Quick Reads: 2018 in Review
by Vincent Verhei
The elevated offensive numbers of 2018 produced some memorable totals for individual players. At quarterback, three first-year starters stood out -- one for good reasons, one for (very) bad reasons, and one for reasons that may shock you. We had the most efficient pass-catching back of the past three decades, who won't be a part of his team's playoff run, but may not be missed anyway. We had the most efficient wide receiver on record, and one of the worst seasons a tight end will ever see. Let's break it down.
|Best Quarterbacks, 2018|
|Name||Team||Pass DYAR||Rush DYAR||Rec DYAR||Total DYAR|
Analysis: As FO big cheese Aaron Schatz noted on Twitter, Patrick Mahomes had one of the ten best passing seasons we have ever measured:
Patrick Mahomes has finished with only the ninth season ever of 2000+ passing DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement). Remember, these numbers are adjusted for this year's high overall offensive environment. He was still that good. pic.twitter.com/JNtaly6rqh
— Aaron Schatz (@FO_ASchatz) December 31, 2018
What Aaron didn't note is the age of the players in that table. Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers were all at least 28 years old in their big seasons. Mahomes just turned 23 in December. Not since Dan Marino have we seen a young quarterback take the NFL by storm like this.
|Worst Quarterbacks, 2018|
|Name||Team||Pass DYAR||Rush DYAR||Rec DYAR||Total DYAR|
Analysis: Josh Rosen's average dropback this season gained just 4.47 yards, nearly a full yard less than anyone else. Rosen wasn't just the worst quarterback of 2018, though -- by DYAR, he was the worst in a decade and a half, the second-worst we have ever measured, and the worst ever for a non-expansion team.
|Worst Single-Season Passing DYAR and DVOA, 1986-2018|
|2002||David Carr||HOU||-1130||2016||Jared Goff||LAR||-74.8%|
|2018||Josh Rosen||ARI||-1122||1992||Kelly Stouffer||SEA||-72.7%|
|2011||Blaine Gabbert||JAC||-1010||1998||Bobby Hoying||PHI||-68.2%|
|1998||Bobby Hoying||PHI||-962||2009||JaMarcus Russell||OAK||-62.0%|
|2014||Blake Bortles||JAC||-955||2007||Trent Dilfer||SF||-55.4%|
|2016||Jared Goff||LARM||-881||2018||Josh Rosen||ARI||-53.0%|
|1992||Kelly Stouffer||SEA||-837||2007||Alex Smith||SF||-52.8%|
|2009||JaMarcus Russell||OAK||-834||1998||Ryan Leaf||SD||-51.8%|
|2010||Jimmy Clausen||CAR||-760||1999||Donovan McNabb||PHI||-51.6%|
|2017||DeShone Kizer||CLE||-756||1997||Heath Shuler||NO||-51.6%|
|Minimum 200 passes|
The good news for Rosen is that some of the names in those tables -- Jared Goff, Alex Smith, Donovan McNabb -- were able to turn their careers around. Goff and McNabb, like Rosen, were rookies in their worst years. It's not a good sign for Rosen and the Cardinals that his career got off to such a slow start, but it's not a death sentence either.
By passing numbers alone, fellow rookie Josh Allen was second-worst among quarterbacks this season. He finished last among qualifying passers in completion rate, and was also in the bottom four in yards per pass, touchdown rate, and interception rate. He somewhat made up for that by leading all quarterbacks in rushing DYAR, but suffice to say there is room for improvement here. Cody Kessler is a third-year quarterback who has now failed in starting stints in both Cleveland and Jacksonville. Nathan Peterman, like Mahomes, was a 2017 draftee; he has thrown one fewer interception than Mahomes, with 47 fewer touchdowns. Mark Sanchez, well, was the worst version of Mark Sanchez in 2018.
The Curious Case of Lamar Jackson
Though Allen led all quarterbacks in rushing DYAR, he was actually second in rushing yardage behind another rookie, Baltimore's Lamar Jackson. The advanced numbers, however, weren't nearly as kind to Jackson's season -- not by a long shot.
|Worst Single-Season Quarterback Rushing DYAR, 1986-2018|
That far-right column tells a lot of the story here. Jackson had ten fumbles on running plays; no other quarterback in 2018 had more than four. Further, on a play-for-play basis, Jackson's carries didn't go as far those of most other quarterbacks. There were 25 quarterbacks with at least 20 runs this season (not counting kneeldowns). Jackson's average of 5.3 yards per carry ranked 20th in that group, far below their average of 6.1. Take that deficit and multiply it by 133 runs -- 44 more than any other quarterback -- and watch the DYAR drop.
The problem with all of this is that DYAR, as a metric, is based on comparing players to others at their position -- and there has never been an NFL player who plays the quarterback position like Jackson did this year. Officially, Jackson had at least 10 completions and 10 runs in all seven of his starts this year. Nobody has ever done that in a single season before; Jackson did it in less than two months. Jackson's rushing ability isn't just a secret weapon or an added bonus to his game, it has become the focal point of the Baltimore offense. And while that may be dampening his individual numbers, it's doing wonders for those of his teammates. Gus Edwards, an undrafted rookie running back, entered Baltimore's starting lineup in November, as did Jackson. He finished with a rushing DVOA of 14.0%, best among all Ravens running backs and ninth in the league. More impressive, he had a success rate of 62.8 percent. That wasn't just the best in the league this year, it was the second-best we've ever measured for any back with at least 100 carries. The last running back with more consistent success was Gary Brown (63.1 percent) with the 1993 Oilers. That was a run-and-shoot team that was first in the league in pass plays; Edwards plays for a team that has 70 more runs than any other club since Jackson's first start. Nobody ever expected the Oilers to run; everyone's doing everything they can to stop Baltimore's ground attack. It's possible that Edwards is the most unstoppable running back the league has seen in decades, and he slipped underneath everyone's radar -- including Baltimore's. More likely, though, he's a fringe NFL player exploiting the seams torn open in defenses by the legs of his quarterback.
(While we're discussing quarterback futility on the ground, we should mention Philip Rivers' rushing DVOA of -98.0%. That's in the bottom five of all time, and the worst of any quarterback with at least eight carries since Andrew Walter's -101.1% with the 2006 Raiders. That's what happens when your ten carries result in 10 yards and a fumble.)
Better Than His Standard Stats Made Him Look: Joe Flacco, BAL
Flacco finished 28th in NFL passer rating, but he was 16th in DVOA, right in the middle of the pack. Flacco was among the top five quarterbacks in best sack rate, and only two of those sacks resulted in fumbles. The Ravens may or may not be a better team with Lamar Jackson, but there were plenty of quarterbacks worse than Flacco this year who didn't lose their jobs.
Worse Than His Standard Stats Made Him Look: Russell Wilson, SEA
Wilson's 2018 season was one of great extremes. His 35 passing touchdowns were a career-high; his seven interceptions were a career low. When Wilson had a chance to throw, he was more effective than ever. All too often, though, he never had that chance, because he was sacked a career-high 51 times. Wilson was third in passer rating but tenth in DVOA, which accounts for all those sacks.
Most Improved: Mitchell Trubisky, CHI
Technically, Joe Flacco's DVOA improved the most from 2017 to 2018, but we already talked about him. So let's talk about Trubisky, who went from seven touchdowns, seven interceptions, and 31 sacks as a rookie to 24, 12, and 24 as a sophomore. Matt Nagy's scheme no doubt helped, as did a rebuilt receiving corps. And we would expect Trubisky to improve with experience -- remember, he started just one year at North Carolina.
Biggest Decline: Case Keenum, DEN
One year ago, Keenum led everyone -- everyone! -- in DVOA. The Vikings figured that was a mirage and let him go; the Broncos hoped it might be reality and signed him. It turns out the Vikings got this one right, but at least Keenum didn't cost Denver $84 million.
|Best Running Backs, 2018|
|Todd Gurley||LAR||367||Kareem Hunt||KC||198||Todd Gurley||LAR||367||98||--||464|
|Derrick Henry||TEN||280||Alvin Kamara||NO||197||Alvin Kamara||NO||237||197||--||434|
|Alvin Kamara||NO||237||James White||NE||194||Christian McCaffrey||CAR||167||183||38||388|
|Marlon Mack||IND||215||Tarik Cohen||CHI||184||Kareem Hunt||KC||131||198||--||329|
|Melvin Gordon||LAC||208||Christian McCaffrey||CAR||183||Derrick Henry||TEN||280||-4||5||281|
Analysis: Maybe the running game isn't dead after all. Four of the top five backs in rushing DYAR made the playoffs, and the fifth wasn't eliminated until the 256th game of the year. Youth plays a big part of this -- all five players in that column are 25 or younger.
Youth also plays a big part of the middle portion of this table, where four players were in their second seasons in 2018 and James White was the grand old man at the ripe age of 26. The most notable name here is Kareem Hunt, who led all backs in receiving DYAR even though he was released with five games to go. Hunt finished with a receiving DVOA of 79.4%, the best for any back on record with at least 25 targets in a season. That's what happens when you average 14.5 yards per catch and score seven touchdowns in only 35 targets.
|Best Single-Season Receiving DVOA, Running Backs, 1986-2018|
|Year||Name||Team||DVOA||Passes||Catches||Catch %||Yards||TD||Rec FUM|
This is why Hunt is likely to return to the NFL even though nobody will touch him right now. But will he be a big loss for Kansas City? Not necessarily -- the Chiefs' other running backs (mostly Spencer Ware and Damien Williams) had 62 targets and a collective DVOA of 57.8% That still would have been much better than any other back this year; San Francisco's Matt Breida finished second with a DVOA of 44.8%.
|Worst Running Backs, 2018|
|LeGarrette Blount||DET||-126||Marcus Murphy||BUF||-76||LeGarrette Blount||DET||-126||-38||-164|
|LeSean McCoy||BUF||-108||Carlos Hyde||CLE/JAX||-51||LeSean McCoy||BUF||-108||-26||-135|
|Alfred Morris||SF||-102||Wayne Gallman||NYG||-47||Alfred Blue||HOU||-94||-10||-104|
|Alfred Blue||HOU||-94||LeGarrette Blount||DET||-38||Alfred Morris||SF||-102||6||-96|
|Elijah McGuire||NYJ||-90||Peyton Barber||TB||-34||Peyton Barber||TB||-40||-34||-74|
Analysis: Hey, it's a bunch of aging backs in their 30s! LeGarrette Blount will be 33 years old in 2019 and averaged just 2.7 yards per carry last year. He caught only ten of 15 pases for just 67 yards. He has played for five teams in the past seven years, and may not get a chance on to make it six in eight. LeSean McCoy had just one 100-yard rushing game in his 13 starts; eight times he finished with less than 40 yards. Morris, like Blount, is a journeyman, with three teams in his past four seasons. Alfred Blue (27) and Elijah McGuire (24) are much younger, but that does not mean they are better. In two starts for Houston, Blue had 24 carries for 60 yards; in three starts for the Jets, McGuire had 50 carries for 118 yards.
Our list of poor receivers here is comprised mainly of guys who caught the ball and went nowhere -- Marcus Murphy, Carlos Hyde, Peyton Barber, and Blount each averaged less than 5.0 yards per catch. Wayne Gallman was better at 6.4, but he only caught 14 of 22 passes -- and he fumbled on two of them.
Better Than His Standard Stats Made Him Look: Mike Davis, SEA
There really aren't a ton of strong candidates for this category this year. Davis only ran for 514 yards, but he was more effective than you might realize. He spent most of the year as Seattle's change-of-pace back -- he had 10 carries or less in 11 of his 15 games -- but he finished 19th in DYAR, 11th in DVOA and 14th in success rate.
Worse Than His Standard Stats Made Him Look: Ezekiel Elliott, DAL
Elliott led the league in rushing, but was just ninth in DYAR and 18th in both DVOA and success rate. He led all running backs with six fumbles on running plays -- or, one for each rushing touchdown he scored.
Most Improved: Melvin Gordon, LAC
Gordon didn't hit 4.0 yards per carry in any of his first three seasons; he averaged 5.1 in 2018. Gordon was 33rd in DVOA and 41st in success rate in 2017; he was third and ninth in those categories this year.
Biggest Decline: Dion Lewis, TEN
Lewis averaged at least 4.4 yards per carry in all three of his seasons with New England; that average fell to 3.3 in Tennessee. You'll recall that Lewis' teammate, Derrick Henry, was one of the best runners of the year, so Lewis can't blame this decline on his environment in Nashville.
|Best Wide Receivers, 2018|
|Tyler Lockett||SEA||464||Tyler Lockett||SEA||464||24||--||488|
|DeAndre Hopkins||HOU||455||Tyreek Hill||KC||387||88||--||475|
|Michael Thomas||NO||442||Michael Thomas||NO||442||--||--||442|
|Mike Evans||TB||412||DeAndre Hopkins||HOU||455||-12||-6||438|
|Tyreek Hill||KC||387||Robert Woods||LAR||316||96||--||412|
Analysis: Tyler Lockett has been steadily climbing the wide receiver tables all season. He was 29th after Week 4, 20th after Week 8, and seventh after Week 12; he didn't move into the top spot until the last week of the year. It was a climb built on haymakers, not jabs -- he barely averaged four targets per game, but he still led all wideouts in DYAR thanks to the most efficient season we have ever measured.
|Best Single-Season Receiving DVOA, 1986-2018|
Lockett had a few other impressive numbers that aren't listed in that table. He drew six defensive pass interference flags for 182 yards, 32 more than any other receiver. And this isn't a part of his DVOA, but none of the passes thrown in his direction were intercepted. Add that to his targets, completions, yards, and touchdowns, and you find that Russell Wilson had a perfect passer rating of 158.3 when throwing to Lockett.
The other names in our list of best wideouts are largely familiar -- mostly, they're the top wideouts for playoff teams. The exception is Tampa Bay's Mike Evans, who was the top wideout on the team that finished with the most passing yards in the league. Evans was responsible for 1,524 of those yards, adding eight touchdowns.
We should make special mention of Michael Thomas, whose catch rate of 85 percent is the highest on record for a wideout with at least 50 targets in a season, surpassing the 82 percent mark of Austin Collie with the Colts in 2010. Lockett is third at 81 percent.
|Chad Williams||ARI||-142||Chad Williams||ARI||-142||7||-135|
|Golden Tate||DET/PHI||-134||Golden Tate||DET/PHI||-134||12||-122|
|Jarvis Landry||CLE||-111||Quincy Enunwa||NYJ||-105||-2||-107|
|Quincy Enunwa||NYJ||-105||John Ross||CIN||-96||-4||-100|
|John Ross||CIN||-96||Jermaine Kearse||NYJ||-95||--||-95|
Analysis: Is Chad Williams a victim of the poor passing environment in Arizona, or part of the problem? Probably a little bit of both. A third-round draft pick out of Grambling in 2017, Williams was both unreliable (37.0 percent catch rate) and unexplosive (10.1 yards per catch). John Ross (36.2 percent, 10.0) had remarkably similar numbers, and was also drafted in 2017 -- but ninth overall, making him a terrible disappointment thus far. Golden Tate had a -22.3% DVOA in seven games with Detroit, which sunk even lower to -36.9% in eight games in Philadelphia. Jarvis Landry's first season in Cleveland was an odd one -- in four seasons in Miami, he averaged 10.1 yards per catch, with a catch rate of more than 70 percent. In Cleveland, that average gain climbed to 12.0, but the catch rate plummeted to 54 percent. Quincy Enunwa had 118 catches for 1,621 yards and five touchdowns -- not in 2018, but in the four seasons since he was a sixth-round draftee in 2014. For this, the Jets have opted to guarantee him $20 million. (The Jets fired head coach Todd Bowles this week, but retained general manager Mike Maccagnan. Odd.) Enunwa's teammate Jermaine Kearse got off to a slow start (in his first four games, he had seven catches in 17 targets for 71 yards) and never really recovered.
Better Than His Standard Stats Made Him Look: Tyler Lockett, SEA
Lockett led the league in DYAR despite finishing just 39th among wide receivers in catches.
Worse Than His Standard Stats Made Him Look: Stefon Diggs, MIN
Diggs was one of nine wide receivers with 100-plus catches, and for all those receptions, he had just eight DYAR, 63rd at the position. We got an email in November asking if there was an error in Diggs' numbers, because nobody with that many catches should be ranked so low. We explained that Diggs had a lot of incomplete targets and failed completions (83 by season's end, third-most) but not many successful catches (66, 19th). The fan politely disagreed with our analysis.
Most Improved: Tyler Lockett, SEA
Yes, Lockett's name keeps popping up, but he's clearly the best fit for these categories. He was Seattle's third receiver in 2017 behind Doug Baldwin and Paul Richardson; neither his 48 DYAR nor his -3.4% DVOA were among the top 40 at his position.
Biggest Decline: Golden Tate, DET/PHI
In 2017, Tate's 204 DYAR put him in the top 20 wide receivers, and his 9.7% DVOA was in the top 30. One year later, he's one of the worst receivers in football, and it seems doubtful he'll get the $15 million a year he will reportedly be looking for in free agency.
|Best Tight Ends, 2018|
|* Kittle also had 7 DYAR rushing.|
Analysis: Not many things in 2018 went right in the Bay Area, where the 49ers and Raiders won just four games apiece, but at least each team could boast of a great tight end in George Kittle and Jared Cook. Kittle led all players, regardless of position, with 870 yards after the catch. And it's not because he was catching swings and checkdowns -- his average reception came 5.8 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. In Oakland, Cook set career highs in catches, yards, and touchdowns. He surprised everyone, including us -- and we were higher on him than most coming into the year. Elsewhere, Travis Kelce gained 1,336 yards receiving for Kansas City. Only one tight has ever gained more in a single season: Kittle, this year, with 1,377. O.J. Howard was a big part of the aerial assault going on in Tampa Bay. He led all tight ends with a 44.0% DVOA and finished third in DYAR even though he missed the last six games of the year with foot and ankle injuries. Mark Andrews was the second tight end drafted by Baltimore this year, but he outplayed first-rounder Hayden Hurst, averaging more than 16 yards per catch and catching three touchdowns.
|Worst Tight Ends, 2018|
Analysis: When it was announced that Ricky Seals-Jones would miss Week 17, I noted on Twitter that barring dramatic shifts in opponent adjustments, he would finish with the worst single-season DYAR for any tight end on record. Well, the shifts in opponent adjustments were somewhat dramatic, and so Seals-Jones falls back into second place. But since I had already run the research, let's run that table anyway:
|Worst Single-Season Receiving DYAR, Tight Ends, 1986-2018|
|Year||Name||Team||DYAR||Passes||Catches||Catch %||Yards||TD||Rec FUM|
In D.C., Jordan Reed's catch rate dipped to 64 percent, 10 percent lower than his previous career low. Buffalo's Charles Clay saw a similar dip in catch rate, and worse, his 8.8 yards per catch was nearly 2 yards lower than his career average (and this is a guy who started his career as a fullback). Denver's Jeff Heuerman and Miami's Mike Gesicki are both, to some degree, victims of circumstance -- role players who had bad numbers in large part because they were on bad offenses.
Better Than His Standard Stats Made Him Look: O.J. Howard, TB
Nineteenth among tight ends in catches, but third in DYAR.
Worse Than His Standard Stats Made Him Look: Zach Ertz, PHI
You may have heard that Ertz set a tight end record with 116 catches this year. That's fine and dandy, but what did he do with those catches? Kittle and Kelce had more yards. Kelce and Eric Ebron had more touchdowns. Thirty players on our tight end tables averaged more yards per catch. That's not to mention the 40 passes thrown Ertz's way that he didn't catch. Despite all those receptions, Ertz only finished eighth in DYAR.
Most Improved: Jesse James, PIT
James played a smaller role in Pittsburgh's offense this year, and it seemed to suit him better. He had 60-plus targets in both 2016 and 2017, a number that was cut to just 39 this year. But despite the drop in opportunities, James set a career-high with 423 receiving yards.
Biggest Decline: Rob Gronkowski, NE
Gronkowski was first in the league with 339 DYAR in 2017, one of the five best tight end seasons in our books. He was sixth with 98 DYAR this year. It would have been a good total for most any tight end; for Gronk, it was the second-worst mark of his nine-year career -- and the one worse year was 2013, when he still had 91 DYAR in only seven games.