by Scott Kacsmar
Last week we looked at quarterbacks and their passing plus-minus in 2016. The same method goes into creating receiving plus-minus, but this time we are looking at things from the perspective of receivers.
Receiving plus-minus estimates 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%+), which expresses plus-minus in terms of efficiency.
Note that the quality of the quarterback will be part of each player's plus-minus; we remove passes thrown away on purpose from this analysis, but not inaccurate passes that are simply bad throws or bad decisions.
2016 Wide Receivers
A total of 88 wide receivers qualified this season, but we'll just show the top and bottom rankings to save space here. Each receiver's plus-minus can be found later this summer in Football Outsiders Almanac 2017.
|2016 Wide Receivers: Top 20 in Receiving Plus-Minus||2016 Wide Receivers: Bottom 20 in Receiving Plus-Minus|
|Rk||Player||Team||Passes||C%||REC +/-||C%+||Rk||Player||Team||Passes||C%||REC +/-||C%+|
|1||Doug Baldwin||SEA||123||78.9%||+12.9||+10.5%||69||Michael Floyd||ARI/NE||72||51.4%||-4.0||-5.6%|
|2||Adam Thielen||MIN||90||76.7%||+12.2||+13.6%||70||Julian Edelman||NE||151||64.9%||-4.0||-2.7%|
|3||Michael Thomas||NO||119||77.3%||+11.4||+9.6%||71||Albert Wilson||KC||50||62.0%||-4.4||-8.8%|
|4||Stefon Diggs||MIN||107||78.5%||+11.3||+10.6%||72||Nelson Agholor||PHI||64||57.8%||-4.9||-7.6%|
|5||Cole Beasley||DAL||94||80.9%||+9.5||+10.1%||73||Kelvin Benjamin||CAR||112||56.3%||-5.1||-4.6%|
|6||Pierre Garcon||WAS||109||72.5%||+8.8||+8.1%||74||Jermaine Kearse||SEA||74||55.4%||-5.3||-7.1%|
|7||Brandin Cooks||NO||115||68.7%||+8.7||+7.6%||75||J.J. Nelson||ARI||72||47.2%||-5.5||-7.6%|
|8||Antonio Brown||PIT||150||70.7%||+8.1||+5.4%||76||Tajae Sharpe||TEN||78||52.6%||-5.9||-7.6%|
|9||Julio Jones||ATL||125||66.4%||+7.9||+6.3%||77||Breshad Perriman||BAL||63||50.8%||-5.9||-9.4%|
|10||Jordy Nelson||GB||144||67.4%||+7.6||+5.3%||78||DeAndre Hopkins||HOU||137||56.9%||-6.1||-4.5%|
|11||Larry Fitzgerald||ARI||147||74.1%||+7.3||+5.0%||79||Marquise Goodwin||BUF||63||46.0%||-7.1||-11.3%|
|12||Robert Woods||BUF||68||73.5%||+7.2||+10.7%||80||Allen Hurns||JAC||66||53.0%||-7.8||-11.7%|
|14||A.J. Green||CIN||94||70.2%||+6.8||+7.2%||82||Devin Funchess||CAR||55||41.8%||-8.9||-16.2%|
|15||T.Y. Hilton||IND||142||64.1%||+6.3||+4.4%||83||Quincy Enunwa||NYJ||100||58.0%||-9.0||-9.0%|
|16||Jarvis Landry||MIA||123||76.4%||+6.2||+5.0%||84||Jeremy Kerley||SF||109||58.7%||-9.0||-8.3%|
|17||Mohamed Sanu||ATL||78||75.6%||+5.7||+7.3%||85||Allen Robinson||JAC||143||51.0%||-10.4||-7.3%|
|18||Chris Hogan||NE||54||70.4%||+5.3||+9.8%||86||Seth Roberts||OAK||75||50.7%||-12.3||-16.4%|
|19||DeVante Parker||MIA||83||67.5%||+4.6||+5.5%||87||Tavon Austin||LARM||100||58.0%||-12.5||-12.5%|
|20||DeSean Jackson||WAS||90||62.2%||+4.3||+4.8%||88||Brandon Marshall||NYJ||121||47.9%||-14.0||-11.6%|
Antonio Brown's bid at leading the league in receiving plus-minus for three years in a row came up well short, but he still finished a solid eighth. Expectations were probably too high for Brown to challenge Marvin Harrison's single-season record of 143 catches. The situation seemed right though, with Heath Miller's retirement and Martavis Bryant's season-long suspension. Brown sat out the Week 17 finale, but he finished with 106 receptions, well short of the 136 he had in 2015 when he had the highest plus-minus season on record (+18.3). We saw last week that Ben Roethlisberger had a career-low -6.3, but Brown was still his top receiver at +7.9. We'll see some other Steelers later, but the team's bottom-ranked player in plus-minus was Sammie Coates (-4.2), who struggled mightily to catch the ball after a hand injury.
There were not any dominant seasons by wideouts in 2016. Doug Baldwin, an FO favorite, had the second-lowest plus-minus (+12.9) to lead the league in the last 11 seasons. He did this after finishing third in 2015, so regardless of the chatter about in-fighting in Seattle, Baldwin has been on an impressive roll with Russell Wilson.
We talked a lot about Sam Bradford finishing third in passing plus-minus (+28.4) in a season where he set the single-season record for completion percentage. Most of that success was when he threw to Adam Thielen (+12.2) and Stefon Diggs (+11.3), who both ranked in the top four in 2016. Diggs was a known threat, but Thielen really surprised with 967 yards, including a 202-yard game against the Packers' ravaged secondary in Week 16. Thielen earned a three-year extension worth a total of $27 million. If 2016 first-round pick Laquon Treadwell, who had one grab in his rookie year, continues to be a huge disappointment, then it will continue to be the Diggs and Thielen Show in Minnesota.
The only other team with a pair of wideouts in the top 12 was New Orleans, which always does well in this stat thanks to Drew Brees' accuracy. However, the Saints dealt Brandin Cooks to New England this offseason. That move is reasonable when you have Brees and saw a strong rookie effort from Michael Thomas, who almost quietly produced 92 catches for 1,137 yards and nine touchdowns. New Orleans' third wideout, Willie Snead (+2.5), will have to pick up the slack with Cooks gone, but Thomas is a player to watch for in 2017.
Interestingly enough, Dallas has two wide receivers in the top 20, but neither is All-Pro Dez Bryant. For whatever reason, rookie Dak Prescott was not nearly as efficient when throwing to Bryant, who will tend to draw the tougher defensive matchup, and who was not always 100 percent healthy in 2016. Still, Prescott was -2.0 to Bryant, tied with Brice Butler for his lowest plus-minus to any teammate. We know Cole Beasley catches the underneath routes out of the slot, but one thing Dallas changed this year was to get Terrance Williams more involved in the intermediate game. Bryant's targets were nearly a full 4 yards deeper than Williams', so that certainly had something to do with the numbers being down. Bryant has been a +21.9 in his career with Tony Romo at quarterback, but -11.0 with Dallas' other passers. Prescott will have to get better at throwing to his No. 1 receiver, but this is a minor quibble to have on a Dallas offense that seems set for a long run of success.
Miami (Jarvis Landry and DeVante Parker), Atlanta (Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu), and Washington (Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson), also each had a duo in the top 20. Washington was the least surprising given Kirk Cousins' success, but let's not forget that both of those players have moved on this offseason, with Garcon going to San Francisco and Jackson down to Tampa Bay. Jackson is a very interesting fit with the vertical Jameis Winston. It is no surprise to see Atlanta here in Matt Ryan's MVP season, but the Miami numbers were a bit unexpected with Landry usually not showing up this high, and Parker seemingly not "there" yet in his development. Still, Ryan Tannehill (+3.4) had a top-10 finish in passing plus-minus, so perhaps Adam Gase has that offense moving in the right direction.
Did you expect to see the "newly vertical" Chris Hogan in the top 20, and Wes Welker's clone Julian Edelman at 70th? This was not just a "Tom Brady suspension" thing, either. Edelman had this breakdown by quarterback in 2016: Brady (-3.2), Jimmy Garoppolo (+1.8 on 15 targets), and Jacoby Brissett (-2.7 on 13 targets). Hogan's breakdown: Brady (+5.5), Garoppolo (+0.6 on nine targets), and Brissett (-0.8 on six targets). With Cooks now in New England and Rob Gronkowski returning from injury, this offense should be more about those two players instead of Edelman and Hogan in 2017, a scary thought for the rest of the NFL.
Many of the names in the bottom 20 should come as no surprise, given some of the reputations for notoriously bad hands or routes, and/or an inaccurate quarterback. Is it any surprise that Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess both show up for Carolina, or Nelson Agholor and Dorial Green-Beckham for Philadelphia? The same can be said about Blake Bortles' duo of Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson in Jacksonville. Seth Roberts made a few big plays with Derek Carr in Oakland, but overall the team could really do an upgrade on him for its third receiving target. Roberts' catch rate was 16.3 percentage points below average, the worst in the NFL. The Raiders did add tight end Jared Cook this offseason.
We are used to seeing Tavon Austin sniff the bottom of our wide receiver stats, but Brandon Marshall had a little more volume of targets from lousy quarterback play. The crazy part is that Marshall had just finished 13th in plus-minus (+7.2) in 2015, but Ryan Fitzpatrick was not nearly as effective last season, posting a -10.0 when targeting Marshall in 2016. Keep in mind Marshall will be catching passes from Eli Manning this year, and Manning ranked 27th in passing plus-minus. We don't see a superstar like Odell Beckham Jr. on this table, because he was just +0.3 during a shaky year from the quarterback.
2016 Tight Ends
We looked at a dozen of the top and bottom tight ends for a 2016 season that featured some unexpected names at this position.
|2016 Tight Ends: Top 12 in Receiving Plus-Minus||2016 Tight Ends: Bottom 12 in Receiving Plus-Minus|
|Rk||Player||Team||Passes||C%||REC +/-||C%+||Rk||Player||Team||Passes||C%||REC +/-||C%+|
|1||Zach Ertz||PHI||98||79.6%||+11.4||+11.7%||34||Virgil Green||DEN||34||64.7%||-2.0||-6.0%|
|2||Jordan Reed||WAS||85||77.6%||+6.9||+8.2%||35||Ladarius Green||PIT||32||56.3%||-2.1||-6.6%|
|3||Cameron Brate||TB||78||73.1%||+6.9||+8.9%||36||Trey Burton||PHI||57||64.9%||-2.2||-3.8%|
|4||Jack Doyle||IND||74||79.7%||+6.2||+8.3%||37||Charles Clay||BUF||85||67.1%||-2.3||-2.7%|
|5||Travis Kelce||KC||115||73.9%||+4.8||+4.2%||38||C.J. Fiedorowicz||HOU||81||66.7%||-2.8||-3.5%|
|6||Jason Witten||DAL||90||76.7%||+4.7||+5.2%||39||Julius Thomas||JAC||48||62.5%||-3.5||-7.3%|
|7||Vernon Davis||WAS||58||75.9%||+4.7||+8.0%||40||Jesse James||PIT||59||66.1%||-3.9||-6.6%|
|8||Rob Gronkowski||NE||35||71.4%||+4.5||+12.7%||41||Demetrius Harris||KC||30||56.7%||-4.0||-13.4%|
|9||Martellus Bennett||NE||69||79.7%||+3.9||+5.6%||42||Vance McDonald||SF||44||54.5%||-4.6||-10.5%|
|10||Jimmy Graham||SEA||92||71.7%||+3.7||+4.0%||43||Antonio Gates||SD||88||60.2%||-5.2||-6.0%|
|11||Hunter Henry||SD||49||73.5%||+3.6||+7.4%||44||Lance Kendricks||LARM||76||65.8%||-6.4||-8.4%|
|12||Tyler Eifert||CIN||38||76.3%||+3.5||+9.2%||45||Tyler Higbee||LARM||26||42.3%||-7.2||-27.8%|
Rob Gronkowski is hands down the best tight end in the league, and would probably lock up the "GOAT" title if he could only stay healthy. Just a year ago, I wrote that "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."
Well, in 2016 Gronkowski was unleashed down the field. His average target from Brady was 14.7 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, besting the duo's previous high of 11.1 in 2013. Gronkowski averaged 21.6 yards per reception, a number almost unheard of at any position in today's NFL, let alone a tight end. Unfortunately, more health problems limited Gronk to 25 catches, but he still managed to finish eighth in plus-minus, and had a tight end-best +12.7 C%+. Martellus Bennett also had solid numbers for the Patriots, but he's clearly not Gronkowski. No one is, for that matter.
Travis Kelce gets some "Baby Gronk" love in the media, and while he led the league in DYAR, he fell behind the likes of Jack Doyle and Cameron Brate in plus-minus. Of course, Doyle and Brate play with aggressive, vertical passers in Andrew Luck and Jameis Winston, while Kelce is stuck in an offense with Alex Smith.
However, that conservative type of passing game still led to the best receiving plus-minus of 2016, courtesy of Zach Ertz in Philadelphia. Carson Wentz may have struggled with his suboptimal cast of wideouts, but Ertz was at his best last year in his fourth season. Teammate Trey Burton was one of the least effective tight ends of 2016. A year ago, Brent Celek was at a ridiculous +20.2% in C%+, but the veteran only had 18 aimed targets in 2016.
Washington may have lost its top wideouts, but Jordan Reed is almost a wide receiver too, and he was again one of the best receiving tight ends in the league. Vernon Davis was also a surprisingly solid addition to the Redskins, so Cousins is not entirely without weapons. Washington did add Terrelle Pryor (-1.8) this offseason.
Much like with A.J. Green in the wide receiver table, the Bengals could have had a player finish much higher if not for injury. Tyler Eifert was only 12th here in plus-minus, but he only had 38 aimed targets in eight games.
Jason Witten and Jimmy Graham continued to play well with strong quarterback play as expected, but look at one of the newcomers in rookie Hunter Henry. He finished 11th, while a 36-year-old Antonio Gates was 43rd in the same San Diego offense with Philip Rivers. The Chargers appear to be in fine shape at replacing Gates when that time comes soon.
Again, it is not surprising to see tight ends stuck with Brock Osweiler and Blake Bortles as their quarterbacks struggle, though in the case of Julius Thomas, he was never going to live up to his Peyton Manning-aided production in Denver. Now he's in Miami, which has been missing a player at that position since Charles Clay left, though Clay has clearly not shined much for Buffalo.
The Steelers' plan to replace the reliable Heath Miller was Ladarius Green, but he was damaged goods, missing 10 games in the regular season and three more in the playoffs. The Steelers bit the bullet this offseason by releasing Green after he signed a four-year, $20 million contract. Jesse James cannot stretch the field as well as Green, so Pittsburgh would be foolish not to lead the league in using four-wide sets with Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, Eli Rogers, second-round rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster, Sammie Coates, and Justin Hunter all on the roster.
Finally, there is another dose of the torture porn known as the 2016 Rams' passing game. Not only did the Rams throw 102 aimed passes to Lance Kendricks and Tyler Higbee, but they did so in historically inefficient fashion. Higbee in particular only had 26 targets, but still managed to have a catch rate that was 27.8 percentage points below average, the worst season in our database since 2006. He only had two drops, so it was not that type of issue. This also wasn't just another piece of evidence in the "Jared Goff was an all-time horrible rookie" case. Higbee was -2.2 on 12 Goff targets and -5.0 on 14 targets from Case Keenum, albeit the two drops were with Keenum.
Goff's passes only traveled 5.6 yards down the field to Higbee, but he stilled missed six of those 14 throws. Kendricks left for Green Bay and the Rams drafted tight end Gerald Everett in the second round, so we might not see as much of Higbee this year. Believe it or not, but Jared Cook was the bottom-ranked tight end in 2015 for the Rams as well, so this has been a spot that has killed production in the passing game for years. Rookie head coach Sean McVay has a lot of work to do with Goff.
2016 Running Backs
We only listed 20 running backs since there aren't that many committed receiving backs to go over, but a few players did stand out for various reasons.
|2016 Running Backs: Top 10 in Receiving Plus-Minus||2016 Running Backs: Bottom 10 in Receiving Plus-Minus|
|Rk||Player||Team||Passes||C%||REC +/-||C%+||Rk||Player||Team||Passes||C%||REC +/-||C%+|
|1||LeSean McCoy||BUF||55||92.7%||+4.9||+8.8%||41||Rashad Jennings||NYG||43||83.7%||-1.1||-2.7%|
|2||Devonta Freeman||ATL||61||88.5%||+4.6||+7.6%||42||James Starks||GB||25||80.0%||-1.2||-5.0%|
|3||Ty Montgomery||GB||49||89.8%||+4.1||+8.4%||43||Jeremy Langford||CHI||25||76.0%||-1.3||-5.3%|
|4||Mark Ingram||NO||52||88.5%||+3.9||+7.6%||44||Robert Turbin||IND||33||78.8%||-1.4||-4.4%|
|5||DeMarco Murray||TEN||63||84.1%||+2.6||+4.1%||45||Todd Gurley||LARM||56||76.8%||-2.3||-4.1%|
|6||Travaris Cadet||NO||50||80.0%||+2.5||+5.0%||46||Melvin Gordon||SD||53||77.4%||-2.5||-4.8%|
|7||Damien Williams||MIA||28||82.1%||+2.2||+7.8%||47||Kenneth Dixon||BAL||39||76.9%||-3.3||-8.5%|
|8||Chris Thompson||WAS||59||83.1%||+2.1||+3.6%||48||DeAngelo Williams||PIT||27||66.7%||-4.4||-16.4%|
|9||Kyle Juszczyk||BAL||44||84.1%||+1.8||+4.0%||49||James White||NE||81||74.1%||-4.8||-5.9%|
|10||Carlos Hyde||SF||33||84.8%||+1.6||+5.0%||50||Jordan Howard||CHI||46||63.0%||-8.9||-19.3%|
LeSean McCoy not only had a stellar rushing season for the Bills, but he was a good receiver too with the best plus-minus and C%+. He did not draw as much praise last year as David Johnson, Ezekiel Elliott, and Le'Veon Bell, but McCoy was right there when he wasn't dealing with a hamstring injury.
Some are probably wondering where Le'Veon Bell finished, since he caught 24-of-25 passes in 2015, had 75 grabs in 2016, and is regarded as one of the top receiving backs in the NFL. He finished 18th this year with a +1.2, so again, another plus-minus stat for Pittsburgh that was not impressive in 2016. David Johnson led all backs with 80 receptions, but only finished 33rd with a -0.3 for Arizona. However, no back had deeper targets on average than Johnson's 4.6 air yards.
The 49ers will actually have two players in the top 10 in 2017 after adding Baltimore fullback Kyle Juszczyk, the league's most expensive fullback at $3.75 million against the 2017 cap. How will we get by without seeing Joe Flacco attempt a game-winning drive without four dump-offs to Juszczyk? Kenneth Dixon ranked poorly in plus-minus as a rookie, but the Ravens did add Danny Woodhead, so Flacco should be just fine in attempting to break his own failed completion record.
Naturally, Todd Gurley ranked 45th, because it just wouldn't be right not to see a Rams player in the bottom list. Fellow 2015 draftee Melvin Gordon also is near the bottom, but he did at least show better rushing prowess in his second season.
James White, who had an argument for Super Bowl MVP, is a surprising name at No. 49 in plus-minus. He did have three drops and struggled with Garoppolo (-2.7) at quarterback, but he was still just a -2.3 with Brady too. One thing working against White: he had eight incompletions that were underthrown to him, the most for any 2016 running back. He'll have a lot of competition in that backfield this year with Rex Burkhead and what should be a healthier Dion Lewis.
We'll finish with a depressing look at Chicago that does not involve a joke about Mike Glennon's height or the Mitch Trubisky trade. No, this was another down year for Bears' receiving backs. Jeremy Langford ranked dead last in plus-minus and C%+ as a rookie, and he was close again to the bottom in 2016. His replacement, a surprising fifth-round rookie named Jordan Howard, did bring up the rear in both stats. Howard was a fine runner, but we marked him with eight drops as a receiver, the highest total at his position.