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.
24 Mar 2014
by Rivers McCown
While preparing to write about the AFC South for Football Outsiders Almanac 2014, I was inspired to do a similar analysis on individual wide receivers, although the system ended up a bit different than the one used on cornerbacks. We'll start with Indianapolis speedster T.Y. Hilton.
To analyze Hilton, I watched every throw during the 2013 regular season where our play-by-play data has him listed as the main target. It would have been nice to watch the playoffs too -- heck, it would be nicer to just watch every snap he played -- but if I want to study more than four players, I had to find a way to shorten this.
I looked at where Hilton was lined up before each snap, and then gave an educated guess on whether he was facing man or zone coverage. This can be hard to tell at times, and I still don't think my eye for film matches up with the best in the industry, but I did my best. I don't come into this looking to make sweeping conclusions based on the data we use, and I don't come into this column looking to have a final say on anything.
The target totals listed below don't quite match the total listed on our wide receiver stats page because we did not consider certain plays, including:
and, most amusingly...
Here are my observations:
"Behind the line of scrimmage" includes passes that traveled less than one yard, "Short" indicates passes that traveled between 1-15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, and "Deep" indicates passes that traveled 16 or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
1. T.Y. Hilton screen plays weren't very effective last season
The Colts had just a 38 percent success rate when running screens to Hilton. Of course, if you want to play Devil's Advocate, you could say something along the lines of [ANY
It's not that Hilton isn't fast -- he definitely is -- but rather that he's not very elusive in the open field. Our current charting lists Hilton with only five broken tackles this year, and only one of those came on a screen pass. He can follow blockers well, but tends to rack up a few too many horizontal yards trying to get them involved in the play.
So we're left to ponder: is this a permanent scheme change-up by Pep Hamilton, or is it a reaction to how poor the interior line and Richardson were last year? If it's the former, I think they'd be well-served looking into some wider splits. The Colts loved to bunch three receivers/tight ends close to the line of scrimmage on one side, and run screens off that when they were met with only one player over the bunch. He also had a tendency to put Hilton in motion on the screens. There were a few too many schematic tells.
Also, you know, they could use a receiver that can actually make people miss in open space.
"Slot" plays include all plays in which a receiver was inside of another receiver, regardless of how tight to the line he was or if there were multiple slot receivers in the play.
2. Reggie Wayne's absence meant it was time for Hilton to learn about the slot
Of Hilton's targets in the slot, just 13 of them came prior to Reggie Wayne's ACL tear against the Broncos in Week 7. So, roughly 77 percent of the time, his targets were coming as an outside receiver. Once Wayne was lost, and the Colts had to re-focus their passing game around the speedster, those numbers flipped to 48 of 80 targets -- Hilton was now predominantly a slot receiver.
I don't have the numbers to back this up with Wayne, because I haven't studied his targets yet, but it sure seems like being in the slot is a more effective place for Colts receivers in the Hamilton offense. He had a 62.5 percent success rate there (8.58 YPA) after Wayne went down, and a 54 percent success rate in the slot overall. This, of course, jives with what I'd call "smart football people" wisdom that the slot is becoming the place where you want to park your best receivers.
The Colts did tend to use a variety of route concepts for Hilton in the slot. While I think their most-used play was having him drag across the line of scrimmage on underneath zones, they managed to not be too obvious with this.
The two worst games Hilton had from a pure numbers perspective were against the Broncos (2-of-11, 27 yards) and against the Cardinals (5-of-9, 38 yards, 1 DPI drawn). The Cardinals had a real simple solution: let's put Patrick Peterson on him. The Broncos, though, were able to maintain tight coverage on Hilton with Chris Harris and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and they got some licks in on Hilton at the top of his routes. (They also had a surprising amount of linebacker and safety pass breakups in that game, but that's neither here nor there.)
Hilton had a lot of success on deep passes, but this is not because he's great at getting up and snatching 50-50 balls. He did snatch a back shoulder ball against Brent Grimes in Week 2, but that's generally not his game -- as you'd expect from a 5-foot-10, 183 pound (listed) receiver, I might add.
And the Colts know about these limitations. I can't remember more than two or three receptions where Hilton beat a jam coverage and actually was in good position to make a play on the ball. But, this is partially because Indianapolis didn't put him in very many situations where they asked him to do that. We charted how many times he was off the line of scrimmage compared to on it, and only 22 percent of his targets came with him actually lined up level with the linemen.
4. The reason his physicality doesn't matter is that Hilton's double move is disgusting.
Other than quick crosses underneath, the vast majority of Hilton's successful routes came because of his best attribute: his double move. He hits second gear off a stutter-step at a ridiculously quick level, and cornerbacks without the recovery speed to deal with it have to play him conservatively. In his matchups with Johnathan Joseph, Hilton was given a ton of underneath cushion out of respect for the double move. He exploited this on curl routes (even though his stop can get sort of rounded), and then burnt Joseph with the double move on a long touchdown for good measure.
Janoris Jenkins is still trying to figure out where Hilton went. Even though the Rams crushed the Colts, Hilton's double move left Jenkins in the dust on multiple occasions. A rare Andrew Luck overthrow and a surprisingly common Hilton stumble kept two pretty sure touchdowns off the board.
Taking the body of work into consideration, it's hard to imagine Hilton suddenly getting tougher or stronger, adding more contested catches into his repertoire, or suddenly becoming more elusive. His body type just doesn't make any of those things likely. But as long as the double move continues to be frightening and the Colts keep him off the line, I don't see much reason to believe in non-injury regression. If he could have kept his feet on a few long balls this year he would've added a few extra long touchdowns. And if the Colts get the same old Reggie Wayne back next year -- or fix Hakeem Nicks' problems from the past few years -- and get Hilton matched up against a few more lower-string cornerbacks, there's a chance we haven't seen his peak season yet.
4 comments, Last at 03 Apr 2014, 9:25pm by Bobman