Quick Reads: 2015 In Review
by Vincent Verhei
The average NFL team this season ran the ball 26.3 times per game, the lowest mark in league history. That broke the record of 26.7 runs per game set in 2014, which broke the record of 27.1 runs per game set in 2013. If it seems like the running game is disappearing from the NFL, it is, and that is very clear looking at the top running backs this season. No running back in 2015 finished in the top 100 seasons we have measured at that position since 1989, whether we look at total value, rushing and receiving, or just at rushing value alone. But this shrinking number of running plays also means that it's harder for running backs to be historically bad -- no running back this year made the bottom 40 in our database, either. In fact, we had a terribly hard time finding the "worst" players at running back this year.
And actually, that pattern applies at other positions as well. Though it's most extreme at running back, you could also argue that the best quarterbacks weren't that great this year, nor were the worst quarterbacks that bad. And the same goes for wide receivers (with the notable exception of one really good player from Pittsburgh). And this makes some of the following analysis a little more difficult than usual.
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.
This was a little harder to do this year than usual, largely because it was so hard to find bad players. Since DYAR is a counting stat, players with more passes/carries/targets tend to amass more value, either positive or negative, and therefore we usually don't need to worry about a minimum number of plays in our year-end analysis -- the best and worst players tend to filter themselves out from the group automatically. This season, though, we had a number of cases where players who had a few dozen plays but still fell short of our typical opportunity thresholds still put up more negative value than any full-time player. Therefore, at quarterback, running back, and wide receiver (it wasn't necessary at tight end) we have listed two separate bottom-five tables -- one for the worst full-timers, and one for especially bad part-timers. That way you can decide for yourself who was truly the worst.
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 Ben Roethlisberger or Le'Veon Bell) will find it harder to make it to these leaderboards.
(More information on these statistics is available here.)
|Top Five Quarterbacks, 2015|
|Player||Team||Pass DYAR||Rush DYAR||Total DYAR|
|* Total includes 21 receiving DYAR|
Analysis: We talked about three of these guys in our look at the MVP race last week. Carson Palmer just completed the best season of his career, leading the league in passing DYAR and DVOA for the first time and not racking higher than tenth in either category since 2007. He also led the league with 8.7 yards per pass, and in QBR at 82.2. Tom Brady, meanwhile, is quite used to this rarefied air. He has made the top ten in passing DYAR every healthy season since 2001, the year of his first Super Bowl win, including eight top-five finishes and four times leading the league. He was first in the NFL with 36 touchdowns, and also first with an interception rate of just 1.1 percent. Russell Wilson's late-season passing surge (and a full year of nifty footwork) led to his best season ever that halted a period of slight decline in his passing numbers -- he ranked eighth as a rookie in 2012, then ninth in 2013 and 14th last year. He led the NFL this year with a 110.1 passer rating. Andy Dalton was quietly fourth in DYAR and even more quietly second in DVOA in what has been by far his best season -- he had never ranked higher than 12th in either category before. And finally there's Drew Brees, who like Brady is quite familiar around here. This was his fifth consecutive season in the top five in passing DYAR, and his 12th straight season in the top ten. He also led the league with 4,870 passing yards, the sixth time he has finished first in that category.
If you're looking for Cam Newton, he finished tenth among quarterbacks with 763 total DYAR (621 passing, 142 rushing). As we explained last week, Newton has been getting the absolute most out of the dreadful talent around him, and his real-world value is almost certainly higher than what our numbers say. Newton finished 45 total touchdowns (35 passing, 10 rushing), six more than anyone else. Newton now has 43 career rushing touchdowns; the record for quarterbacks is 44 by Otto Graham. Did we mention that Newton is only 26 years old?
|Bottom Five Quarterbacks, 2015 (minimum 200 passes)|
|Player||Team||Passes||Pass DYAR||Rush DYAR||Total DYAR|
|* Not counting kneeldowns, Manning did not have a single rushing play in 2015.|
|* Cassel also played one game for Buffalo this season, but did not throw any passes|
Analysis: The Rams didn't give up much to get Nick Foles, just a quarterback who can't stay healthy, but they got even less back, as Foles finished as the worst starting quarterback of 2015. He was last in DYAR, DVOA, and QBR among qualifying quarterbacks. It's partly Foles' fault that his teammates end up in bottom-five lists throughout this article. Colin Kaepernick's DVOA has declined from 25.8% in 2012 to 16.6% in 2013, to -8.4% in 2014, to -21.3% this year. His career in San Francisco is hanging by a thread. Matt Cassel hasn't had a positive DVOA since 2010; his career in the NFL is hanging by a thread. The last time Blaine Gabbert was a regular starter, he established himself as the worst quarterback in the last quarter-century. By finishing below replacement level this year, he is now even worst-er.
Peyton Manning deserves special mention, because he's the only player in this table who is still relevant. There's no gentle way to put this: Manning has been a disaster this year. Among quarterbacks who started at least one game for any of the 12 playoff teams, only Michael Vick was worse than Manning in DVOA. Yes, that means Manning was worse than Landry Jones, worse than A.J. McCarron, worse than any of Houston's four quarterbacks, and for sure worse than Brock Osweiler. Manning's interception rate of 5.1 percent was the highest in the league, and his total of 17 interceptions was second only to Blake Bortles -- who threw nearly twice as many passes (606) as Manning did (331). The Broncos won the AFC's top seed on the strength of the best defense in football, but by re-inserting Manning into the starting lineup they may have put themselves at a disadvantage at the sport's most important position against any team that will be visiting Denver in the next month. The Broncos are gambling that this awful 2015 performance was all about injuries rather than decline and age, but that's quite a gamble. Manning's performance in the postseason hasn't been nearly as bad as his reputation, but he has gone 0-1 in the playoffs nine times, and nobody should be surprised if it happens a tenth time.
(Now watch as Manning throws nine touchdowns in three games and wins his second ring.)
|Bottom Five Quarterbacks, 2015 (fewer than 200 passes)|
|Player||Team||Passes||Pass DYAR||Rush DYAR||Total DYAR|
Analysis: Zach Mettenberger now has -619 passing DYAR and an 0-10 record as a starter, and whoever ends up in charge in Tennessee next year, their first order of business should be making sure the LSU product never puts on a Titans uniform again. The other names here are all backups only at this point, and honestly they would also be lucky to find work in the NFL next year.
Better Than His Standard Stats Made Him Look: Jameis Winston, TB
The Buccaneers rookie was just 28th with a passer rating of 84.2, but he was 16th with a DVOA of 2.2%. DVOA is willing to look past his low completion rate (58.3 percent) and it likes his high yards per pass (7.6) and low sack rate (4.8 percent).
Worse Than His Standard Stats Made Him Look: Marcus Mariota, TEN
The top two picks of the 2015 draft had dissimilar statistical profiles, especially in pocket presence. Mariota was sacked 38 times and fumbled ten times, both in the top ten in the league, despite missing four starts. And sacks and fumbles are not accounted for in passer rating, but they are in DVOA.
Most Improved: Josh McCown, CLE
What a strange career McCown has had. One year after he posted the largest year-to-year DVOA decline we've ever measured, he had the biggest improvement in football, from -41.9% to -5.7%. McCown has now had enough passes in a season to qualify for our tables seven times, ranking fourth in DVOA in 2013 and never again in the top 20.
Biggest Decline: Peyton Manning, DEN
|Top Five Running Backs, 2015|
|Name||Team||Rush DYAR||Rec DYAR||Total DYAR|
Analysis: With 898 yards rushing and 389 receiving this season, Matt Forte becomes the 12th member of the 8,000-4,000 club. DeAngelo Williams had his best season since 2008, when he finished first in rushing DYAR and DVOA. David Johnson started each of Arizona's last five games. In his first three starts, he ran for 378 total yards; in his last two, he ran for 64. Danny Woodhead never ran for more than 55 yards in a game, but he led all running backs with 80 catches, 755 yards, and six touchdowns. And finally there's Thomas Rawls, who did little as a receiver and only started seven games, but he was dominant when he ran the ball, gaining 830 yards (16th-most in the league) on only 147 carries (33rd). He led all running backs in rushing DVOA and success rate, and was second in DVOA. It was the first time a runner finished first or second in all three categories since Clinton Portis did it in 2002; the only others to do so are Marshall Faulk (in 1999, 2000, and 2001), Stephen Davis (1999), and Emmitt Smith (1993).
|Bottom Five Running Backs, 2015 (minimum 100 carries or 25 targets)|
|Name||Team||Rush DYAR||Rec DYAR||Total DYAR|
Analysis: Melvin Gordon, the 15th overall pick in the 2015 draft, never gained more than 88 yards in a game and averaged just 3.5 yards per carry. Ronnie Hillman was a decent runner, but a horrible receiver, averaging only 4.6 yards per catch with a catch rate of 69 percent. Alfred Morris seemed to have lost all big-play speed, averaging only 3.7 yards per rush and 5.5 yards per catch. Frank Gore averaged only 3.7 yards per carry, the first time in his career he failed to hit 4.0, and also had a catch rate of only 59 percent while averaging 7.9 yards per catch. Chris Polk's raw numbers were even worse: 3.4 yards per rush; 57 percent catch rate, 6.8 yards per catch.
|Bottom Five Running Backs, 2015 (fewer than 100 carries and 25 targets)|
|Name||Team||Rush DYAR||Rec DYAR||Total DYAR|
Analysis: Tre Mason, Andre Williams, and Stevan Ridley all failed to average even 3.0 yards per carry. Tevin Coleman's issues were mainly fumble-related -- he had three in fewer than 100 touches -- but he also had just two catches for 14 yards in 11 targets. And Mike Davis gained only 58 yards on 35 carries, an average rush of 1.7 yards that was the worst for any running back with at least 30 carries since the 1970s. Oh, and he only averaged 5.4 yards per catch with a 54 percent catch rate, too.
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Better Than His Standard Stats Made Him Look: Le'Veon Bell, PIT
Bell was just 46th among running backs with 692 yards from scrimmage, but he was 16th in combined DYAR, and led the NFL in rushing DVOA.
Worse Than His Standard Stats Made Him Look: Latavius Murray, OAK
Fifth at his position with 1,304 yards from scrimmage, but negative total DYAR. He was especially terrible as a receiver, averaging only 5.7 yards per catch.
Most Improved: Giovani Bernard, CIN
Technically, Alfred Blue had a bigger improvement in DYAR, but since he merely improved to average, we'll acknowledge Bernard improving to very good. The Bengals runner jumped from 3 rushing DYAR in 2014 to 129 this year, putting him in the top ten even though he split time in the backfield with Jeremy Hill.
Biggest Decline: DeMarco Murray, PHI
|Top Five Wide Receivers, 2015|
|Name||Team||Rec DYAR||Rush DYAR||Total DYAR|
|* Total includes minus-16 passing DYAR|
Analysis: Antonio Brown tops 500 DYAR receiving for the second year in a row. This is just the 14th time that a receiver has gone over 500 DYAR, and Brown joins Marvin Harrison (2001 and 2006), Randy Moss (2003 and 2007), and Jerry Rice (1989, 1994, and 1995) as the only players to do it more than once. (We'll add more 1980s seasons to our database this offseason, so we'll probably find some more big years from Rice.) Keep in mind that Landry Jones and Michael Vick threw more than 20 percent of the passes for Pittsburgh this year. I'm not saying that a wide receiver on a 10-6 team should win MVP, but aside from a lineman like Joe Thomas whose performance we have trouble measuring, you won't find an offensive player who did his job better than Brown in 2015.
Doug Baldwin was second in the league in DVOA as the No. 2 receiver behind Golden Tate on Seattle's Super Bowl championship team 2013), but seemed miscast as the top target in 2014. This year he was the top target again, especially after Jimmy Graham's injury, and he responded by finishing second in DYAR and first in DVOA. A.J. Green's advanced numbers have never been as good as you would think -- he had never finished higher than ninth in DYAR or 17th in DVOA -- but that all changed this year. Larry Fitzgerald, much like his quarterback, had his best season in years in his mid-30s, finishing in the top ten in both DYAR and DVOA for the first time since 2008 -- the last time Arizona played in the Super Bowl. His Cardinals teammate, John Brown, blew up after a 2014 season that saw the rookie finish outside the top 60 in both DVOA and DYAR.
|Bottom Five Wide Receivers, 2015 (minimum 50 targets)|
|Name||Team||Passes||Rec DYAR||Rush DYAR||Total DYAR|
Analysis: Davante Adams wasn't all that good as a rookie, and then he collapsed along with the rest of the Green Bay offense in his second season. Dallas' offense also collapsed this season, but that likely has more to do with Tony Romo's injuries than anything Dez Bryant did. Eddie Royal had a 72 percent catch rate in Chicago, which isn't bad, but he averaged only 6.4 yards per catch, which sounds impossible. Chris Givens had precisely the opposite struggles -- he averaged 17.7 yards per catch, which is great, but had a catch rate of only 37 percent, which sucks. Brandon LaFell was the only player in the NFL to gain at least 500 yards receiving without scoring a single touchdown.
|Bottom Five Wide Receivers, 2015 fewer than 50 targets)|
|Name||Team||Passes||Rec DYAR||Rush DYAR||Total DYAR|
Analysis: Some quick numbers here: Brian Quick: 31 percent catch rate, 10.2 yards per catch. Keith Mumphery: 44 percent catch rate, 9.2 yards per catch. Marlon Brown: 47 percent catch rate, 8.0 yards per catch. Donteea Dye: 37 percent catch rate, 12.0 yards per catch. Taylor Gabriel: 58 percent catch rate, 8.6 yards per catch.
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Weirdest Statistical Profile of 2015: Tavon Austin, STL
You won't find Austin's name in either of those tables, but he was last among all players with -122 receiving DYAR. A 60 percent catch rate isn't bad, but 9.1 yards per catch is, and Austin had 87 targets, which meant a lot of opportunity to build up negative value. However, he managed to do the impossible and lead all players at any position with 254 rushing DYAR. He gained 434 yards on only 52 carries. That makes him just the fifth player (and first non-quarterback) to rush for 400 or more yards and average at least 8.0 yards per carry in the last half-century. I have spent all day trying to think of another situation like this in sports, where a player is the worst in the league in what his job typically is, but the best in the league in something he's not even supposed be doing. He's like a National League pitcher with a 10.0 ERA who leads the league in home runs. Or a 7-foot NBA center who can't block a thing but dishes out assists like you wouldn't believe. Anyway, Austin's total of 132 DYAR makes him one of the Rams' best players on offense, but he sure found a strange way of getting there.
Seattle's wideout trio combined for 178 catches, which isn't a ton when you consider that Antonio Brown had 136 by himself. But what they did with those catches, and the way they wasted so few of their opportunities, was phenomenal. All three of Seattle's wideouts were in the top 20 for DYAR, something that had been accomplished by only 12 teams before this season. (Arizona's trio of Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown, and Michael Floyd were also in the top 20 this year.) More to the point, Baldwin was first among wide receivers in DVOA, Lockett was third, and Kearse was fifth -- the first time in our records that one team put three receivers in the top five in this category.
Worse Than His Standard Stats Made Him Look: Davante Adams, GB
Adams caught 50 passes this year, which isn't terrible -- it's on the low end of what you'd expect from a typical starter. But as we've mentioned, only a handful of players had worse receiving value in 2015.
Most Improved: John Brown, ARI
One (1) DYAR as a rookie, 351 in 2015.
Biggest Decline: Dez Bryant, DAL
430 DYAR in 2014, -86 in 2015.
|Top Five Tight Ends, 2015|
|* Includes 20 DYAR rushing|
In hindsight, Tyler Eifert vs. Rob Gronkowski was the best one-on-one stat race of the entire season. After Week 3, Gronkowski was second among tight ends and Eifert was fifth. In every week since then, both have ranked in the top three (with Gary Barnidge usually the man to push one or the other to third place). Gronkowski jumped ahead of and took the lead in Week 8 and held it through Week 16. Meanwhile, Eifert missed three games in December, catching only two passes in the game he did play. Gronkowski couldn't do much to gain separation though, and then in Week 17 Eifert went 4-for-4 with 51 yards and a touchdown to win the race, caught only 2-of-7 passes for 18 yards to fizzle into second place. Eifert becomes the first tight end to break up the Reign Of The Four G-Men (Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, Tony Gonzalez, and Antonio Gates, one of whom finished first among tight ends in DYAR for 12 years in a row) since the immortal Billy Miller did it with the expansion Texans in 2002.
Barnidge finishes third. He also finishes with more yards (1,043) and touchdowns (nine) than he had in his first seven seasons combined (603, three). With 952 yards, Jordan Reed nearly doubled his prior output (964 yards) too, though doing so in his third season isn't quite as impressive as Barnidge doing it in his eighth. He did up his touchdowns from three to 11, though. And Delanie Walker may have been the only player in Tennessee to have had a good season, catching 94 passes for 1,088 yards when nobody else on the Titans managed even 40 catches or 600 yards.
|Bottom Five Tight Ends, 2015|
|* With 19 targets, Graham did not get enough targets to qualify for our full tables|
So, let's recap. The St. Louis Rams had:
- Nick Foles, the worst starting quarterback in the league;
- Tre Mason, the worst running back even though he almost never got onto the field;
- Tavon Austin, the worst qualifying pass-catching wide receiver even though was also somehow a great runner;
- Brian Quick, the worst non-qualifying wide receiver, who was still worse than most qualifiers;
- and now Jared Cook, the worst tight end in the league.
First reaction: Man, I bet the folks in Los Angeles are gonna LOVE this team!
Second reaction: This team beat Seattle -- twice. What a weird sport.
Marcedes Lewis, so long a good player on some god-awful Jaguars teams, seems to have sadly gotten old just as the team has started to show signs of life. Teammate Julius Thomas was a bust in free agency, with only five touchdowns in his first season in Jacksonville after a dozen in each of his last two seasons in Denver. Between we find Garrett Graham, whose 19 targets this season, resulted in a catch rate of (I am not making this up) 21 percent and 7.5 yards per catch. But hey, he had a touchdown, which is more than you can say for Brandon LaFell. Mychal Rivera fell off a cliff in his third season, as the Raiders seemed to prefer Lee Smith as a blocking tight end and Clive Walford as a receiver. And Jordan Cameron, the second-biggest tight end free agent bust in the state of Florida this year, was a shadow of himself in Miami.
Better Than His Standard Stats Made Him Look: Darren Fells, ARI
Fells was just 40th among tight ends with 21 catches, but he was 14th with 86 DYAR. That includes a 75 percent catch rate, 14.8 yards per catch, and three touchdowns.
Worse Than His Standard Stats Made Him Look: Coby Fleener, IND
In his last three seasons, Fleener has caught 52, 51, and 54 passes, which makes him look like the model of consistency. However, his yardage and touchdowns in those three seasons have fluctuated from 774 and eight in 2014 to 491 and three in 2015.
Most Improved: Tyler Eifert, CIN
Some great options here. The four tight ends in our top five not named Gronkowski all had 12 DYAR or less in 2014. Our pick is Eifert, who had to overcome not just shaky quarterback situations or tight roster squeezes, but a severe injury, a dislocated elbow that limited him to one game in 2014.
Biggest Decline: Julius Thomas, JAC