by Scott Kacsmar
Last week we covered our statistical adjustments for depth of passes with passing plus-minus and receiving plus-minus for the 2017 season. When we want to add context to what the receiver did with the ball in his hands, we use YAC+. You can see last year's study here. The following description of YAC+ is from the upcoming Football Outsiders Almanac 2018 (available in July), where every player with his own 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 due to variations in YAC stemming from the routes the receivers run, 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.
Spoiler alert: get ready for a lot of talk about Sean McVay's Rams, one of the best YAC+ offenses in our database. The 2017 Rams had five plays that surpassed +40.0 in YAC, two more than any other offense. Now you can start to see why Jared Goff averaged the most YAC per completion (6.8) of any quarterback with at least 350 passes since 2006. Did Goff also have the highest YAC+ season? You'll have to wait to find out -- we've saved the quarterbacks for last since this is more of a receiver-driven stat.
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. YAC+ numbers are to be expressed with a plus (+) for above average or minus (-) for below average. For context, the aDOT and ALEX of each player's targets are also included.
2017 Wide Receivers
A total of 82 wide receivers qualified this season, but we'll just show 20 from the top and bottom of the rankings to save space here.
|2017 Wide Receivers: Top 20 in YAC+||2017 Wide Receivers: Bottom 20 in YAC+|
|1||Tyrell Williams||LAC||69||4.6||14.2||+2.6||63||Brandin Cooks||NE||110||6.9||15.8||-1.3|
|2||Keelan Cole||JAX||74||5.0||13.1||+2.5||64||Torrey Smith||PHI||66||3.0||13.1||-1.3|
|3||JuJu Smith-Schuster||PIT||77||1.9||9.9||+2.2||65||Zay Jones||BUF||67||4.8||13.3||-1.4|
|4||Cooper Kupp||LAR||88||1.1||9.6||+1.7||66||Kenny Stills||MIA||101||5.6||14.9||-1.4|
|5||Amari Cooper||OAK||90||2.6||11.7||+1.6||67||Corey Davis||TEN||64||2.7||11.7||-1.4|
|6||Albert Wilson||KC||58||-2.2||6.4||+1.5||68||Paul Richardson||SEA||78||5.0||15.2||-1.4|
|7||Golden Tate||DET||116||-3.1||6.0||+1.2||69||Mike Wallace||BAL||88||4.9||13.5||-1.4|
|8||Julio Jones||ATL||146||5.6||14.1||+1.1||70||Doug Baldwin||SEA||114||3.2||12.9||-1.5|
|9||Travis Benjamin||LAC||64||6.1||15.7||+1.1||71||Jordy Nelson||GB||84||4.3||11.5||-1.5|
|10||Chris Hogan||NE||58||4.4||13.1||+0.9||72||Martavis Bryant||PIT||81||5.3||14.7||-1.5|
|11||Sammy Watkins||LAR||63||7.4||15.0||+0.8||73||Ricardo Louis||CLE||54||5.3||13.6||-1.5|
|12||Chris Godwin||TB||52||3.5||13.0||+0.8||74||Eric Decker||TEN||83||1.3||10.0||-1.7|
|13||Marqise Lee||JAX||90||3.1||11.4||+0.8||75||Kendall Wright||CHI||83||-1.7||8.0||-1.8|
|14||Taylor Gabriel||ATL||50||1.2||10.3||+0.8||76||J.J. Nelson||ARI||58||8.1||18.5||-1.8|
|15||Rishard Matthews||TEN||82||2.7||11.9||+0.8||77||Deonte Thompson||2TM||67||5.7||14.9||-1.9|
|16||T.Y. Hilton||IND||99||4.7||13.3||+0.7||78||Jeremy Maclin||BAL||71||1.1||9.9||-2.0|
|17||Ryan Grant||WAS||63||0.8||9.7||+0.7||79||Seth Roberts||OAK||65||0.6||9.9||-2.0|
|18||Keenan Allen||LAC||146||1.1||9.6||+0.7||80||Roger Lewis||NYG||69||2.4||10.5||-2.0|
|19||Jamison Crowder||WAS||94||-1.6||7.5||+0.6||81||Mike Evans||TB||129||5.0||13.9||-2.0|
|20||Sterling Shepard||NYG||83||1.2||8.8||+0.6||82||Corey Coleman||CLE||52||5.1||14.6||-2.9|
This is a fascinating top 20 for many reasons. First, Tyrell Williams (+2.6) led the league in YAC+ for the second year in a row, improving on his +1.7 in 2016. He was one of three Chargers in the top 20, joining Keenan Allen (+0.7) and Travis Benjamin (+1.1). Our study later this offseason on route types can provide more context on this. Williams was a master of the drag route in 2016, and we can already confirm that was the case again in 2017 with a league-high 18 drag routes.
The three players after Williams in YAC+ were all rookies, including undrafted free agent Keelan Cole (+2.5). Cole may have made Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns expendable with his surprisingly good debut. Hurns (+0.5) actually finished 21st in YAC+, which gives the Jaguars three wideouts in the top 21 despite catching passes from Blake Bortles. Marqise Lee, Chris Hogan, Golden Tate, Jamison Crowder, and Travis Benjamin were the only five wideouts to rank in the top 20 in YAC+ in both 2016 and 2017.
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T.Y. Hilton (+0.7) snuck into the top 20 thanks in large part to producing the season's biggest YAC+ play by a wide receiver. Hilton's 80-yard touchdown against Houston in Week 9 was worth +71.0 in YAC+. It was a most unusual play, with Hilton taking a dive that led to the Texans not touching him down. He was able to get up and run for the final 32 yards to complete the touchdown. Hilton will be joined in Indianapolis this season by Ryan Grant, who quietly finished 20th in receiving plus-minus and 17th in YAC+. Grant joins a small list of five receivers to rank in the top 20 in both categories in 2017. The others were Golden Tate, Keenan Allen, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Sterling Shepard. Maybe the Ravens, an offense that featured two bottom-20 receivers in Jeremy Maclin (-2.0) and Mike Wallace (-1.4), weren't so crazy to try signing him for $14.5 million guaranteed in free agency. However, they got a case of Crabtree-itis and voided the deal, and the Colts scooped up Grant for a one-year deal worth $5 million.
Smith-Schuster's rookie season in Pittsburgh was incredibly efficient. He ranked first in DVOA, sixth in DYAR, seventh in plus-minus, and third in YAC+. While teammate Antonio Brown could be considered the best wide receiver in the NFL this decade, his eight years of YAC+ data have not been as kind. He's never had a season higher than +0.6, and he was just +0.1 in 2017 (ranked 30th). That's actually the fifth season he has been within four tenths of 0.0, so this has been very consistent over his career.
Another receiver who traditionally does not put up much YAC is Brandin Cooks (-1.3), who continued to be a deep threat in New England last season. Cooks is off to the Rams, where Cooper Kupp (+1.7), Sammy Watkins (+0.8), and Robert Woods (+0.3) all had positive seasons in YAC+ last year. Cooks would ideally fill Watkins' role, though he'll probably be expected to produce more than the 593 yards Watkins had as the team's fourth-most targeted receiver. It is another very intriguing move that the Rams made this offseason. We'll see if McVay sticks to what Sean Payton and Bill Belichick got out of Cooks' usage.
There is a logical tendency for deep-ball receivers to rank poorly in YAC+. If they have to come down with a jump ball instead of catching a deep throw in stride, then that will have an impact on the YAC. Still, a few aging veterans were in the bottom 20 in YAC+ in 2017. Eric Decker (-1.7) and Jordy Nelson (-1.5) had down years in this area, and their teams moved on from them. Nelson may not be a great fit for Oakland's passing game. For that matter, neither may Martavis Bryant (-1.5), who ranked right behind Nelson last season as he struggled to readjust to Pittsburgh's passing game after being suspended for all of 2016. Throw in Seth Roberts (-2.0) and the Raiders have three of the bottom 12 wideouts in YAC+ locked up for 2018. For as much as Amari Cooper (+1.6) struggled last year, he still finished fifth in YAC+. Derek Carr, who has always ranked poorly in passing plus-minus, will have to get better at finding his wideouts down the field.
Speaking of passing games that may be a bit broken, Seattle had three wideouts in the bottom 23 in YAC+: Tyler Lockett (-1.0), Paul Richardson (-1.4), and Doug Baldwin (-1.5). Eventually, the offense has to be about more than Russell Wilson seeing if he can pull a rabbit out of the hat before he gets sacked. It's one thing for the Browns to have two wideouts in the bottom 10, including Corey Coleman (-2.9) at the very bottom. But the Seahawks should be getting more out of this offense than they did in 2017, their first playoff miss in the Wilson era.
Finally, we have the case of Mike Evans in Tampa Bay. After ranking dead-last in YAC+ (-1.9) in 2016, he was saved by Coleman to finish next to last in 2017 at -2.0, a career low. This really isn't a Jameis Winston accuracy issue. You can see that rookie Chris Godwin (+0.8) finished 12th and Adam Humphries was No. 2 in 2016 while playing with Winston. This is more about usage as Thomas Bassinger reviewed recently for Tampa Bay Times. Evans often takes advantage of his size and catch radius, but he could still use some more YAC from time to time. Will that change ever come? Well, if a gifted player like Antonio Brown is still giving us the same results in this area after eight years, then maybe it is wise to keep asking a player to do what he does best instead of trying to do something different, but not as well.
2017 Tight Ends
A total of 48 tight ends qualified for 2017, but we are listing only the top 16 (everyone at +0.5 or above) and the bottom 16 (everyone lower than -0.5).
|2017 Tight Ends: Top 16 in YAC+||2017 Tight Ends: Bottom 16 in YAC+|
|1||Garrett Celek||SF||28||-0.3||8.2||+4.2||33||Jesse James||PIT||61||-3.0||6.0||-0.5|
|2||Marcedes Lewis||JAX||45||-0.4||8.6||+2.5||34||Jared Cook||OAK||84||0.4||9.3||-0.6|
|3||Ricky Seals-Jones||ARI||28||3.5||11.4||+2.4||35||Jack Doyle||IND||103||-3.7||5.0||-0.7|
|4||Demetrius Harris||KC||33||-0.7||8.1||+2.2||36||Julius Thomas||MIA||60||-0.6||7.9||-0.7|
|5||Ed Dickson||CAR||42||1.1||9.6||+2.0||37||Benjamin Watson||BAL||78||-3.3||5.4||-0.8|
|6||Vernon Davis||WAS||65||2.0||10.9||+1.8||38||Zach Ertz||PHI||103||-1.0||8.0||-0.8|
|7||Gerald Everett||LAR||30||0.8||9.5||+1.6||39||Jermaine Gresham||ARI||45||-2.4||6.6||-0.9|
|8||George Kittle||SF||62||-1.6||7.1||+1.6||40||Tyler Higbee||LAR||43||2.2||10.8||-0.9|
|9||O.J. Howard||TB||36||2.5||11.8||+1.5||41||Greg Olsen||CAR||34||1.8||11.0||-1.0|
|10||Nick O'Leary||BUF||30||2.2||11.1||+1.4||42||Cameron Brate||TB||71||0.8||9.7||-1.2|
|11||Rhett Ellison||NYG||29||-2.8||5.0||+1.1||43||Delanie Walker||TEN||103||1.0||9.4||-1.4|
|12||Coby Fleener||NO||29||-1.9||7.5||+1.0||44||Jordan Reed||WAS||33||-1.7||6.6||-1.6|
|13||Rob Gronkowski||NE||100||2.3||11.5||+1.0||45||Antonio Gates||LAC||46||-0.3||8.9||-1.6|
|14||Seth DeValve||CLE||52||-1.0||8.2||+0.8||46||Trey Burton||PHI||29||0.8||9.5||-2.0|
|15||Evan Engram||NYG||108||0.8||8.5||+0.5||47||Jason Witten||DAL||82||-1.7||7.4||-2.1|
|16||Tyler Kroft||CIN||59||-2.1||6.6||+0.5||48||Austin Seferian-Jenkins||NYJ||71||-2.0||6.5||-2.5|
This is also a fascinating top list. First, Rob Gronkowski isn't No. 1 like he usually is, and his +1.0 is his lowest YAC+ since his 2010 rookie season (+0.6). Some of that is from his expanded role of a vertical threat, but it's also true that Gronkowski just didn't physically dominate as he usually does last year. His 12 broken tackles on 69 touches sounds nice, but even Vernon Davis had 16 broken tackles on 43 touches last year, according to Sports Info Solutions.
The other interesting part is that this top 16 looks nothing even close to a list of the best tight ends in the league. In fact, it's a lot of backups or players with limited targets who may have broken free once or twice for a big play last season. Davis was impressive for Washington, but most of these players really don't deserve to be in the company of Gronkowski.
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Gerald Everett (+1.6), O.J. Howard (+1.5), and Evan Engram (+0.5) were all highly drafted rookies, so they are players to watch for in 2018. The 49ers actually had two tight ends in the top eight, though fifth-round rookie George Kittle (+1.6) is likely the better option going forward than Garrett Celek, who led the position with +4.2 YAC+. Everett (+45.3) and Celek (+44.8) had the top two YAC+ plays by tight ends last year, so better luck to everyone in covering anonymous NFC West tight ends this season.
It was actually just a season ago when Vance McDonald finished No.2 in YAC+ when he was with the 49ers. He was with the Steelers last year and just missed the cut with 23 targets, but would have ranked sixth at +1.9 YAC+. The Steelers would have just preferred a few more inches of YAC by tight end Jesse James on that controversial touchdown that was overturned against the Patriots in Week 15. At least the NFL sort of adopted the three-step proposal for a completion I laid out in December, and that play would now be ruled a touchdown in 2018. Maybe. We'll see.
While the list of players at the top is puzzling, there are a lot of really good players in the bottom. Injuries were not kind to Greg Olsen (-1.0) and Jordan Reed (-1.6) last year, though that's always true for the latter. Delanie Walker (-1.4) and Zach Ertz (-0.8) are annually low on this list, but at least Ertz scored the game-winning touchdown in the Super Bowl by finishing after the catch. Antonio Gates (-1.6) and Jason Witten (-2.1) entered the league in 2003, so their poor numbers were really just about age. Witten knew to retire while Gates remains a free agent, but he could return after Hunter Henry's torn ACL in May.
Speaking of finishing or not finishing touchdowns against the 2017 Patriots, Austin Seferian-Jenkins (-2.5) sort of had a rebound year for the Jets. More accurately, he spent about seven weeks getting a lot of targets for a passing game that was trying to find targets after losing its top receivers from the previous season. Jenkins only averaged 7.1 yards per catch and ranked dead last in DYAR. It is hard to have any excitement for that signing by Jacksonville, but at least "ASJ" is only going on 26 years old.
2017 Running Backs
There were 61 qualified running backs, but we are just going to list 20 from the top and bottom here.
|2017 Running Backs: Top 20 in YAC+||2017 Running Backs: Bottom 20 in YAC+|
|1||Todd Gurley||LAR||77||-9.4||0.7||+5.2||42||Dion Lewis||NE||34||-9.0||0.3||-0.1|
|2||Chris Thompson||WAS||50||-7.4||2.5||+5.0||43||James White||NE||68||-6.9||1.6||-0.3|
|3||Marlon Mack||IND||30||-12.9||-2.2||+4.4||44||LeSean McCoy||BUF||72||-8.8||1.3||-0.4|
|4||Joe Mixon||CIN||35||-11.0||-1.1||+3.3||45||Isaiah Crowell||CLE||40||-9.6||0.1||-0.4|
|5||Jamaal Williams||GB||33||-7.3||1.8||+3.1||46||Ameer Abdullah||DET||30||-7.5||1.3||-0.4|
|6||Austin Ekeler||LAC||32||-8.6||0.6||+2.7||47||DeMarco Murray||TEN||45||-10.2||0.5||-0.7|
|7||Ezekiel Elliott||DAL||34||-9.6||0.1||+2.6||48||D.J. Foster||ARI||25||-4.2||3.3||-0.7|
|8||Tevin Coleman||ATL||36||-6.1||3.6||+2.2||49||Orleans Darkwa||NYG||26||-8.7||0.0||-0.7|
|9||Jalen Richard||OAK||32||-9.1||1.4||+2.0||50||Wayne Gallman||NYG||46||-9.4||0.3||-1.1|
|10||Lamar Miller||HOU||41||-8.1||1.5||+2.0||51||Tarik Cohen||CHI||65||-8.0||2.1||-1.2|
|11||Giovani Bernard||CIN||52||-11.6||-1.0||+1.9||52||J.D. McKissic||SEA||45||-4.0||4.4||-1.3|
|12||Samaje Perine||WAS||25||-9.9||-1.2||+1.8||53||Kenyan Drake||MIA||43||-10.5||1.2||-1.3|
|13||Elijah McGuire||NYJ||26||-6.7||3.0||+1.7||54||Javorius Allen||BAL||55||-7.7||0.7||-1.3|
|14||Alvin Kamara||NO||96||-6.8||2.3||+1.6||55||Carlos Hyde||SF||84||-8.1||1.7||-1.3|
|15||Leonard Fournette||JAX||41||-9.1||0.1||+1.6||56||Jamaal Charles||DEN||27||-11.9||-0.9||-1.4|
|16||Ty Montgomery||GB||26||-9.7||-1.0||+1.5||57||Charcandrick West||KC||32||-8.1||1.2||-1.5|
|17||Jerick McKinnon||MIN||63||-10.4||0.0||+1.4||58||Jordan Howard||CHI||30||-12.8||-0.7||-1.6|
|18||Duke Johnson||CLE||90||-7.1||2.1||+1.3||59||Shane Vereen||NYG||52||-9.3||0.5||-1.6|
|19||Chris Ivory||JAX||25||-11.4||-0.5||+1.3||60||DeAndre Washington||OAK||42||-9.5||1.0||-1.7|
|20||Theo Riddick||DET||70||-8.9||1.0||+1.3||61||Danny Woodhead||BAL||36||-6.7||3.1||-1.9|
Todd Gurley was absent from the receiving plus-minus table, but he's on top in YAC+ at +5.2. He had the biggest YAC+ play of 2017 (+74.2) when he took a screen pass 80 yards for a touchdown against the Titans. Even without that play, Gurley still would have ranked third (+4.1) in 2017, a real career year for Gurley as a receiver.
We have mentioned in the past that year-to-year correlation for YAC+ for running backs is very low, especially compared to the other positions. They have much less variation in their routes and usage, so it really does come down to whether or not they made tacklers miss for big gains. Gurley was just +1.9 and +0.8 in his first two seasons, so last year was a big improvement for him under McVay's guidance. However, we also saw a career year from a running back that used to play for McVay in Washington. Chris Thompson (+5.0) had an excellent season that was cut short by injury. Marlon Mack (+4.4) finished third; the Colts really should look into giving him more opportunities in 2018. We should definitely see more from second-year backs Joe Mixon (+3.3) and Jamaal Williams (+3.1), two rookies who rounded out the top five last year. Giovani Bernard (+1.9) is also still good in that receiving role, giving the Bengals two backs in the top 11. A couple of standout rookies in Alvin Kamara (+1.6) and Leonard Fournette (+1.6) round out the top 15.
We mentioned last week how Carlos Hyde had the most drops (eight) among running backs on his way to the worst receiving plus-minus. He didn't fare much better in YAC+ either with the seventh-lowest average (-1.3). One thing we forgot to mention last week is that Jerick McKinnon has gone to San Francisco and should provide a good upgrade to the backfield and receiving game. McKinnon (+1.4) finished 17th in YAC+.
In his Baltimore debut (and NFL swansong), Danny Woodhead finished second in plus-minus, but dead last in YAC+ (-1.9). A former Patriot, Woodhead is actually one of four running backs with a connection to New England in the bottom 20, joining the Giants' Shane Vereen (-1.6) and two 2017 Patriots in Dion Lewis (-0.1) and James White (-0.3).
The Giants have three backs in the bottom 13, but the solution there was to draft Saquon Barkley, so we'll see if he's as gifted as a receiver as some scouts believe. The Giants have never had a running back hit 60 receptions in the Eli Manning era (2004-2017).
It is harder to be optimistic about the Ravens' receiving backs this year. Javorius Allen and Kenneth Dixon will continue to back up Alex Collins, who had a lot of bad receiving metrics, but was at least +1.0 in YAC+.
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 individual performance level. Here are the 2017 results for our 35 qualified quarterbacks.
|2017 Quarterbacks: YAC+|
The Rams had a lot of YAC+, and Jared Goff's season (+1.5) was the fourth highest since 2006, trailing 2006 Donovan McNabb (+2.3), 2011 Tom Brady (+1.7), and 2011 Matt Schaub (+1.6). McNabb and Schaub were both injured just shy of 300 adjusted passes, so Goff's season only trails Brady's among full-season starters. That number will likely go down in 2018, but Goff could be more impressive individually.
Getting a full season out of Deshaun Watson (+1.0) in Houston would be great. Not only was he a prolific rookie last year, but he actually found some YAC in Bill O'Brien's offense, which has historically failed to produce any. You can see backup Tom Savage (-0.8) is next to last after a 2016 season where he would have ranked last (-1.0) if he had enough attempts to qualify. In 2015, Ryan Mallett (-1.6) had the lowest YAC+ of any quarterback since 2006 while playing for Houston. So Watson could be the playmaking quarterback who O'Brien has been waiting for -- or his 6.5-game sample from last year is just an outlier in an offense that still isn't built for YAC with DeAndre Hopkins' weekly contortionist act, Will Fuller's deep routes, and the lack of a tight end.
The rest of the quarterbacks in the top 10 don't come as a surprise given where we have seen their receivers rank. It is a bit surprising to see that DeShone Kizer (+0.0) and Tom Brady (-0.1) were the two quarterbacks closest to a neutral 0.0 in YAC+. They're about as far apart in career accomplishment as any 2017 pairing could be. Alas, Joe Flacco (-1.2) being the only quarterback a full yard below average also makes sense. That was a broken passing game again in Baltimore last year, with failed completions galore. It's hard to say if Michael Crabtree, Willie Snead, and John Brown are the way to fix that, but eventually replacing Flacco with Lamar Jackson might be.
Jimmy Garoppolo was not listed, but his +1.5 would have ranked second behind Goff. That's the second year in a row that a Kyle Shanahan offense would have had a really high YAC+ number after Matt Ryan led the league (+1.1) in his 2016 MVP season for Atlanta. Of course, Brian Hoyer (-0.6) also had the third-lowest YAC+, so it wasn't all about the offensive design last year.
We'll get into the play design numbers from 2017 in a few weeks when Football Outsiders Almanac 2018 is closer to its release date.