by Bill Barnwell
In an article for ESPN Insider last year, I took a look at whether players with prominent reputations as big hitters -- e.g. Ed Reed -- actually induced drops at a unexpectedly-high rate, by using the data from our game charting project.
The answer was no. Reed hadn't seen a single dropped pass on plays where he was in coverage, while a highly-regarded tackler like Antoine Winfield only had a league-average drop rate of 5.9 percent. Perhaps more interestingly, I found that:
- Passes against safeties and particularly linebackers were far more likely to be marked as the result of a drop than those passes targeted at cornerbacks
- There was very little year-to-year consistency for individual players in their "Drop Rate"
- There was inconclusive evidence regarding any idea that teams would be better or worse at forcing drops
We'll be covering the third point in a future article, but let's check and see if 2009 matched up with 2007 and 2008 with regards to the first two topics.
In 2009, safeties and linebackers absolutely yielded more drops than cornerbacks. Passes where those players were in coverage were dropped an even 7.0 percent of the time; passes at cornerbacks were dropped 5.2 percent of the time. I'm thinking the reason why that is has to do with several factors; passes charted with safeties in coverage tend to be longer than passes thrown at cornerbacks, which make them more difficult to catch; they also involve more open space, which may limit the number of times our charters mark a pass as "defensed" instead of "dropped". It could also be the case that passes thrown at those positions are to relatively inferior receivers that work in the slot or as the third or fourth option on a pass play.
As you might expect, the leaderboard for drops is dominated by players from those positions. Among players with 30 targeted passes or more, the leader in 2009 was the venomous, terrifying ... Mike Adams. The Cardinals safety was witness to nine dropped passes amongst his 46 targets, for a Drop Rate of 19.6 percent. That would have also been the best figure for safeties a year ago, although it would not have met DeMeco Ryans' league-leading 23.3 percent (seven drops on 30 targets). Below him was Chad Greenway (18.4 percent), Jordan Babineaux (17.5 percent), Nick Barnett (16.7 percent), and James Farrior (15.8 percent). Farrior also ranked among the league leaders last year, as his 18.6 percent total was second behind Ryans.
The other guys weren't so hot in this category a year ago. Adams saw one drop in 15 targets. Greenway was at 2-for-61 (3.3 percent). Babineaux got one drop in 26 targets. Barnett was hurt for a portion of the year, but was at 2-of-20. Furthermore, while Ryans was atop the leaderboard last year, he almost at the bottom of the table this year; in 35 targets, he was only privy to one drop. That's a figure of 2.9 percent.
Among cornerbacks, the leaders were mostly slot guys and, strangely, undersized fellows.
If you want to argue that the supreme hitting power of Chris Carr or Jacques Reeves yielded those drop figures -- and did so exclusively in 2009 -- be my guest. But you are a strawman of staggering unlikelihood. Again, what might be getting tracked here is the quality of receiver as opposed to the quality of defensive back; most of these guys played in a slot role or against weaker receivers than the players around them.
Last year's leaders at corner also fell back to the pack. Lito Sheppard was at 15.8 percent, albeit in a mere 38 targets; this year, even though he moved to the blitz-happy Jets, he only got drops on a mere 1.7 percent of his targets. Ouch. Drayton Florence went from 13.3 percent in 2008 to 1.3 percent in 2009. Volume leader Charles Tillman, who led the league with 10 drops in 113 targets (8.8 percent), actually stayed reasonably consistent; he had eight drops in 81 targets this year, for a figure of 9.9 percent.
As for the other side of the coin? Well, there were 14 players in 2009 that saw 30 targets or more and couldn't get the break of a single drop. This bad-luck group includes, sorted by target total: Ronde Barber, Tim Jennings, Kelvin Hayden, Randall Gay, David Harris, Keith Ellison, Dawan Landry, Curtis Lofton, Atari Bigby, Drew Coleman, Michael Griffin, Aaron Curry, Chris Hope, and Eric Weddle. Better luck next year, guys. Literally -- you will have better luck next year. We can almost count on it.