2015 Receiving Plus-Minus

2015 Receiving Plus-Minus
2015 Receiving Plus-Minus
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Scott Kacsmar

We began the week with a look at passing plus-minus, because when it comes to the act of completing a pass, the quarterback is the main attraction. What happens after the catch falls more on the receiver, and we will explore that next week with YAC+. But in terms of efficiently making catches, we turn towards receiving plus-minus for 2015, with some notes from the past decade's worth of data.

Receiving plus-minus examines how many catches a receiver caught compared to what an average receiver would have caught, given the location of those targets. It does not consider targets 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 completed 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.

Wide receivers require at least 50 targets to qualify for season rankings. Running backs and tight ends require 25 targets. In addition to the plus-minus stat (expressed with a "+" for above average or "-" for below average), we have included the player's catch rate (C%) and the adjusted rate (C%+) that expresses +/- in terms of efficiency.

2015 Wide Receivers

A total of 81 wide receivers qualified this season, but we'll just show the top and bottom rankings to save space here. Each receiver's plus-minus will be found in Football Outsiders Almanac 2016. (To answer the inevitable questions, it should be out in the third or fourth week of July.)

2015 Wide Receivers: Top 15 in Receiving Plus-Minus 2015 Wide Receivers: Bottom 15 in Receiving Plus-Minus
Rk Player Team Passes C% REC +/- C%+ Rk Player Team Passes C% REC +/- C%+
1 Antonio Brown PIT 186 73.1% +18.3 9.9% 67 Quinton Patton SF 53 56.6% -5.6 -10.5%
2 Larry Fitzgerald ARI 139 78.4% +14.8 10.7% 68 Kenny Stills MIA 60 45.0% -5.8 -9.6%
3 Doug Baldwin SEA 97 80.4% +13.4 13.8% 69 Cecil Shorts HOU 70 60.0% -5.8 -8.3%
4 A.J. Green CIN 123 69.9% +13.2 10.7% 70 Andre Johnson IND 74 55.4% -6.0 -8.2%
5 Julio Jones ATL 193 70.5% +10.7 5.5% 71 Tavon Austin STL 84 63.1% -6.1 -7.2%
6 Jeremy Maclin KC 121 71.9% +9.7 8.0% 72 Mike Evans TB 143 51.7% -6.1 -4.3%
7 Sammy Watkins BUF 91 65.9% +9.6 10.6% 73 Ted Ginn CAR 90 48.9% -6.4 -7.1%
8 Willie Snead NO 94 73.4% +8.8 9.4% 74 Michael Crabtree OAK 143 59.4% -6.6 -4.6%
9 Danny Amendola NE 81 80.2% +8.3 10.2% 75 Harry Douglas TEN 70 51.4% -6.7 -9.5%
10 Keenan Allen SD 86 77.9% +8.0 9.3% 76 Davante Adams GB 88 56.8% -7.1 -8.1%
11 Jermaine Kearse SEA 67 73.1% +7.5 11.3% 77 Amari Cooper OAK 122 59.0% -7.2 -5.9%
12 Tyler Lockett SEA 69 73.9% +7.4 10.7% 78 Nate Washington HOU 88 53.4% -7.4 -8.4%
13 Brandon Marshall NYJ 169 64.5% +7.2 4.3% 79 T.Y. Hilton IND 129 53.5% -7.7 -6.0%
14 John Brown ARI 99 65.7% +6.6 6.7% 80 Dez Bryant DAL 65 47.7% -8.5 -13.0%
15 Rishard Matthews MIA 58 74.1% +6.2 10.7% 81 Brandon LaFell NE 71 52.1% -8.8 -12.4%

Antonio Brown (+18.3) led all players for the second year in a row, but more notably 2015's performance gives him the highest single-season plus-minus since 2006, beating out Reggie Wayne's +18.2 in 2007. To give you a taste of the importance of the quarterback in this stat, Brown was +18.8 with Ben Roethlisberger, -2.7 with Michael Vick, and +2.2 with Landry Jones. If Roethlisberger and Brown stay healthy in 2016, then Marvin Harrison's record of 143 receptions in 2002 is in major jeopardy. Brown caught 136 passes last year, and the retirement of Heath Miller and season-long suspension of Martavis Bryant should keep him well fed this season.

Larry Fitzgerald could be the spokesperson for showing the value of a competent passer. He had another great year thanks in part to Carson Palmer's accurate season. Fitzgerald is now +20.6 with Palmer and +28.0 with Kurt Warner since 2006. As for Arizona's other ragtag bunch of misfit quarterbacks in that span, Fitzgerald is a cumulative -36.8, which would be the second-lowest total in the NFL, only ahead of Braylon Edwards (-41.4).

With three Seahawks in the top 12, you can start to see why Russell Wilson (+27.4) led the league in passing plus-minus, and why those three wideouts all finished in the top five in DVOA. While we talked about Wilson's stats getting a big boost from his seven-game finish, the same cannot be said for Doug Baldwin's strong performance in plus-minus. He actually had a higher plus-minus in the first nine games of the season (+7.5) than in the last seven (+5.9). It's what he did with the ball in his hands that was more special down the stretch last year. Baldwin's catch rate was 13.8 percentage points higher than his expected average, the best in the league. Jermaine Kearse (+11.3%) was second, and rookie Tyler Lockett (+10.7%) was fourth.

A.J. Green has usually posted a plus-minus just above +4.0 with Andy Dalton, but the two were never better together than last year at +10.1. A.J. McCarron kept things going in Dalton's absence with a +3.1 on just 22 targets. (In fact, McCarron's plus-minus was an impressive +8.3 on 105 passes.)

Drew Brees usually has a receiver very high on these lists, but did anyone see Willie Snead coming last year? He went undrafted in 2014 and failed to hang on with receiver-needy teams such as Cleveland and Carolina. The Saints added him to the practice squad that December and he made the team last year. With Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills traded, Marques Colston fading away, and Pierre Thomas gone, Brees put Snead to work and the two had a nice connection, finishing 16 yards short of a thousand. Brandin Cooks (+5.9) was not far behind in plus-minus, but Snead was an unexpected standout in 2015. Stills also certainly missed Brees in Miami, where he struggled to catch on with Ryan Tannehill.

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Turning our attention to the bottom of the list, it is actually not filled with receivers playing with lousy quarterbacks, which is usually the case. However, as we discussed in passing plus-minus, 2015 was not a great year for some of the league's best passers. Brandon LaFell was the weakest link in New England's passing game, and he's gone now. Davante Adams had an extremely inefficient season with Aaron Rodgers. Dallas and Indianapolis were contenders hit hard by quarterback injuries, though Tony Romo and Andrew Luck left a lot to be desired when they did play in 2015. Andre Johnson was a big disappointment in free agency, and Dez Bryant really struggled through an injury-plagued year, posting a -7.4 on his Matt Cassel targets. Bryant's catch rate was 13 percentage points below expectations, the worst in the league.

Tavon Austin, Quinton Patton, and Cecil Shorts only averaged about 8.0 air yards per target each, but turned those short-pass opportunities into little production. Their teams will hope two new quarterbacks (Jared Goff and Brock Osweiler) and Chip Kelly can fix that.

With Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree ranked so low, you can understand why Derek Carr (-16.5) finished next to last in passing plus-minus. We may need to study this one closer, but the second-half decline of Oakland's offense was definitely real in the season's last eight games. Was it just due to tougher competition, including three games with the Broncos and Chiefs? Hard to say, but things did not finish on a high note for the young Raiders. However, even during the first eight games of the season, Cooper (-2.0) and Crabtree (-1.1) still had minuses from Carr. They just got a lot more negative in the second half of the season (-6.1 for Cooper, -5.3 for Crabtree).

2015 Tight Ends

While Rob Gronkowski was second in DYAR and seventh in DVOA in 2015, you won't see him in any table here. As you might imagine, his overall success in our other stats was largely built on what he did with the ball in his hands. In terms of catching the passes thrown his way, Gronkowski's 2015 was nothing special, ranked 34th in plus-minus (-0.6) and 32nd in C%+ (-0.5%). Strangely enough, his plus-minus has been nothing special for three seasons now. After a +23.6 in his first three seasons, Gronkowski is just +2.1 since 2013, with his targets barely getting a little deeper.

2015 Tight Ends: Top 10 in Receiving Plus-Minus 2015 Tight Ends: Bottom 10 in Receiving Plus-Minus
Rk Player Team Passes C% REC +/- C%+ Rk Player Team Passes C% REC +/- C%+
1 Delanie Walker TEN 127 74.0% +9.9 7.8% 41 Ryan Griffin HOU 33 60.6% -2.2 -6.6%
2 Jordan Reed WAS 110 79.1% +9.7 8.8% 42 Eric Ebron DET 68 69.1% -2.4 -3.5%
3 Jason Witten DAL 99 77.8% +7.9 8.0% 43 Austin Seferian-Jenkins TB 38 55.3% -2.8 -7.5%
4 Tyler Eifert CIN 66 78.8% +7.4 11.3% 44 Scott Chandler NE 41 56.1% -3.1 -7.6%
5 Brent Celek PHI 32 84.4% +6.5 20.2% 45 Owen Daniels DEN 71 64.8% -3.4 -4.8%
6 Jacob Tamme ATL 78 75.6% +5.6 7.2% 46 Julius Thomas JAC 75 61.3% -4.3 -5.7%
7 Ben Watson NO 104 71.2% +5.2 5.0% 47 Jordan Cameron MIA 63 55.6% -5.2 -8.2%
8 Zach Ertz PHI 104 72.1% +5.0 4.8% 48 Josh Hill NO 30 53.3% -5.9 -19.6%
9 Zach Miller CHI 42 81.0% +5.0 11.9% 49 Marcedes Lewis JAC 33 48.5% -7.1 -21.6%
10 Kyle Rudolph MIN 66 74.2% +4.9 7.5% 50 Jared Cook STL 69 56.5% -7.2 -10.5%

Delanie Walker was a reliable target in his career season for Marcus Mariota in Tennessee, and the same can be said for Jordan Reed's breakout year in Washington, which led to a nice contract extension. Jason Witten picked up some of the slack in Dallas with quarterbacks struggling to hit the outside receivers, while Tyler Eifert likely would have ranked higher if not for injury again.

But then you see an unexpected name of Brent Celek in the top five, and with a ridiculous +20.2% in C%+. While Zach Ertz gets the attention in Philadelphia, Celek had a very efficient season, catching 27 of his 32 catchable targets. This is largely why he was able to finish No. 2 in DVOA for the season.

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As for the bottom 10, we have some young players trying to grow in a position notorious for slow starts, and we have some free agents that need to pick up the slack. It is too early to write off Eric Ebron and Austin Seferian-Jenkins, the latter of whom needs to stay healthy. Jared Cook going to Green Bay does not look to be the type of move that's going to change the fortunes of that passing game, but he only has to be a small part of what Aaron Rodgers likes to do. Jordan Cameron was a very small part of what Miami did last year, only catching 35 passes for 386 yards.

Scott Chandler was expected to steal wide-open touchdowns a la Tim Wright in 2014, but he was not effective in New England, lasting one season there. For the record, new backup Martellus Bennett had an -0.9 in Chicago last season, ranked 35th in plus-minus -- or, one spot behind Gronkowski. The Bears are content in moving forward with Zach Miller, who made some highlight-worthy catches last year and has some of the best numbers here. Miller and Bennett each had 439 receiving yards, but Miller did so on 34 fewer targets.

A feeble Peyton Manning never got things going with Owen Daniels, who looked like he was stuck in concrete for most of the season. At least the duo hooked up for two surprising touchdowns in the AFC Championship Game. A highly-functioning Manning made Julius Thomas look like a Hall of Famer at times in Denver. In Jacksonville, Thomas found things are not so easy with the young and erratic Blake Bortles, who also threw to the 49th-ranked tight end in Marcedes Lewis.

2015 Running Backs

It was a tough season for running backs, with key injuries to Jamaal Charles, Le'Veon Bell, Arian Foster, Marshawn Lynch, Matt Forte, LeSean McCoy, Dion Lewis, DeAngelo Williams, Thomas Rawls, Justin Forsett, etc.

2015 Running Backs: Top 10 in Receiving Plus-Minus 2015 Running Backs: Bottom 10 in Receiving Plus-Minus
Rk Player Team Passes C% REC +/- C%+ Rk Player Team Passes C% REC +/- C%+
1 Duke Johnson CLE 70 87.1% +5.5 7.9% 46 Darren Sproles PHI 72 76.4% -2.6 -3.6%
2 Le'Veon Bell PIT 25 96.0% +3.4 13.8% 47 Chris Polk HOU 25 64.0% -3.1 -12.3%
3 Theo Riddick DET 95 84.2% +3.2 3.4% 48 Dion Lewis NE 49 73.5% -3.1 -6.4%
4 C.J. Spiller NO 39 87.2% +3.0 7.8% 49 David Johnson ARI 53 67.9% -3.4 -6.4%
5 Lamar Miller MIA 53 88.7% +2.8 5.4% 50 Eddie Lacy GB 28 71.4% -3.6 -12.9%
6 Devonta Freeman ATL 91 80.2% +2.8 3.1% 51 LeSean McCoy BUF 45 71.1% -3.8 -8.4%
7 Javorius Allen BAL 54 83.3% +2.4 4.4% 52 Gio Bernard CIN 65 75.4% -4.1 -6.4%
8 Adrian Peterson MIN 33 90.9% +2.2 6.5% 53 Charcandrick West KC 31 64.5% -5.6 -17.9%
9 Mark Ingram NO 58 86.2% +2.1 3.6% 54 Frank Gore IND 48 70.8% -5.8 -12.2%
10 Melvin Gordon SD 37 89.2% +2.0 5.4% 55 Jeremy Langford CHI 41 53.7% -8.2 -20.0%

Despite not even playing in six full games, Le'Veon Bell (+3.4) finished second in plus-minus and was by far first in C%+. He caught 24-of-26 passes officially, but we removed one uncatchable target, so he only missed on one throw. Duke Johnson and Theo Riddick emerged as two of the most prolific receiving backs in 2015. New Orleans had three backs in the top 10 in plus-minus in 2014, and were able to get two again this year with Mark Ingram repeating in his best season yet, and C.J. Spiller as a solid receiver. You won't see us give much praise to Melvin Gordon's rookie year, but at least he caught nearly every pass thrown to him by Philip Rivers. They just did not lead to any touchdowns or plays that gained more than 18 yards.

At the bottom, it is rather surprising to see Dion Lewis and David Johnson, but then you remember their impressive plays happened with the ball in their hands. There is a notable negative correlation (-0.30) between plus-minus and YAC+ for the running backs in 2015, though it is practically zero for the wide receivers and tight ends.

Then you have the interesting case of Chicago and rookie Jeremy Langford ranking dead last in plus-minus and C%+. While running Marc Trestman's offense in 2014, Matt Forte caught 87.3 percent of his aimed targets and led the league with a +6.2 while setting an NFL record for running backs with 102 receptions. Forte was not nearly as prolific last year in Adam Gase's offense, and he has moved on to the Jets. Langford got to play a lot last season and only caught 53.7 percent of his passes. That's pretty bad when you consider all 54 of the running backs ahead of him caught at least 64 percent of their targets.

So what gives? For starters, Langford's average target was the deepest (4.8 yards) among all 2015 running backs. He also dropped four passes, which cost him -2.7 in his plus-minus. We adjusted quarterback's passing plus-minus for drops, but there is no such adjustment for receivers because they're the ones who dropped the ball. But we can look at which players had the most plus-minus lost from dropped passes. Langford's -2.7 is only the eighth most for running backs. Atlanta's Devonta Freeman was -5.8 for eight drops, though it is a crock of you-know-what that this type of play does not get counted as a touchdown. DeMarco Murray (-4.4) had the next-worst value lost from drops.

Among wide receivers, Mike Evans' 12 drops accounted for a league-worst -7.0. Amari Cooper (-6.8) and Demaryius Thomas (-6.2) were the only other players below -5.0. At tight end, Eric Ebron (-4.7) left Matthew Stafford down the most, while Julius Thomas (-3.7) and Travis Kelce (-3.7) were not far behind.


8 comments, Last at 21 Feb 2018, 6:12am

2 Re: 2015 Receiving Plus-Minus

Mike Evans; utter stud as a rookie, apparently got hands surgically replaced with genuine Honey Baked Hams prior to his second year.

4 Re: 2015 Receiving Plus-Minus

Raiderjoe said:

I might read this tonight if I can score enough beer and have enough time after repainting the plastic bobbles on my shoulder pads.

8 Re: 2015 Receiving Plus-Minus

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5 Devonta Freeman

Do I understand this correctly that without the Drops, Freeman's plus-minus would have been +8.3?

6 Re: Devonta Freeman

In reply to by wiesengrund

You add the difference between the drops (8) and plus-minus (-5.8) lost, so he'd be about +5.0 for the season.

7 Re: 2015 Receiving Plus-Minus

at first glance, left side mostly good receiver, right side mostly crappy except for Crabtree and Cooper. so justy l;ooking at chart, seems fine