by Scott Kacsmar
Last week we looked at passing plus-minus and receiving plus-minus, which estimates the number of passes completed above average, adjusted for where the pass was thrown. It is a very useful way to adjust completion rates, but we also want a way to analyze receivers after the catch point with the ball in their hands. In keeping with that concept of adjusting based on where the pass was caught, we can also make an adjustment for yards after the catch, known as YAC+.
Here is the description of YAC+ from the upcoming Football Outsiders Almanac 2016, where every player with his own stat table will have his plus-minus and YAC+ listed for the past three seasons:
YAC+ is similar to plus-minus; it estimates how much YAC a receiver gained compared to what we would have expected from an average receiver catching passes of similar length in similar down-and-distance situations. This is imperfect -- we don't specifically mark what route a player runs, and obviously a go route will have more YAC than a comeback -- but it does a fairly good job of telling you if this receiver gets more or less YAC than other receivers with similar usage patterns.
As we saw with Expected Failed Completions, YAC is a very unpredictable part of the game. You never know when that routine tackle on a 4-yard pass will be missed, turning the play into a 30-yard gain. We want to reward receivers for making these plays, but the usual YAC calculations were always too favorable to running backs and slot receivers -- players who catch a lot of short passes in open space. A receiver who tacks on 6 YAC to a 9-yard throw to convert a third-and-10 should get more credit than someone who adds 6 YAC to a 1-yard throw on third-and-12 that still comes up well short of the sticks. This happens with YAC+. Depending on field position and which direction the pass was thrown, that conversion play there is worth about 3.0 YAC+, compared to a number near zero for the failed completion. Another benefit of YAC+ over YAC is that receivers will not be "penalized" for catching touchdowns in the end zone, because there is no expected YAC to be had.
To qualify for rankings in the tables below, wide receivers must have at least 50 targets, while running backs and tight ends need a minimum of 25 targets. The number of passes shown below may not match official totals due to our removal of certain incompletions, such as passes intentionally thrown away or batted down at the line. For context, the average air yards and ALEX of each player's targets are also included.
2015 Wide Receivers
A total of 81 wide receivers qualified this season, but we'll just show the top and bottom rankings to save space here.
|2015 Wide Receivers: Top 15 in YAC+||2015 Wide Receivers: Bottom 15 in YAC+|
|1||Odell Beckham Jr.||NYG||151||4.0||11.6||+2.0||67||Anquan Boldin||SF||107||-1.1||8.0||-1.1|
|2||Rishard Matthews||MIA||58||1.6||11.2||+1.7||68||Alshon Jeffery||CHI||91||6.1||14.5||-1.1|
|3||Martavis Bryant||PIT||89||5.4||14.0||+1.7||69||Eric Decker||NYJ||124||3.7||11.8||-1.1|
|4||Quinton Patton||SF||53||-0.8||7.8||+1.6||70||Sammy Watkins||BUF||91||8.2||17.2||-1.2|
|5||Cole Beasley||DAL||69||-3.0||4.7||+1.4||71||Kenny Stills||MIA||60||7.5||16.3||-1.3|
|6||Ted Ginn Jr.||CAR||90||7.9||16.8||+1.3||72||Kenny Britt||STL||67||7.3||15.8||-1.3|
|7||Allen Hurns||JAC||98||3.1||12.0||+1.3||73||Michael Crabtree||OAK||143||0.9||9.9||-1.4|
|8||Stevie Johnson||SD||61||-2.2||6.0||+1.1||74||Kamar Aiken||BAL||123||3.7||12.2||-1.4|
|9||Torrey Smith||SF||57||5.4||14.8||+1.0||75||Davante Adams||GB||88||0.6||10.2||-1.6|
|10||Albert Wilson||KC||55||0.5||10.2||+1.0||76||Roddy White||ATL||65||1.8||10.3||-1.7|
|11||Doug Baldwin||SEA||97||0.4||9.5||+1.0||77||DeAndre Hopkins||HOU||185||5.4||14.3||-1.7|
|12||Dontrelle Inman||SD||59||3.7||12.4||+0.9||78||Eddie Royal||CHI||50||-5.7||3.7||-1.8|
|13||T.Y. Hilton||IND||129||4.0||13.1||+0.9||79||Malcom Floyd||SD||66||9.6||20.4||-1.9|
|14||Terrance Williams||DAL||89||3.7||13.3||+0.8||80||Chris Hogan||BUF||58||3.8||13.6||-2.0|
|15||Dorial Green-Beckham||TEN||59||4.4||13.5||+0.8||81||Pierre Garcon||WAS||107||1.8||10.7||-2.1|
Not that I wanted to start with a Pro Bowl rant, but how absurd was it that 12 wide receivers received credit for a Pro Bowl last year, and none of them were named Doug Baldwin? Sure, he came on a bit late, but he still led the league with 14 touchdowns and they offer alternates to almost anyone these days. Baldwin is the only 2015 wideout to rank in the top 10 in both plus-minus and YAC+. Rishard Matthews is the only other player to even rank in the top 15 in both, and it will be very interesting to see how he fits in with Marcus Mariota in Tennessee, where Kendall Wright (-0.9 YAC+, ranked 64th) has not lived up to being a No. 1 receiver.
Odell Beckham's rookie season may have been more fascinating than last year for various reasons, but he was still really good, leading the league in YAC+. At least we will get to see Beckham this year, unlike fellow 2014 classmate Martavis Bryant, who is suspended for the season. Bryant's amazing touchdown against Arizona was the highest YAC+ play (+76.2) of 2015 by a wide receiver. While you still think of Antonio Brown as the post-catch player in Pittsburgh's offense, YAC+ paints a different picture. Brown's best asset is getting open so consistently each week, which is why he has three straight seasons with at least 110 receptions. But when it comes to YAC+, over the last five years Brown has ranked 43rd, 54th, 42nd, 34th and 50th.
The 49ers somehow got two wideouts in the top 10, but I did note a year ago for ESPN Insider that Torrey Smith was sneaky good at YAC+ in Baltimore despite his rigid use as a deep threat. He had the best YAC+ of his career last year in San Francisco, and it's just a wonder how he did not see more targets for a team that trailed so often. Anquan Boldin, who kicks off our bottom table, had 50 more catchable targets than Smith. With Boldin gone and Chip Kelly in town, look for the 49ers to completely turn around the tempo and target distribution this season.
Mostly due to injury, quarterback play was lousy in 2015 for the Cowboys and Colts, yet Cole Beasley, Terrance Williams and T.Y. Hilton all found a way to crack the top 15. Even Dez Bryant (+0.1), who finished 80th in plus-minus, was 27th in YAC+. He is a threat with the ball, but Dallas quarterbacks struggled to get it to him last year.
Adam Gase did help Chicago's offense in his lone season as offensive coordinator, but he was dealt a tough deck with his wide receivers. First-round pick Kevin White missed the whole season, and injuries also limited Eddie Royal and Alshon Jeffery to about a half-season. When they played, they were not that effective. Royal finished dead last in DVOA, and you can see why. His ALEX (-5.7) was easily the lowest of all qualified wideouts, and he just did not turn enough of those short throws into meaningful gains. Pierre Garcon also struggled a bit for Washington, and could be losing his production in an offense that will feature DeSean Jackson, Jamison Crowder, and Josh Doctson. Roddy White (who turns 35 in November) also remains a free agent, and the writing may be on the wall for the veteran after rankings of 86th, 76th, and 76th in YAC+ the last three years.
We have mentioned a few times this offseason about DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins being notoriously poor in YAC, but thanks to adjusting for where the ball was thrown, they do not bring up the very rear of our YAC+ list. Still, it's not a strength in their games, although Watkins has more potential there. Chris Hogan left Buffalo for New England, where he should have a solid plus-minus, but he just finished 80th in YAC+ with Tyrod Taylor throwing him vertical passes. A player usually has to play in the Wes Welker/Julian Edelman role in New England to get a lot of YAC+, unless we are talking about the best tight end in the world.
2015 Tight Ends
Remember how surprising it was to see Rob Gronkowski rank just 34th in plus-minus last year? Well, he leads off our next table as 2015 was another year of GRONK SMASH.
|2015 Tight Ends: Top 15 in YAC+||2015 Tight Ends: Bottom 15 in YAC+|
|1||Rob Gronkowski||NE||114||1.5||10.3||+3.4||36||Scott Chandler||NE||41||1.8||10.2||-0.9|
|2||Marcedes Lewis||JAC||33||-1.5||7.0||+3.1||37||Martellus Bennett||CHI||76||-2.6||5.8||-0.9|
|3||Darren Fells||ARI||28||1.1||8.9||+2.9||38||Maxx Williams||BAL||45||-2.6||6.3||-0.9|
|4||Crockett Gillmore||BAL||44||-1.9||6.9||+2.4||39||Vernon Davis||SF/DEN||54||0.8||9.9||-0.9|
|5||Zach Miller||CHI||42||-1.3||7.3||+2.4||40||Jacob Tamme||ATL||78||-1.1||8.2||-1.0|
|6||Brent Celek||PHI||32||1.0||9.2||+2.2||41||Ben Watson||NO||104||0.5||9.4||-1.0|
|7||Travis Kelce||KC||99||-3.1||5.7||+1.8||42||Heath Miller||PIT||79||-2.8||5.8||-1.2|
|8||Ladarius Green||SD||54||-0.7||8.4||+1.3||43||Jason Witten||DAL||99||-1.9||7.3||-1.4|
|9||Anthony Fasano||TEN||38||-1.5||6.8||+1.3||44||Coby Fleener||IND||79||-0.9||7.7||-1.4|
|10||Eric Ebron||DET||68||-3.6||5.9||+1.3||45||Ed Dickson||CAR||26||-1.8||7.0||-1.5|
|11||Vance McDonald||SF||45||-1.0||8.4||+1.2||46||Dwayne Allen||IND||25||-2.5||6.0||-1.5|
|12||Austin Seferian-Jenkins||TB||38||2.4||11.0||+1.1||47||Mychal Rivera||OAK||44||-2.2||7.7||-1.6|
|13||Jordan Reed||WAS||110||-2.0||6.6||+0.9||48||Jordan Cameron||MIA||63||1.3||10.6||-1.9|
|14||Luke Willson||SEA||25||-0.8||8.0||+0.6||49||Larry Donnell||NYG||41||-2.4||6.0||-1.9|
|15||Owen Daniels||DEN||71||-2.0||7.2||+0.5||50||Cameron Brate||TB||30||1.3||10.1||-2.0|
This was the third time in his career that Gronkowski led all tight ends in YAC+. Gronkowski's +3.4 is the seventh-highest YAC+ among tight ends since 2006. If we bumped up the minimum requirement to 50 targets, Gronkowski would have the top two seasons, as his 2011 was a +2.7 to lead the league that year. Seemingly never going down on first contact, Gronkowski does a great job of getting the most out of his catches. He has not finished lower than eighth in YAC+ in any of the last five seasons. In today's NFL, Travis Kelce is about the closest thing to Gronkowski, physically, and he had his second straight fine season for the Chiefs.
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Marcedes Lewis, dead last in DVOA, sounds like a curious name to finish No. 2, but Lewis has three of the 26 tight end seasons since 2006 with at least +2.0 YAC+. More than that, they are actually the last three seasons. Jacksonville has tried to replace him with Julius Thomas at the top of the depth chart, but the veteran Lewis has still found ways to break a few big ones.
Much of this table makes you think about replacement and change. Heath Miller was great for Pittsburgh for so long, but his retirement opens the door for the more athletic Ladarius Green, who got tired of waiting for Antonio Gates to pass the torch. Green's 2013 season, albeit on just 29 passes, is the highest YAC+ (+5.3) on record. He should be a good fit for Roethlisberger. Zach Miller made enough impressive plays for Chicago to replace Martellus Bennett going forward. Against the Rams, Miller turned a short pass into an 87-yard touchdown for the largest YAC+ play (+79.3) of 2015. Bennett should be a good replacement for Scott Chandler in New England, though their 2015 numbers look awfully similar here.
Not all replacements make sense. The Ravens have needed to replace Dennis Pitta (hip injury), and Crockett Gillmore really seemed to come on in his second season with some big plays, but in free agency the team added Ben Watson (who turns 36 in December). Keep in mind the Ravens also drafted Maxx Williams in the second round in 2015. This is still not as peculiar as Seattle trading a first-round pick and center Max Unger for Jimmy Graham (-0.3), who finished 26th in YAC+. You can see Luke Willson finished 14th in YAC+, and he had really good numbers in 2013 and 2014 as well. The sample sizes were small, but that's because Seattle is not a high-volume passing team, which combined with Wilson's passing proficiency to other tight ends, just made the Graham trade a real head-scratcher from Day 1.
Coby Fleener should see his plus-minus improve with Drew Brees in New Orleans, but he is still a frustrating player to watch with his drops and general inconsistency. Cameron Brate is probably an obscure name to finish in last place, but the Tampa Bay backup should step aside for Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who was injured for much of 2015.
2015 Running Backs
There may be no such thing as a consistent, efficient receiving back. Take the great Marshall Faulk, for example. From 1998-2001, he finished first or second in receiving DYAR and DVOA, but in his other eight seasons, he ranked in the top 10 just once. The impact of the quarterback is lessened with running backs, because most of the throws are short. Only three backs in 2015 had an average target more than 3.5 yards down the field. This is why their catch rates are generally so high, but you almost hope your quarterback gets you the ball on second-and-4 instead of third-and-14 to keep a respectable first-down rate. Great hands and decent YAC moves still don't make it likely that a back will turn those plays into a success. Doing well in these stats on a consistent basis is hardest on the running back.
Just last year we praised the job Roy Helu did for Washington, catching 42-of-44 passes and having the highest YAC+ at +3.7. This sounded like a great addition for a young Derek Carr to get some easy completions in Oakland. Go to 2015, and Helu only got nine receptions on 16 targets. Meanwhile, Latavius Murray had 53 targets and only averaged 5.7 yards per reception while ranking 51st in YAC+. Helu did not qualify for this year's table, but there was another notable fall from grace.
|2015 Running Backs: Top 15 in YAC+||2015 Running Backs: Bottom 15 in YAC+|
|1||Joique Bell||DET||27||-9.1||0.4||+5.9||42||Shaun Draughn||CLE/SF||35||-9.6||0.3||-0.4|
|2||David Johnson||ARI||53||-4.1||4.6||+4.0||43||Ryan Mathews||PHI||26||-10.6||0.8||-0.5|
|3||Charcandrick West||KC||31||-9.0||-0.5||+3.7||44||C.J. Spiller||NO||39||-8.2||0.7||-0.5|
|4||Jeremy Langford||CHI||41||-4.8||4.8||+3.5||45||Darren Sproles||PHI||72||-8.2||1.2||-0.7|
|5||Rashad Jennings||NYG||35||-9.9||-0.7||+3.4||46||C.J. Anderson||DEN||32||-8.8||1.7||-0.8|
|6||Charles Sims||TB||69||-7.5||3.3||+2.9||47||Dexter McCluster||TEN||39||-7.9||2.7||-0.8|
|7||James Starks||GB||51||-10.3||-1.5||+2.4||48||Melvin Gordon||SD||37||-11.2||-1.4||-0.9|
|8||Giovani Bernard||CIN||65||-9.4||0.7||+2.2||49||Jonathan Grimes||HOU||31||-6.4||2.4||-0.9|
|9||Dion Lewis||NE||49||-8.0||2.4||+2.0||50||Chris Thompson||WAS||46||-5.3||3.3||-0.9|
|10||Eddie Lacy||GB||28||-11.0||-0.7||+2.0||51||Latavius Murray||OAK||49||-10.2||-0.2||-1.6|
|11||James White||NE||52||-6.1||2.3||+2.0||52||Chris Polk||HOU||25||-6.1||3.4||-1.8|
|12||DeAngelo Williams||PIT||47||-10.1||0.4||+1.9||53||Le'Veon Bell||PIT||25||-10.6||0.1||-2.1|
|13||Danny Woodhead||SD||100||-8.2||0.9||+1.9||54||Damien Williams||MIA||27||-4.2||4.3||-2.2|
|14||Jamaal Charles||KC||26||-10.5||-1.0||+1.9||55||Ronnie Hillman||DEN||32||-8.1||1.3||-2.5|
|15||Todd Gurley||STL||26||-9.7||-0.6||+1.7||56||Justin Forsett||BAL||38||-10.2||0.5||-2.5|
I think the reason we have 56 qualified backs instead of 55 again like in the plus-minus study is because of Dexter McCluster. I am not sure if McCluster should be a wide receiver or running back. I just know he's only good enough to average six touches per game on lousy offenses.
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Le'Veon Bell dropped from third in YAC+ in 2014 to 53rd last season. Yes, he caught 24 of his 25 catchable targets, but they were 10.6 yards short of the marker on average. He failed to make the explosive plays that he had the previous season.
While Lamar Miller (+1.0) only ranked 24th in YAC+, he should be a good addition to a Houston offense that featured an aging Arian Foster and two of the bottom 10 backs in YAC+.
In 2014, Joique Bell and Theo Riddick finished in the top 10 in YAC+. When Detroit wanted to throw to the back in 2015, Bell was the third option behind Riddick and rookie Ameer Abdullah, but Bell was very good with his opportunities in the Lions' short-passing attack. Eddie Lacy also finished in the top 10 for a second year in a row, and James Starks' appearance is a reminder that the running back screen was one of Green Bay's best plays down the stretch of an odd 2015. Dion Lewis and Charles Sims were also surprisingly effective last season.
In plus-minus, we talked about Jeremy Langford's poor catch rate, but his 83-yard touchdown on a screen against the Rams was good for +77.3 in YAC+, the second-largest play of the season. Between this and the Zach Miller touchdown, this means the Rams allowed the two biggest YAC+ plays of 2015 in the same half of football. Similarly, David Johnson's big-play ability as a rookie makes you excited to see him in Arizona this season, but what proof do we really have that these backs at the top are likely to return there in 2016?
We looked at the year-to-year correlation for YAC+ for qualified seasons since 2006. For running backs, it was the weakest at just 0.07. Tight ends (0.27) and wide receivers (0.29) were similar and stronger. No matter how good a receiver is, it is really difficult to consistently beat the expectations of YAC+. No one is that good at breaking tackles or fortunate to get so many blown coverages to boost the numbers.
We saved the quarterbacks for last since YAC+ is more of a receiver-driven stat. In looking at the year-to-year correlations for qualified quarterbacks with at least 200 attempts, the correlation coefficient is 0.59 for plus-minus and 0.18 for YAC+. Again, YAC is far more volatile and more dependent on the receiver than the act of completing passes is, and the correlation being more than triple that of YAC+ should come as no surprise.
Of course, the quarterback does have some impact on YAC. It's just overstated in regards to accuracy, because most catches in the NFL are made on well-placed throws. While some bigger receivers offer more margins for error in a larger throwing window, a quarterback's accuracy advantage should be relatively similar when throwing to all of his receivers. Yet we see varying YAC+ results that do more to explain the receiver's role and performance.
YAC+ for quarterbacks is really more of an indicator of the type of offense the quarterback runs and the talent in it rather than his performance level. Here are the 2015 results.
|2015 Quarterbacks: YAC+ (Min. 200 Passes)|
|Player||Team||Passes||Comp||+/-||ALEX||Avg PYD||Avg YAC||YAC+||Rk|
|Player||Team||Passes||Comp||+/-||ALEX||Avg PYD||Avg YAC||YAC+||Rk|
Yes, Ryan Mallett's season is the lowest YAC+ of the last decade, beating out Mike Glennon's 2013 rookie season (-1.4) in Tampa Bay. While Mallett's accuracy is a definite issue, Brian Hoyer did not fare well either in the same Houston offense, and he has experience with Bill O'Brien dating back to his New England days. In fact, the 2011 Patriots with O'Brien as offensive coordinator were one of the best YAC+ offenses of the last decade.
The Patriots and Chiefs are known for short passing attacks, but Alex Smith never had a season rank this highly in YAC+ before. Some of this is by the design of Andy Reid, who saw Donovan McNabb have the highest YAC+ on record in 2006 (+2.5). The second-highest season is Tom Brady in 2011 (+1.7), which was really the height of Wes Welker in New England and the All-Pro emergence of Rob Gronkowski. Brady has ranked first or second in YAC+ five times since 2007, but these two franchises also offer a cautionary tale of treating YAC as a quarterback skill. In 2008, Matt Cassel had very little experience, but stepped in for Brady after he tore his ACL and led the NFL in YAC+ (+1.1). After being traded to Kansas City, Cassel finished dead last (32nd) in YAC+ in 2009 (-1.2). When the Chiefs brought in Charlie Weis, Brady's former offensive coordinator, in 2010, Cassel's YAC+ shot back up in a more familiar system to +0.7, good for eighth in the league. With Weis gone back to college in 2011, Cassel sunk back to 33rd in YAC+. He really never recovered from there.
Nick Foles has experienced a similar system shock in his brief NFL career. In Chip Kelly's first year, Foles was historic and led the NFL in YAC+. In his rookie season with Reid and last year with Jeff Fisher in St. Louis, Foles finished 32nd in YAC+ both times.
Drew Brees and Peyton Manning were the most dominant quarterbacks in passing plus-minus for the last decade -- impossible to do without being deadly accurate. Yet, Brees has as many seasons (three) ranked 22nd or worse in YAC+ as he does in the top 10. Manning's only top-10 finish in YAC+ was 2013, when Denver clearly hit some home runs on screen passes that everyone but Seattle seemed to struggle defending. That year was a stylistic outlier in an otherwise consistent career.
We have a pretty good sense for which statistics bring out the best in quarterback play, but so far, whether it's adjusted or not, YAC does not appear to be one of them.