Catch Radius: NFC North Stars
by Scott Kacsmar
Last offseason we looked at the catch radii for about two dozen players of varying quality, from all-star wide receivers to Brian Hartline. There was also newfound appreciation for the job A.J. Green does with Andy Dalton's wild accuracy. If you have ever been interested in how often a receiver has to reach above his head to catch a pass or adjust to a poorly-thrown ball, then the catch radius project is what you've been waiting for.
Are the numbers subjective? Absolutely, but after studying nearly 3,000 catches over the past few years I feel I've developed a classification method that is fair and consistent. A total of 35 player-seasons have been studied now, and the results of those studies are located at the end of this column.
This year we are starting with the stars of the NFC North. Everyone knows about Jordy Nelson and Calvin Johnson, but Alshon Jeffery is now the undisputed No. 1 receiver in Chicago after Brandon Marshall was traded to the Jets.
The only receiver on Minnesota's current roster I have studied is Mike Wallace; we looked at Teddy Bridgewater's new target in his final season with the Miami Dolphins. In fact, Wallace was really part of the inspiration for this project three years ago.
Note: all images are captured from NFL Game Pass at the moment of first contact with the ball.
Jordy Nelson: When I Dip You Dip We Dip
Nelson finally earned his first Pro Bowl selection after his third stellar season since 2011. Here is the comparison of his catch radius for the past two seasons.
|Jordy Nelson: Catch Radius, 2013 vs. 2014|
|Type of Catch||2013||Pct.||2014||Pct.|
|Above the head||9||10.6%||7||7.1%|
|Below the waist||0||0.0%||1||1.0%|
|Diving to ground||6||7.1%||6||6.1%|
|Over the shoulder||2||2.4%||5||5.1%|
|Pass thrown wide||10||11.8%||7||7.1%|
Aaron Rodgers missed half of the 2013 season with a broken collarbone, and Matt Flynn and Scott Tolzien certainly gave Nelson the opportunity to make some magnificent catches. Still, he had a similar share of great grabs in 2014 even as Rodgers enjoyed an MVP year. Nelson caught 26.5 percent of his passes at eye-level, the second-highest of the 35 player-seasons studied so far. His 2013 season was the fourth highest (24.7 percent), so maybe he prefers a higher ball, but either way he has no problem adjusting quickly.
Following his 2013 season, "White Chocolate" could have added "Sideline King" to his list of nicknames after dominating at the boundary lines. I did not see that in 2014, as Nelson caught a lot of curl routes in the 6- to 8-yard range and did some of his usual damage down the seam. Of course he was also open deep down the field on those classic play-action passes from Rodgers that seem to work for multiple 60-yard touchdowns each season. Nelson had an impressive below-the-waist catch (featured above) against Minnesota where he was able to reel in the ball, gather himself, break a tackle, and then pick up a first down. Those plays are very rare, but Nelson makes it look effortless.
For me, Nelson was more impressive at the point of the catch in 2013, but he was better after the catch in 2014. Our YAC+ metric backs this up: Nelson was plus-0.1 in 2013 (his lowest since 2009) and plus-0.7 in 2014. While catching passes at the sideline was part of his forte in 2013, perhaps Nelson's best highlights in 2014 came when he cut back into the field after catching a pass down the right sideline. He did that three times for long touchdowns against the Jets (Week 2), Panthers (Week 7), and Bears (Week 10). Each time he easily beat his assignment on a pass thrown 22 to 33 yards down the field, then he made one cut to the middle and was off to the races for touchdowns ranging from 59 to 80 yards. He displayed a similar skill on a shorter pass on a 45-yard touchdown against Darrelle Revis and the Patriots in Week 13.
Short or deep, Nelson is a threat everywhere on the field.
Calvin Johnson: Still Great
While Johnson didn't win as many deep balls in double or triple coverage, he was still great in 2014.
|Calvin Johnson: Catch Radius, 2013 vs. 2014|
|Type of Catch||2013||Pct.||2014||Pct.|
|Above the head||9||10.7%||7||9.9%|
|Below the waist||0||0.0%||1||1.4%|
|Diving to ground||2||2.4%||7||9.9%|
|Over the shoulder||5||6.0%||4||5.6%|
|Pass thrown wide||6||7.1%||2||2.8%|
You can see the biggest difference was the big man getting down to the ground to make seven catches, which you don't really anticipate for a 6-foot-5 receiver. As I started watching Johnson's catches I was getting worried about Matthew Stafford's development. He was slant-happy in 2013 with Johnson, but that was not as evident last year. Early on Johnson was bailing out Stafford left and right with great catches, feeding the narrative of a stud receiver making his shaky quarterback look way better than he is. Through his first 14 catches, Johnson had to pull in four balls thrown above his head. I didn't have to go past September to build a decent highlight collage for Johnson's 2014.
Unfortunately, Stafford's inaccuracy led to an ankle injury for Johnson against the Bills. Johnson reached down low for a slant and paid for it with a big shot to the leg. He missed three full games, but fortunately the Lions had Golden Tate to pick up the slack. In past years, Johnson's absence could have easily led to more losses and the Lions missing the playoffs altogether. When Johnson returned, Stafford's accuracy thankfully improved. Johnson only had to reach above his head on three of his last 57 catches. At one point in the season, Stafford hit Johnson right at chest-level on 20-of-26 catches. Accuracy is still a big issue for Stafford, but it sure helps to have someone with Johnson's catch radius.
Mike Wallace: The Case for Optimism
Part of the reason I first studied catch radius was my suspicion that Antonio Brown made tougher catches than Mike Wallace, so the Steelers should pay him instead. They did so in 2012 and Wallace later got a gross contract from the Dolphins, a contract he obviously never lived up to. Here are his last four years of catch radius data.
|Mike Wallace: Catch Radius, 2011-2014|
|Type of Catch||2011||Pct.||2012||Pct.||2013||Pct.||2014||Pct.|
|Above the head||2||2.7%||2||3.1%||2||2.7%||3||4.5%|
|Below the waist||1||1.3%||0||0.0%||1||1.4%||0||0.0%|
|Diving to ground||3||4.0%||4||6.3%||3||4.1%||7||10.4%|
|Over the shoulder||6||8.0%||2||3.1%||4||5.5%||2||3.0%|
|Pass thrown wide||3||4.0%||1||1.6%||4||5.5%||4||6.0%|
Being hard on Wallace the past few years, I must say 2014 was his most impressive performance since the first half of 2011 when he looked like a superstar. While Wallace may have only finished with 862 receiving yards, he caught 10 touchdowns and bailed Ryan Tannehill out on quite a few inaccurate throws.
Similar to Stafford, Tannehill had me worried early last season, especially against the Patriots and Bills in Weeks 1 and 2. Wallace caught one-handed touchdowns against those teams. Tannehill's second completion of the season to Wallace was thrown behind the receiver, which forced Wallace to gather the ball and left him unprepared for a big hit that caused a fumble. Wallace brought down a difficult touchdown against Darrelle Revis that was thrown above his head, only to be deflected back to him. He had a similar deflection score and great effort against Minnesota later in the season, which possibly played a role in the Vikings' pursuit of Wallace in the offseason. Tannehill's accuracy also improved, hitting Wallace at the chest on 17 of his next 18 completions starting in Week 3. But the beginning and end of 2014 was largely on Wallace making plays.
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Wallace's previous three seasons (2011-13) all rank in the top four for chest-level rate catches, so the drop down to 67.2 percent (still above the study's average of 59.7 percent) shows a difference in play from him. Yes, he still leaves his feet and crouches at unusual times, again making five chest-high catches, but that's not the problem in his game. In past years there was a perceived lack of effort on bad balls, but he showed up for some last season. He caught more diving passes (seven) than he had in any of his two previous seasons combined. In fact, Wallace's 2014 is the first of the 35 player-seasons studied to produce a diving catch rate above 10.0 percent.
Wallace was signed to invigorate a deep passing game, but that just never materialized with Tannehill. Wallace made six over-the-shoulder catches in Miami, or as many as he had in Pittsburgh in the 2011 season. If Wallace buys into Norv Turner's offense and gets on the same page with Teddy Bridgewater early, he could have the kind of strong season we once thought would be the norm for him going back to his early days in Pittsburgh.
Alshon Jeffery: What Is He?
Jeffery was a breakout star in 2013 and the receiver I captured the most highlights from in last year's study. So what happened last year when he upped his touchdowns to 10, but gained nearly 300 fewer yards?
|Alshon Jeffery: Catch Radius, 2013 vs. 2014|
|Type of Catch||2013||Pct.||2014||Pct.|
|Above the head||13||14.6%||7||8.2%|
|Below the waist||0||0.0%||0||0.0%|
|Diving to ground||5||5.6%||3||3.5%|
|Over the shoulder||5||5.6%||3||3.5%|
|Pass thrown wide||9||10.1%||3||3.5%|
We'll never know for sure how much Jeffery's hamstring injury impacted his play, but he was a different receiver in 2014, and the quarterback play was also worse than it had been in Marc Trestman's first year as coach. At least Jeffery saved some of his best plays for nationally televised games, but his catches were the least impressive of our 2014 group here.
Jeffery's rate of chest-level catches climbed nearly 20 percent, easily one of the biggest year-to-year swings I've seen yet on an admittedly tiny sample size. The main reason this happened was Trestman and Jay Cutler falling in love with screens and smokes to Jeffery. After catching 12 screens/smokes in 2013 (13.5 percent of his catches), that number doubled to 24 (28.2 percent) in 2014. Those are easier throws to make and it's something Chicago did often, especially in October and November with Jeffery. Trestman had some well-designed plays for Jeffery coming out of the backfield, but is that really the strength in his game? He hasn't been a good YAC+ receiver yet in his career.
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Jeffery's average target dropped from 12.7 air yards to 11.6 air yards, which ranked 21st among wide receivers (minimum 50 catches) last year, right between Jordy Nelson (11.7) and Odell Beckham (11.6). Sure, those are No. 1 guys able to beat you high and low, which Jeffery is trying to replicate. Jeffery has officially ascended to that No. 1 role with Brandon Marshall being traded to the Jets. Injuries to Marshall last year ensured that Jeffery led the team in receiving, so he has already had some No. 1 experience and will be expected to mentor rookie Kevin White, who is dealing with his own injuries this preseason.
But what kind of receiver is Jeffery exactly? Based on his 6-foot-4 size and deep-ball success in 2013, he seemed like a deep threat or at least an intermediate guy able to use his size to win 50/50 balls. Last season started perfectly with a 44-yard catch made over the shoulder against Buffalo, but we barely saw that the rest of the season. The screens may be here to stay too. With John Fox and Adam Gase running Chicago's offense now, Jeffery may be utilized in a similar role to Denver's Demaryius Thomas, though he is not as dynamic after the catch.
Jeffery still has a great catch radius, but it's up to the Bears to decide how much of it they want to use.
In conclusion, here is an updated list of the 35 seasons studied for catch radius. We'll be sure to add more soon.
|Summary of Wide Receiver Catch Radii Study|