rushing touchdowns on the season, but he led the league in red zone rushing value, as he constantly put his teammates in position to score while rarely crossing the goal-line himself. The two names who just missed the list also warrant mention. Joique Bell of the Detroit Lions finished a few decimal points behind Bradshaw. With 52 catches for 485 yards, he has become one of the league's premier receivers at his position. In seventh place was Washington's rookie sensation Alfred Morris. He finished fifth in rushing value alone, but was below replacement level as a receiver, and he failed to make the top ten rookie seasons since 1991.
1) Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders: -234 DYAR (-155 rushing DYAR, -79 receiving)
2) Michael Turner, Atlanta Falcons: -112 DYAR (-78 rushing DYAR, -34 receiving)
3) Rashad Jennings, Jacksonville Jaguars: -108 DYAR (-97 rushing DYAR, -11 receiving)
4) LaRod Stephens-Howling, Arizona Cardinals: -103 DYAR (-63 rushing DYAR, -40 receiving)
5) Ryan Williams, Arizona Cardinals: -85 DYAR (-85 rushing DYAR, 0 receiving)
Analysis: Honestly, it's hard to tell which of these backs was worst. Jennings and Williams both averaged 2.8 yards per carry. Williams didn't run very often, but he was so unhelpful as a receiver (57 percent catch rate, next to last among backs with at least 25 targets) that he still makes this list. Stephens-Howling was stuffed on more than one-third of his runs. McFadden's Success Rate was only 36 percent. Turner was probably the best of the bunch, but since he was still below replacement level and ran 222 times, he nearly made it to the very bottom.
Better than his standard statistics made him look: Danny Woodhead, New England Patriots
Woodhead made the top 10 among running backs in total DYAR, despite ranking 33rd at his position in yards from scrimmage. His 4.0-yard average is nothing to right home about, but he was the model of consistency. His Success Rate (55 percent) and Stuff Rate (13 percent) were both much better than league averages (47 percent and 20 percent, respectively).
Worse than his standard statistics made him look: McFadden
The Raiders runner gained nearly 1,000 yards from scrimmage, but it took him so many bad plays to get there that it was hardly worth it. He was stuffed 22 percent of the time and averaged only 3.3 yards per carry. And he gained 259 yards receiving, but only 4.0 yards per target. The average for running backs was 5.8.
Most improved: Gore
One year ago, Gore failed to make the top 40 in DYAR, DVOA, or Success Rate. This year, he was top five in DYAR, top 10 in DVOA, and top 20 in Success Rate.
Biggest decline: LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles
McCoy was a top-five running back in total DYAR last year, but he had only 87 total DYAR in 2012. That's partly because he missed four games, but he also had four fumbles and was stuffed 28 percent of the time.
All 2012 running back numbers here.
1) Calvin Johnson, Detroit Lions: 470 DYAR
2) Andre Johnson, Houston Texans: 413 DYAR
3) Randall Cobb, Green Bay Packers: 393 DYAR (295 receiving DYAR, 98 rushing)
4) Demaryius Thomas, Denver Broncos: 393 DYAR
5) Eric Decker, Denver Broncos: 389 DYAR
Analysis: Calvin Johnson leads the league in this category for the second year in a row. Although he broke Jerry Rice's record for receiving yards in a season, his DYAR actually plunged sharply due to a decline in yards per catch and touchdowns. This season just barely makes our top 20 all-time and is much lower than the 570 DYAR Johnson had a year ago. Andre Johnson makes the top 10 for the fourth time in six seasons. Cobb sort of took over Jordy Nelson's role of "Green Bay wideout who excels as the fourth option on most plays" this season. We'll have more to say about Thomas and Decker shortly under "Most Improved."
1) Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals: -129 DYAR
2) Louis Murphy, Carolina Panthers: -118 DYAR
3) Mike Thomas, Jacksonville Jaguars: -97 DYAR (-135 receiving DYAR, 38 rushing)
4) Early Doucet, Arizona Cardinals: -95 DYAR (-96 receiving DYAR, 1 rushing)
5) Kevin Elliott, Jacksonville Jaguars: -94 DYAR
Analysis: Dear Larry Fitzgerald: It's not your fault. We know it. Everyone knows it. Individual receiving numbers often tell us as much about quarterbacks as they do about receivers. Really, it's probably not Mike Thomas' or Early Doucet's fault either. Kevin Elliott? Yeah, it's probably his fault. He had only 10 receptions (plus a couple of DPIs) in 33 targets before being waived in December. And Louis Murphy had only 25 receptions and one touchdown in 62 targets while playing with Cam Newton.
Better than his standard statistics made him look: Danario Alexander, San Diego Chargers
Alexander was 73rd among wideouts with 38 catches, but 16th in DYAR. He averaged 17.8 yards per catch with seven touchdowns, and he caught 60 percent of the passes thrown his way, slightly above average for wide receivers.
Worse than his standard statistics made him look: Reggie Wayne, Indianapolis Colts
Wayne was fifth at his position with 111 catches, but 42nd in DYAR. He had a 55 percent catch rate, and led the league with 92 incomplete targets,
Most improved: Thomas and Decker
Thomas ranked 37th among wide receivers in DYAR in 2011. Decker was 71st (not a typo). My goodness, what on Earth could have happened in Denver that might have boosted both men into the top five? What personnel move could possibly explain the additional catches, the yards, the touchdowns? Perhaps Broncos wide receivers coach Tyke Tolbert is a literal miracle worker who can make blind men see and uncoordinated men catch. Yes. That's the only rational explanation.
Biggest decline: Mike Wallace, Pittsburgh Steelers
Since entering the league in 2009, Wallace has ranked 16th, first, and fifth in DYAR. This year, he was 80th. He averaged 13.1 yards per catch, 3 yards less than his prior career low, and also had a career-worst 54 percent catch rate. Wallace began the year by holding out of training camp in hopes of getting a new contract. The Steelers refused to make an offer, a decision that looks brilliant with the benefit of hindsight. Wallace ended the season on IR with a hip injury. Wallace will be a free agent after the season unless the Steelers slap him with the franchise tag. Don't hold your breath waiting for that to happen.
All 2012 wide receiver numbers here.
1) Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots: 268 DYAR
2) Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta Falcons: 235 DYAR
3) Heath Miller, Pittsburgh Steelers: 193 DYAR
4) Jason Witten, Dallas Cowboys: 183 DYAR
5) Greg Olsen, Carolina Panthers: 136 DYAR
Analysis: What we have here is the best tight end in the game today, the best tight end of all time, a record-setter, and two solid veterans who had unusually productive years. Gronkowski leads all tight ends in DYAR despite missing five games. In his rookie season of 2010 he was second, and his 2011 season was the best of any tight end in our database. This season ends up 12th. For Gonzalez, it's his 12th season in the top five, and his ninth season in the top two. All Witten did this year was set a tight end record with 110 catches (albeit with a career-worst 9.4 yards per reception). In his eighth season, Miller had career highs in yardage (816) and touchdowns (eight) and was voted team MVP. Olsen also set career highs with 69 catches and 843 yards.
1) Brandon Pettigrew, Detroit Lions: -128 DYAR
2) Alex Smith, Cleveland Browns: -80 DYAR
3) Clay Harbor, Philadelphia Eagles: -78 DYAR
4) Kellen Davis, Chicago Bears: -53 DYAR
5) Evan Moore, Seattle Seahawks/Philadelphia Eagles: -53 DYAR
Analysis: Pettigrew had 59 catches for 567 yards, but a catch rate of just 58 percent (average for tight ends was 64 percent) and he fumbled four times. No other tight end fumbled more than twice. Smith's catch rate was an impressive 72 percent, but only two of his catches gained first downs, and his other 11 catches totaled – totaled – 20 yards. Harbor averaged 7.4 yards per catch, worst of any tight end with at least 25 receptions. He went on injured reserve in December, and his replacement was much, much worse. Davis' catch rate was only 43 percent. And finally there's Moore. The Seahawks threw him seven passes. He produced one completion, one DPI, five incompletes, and 6 total yards. He was waived in December, and Philadelphia signed him to replace Harbor, which sounds like some kind of sick prank on, well, everyone. They threw him two passes; both were incomplete.
Better than his standard statistics made him look: Gronkowski.
No one else comes close. There were 49 tight ends this year with at least 25 targets. Among that group, Gronk ranked 13th in catches, but seventh in yards, fourth in first downs, third in yards per catch and yards per target, and first in touchdowns. Meanwhile, he was 25th in incomplete targets.
Worse than his standard statistics made him look: Jimmy Graham, New Orleans
Pettigrew and Witten would also be solid choices here, but since we already discussed them, let's get to Graham. He was third among tight ends in catches, but eighth in DYAR. He was second behind Witten in targets, and led all players at this position with 50 incomplete targets. Graham was a very good tight end this year, just not as good as his reception total would indicate.
Most improved: Marcedes Lewis, Jacksonville Jaguars
Last year, Lewis was the least valuable tight end in the entire league. He was one of the few men in Jacksonville who actually improved in 2012. His catch rate of 68 percent was good for his position, and his yards per catch and yards per target were almost exactly average. And he did it catching passes (well, trying to, anyway) from Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne.
Biggest decline: Antonio Gates, San Diego Chargers
Gates was hardly a bad player in 2012. He ranked 19th in DYAR, a perfectly fine starting tight end. But he had set the bar awfully high. Since coming into the league in 2003, he had never ranked outside the top 10, had been top three seven times and first overall four times. This year, he caught only 61 percent of the passes thrown in his direction. Gates will be 33 when next season begins, and his best days are almost certainly behind him.
All 2012 tight end numbers here.
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