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» 2017 Play-Action Defense

Our look at play-action pass in 2017 flips to the defensive side of the ball. Carolina was historically good, Houston was historically bad, and a long-standing question about year-to-year correlation gets cleared up.

02 Jan 2018

Quick Reads: 2017 in Review

by Vincent Verhei

We have written a lot about Alvin Kamara in this column this year, so there's no need to repeat the basics here. If you're not familiar with the Saints rookie, we wrote a lot about him in Week 12 and then a little more in Week 15. With his background and circumstances covered twice already, here we can jump right into the details of what Kamara accomplished this season.

Kamara finished third in among running backs with 254 rushing DYAR, and led all players at the position with 278 receiving DYAR and 532 combined DYAR. That puts him in the top ten rookie seasons since 1989 for rushing DYAR. The receiving DYAR is second-best for rookie runners, behind Terry Kirby's 289 with the Dolphins in 1993. The combined rushing and receiving numbers are a new rookie record, breaking the mark of 501 set by Clinton Portis in 2002, and among the top 20 for any running back since 1989.

Kamara and the Rams' Todd Gurley had the 24th and 25th 500-DYAR running back seasons on record. Kamara and Gurley also become the eighth and ninth members of the 200-200 club as players who amassed 200 rushing DYAR and 200 receiving DYAR in the same season.

Kamara had a quiet finish to the season (he had 25 carries for only 78 yards in back-to-back-to-back games against the Falcons, Jets, and Falcons again), and that cost him a chance to become the fourth player to lead all runners in rushing and receiving DYAR in the same season. This is still just the eighth time and the sixth different player to lead all runners in receiving DYAR while finishing in the top three in rushing DYAR.

Kamara's most impressive accomplishment, though, is his rushing DYAR of 44.2%. That's by far the best mark of any qualifying runner this year (New England's Dion Lewis was second at 27.4%), and it's very nearly the best we've ever measured for any running back with at least 100 carries. Last year, Buffalo's Mike Gillislee had a 44.9% DVOA on 101 runs, just barely clearing our minimum threshold. No other runners have ever topped 40.0%, and only six other times has one topped even 30.0%. It must be said that Kamara only had 120 carries this year, fairly close to our 100-carry threshold. That does not mean Kamara's DVOA is a small-sample size fluke, however. Besides Gillislee, only two other players with even half of Kamara's workload have ever had a better rushing DVOA -- another Saints runner, Darren Sproles, had a 46.2% DVOA on 87 carries in 2011, and Andre Brown of the New York Giants had a 45.6% DVOA on 73 carries in 2012.

Sproles, in particular, is a great comparison for Kamara. Here's a look at what Sproles did in that 2011 season, along with what Kamara did this year.

Darren Sproles, 2011, vs. Alvin Kamara, 2017
Player Team Age Games Rushing
Carries Yards Yds/Run TD FUM DYAR DVOA
D.Sproles NO 28 16 87 603 6.9 2 0 193 46.2%
A.Kamara NO 22 16 120 728 6.1 8 1 254 44.2%

Player Receiving
Tgt Rec Yards Catch% Yds/Rec TD FUM DYAR DVOA
D.Sproles 111 86 710 77.5% 8.3 7 0 279 25.3%
A.Kamara 100 81 826 81.0% 10.2 5 0 278 36.4%

Sproles made more of a special teams impact in 2011 (more than 1,000 yards on kickoff returns and returning a punt for a touchdown) than Kamara did this year (one touchdown on 11 kickoff returns), but that was also by far his most productive season on offense, his only year with even 1,000 yards from scrimmage. That said, Sproles has shown some longevity. He had 800-plus yards from scrimmage as recently as 2016, and might have done it again this year if injuries hadn't limited him to three games. So when we say that Alvin Kamara was basically the best version of Darren Sproles -- only better -- that's a pretty good way to start a career.

Quarterbacks

Best Quarterbacks, 2017
Name Team Pass DYAR Rush DYAR Total DYAR
12-T.Brady NE 1599 -1 1598
17-P.Rivers LACH 1417 -10 1407
9-D.Brees NO 1369 21 1390
7-C.Keenum MIN 1298 75 1373
7-B.Roethlisberger PIT 1274 6 1280

Analysis: The more things change, the more they stay the same. Four of these names would rank among the top six or seven quarterbacks of the past decade or more. This is the fifth time Tom Brady has led the league in passing DYAR, one behind the six crowns of Peyton Manning. It is the 11th time he has finished in the top five, behind the 14 top-five finishes of Manning and ahead of the ten of Drew Brees. For Philip Rivers, it is just the fifth top-five finish, but each of those has been in the top three. It's the third top-five finish for Ben Roethlisberger.

The new name here is Case Keenum, who had never finished in the top 30 in passing DYAR prior to this season. Keenum actually led the league with a passing DVOA of 28.2%, though it must be said he somewhat led by default -- this was just the second time on record, and the first time since 1996, that no quarterback with 200 passes had a DVOA of 30.0% or better.

Worst Quarterbacks, 2017
Name Team Pass DYAR Rush DYAR Total DYAR
7-D.Kizer CLE -755 33 -723
13-T.Siemian DEN -326 0 -326
7-B.Hundley GB -385 100 -278*
5-J.Flacco BAL -299 24 -274
16-M.Cassel TEN -257 0
-257
* Includes 7 DYAR receiving

Analysis: DeShone Kizer becomes the 11th quarterback to break the -700 passing DYAR threshold. This does not mean all hope is lost -- Alex Smith, Blake Bortles, and Jared Goff are also on that list, and they're all getting ready for the playoffs now -- but it does mean Kizer was far and away the worst quarterback of the year. His DVOA of -34.5% was also worst in the league, but not even in the bottom 30 among players with 200 passes in a season. If we raise that minimum to 400 passes (Kizer had 514), then he enters the bottom five -- few quarterbacks get a chance to play this badly without getting benched -- but regardless, this kind of performance is hardly unprecedented.

     

Trevor Siemian had a bad year in Denver because he was injured a lot, and also because he is Trevor Siemian. Brett Hundley made our top 25 prospects list in FOA 2017; in our defense, so did Tyreek Hill, Austin Hooper, and Javon Hargrave. Joe Flacco, signal-caller for The Most Boring Offense in the World, led the league in failed completions for the second year in a row. Matt Cassel's presence here is something of a sample-size fluke -- he was sacked eight times in only 50 dropbacks. Among full-timers, the next-worst quarterback would be Houston's Tom Savage (-238 passing DYAR, -3 rushing DYAR).

Better Than His Standard Stats Made Him Look: Derek Carr, OAK

There were a lot of names we could pick here, but we'll go with Derek Carr, who was 19th in passer rating, but 12th in DVOA. Passer rating does not include sacks, but DVOA does, and Carr's sack rate of 3.7 percent was among the lowest in the league. Whether you want to credit that to Carr or to his linemen is a matter of interpretation, but regardless, the Raiders' passing attack was better than it sometimes gets credit for.

Worse Than His Standard Stats Made Him Look: Josh McCown, NYJ

Eleventh in passer rating, 24th in DVOA. Josh McCown was sacked a lot, and he also fumbled a lot -- top-six in both categories despite finishing just 26th in pass attempts. DVOA accounts for sacks and fumbles, but passer rating does not.

Most Improved: Jared Goff, LARM

We're just going to rename this category the Goff Award. We covered Jared Goff's unprecedented improvement in Week 9. The final stats: Goff's DVOA improved from -74.8% in 2016 to 24.0% in 2017, a jump of 98.8% that crushes the old record (Nick Foles, -20.4% in 2012, 35.6% in 2013, a jump of 56.0%). Goff's old teammate Case Keenum and fellow 2016 draftee Carson Wentz also made big improvements in 2017.

Biggest Decline: Brian Hoyer, SF/NE

Brian Hoyer's fluky zero-interception 2016 was, well, a fluke. His DVOA fell from 19.4% to -16.7%, a drop of -36.1%. It should be noted Hoyer threw barely 200 passes in either season. Amongst full-timers, the biggest decline was suffered by Dallas' Dak Prescott (31.6%, 0.1%, -31.5%).

Running Backs

Best Running Backs, 2017
Name Team Rush DYAR Rec DYAR Combined DYAR
41-A.Kamara NO 254 278 532
30-T.Gurley LARM 267 233 500
33-D.Lewis NE 271 90 361
27-K.Hunt KC 221 102 322
26-L.Bell PIT 215 99 314

Analysis: Dion Lewis had eight carries for 28 yards and negative DYAR after the first three weeks of the season. Since then he has 172 carries for 868 yards (5.0 yards per carry), and he surprisingly finished first in the league in rushing DYAR. He was fourth in the league in success rate, and didn't fumble on a single carry. For Gurley, the rise has been even more dramatic. He had 100 carries for 405 yards and negative DYAR through five weeks of the season, but since then has run 179 times for 900 yards (also 5.0 yards per carry), and he finished second in rushing DYAR, behind Lewis but ahead of Kamara. Kareem Hunt's season went the other direction. Through five weeks, he had 43 more rushing DYAR than anyone else, with 609 yards on just 97 carries. Those four are all newcomers here, but Le'Veon Bell is a perennial leader -- it is his fifth straight season in the top five for rushing DYAR, and his third time in the top 11 for receiving DYAR.

Worst Running Backs,
2017
Name Team Rush DYAR Re DYAR Combined DYAR
23-A.Peterson NO/ARI -84 -24 -108
22-D.Martin TB -76 -18 -94
29-B.Powell NYJ -45 -30 -75
28-J.Stewart CAR -50 -21 -71
32-B.Oliver LACH -32 -29 -62

Analysis: Adrian Peterson is the best running back of the past decade and a surefire Hall of Famer. He is also old, injury-prone, and ineffective, with bad hands (three fumbles -- more than five 1,000-yard rushers this season). Doug Martin had less than 500 yards or 3.0 yards per carry for the second year in a row, despite starting eight games each year. Bilal Powell had quite the boom-or-bust season; he averaged 4.3 yards per carry and led the NFL with four runs of 40 yards or more, but his success rate of 35 percent was third-worst among qualifying running backs. Jonathan Stewart had the opposite problem; only 15 of his 198 carries went for 10 or more yards, and just one gained more than 20. Oliver didn't get the ball much, and for good reason -- he averaged just 2.4 yards on 35 carries and 4.3 yards on six catches, with a catch rate of 55 percent.

Better Than His Standard Stats Made Him Look: Chris Thompson, WAS

Really, the answer here would be Alvin Kamara (first in total DYAR, sixth in yards from scrimmage), but we've covered him to death this year. And the next-best choice would be Dion Lewis (third in DYAR, 17th in yards from scrimmage), but we've talked about him too. So we'll take time here to acknowledge the brilliance of Chris Thompson (sixth in DYAR, 36th in yards from scrimmage. Thompson was third in receiving DYAR after finishing second in 2016. He averaged 51.0 receiving yards per game, nearly identical to Kamara (51.6) and Gurley (52.5). And he wasn't just catching meaningless dumpoffs, either. Kirk Cousins' passing DVOA was 77.0% on throws to Thompson; it was 21.3% on throws to all other receivers.

     

Worse Than His Standard Stats Made Him Look: LeSean McCoy, BUF

LeSean McCoy was fifth among running backs with 1,586 yards from scrimmage, but had only 21 total DYAR -- -30 rushing, 52 receiving. He was 31st with a success rate of 43 percent, and was especially ineffective at the goal line. On 16 carries at or inside the 10, he scored only two touchdowns, but lost yardage six times.

Most Improved: Chris Ivory, JAC

Again, we're ignoring the "real" winner of an award (Gurley, in this case) to discuss a different player. Chris Ivory was dead last with a rushing DVOA of -34.3% in 2016, a number that improved to -16.9% this year. Yes, an improvement from "cover your eyes awful" to "pretty bad" is still an improvement. It seems strange at first, because Ivory's average gain dropped from 3.8 to 3.4, and his success rate fell from 45 percent to 38 percent. But his fumbles also fell, from five in 137 touches last year, to two in 133 this season.

Biggest Decline: Carlos Hyde, SF

First, an aside on the youth movement at running back in the NFL. There were 42 running backs with at least 100 carries in 2016, a number that swelled to 47 in 2017. However, only 26 runners qualified for both groups. In other words, 40 percent of qualifying runners in 2016 failed to qualify this season. So a lot of players who declined actually slipped so sharply that they just weren't on the field anymore.

Among players who did qualify both seasons, we have already discussed most of the biggest decliners -- Gillislee, McCoy, Powell. But let's not forget Carlos Hyde, whose average gain slipped from 4.6 to 3.9.

Wide Receivers

Best Wide Receivers, 2017
Name Team Combined DYAR
84-A.Brown PIT 429
11-M.Jones DET 394
13-K.Allen LACH 380*
10-D.Hopkins HOU 366
13-M.Thomas NO 330
* Includes 3 DYAR rushing

Analysis: Antonio Brown led all wide receivers in DYAR for the third time in the past four years, and makes the top ten for the fifth year in a row. Similarly, we have seen successful seasons before from Keenan Allen (eighth in DYAR as a rookie in 2013, perpetually injured since then) and Michael Thomas (second in DYAR last year, virtually tied with Randy Moss for most DYAR by a rookie wideout). But Marvin Jones and DeAndre Hopkins had by far their most successful seasons in in 2017. Jones had never finished higher than 11th in DYAR, and had missed the top 20 in three of his first four seasons. Hopkins had never finished higher than 13th, and was 66th last season. Hopkins benefited greatly this year from playing with Deshaun Watson; he led the NFL with 233 DYAR through Week 8, but only had 133 DYAR after Watson got hurt. Jones played with Matthew Stafford, just as he did last year, but he made more big plays, leading the league with 18.0 yards per catch and scoring nine touchdowns.

Worst Wide Receivers, 2017
Name Team Combined DYAR
11-B.Perriman BAL -158
17-K.Aiken IND -145
11-Z.Jones BUF -131
84-C.Davis TEN -89
12-M.Wheaton CHI -66

Analysis: You won't find all of these names at the bottom of our main wide receivers tables because they did not get the 50 targets needed to qualify. Instead you'll find Houston's Bruce Ellington, Arizona's John Brown, and a bunch of guys from Cleveland -- terrible players, to be sure, but none of them did as much to hurt their teams this year as Breshad Perriman, Kamar Aiken, or Markus Wheaton did in less playing time. Perriman had a catch rate below 30 percent in Baltimore, and when he did catch the ball, he only averaged 7.7 yards per reception. Aiken's numbers in Indianapolis were hardly any better -- 34 percent catch rate, 8.9 yards per reception. Wheaton was able to stretch the field a little bit in Chicago, averaging 15.3 yards per receptions -- but he only caught three of the 17 passes thrown his way, a rate of 18 percent.

As for starters, Buffalo's Zay Jones only caught 27 balls in 74 targets (37 percent catch rate). Tennessee's Corey Davis managed to catch more than half his passes (barely) and averaged a respectable 11 yards per catch. However, he failed to score a touchdown and struggled in the second halves of games, catching less than half his targets and averaging less than 10 yards per reception.

Better Than His Standard Stats Made Him Look: JuJu Smith-Schuster, PIT

Thirty-one wide receivers had at least 60 catches this season. JuJu Smith-Schuster wasn't one of them. But he was sixth at the position in DYAR on just 59 catches. He scored seven touchdowns, and he was especially effective on third downs: 19 catches in 27 targets for 315 yards and 16 conversions, including four touchdowns.

Worse Than His Standard Stats Made Him Look: Jarvis Landry, MIA

Jarvis Landry led the NFL with 112 catches this season, but was just 48th among wide receivers in DYAR. That's what 8.8 yards per reception will do for you. Thirty-one of those catches were failed plays, most among wide receivers this season.

Most Improved: Ted Ginn, NO

In his first 10 NFL seasons, Ted Ginn never made the top 50 in DYAR or the top 40 in DVOA. His best season had been in 2013 with Carolina, when he had a DVOA of 0.3% -- almost exactly average. And then Ginn got to play with Drew Brees, and he magically finished 12th with 259 DYAR, and second with a 34.8% DVOA. There is only one reasonable conclusion here: muffalettas will do amazing things to a man.

Biggest Decline: Cole Beasley, DAL

After several years as a completely forgettable run-of-the-mill slot receiver, Cole Beasley broke out in 2016, finishing fifth in both DVOA and DYAR with career highs of 75 catches and 833 yards. It looked like an anomaly, and apparently it was. Beasley finished 74th in both DVOA and DYAR this season, and while that's partially a symptom of the general collapse of the Dallas offense, it's also likely that Beasley will never again be the player he was in 2016.

Tight Ends

Best Tight Ends, 2017
Name Team Combined DYAR
87-R.Gronkowski NE 340
87-T.Kelce KC 206*
86-H.Henry LACH 165
84-C.Brate TB 155
86-Z.Ertz PHI 155
* Includes 8 DYAR rushing

Analysis: You might want to get used to these names -- they should be among the tight end leaders for years to come. Rob Gronkowski, the grand old man of the group, has now finished first among tight ends in DYAR three times, and second three other times. He is now the only tight end to accumulate 340 DYAR in a season twice. Travis Kelce has been nearly as dominant, finishing ninth or better in each of his four seasons, including first last year and second this. Henry has finished sixth and third in two seasons; Cameron Brate, fourth two years in a row; Zach Ertz, eighth in 2014 and fifth this year. None of the five are older than 28.

Worst Tight Ends, 2017
Name Team Combined DYAR
88-A.Seferian-Jenkins NYJ -83
83-D.Allen NE -57
43-R.Travis KC/IND -57
89-J.Hill NO -56
47-D.Daniels IND -55

Analysis: Much like we saw at wide receiver, the worst tight ends this year were mostly players who were terrible in tiny samples. The exception is Austin Seferian-Jenkins of the Jets, who probably would have finished in last place even if his goal-line fumble against the Patriots had been ruled a touchdown. In fact, by DYAR, each of Seferian-Jenkins' worst plays came at the goal line -- the New England fumble, and three incompletions from the 1-yard line against Carolina. As for the other names here, Dwayne Allen caught less than half his targets and averaged less than 10 yards per reception (and this is not part of the calculations, but remember that he played with the league's best quarterback this year); Ross Travis caught barely 40 percent of his targets with less than 11 yards per reception, and fumbled on one of his seven catches; Josh Hill caught more than 70 percent of his targets, but averaged less than 8 yards per reception and fumbled twice in 17 touches; and Darrell Daniels had all of three receptions in 13 targets.

Better Than His Standard Stats Made Him Look: Coby Fleener, NO

Coby Fleener led all tight ends with a DVOA of 50.3% -- just the tenth time a tight end has crossed the 50.0% threshold with 25 or more targets in a season. He was sixth among tight ends with 107 DYAR, but 37th with 22 catches.

Worse Than His Standard Stats Made Him Look: Jack Doyle, IND

Jack Doyle caught 80 passes this season, second amongst tight ends behind Travis Kelce. And for all those dozens and dozens of catches, he had zero receiving DYAR -- exactly as much as I did. It was a long year for the Colts.

Most Improved: Trey Burton, PHI

Trey Burton's role in the offense shrunk. His targets dropped from 60 to 31, his receptions dropped from 37 to 23, and his yardage fell from 327 to 248. So why are we listing him under most improved? Because his efficiency numbers soared -- his catch rate went from 62 percent to 74 percent, his yards per reception climbed from 8.8 to 10.8, his touchdowns spiked from one to five, and his DVOA jumped from -27.9% to 35.0%.

Biggest Decline: Martellus Bennett, GB/NE

This is a weird case, and more complicated than we have time to get into here. But whatever the cause, Bennett's catch rate fell from 75 percent to 68 percent, his yards per catch fell from 12.7 to 9.5, his touchdowns vanished from seven to zero, and his DVOA fell from 33.4% to -7.3%.

Posted by: Vincent Verhei on 02 Jan 2018

11 comments, Last at 03 Jan 2018, 2:14pm by bravehoptoad

Comments

1
by Thok :: Tue, 01/02/2018 - 3:17pm

Keenum actually led the league with a passing DVOA of 28.2%, though it must be said he somewhat led by default -- this was just the second time on record, and the first time since 1996, that no quarterback with 200 passes had a DVOA of 30.0% or better.

There was a QB with 185 passes who had a DVOA significantly better than 30.0%, and is probably worth spending a few words talking about.

7
by PaddyPat :: Wed, 01/03/2018 - 12:10am

Here, here! I am still somewhat numb and shocked that he was traded, and the league should be fearful of what he might accomplish next year...

11
by bravehoptoad :: Wed, 01/03/2018 - 2:14pm

Particularly compared to his fellow QBs on the same team, each with over 200 passes and DVOA in the deep negatives.

2
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Tue, 01/02/2018 - 3:38pm

We're here for the irrational Dion Lewis argument.

3
by jschroe36 :: Tue, 01/02/2018 - 4:57pm

"Le'Veon Bell is a perennial leader -- it is his fifth straight season in the top five for rushing DYAR, and his third time in the top 11 for receiving DYAR."

Vincent, Bell just completed his 5th season in the NFL and his first season he was nowhere near top 5 in rushing DYAR. Should be "fourth straight season"

4
by Raiderfan :: Tue, 01/02/2018 - 9:19pm

"Kamara's most impressive accomplishment, though, is his rushing DYAR of 44.2%"
I think you mean DVOA.

5
by Raiderfan :: Tue, 01/02/2018 - 9:36pm

I looked at the various stat pages. Gronkowski had more DPI yardage than the next 25 TE by DYAR combined. That has to be one of the most remarkable accomplishments (although insignificant) ever.

9
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Wed, 01/03/2018 - 9:54am

He led the league in OPI yardage, too. =)

10
by aces4me :: Wed, 01/03/2018 - 11:12am

Maybe we need to look at Net PI yardage DPI - OPI. :)

6
by rj1 :: Tue, 01/02/2018 - 11:10pm

I unfortunately watched most of the Colts games this year. The two stars of their offense this year for what it is for a 4-12 team would be Frank Gore and Jack Doyle. I don't see how it's Doyle's fault for example he runs a route as he was designed to by the offensive play scheme, catches the ball, they're short the successful play yardage, and it's his fault that Jacoby Brissett threw to him/Doyle was the only open guy.

8
by MC2 :: Wed, 01/03/2018 - 12:27am

...Carr's sack rate of 3.7 percent was among the lowest in the league. Whether you want to credit that to Carr or to his linemen is a matter of interpretation...

I would actually give the credit to the Texans offensive linemen, circa 2002.

Watching his big brother getting treated like a human pinata must have made young Derek vow to work on getting rid of the ball as quickly as humanly possible.