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.
27 Jun 2014
by Scott Kacsmar
This receiver has a huge catch radius. That guy knows how to high-point the football. How does he make the circus catch look so routine, but drops the easy ones? Why would anyone draft a 5-foot-9 receiver with a top 10 pick?
Are you perhaps familiar with this common fan discussion? The proliferation of the receiving tight end and the slot receiver has opened eyes to the specialization of receivers and the various roles they can play on offense, which are usually dictated by their physical attributes. If you see a small guy with a high catch rate, low yards per reception and lots of yards after the catch, he probably plays in the slot and catches a lot of screen passes. While we have done well to contextualize the value of a receiver's stats with advanced metrics, it was only a matter of time before interest grew for numbers showing how they are producing their stats. Thanks to streaming services (and those lovely torrents), we have conducted analysis beyond the play-by-play level with game charting.
Are we charting everything we can? Of course not. That would take an absurd amount of time and we are but a small company always seeking good volunteers for charting. Technically, every little motion each of the 22 players performs on every play could be cataloged into something, but we stick with the most important stuff like dropped passes, missed tackles and blown blocks in pass protection.
One area I have used the offseason to take a limited view of the last few years is catch radius, which can also be used as a measure of the quarterback's accuracy in hitting his target. We hear this term often with a big receiver like Rob Gronkowski and his great wingspan, but what does it really mean on the field? By the laws of physics, Gronkowski has a higher probability to get to more balls than a smaller tight end like 6-foot-3 Charles Clay, but that doesn't necessarily mean Tom Brady is being inaccurate with his throws to take advantage of that. We also don't know if Gronkowski actually uses all of his talent to make those tough catches any more than a lesser player. What if Clay makes tougher catches more often? How many completions in the NFL are the result of a superior catching effort rather than a superior throw? Ah, you can see we're headed down that path of finding one of the Holy Grails of football analysis: How much credit should the quarterback get versus the receiver in the passing game? The following won't get us there either, but it's worth taking a couple of steps forward.
My first interest in charting catch radius came in 2012 when the Steelers had a choice to pay Mike Wallace or Antonio Brown big bucks on their next contracts. They likely weren't keeping both. After watching Brown's breakout season in 2011 and the second-half slump Wallace had, my gut leaned towards Brown. He seemed to have a bigger repertoire of routes and made a lot of impressive catches while Wallace was really just a great deep threat. Then I remembered the 2010 playoffs. Brown made a name for himself by catching a deep ball on third-and-19 against Baltimore where he pinned the ball to his helmet and held on. In Super Bowl XLV, Wallace was the target on fourth-and-ballgame. He had to jump and extend his arms above his head for the pass, but couldn't come down with the ball. The throw wasn't good, but it did hit Wallace in the hands. If the ball touches skin, better bring it in.
But that's a case of being selective with highlights. So I watched every catch both receivers made in 2011 and I charted the results of how they caught the ball. I did the same thing last year when Wallace left for Miami, and I even added Brian Hartline to the mix. As you will soon see, there was good consistency in the numbers for the Pittsburgh receivers in 2011-12. Brown did indeed make tougher catches more often in both seasons. I was also fairly impressed with Hartline's catching ability, but still thought (on opportunity alone) Wallace would lead the Dolphins in every receiving category. Well, Hartline had three more catches and 86 more yards. Did a difference in catch radius have anything to do with that?
For this year's study, I charted the 2013 catches for all three receivers and also included Miami's two slot receivers: Brandon Gibson and Rishard Matthews. Here's a breakdown of their 2013 receptions by the average depth of target (Dist) and how often the quarterback was under pressure (PRES%) while throwing to them.
|2013 Receptions Breakdown|
Believe it or not, Hartline is the tallest of these five receivers, but more on that later. He had the deepest average catch, but that's because Miami never asks him to catch screens behind the line of scrimmage. He has 150 catches in the last two seasons and just one was a screen. Last year alone, Wallace (13), Matthews (three) and Gibson (two) combined for 18 screens on 144 catches.
Pressure is something I previously did not collect. In theory, a quarterback throwing under pressure may have a hard time hitting the target accurately. However, these are all completions and pressure was rare on those plays. Surprisingly, Gibson had as many catches with Ryan Tannehill under pressure (five) as Wallace and Hartline combined.
Truth be told, I don't think pressure has much value in the current scope of this study. For starters, the sample size is super tiny. Brown's the only receiver with more than five catches under pressure and he had 11. Ben Roethlisberger still managed to put the ball chest-level on nine of those plays (all gained at least 12 yards). Also, the way we chart plays as pressures does not mesh well with this. A quarterback could be pressured, escape the rush and have a perfect setup for a throw to a wide open receiver. The play was still a pass pressure, but there's no reason that pass shouldn't be accurate (unless Tim Tebow threw it). I would basically have to chart plays for pressure where the throw itself came under pressure, and we know that's going to be a miniscule number of catches per year. So this will be our final mention of pressure for now. Though if you want to know more about the impact pressure had on Miami's offense last year, you can always buy Football Outsiders Almanac 2014.
Let's look at the catch radii for 2013. All images are captured from NFL Game Rewind.
|2013 Wide Receiver Catch Radii|
|Type of Catch||A.Brown||Pct.||M.Wallace||Pct.||B.Hartline||Pct.||R.Matthews||Pct.||B.Gibson||Pct.|
|Above the head||5||4.5%||2||2.7%||4||5.3%||4||9.8%||1||3.3%|
|Below the waist||1||0.9%||1||1.4%||0||0.0%||0||0.0%||0||0.0%|
|Diving to ground||4||3.6%||3||4.1%||3||3.9%||1||2.4%||1||3.3%|
|Over the shoulder||4||3.6%||4||5.5%||3||3.9%||1||2.4%||1||3.3%|
|Pass thrown wide||6||5.5%||4||5.5%||1||1.3%||3||7.3%||2||6.7%|
Now I've only studied a total of 10 seasons so far, but in all 10 the receiver caught at least 60 percent of his passes at chest-level, which is really where they should want the ball most of the time. That's a natural catching position. Three of the 10 seasons had 70 percent at chest-level and Wallace had all three of those years. I broke down the chest targets into high and low. Chest-high is for plays where the ball still arrives at the receiver's chest-level, but he's left the ground in order to make that happen. Chest-low is usually the result of a player crouching down or making the catch on his knees, but still at his chest. These aren't common as I've only marked 25 plays as chest-high or chest-low and Wallace has 18 of them. As the next table shows, Wallace has consistently been making most of his catches at chest-level.
|Mike Wallace: Catch Radius (2011-13)|
|Type of Catch||2011||Pct.||2012||Pct.||2013||Pct.||TOTAL||Pct.|
|Above the head||2||2.7%||2||3.1%||2||2.7%||6||2.8%|
|Below the waist||1||1.3%||0||0.0%||1||1.4%||2||0.9%|
|Diving to ground||3||4.0%||4||6.3%||3||4.1%||10||4.7%|
|Over the shoulder||6||8.0%||2||3.1%||4||5.5%||12||5.7%|
|Pass thrown wide||3||4.0%||1||1.6%||4||5.5%||8||3.8%|
Three seasons, three offensive coordinators, (mostly) two quarterbacks, but those are some strikingly consistent rates for Wallace. Last season he left his feet, which is usually a no-no for receivers, to make a handful of chest-high catches, such as this one against the Bengals.
Is that really necessary? He does usually use his hands and doesn't rely on body catches, but it's a bit disconcerting Wallace needs the ball on the numbers so often to make his plays. He did have one of the ultra-rare catches below the waist in 2013, but this is the leading candidate for worst screen pass of the season.
Let it be known that was on third down in the fourth quarter with Miami trailing. Tannehill's hesitation made the play even worse to watch. Naturally the Dolphins lost four yards (and then the game).
Tannehill's accuracy was very suspect at times last year. His bad tendency is to get the ball up too high on the receiver and force a difficult catch that limits YAC, or forces an incredible effort like the one Charles Clay had on a fourth-down bubble screen against the Patriots in Week 15. Still, isn't it interesting how Wallace maintained his usual rates of catches, but the supposedly taller Hartline was digging out high balls left and right?
It's probably a generous listing to put Hartline at 6-foot-2, but watching him play, you might think he was 5-foot-10. NFL Draft Scout actually has him at "6015" in his scouting report. Let's look at this catch radius for the last two years.
|Brian Hartline: Catch Radius (2012-13)|
|Type of Catch||2012||Pct.||2013||Pct.|
|Above the head||8||10.8%||4||5.3%|
|Below the waist||0||0.0%||0||0.0%|
|Diving to ground||0||0.0%||3||3.9%|
|Over the shoulder||3||4.1%||3||3.9%|
|Pass thrown wide||1||1.4%||1||1.3%|
Does Hartline like the ball up high? We don't know, but he's caught 43 passes above his neck in the last two years, which is easily more than Brown or Wallace. Watch a Miami game and it's not uncommon to see a ball engulf Hartline's face such as this eye-level catch against San Diego.
What's not expected is Hartline having as many over-the-shoulder catches (six) as Wallace in the last two seasons combined. These plays are usually down the field on deep balls where the receiver has to track the ball and stick his hands out at the last possible second to make the catch. They can also catch the ball this way on a fade or any seam route, but it's usually for the well-thrown bomb ("bucket throw"). Here's Hartline pulling one in against Cleveland in Week 1.
Hartline had an incredible catch against Antonio Cromartie where he laid out in 2012 for a big gain. He didn't top it in 2013, but this effort to extend above the head and drag the feet against Pittsburgh for a touchdown was special.
Hartline had a career year, but Brown really took off in Pittsburgh without Wallace. He had 110 catches for 1,499 yards. He did get 28 screens or smoke passes to help boost the numbers, but he displayed impressive skills at every depth level along with a knack for making tough catches. Here's his three-year catch radius summary.
|Antonio Brown: Catch Radius (2011-13)|
|Type of Catch||2011||Pct.||2012||Pct.||2013||Pct.||TOTAL||Pct.|
|Above the head||9||12.2%||7||10.6%||5||4.5%||21||8.4%|
|Below the waist||0||0.0%||2||3.0%||1||0.9%||3||1.2%|
|Diving to ground||4||5.4%||3||4.5%||4||3.6%||11||4.4%|
|Over the shoulder||1||1.4%||1||1.5%||4||3.6%||6||2.4%|
|Pass thrown wide||6||8.1%||3||4.5%||6||5.5%||15||6.0%|
Brown's the shortest receiver I've studied so far, but Roethlisberger still gets the ball at the chest nearly two-thirds of the time. That still leaves ample opportunities for him to shine.
(Top left) This was a screen that was thrown above the head, but Brown still gathers it quickly and makes a nice move to gain 14 yards. (Top right) That's a screen that's just thrown wide, which isn't necessarily a bad thing since it puts Brown on a track to instantly gain positive yards, however the blocking was so poor on that play in front of him that the ball placement didn't matter. (Bottom right) Similarly, the slant is thrown wide, which is again a good strategy to maximize YAC by leading the receiver. They're not the easiest catches, but Brown can make them. The bottom left was one of Brown's finest touchdowns last season. You can see he's off the ground, but the ball comes in at eye-level and he hangs on for the score.
Finally, I have to give what might have been the catch of the year its proper glory.
Can you believe that turned into a touchdown? On a pass thrown wide like that one, that's an example of a receiver bailing out his quarterback. Incredible range by Brown and we've seen the one-handed catch before from him, but never this good.
Brandon Gibson had some of Miami's best catches last season. He's easy to overlook, but he had 16.3% DVOA on 43 targets last year before tearing his patellar tendon. His best effort might have been this catch against Buffalo.
Now this catch does bring up debate with the charting. Can a catch be two different things, such as "Diving to the ground" and "Above the head"? What I try to do is look at the location of the catch first, but also make note if the player jumped or had to go to the ground to complete the process of the catch. On this play, Gibson's reach was so crucial that I labeled it "Above the head." Though, the play would have never counted if he didn't bang his knee off the ground in bounds as he fell down. This was an all-around great effort.
One of Gibson's other great efforts highlights some of Tannehill's accuracy issues. On what became a game-winning drive against Atlanta, Gibson converted a third-and-4, but it should have been much easier than this.
(Top left) Gibson ran a pivot route and was wide open, but Tannehill's poor throw was wide of the mark. (Top right) Gibson struggled to haul in the ball, but eventually gathered it in with control. This is why throwing to the chest-level is so desired. All the wasted motions Gibson had to make to bring in this inaccurate pass allowed the defense to catch up to him on what should have easily been a first-down gain. Receivers are always going to tuck the ball in after catching it, so the less motions they make from the catch to the tuck, the better. (Bottom left) The defender hits Gibson and he actually bounces backwards, giving up the first down for a moment. (Bottom right) Gibson has enough to fight forward and regain the first-down yardage before stepping out of bounds.
Fittingly enough, Gibson's season came to an end after he tried to adjust for a bad overthrow by Tannehill and landed awkwardly against the Patriots. Ball placement does have an impact on safety. Lest we not forget how Reggie Wayne's season ended last year: Reaching for a ground ball by Andrew Luck. Accuracy is always so crucial.
Rishard Matthews replaced Gibson after his injury and had a few bright moments, especially against Tampa Bay. The defense on this screen was lacking to say the least. Note the wide delivery again that allows for an easy YAC opportunity with blocking ahead.
But when Tannehill went back to the screen with Matthews against Carolina, a poor throw above the head threw off the whole timing of the play and Miami lost four yards.
Here's a summary of the 10 seasons studied for the five receivers.
|Type of Catch||Total||Pct.|
|Above the head||44||6.4%|
|Below the waist||5||0.7%|
|Diving to ground||26||3.8%|
|Over the shoulder||26||3.8%|
|Pass thrown wide||30||4.4%|
We can probably say any play that requires a catch above the head, below the waist or a dive is a superior receiving effort. That accounts for 11.0 percent of this group's catches. Eye-level's difficulty is debatable, and we know some passes thrown wide are good throws. Over the shoulder usually requires a pretty strong effort from passer and receiver.
Chest-level stands strong at 68.2 percent. Factor in some drops, and this looks like one of those "70 percent of the time, the quarterback hits the bull's-eye every time" situations.
It's a time-consuming process and as with many aspects of game charting, the data won't always have black-and-white objectivity. But I do believe there's value to this type of analysis and would like to do more receivers. I have a few planned, but am open to suggestions.
Rare for me to watch a baseball game, but I have to say the graphical representation of every pitch location is great. Someone with the proper resources and technology -- Hi, ESPN! -- could take this catch radius concept and do an excellent job with superb accuracy to chart where every pass is thrown. So for Mike Wallace, we'd get a computer-generated image of a 72-inch guy and about 75 percent of the red dots would cluster in the chest area to show all his catches. Incompletions that were close can also be tracked (different color) and that might be when looking at the quarterback under pressure starts to have value.
But getting a "heat chart" that quantifies just how many unusual catches had to be made would be a fantastic resource for analyzing (and scouting) receivers and quarterbacks. Who doesn't want to put an end to conversations like this one?
Fan A: Man, Calvin Johnson really bailed out Stafford today. Did you see that fourth-down catch with one hand?
Fan B: Yeah, but did you see the terrible drop Calvin had on the next drive?
Fan A: You win some, you lose some. It all evens out.
No, things like this don't always even out just because someone says they will. There's not an official stat for "Over the Shoulder" catches, but maybe there should be. While we don't need to grade every play like it's Olympic figure skating, we can do a better job of quantifying the motions performed by the players on the field. That's not unreasonable in this technological age, right? Maybe these methods can save the next team from signing on for $60 million with a receiver who needs the ball delivered to his breadbasket on a silver platter.
12 comments, Last at 30 Jun 2014, 11:32am by nat