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.
11 Jul 2014
by Scott Kacsmar
We recently looked at catch radii for receivers such as Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown. It's one thing to catch a perfectly thrown pass, but how many times does a receiver catch a ball thrown above his head, or reach back with one hand on a pass thrown wide to finish a play? Those are some of the things we want to try quantifying with catch radius.
Today, we'll look at some more receivers through this lens, starting with the primary wide receivers from the record-setting 2013 Denver Broncos. Only two offenses in NFL history have had three wide receivers catch at least 10 touchdowns in the same season: 2004 Colts and 2013 Broncos. Peyton Manning pulled the trigger for both offenses, and he also threw 12 touchdowns to tight end Julius Thomas, but we're focused on wideouts for now. This season, Eric Decker will hope to post a high catch rate and DVOA with the Jets (snicker snicker) while Emmanuel Sanders comes to Mile High from Pittsburgh. His 2013 season has also been included.
The Broncos had the most productive receiving corps last year, but what about the guys who were the most efficient on a per-play basis? I looked at the top-five DVOA leaders and found unexpected names of breakout players in Kenny Stills (40.1%), Doug Baldwin (33.3%), Marvin Jones (32.4%) and Keenan Allen (28.2%). Eddie Royal (31.6%) was actually fourth, but Allen makes for a more interesting study. From that group we have two mid-round rookies who enjoyed stellar quarterback play from Drew Brees and Philip Rivers. Baldwin was an undrafted free agent sensation in 2011, and he exceeded that level on his way to a Super Bowl win with Seattle. Jones was only a fifth-round pick in 2012 by Cincinnati, and might be the answer to A.J. Green's search for a dynamic partner. Jones' numbers were so interesting that we had to include Green as well. Andy Dalton's agent may want us to kill this piece with fire, but up first are the Broncos.
We start with a 2013 receiving breakdown (regular season only) for Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker and Emmanuel Sanders. These four players each have a different playing style, and their average depth of reception (Dist) and number of screens or smoke passes sheds some light on that.
|2013 Receptions Breakdown|
|Eric Decker||6-3||87||10.5||8 (9.2%)|
|Demaryius Thomas||6-3||92||8.0||19 (20.7%)|
|Emmanuel Sanders||5-11||67||6.7||18 (26.9%)|
|Wes Welker||5-9||73||6.2||13 (17.8%)|
Decker played the role of big deep threat, which now may better suit second-round rookie Cody Latimer at 6-foot-3. Verticality really hasn't been Sanders' game, though he is fast. He's not going to be a perfect replacement for what the Broncos did with Decker, but he'll still fit the offense. Denver's known for screen passes because of the success, but Sanders actually had a higher rate of screens last year. He also had seven catches for no gain or negative yards last year -- that's four more than the combined total for Denver's trio. Better blocking and playcalling should help Sanders in that department.
So how did they catch the ball in 2013? All images are captured from NFL Game Rewind.
|2013 Wide Receiver Catch Radii|
|Type of Catch||D.Thomas||Pct.||W.Welker||Pct.||E.Decker||Pct.||E.Sanders||Pct.|
|Above the head||3||3.3%||4||5.5%||4||4.6%||7||10.4%|
|Below the waist||0||0.0%||0||0.0%||0||0.0%||1||1.5%|
|Diving to ground||0||0.0%||4||5.5%||3||3.4%||6||9.0%|
|Over the shoulder||10||10.9%||3||4.1%||10||11.5%||3||4.5%|
|Pass thrown wide||4||4.3%||1||1.4%||5||5.7%||1||1.5%|
It's a little surprising to see Thomas didn't make any catches where he needed to dive to the ground, but his game is about running after the catch. His routes might be better than given credit for, but it's easy to see he's at his best with the ball in his hands. He led the league with 704 yards after the catch.
Decker's the first receiver I've studied who did not catch at least 60 percent of his passes at the chest-level, but we're talking about a one-play difference. It's also moot when he hauled in 10 over-the-shoulder catches (four in one game against the Chiefs alone). Much was made of Manning getting to play with big receivers like Decker and Thomas for the first time in his career. The size advantage has certainly helped offset the loss in arm strength, but Manning's anticipation has probably never been better. The ball usually finds its mark, no matter how ugly it may look.
Manning's accuracy in the first five games last season was uncanny. Traditional stats agree -- he was 150-of-198 passing (75.8 percent) with 20 touchdowns and one interception. More than just the completion rate, his ball placement was on the mark. For general comparison (acknowledging the following isn't always true), let's consider the chest the sweet spot, over-the-shoulder plays good throws, and designate anything caught above the neck, below the waist or wide a "bad throw," then look at the start Manning had with his wide receivers compared to the finish.
|Peyton Manning - 2013 Accuracy Split|
While the Decker numbers remained closer, Manning finished with very similar results with Thomas and Welker in both splits. Not that I haven't been suspecting this since the beginning, but this suggests the quarterback does indeed take on the lion's share of responsibility for how accurate his passes find his target, no matter what type of receiver he's throwing to. The split was hardly opponent-based, since the Ravens (Week 1) and Giants (Week 2) were two of the best defenses Denver faced last year.
A significant event happened to Manning in Week 6 against Jacksonville: he suffered a high ankle sprain on his first play of the game. He suffered a second sprain in the same game, then went through his first major slump of the season for a few quarters in Indianapolis after Robert Mathis' strip-sack for a safety. Three weeks later in San Diego, Manning again aggravated the knee after taking a hit on his last pass of the game that momentarily kept him on the ground. By the time December started, Manning was closer to where he was at the beginning of the season, but his decreased accuracy during that six-game stretch was likely a result of the ankle problems.
By adding Sanders to the mix, the Broncos get a former slot receiver who played on the outside as Pittsburgh's No. 2 guy last year. This week Sanders commented that playing with Manning "feels like I just made it into wide receiver heaven." Their first meeting must have been like Uncle Ruckus' encounter with Ronald Reagan on The Boondocks. Sanders just had his best season in Pittsburgh. Watching (but not charting) his first few seasons, he looked like a smooth route runner who made a lot of routine catches, which should make for a good fit in Denver. But watching Sanders last year, he looked more like a financially burdened (but not poor) man's version of Antonio Brown. Ben Roethlisberger was not at his sharpest with Sanders in 2013, given the seven catches above the head and the six diving grabs. Those are both easily more than any Denver wide receiver, and Sanders had fewer catches overall.
A receiver under six foot like Brown, Sanders showed improved ability to attack the ball from all angles. His over-the-shoulder catches were quick throws down the sideline from Roethlisberger, which is a staple of a Manning-led offense. Sanders likely won't match Decker's deep-ball success, but he'll have opportunities he didn't always get in Pittsburgh.
With the talent in this offense, paying a cheaper price for Sanders and drafting Latimer certainly looks like a smarter move than re-signing Decker would have been. Keeping in mind Julius Thomas' growth, this offense will thrive on Demaryius' dominant ability after the catch and Welker's consistency. Since he was cast away from the Broncos' "Wide Receiver Heaven" and landed with the Jets, do we start calling Decker the Lucifer of the NFL? Then again, Tim Tebow once made the same fall…
We've seen the catch radii for a historic offense, but now what helps create a highly efficient season? Like with Denver, we begin with a 2013 receiving breakdown for Kenny Stills, Doug Baldwin, A.J. Green, Marvin Jones and Keenan Allen.
|2013 Receptions Breakdown|
|Kenny Stills||6-1||32||13.9||1 (3.1%)|
|Doug Baldwin||5-10||50||11.0||5 (10.0%)|
|A.J. Green||6-4||98||10.4||14 (14.3%)|
|Marvin Jones||6-1||51||9.6||8 (15.7%)|
|Keenan Allen||6-2||71||9.0||2 (2.8%)|
Not surprisingly, this group routinely made big plays down the field. Take away the Cincinnati receivers and the screen pass was rarely a factor for these receivers. Unless you have a Demaryius Thomas, screens rarely produce big plays. These guys dig the long ball, though we're going to find some very interesting results for just how accurate their quarterbacks were.
|2013 Wide Receiver Catch Radii|
|Type of Catch||K.Stills||Pct.||D.Baldwin||Pct.||K.Allen||Pct.||M.Jones||Pct.||A.Green||Pct.|
|Above the head||1||3.1%||1||2.0%||2||2.8%||5||9.8%||9||9.2%|
|Below the waist||0||0.0%||0||0.0%||0||0.0%||0||0.0%||0||0.0%|
|Diving to ground||3||9.4%||1||2.0%||4||5.6%||2||3.9%||1||1.0%|
|Over the shoulder||3||9.4%||6||12.0%||1||1.4%||0||0.0%||9||9.2%|
|Pass thrown wide||0||0.0%||4||8.0%||2||2.8%||5||9.8%||7||7.1%|
Does anything jump out here? Out of the 19 seasons I've studied so far, Green and Jones have the lowest chest-level rates, and they had the same quarterback. But before we get into what Andy Dalton did wrong, let's look at what the young receivers did right last year.
Stills was a productive receiver at Oklahoma, but somehow slipped to New Orleans in the fifth round last year. That's bad news for the NFL, because Sean Payton and Drew Brees had no problem getting him involved with big plays. Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem used to be that guy in New Orleans, but Stills might be more talented. He led the league by averaging 20.0 yards per reception. Some of the defensive coverage against him was flat out embarrassing (see 52-yard touchdown against Dallas) or nonexistent (see 76-yard touchdown against Tampa Bay), but he was very impressive for a rookie.
He only had 32 catches, but they weren't all just deep balls. He made a trio of diving grabs and his catch of the year was arguably this beauty thrown high above his head against Carolina.
So how did Stills lead the league in DVOA, or better yet, how did he rank 21st in DYAR with just 32 catches? Well, he outperformed some absurd baselines. Since 1998, only two receivers have caught multiple touchdowns on third or fourth down with 20-plus yards to go for a conversion. Randy Moss had two touchdowns on 17 targets, and Stills had two touchdowns on two targets last year. Both were third-and-20. There was the spectacular 34-yard touchdown in New England in the fourth quarter, then two weeks later against Buffalo, Brees again gave Stills a shot in the end zone and the rookie delivered, jumping off the ground for his lone chest-high catch of the season. Those help.
Baldwin only caught 50 passes on run-heavy Seattle last year, but his highlight reel would be longer than a lot of receivers with larger stats. I compiled a little collage of some of his receiving highlights. I prefer a video, but the NFL frowns on such creations.
When Russell Wilson scrambles, Baldwin's the guy he likes to target, and he can make some incredible catches on the sideline with the body control to complete the play. He high-points the ball, like the touchdown in coverage against Minnesota. He tracks the ball very well. Baldwin's rate of over-the-shoulder catches (12.0 percent) is the highest among the 19 seasons studied. He made a one-handed touchdown (thrown by Tarvaris Jackson) against Jacksonville. This is a legit No. 1 receiver in the making.
Baldwin is a great example of DVOA's value. Yeah, he probably wasn't the second-best or second-most valuable wide receiver in the league in 2013, but he played at an exceptionally high level when the Seahawks threw him the ball. That's supported by the play-by-play metrics, and he passes the eye test with flying colors. If Baldwin was on a team like Denver, he probably would have 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns, but Seattle hasn't needed that from its receivers. In the Super Bowl, Denver's all-star receiving cast struggled to create separation and gain yards after the catch against the league's best defense. Seattle's unheralded group made a few great individual plays and enjoyed the rout. Baldwin should get even more chances to shine in 2014 with Golden Tate's departure to Detroit.
Can you believe Allen was the 76th pick in the draft? Injury was the main reason for that fall, but some teams might want to reconsider the medical evaluation the next time a potential stud is the prospect. Allen got off to a slow start, but thanks to injuries to Malcolm Floyd and Danario Alexander, he soon earned a starting role and had a fantastic rookie season. He caught 68 percent of his targets, which is phenomenal work by Philip Rivers as well since Allen only had two screens.
On Allen's first catch of the season in Philadelphia you could see something special. Cary Williams held Allen enough for pass interference, but he still managed to catch the ball before it touched the ground.
Allen has the third-highest chest rate in the study with only Mike Wallace seasons above and below him in the top four, but he's not another Wallace. Allen could prove to be much better given the way he worked the intermediate routes like a seasoned pro as a rookie.
We'll conclude this week's catch radius study with the Bengals, but let's preface it by showing the summary of the 19 seasons studied so far.
|Summary of Wide Receiver Catch Radii Study|
If 50 percent is about the Mendoza line for where you want your quarterback hitting the receiver in his breadbasket, then Dalton has some explaining to do. Granted, along with Ryan Tannehill, Dalton ranks at the bottom of the quarterbacks in this study, which includes some of the best passers in the league. When we look at some lesser passers in the next study, we might find similar results to Cincinnati's 2013 season.
But in the eternal hunt for finding an appropriate answer to "does the quarterback make the receiver, or does the receiver make the quarterback" we may have stumbled into receiver-friendly territory with the Bengals.
Last year, Dalton was quarterback of the 12th offense in NFL history to produce two receivers with 10-plus touchdown catches in a season. (Manning is already on this list four times.) We knew about Green's greatness, but Jones stepped up as well with some help from a four-touchdown game against the Jets.
But after charting Jones' season, I wondered why his numbers were so different from everyone else's. His depth of reception was 9.6 yards, which isn't outrageously deep. He has pretty good size at 6-foot-1 and roughly 200 pounds, so it's not like he presents a little target. He had eight catches marked as chest-high. I had only marked 10 of those on the first 683 catches I studied.
There's a few of Jones' more difficult catches last year. Dalton was wide (the wrong direction being the problem) on a screen against Buffalo, but the receiver still turned around with ease and picked up 42 yards on the play. Jones did a great job to bring down a touchdown in Detroit, the home of Calvin Johnson. Jones pulled in a one-handed touchdown against the Ravens in Week 17 to cap off his fine regular season.
Maybe the numbers were just a small-sample fluke, but I didn't think his 18 catches as a rookie in 2012 would be of much help. That's when I decided to chart Green's 98-catch season last year. Green started 2013 with a 42-yard bomb caught over the shoulder, and thrown perfectly down the right sideline by Dalton. That's good. The two would connect on several plays like that during the season, and it's really the throw where Dalton looks his best with Green.
The problem was I didn't get through that Week 1 game against Chicago without being very underwhelmed by Dalton's accuracy. Just look at this ridiculous extension for a pass thrown wide by Dalton on third-and-10. Green picked up the first down with a 13-yard gain, completely bailing out his quarterback in the process.
Game after game, the inaccurate throws kept coming, and Green still ran his season total to 98 receptions in spite of Dalton. Even on plays where Green was wide open over the middle, Dalton was too high with the ball and limited YAC for his offense. Green's the tallest receiver I've studied at approximately 6-foot-4, so why in the world is he catching 37.8 percent of his passes above his neck when my research average is 19.4 percent? I have never preached my methods for this to be a perfect science, but I'll admit some of Dalton's "chest-level" passes were aimed closer to Green's throat, and he might have got the chest just out of my pity for him.
Through the process, I gained a lot more respect for Green, who just finished ninth on the NFL Network's Top 100 list, which may or may not be voted on by his peers. Ninth may make you scoff at first, but if his first two seasons with Dalton were anything like 2013 in terms of the degree of difficulty, then it's not that crazy. Just look at some of these catches.
Not featured: last season's only true Hail Mary completion in Baltimore after James Ihedigbo tipped the ball to Green to force overtime.
Now I think I know why Green heavily supports Dalton. Green just said this week "I don't want any other quarterback throwing me the ball." It's because he helps him create a freakishly great highlight reel with inaccurate throws, right? I wouldn't have ranked Green in my top five receivers the other day, but I think I will now.
I'm probably overreacting to 149 completions, which I said included many good throws by Dalton. But when offensive coordinator Hue Jackson recently proclaimed Dalton and Green as the best quarterback/receiver duo in the league right now, did he factor in the throws or was he just in awe of the catches the same way I am?
No one can say Dalton is afraid to give Green a chance to make him look good. Perhaps we would find better results for him if looking at 2011-12, but that would be missing the point. Dalton should have been better in his third season. If the Bengals win even one playoff game -- something they haven't done since the 1990 season -- this year, Dalton stands to become a very rich man in today's quarterback market. But if he doesn't improve and is relying on Green and Jones to make so many great catches, why should Cincinnati invest so much into him?
As this study has shown so far, highlight-reel catches are rare. When an offense starts relying on them, the quarterback's not making enough good reads and accurate throws. This exercise has brought great news for those interested in Green's ability, but there's a reason they call the NFL a passing league, and not a catching league. Caught or not, Dalton has to throw better passes in 2014. Roger Goodell hasn't added style points (yet).
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