FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers
FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Danny Tuccitto

With Week 1 of the 2013 season fast approaching, it's time to wind down our anniversary series looking at the best and worst players since 1991 by Football Outsiders stats. Today's penultimate article looks at advanced stats for wide receivers. If you haven't read the previous installments, here are the links:

Today, I'm not going to devote any words to some clever introduction, a pop quiz, or a question about the Hall of Fame. Instead, I simply ask you to consider the following thought experiment: For eight seasons during the primes of their careers, the No. 1 quarterback ever, No. 2 wide receiver ever, and No. 3 wide receiver ever play on the same team. What proportion of each player's value in that time should be credited to the other two? What if we flip that around and consider the worst of the worst playing together?

(Christian) Ponder that as you read the rest of this column.

(Ed. Note: Numbers below will differ slightly from the numbers posted on our stats pages because of a recent fix for an error where receivers were mistakenly given a small amount of touchdown credit for being the intended receiver on a pick-six. To give one example, this fix moves Randy Moss' 2007 season ahead of Calvin Johnson's 2011 season in total DYAR. We haven't had a chance to fix all those numbers on all the pages yet, but will soon. -- Aaron Schatz)

Below are the best and worst receiving DVOA seasons by a wideout since 1991:

Best Receiving DVOA, Season, 1991-2012
(min. 50 targets)
Year Player Team Tgts Recs Yards TD DVOA
2002 Dennis Northcutt CLE 51 40 609 5 60.5%
2011 Jordy Nelson GB 96 68 1,263 15 52.9%
2011 Malcom Floyd SD 70 43 856 5 51.9%
1999 Tim Dwight ATL 50 32 669 7 51.8%
1993 John Taylor SF 74 56 940 5 51.3%
2010 Mike Wallace PIT 89 60 966 10 49.5%
2001 Ricky Proehl STL 55 40 563 5 47.5%
1999 Az-Zahir Hakim STL 56 36 677 8 46.9%
2007 Anthony Gonzalez IND 51 37 576 3 43.4%
2002 Jerry Porter OAK 70 51 688 9 41.9%
Worst Receiving DVOA, Season, 1991-2012
(min. 50 targets)
Year Player Team Tgts Recs Yards TD DVOA
1991 Tony Jones HOIL 53 19 251 2 -59.3%
2011 Eddie Royal DEN 50 19 155 1 -44.6%
2004 Bobby Wade CHI 89 42 481 0 -44.3%
2000 Plaxico Burress PIT 65 23 283 0 -44.3%
2010 Early Doucet ARI 59 26 291 1 -40.2%
2007 Jeff Webb KC 57 28 313 1 -39.7%
2007 Javon Walker DEN 50 26 287 0 -39.3%
1993 Greg McMurtry NE 52 22 241 1 -39.2%
2011 Devin Aromashodu MIN 84 26 468 1 -38.9%
2002 Marcus Robinson CHI 53 21 244 3 -31.8%

And there you have it: Since 1991, the most efficient hypothetical pass combination over 50-100 passes would be 1992 Wade Wilson to 2002 Dennis Northcutt. It's fourth down, and you absolutely have to have a conversion? That duo is your best bet. I kid, I kid. Obviously, Jordy Nelson's 2011 season has a better argument for being the most efficient ever (so far). Nevertheless, as was the case with Wilson two weeks ago, let's take this rare opportunity to give Northcutt some internet space; we may write zero words about him between now and FO's 15th anniversary series. (A quick search of Northcutt appearances in FO content reveals that the only times we've mentioned him since he retired were equally dismissive on the one hand and downright abasing on the other.)

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In his triumphant 2002 season, Northcutt had 39 targets from Tim Couch, 11 from Kelly Holcomb, and one from Frisman Jackson. That sentence certainly constitutes an exception that proves the "wide receivers are only as good as their quarterbacks" rule. Much of Northcutt's efficiency that season came via his yards per target (11.9), which is the eighth-highest in our database over a minimum of 50 targets, and his catch rate (78 percent), which ranks third. (Austin Collie is the current record-holder with an 82 percent catch rate in 2010; that's the non-exception that proves the rule.) Taking a more Hidden Game of Football perspective, an astonishing 36 of his 40 catches resulted in a successful play -- 31 of which moved the chains -- and his 9.8 percent touchdown rate ranks in the 97th percentile of all wide receiver seasons with 50 or more targets since 1991. Putting the "D" in "DVOA," Northcutt also benefitted from posting his best two games yardage-wise against that seasons' first- and sixth- ranked pass defenses.

On the list of worsts, here's hoping that a Jesus Jones lunchbox-toting Rivers McCown had not yet started forming indelible memories when Tony Jones was spending all his time dropping passes in Houston. (Unfortunately, we're both plenty old enough to remember this Jones though.) The amazing thing about Tony Jones' 1991 season is how singularly awful it was in the context of an otherwise potent passing game. Before using remnants of it to Super Bowl effect with the Giants, Kevin Gilbride unleashed the entirety of his run-and-shoot scheme in Houston, with Hall of Famer Warren Moon in his NFL prime at the time. The 1991 Oilers' pass offense finished ninth in DVOA, Moon was the the second-most valuable quarterback in the league, and four receivers finished in the top 30 of our DYAR rankings. Despite platooning with Curtis Duncan throughout the season, Jones was clearly a fifth wheel -- even in the sound bites of his teammates. As Ernest Givins told Sports Illustrated that December, "There's no defensive coverage in the world that can stop four good wide receivers. The other team can't say, 'We're going to freeze Haywood Jeffires.' You freeze him, Curtis steps up, or Drew, or me. But if we weren't outstanding receivers, we wouldn't have the ability to step up and have great games. We do." It's as if Tony Jones didn't exist! (That offseason, he ceased existing in Houston's locker room, moving to Atlanta with teammate Drew Hill in Plan B free agency.)

Best and worst receiving DYAR is displayed below:

Best Receiving DYAR, Season, 1991-2012
(min. 50 targets)
Year Player Team Tgts Recs Yards TD DYAR
1995 Michael Irvin DAL 165 111 1,603 10 591
2007 Randy Moss NE 160 98 1,482 23 568
2011 Calvin Johnson DET 158 96 1,680 16 565
2001 Marvin Harrison IND 164 109 1,524 15 534
2011 Jordy Nelson GB 96 68 1,263 15 520
1994 Jerry Rice SF 150 112 1,499 13 516
2003 Randy Moss MIN 172 112 1,632 17 515
1995 Jerry Rice SF 175 122 1,848 15 514
2003 Torry Holt STL 183 117 1,694 12 513
2006 Marvin Harrison IND 148 95 1,366 12 508
Worst Receiving DYAR, Season, 1991-2012
(min. 50 targets)
Year Player Team Tgts Recs Yards TD DYAR
2006 Chris Chambers MIA 153 59 677 4 -294
2004 Bobby Wade CHI 89 42 481 0 -210
1994 Kelvin Martin SEA 135 56 681 1 -188
2003 Az-Zahir Hakim DET 108 49 449 4 -185
2001 Peter Warrick CIN 137 70 667 1 -180
2011 Devin Aromashodu MIN 84 26 468 1 -171
1998 Irving Fryar PHI 112 48 556 2 -163
2004 Laveranues Coles WAS 168 90 950 1 -163
1991 Tony Jones HOIL 53 19 251 2 -161
2004 Peerless Price ATL 106 45 575 3 -161

Aaron Schatz has written at length about Irvin's record-setting (so far) 1995 season. As a 49ers fan, my favorite statistical nugget explaining why it's No. 1 is buried in -- of all places -- the 2012 preseason DVOA ratings column: Irvin "drew" defensive pass interference 10 times for 202 yards that year. If my memory serves me correctly, all of them came on what should have been offensive pass interference calls in Week 10.

Moving to the other table, among 1,764 wide receiver seasons with 50 or more targets since 1991, Chris Chambers' 39 percent catch rate in 2006 ranks 22nd-worst. Of the 782 with over 100 targets, it's third-worst. And of the 143 with over 150 targets, it's dead last. You want to know how to get a horrible catch rate over a massive number of targets? Pair a rag-armed quarterback like Joey Harrington (or a broken-down one like late-career Daunte Culpepper) with a deep threat like Chambers who is coming off a Pro Bowl season. I can almost picture the offensive meetings in Miami during the second half of the season.

Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey: Alright guys, this week we're going to focus on getting our No. 1 receiver the ball. He's earned it.
Harrington: No offense to Chris, but that Pro Bowl is ancient history at this point.
Mularkey: No offense to you, Joey, but at least a Pro Bowl is in his history.
Marty Booker: Marty Booker too.
Harrington: But coach, we've been forcing the ball to Chris all season, and it's not working. Also, who is this Marty Booker guy?
Cleo Lemon: I think he's an intern or something.
Mularkey: Joey, it's because you can't throw a deep ball to save your life. Daunte was throwing with half-a-shoulder, and he was still better than you.
Harrington: And where is he now? On a boat eating some peppa puddin'? If you think I can't make those throws, why do you keep calling them?
Mularkey: Because our other receiver is this youngster, Wes Welker.
Booker: Marty Booker too.
Welker: Hey, here's an idea! Joey can't throw deep passes very well, and I'm the underneath guy. How about featuring me in the offense instead?
Mularkey: Meh.
Harrington: Yeah, you're no Pro Bowler like Chris Chambers.
Booker: Marty Booker too.
Welker: Dude, I know you're just trying to put your best foot forward, but seriously. Who are you?
Culpepper (conferencing in from Lake Minnetonka): I think he is a quality control assistant or maybe a videographer.
Chambers: His name doesn't ring a bell, but I can tell you one thing that does ring a bell, Wes. I'm the man here, so you'll just have to wait your turn.
General Manager Randy Mueller (over the loud speaker): Hey, pipe it down in there! I need to focus. Nick Saban's in my office talking out of both sides of his mouth. Besides, if the right side of his mouth is the one telling the truth, then none of what you're arguing about will matter. I'll be in charge, and you'll all be gone by this time next year...except for Booker. He's a stud.

Here are the 10 best and worst games since 1991 (box scores linked in the "Week column; asterisk means the team won):

Best Receiving DYAR, Game, 1991-2012
Year Week Player Team Tgts Recs Yards TD DYAR
2000 2 Jimmy Smith JAC 21 15 291 3 141
2006 10 Chad Johnson CIN 12 11 260 2 137
2000 16* Terrell Owens SF 22 20 283 1 133
2010 7* Kenny Britt TEN 10 7 225 3 127
1995 16* Jerry Rice SF 16 14 289 3 124
2011 17 Calvin Johnson DET 17 11 244 1 118
2006 8* Reggie Wayne IND 11 10 138 3 116
2007 11* Terrell Owens DAL 11 8 173 4 114
1994 12* Andre Reed BUF 19 15 191 2 114
2001 10* Randy Moss MIN 13 10 171 3 112
Worst Receiving DYAR, Game, 1991-2012
Year Week Player Team Tgts Recs Yards TD DYAR
2010 17 Andre Roberts ARI 11 4 23 0 -78
1995 6 Vincent Brisby NE 11 0 0 0 -74
1998 11* Mikhael Ricks SD 10 3 16 0 -74
2006 15 Chris Chambers MIA 10 0 0 0 -73
2008 15 Justin McCareins TEN 13 3 36 0 -73
2000 9 Dennis Northcutt CLE 13 4 23 0 -71
2001 3 Joe Horn NO 17 4 48 0 -71
1996 12 Tony Martin SD 13 1 18 0 -70
1993 14 Carl Pickens CIN 12 0 0 0 -70
2004 17 Billy McMullen PHI 12 2 19 0 -69

On the plus side of the ledger, we have another data point favoring one of the best wide receivers in NFL history who can't even get himself into the finals of Hall of Fame voting. Like a fellow snub that we discussed last week, Jimmy Smith had the most valuable single-game performance of anyone in his era to go along with great advanced career stats (which we'll present shortly). His 21 targets were nearly as many as the rest of the team combined (25). Thirteen of Smith's 15 catches resulted in successful plays, 10 of which produced a first down. He became only the sixth receiver since the merger to have three touchdowns traveling more than 40 yards; it hasn't been done since. Smith's final touchdown on the day, a go-ahead 40-yarder with 1:55 left in the game, came after the rest of his Jaguars teammates took only one quarter to relinquish a 23-7 halftime lead. (And, true to form, the defense allowed Tony Banks and company to march down the field in just over a minute for Baltimore's game-winning touchdown.) Of course, it isn't just that Smith was the best Jacksonville player that day; it isn't even that he seemed to be the only competent Jacksonville player that day. No, one has to remember that he accomplished those feats against one of the best defenses ever.

At first glance, Andre Roberts sitting atop the list of worst games made me conclude that I will not be drafting him in my fantasy leagues this year. At second glance, I noticed that five of the 10 receivers made the Pro Bowl at some point during their careers, and Vincent Brisby's nadir came during his best season as a pro. In that way, this list resembles the one we saw in "Worst Running Backs:" Good, and sometimes great, skill position players can have total implosions on any given Sunday. My personal favorite, though, is Carl Pickens' game. That's the highest-target zero-catch game in our database. (But really, I just chose to talk about Pickens and Roberts because both performances came at the hands of the 49ers.)

Here are the worst career receiving DYARs according to a simple sum, a weighted sum, and an average of the wideout's six best seasons (asterisk means the wide receiver's still active):

Worst Receiving DYAR, Career
(Debuted 1991 or Later)
Player Years DYAR
Dez White 6 -312
Bryan Gilmore 6 -232
Brad Smith 7* -206
Eddie Royal 5* -199
Louis Murphy 4* -195
Alvis Whitted 8 -194
Charlie Jones 4 -187
J.T. Thomas 4 -181
Bryant Johnson 9 -177
Doug Thomas 3 -175
Player Years DYAR
Mohamed Massaquoi 4* -172
Donnie Avery 4* -172
Bobby Wade 7 -169
Jeff Webb 3 -154
Clarence Moore 3 -150
Keary Colbert 6 -147
Jon Baldwin 2* -140
Early Doucet 5* -140
Devin Aromashodu 5* -139
Will Blackwell 5 -136
Jason McAddley 4 -132
Donald Jones 3* -127
Worst Receiving DYAR, Weighted Career
(Debuted 1991 or Later)
Player Years DYAR
Dez White 6 -255
Bryan Gilmore 6 -190
Louis Murphy 4* -167
Doug Thomas 3 -164
J.T. Thomas 4 -162
Charlie Jones 4 -158
Brad Smith 7* -158
Donnie Avery 4* -152
Mohamed Massaquoi 4* -152
Eddie Royal 5* -147
Player Years DYAR
Jeff Webb 3 -140
Clarence Moore 3 -140
Jon Baldwin 2* -135
Alvis Whitted 8 -121
Wane McGarity 3 -117
Jason McAddley 4 -115
Donald Jones 3* -115
Will Blackwell 5 -113
Kevin Swayne 3 -108
Ahmad Merritt 3 -106
Deon Butler 3* -104
Keary Colbert 6 -103
Worst Receiving DYAR, Six-Year Average
(Debuted 1991 or Later)
Player Years DYAR
Dez White 6 -52
Bryan Gilmore 6 -39
Eddie Royal 5* -33
Louis Murphy 4* -32
Charlie Jones 4 -31
J.T. Thomas 4 -30
Doug Thomas 3 -29
Mohamed Massaquoi 4* -29
Donnie Avery 4* -29
Jeff Webb 3 -26
Player Years DYAR
Clarence Moore 3 -25
Keary Colbert 6 -24
Jon Baldwin 2* -23
Brad Smith 6* -23
Early Doucet 5* -23
Devin Aromashodu 5* -23
Will Blackwell 5 -23
Jason McAddley 4 -22
Donald Jones 3 -21
Wane McGarity 3 -21
Ted Ginn 6* -21
Rob Carpenter 4 -19

I remember watching the NFL a decade ago, and there was this guy named Dez White on the Falcons. All I knew was that he used to suck for the Bears and was a Loser League All-Star. Then the Falcons drafted Roddy White, and my brain spent 2005 never being able to resolve the confusion of two receivers on the same team named "Unorthodox First Name White." Thankfully, Dez Bryant didn’t join the league until long after Dez White's career ended. (Incidentally, there were no Dezes in the 20th-century NFL, but the first decade of the 21st century delivered four Dezes, three of whom played wide receiver: White, Bryant, and Dezmon Briscoe.)

Each time we've presented the worst career DYARs, the absolute worst are, by definition, a product of repeated opportunities despite below-replacement level performance. Ryan Leaf would not have earned "Worst Quarterback" if he wasn't the No. 2 pick for a desperate franchise. Leonard Russell would not have been the face that launched 1,000 ships from 1992 to 1995 if he wasn't offensive rookie of the year in 1991 (despite a -198 total DYAR, mind you). Dez White, however, was merely a third-round pick who didn't produce much in the way of standard stats in his rookie year, so his path to ignominy took a different route. Essentially, White was "fortunate" (or shrewd) enough to hide himself in the middle of awful wide receiver corps. Behind the involvement of Big Marty Studd, White only had to beat out David Terrell and Marcus Robinson for targets in Chicago. With the Falcons, he vied for playing time against Peerless Price, Brian Finneran, and Michael Jenkins. The truth, of course, is that White was, in fact, worse than all of those wideouts; but it's easier to get away with being awful when other guys are failing all around you.

Finally, here are the best career receiving DYARs according to a simple sum, a weighted sum, and an average of the wideout's six best seasons (asterisk means the wide receiver's still active):

Best Receiving DYAR, Career
(Debuted 1991 or Later)
Player Years DYAR
Randy Moss 14 3,980
Marvin Harrison 13 3,653
Terrell Owens 15 3,481
Reggie Wayne 12* 3,139
Isaac Bruce 16 3,084
Hines Ward 14 2,703
Jimmy Smith 12 2,595
Torry Holt 11 2,520
Rod Smith 12 2,475
Derrick Mason 15 2,472
Player Years DYAR
Keenan McCardell 16 2,376
Andre Johnson 10* 2,321
Chad Johnson 11 2,317
Donald Driver 14 2,076
Wes Welker 8* 2,061
Marques Colston 7* 2,031
Herman Moore 12 1,856
Ed McCaffrey 13 1,850
Steve Smith 12* 1,739
Joe Horn 12 1,663
Calvin Johnson 6* 1,654
Roddy White 8* 1,626
Best Receiving DYAR, Weighted Career
(Debuted 1991 or Later)
Player Years DYAR
Randy Moss 14 3,198
Marvin Harrison 13 2,953
Terrell Owens 15 2,722
Reggie Wayne 12* 2,583
Isaac Bruce 16 2,457
Torry Holt 11 2,160
Jimmy Smith 12 2,151
Hines Ward 14 2,151
Derrick Mason 15 2,063
Rod Smith 12 2,047
Player Years DYAR
Andre Johnson 10* 2,002
Chad Johnson 11 1,977
Keenan McCardell 16 1,920
Wes Welker 8* 1,826
Marques Colston 7* 1,784
Donald Driver 14 1,718
Herman Moore 12 1,649
Steve Smith 12* 1,595
Ed McCaffrey 13 1,562
Calvin Johnson 6* 1,543
Joe Horn 12 1,508
Larry Fitzgerald 9* 1,485
Best Receiving DYAR, Six-Year Average
(Debuted 1991 or Later)
Player Years DYAR
Randy Moss 6 470
Marvin Harrison 6 428
Reggie Wayne 6* 390
Terrell Owens 6 381
Torry Holt 6 348
Isaac Bruce 6 345
Jimmy Smith 6 329
Andre Johnson 6* 322
Chad Johnson 6 320
Marques Colston 6* 318
Player Years DYAR
Hines Ward 6 316
Wes Welker 6* 315
Rod Smith 6 308
Larry Fitzgerald 6* 302
Derrick Mason 6 302
Herman Moore 6 291
Keenan McCardell 6 290
Steve Smith 6* 279
Calvin Johnson 6* 276
Roddy White 6* 267
Joe Horn 6 266
Donald Driver 6 265

Prior to Super Bowl XLVII, people got emotional when Randy Moss said he was the best wide receiver ever. If he would have just added, "since 1991 -- according to Football Outsiders," he would have saved 1,000s from a trip to the cardiologist.

But aside from Moss' largely predictable spot at the top of our career rankings, the main takeaway for me is that these tables prove how hard it is to decouple the statistical interactions between players on a football field. Commenters have raised this issue in previous installments of the anniversary series, but it's nowhere more plainly evident than right now. By my count, there are 24 different receivers across the three tables, and 10 of the 24 played together in their prime years: Moss and Welker, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt, Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell, Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey. Three other pairs played together, though not while both were in their primes: Terrell Owens and Chad Johnson, Marques Colston and Joe Horn, Roddy White and Horn. (Did I miss any? Those were just the ones I noticed off the top of my head.) And what do almost all of these duos (especially that first group) have in common? Great quarterbacks.

Obviously, the relationship isn't one-to-one, but the problem of answering "How good is he independent of his teammates?" lies at the heart of football analysis. How much of Welker's perceived value is skewed by his years with Moss and Tom Brady? What if he had spent his all-important third year with Moss and Brady instead of Chambers, Harrington, and a late-career Culpepper? How much of Moss' perceived value is skewed by his years with Brady, early career Culpepper, and newly minted Hall of Famer Cris Carter (who will show up on this table in five years as long as his first four seasons were better than -500 DYAR)? How much of their own perceived value do Keenan McCardell and Mark Brunell (one of our top 22 quarterbacks) owe to the presence of Jimmy Smith? And bringing this column full circle, how much do Harrison, Wayne, and Peyton Manning owe each other for their lofty career DYARs?

I think framing any player debate in this way is useful, and it's probably most useful in the context of wide receivers. To me, that consideration makes the careers of Andre Johnson, Steve Smith, and Calvin Johnson rise to higher rankings than what their current (or eventual) career DYARs suggest (or may suggest).

Your thoughts?


88 comments, Last at 30 Aug 2013, 2:47pm

1 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

I still can't believe Jordy Nelson's 2011 season.

The stats are straight out of a video game. Did anyone cover him that year?!?

10 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

Well that was the 15-1 season for the Packers.

5161 passing yards and 51 passing TD's for the team. You had to pick your poison.

Name DYAR (RK) - DVOA (RK) - TD - C%
Nelson 517 (2) - 52.5% (1) - 15TD - 71%C
Jennings 275 (11) - 20.5% (12) - 9TD - 66%C
Jones 234 (17) - 41.1% (3) - 7TD - 69%C
Driver 132 (36) - 17.1% (16) - 6TD - 66%C

Cobb 127 - 42.1% - 1TD - 81%C -- No Rankings because he only had 31 passes thrown to him.

Finley 163 (5) - 18.0% (7) - 8TD - 60%C

The whole team was a video game offense. The #1, 3, 12, 16 DVOA (and Cobb would have made it 1, 3, 4, 13, 17 if he had kept the pace for 19 more receptions). Finley didn't do too badly either. Nelson also made some amazing catches on the sidelines. The defenders were there but it was perfect throw and catch, some of the even Revis would have just had to say "damn, there was nothing I could have done"

2 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

Mildly surprised Steve Smith 2005 wasn't one of the best DYAR seasons ever, though I imagine it's not too much further down the list. As always, it is amazing what he's accomplished given his mixed bag at QB and WR2-N.

4 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

Moss did benefit a few years from having some pretty good QB play, but I outside of Brady in his later years, I think Moss had more of an impact on his QBs than the other way around. Daunte declined due to injury before there was a chance to see him without Moss, but Cunningham, George, and Brady all had their best statistical seasons their first years with Moss. Not to mention that Moss was twice a part of a team setting the record for points in a season. Outside of really historical players like Moss and Rice though, I don't think a WR alone has a notable impact on an offense.

7 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

Indeed. Watching Moss in Minnesota, drawing triple teams to leave space for superstars like Matt Hatchette and Nate Burleson (who still owes Moss some of that Seattle money I think) and the TE/FB speed merchant known as Jim Kleinsasser, I can't help but think he is responsible for the success of those around him, and almost never the other way around. By the time he got to New England he was already a step slower than he was in Minnesota, and yet still managed to beat double coverage on a semi-regular basis. We need to mention the "Randy Ratio" the Vikings instituted as well, basically putting a target on his back/chest/head/knees/spleen/etc. I never liked Culpepper, and always thought his "accuracy" was a product of open guys underneath that Moss drew coverage away from. Michael Bennett ran for 1200 yards with Moss distracting defenses too, and while the line gets some credit to be sure (hey Matt Birk!), I doubt he saw 8 in the box all year on account of Moss. FBO does a great job quantifying what can be quantified, but watching Moss' tape from 98-03 you can see things on the tape that don't translate into numbers. Even a game charter writing coverage might miss that it was a double team on Moss because he beat coverage so badly that by the time the ball got there only one defender was still in frame. I would even argue Moss was more impactful than Rice, playing his whole career in the salary cap era and sharing only 2 seasons with a HoF QB rather than playing only 2 or 3 without one.

15 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

As a Lions fan, I've seen something similar to the "Moss Effect" with Calvin Johnson missing the last two preseason games. Without him, nobody else can seem to get open (ironically Nate Burleson is one of those guys). Hopefully once Ryan Broyles gets healthy enough to man the slot full time he can change that.

44 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

Worth noting that Culpepper's best season by far came during Moss's worst season by far in Minnesota, in 2004 when Moss was injured and limited for most of the season.

Randy Moss finished the season 500 yards below his previous career low, The Original Whizzinator led the team in rushing with just 544 yards, Minnesota's other top receivers were Nate Burleson, Jermaine Wiggins, and Marcus Robinson... and Daunte Culpepper still threw for the 5th most yards in history, had the most combined passing+rushing yards in history, topped 40 combined TDs, and pretty much carried the Vikings to a top-5 offensive finish.

47 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

That was one the great unappreciated performances by an offensive line I can ever remember. Not that stats will tell you that; I first realized the limited value of adjusted sack rate as a tool for measuring o-line performance when one of the writers at FO, several years after that season mentioned how remarkable Culpepper's season was given the poor blocking, as measured by adjusted sacks. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The number of plays in which Culpepper dropped back, or took the snap from shotgun, and had a truly massive amount of time to look downfield, was remarkable. He was sacked a lot because he just held on to the ball forever, because he was confident that he would not be facing pressure quickly.

I think Birk might have been the only player on that line to get Pro Bowl recognition that year, which just demonstrates how worthless that metric is for measuring the quality of performance within a year.

50 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

The only thing that kept Culpepper from winning the MVP award that year was that he had the terrible luck to post his most historic season the same year that Peyton Manning broke the single season TD passing record. That's a good way to get overlooked, no matter how great your season was.

5 Independent of QB play...

...Marvin Harrison was still above average as a rookie in 1996 and was very good in 1997 with the likes of the corpse of Jim Harbaugh and Paul Justin throwing him passes.

Before Manning ever came on the scene, Harrison had already shown plenty of evidence that he was on the path toward becoming a great receiver.

It's also instructive that his first prime years came before Reggie Wayne had even joined the club.

I also think Wayne answered the "Manning and Harrison" question with his play once both players had moved on.

6 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

It's sad that Mikhael Ricks is clearly a horrible wide receiver, and yet still by far the best player the Chargers drafted in 1998.

23 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

Actually, we made a bit of a small error, because Ricks actually played two positions: He was a WR from 98-00, and a TE from 01-03. Therefore he doesn't really belong on the "career" lists above. We've made the adjustment. He still was pretty terrible with San Diego, though.

11 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

I had never heard of Bryan Gilmore, the Second Least Valuable Wide Receiver since 1991. For a 6-foot, undrafted wideout out of Midwestern State (which by itself sounds like a punchline), he did OK, playing 82 NFL games in eight seasons. Probably made a doinkload of money too. But he never gained more than 208 yards in a season, or more than 75 yards in a game (and those 75 yards came on one catch with San Francisco against Philadelphia in 2006). For his career, he averaged 15.0 yards per catch, which is pretty decent. He also had a career Catch Rate of 35 percent, which is not decent. It is indecent and obscene, unfit for public view.

12 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

Hmm...maybe that Welker guy really has been a high quality WR!

Nah, he's just a "slot receiver", a "system guy".

It does seem odd to me that, invariably, when people talk about the "best WRs in the NFL right now", they invariably talk about Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson (and rightfully so) but invariably ignore Welker.

Because obviously anybody could be a slot receiver.

25 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

I think it's more that Fitzgerald and Johnson both have had very good seasons on otherwise wretched teams, and spent a long time as the obvious focal point of their teams' offenses.

Welker, for better or worse, is seen as the best cog in a really good offensive machine. If it makes you feel better, the GB and Warner StL receivers have the same issues.

64 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

Well if you want to get tautological about the usage of the word "value"...

Welker was lowballed by the Patriots because Belichick had a personal issue with him. And this happened after months of statements from the FO that they would make every effort to retain him. They lied.

As a result, it was a surprise when he hit the free agent market.

The fact that Belichick gave a much larger contract to Aaron Hernandez than to Wes Welker does not mean that in any recent season that Aaron Herandez was more valuable than Wes Welker. It means that Belichick made a huge mistake.

69 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

Rick, I am curious...if amendola puts nearly similar stats to welker, would that at all alter your opinion of welker? I mean, if welker really were a singular talent(and he may well be), wouldn't there be a likely big drop off to his replacement?

I would like to preface by saying, welker is one of those players thats deadly within the right scheme/talent around him, but isolated is not necessarily great. In some sense(and this is purely for comparison sake), he's like a speed rush specialists that's horrible in coverage and run defense. The positives makes him valuable in a niche sort of way, but he would flounder on his own.

73 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

Try 65% of Welker, not 90.

Taking Browns 6 best years with the Pats (w/ Brady) vs Welkers 6 years with the Pats and putting things in terms of per game to try and factor out injuries a bit.

Brown . . 4.84 . . 51.7 . . 0.25 . 9.1
Welker. . 7.23 . . 80.2 . . 0.40 . 20.1
Percent . 66.9 . . 64.5 . . 63.5 . 45.1

Sure sure, "Brady wasn't Brady until X." I hear different years.

So I don't know how you want to account for that, but saying that Troy Brown was 90% of Wes Welker is laughable. His best season was was 17.43 DYAR / G, followed by a 15.13, he was never better than 6.9 DYAR / G after that. Welker's worst seasons were 10.93 and 12.38. Welker had seasons of 31, 28.10, and 23.63. So sure, Troy Brown at his best, was about 150% of Welker was when Welker was at his worst. At their averages, not even close.

87 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

So using their whole careers in the system, because the two seasons you list for Brown in a later post are the first two in that system ignoring the next 5 seasons in the same system where you would expect him to get better, cherry picking? I took their careers in the system, I used per game numbers with standard stats.

You don't like DYAR for recievers, fine.

If your issue was with my notes at the end. Browns best catch per game played seasons 6.93, 6.3. Welkers worst 5.73, 6.94. Welker comes out better there than the DYAR compar I did in the notes.

Browns best two yards per games played season 74.9 and 63.6. Welkers worst 56.5 and 72.8. Again Welker looks better there as well.

Welkers best two seasons 8.7 and 7.6. Yards 98.0 and 96.3.

The career averages, in the same system, are listed above.

Brown started out in the 80 - 90% range of what Welker using whatever stats you like. You've got age factors where career averages aren't as kind to Brown either, I agree.

I'm not trying to claim Welker made the system work. Brown had more injuries and even with trying to adjust for that it still hurts most any numbers because it's pretty safe to assume the games played weren't fully healthy. I still think your claim of 90%. Belichick changes that offense on a yearly basis too, so I'm not sure how much we have to care about system maturity either. Browns best two years with with two different QB's as well. Bledsoe wasn't Brady. But his two best years with Brady 101-119-5 and 97-890-3 are closer to 85% of Welkers average of 112-1243-6.

Welker is not the only player that can do what he does. He has proven to be the best, and if Amedola buts up Brown like numbers it should make it will help clarify how much is system and how much was Welker. If Amedola puts up Welker numbers or better it also helps clarify that. What Welker does in Denver will give some relevant info as well. I think Edleman has made it clear you can't plug anyone into the system and get Welker numbers. Brown was a very good receiver. Amedola has shown some flashes but doesn't look to be the same caliber. So yes the "legend of Welker" will be diminish if Amendola gets close to his numbers. I expect Brown like numbers though. The system uses that type of receiver to the best of their potential I believe and I also think Welker was better at that job than anyone else we've seen and even just 10% matters at that level. It's close to an extra catch and 9 - 10 yards a game. The chance at one extra first down per game, that matters.

88 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

I agree with this, though I would add one thing. Having looked at the growth trend of the passing game, there has been a steady growth trend of passing efficiency(measured by anyna) over time. Then suddenly, the growth trend experienced two straight massive jumps(leaguewide). Once occurred in 2004 and then another in 2009. I would submit that passing standard even a decade ago were very different from passing standards of today. In essence, according to the data, there should be an era adjustment made for 10 years ago. In other words, troy brown's numbers maybe understated because of the era he was in versus what welker is now. Strange as that is to sa, given the era was ONLY 10 years ago.

80 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

This of course plays into my confirmation bias, but brady wasn't brady and for sure, the offense wasn't what it is now. Remember, in this article alone, we realize how much context plays into numbers, considering which receivers are putting up high dyar.

Again, i would ask this question to really all. If danny amendola puts up nearly identical metrics to welker(i say nearly, the pats don't have hernandez or a healthy gronk right now), what will it say about welker?

84 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

I dispute the metrics you are using, they might be relevant to this article generally but not really the case I was trying to make. I don't think DYAR is a good measure of receiver value.

The idea of the role as a slot receiver was there and Brown came close to 'HOF' Welker's production. If you want to ignore scheme and qb then go right ahead, I hope it cheers you up.

We've been through this before, he caught 83 for 994 and then 101 for 1199 in the embryonic role that Welker assumed. And Wesley has been about 10% better than that for most of his career.

13 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

The trouble with trying to separate qb from receiver is : we probably don't have the data or even the tools do it right now. Its probably like trying to disentangle low gdp growth and high debt levels - and economists have been trying to solve that one for decades now.

14 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

I think it's interesting though how high Hines Ward is on even his 6 year average, considering he spent his prime years doing a lot of run blocking on a team that rarely passed the ball, outside of 2002, when he had 1300 yards on a team 16th in attempts. Feels like he's been sort of underrated for a lot of his career if he can put up that sort of DYAR on a team that was 31st in pass attempts over his career.

27 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

I'm happy to see Herman Moore getting some love in the career tables. Most Lions fans I know seem to have totally forgotten about him, despite him and Barry Sanders regularly dragging a collection of subpar quarterbacks to the playoffs.

16 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

Loved the little skit between my namesake, Mike Mularky, and Chris Chambers. But when you say that Harrington couldn't throw a deep ball, that assumes that he can accurately throw short passes: Despite the 5 yard hitch on 3rd and 8 being a staple of his game, his career completion percentage is 56%.

17 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

Northcutt's 2002 is probably best remembered for dropping a third-down pass that would have nearly clinched a playoff win against the Steelers. (Before the drop, he was having his usual 2002 game: 5 catches on 6 targets, with all the catches going for first downs or touchdowns, plus a 59-yard punt return that set up one of those touchdowns.)

18 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

I can imagine Az Hakim saying "I've made a huge mistake" after he realized how different it has having Joey Harrington throwing him passes instead of Kurt Warner.

21 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

In 2002-2003, Kurt Warner wasn't much of an option either. Marc Bulger was more likely to be throwing the passes than Warner was. Still, Joey Harrington < Marc Bulger. Az could probably dry his tears on the millions of dollars he got from Detroit though.

20 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

Eddie Royal is name that jumps out at me. I remember he was once an up-and-coming player. What happened to him after a promising rookie year?

24 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers


Oops, sorry, I heard somebody talking about a WR who had a really impressive rookie year and then completely fell apart, and I suddenly starting thinking about Michael Clayton, and, well, as a Bucs fan, that tends to throw me into the whole "vomiting and convulsions" thing, and it took me a while to peel my face off my keyboard.

29 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

I gather you're saying it was QB quality, but I'm not so sure.

08 Cutler was the best QB Royal ever played with, but 09-10 Orton was not a bad QB. Brandon Marshall, Jabar Gaffney, Brandon Stokely and Tony Scheffler all did OK catching passes from Orton in 09. Royal was dead last in DYAR and DVOA in 09, and never got back to his rookie level from there.

Tebow... yeah, but whatever happened to Royal happened before Tebow came along.

30 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

I do find it interesting that the best receiving DVOA season table is full of "No, wait, really, that guy?" names, and the best receiving DYAR season is full of guys you expect to be there. Everybody on the DYAR table is either in the HOF or in the argument (except for Jordy Nelson in that one insane season) and DVOA is "WTF, Jerry Porter and Anthony Gonzalez"?

31 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

DVOA is not a good metric for evaluating receivers.

Unlike running backs and QBs, a receiver doesn't "get his number called" on a play. He gets targeted when the QB decides he's the best option. That's a very biased sample of plays, and the reasons for getting targeted vary wildly by QB, play design, and the quality of the other receivers.

For the most part, you should ignore receiver DVOA. For rate stats look at DYAR/game or DYAR/season instead. Even better would be DYAR/snap for pass plays, but that's not available. We can dream.

34 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

I looked at the career list for a while thinking, 'does DVOA really not rate Jerry Rice at all?'. Then I spotted the debuted after 1991 bit.

Crunching the numbers from his player page gives the GOAT a career receiving DYAR of 3410 not including the 7866 yards he racked up in his first six years. His best six year average that we have the numbers for give an average receiving DYAR of 402.

Pretty damn good.

39 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

Rice (1991-2004) = 3374 career, 2862 weighted career, 426 six-year average.

Irvin (1991-1989) = 2985, 2587, 436.

Carter (1991-2002) = 2145, 1827, 292.

Brown (1991-2004) = 2871, 2335, 342.

Rice has 6 pre-1991 seasons to add in the future, Irvin has 3, Carter has 4, and Brown has 3. Considering he posted video game stats from 1986 to 1990, have to imagine Rice will end up #1 across the board when we reconvene here in 5 years.

37 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

What's interesting about the "great QBs" comment near the end in regards to Smith and McCaffrey is that they only played with John Elway for 4 years. The following years were spent with some sort of combination of Griese/Frerotte/Beuerlein/Plummer. I think McCaffrey may have played 1 year with Steve Young but he wasn't getting much attention over Jerry Rice then.

41 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

Good point. Here are their year-by-year DYARs (best six years in bold):


1995 = 67
1996 = 76
1997 = 308
1998 = 334
1999 = 181
2000 = 369
2001 = 366
2002 = 191
2003 = 166
2004 = 193
2005 = 276
2006 = -54


1991 = 19
1992 = 100
1993 = 88
1994 = 79
1995 = 88
1996 = 158
1997 = 151
1998 = 371
1999 = 209
2000 = 380
2001 = 41
2002 = 182
2003 = -18

43 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

McCaffrey also didn't join the Broncos until 95. Before that he had 3 years with the Giants and one with the 49ers. He didn't do much any of those years. In SF he was behind Rice and Taylor. I don't know what the NYG WR situation was.

46 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

I'm surprised that Marvin Harrison's 2002 season didn't make the top DYAR list. I can see looking it up that the DYAR number is something like 480, and perhaps his being targeted over 200 times lowers the stats, but I guess I am wrong in thinking of DYAR as a production stat, an accumulation stat. I would think any accumulation only stat (which DYAR is not, I guess) would have that season in the top 10. I am continually amazed that he had more than 90 catches for first downs that season! In fact, an 8-reception, 105-yard game would have been BELOW his average for that season.

51 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

DYAR is an accumulation stat, but because you can accumulate negative value for unsuccessful plays, a WR with a lot of production on a ton of targets will not look as good as a WR with nearly as much production in fewer plays. In other words, every incomplete pass counts as a negative play.

48 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

Player interdependence will always and forever be a stumbling block in football, in terms of using stats to measure individual performance, to a degree that other team games cannot match. I'll go back to the qb position to illustrate it again, by asserting that if two guys of about the same age, and from the same region of the country, switched birthdays, and thus the teams they were drafted by, there would still be people arguing that Peyton Manning wasn't as good as his dad, and other people saying that Terry Bradshaw proves that mediocre qbs make the best studio hosts.

52 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

Actually I think it's interesting that most people seem to agree that Archie Manning was a pretty good QB, and nobody seems to think that Bradshaw is in the conversation for best of all time. People seem to make a mental adjustment for these two players at least to account for their teammates.

54 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

Yeah, thy do, but it isn't nearly enough, in my view. I don't want to be too harsh on Bradshaw. He belongs in the HOF. However, I think there is a decent chance that if he had been thrust into the roster and coaching situation that Manning suffered, he may have been done as a starter within 5 or 6 years. It really was that bad.

In contrast, I also think that Manning, surrounded by the Steelers talent in the '70s, would have breathtakingly, GOAT-good. He was so much further along than Bradshaw when he enetered the league, and when the rules changes took place, it would have been really something to see.

57 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

In this respect, I like to think about Jerry Rice and Tim Brown. Not terribly dissimilar receivers in style. But while Jerry Rice was catching passes from Joe Montana and Steve Young, Brown was being thrown at by

Jay Schroeder
Todd Marinovich
Vince Evans
Billy Joe Hobert
Don Hollas
Wade Wilson
Marques Tuiasosopo
Kerry Collins
Rick Mirer

(For a while, of course, he had Rich Gannon, who was great; and Jeff Hostetler, who was decent.)

Rice's No. 2 receivers were guys like John Taylor and Terrell Owens. Brown had guys like James Jett, Dokie Williams, Willie Gault, Raghib Ismail, Darryl Hobbs and a washed-up Andre Rison.

(Plus, of course, Brown followed up his rookie year, in which he broke Gayle Sayers' record for combined yardage as a rookie, with a catastrophic knee injury that wiped out seasons 2 and 3.)

lllll Alaska Jack

63 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

Obviously, the relationship isn't one-to-one, but the problem of answering "How good is he independent of his teammates?" lies at the heart of football analysis....I think framing any player debate in this way is useful, and it's probably most useful in the context of wide receivers.

Receivers unequivocally benefit from a good QB and QBs benefit from good receivers, especially when they have several of them. It's not quite as clear that receivers benefit from each other, statistically at least. Wayne's skills kept defenses from just selling out to focus on Harrison; but Wayne took some targets away from Harrison, too.

As a thought experiment, imagine adding Randy Moss to those Manning/Harrison/Wayne teams. Manning's stats would be even more ridiculously high. Harrison and Wayne's DVOAs would go up, but their DYARs would drop as they split targets among more receivers.

Conversely, put Manning on a team with just one competent receiver, and an important part of what makes him great becomes irrelevant. If the decision tree reads "throw it to Harrison unless he falls down or a DB falls down" it doesn't take a QB of Manning's intellect to run the offense.

It's the QBs who benefit the most (statistically) from good teammates, not the WRs.

77 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

Never put too much stock in the numbers of a receiver on a team that is getting the crap kicked out of it each week. Even the great ones have their numbers skewed. Jon Gruden never said anything more correct than he did late last year, when he noted how Megatron's record numbers were being skewed because the Lions were well behind late in games so frequently.

(edit) I think a good analogy is being wary of an NBA player having a great scoring season on a team that wins 25 games.

79 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

Collie and Garcon are certainly competent. But I agree that for one season Manning targeted Wayne a lot and those two guys not so much. But because they are competent, defenses that simply focused on stopping Wayne paid a steep price.

The problem is, Colts fans got used to having two of the best ever WRs on the team at the same time. So they think any WR who isn't HOF-caliber must just suck. Some think that Wayne was just an okay WR too, not a great one. They also think an OL with the best string of pass protection seasons ever was just average. Some of them think Edgerrin James was just a system RB. Dallas Clark was just a guy, etc. They (and Manning and the Colts) were spoiled for many years.

Those were amazing offenses. As a result, Manning, James, and the OL probably have inflated stats over what they would have with average teammates. The receivers not quite as much, since they both help and hurt each others' stats.

83 Re: FO 10th Anniversary: Wide Receivers

I would agree, people take it too far. The trouble is, the players you're describing weren't set over a constant period of time, the way say the falcons now are. Harrison was with manning till about 06, when he got hurt and never came back(that's basically missing 4 additional seasons of manning's tenure). Wayne didn't become good till 03(missing a good chunk of manning's career as well). Dallas Clark didn't really become good till 06. And edge was there only till 05 and even then he missed an entire season due to injury.

As for garcon and collie. I'm not sure what your definition of competent means. If competent means he's not a complete eyesore, then sure, hes competent. I'm not sure he's a capable starter really. And collie was healthy for only one year of manning's career.

Overall, parsing credit in football is a difficult business.