by Scott Kacsmar
In recent weeks we looked at passing plus-minus and receiving plus-minus, which estimate how many passes were completed above average, adjusted for where the pass was thrown. It is a very useful way to adjust completion rates, but we also want a way to analyze receivers after the catch with the ball in their hands. In keeping with that concept of where the pass was caught, we can also use an adjusted version of yards after the catch, known as YAC+.
Here is the description of YAC+ from the upcoming Football Outsiders Almanac 2017 (available in July), where every player with his own table will have his plus-minus and YAC+ listed for the past three seasons:
YAC+ is similar to plus-minus; it estimates how much YAC a receiver gained compared to what we would have expected from an average receiver catching passes of similar length in similar down-and-distance situations. This is imperfect -- we don't specifically mark what route a player runs, and obviously a go route will have more YAC than a comeback -- but it does a fairly good job of telling you if this receiver gets more or less YAC than other receivers with similar usage patterns.
The ability to break tackles is one way to create good YAC, but it does not always translate to YAC+ success. For instance, among the top 12 wide receivers in broken tackles for the 2015 season, only Martavis Bryant and Doug Baldwin also ranked in the top 12 in YAC+. Sometimes those broken tackle totals are padded by someone making defenders miss in the backfield before going down for an insignificant gain or even a loss. Those are plays that just delay in the inevitable, even if they can be fun to watch, though few are like Marion Barber, who once broke seven tackles to avoid a safety and gain 2 yards. Seven of the 10 completions with the most YAC in 2016 featured a broken tackle. Tackling can be a lost art at times.
To qualify for rankings in the tables below, wide receivers must have at least 50 targets, while running backs and tight ends need a minimum of 25 targets. The number of passes shown below may not match official totals due to our removal of certain incompletions, such as passes intentionally thrown away or batted down at the line. For context, the average air yards and ALEX of each player's targets are also included.
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.
|2016 Wide Receivers: Top 20 in YAC+||2016 Wide Receivers: Bottom 20 in YAC+|
|1||Tyrell Williams||SD||108||3.3||11.8||+1.7||69||A.J. Green||CIN||94||2.5||12.2||-1.1|
|2||Adam Humphries||TB||76||-3.6||6.2||+1.6||70||Donte Moncrief||IND||52||2.9||10.6||-1.1|
|3||Chris Hogan||NE||54||5.4||13.9||+1.4||71||Tyreek Hill||KC||81||-0.7||8.0||-1.1|
|4||Mike Wallace||BAL||109||3.6||12.3||+1.3||72||Allen Robinson||JAC||143||5.0||13.1||-1.2|
|5||Jarvis Landry||MIA||123||-2.6||6.6||+1.2||73||Jermaine Kearse||SEA||74||2.3||11.9||-1.4|
|6||J.J. Nelson||ARI||72||8.8||17.0||+1.2||74||Michael Crabtree||OAK||139||1.9||10.6||-1.4|
|7||Michael Thomas||NO||119||-0.4||8.1||+1.1||75||Jeremy Kerley||SF||109||0.1||8.6||-1.4|
|8||Quincy Enunwa||NYJ||100||0.7||9.3||+1.1||76||Terrelle Pryor||CLE||132||5.0||14.0||-1.4|
|9||Allen Hurns||JAC||66||2.2||10.5||+1.1||77||John Brown||ARI||67||4.5||13.8||-1.5|
|10||Marqise Lee||JAC||102||3.2||11.7||+1.0||78||Jeremy Maclin||KC||72||2.2||10.9||-1.5|
|11||Devin Funchess||CAR||55||4.7||13.5||+1.0||79||Robert Woods||BUF||68||1.6||11.1||-1.6|
|12||Golden Tate||DET||127||-1.1||7.6||+0.9||80||Ted Ginn Jr.||CAR||91||3.1||13.2||-1.6|
|13||Jamison Crowder||WAS||93||-1.4||7.9||+0.8||81||Tavon Austin||LARM||100||-2.0||7.1||-1.6|
|14||Odell Beckham Jr.||NYG||158||2.5||10.6||+0.8||82||Robby Anderson||NYJ||75||8.1||17.0||-1.6|
|15||Willie Snead||NO||100||-1.1||7.4||+0.8||83||Corey Coleman||CLE||60||4.7||14.4||-1.6|
|16||Cole Beasley||DAL||94||-2.0||6.4||+0.7||84||Nelson Agholor||PHI||64||1.6||10.5||-1.6|
|17||Travis Benjamin||SD||70||3.9||13.0||+0.6||85||Michael Floyd||ARI/NE||72||6.2||15.1||-1.7|
|18||Brandon LaFell||CIN||99||0.4||9.5||+0.6||86||Tajae Sharpe||TEN||78||4.0||13.3||-1.8|
|19||Breshad Perriman||BAL||63||4.0||14.1||+0.6||87||Jordan Matthews||PHI||111||1.2||10.0||-1.8|
|20||Davante Adams||GB||115||2.5||11.2||+0.6||88||Mike Evans||TB||164||6.2||14.6||-1.9|
Tyrell Williams has given us a few surprises in his brief career with the Chargers. He caught an 80-yard touchdown bomb against the vaunted "No Fly Zone" of the 2015 Broncos in Week 17, his first game with a catch. Not much was expected of him this year with the team bringing in Travis Benjamin, who also cracked the top 20 here, but Williams stepped up as the team's leading receiver after Keenan Allen went down with another serious injury in Week 1. Williams played well and led all San Diego wideouts in DYAR. The Chargers still spent a first-round pick on Mike Williams -- no really, another wide receiver named Mike Williams in the NFL -- but this offense has a good variety of receiving options if everyone can just stay healthy.
Not just Williams in San Diego, but Brandon LaFell (Bengals) and Marqise Lee (Jaguars) were in a similar range in DYAR in a surprising season all around for wideouts. Lee almost led the Jaguars in receiving in what was a poor year for the Allens, especially Allen Robinson, who finished more than 60 spots below his teammates. Of course, they all suffer from the delivery system known as Blake Bortles. LaFell fared better than A.J. Green in this metric, but Green has never been a big YAC receiver. LaFell had a 77.5-YAC+ touchdown against the Texans that was the second highest YAC+ play of 2016. The largest belonged to Mike Wallace, who had a +83.2 on his 95-yard touchdown against the Steelers. It was really the highlight of Wallace's year, which saw him rebound a little after hugely disappointing stints in Miami and Minnesota.
Odell Beckham Jr. dropped from No. 1 in YAC+ to 14th last season, but he's still one of the most exciting receivers to watch with a sense that he can turn a short catch into a long score. No one had a bigger drop from 2015 than Carolina's Ted Ginn Jr., who had a career year when Cam Newton was MVP, but he fell from sixth in YAC+ to 80th. Devin Funchess has a lot of bad numbers in his early career, which oddly isn't talked about much given his second-round pick status, but he at least finished 11th in YAC+.
Some other obscure players pressed into more prominent roles surprised in 2016. New Orleans rookie Michael Thomas fared very well in receiving plus-minus, and his YAC+ was also top seven in the league. Quincy Enunwa made some great plays for the Jets' putrid passing game, and he'll have to do a lot more now that the team has released Eric Decker after already parting with Brandon Marshall earlier this offseason. Enunwa was by far the most popular answer to my Twitter question about which offensive player could you possibly want to watch on the 2017 Jets. Teammate Robby Anderson ranked seventh from the bottom in YAC+ as the Jets tried to make him their top deep threat. Again, the opportunities will be there for these guys in 2017.
A stark difference in teammates is always interesting, though it's pretty self-explanatory in Tampa Bay with Adam Humphries (No. 2) and Mike Evans (last at No. 88). Humphries caught very short passes for the Buccaneers, but still had some success, while Evans could often be seen contorting his body to bring down wild balls from Jameis Winston. That's not very good for YAC, but they make for some incredible highlights either way. Humphries may not see many targets this year after the offense loaded up with DeSean Jackson and rookie tight end O.J. Howard.
Finally, the inclusion of Tyreek Hill at No. 71 is noteworthy given that he's the trendy "all-purpose" player in the NFL right now. He's even more of a commodity in fantasy circles after the Chiefs surprisingly released Jeremy Maclin, who ranked 78th here, last week. Hill is certainly not a traditional wide receiver ready to fill Maclin's shoes, but he has been compared to Tavon Austin, who was 81st in YAC+. Hill was an All-Pro return specialist and had a 70-yard run, but none of his 61 receptions gained more than 49 yards. He'll continue to catch short passes from Alex Smith, but he wasn't that dazzling after the catch. His two longest YAC+ plays were +18.3 and +14.7, while everything else was +6.5 or less.
2016 Tight Ends
A total of 45 tight ends qualified for 2016, but we are listing only the top 16 (all the plus-YAC+ players) and the bottom 16 (everyone lower than -0.5).
|2016 Tight Ends: Top 16 in YAC+||2016 Tight Ends: Bottom 16 in YAC+|
|1||Rob Gronkowski||NE||35||6.1||14.1||+5.0||30||Jason Witten||DAL||90||-2.8||6.7||-0.6|
|2||Vance McDonald||SF||44||1.5||10.3||+4.3||31||Jermaine Gresham||ARI||55||-2.5||7.7||-0.7|
|3||Travis Kelce||KC||115||-1.4||6.8||+2.5||32||Julius Thomsa||JAC||48||-0.8||7.3||-0.8|
|4||Martellus Bennett||NE||69||-4.4||5.3||+2.3||33||Will Tye||NYG||67||-3.1||5.8||-0.8|
|5||Hunter Henry||SD||49||0.9||9.0||+2.2||34||Gary Barnidge||CLE||76||-1.0||7.8||-0.9|
|6||Tyler Eifert||CIN||38||0.4||8.4||+1.0||35||Jesse James||PIT||59||-2.1||6.7||-0.9|
|7||Vernon Davis||WAS||58||0.1||9.0||+0.7||36||Clive Walford||OAK||49||-0.6||8.3||-0.9|
|8||Dion Sims||MIA||33||-1.8||6.5||+0.6||37||Richard Rodgers||GB||43||-0.7||8.7||-1.1|
|9||Ladarius Green||PIT||32||2.8||11.7||+0.6||38||Zach Ertz||PHI||98||-0.7||8.1||-1.1|
|10||Lance Kendricks||LARM||76||-3.6||5.4||+0.5||39||Ryan Griffin||HOU||70||-2.1||6.8||-1.1|
|11||Jimmy Graham||SEA||92||-0.2||9.3||+0.3||40||Charles Clay||BUF||85||-1.7||8.0||-1.2|
|12||Garrett Celek||SF||47||0.9||9.4||+0.3||41||Trey Burton||PHI||57||-0.3||7.9||-1.3|
|13||Eric Ebron||DET||84||-1.3||7.9||+0.3||42||Cameron Brate||TB||78||1.1||9.9||-1.4|
|14||Zach Miller||CHI||62||-1.4||6.9||+0.3||43||Dennis Pitta||BAL||116||-2.6||6.3||-1.4|
|15||Greg Olsen||CAR||123||2.4||11.3||+0.2||44||Demetrius Harris||KC||30||-1.5||6.6||-1.8|
|16||Jared Cook||GB||49||1.8||10.2||+0.2||45||Tyler Higbee||LARM||26||-3.1||6.7||-2.5|
Simply put, Rob Gronkowski owns YAC+. This is the fourth time he has led the league in YAC+ in his seven-year career, and his +5.0 was his best mark yet. It is just so hard to bring the big guy down on first contact. Teammate Martellus Bennett did a respectable job by finishing fourth, but it's interesting that he had the lowest ALEX (-4.4) of all tight ends while Gronkowski (+6.1) had by far the highest. Dwayne Allen (-0.5 in YAC+) could try to keep that dynamic going this season when he debuts with the Patriots. Bennett left for Green Bay, which said goodbye to the barely-positive YAC+ Jared Cook, but Cook should be an upgrade in Oakland where Clive Walford did not do much to impress in his second season.
San Francisco's Vance McDonald stands out as much as anyone at No. 2, but that's largely due to plays of +55.8 and +57.6 against the Panthers and Saints. The only other tight end to have a +50.0 play in 2016 was Travis Kelce, who was +74.4 on a touchdown in the Week 16 massacre against Denver. Kelce has been one of the leaders in YAC+ for each of the last three seasons. Teammate Demetrius Harris, who is more of the blocking tight end, was next to last in 2016.
While Kelce is in that "Gronk mold," Philadelphia tight end Zach Ertz does not have a great reputation of getting things done with the ball in his hands. Despite a position-best +11.4 in receiving plus-minus, Ertz was only 38th in YAC+, and this was his worst season yet after finishing at -0.5 YAC+ for each of the past three seasons. Ertz just doesn't break many tackles, and similar things can be said about teammate Trey Burton.
We mentioned O.J. Howard going to Tampa Bay was likely to push Cameron Brate down the depth chart. Brate was good last year, but making things happen after the catch isn't in his skill set. He's more of a Dennis Pitta type of tight end, and Pitta was definitely a few steps slower in his return to play last season for Baltimore. After another hip injury, Pitta's playing days are likely over for good.
Then we have the Rams again. While Lance Kendricks had poor receiving plus-minus numbers, he at least ranked 10th in YAC+. Tyler Higbee, however, may have just had the worst season by a tight end in the last decade. We don't want to put a ton of stock on 26 targets, which he may never see again in his career, but Higbee ranked dead last in DYAR, DVOA, receiving plus-minus, and YAC+ among 2016 tight ends.
The title of best tight end in Los Angeles (not that there's much competition for it) belongs to Hunter Henry now. The rookie scored eight touchdowns and finished fourth in DVOA, fifth in DYAR, 11th in receiving plus-minus, and fifth in YAC+. The succession plan to Antonio Gates is off to a great start.
2016 Running Backs
Since the running back numbers have a bit more spread to them, we listed all 50 qualified backs with at least 25 targets.
|2016 Running Backs: YAC+ Rankings|
|1||Tevin Coleman||ATL||37||-8.4||2.0||+5.3||26||Robert Turbin||IND||33||-10.7||-1.1||0.5|
|2||Spencer Ware||KC||41||-6.5||3.2||+4.7||27||LeSean McCoy||BUF||55||-9.4||-0.3||0.4|
|3||Ezekiel Elliott||DAL||38||-11.1||-0.3||+4.6||28||Terrence West||BAL||41||-8.0||0.7||0.4|
|4||Damien Williams||MIA||28||-5.2||3.4||+3.5||29||Theo Riddick||DET||64||-8.7||0.4||0.3|
|5||Melvin Gordon||SD||53||-9.0||0.4||+3.3||30||Mark Ingram||NO||52||-8.4||0.6||0.2|
|6||Jordan Howard||CHI||46||-9.1||0.9||+3.1||31||Kyle Juszczyk||SF||44||-6.8||1.3||0.2|
|7||David Johnson||ARI||109||-4.8||4.6||+2.3||32||James Starks||GB||25||-10.7||-1.8||0.1|
|8||Fozzy Whittaker||CAR||31||-9.4||0.5||+2.2||33||Charcandrick West||KC||33||-8.2||1.2||0.1|
|9||Chris Ivory||JAC||25||-9.1||0.2||+2.1||34||DeAngelo Williams||PIT||27||-9.3||-0.3||0.0|
|10||Matt Forte||NYJ||36||-9.1||-0.3||+1.9||35||Bilal Powell||NYJ||70||-9.8||-0.6||0.0|
|11||Duke Johnson||CLE||67||-7.9||1.9||+1.7||36||DeMarco Murray||TEN||63||-8.7||0.7||-0.2|
|12||James White||NE||81||-8.0||1.2||+1.7||37||Jeremy Langford||CHI||25||-10.2||1.8||-0.2|
|13||Le'Veon Bell||PIT||89||-9.7||-0.4||+1.6||38||Josh Ferguson||IND||25||-10.8||-0.9||-0.4|
|14||Devonta Freeman||ATL||61||-8.9||1.3||+1.3||39||Chris Thompson||WAS||59||-7.8||1.8||-0.5|
|15||Matt Asiata||MIN||38||-9.2||0.2||+1.2||40||Jerick McKinnon||MIN||52||-8.3||0.0||-0.6|
|16||Latavius Murray||OAK||38||-10.5||-0.2||+1.0||41||T.J. Yeldon||JAC||61||-10.3||-0.4||-0.6|
|17||Darren Sproles||PHI||65||-9.0||0.5||+0.9||42||Lamar Miller||HOU||36||-8.3||0.6||-0.6|
|18||Devontae Booker||DEN||39||-8.7||1.6||+0.8||43||Travaris Cadet||NO||50||-5.0||3.3||-0.7|
|19||Todd Gurley||LARM||56||-8.3||1.0||+0.8||44||Rashad Jennings||NYG||43||-11.1||-2.1||-0.7|
|20||Ty Montgomery||GB||49||-7.7||0.8||+0.8||45||Carlos Hyde||SF||33||-7.8||1.9||-1.2|
|21||Isaiah Crowell||CLE||48||-10.1||-0.5||+0.8||46||Kenneth Dixon||BAL||39||-10.6||-0.3||-1.4|
|22||Charles Sims||TB||30||-7.6||2.3||+0.7||47||Jay Ajayi||MIA||34||-7.7||1.4||-1.4|
|23||Frank Gore||IND||45||-9.4||-0.3||+0.6||48||Jalen Richard||OAK||37||-9.3||2.8||-2.0|
|24||Shaun Draughn||SF||36||-6.0||4.0||+0.6||49||Christine Michael||SEA/GB||26||-11.2||0.5||-2.0|
|25||Giovani Bernard||CIN||48||-7.5||2.0||+0.5||50||Justin Forsett||3TM||25||-9.3||0.1||-2.4|
As we said last year, the year-to-year correlation for YAC+ for running backs is only about 0.07 since 2006. It is closer to 0.30 for the other positions. Backs primarily catch a lot of short passes, so breaking tackles is more important here to pick up big YAC. We see the Atlanta backs and James White fared very well, which shouldn't be much of a surprise if you recall our Film Room look at the receiving backs in Super Bowl LI.
Jordan Howard dropped eight passes and had a terrible plus-minus for the Bears, but didn't do so bad once he actually had the ball in his hands. Ezekiel Elliott (+76.4) had the season's longest YAC+ play for a running back when he took a screen for an 83-yard touchdown against the Steelers.
Maybe just chalk it up to pure coincidence, but the two running backs on the table to play for multiple teams last year bring up the rear. Justin Forsett, who has been notoriously bad at YAC+, retired this offseason. Forsett was last in YAC+ in 2015 too. Christine Michael is seemingly always on the move, except when he gets in a real game and the production just doesn't materialize. He is currently on the Colts, who have three backs (Frank Gore, Josh Ferguson, and Robert Turbin) bunched together on this list.
Jay Ajayi didn't show a lot as a receiver last year, but Damien Williams picked up the slack in Miami. Williams actually ranked 54th out of 56 players in YAC+ in 2015, so his rise to fourth is the biggest jump this year.
We saved the quarterbacks for last since YAC+ is more of a receiver-driven stat. In looking at the year-to-year correlations for qualified quarterbacks with at least 200 attempts, the correlation coefficient is 0.58 for plus-minus and 0.16 for YAC+. Again, YAC is far more volatile and more dependent on the receiver than the act of completing passes is, and the correlation of plus-minus being more than triple that of YAC+ should come as no surprise.
YAC+ for quarterbacks is really more of an indicator of the type of offense the quarterback runs and the talent in it rather than his individual performance level. Here are the 2016 results.
|2016 Quarterbacks: YAC+ (Min. 200 Passes)|
|Player||Team||Passes||+/-||ALEX||Avg PYD||Avg YAC||YAC+||Rk|
|Player||Team||Passes||+/-||ALEX||Avg PYD||Avg YAC||YAC+||Rk|
Matt Ryan's MVP season isn't a big surprise at the top given how Atlanta chewed up yards in such an efficient manner. Part of what offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan did really well, before he botched the Super Bowl and left for the 49ers, was using screen passes. Atlanta's DVOA on wide receiver/tight end screens was 66.2%, the second highest in 2016 behind Dallas at 77.1%. Atlanta was also sixth in DVOA (55.6%) on running back screens. Tevin Coleman (+5.3) led all running backs in YAC+, while Taylor Gabriel (+1.9) would have led all wide receivers, but he missed the cut by one target.
The three quarterbacks at the bottom also make a lot of sense when you consider their primary receivers. Tyrod Taylor was next to last in 2015 too, his debut with Buffalo. We looked at Mike Evans earlier, but Sammy Watkins (granted, he missed half the season with injury) and DeAndre Hopkins have also been known to not generate much YAC.
Hopkins of course was stuck with Brock Osweiler, who has many issues, but accuracy is certainly competing for the top of the list. However, this really does look like more of a Bill O'Brien scheme issue, as well as some arguable shortcomings in team-building in Houston. Remember, Ryan Mallett (-1.6) had the worst YAC+ of any quarterback in a decade in 2015, and Brian Hoyer was also in the bottom four while running this offense. Now you throw in Osweiler's season, see that backup Tom Savage (-1.0) also would have brought up the rear, and it is only a wonder what type of numbers we will see from Clemson rookie Deshaun Watson in Houston. Hopkins is still the top receiver, the backs and tight ends are unremarkable, and Will Fuller is likely to get tackled after catching a deep ball, assuming he doesn't drop it first. Even Braxton Miller (-1.9) and Jaelen Strong (-2.5) had poor YAC+ numbers with Osweiler trying to throw short passes to them. There's a tired pun about Houston having a problem, but this has definitely been one for O'Brien's passing game.
For those curious about quarterbacks who did not meet the 200-pass minimum, here are a few notable names. Rookies Jared Goff (-0.4), Bryce Petty (-0.6), and Cody Kessler (-0.2) would rank below average, but Paxton Lynch (-1.3) would have been by far the worst in the league. In San Francisco, Blaine Gabbert (-0.7) was quite different from Colin Kaepernick (+0.5), even though each enjoyed one unexpected Vance McDonald jog. In Chicago, Brian Hoyer (+0.4) would have ranked sixth, while Jay Cutler (-0.4) was barely distinguishable from Matt Barkley (-0.5).
Then there was the AFC East and its two playoff teams. Tom Brady and Ryan Tannehill ranked in the top eight, but their backups also fared well. Matt Moore (+2.4) had advanced stats that best Tannehill's career bests, albeit on 80 attempts, but he had a ton of YAC working in his favor. Jimmy Garoppolo (+0.2) was barely positive in his brief outing during Tom Brady's suspension, but Jacoby Brissett (+3.0) had a league-leading type of number on just 53 passes.
We'll end on Carson Wentz's rookie season, which finished fourth from the bottom despite the Eagles running that Andy Reid style of West Coast offense that had Alex Smith finish sixth in Kansas City. A lot of blame has gone to the Eagles' supporting cast, and in terms of YAC, we have seen that play out here with poor showings from the tight ends (Ertz and Burton), as well as two wide receivers in the bottom five. Nelson Agholor (-1.6) wasn't a surprise, but Jordan Matthews (-1.8) ranking next to last out of the slot sure was, especially since he was a plus-YAC+ receiver in his first two seasons. Darren Sproles (+0.9) fared better, but it's not good when your old receiving back is your best YAC receiver. Sproles had the only two YAC plays of more than 30 yards for the Eagles in 2016, and both came in that famed Pittsburgh win (Week 3) that led to a lot of premature hype over this team and its rookie quarterback. Wentz completed a rookie-record 379 passes, but only one dominant afternoon by Sproles picked up a lot of YAC for him over the 16-game season.
YAC can be a very unpredictable part of the game, but the Eagles did not exactly solve their issues by adding Alshon Jeffery (-0.7) and Torrey Smith (-1.2), two low-catch rate vertical receivers who are at their best when their quarterback gives them a chance down the field. Perhaps more big plays will be there for the Eagles in 2017, but for an offense built around YAC, those numbers for Wentz may not drastically change in Year Two.