by Scott Kacsmar
In a recent study on Jarvis Landry, we looked at DVOA and DYAR based on the type of route the receiver ran on each target. This data, compiled by Sports Info Solutions, was new for us in 2016, and some of it appeared throughout Football Outsiders Almanac 2017 (available here).
Before we really put a bow on 2016 and move onto the new season, we figured that people would be interested in seeing some leaderboards in these categories. In the first part of a three-part study, we are going to focus on wide receivers. In later parts, we'll look at quarterbacks and defenses, as well as summaries of how these routes fared at a league-wide level.
Since a lot of this data is small sample size stuff, we're not going to overload you with tables for every route. We picked 12 of the most common routes where at least a few players had a double-digit number of targets. We also didn't want to break things up by wide receivers, tight ends, and running backs due to sample size issues. For example, is it really that noteworthy that there were 51 slants by running backs last year, and only David Johnson (nine) and Le'Veon Bell (six) had more than four such plays? Versatile players at those positions are able to line up and run routes from anywhere on the field, so we'll just celebrate that here as a few backs and tight ends will show up in the numbers.
Because we are limited to 2016 for this data, we're going to hold back on drawing many real significant conclusions, but it sure would be interesting if future seasons show that certain receivers tend to excel or struggle with certain types of routes.
The following data is receiving DYAR, just like what is shown on the wide receiver pages here. So if we wanted to, we could now break down all of Julio Jones' league-high 458 DYAR by the type of route he ran -- and we have done so in the following table. "PYD" is the average air yards per target.
|Julio Jones: 2016 Play Design|
Due to space limitations, we obviously cannot show breakdown after breakdown for every player, so we will stick with leaderboards of players who had the most such targets for each route, sorted by descending DYAR. We chose 12 routes that are most widely utilized (each had at least 400 total attempts in 2016) by wide receivers in particular. The league totals are shown at the bottom of each table. The number of passes include defensive pass interference penalties.
Note: a nice GIF to exemplify each route type would have been a given in past years, but NFL Game Pass in its current form is the devil incarnate. We're sorry (because they're not). On the bright side, we have included a YouTube link to the biggest DYAR gain in each route type last season.
The curl route was the league's most common throw last year, with 2,615 attempts according to SIS. The following table looks at 27 players with at least 20 curls last year.
Michael Thomas had a fantastic rookie season for New Orleans, with most of his production coming on curls. He caught 26-of-28 curls and had the most DYAR (121) on that route by a wide margin, and also the highest DVOA (42.6%). The Saints were wise to go to him 28 times on curls, only trailing Dennis Pitta (31), Demaryius Thomas (29), and Odell Beckham Jr. (29) in curl targets.
(Ed. Note: In case you're curious about FO minutia, Michael Thomas has an odd PBP ID because Rams rookie Mike Thomas also wore No. 13 and thus came out in play-by-play as 13-M.Thomas.)
Like Thomas, Beckham was a tremendous wide receiver as a rookie. Unlike Thomas, curls were not friendly to him in 2016, and we're not talking about his distinctive hairstyle. Beckham had a league-low -73 DYAR on curls, and the lowest DVOA (-45.3%) of this group. The fact that teammate Victor Cruz had the second-lowest DVOA (-31.8%) might indicate that this was much more of an Eli Manning problem than a flaw with his receivers. Manning was far from his sharpest last season, though Beckham dropped three curl routes as well.
On a similar note, lousy quarterback play for the Rams (Case Keenum and Jared Goff) did not help Kenny Britt (-52 DYAR) and Tavon Austin (-47 DYAR) on curls last season. They ranked in the bottom four in DYAR as well. The fact that Austin did that on just seven targets is crazy, especially when only one of those was a Goff target (Austin's only positive gain on a curl all season).
The out, or quick out, had 2,075 attempts last season. The following table looks at 22 players with at least 19 out routes.
Two routes in, and we again have another player (Cole Beasley) with the most DYAR, highest DVOA, and the fourth-most targets. Edelman (32) led all receivers in out routes, but wasn't as effective as the similarly skilled Beasley was in Dallas. This is definitely a route that slot receivers preferred. Washington's Jamison Crowder also had 28 out routes like Beasley, but he had the lowest DVOA (-38.8%) in the league on those patterns. Crowder dropped two of those targets, but also watched Kirk Cousins throw two of them away. Those are rarely the receiver's fault.
While one Drew Brees receiver (Thomas) was the best in the league on curls, another was the worst on outs. Tight end Coby Fleener had a league-low -65 DYAR on 15 out routes. He was almost outdone by Houston tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz (-58 DYAR on 29 out routes), who had the displeasure of playing with Brock Osweiler as his quarterback. Of course, that didn't stop DeAndre Hopkins from finishing with a very respectable 99 DYAR, second in the league. Apparently the Texans loved those quick out routes, given that Fiedorowicz and Hopkins each had 29 of them. This might help explain some of the poor YAC numbers associated with Houston's passing game, since the receiver is usually running towards the sideline out of bounds on these plays.
We practically never say anything nice about the 2016 Rams' passing game, but here's a chance to do so. The biggest DYAR gain on an out route in 2016 was the time that Case Keenum completed a 65-yard touchdown to Brian Quick, who gained 52 yards after the catch against the Cardinals in Week 4. It was a deep out route against Marcus Cooper, and Quick broke a tackle too. The play was worth 34 DYAR, which makes it even more remarkable that Quick finished with -17 DYAR on his 20 out routes last season. He only caught 47.4 percent of his out routes, which is only higher than Denver's Emmanuel Sanders (44.4 percent) in our table.
Kurt Warner just went into the Hall of Fame, and the (deep) dig route was always one of his highlight throws. Yes, these are tougher throws than your average curl or out, but there were still 1,348 of them in 2016, completed at a rate of 61.1 percent. The following table looks at 24 players with at least 13 dig routes. (There were seven players tied with 13 targets, and we wanted to get at least 20 names for this route.)
Demaryius Thomas (28) and Beckham (25) had the most digs, but Julio Jones was the most productive with 102 DYAR. He did not have the highest DVOA, however, as that was Sanders (61.1%) in Denver. This may be one of those cases where a team valued size (Thomas) over more precise route-running (Sanders). Thomas had 28 digs to Sanders' 13, but the success rate was much higher for Sanders. Even Paxton Lynch completed all three of his dig routes to Sanders.
Jermaine Kearse really struggled for Seattle last year, and he had a league-low -39 DYAR on just nine dig routes. That was not a big part of Seattle's offense last year, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers dug the dig route. It's just that Jameis Winston struggled to hit Mike Evans on them, and Evans has the lowest DYAR (-14) in our table. Vincent Jackson even had -20 DYAR on just four digs before injury ended his season. With Evans, again, there are sample size issues at work. He dropped three digs, so that's an issue when we're talking about 23 plays. There were also two incompletions where Winston was hit in motion, a frequent pressure problem for the 2016 offense in Tampa Bay.
Brandin Cooks could help New England in this department. He had 52 DYAR on 10 dig routes, compared to -27 DYAR on 25 dig routes to Edelman and Chris Hogan combined.
Seth Roberts did not have a very efficient season for Oakland, but he delivered the biggest dig route of the 2016 season. His 41-yard touchdown on a fourth-and-3 in overtime in Tampa Bay to win the game was worth 29 DYAR.
The slant is an important part of NFL offenses, with 1,259 attempts last year. When a receiver is hit in stride with a slant, he can use his forward momentum to produce a huge gain after the catch. We looked at 23 players with at least 14 slant routes.
Did Mike Wallace have the most DYAR on slants because of his 95-yard touchdown against the Steelers? In a way, that was the case, because that play was worth 35 DYAR, giving him just enough for the edge over Julio Jones. However, even if that play (with yet another broken tackle) did not happen, Wallace would have still been a very respectable second place on just 16 slants. That wasn't even the biggest DYAR gain of the season on a slant. Brandon LaFell's 86-yard touchdown in Houston on Christmas Eve netted him 36 DYAR since it happened on a third-and-5 against a better defense, while Wallace's play was on second-and-9.
Brandon Marshall has to like the DYAR totals for Beckham (108 DYAR) and rookie Sterling Shepard (61 DYAR), after he had a table-low -38 DYAR on slants with the other New York team. Again, we don't know how much this stuff will correlate year to year, but Marshall's skill set seems well suited for catching some quick slants from Manning.
Michael Thomas had a league-high 33 slants, though his 52 DYAR wasn't nearly as productive as his curl production. Travis Kelce's 88 DYAR is fairly impressive since the next closest tight end was Antonio Gates, who had 27 DYAR on five slants. Kelce had 30.7 percent of the league's total receiving DYAR among tight ends in 2016, and we're only talking about 14 plays for him.
Brian Quick had a league-low -39 DYAR on just eight slants, so go Rams. No one brings up the rear better.
The drag route is another common play, with 1,243 attempts last year. This gives the quarterback an even shorter throw than the previous routes, but he often has to wait for a receiver brave enough to cross into the middle of the field and deal with linebackers and safeties. We looked at 22 receivers with at least 12 drag routes.
Let's just call Tyrell Williams "The Drag King" with 29 drag routes in 2016, seven more than runner-up Stefon Diggs (22). When he averaged 10.3 YAC and had a league-high 103 DYAR on those routes, it makes sense that San Diego used Williams so often that way. Travis Benjamin also had a respectable 48 DYAR on 11 drag routes, but just missed the cutoff for our table, or he would have ranked fifth in DYAR. Jeremy Kerley missed the table too, but had a league-worst -50 DYAR on 10 drag routes.
Kelce again shows how the Chiefs are able to use his unique skills to produce offense in ways that other teams just haven't been able to do. Kelce had 82 DYAR on 19 drag routes. The rest of the NFL's tight ends had -51 DYAR on 342 drag routes. The next closest tight end to Kelce was Martellus Bennett with 43 DYAR in New England (13 targets). The Ravens also tried to use Dennis Pitta on 19 drag routes, but his -40 DYAR was the worst among tight ends.
The biggest DYAR gain on a drag route in 2016 belonged to Baltimore's Breshad Perriman. Yes, he actually did something beyond just getting drafted in the first round and then getting hurt. Against the Dolphins, Perriman went 53 yards for a score with 49 YAC, earning 32 DYAR.
It doesn't get much simpler than the go (or fly) route. That is just pure speed running in a straight line down the field for a deep ball. Since the average go route comes more than 30 yards down the field, these were only completed 29.9 percent of the time in 2016, but it was almost always a big gain when a connection was made. There were 934 of these last season, and we looked at 23 players with at least 13 go/fly routes.
Dez Bryant was not always at his sharpest with rookie Dak Prescott last year, but the duo was money more often than not on the deep ball. Bryant's 140 DYAR, 130.4% DVOA, and 285 receiving yards led all receivers in 2016.
DeSean Jackson will hope to improve the deep passing game in Tampa Bay this year. He only caught 20 percent of his go routes last year, but so did Mike Evans. The difference was that Jackson produced 85 DYAR to just 9 DYAR for Evans. That was due to the four penalties Jackson helped draw for defensive pass interference. Those "hidden yards" helped produce 145 yards and four first downs for his offense. Evans only produced one 21-yard flag on his go routes.
At the bottom of the table, it may come as no surprise to see two Osweiler receivers (Hopkins and Will Fuller) and a Jets receiver (Robby Anderson). Still, how does one have a talent like Hopkins and only connect on 1-of-14 go routes? None of those were dropped, but nine of them were overthrown. As for Anderson, it appears that he will take on a much larger role this season after the news broke Monday that Quincy Enunwa (neck) is out for the season.
Speaking of the Jets, their terrible 2016 secondary allowed the biggest DYAR gain on a go/fly route all year. In Week 2, Tyrod Taylor found Marquise Goodwin for an 84-yard touchdown after Goodwin burned Darrelle Revis. Goodwin is now with the 49ers while a 32-year-old Revis is still a free agent in August.
The wide receiver screen, which is often a bubble screen, is one of the easiest completions in the game (89.3 percent completion rate last year). It was used 794 times last year, even though in the modern game it feels like we see so many more. We can spend a lot of time berating this play, but we'll let these numbers do some of the talking for us. Here are the 22 receivers with at least 10 wide receiver screens last year.
|NFL WR Screens||-709||-24.9%||797||4,567||89.3%||-1.7||8.1|
Some of the players thought to have the best skill set for these plays were allowed to execute them often, but note that the bottom three in DYAR consists of Tavon Austin (-74), Jarvis Landry (-64), and Tyreek Hill (-58). They all produced a below-average amount of YAC on these plays. At some point, these plays became far too predictable in those offenses, and everyone knew exactly which player would be on the receiving end of them.
Meanwhile, Cole Beasley has again led all receivers with 51 DYAR, and Taylor Gabriel was very solid after the catch for the Falcons last season. Golden Tate had the most screens with 29, but at least he turned in a respectable 19 DYAR when the league actually had -709 DYAR on the season. These are just rarely ever effective plays. Though they can serve a purpose to gain some easy yards or burn the clock, as an overall offensive strategy, they fail miserably.
While Hill struggled to do much on his chances in Kansas City, a few of the Chiefs' most effective players weren't even listed. Kelce had 49 DYAR on eight screens where he was lined up out wide. All other NFL tight ends combined for 34 such screens for -95 DYAR. Running back Spencer Ware also had 31 DYAR on three of these screens, so the predictability seemed to be a problem for the Chiefs last year with Hill. It will be very interesting to see how he develops this season with an expected increase to his workload without Jeremy Maclin.
By DYAR, the best wide receiver screen of 2016 truly did deserve the title. Washington's Jamison Crowder can thank his blockers for opening a path for a 55-yard touchdown against the Giants on a third-and-15 situation. The play was worth 34 DYAR. Even the most optimistic fan would have viewed that call as a give-up play to gain some field position, but this one broke for the Redskins. The fact that they break open every once in a while, and the fact that it always surprises us when they do, is why we will continue to see this play every week.
The post route is another longer throw (average depth: 21.6 yards), but no route produced more DYAR (2,470) in the NFL last year. There were 746 post routes in 2016. We looked at the 23 receivers with at least eight post routes.
Julio Jones and T.Y. Hilton led the league with 17 post routes each. Jones barely had more DYAR, while Hilton barely had a higher DVOA. This was also a very productive play in Washington's offense with Jackson and Pierre Garcon racking up 155 DYAR on 19 targets. We'll see how Cousins fares without those two receivers this year. It should be noted that newcomer Terrelle Pryor had a solid 40 DYAR on eight post routes in Cleveland, but will he adjust to a ball as well as Jackson did here on an 80-yard touchdown against the Eagles? That was 2016's biggest DYAR gain (37) on a post route.
Will Fuller had a league-low -41 DYAR on post routes, but he won't have Osweiler as his quarterback this year. He'll also miss some time with a broken collarbone. Aside from Fitzgerald's -1 DYAR, Fuller was the only player we listed with negative DYAR. If you were curious, Fuller had two drops on his 13 post routes.
If we had this data for a decade ago, Peyton Manning and Reggie Wayne would have probably led the league in efficiency on the comeback route for their exploits in Indianapolis. These plays have the lowest average YAC (1.3) of any route type with at least 50 attempts, but when the play is well timed and the pass is accurate, it is nearly impossible to defend. There were 582 comeback routes last year. We looked at 20 players with at least eight comeback routes.
Yes, Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson are a worthy duo to the mantle of being the best at this route. They have mastered the back-shoulder fade over the years, so a similarly-timed play in the deep comeback should be in their wheelhouse. Demaryius Thomas (50.0%) had the best DVOA listed, but we are getting to a point where many players in our table had a single-digit number of targets. For instance, Edelman (-24 DYAR) and Michael Thomas (-24 DYAR) had the lowest DYAR in the league on comeback routes, but we're talking about four passes for Edelman and two for Thomas. It's not like Brees can't throw a comeback, though we wonder what Kenny Stills' numbers were like on these plays in New Orleans. He had -23 DYAR for Miami last year, lowest in this table.
We do not have a video link for 2016's biggest comeback route in DYAR, because it did not produce a touchdown. Against the Raiders, Travis Benjamin caught a 15-yard pass from Philip Rivers and turned it into a 54-yard gain. This 22-DYAR play was the only comeback that gained at least 20 DYAR in 2016.
These are always fun and unpredictable. This is not a broken play like an aborted snap, but a play where the quarterback scrambles and the receivers break their original routes. This is backyard/sandlot football in number format. You should expect to see a lot of Green Bay players listed in this table, but does that mean the Packers were the best at doing this last year? If we used a minimum of six targets, then yes, Jordy Nelson would have the most DYAR (40). But we wanted to get at least 20 players for every route, so we used a minimum of five targets, giving us 25 players. There were 567 broken play targets in 2016.
|NFL Broken Plays||-467||-23.5%||567||3190||41.1%||11.1||3.8|
Nelson had the most broken play targets with ease (16), but New England rookie Malcolm Mitchell actually had more DYAR on just five targets. Tom Brady has never been known for extending the play, and Jimmy Garoppolo was the quarterback on two of those five targets, but this 55-yard touchdown from Brady to Mitchell against the 49ers accounted for 33 DYAR. That was only the third-biggest DYAR gain on a broken play in 2016. The biggest was 35 DYAR when Carson Wentz found Darren Sproles for a 73-yard touchdown pass against the Steelers in Week 3. That was also known as the peak of the 2016 Eagles, as it was all downhill from there.
Mitchell aside, the two receivers at the top of this table (Nelson and Jimmy Graham) and the two at the bottom (Kearse and Davante Adams) played with Russell Wilson or Rodgers as their quarterback. That makes a lot of sense, as does the big split in results given the caliber of these players. Adams did not catch a single pass on the nine broken plays where Rodgers targeted him, including one drop and three throwaways. Kearse was 0-for-7, but Wilson threw five of those passes away according to SIS charting, so that's not really Kearse's fault.
As always, pass pressure makes the game volatile.
We move onto everyone's most hated red zone strategy: the fade pass. Unless you have Peyton Manning throwing a low-arching ball on a rope to Marvin Harrison, this has never seemed like a good tactic. The stats aren't very fond of it either in 2016. On 478 fades, only 33.0 percent were completed, with -12.3% DVOA. We looked at the 20 players with at least six fade routes.
It feels right that Hopkins would rank last in DYAR here given the Osweiler situation. In 2016, Osweiler was tied with Wentz for a league-worst 9-for-37 passing efficiency on throws into the end zone. However, this one is not so much on Osweiler, who at least drew two pass interference flags on fades into the end zone to Hopkins. Tom Savage was 0-for-5 on his fades to Hopkins, including four overthrows. Have we mentioned that Savage is still looking to start in Week 1 for this Houston team?
Blake Bortles went to the fade well a league-high 16 times with Allen Robinson, but that only led to four completions and one touchdown. Robinson had seven of these targets defensed away (no drops). Once again, we needed Brees and the rookie Thomas to show us how things should be done. Thomas caught 9-of-12 fades, including four touchdowns.
Marvin Jones had 15 fades from Matthew Stafford in Detroit in an attempt to make up for the retirement of Calvin Johnson. Overall, he did alright with them, but he turned in 2016's biggest DYAR gain with a 73-yard fade for a touchdown against the Packers. Let that serve as a reminder that not all fades have to be in the red zone, and the back-shoulder fade, as opposed to the lazy "lob it up and let the big man come down with it" can be a deadly play.
Who doesn't love a good seam route down the field, exploiting the area between the linebackers and the safeties? Can we get a Rob Gronkowski appearance with our 12th and final route type? Yes! He missed most of 2016, but it has still been surprising to not mention him once yet. There were 452 seam routes last season. We looked at 21 players with at least six seam routes.
There's Gronk, second in DYAR (93) on just six targets. Graham had 24 more DYAR, but also seven more targets. Only five wideouts appear on this table, though the Panthers were good at attacking the seams with Cam Newton last year. Not only was tight end Greg Olsen (67 DYAR) solid as expected, but wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin had 70 DYAR on seven targets in his return from injury.
The placement of Jesse James at the bottom of this list is a reminder that the Steelers' biggest hole on offense is tight end. Ladarius Green was damaged goods for the team, though he had 30 more DYAR on the same number of targets last year.
The biggest DYAR gain of the season on a seam route happened in New England, but Gronkowski was not the target. Neither was Martellus Bennett. The biggest play was a simple throw from Brady to Chris Hogan, right down the seam for a 79-yard touchdown against the Ravens. That play was worth 34 DYAR.
We began this study with a look at Julio Jones, the DYAR leader in 2016. We are going to end our look at receivers with a similar breakdown for Tavon Austin, the bottom-ranked wide receiver with an astonishing -219 DYAR. We mentioned Austin a few times already, but he could have been mentioned for a lot of these routes as one of the bottom players in DYAR.
|Tavon Austin: 2016 Play Design|
|Out & Up||15||173.3%||1||31||100.0%||29.0||2.0|
Well, the good news is the corner route worked out (29 DYAR on five targets). The bad news is the corner route was cut from our article as a 13th route type, because no one had even 10 such targets in the NFL last season. It has been four seasons already and we are waiting to see what Austin is actually good at as a wide receiver in this league.
In Part II on Thursday, we'll look to see if we can find any sign of hope for Austin's quarterback Jared Goff in an analysis of last year's routes. And if you're looking to do further research on this data, please contact Sports Info Solutions directly.