by Vince Verhei
Year of the Quarterback, indeed. Though the individual records for passing in Football Outsiders' advanced metrics refused to fall, we saw more good passers than ever before. Wide receiver records for total value were also threatened, and two wideouts had more production per play than we've ever seen before. And one man produced what was almost certainly the best season for a tight end in the last 20 years. There were also some guys who just grabbed the ball and ran with it, but they hardly matter anymore.
Using our core advanced metrics -- DYAR and DVOA -- we've gone through the full-season totals at each position and identified the best and worst quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends from this past season. There's also a look at which players have had their performance most drastically different from their conventional statistics, as well as those players who have had the biggest improvement or decline in their performance from a year ago.
Our annual disclaimer: Numbers are never perfect. While we certainly believe that our metrics do a better job of analyzing a player's performance than anything else you'll see, there are some things statistics can't account for. We'll point out where the data needs some missing context as warranted. Also, remember that DYAR is a cumulative stat, so players who miss time (like Matt Schaub) will find it harder to make it to these leaderboards.
1) Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints: 2,579 DYAR (2,544 passing DYAR, 35 rushing)
2) Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers: 2,342 DYAR (2,268 passing DYAR, 74 rushing)
3) Tom Brady, New England Patriots: 2,290 DYAR (2,235 passing DYAR, 55 rushing)
4) Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys: 1,586 DYAR (1,591 passing DYAR, -5 rushing)
5) Matt Stafford, Detroit Lions: 1,454 DYAR (1,446 passing DYAR, 8 rushing)
Analysis: It's awfully clear who the top three quarterbacks in the league are, and all three were in the top three last year, too. If you're wondering, even if we go with DYAR per game, the rankings still go Brees-Rodgers-Brady. As Aaron pointed out in the final DVOA ratings, three of the top six quarterback seasons since 1992 came this season, and each of Tom Brady's last four healthy seasons make the top eight. What's a little surprising is how many of the best quarterbacks this year were in the NFC. It starts with Brees, Rodgers, Romo, and Stafford, and the next two on the list are Eli Manning and Matt Ryan. That's six of the top seven passers in one conference. (Eight and nine are Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger, ten is Michael Vick.) Cam Newton was 12th with 809 DYAR (619 passing, 190 rushing) narrowly beating out Andy Dalton's 805 (807, -2) for the best ranking among rookies.
1) Blaine Gabbert, Jacksonville Jaguars: -858 DYAR (-825 passing DYAR, -33 rushing)
2) Caleb Hanie, Chicago Bears: -403 DYAR (-429 passing DYAR, 26 rushing)
3) Curtis Painter, Indianapolis Colts: -252 DYAR (-269 passing DYAR, 17 rushing)
4) Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams: -213 DYAR (-188 passing DYAR, -25 rushing)
5) Christian Ponder, Minnesota Vikings: -203 DYAR (-262 passing DYAR, 59 rushing)
Analysis: Gabbert and Ponder were rookies, Hanie and Painter had never started a game before this year, and Bradford was in just his second season. Gabbert had the fifth-worst season in our database, and he did it in only 14 starts. Hanie, however, only played six games, starting four. That's -67 DYAR per game for Hanie, and -57 for Gabbert. The two names who just missed this list also bear mentioning. Arizona's John Skelton barely missed the bottom five for the second straight season. Number 7? Tim Tebow.
Better than his standard statistics made him look: Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals: Is there a Skyline Chili variable in the NFL's passer rating formula? For the second straight season, the Cincinnati Bengals put a quarterback in this spot. Among the 34 quarterbacks who qualified for the official passing crown (not the 47 quarterbacks on FO's tables), Dalton finished 20th in passer rating, but 12th in DVOA. It would be easy to blame the schedule, and Dalton did play eight games against the top 10 teams in pass defense DVOA. However, DVOA and VOA were very similar. Dalton just doesn't play a game conducive to gaudy passer rating numbers. He was 22nd in completion percentage, but 14th in interception percentage, and sixth in sack rate (which isn't even part of the passer rating).
Worse than his standard statistics made him look: Kevin Kolb, Arizona Cardinals: Kolb finished 17th among qualifying quarterbacks in passer rating, but 27th in DVOA. He had a tendency to pad his stats with completions that killed drives. In nine starts, he had 17 failed completions on third or fourth down. Over 16 starts, that would have been 30 failed completions on third down, which would have been in the top five in the league. (Matt Hasselbeck was first with 39.) He also had a complete lack of pocket presence, with the second-worst sack rate of any quarterback. (Worst: Tim Tebow.) Teammate John Skelton, who will never be confused with Dan Marino, finished 26th, seven spots higher.
Most improved: Alex Smith, San Francisco: Smith had qualified for the DVOA tables in four prior seasons, and never made the top 25 in DVOA or DYAR. In 2011, he finished 13th in DYAR and 14th in DVOA. Jim Harbaugh preaches ball control, and Smith had the lowest interception percentage in the league.
Biggest decline: Bradford: In his rookie season, the Rams quarterback's advanced metrics were not as impressive as his reputation (34th in both DYAR and DVOA), but they were a darn sight better than what he did in his follow-up campaign. His completion percentage fell from 60.0% to 53.5%, his touchdowns dropped from 18 to 6, and he gave up more sacks (36 to 34) in fewer games (10 to 16). Whoever ends up coaching the Rams next year may have to start all over with the development of the franchise quarterback.
All 2011 quarterback numbers here.
1) Darren Sproles, New Orleans Saints: 450 DYAR (198 rushing DYAR, 252 receiving)
2) Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens: 388 DYAR (148 rushing DYAR, 240 receiving)
3) LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles: 379 DYAR (324 rushing DYAR, 55 receiving)
4) Ryan Mathews, San Diego: 352 DYAR (197 rushing DYAR, 156 receiving)
5) Jonathan Stewart, Carolina Panthers: 310 DYAR (202 rushing DYAR, 108 receiving DYAR)
Analysis: News flash: You don't need a back to rack up tons of yards to win anymore. It's almost a hindrance. Eight of the top nine running backs in rushing DYAR missed the playoffs, and 18 of the top 25. Darren Sproles may be the most underrated free agent acquisition of the year, though playing with Drew Brees obviously helps. (Teammate Pierre Thomas was sixth in the rankings.) The MVP race will likely come down to Brees and Aaron Rodgers, but can you imagine the Baltimore offense without Ray Rice? McCoy led the league in rushing DYAR. Mathews and Stewart are both only 24, so you might have to get used to seeing their names in this space.
1) Tashard Choice, Dallas Cowboys/Washington Redskins/Buffalo Bills: -142 DYAR (-89 rushing DYAR, -53 receiving)
2) Thomas Jones, Kansas City Chiefs: -84 DYAR (-89 rushing DYAR, 5 receiving)
3) Daniel Thomas, Miami Dolphins: -78 DYAR (-94 rushing DYAR, 16 receiving)
4) Deji Karim, Jacksonville Jaguars: -74 DYAR (-78 rushing DYAR, 4 receiving)
5) Ryan Torain, Washington Redskins: -69 DYAR (-54 rushing DYAR, -15 receiving DYAR)
Analysis: What an awful season Choice had. He was last among running backs in receiving DVOA, and would have been last in rushing DVOA as well if he had gotten enough carries to qualify. Thomas Jones makes the bottom five for the second year in a row. He was benched in the middle of the year, but Romeo Crennel started him again by season's end. Thomas was last among running backs in rushing DYAR and DVOA. You can't blame his teammates — Reggie Bush was 30th in rushing DVOA, 21 spots higher. Karim averaged 2.1 yards per rush, and makes this list despite getting only 63 carries. He was stuffed for no gain or a loss 21 times, and had 18 other runs for 1 or 2 yards. In Torain's first game, he ran 19 times for 135 yards. The rest of the year: 40 carries, 65 yards, 1.6 yards per rush.
Better than his standard statistics made him look: Sproles: The top running back in total DYAR was 20th in the league in yards from scrimmage.
Worse than his standard statistics made him look: Chris Johnson, Tennessee Titans: By the end of the year, Johnson was averaging 4.0 yards per rush and was 12th in the league in yards from scrimmage. Do not be fooled: This man sucked. He was 49th out of 51 qualifying runners in DVOA and DYAR, and 46th in Success Rate and Stuff Rate. He also had a negative DVOA as a receiver.
Most improved: Mathews: In his rookie season, the Chargers running back was 18th in rushing DVOA. This year, he was 10th. He made even bigger gains in the passing game, upping his receiving DVOA from -19.4% (49th) to 35.2% (4th).
Biggest decline: Choice: Choice has put up good numbers in the past, and though it's always been in part time duty, he had a decent sample size. He's had at least 50 rushes and 20 passes in each of his four seasons. He averaged better than 5.0 yards per rush in his first two years, but that dropped to 3.7 his third year and 2.7 this year. His receiving numbers have also fallen. His yards per catch has gone from the high 8s to the mid-6s, and his catch rate this year was just 63 percent.
All 2011 running back numbers here.
1) Calvin Johnson, Detroit Lions: 586 DYAR
2) Jordy Nelson, Green Bay Packers: 530 DYAR
3) Wes Welker, New England Patriots: 475 DYAR
4) Victor Cruz, New York Giants: 468 DYAR
5) Mike Wallace, Pittsburgh Steelers: 410 DYAR
Analysis: Johnson had the second-highest DYAR for a wide receiver in our database, trailing only Michael Irvin's 636 DYAR in 1995. Nelson had 96 targets, and set a record for highest DVOA for any player with at least 60 targets. Welker proved he can run more than slants. He had 17 receptions on deep passes (more than 15 yards downfield), tied for 18th. Cruz was tied for third in 20-yard catches, and second in 40-yarders. (Johnson was first in both categories.) Wallace topped this list last year with 457 DYAR, and has been top ten in DVOA in each of his first three seasons.
1) Devin Aromashodu, Minnesota Vikings: -152 DYAR
2) Mike Thomas, Jacksonville Jaguars: -149 DYAR
3) Eddie Royal, Denver Broncos: -147 DYAR
4) Jonathan Baldwin, Kansas City Chiefs: -94 DYAR
5) Mohamed Massaquoi, Cleveland Browns: -86 DYAR
Analysis: As usual, bad quarterbacks tend to make bad receivers. We've already discussed the guys throwing to Aromashadu, Thomas, and Royal. Both Baldwin and Massaquoi found themselves playing for multiple quarterbacks this year. Kansas City's Matt Cassel and Tyler Palko were 39th and 41st in DVOA, while Cleveland's Seneca Wallace and Colt McCoy were 30th and 31st. Does that mean Baldwin gets more of a pass?
Better than his standard statistics made him look: Malcolm Floyd, San Diego Chargers: Floyd was tied for 57th among wide receivers in catches, but seventh in DYAR. He had the second-highest DVOA of all time among players with more than 60 targets. Unfortunately for him, Nelson set the record this season, which means Floyd can't even claim to lead the league this year.
Worse than his standard statistics made him look: Roddy White, Atlanta. Second in the league in catches, but 19th among wide receivers in DYAR. The addition of Julio Jones was supposed to open things up for White, but he still only caught 56 percent of the balls thrown his way. That left him with 80 passes not caught, most in the league.
Most improved: Laurent Robinson, Dallas Cowboys: In his fifth season, set new career highs in catches, yards, yards per catch, DVOA, DYAR, catch rate, and most notably, touchdowns. He had four scores in his first four years, but found the end zone 11 times in 2011.
Biggest decline: Brandon Lloyd, Denver Broncos/St. Louis Rams: Did he lose his glass slipper? Lloyd was one of the league's bigger punchlines for the first seven years of his career, but was listed as the most improved wide receiver in this space one year ago. In 2010, he ranked second in DYAR (414) and sixth in DVOA (20.0%). In 2011, he ranked 67th in DYAR (17) and 71st in DVOA -11.1%. Lloyd was a close second behind White with 77 passes not caught, but he was 27th in reception. Playing with Sam Bradford didn't help, but remember that he left Denver before Tim Tebow took over.
All 2011 wide receiver numbers here.
1) Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots: 505 DYAR
2) Jimmy Graham, New Orleans Saints: 331 DYAR
3) Antonio Gates, San Diego Chargers: 287 DYAR
4) Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta Falcons: 237 DYAR
5) Jermichael Finley, Green Bay Packers: 205 DYAR
Analysis: As a rookie in 2010, Gronkowski was second among tight ends in DYAR. In his sophomore season, he completely obliterated the single-season DYAR record for his position. Gates had set the record last season with 371 DYAR in only ten games. That's 31.6 DYAR per game for Gronk in 2011, 37.1 for Gates in 2010. This is the best era for young tight ends since guys like Christensen, Winslow, and Newsome were catching more passes than most wide receivers, but the best tight end of all time, Tony Gonzalez, still stands out among his younger peers.
1) Marcedes Lewis, Jacksonville Jaguars: -120 DYAR
2) Dallas Clark, Indianapolis Colts: -54 DYAR
3) Lance Kendricks, St. Louis Rams: -51 DYAR
4) Brandon Myers, Oakland Raiders: -39 DYAR
5) Rob Housler, Arizona Cardinals: -39 DYAR
Analysis: Four of these men repeat the "bad quarterbacks produce bad receivers" lesson. The fifth is Myers. Between Jason Campbell's start and Carson Palmer's finish, the Raiders had decent quarterbacking this year, completing better than 60 percent of their passes as a team. Myers' catch rate of 59 percent was 34th among tight ends, though, and his 9.5 yards per catch was 41st. We could criticize the Raiders for letting Zach Miller go — except Miller was right behind Housler with -37 DYAR.
Better than his standard statistics made him look: Joel Dreessen, Houston Texans. Dreessen had 140 DYAR, just outside the top ten at his position, even though he caught only 28 passes. He had a catch rate of 72 percent, though, and averaged 12.6 yards per catch.
Worse than his standard statistics made him look: Brandon Pettigrew, Detroit Lions: Pettigrew played for one of the league's top passing offenses, and was third among tight ends with 83 catches. He ranked 29th, however, with only 30 DYAR. He ranked 44th among tight ends with 9.3 yards per catch.
Most improved: Jake Ballard, New York Giants. As an undrafted free agent in 2010, Ballard played in only one game. In 2011, he was sixth in DYAR (165) and DVOA (31.5%).
Biggest decline: Clark. The absence of Peyton Manning played a huge part, obviously. However, there were signs of decline even in 2010. He played only six games that year, with his lowest DVOA since 2007. His DVOA this year was by far the worst of his career. Clark will be 33 in June, and his time is probably done.
All 2011 tight end numbers here.