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Advanced analytics on player and team performance

2014 Receiving Plus-Minus

2014 Receiving Plus-Minus
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Scott Kacsmar

One of the oldest principles at Football Outsiders is that receivers should be evaluated on the passes they don't catch in addition to the ones they do. Stats like catch rate and yards after catch (YAC) are useful tools, but for comparison purposes both lack a lot of necessary context. That's why we need to do a deeper analysis that adjusts for how far the pass was thrown, where the pass was thrown relative to the first-down marker, and to which side of the field the pass was thrown. That's where the decade-old game charting project comes in handy.

We know a 5-yard gain on third-and-20 is a failed completion, but if it's a dump-off over the middle 1 yard behind the line of scrimmage, then on average it's an easy catch to make, and it's also pretty easy to gain 6 YAC when the defense has dropped back to defend the big play. Meanwhile, a 16-yard gain on third-and-20 is also a failed completion, but if the receiver catches the ball 10 yards down the right sideline and then gains 6 YAC, on average that's going to be a more impressive play on his part. Both receivers helped their catch rate and gained the same amount of YAC, but the second receiver overcame more difficult circumstances to produce his play. He did more to beat expectations.

Capturing that effort statistically for every pass is at the core of metrics like receiving plus-minus and YAC+. The plus-minus metric was featured in Football Outsiders Almanac 2010, and both stats are always included in the book each year for every receiver. We don't use this much on the site, especially during the season, because it requires all the game charting data to be complete. Hopefully that process, along with the NFL's internal data collection on air yards and YAC, will smooth itself out going forward and we can crunch these numbers more easily.

We should probably thank the 2006 Miami Dolphins for spurring our interest in understanding the importance of roles in wide receiver statistics. I reviewed the case of Chris Chambers and his incredibly poor season (a record minus-297 DYAR) for the Dolphins that year when we looked at 2014 incompletions for receivers. Of course a huge part of Chambers' poor stats and Wes Welker's superior numbers was based on the types of routes each player was running. Shorter passes are easier to complete, and the closer the player is lined up to the quarterback, the higher the average catch rate. That's why the descending order of highest catch rates goes: running backs, tight ends, slot receivers, and then outside receivers. Ever since Welker redefined the slot role in New England, we have seen teams try to find their own slot specialists, players that often ranked among the highest in catch rate and YAC.

Little did I know that former FO writer Bill Barnwell had also written about Chambers, Welker, and the 2006 Dolphins when he introduced receiving plus-minus in 2009. Here is the description of plus-minus from the upcoming Football Outsiders Almanac 2015:

It estimates how many passes a receiver caught compared to what an average receiver would have caught, given the location of those passes. Unlike simple catch rate, plus-minus does not consider passes listed as "Thrown Away," "Tipped at Line," or "Quarterback Hit in Motion." Player performance is compared to a historical baseline of how often a pass is caught based on the pass distance, the distance required for a first down, and whether it is on the left, middle, or right side of the field. Note that plus-minus is not scaled to a player's target total.

Let's get to some data. We'll look at plus-minus today, and then YAC+ (how much YAC a player gets compared to what's expected) sometime next week. A lot of readers are probably hearing about these stats for the first time, so just what kind of results do they produce?

Receiving Plus-Minus

First, note that the "Passes" totals for each receiver will look different from the usual totals in our data. That's because we have removed the aforementioned plays that are out of the receiver's control like passes thrown away or tipped at the line. Ideally these wouldn't count as official NFL targets, but that's another can of worms. Passes that are overthrown or underthrown are included when we figure plus-minus; the charting doesn't include any distinction between "big overthrows" that are clearly bad passes by the quarterback vs. "small overthrows" that might be a bad route or good press coverage.

Here are the leaders (regular season only) in career plus-minus since 2006. Included are the average air yards (measured as yards beyond the line of scrimmage) on their targets and average YAC gained on catches. The next-to-last column, C%+, is the player's plus-minus divided by the targets. This shows how many percentage points above average the player added to his catch rate.


Highest Receiving Plus-Minus Since 2006
Rk Player Passes Catches C% Avg. Air Avg. YAC C%+ +/-
1 Antonio Gates 826 594 71.9% 9.5 4.3 7.9% 65.7
2 Jason Witten 1030 755 73.3% 8.2 3.9 6.0% 61.4
3 Wes Welker 1147 862 75.2% 6.4 5.4 5.2% 59.6
4 Jordy Nelson 561 400 71.3% 11.7 5.0 10.4% 58.4
5 Reggie Wayne 1163 769 66.1% 11.4 3.6 4.8% 56.0
6 Andre Johnson 1202 806 67.1% 11.0 4.3 4.0% 48.5
7 Marques Colston 998 666 66.7% 10.8 4.1 4.3% 43.2
8 Tony Gonzalez 971 677 69.7% 8.6 2.9 4.4% 42.9
9 Heath Miller 660 494 74.8% 7.3 4.8 6.3% 41.5
10 Lance Moore 520 360 69.2% 10.8 3.1 6.8% 35.5
11 Malcom Floyd 464 288 62.1% 16.5 2.5 7.6% 35.5
12 Kevin Walter 460 326 70.9% 10.9 3.0 7.7% 35.4
13 Derrick Mason 612 405 66.2% 11.7 2.8 5.2% 32.0
Rk Player Passes Catches C% Avg. Air Avg. YAC C%+ +/-
14 Pierre Thomas 367 330 89.9% -0.9 9.1 8.1% 29.7
15 Antonio Brown 572 392 68.5% 10.7 5.0 5.1% 29.3
16 Randall Cobb 298 227 76.2% 8.5 6.2 9.6% 28.5
17 Anquan Boldin 1021 682 66.8% 9.9 4.7 2.7% 27.6
18 Rob Gronkowski 441 309 70.1% 9.8 5.8 5.9% 26.2
19 Greg Jennings 875 552 63.1% 12.7 5.1 3.0% 26.0
20 Steve Smith (NYG) 351 245 69.8% 11.0 2.4 6.7% 23.7
21 Robert Meachem 281 178 63.3% 17.1 3.5 8.2% 23.2
22 Hines Ward 624 431 69.1% 9.4 4.1 3.6% 22.7
23 Jason Avant 491 332 67.6% 10.5 3.2 4.5% 22.1
24 Kenny Stills 126 96 76.2% 13.7 4.1 17.4% 21.9
25 Dez Bryant 591 381 64.5% 12.0 4.9 3.6% 21.4
26 Vernon Davis 637 423 66.4% 10.5 5.0 3.2% 20.5
27 Jimmy Graham 570 386 67.7% 9.1 4.1 3.5% 20.1

Immediately what stands out is that most of these players have spent time with a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback. There is no denying the quarterback has a huge impact on receiving stats, especially ones that account for accuracy and difficulty. We noted in the passer study this year that Drew Brees had the lowest rate of bad passes, the kind of throws that he has been phenomenal at limiting for years. It's no surprise six of Brees' teammates have cracked plus-20.0. (That does not include Antonio Gates and Malcom Floyd since this is based on 2006-2014, after Brees left San Diego for New Orleans.) Only one running back, screen (pass) legend Pierre Thomas, made the list. It's almost like this stat was created to showcase the brilliance of Sean Payton and Brees.

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Alas, a lot of these players were not designated deep threats. Only Robert Meachem, Kenny Stills, and Malcom Floyd averaged more than 13.0 air yards per target. Stills' C%+ is incredible at 17.4 percent, meaning an average receiver would have caught 58.8 percent of Stills' targets based on where they were thrown. Stills actually caught 76.2 percent, which again is a major credit to Brees' accuracy and the design of Sean Payton's offense, which has seen similar dominance from players like Devery Henderson (plus-14.4) and Meachem. Stills is a receiver to watch in 2015 now that he is in Miami, where Ryan Tannehill is not adept at throwing the deep ball. We have already seen Mike Wallace fall from a plus-11.1 in Pittsburgh with Ben Roethlisberger to minus-1.0 in Miami with Tannehill. Studying the plus-minus trends of players that switched teams and/or quarterbacks is certainly something we can do in greater detail in the coming weeks.

Something that does really stand out in this table is the appearance of Andre Johnson and Kevin Walter in the top 12. That's definitely not a result of Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback play. Hail Gary Kubiak's boot-action offense? It's easy to forget Matt Schaub was a respectable quarterback for several years, and it's not a shock to see someone as skilled as Johnson perform well -- when he cared to. But Kevin Walter? Kubiak loved running two-wide sets too, but Walter played in the slot and on the outside. He was 6-foot-3, but no one would confuse him for Marques Colston as a threatening in/out receiver. This just goes to show what some reliable hands, a good offensive scheme, and a stud No. 1 wide receiver can do for a guy. Jason Avant would agree. Walter was easily the most surprising name on the list, even topping the New York-drafted Steve Smith, who was an effective receiver for Eli Manning before injuries battered his career.

How about the worst plus-minus receivers since 2006?

Lowest Receiving Plus-Minus Since 2006
Rk Player Passes Catches C% Avg. Air Avg. YAC C%+ +/-
1 Braylon Edwards 632 327 51.7% 13.5 4.3 -6.5% -41.4
2 Chris Chambers 438 225 51.4% 12.6 2.4 -7.1% -31.3
3 Louis Murphy 315 153 48.6% 13.6 4.3 -9.6% -30.4
4 Donnie Avery 407 220 54.1% 12.6 4.3 -6.7% -27.3
5 Greg Little 301 163 54.2% 9.6 4.6 -8.7% -26.1
6 Cecil Shorts 325 176 54.2% 10.9 5.1 -8.0% -26.0
7 Joey Galloway 301 151 50.2% 14.7 4.7 -8.4% -25.3
8 Mohamed Massaquoi 250 118 47.2% 14.1 4.0 -9.9% -24.8
9 Andre Roberts 379 218 57.5% 9.9 4.2 -6.4% -24.4
10 Bryant Johnson 357 191 53.5% 12.9 3.2 -6.6% -23.7
Rk Player Passes Catches C% Avg. Air Avg. YAC C%+ +/-
11 Plaxico Burress 415 216 52.0% 13.9 3.1 -5.7% -23.6
12 Santana Moss 818 498 60.9% 10.5 4.7 -2.8% -23.3
13 Darrius Heyward-Bey 339 172 50.7% 14.4 3.4 -6.8% -23.1
14 Denarius Moore 279 142 50.9% 12.9 4.8 -8.1% -22.6
15 Brandon Jacobs 128 82 64.1% -0.1 9.5 -17.1% -21.9
16 Mike Williams (TB) 408 222 54.4% 12.2 4.3 -5.3% -21.6
17 Ashley Lelie 129 49 38.0% 17.5 1.9 -16.5% -21.3
18 Devin Aromashodu 172 78 45.3% 14.7 4.1 -12.0% -20.6
19 Marty Booker 254 135 53.1% 11.4 4.0 -8.0% -20.2
20 Terrell Owens 648 362 55.9% 13.7 4.1 -3.1% -20.2

Comments

23 comments, Last at 26 Jul 2015, 9:50pm

1 Re: 2014 Receiving Plus-Minus

When I think of elite receivers today - I first come out with Megatron and Dez Bryant and probably Aj Green, but I should be putting Antonio Brown in that list and possibly the 2nd best receiver in the game. I don't think he has the athleticism of Dez Bryant, but hes such a complete receiver that I think its a reasonable argument.

2 Re: 2014 Receiving Plus-Minus

I think he has as much athleticism as those guys, just more in the quickness category rather than the straight-line category. AB's only weakness that I've noticed relative to Megatron and co is that he's only 5'11", so he isn't the jump-ball target of a classic "number one" WR.

6 Re: 2014 Receiving Plus-Minus

Is a jump ball getting the classic number one mold? I don't recall Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Issac Bruce, or Torry Holt doing too much of that.

I do think this style of receiver is more dependent on the quality of QB than a Randy Moss or Megatron is, but as long as Big Ben stays good, I'd expect very good things from Brown.

3 Re: 2014 Receiving Plus-Minus

Sims is surprising, but he did have a very nice season in limited action and is only entering his third year. He's developing nicely. Damien Williams, on the other hand, is a big fluke here. He only played in emergencies and garbage time and just barely hit the 25-target minimum. He'll be fighting for a roster spot this year. But yeah, overall it does speak rather well of Tannehill's development.

Interesting case with Dalton and Cam Newton. Dalton has a WR in the bottom 10 and a TE in the top 10, while Newton has two WRs in the bottom 10 and a TE and RB in the top 10.

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Who, me?

13 Re: 2014 Receiving Plus-Minus

With Newton, I think it's worth remembering that these numbers ARE intended to be measuring receivers more than QBs. After all, Carolina famously didn't bring back a single WR who had caught a pass, instead relying on an unreliable rookie to provide production on the outside. You didn't have to watch much Panthers football last year to see that Olsen was the best target on the field for Newton. In this case, would I certainly argue the greater production from TE than WR had a lot more to do with the difference in talent at those positions than with Cam better at throwing to the middle than the sidelines.

4 Re: 2014 Receiving Plus-Minus

I like how the impetus of this study was the 2006 Dolphins, and 2 of the WR on the "All-time lowest since 2006 list" played on the Dolphins in 2006 and 2007 (the infamous 1-15 team).

5 Re: 2014 Receiving Plus-Minus

The Chambers fights in the comments were fun. I was on his corner back then and history proved me wrong. I wonder if there's any truth to the perception that one huge hit he received ruined him.

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Who, me?

7 Re: 2014 Receiving Plus-Minus

I was not in the Chambers corner. He seemed to make the difficult catch look routine and vice verse. He also looked like he played harder during the Pro Bowl than he did during regular season games for Miami. But maybe that is just my jaded view of him.

11 Re: 2014 Receiving Plus-Minus

Ha! I don't think I've watched the Pro Bowl since I was nine, so can't argue with you there. He did receive that jarring hit, though, got knocked out for a few minutes and he seemed to be a much worse receiver after that. But maybe he wasn't ever that good...

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Who, me?

12 Re: 2014 Receiving Plus-Minus

I remember the first time I watched the probowl. The concept was so exciting - the very best at their positions playing against one another. A real test to see which conference really was "better."

IS there any all star game that's actually any good? And I don't watch basketball all stars either.

8 Re: 2014 Receiving Plus-Minus

This is wonderful analysis, but I'd like to see some sensitivity analysis done for the quarterbacks throwing the ball. As pointed out in the article, it really does seem like this is a QB-driven stat.

It would be valuable to see how Kenny Stills compares to Brees' average C%+.

You can almost do a simple regression for QB% C%+ vs WR C%+ and look at the residuals. That would rock!

Then, if Kenny Stills remains at the top, I make him a higher fantasy pick.

15 Re: 2014 Receiving Plus-Minus

"Ever since Welker redefined the slot role in New England" - can someone explain this to me? I don't what the difference in a slot receiver's role is pre- and post-Welker.

17 Re: 2014 Receiving Plus-Minus

I think it really highlighted what kind of production you could get from the slot. Prior to that, the only time I can remember a really dynamic production coming from the slot was stokley, but since it was just 1 year and he didn't stay healthy for enough seasons, it was forgotten till Welker, who did it over a long sustained consistent period.

19 Re: 2014 Receiving Plus-Minus

Oh, I see. Thanks for explaining.

I started following football in 2003. And when Stokley went for 1,000 yards in 2004 I didn't think much of the fact that he did that from the slot. So when Welker started dominating a few years later, I didn't realise that him playing slot was such a big deal. I just thought that everyone was surprised that a random from the Dolphins all of a sudden blew up in New England.

20 Re: 2014 Receiving Plus-Minus

Beyond the volume, the Patriots showed how you could maximize a guy's skills by not asking him to do things he's not great at. If Welker was catching a pass 20 yards down the field, someone likely blew a coverage. They just asked him to dominate the underneath routes while Randy Moss was the perfect complement with his ability to threaten down the field.

According to Elias
2004 Stokley: 34 of his 68 catches (50%) were on passes thrown 11+ yards
2007 Welker: 12 of his 112 catches (10.7%) were on passes thrown 11+ yards

What further made the Patriots unique is that Welker became the No. 1 target. Most offenses wouldn't operate with a slot receiver as their main target, but they did for years and Julian Edelman has picked right up in his place.

21 Re: 2014 Receiving Plus-Minus

I've always wondered - was this by design or just what Brady happened to be best at? In some sense - its smart. You avoid richard sherman and revis by throwing to the slot. You also avoid Thomas and Ed Reed.

22 Re: 2014 Receiving Plus-Minus

I think it's all 3. Belichick looked at what gave defenses the most problems and designed the offense to exploit it. Brady also has amazing short accuracy, timing, anticipation and presnap reads. Finally, Welker was available for cheap and was really good at being shifty, finding holes in zones, but not so good at being fast or being able to bust double coverage.

So if you look at another situation with a really good QB, but with a different skillset, like Pittsburgh with Big Ben. I don't think he could run the Patriot's offense or go through a Welker like that. When Pittsburgh did go to a short passing game because their offensive line was so week, you see it's a lot of WR screens and smoke routes where Ben doesn't have to make great presnap reads or display the same kind of zone awareness Brady has.

23 Re: 2014 Receiving Plus-Minus

That's true. Its why I've been ok if people think Brady is the Goat. I traditionally have a held it against him that hes a mediocre medium/deep thrower, but his others skills are so transcendent that it maybe doesn't matter. I know this will open a can of worms, but one thing that does give me pause is that Matt Cassel was successful in the same offense. That it implies its more qb friendly than trying to plug a backup to mimic big ben's offense. That said, I think you still need an all wordly talent like Brady to match the same efficiency of a Rodgers/Manning offense if you're going to build predominantly short.