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Catch Radius: NFC North Stars

Catch Radius: NFC North Stars
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Scott Kacsmar

Last offseason we looked at the catch radii for about two dozen players of varying quality, from all-star wide receivers to Brian Hartline. There was also newfound appreciation for the job A.J. Green does with Andy Dalton's wild accuracy. If you have ever been interested in how often a receiver has to reach above his head to catch a pass or adjust to a poorly-thrown ball, then the catch radius project is what you've been waiting for.

Are the numbers subjective? Absolutely, but after studying nearly 3,000 catches over the past few years I feel I've developed a classification method that is fair and consistent. A total of 35 player-seasons have been studied now, and the results of those studies are located at the end of this column.

This year we are starting with the stars of the NFC North. Everyone knows about Jordy Nelson and Calvin Johnson, but Alshon Jeffery is now the undisputed No. 1 receiver in Chicago after Brandon Marshall was traded to the Jets.

The only receiver on Minnesota's current roster I have studied is Mike Wallace; we looked at Teddy Bridgewater's new target in his final season with the Miami Dolphins. In fact, Wallace was really part of the inspiration for this project three years ago.

Note: all images are captured from NFL Game Pass at the moment of first contact with the ball.

Jordy Nelson: When I Dip You Dip We Dip

Nelson finally earned his first Pro Bowl selection after his third stellar season since 2011. Here is the comparison of his catch radius for the past two seasons.

Jordy Nelson: Catch Radius, 2013 vs. 2014
Type of Catch 2013 Pct. 2014 Pct.
Total 85 - 98 -
Chest-Level 33 38.8% 42 42.9%
Chest-Low 3 3.5% 3 3.1%
Chest-High 1 1.2% 1 1.0%
Chest-All 37 43.5% 46 46.9%
Above the head 9 10.6% 7 7.1%
Below the waist 0 0.0% 1 1.0%
Diving to ground 6 7.1% 6 6.1%
Eye-level 21 24.7% 26 26.5%
Over the shoulder 2 2.4% 5 5.1%
Pass thrown wide 10 11.8% 7 7.1%

Aaron Rodgers missed half of the 2013 season with a broken collarbone, and Matt Flynn and Scott Tolzien certainly gave Nelson the opportunity to make some magnificent catches. Still, he had a similar share of great grabs in 2014 even as Rodgers enjoyed an MVP year. Nelson caught 26.5 percent of his passes at eye-level, the second-highest of the 35 player-seasons studied so far. His 2013 season was the fourth highest (24.7 percent), so maybe he prefers a higher ball, but either way he has no problem adjusting quickly.

Following his 2013 season, "White Chocolate" could have added "Sideline King" to his list of nicknames after dominating at the boundary lines. I did not see that in 2014, as Nelson caught a lot of curl routes in the 6- to 8-yard range and did some of his usual damage down the seam. Of course he was also open deep down the field on those classic play-action passes from Rodgers that seem to work for multiple 60-yard touchdowns each season. Nelson had an impressive below-the-waist catch (featured above) against Minnesota where he was able to reel in the ball, gather himself, break a tackle, and then pick up a first down. Those plays are very rare, but Nelson makes it look effortless.

For me, Nelson was more impressive at the point of the catch in 2013, but he was better after the catch in 2014. Our YAC+ metric backs this up: Nelson was plus-0.1 in 2013 (his lowest since 2009) and plus-0.7 in 2014. While catching passes at the sideline was part of his forte in 2013, perhaps Nelson's best highlights in 2014 came when he cut back into the field after catching a pass down the right sideline. He did that three times for long touchdowns against the Jets (Week 2), Panthers (Week 7), and Bears (Week 10). Each time he easily beat his assignment on a pass thrown 22 to 33 yards down the field, then he made one cut to the middle and was off to the races for touchdowns ranging from 59 to 80 yards. He displayed a similar skill on a shorter pass on a 45-yard touchdown against Darrelle Revis and the Patriots in Week 13.

Short or deep, Nelson is a threat everywhere on the field.

Calvin Johnson: Still Great

While Johnson didn't win as many deep balls in double or triple coverage, he was still great in 2014.

Calvin Johnson: Catch Radius, 2013 vs. 2014
Type of Catch 2013 Pct. 2014 Pct.
Total 84 - 71 -
Chest-Level 41 48.8% 36 50.7%
Chest-Low 4 4.8% 2 2.8%
Chest-High 4 4.8% 3 4.2%
Chest-All 49 58.3% 41 57.7%
Above the head 9 10.7% 7 9.9%
Below the waist 0 0.0% 1 1.4%
Diving to ground 2 2.4% 7 9.9%
Eye-level 13 15.5% 9 12.7%
Over the shoulder 5 6.0% 4 5.6%
Pass thrown wide 6 7.1% 2 2.8%

You can see the biggest difference was the big man getting down to the ground to make seven catches, which you don't really anticipate for a 6-foot-5 receiver. As I started watching Johnson's catches I was getting worried about Matthew Stafford's development. He was slant-happy in 2013 with Johnson, but that was not as evident last year. Early on Johnson was bailing out Stafford left and right with great catches, feeding the narrative of a stud receiver making his shaky quarterback look way better than he is. Through his first 14 catches, Johnson had to pull in four balls thrown above his head. I didn't have to go past September to build a decent highlight collage for Johnson's 2014.

Unfortunately, Stafford's inaccuracy led to an ankle injury for Johnson against the Bills. Johnson reached down low for a slant and paid for it with a big shot to the leg. He missed three full games, but fortunately the Lions had Golden Tate to pick up the slack. In past years, Johnson's absence could have easily led to more losses and the Lions missing the playoffs altogether. When Johnson returned, Stafford's accuracy thankfully improved. Johnson only had to reach above his head on three of his last 57 catches. At one point in the season, Stafford hit Johnson right at chest-level on 20-of-26 catches. Accuracy is still a big issue for Stafford, but it sure helps to have someone with Johnson's catch radius.

Mike Wallace: The Case for Optimism

Part of the reason I first studied catch radius was my suspicion that Antonio Brown made tougher catches than Mike Wallace, so the Steelers should pay him instead. They did so in 2012 and Wallace later got a gross contract from the Dolphins, a contract he obviously never lived up to. Here are his last four years of catch radius data.

Mike Wallace: Catch Radius, 2011-2014
Type of Catch 2011 Pct. 2012 Pct. 2013 Pct. 2014 Pct.
Total 75 - 64 - 73 - 67 -
Chest-Level 53 70.7% 44 68.8% 47 64.4% 39 58.2%
Chest-Low 4 5.3% 4 6.3% 2 2.7% 1 1.5%
Chest-High 0 0.0% 3 4.7% 5 6.8% 5 7.5%
Chest-All 57 76.0% 51 79.7% 54 74.0% 45 67.2%
Above the head 2 2.7% 2 3.1% 2 2.7% 3 4.5%
Below the waist 1 1.3% 0 0.0% 1 1.4% 0 0.0%
Diving to ground 3 4.0% 4 6.3% 3 4.1% 7 10.4%
Eye-level 3 4.0% 4 6.3% 5 6.8% 6 9.0%
Over the shoulder 6 8.0% 2 3.1% 4 5.5% 2 3.0%
Pass thrown wide 3 4.0% 1 1.6% 4 5.5% 4 6.0%

Being hard on Wallace the past few years, I must say 2014 was his most impressive performance since the first half of 2011 when he looked like a superstar. While Wallace may have only finished with 862 receiving yards, he caught 10 touchdowns and bailed Ryan Tannehill out on quite a few inaccurate throws.

Similar to Stafford, Tannehill had me worried early last season, especially against the Patriots and Bills in Weeks 1 and 2. Wallace caught one-handed touchdowns against those teams. Tannehill's second completion of the season to Wallace was thrown behind the receiver, which forced Wallace to gather the ball and left him unprepared for a big hit that caused a fumble. Wallace brought down a difficult touchdown against Darrelle Revis that was thrown above his head, only to be deflected back to him. He had a similar deflection score and great effort against Minnesota later in the season, which possibly played a role in the Vikings' pursuit of Wallace in the offseason. Tannehill's accuracy also improved, hitting Wallace at the chest on 17 of his next 18 completions starting in Week 3. But the beginning and end of 2014 was largely on Wallace making plays.

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Wallace's previous three seasons (2011-13) all rank in the top four for chest-level rate catches, so the drop down to 67.2 percent (still above the study's average of 59.7 percent) shows a difference in play from him. Yes, he still leaves his feet and crouches at unusual times, again making five chest-high catches, but that's not the problem in his game. In past years there was a perceived lack of effort on bad balls, but he showed up for some last season. He caught more diving passes (seven) than he had in any of his two previous seasons combined. In fact, Wallace's 2014 is the first of the 35 player-seasons studied to produce a diving catch rate above 10.0 percent.

Wallace was signed to invigorate a deep passing game, but that just never materialized with Tannehill. Wallace made six over-the-shoulder catches in Miami, or as many as he had in Pittsburgh in the 2011 season. If Wallace buys into Norv Turner's offense and gets on the same page with Teddy Bridgewater early, he could have the kind of strong season we once thought would be the norm for him going back to his early days in Pittsburgh.

Alshon Jeffery: What Is He?

Jeffery was a breakout star in 2013 and the receiver I captured the most highlights from in last year's study. So what happened last year when he upped his touchdowns to 10, but gained nearly 300 fewer yards?

Alshon Jeffery: Catch Radius, 2013 vs. 2014
Type of Catch 2013 Pct. 2014 Pct.
Total 89 - 85 -
Chest-Level 37 41.6% 53 62.4%
Chest-Low 1 1.1% 1 1.2%
Chest-High 2 2.2% 1 1.2%
Chest-All 40 44.9% 55 64.7%
Above the head 13 14.6% 7 8.2%
Below the waist 0 0.0% 0 0.0%
Diving to ground 5 5.6% 3 3.5%
Eye-level 17 19.1% 14 16.5%
Over the shoulder 5 5.6% 3 3.5%
Pass thrown wide 9 10.1% 3 3.5%

We'll never know for sure how much Jeffery's hamstring injury impacted his play, but he was a different receiver in 2014, and the quarterback play was also worse than it had been in Marc Trestman's first year as coach. At least Jeffery saved some of his best plays for nationally televised games, but his catches were the least impressive of our 2014 group here.

Jeffery's rate of chest-level catches climbed nearly 20 percent, easily one of the biggest year-to-year swings I've seen yet on an admittedly tiny sample size. The main reason this happened was Trestman and Jay Cutler falling in love with screens and smokes to Jeffery. After catching 12 screens/smokes in 2013 (13.5 percent of his catches), that number doubled to 24 (28.2 percent) in 2014. Those are easier throws to make and it's something Chicago did often, especially in October and November with Jeffery. Trestman had some well-designed plays for Jeffery coming out of the backfield, but is that really the strength in his game? He hasn't been a good YAC+ receiver yet in his career.

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Jeffery's average target dropped from 12.7 air yards to 11.6 air yards, which ranked 21st among wide receivers (minimum 50 catches) last year, right between Jordy Nelson (11.7) and Odell Beckham (11.6). Sure, those are No. 1 guys able to beat you high and low, which Jeffery is trying to replicate. Jeffery has officially ascended to that No. 1 role with Brandon Marshall being traded to the Jets. Injuries to Marshall last year ensured that Jeffery led the team in receiving, so he has already had some No. 1 experience and will be expected to mentor rookie Kevin White, who is dealing with his own injuries this preseason.

But what kind of receiver is Jeffery exactly? Based on his 6-foot-4 size and deep-ball success in 2013, he seemed like a deep threat or at least an intermediate guy able to use his size to win 50/50 balls. Last season started perfectly with a 44-yard catch made over the shoulder against Buffalo, but we barely saw that the rest of the season. The screens may be here to stay too. With John Fox and Adam Gase running Chicago's offense now, Jeffery may be utilized in a similar role to Denver's Demaryius Thomas, though he is not as dynamic after the catch.

Jeffery still has a great catch radius, but it's up to the Bears to decide how much of it they want to use.

In conclusion, here is an updated list of the 35 seasons studied for catch radius. We'll be sure to add more soon.

Summary of Wide Receiver Catch Radii Study
Receiver Year Team Rec. CHEST% EYE% ATH% DIVE% OTS% WIDE%
Mike Wallace 2012 PIT 64 79.7% 6.3% 3.1% 6.3% 3.1% 1.6%
Mike Wallace 2011 PIT 75 76.0% 4.0% 2.7% 4.0% 8.0% 4.0%
Keenan Allen 2013 SD 71 74.6% 12.7% 2.8% 5.6% 1.4% 2.8%
Mike Wallace 2013 MIA 73 74.0% 6.8% 2.7% 4.1% 5.5% 5.5%
Wes Welker 2013 DEN 73 71.2% 12.3% 5.5% 5.5% 4.1% 1.4%
Demaryius Thomas 2013 DEN 92 69.6% 12.0% 3.3% 0.0% 10.9% 4.3%
Brian Hartline 2012 MIA 74 67.6% 16.2% 10.8% 0.0% 4.1% 1.4%
Antonio Brown 2013 PIT 110 67.3% 14.5% 4.5% 3.6% 3.6% 5.5%
Mike Wallace 2014 MIA 67 67.2% 9.0% 4.5% 10.4% 3.0% 6.0%
Rishard Matthews 2013 MIA 41 65.9% 12.2% 9.8% 2.4% 2.4% 7.3%
Vincent Jackson 2013 TB 78 65.4% 12.8% 10.3% 2.6% 1.3% 6.4%
Antonio Brown 2012 PIT 66 65.2% 10.6% 10.6% 4.5% 1.5% 4.5%
Alshon Jeffery 2014 CHI 85 64.7% 16.5% 8.2% 3.5% 3.5% 3.5%
Emmanuel Sanders 2013 PIT 67 62.7% 10.4% 10.4% 9.0% 4.5% 1.5%
Kenny Stills 2013 NO 32 62.5% 15.6% 3.1% 9.4% 9.4% 0.0%
Antonio Brown 2011 PIT 74 62.2% 10.8% 12.2% 5.4% 1.4% 8.1%
Brian Hartline 2013 MIA 76 60.5% 25.0% 5.3% 3.9% 3.9% 1.3%
Brandon Gibson 2013 MIA 30 60.0% 23.3% 3.3% 3.3% 3.3% 6.7%
Receiver Year Team Rec. CHEST% EYE% ATH% DIVE% OTS% WIDE%
Doug Baldwin 2013 SEA 50 60.0% 16.0% 2.0% 2.0% 12.0% 8.0%
Eric Decker 2013 DEN 87 59.8% 14.9% 4.6% 3.4% 11.5% 5.7%
Calvin Johnson 2013 DET 84 58.3% 15.5% 10.7% 2.4% 6.0% 7.1%
Dez Bryant 2013 DAL 93 58.1% 14.0% 10.8% 0.0% 2.2% 12.9%
Calvin Johnson 2014 DET 71 57.7% 12.7% 9.9% 9.9% 5.6% 2.8%
Marvin Jones 2013 CIN 51 56.9% 19.6% 9.8% 3.9% 0.0% 9.8%
Julio Jones 2013 ATL 41 53.7% 19.5% 12.2% 0.0% 4.9% 9.8%
Anquan Boldin 2013 SF 85 52.9% 11.8% 7.1% 3.5% 3.5% 17.6%
Pierre Garcon 2013 WAS 113 51.3% 20.4% 8.8% 2.7% 0.9% 14.2%
Larry Fitzgerald 2013 ARI 82 50.0% 18.3% 7.3% 1.2% 4.9% 18.3%
Victor Cruz 2013 NYG 73 47.9% 21.9% 13.7% 1.4% 8.2% 5.5%
Jordy Nelson 2014 GB 98 46.9% 26.5% 7.1% 6.1% 5.1% 7.1%
A.J. Green 2013 CIN 98 44.9% 28.6% 9.2% 1.0% 9.2% 7.1%
Alshon Jeffery 2013 CHI 89 44.9% 19.1% 14.6% 5.6% 5.6% 10.1%
DeSean Jackson 2013 PHI 82 43.9% 22.0% 4.9% 1.2% 12.2% 14.6%
Jordy Nelson 2013 GB 85 43.5% 24.7% 10.6% 7.1% 2.4% 11.8%
Brandon Marshall 2013 CHI 100 43.0% 21.0% 13.0% 4.0% 3.0% 15.0%
AVERAGES 75.1 59.7% 15.9% 7.7% 4.0% 4.9% 7.1%

Comments

17 comments, Last at 23 Aug 2015, 2:57am

1 Re: Catch Radius: NFC North Stars

If Peterson is still Peterson, and Wallace doesn't have several opportunities where he is thirty or more yards downfield, two or more strides clear of the nearest db, then Wallace can't play anymore. It'll be a referendum on Bridgewater and Kalil as well. I think poor o-line performance is the most likely path to offensive failure for the Vikings. There is the potential for a real dumpster fire

When they obtained Wallace, it was obvious that there would be no attempt to move Peterson, even if the contract could be manipulated to facilitate a trade.

2 Re: Catch Radius: NFC North Stars

There's a lot to like about the vikes, but the youth tempers my expectations. I could see all manner of seasons ahead for them. If the defense gels and bridgewater incrementally just becomes dalton next year - i could easily see a playoff birth. If Teddy becomes better than that(somewhat less likely) - they are a serious contender.

5 Re: Catch Radius: NFC North Stars

The Vikings were a reasonable team last year under extremely difficult circumstances (not having a home stadium, star player torturing his child, crappy journeyman QB being crappier than expected, rookie QB having to start before expected, etc.). Circumstances should be much more ideal this year, and I expect them to contend for a wildcard spot.

3 Re: Catch Radius: NFC North Stars

There's a lot to like about the vikes, but the youth tempers my expectations. I could see all manner of seasons ahead for them. If the defense gels and bridgewater incrementally just becomes dalton next year - i could easily see a playoff birth. If Teddy becomes better than that(somewhat less likely) - they are a serious contender.

6 Re: Catch Radius: NFC North Stars

did nto rad article yet wholt thing anwyya. but a lot of Vukes tlak so will chime in on that. Minnesota Vikings food chance at 8-8 maybe more if get lucky. offense l;ooks oklay, defense looks okay. nothing jumps out at you anywhere on team.

7 Re: Catch Radius: NFC North Stars

Okay, read wholt thing now. Very good researcg. would not be something I care to do. Like Playboy, actually liked lokign at photos more than the reading mostly becuausue not big fan of catch radius stats. Just not something really interested in. sure it helps coaches and maybe general managers and scouts and stuff.

8 Re: Catch Radius: NFC North Stars

Is there any associated target information with this data? 7 of Mike Wallace catches were diving catches, is this out of 8 targets or 18 or unknown and a pain to figure out?

9 Re: Catch Radius: NFC North Stars

As of right now, no. I'd have to look at every incompletion, because even if our charting says overthrown, there's still a possibility the ball went a foot over the guy's head. I don't want to make those judgment calls on whether or not he could have caught the ball. The only judgment calls I want to make are how he caught the ball. Drops are something I could see adding to this, but that's going to be a very small number of plays for most players. It would be better to look at that from a league perspective, since it won't add much to the individual numbers.

10 Re: Catch Radius: NFC North Stars

I really love that FO works so hard to create new stats. That said, the analysis on this piece is sorely lacking. It doesn't tell us anything whatsoever. An analysis of catch % by where the pass was thrown would be valuable (e.g. % of balls above thrown above the head caught above the head, etc.).

Statements like "You can see the biggest difference was the big man getting down to the ground to make seven catches" are cringe-worthy. the number of catches went from 2 to 7. Is this a real distinction or randomness? Applying some basic statistical work to this and virtually every other split at FO is sorely needed.

Sorry for the rant, but over time I get increasingly dissatisfied with FO. You generate so much fantastic data, but instead of improving rigor over time, you're increasing your output of largely meaningless information.

11 Re: Catch Radius: NFC North Stars

Again, how much value are you adding to this by factoring in an obscenely overthrown ball the player had no chance of catching? That's technically above his head. Or if the QB throws it so wide it's out of bounds. Why penalize the receiver for that play? And how wide is too wide for him to catch the ball? It's way too many judgment calls on the incompletions. There aren't enough incompletions where the chance for a catch is reasonable.

I also think something like catch radius should focus strongly on the actual catches a guy makes. You're not getting credit for incompletions. "Well, he can reach above his head and NOT catch the ball with great frequency." Scouts aren't looking at that. Yeah, maybe a player has 0 above-the-head catches because his quarterback never threw him a catchable ball at that point. It would be nice to know a rate, but I can't see any way the rates wouldn't be very misleading. So credit the guys for what did happen. Part of my interest was being uncomfortable with scouts who cite a guy's catch radius, but offer no support of that finding except maybe a highlight play or two they remember. There's something that can be quantified here. Can it be done better than I have? I know it can, but I'm going with the resources I have available.

And I most certainly didn't view the Calvin Johnson table as a comparison of 2 plays vs. 7. More like 2/84 vs. 7/71, or even more like the fact that 7 is the largest number of diving catches I've tracked so far (average: 2.7). Someone like A.J. Green has 2 in his last 167 catches. That's a big difference from 7/71. And is this really any different than talking about the difference in the number of TD catches, passes batted at line or fumbles players have? They are all pretty small numbers in a season. What else would I point to in that Calvin table that changed a lot from 2013?

12 Re: Catch Radius: NFC North Stars

Let me put it in more FO-friendly terminology. What you're providing here is basically a convetional stat, not an advanced one. Your argument seems to be that it's hard to turn this into an advanced stat because the deonominator is difficult to measure. I'm in no position to judge this and believe you're right. But, the difficult of making this into an advanced stat doesn't address the argument.

Originally, FO was great because it took convention stats and supplanted them with advanced stats: those that took context into accoutn. It's fantstic that FO puts so much time into charting. But sometime it seems like the site has implicitly redefined the convetional/advanced dichotomy to readily available from the NFL = conventional and difficult to compile = advanced.

13 Re: Catch Radius: NFC North Stars

If you were looking for a formula like DVOA with this, then you were always going to be disappointed. A lot of things we do are not advanced in that sense, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a good reason to make such things that advanced. A lot of the time we're taking a counting stat and breaking down the distribution of it. Our denominator is often just something basic like the total or snaps played.

We break sacks down by reason (blown block, QB fault, coverage, etc.), so why not catches? Snaps per blown block for OL is simply the charted blown blocks divided by the snaps played. That's not really advanced, but it's still useful or at least interesting. Look at field goals. We take the totals and break them down into distance ranges for better context, but it's still just chopping up the pie into different slices, making them easier to digest. Failed completions take completions and separate them by which were successful plays and which were not. Is that really advanced?

And is that any different than taking a receiver's catches and breaking them up by the way he caught them? Our denominator is total catches. Sure, I'd love to be able to tell you what an average receiver does when a ball is thrown at x-y-z distance relative to his body position, but sometimes it's okay to keep things simple too. Not everything deserves a formula.

16 Re: Catch Radius: NFC North Stars

A sortable table would have been nice -- but I know that's asking too much.

The usual discussions about catch radius revolve around the receivers with the largest ones (e.g. Calvin Johnson), so I expected the table to reflect who makes the most difficult catches. So I guess reverse order would have reflected my expectations.

At a second level, I might have lumped chest level and eye level catches together as relatively easy ones, and all the others together as relatively difficult, and then ranked the players on those two categories.

17 Re: Catch Radius: NFC North Stars

Sortable tables - I hear ya. Maybe some day...

I have a column in my file that's not shown here that lumps together "hard ones." Agree with you that the eye-level catches are pretty routine for these receivers. I don't see them as detrimental to YAC. Now for someone like you or I, a ball coming in fast right in our face sounds difficult, but not for a pro.