by Scott Kacsmar
Before we can put a bow on our 2017 stat studies, we have another three-part study to look at: DVOA by pass routes. One subset of data from Sports Info Solutions that we have been very happy to have is the routes run by receivers on their targets. We introduced this on the site a year ago and were able to include some nuggets in Football Outsiders Almanac 2018.
Last year I wrote that "it sure would be interesting if future seasons of this data show that certain receivers tend to excel or struggle with certain types of routes." It's still only two years of data, but we have found some cases of this already. Obviously the skill of the quarterback will also affect many of these numbers, which is why we will look at quarterbacks in Part II. For now, we'll just focus on receivers, which include some running backs and tight ends. We did not want to break up what is already a small sample of plays to something even smaller to focus on those positions.
We are also sticking with the same 12 common routes we studied a year ago: curl, out, dig, slant, drag, go/fly, WR screen, post, comeback, broken play, fade, and seam. The following tables are sorted by receiving DYAR, just like what is shown on the wide receiver pages here. So we could now break down all of Antonio Brown's league-high 430 DYAR by the type of route he ran, which is done in the following table.
|Antonio Brown: 2017 Play Design|
|Fade - Back Shoulder||8||8.9%||5||43||50.0%||16.2||1.0|
|Out & Up||-20||-98.1%||2||0||0.0%||12.0||-|
Due to space limitations, we obviously cannot show breakdown after breakdown for every player, so we will stick with leaderboards with the players who had the most targets for each route, sorted by descending DYAR. We chose the 12 routes that are most widely utilized (all had at least 375 attempts in 2017) 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.
The curl route was the league's most common throw again last year, with 2,630 attempts according to SIS. The following table looks at 21 players with at least 20 curls last year.
|Curl Route Leaders, 2017|
In 2016, Michael Thomas was the NFL's Curl Champion for the Saints, catching 26-of-28 curls for the most DYAR (121) and the highest DVOA (42.6%). He still did well in 2017, catching 19-of-26 curls, but his DYAR was almost cut in half at 63. Travis Kelce led all players with 32 targets on curls, but Keenan Allen had the most DYAR (94), and Julio Jones had the highest DVOA (32.7%). Jones and Mike Evans tied for the deepest curls, thrown at an average distance of 9.0 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
T.Y. Hilton looks especially bad here for the Colts with the worst DYAR and DVOA. Hilton (50.0 percent) and Mike Evans (56.7 percent) are the only listed receivers who did not catch more than two-thirds of their curls. His teammate Jack Doyle had -26 DYAR on 18 curls (second lowest among tight ends), so you might think Jacoby Brissett just couldn't make these simple throws. Maybe there was some truth to that, but it doesn't excuse the fact that Hilton is the only listed receiver who averaged less than 1.0 YAC when he did catch the ball. The Jets didn't get much out of curls, with Robby Anderson and Jermaine Kearse both ranking in the bottom five in DYAR. Kearse (5.0 aDOT) had the shortest curls in the league. The only other receiver under 6.0 yards was, not surprisingly, Jarvis Landry in Miami.
Curls are a nice high-percentage play to gain minimal yardage. Only one broke 50 yards last season, and that was when Minnesota's Adam Thielen broke a tackle to race 65 yards for a touchdown against the Rams. The play was worth 35 DYAR, the most for any curl last year. That also means Thielen produced -27 DYAR on his 24 other curl routes, which included all three of his fumbles (two lost) in 2017.
The out, or quick out, had 1,816 attempts last season. The following table looks at 26 players with at least 16 out routes.
|Out Route Leaders, 2017|
Keenan Allen is two-for-two as the 2017 DYAR leader in both curls and out routes. Alvin Kamara had a great rookie effort with 79 DYAR on 16 out routes as a running back. He also had the highest catch rate and DVOA, so that was a very effective play for the Saints last year. Michael Thomas also ranked in the top five in DYAR for the Saints, and Cooper Kupp was a stellar rookie in the slot for the Rams. Hilton also looks much better here. He finished seventh in out DYAR after finishing sixth in 2016, making Hilton the only player to repeat in the top 10 in DYAR.
Cole Beasley was the top out route receiver in 2016 with 119 DYAR. Last year was a much different story in Dallas as he struggled to produce on a weekly basis. Beasley still butters his bread with out routes, but his DYAR dropped to just 15 with -4.3% DVOA. He'll have to be much better for Dallas with Dez Bryant and Jason Witten gone. With only nine out routes, Bryant did not qualify for the table, but his -37 DYAR was the worst total in the league on those patterns.
DeAndre Hopkins was second in out DYAR (99) in 2016, so it made sense to throw him a league-high 26 out routes in 2017. They just weren't as successful this time around (23 DYAR). You might think playing with three different quarterbacks had something to do with that, but Hopkins actually had more DYAR on out rotes from T.J. Yates (9 DYAR) and Tom Savage (8 DYAR) than he did from Deshaun Watson (6 DYAR). Houston tight end Stephen Anderson had the lowest catch rate (53 percent) on out routes. It's a play the Texans love to use, but it hasn't always been that effective for the offense the last two years.
Out of the listed players, Giants rookie tight end Evan Engram had the lowest DYAR and DVOA on out routes. He only had one drop on those plays, and Eli Manning has been poor on out routes lately. Engram will be looking for a stronger connection in Year 2.
We mentioned Hilton earlier, but he actually had the top DYAR gain (33) on an out route last year when he got lost in the Cleveland secondary for a 61-yard touchdown.
Out of the nine route types with at least 650 plays in 2017, the dig had the highest DVOA (7.6%). These throws are a few yards deeper than the typical curl or out, but they were still completed at a rate of 60.0 percent in 2017. The following table looks at 24 players with at least 12 dig routes.
|Dig Route Leaders, 2017|
Keenan Allen almost had another one, but Golden Tate just beat him out by 7 DYAR on one more dig route. They were the only two players with more than 19 dig routes. Tate's average dig route was 7.3 yards deep compared to 12.1 for Allen (NFL average: 10.1 yards). The only player to run them shallower than Tate last year was Dallas' Terrance Williams (6.7 aDOT). However, Williams averaged 1.3 YAC compared to 7.3 YAC for the elusive Tate. That's second to Keelan Cole, who averaged 8.8 YAC in a surprise breakout year with Jacksonville as an undrafted rookie.
We wrote last year that Brandin Cooks could help the Patriots on dig routes, but he only had 13 DYAR on 14 targets in his one season there. His digs were the deepest, though, at 16.1 yards. He'll try to expand on Sammy Watkins' role with the Rams now.
Devin Funchess had the highest DVOA (58.4%) in his best season yet. Mastering the dig route could be a nice asset to him in a Norv Turner offense. Julio Jones was the best at dig routes in 2016 with 102 DYAR, but he dropped to just 24 DYAR last year. That still makes Jones the only player to repeat in the top 10.
The bottom 10 repeats two players from 2016 in Demaryius Thomas and Larry Fitzgerald, though both will have new quarterbacks this season. Roger Lewis makes this the second route in a row where the bottom player in DYAR and DVOA played with Eli Manning for the Giants. Lewis really only saw these opportunities after the rest of the wide receivers were injured. He's not likely to see many targets this season.
Not everything is gloomy for the Giants. The top DYAR gain (34) of 2017 was when Sterling Shepard created a 67-yard touchdown against the Eagles on a very shallow dig with some help from a pick. On second glance, we might need to start charting passes like that as "pick plays" next season.
We probably don't see enough slants in the NFL. There were 1,327 of them last year with a good DVOA (7.2%) and respectable completion rate (62 percent). We looked at 30 players with at least 12 slant routes.
|Slant Route Leaders, 2017|
So we are seeing how throwing 12 digs and 20 slants to Roger Lewis was problematic for the Giants. He again had the lowest DYAR in a route, but fortunately, Shepard did his part here by finishing second in DYAR with 100. This is really Odell Beckham's route. Beckham was third in slant DYAR in 2016 with 108. The fact that he had 12 slants in four games last year shows that the Giants understand how good he can be with those opportunities. That would put him on pace for 48 slants in a season (Michael Thomas and Davante Adams led the way with 26 each). He won't likely see that many in 2018, but anything to get the ball more often to Beckham with forward momentum rather than Lewis is big for this offense.
Rob Gronkowski having the highest DVOA makes plenty of sense, but why only 12 slants for the most physically imposing receiver in the league? It was a surprise to not see the Chiefs with any player with at least 12 slants. Travis Kelce was the dominant tight end on slants in 2016 with 88 DYAR. Maybe Sammy Watkins can fill that role for Andy Reid after having the most DYAR on slants with the Rams last year.
Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper were both in the bottom eight in slant DYAR in 2016. They are in the bottom four in the table above for 2017. The common link is obviously Derek Carr at quarterback. We'll have to see if Jon Gruden can get his 20th-century version of the West Coast offense off the ground in Oakland this year. Crabtree went to Baltimore, which no longer employs Mike Wallace (now in Philadelphia). Wallace had the most slant DYAR in 2016, but dropped to -2 last year.
For the second time so far, T.Y. Hilton had the biggest DYAR gain (37) on a route in 2017. His 80-yard touchdown on a slant against the Texans was very improbable. Hilton was thought to be touched down before he got up and finished the play for a big touchdown.
The drag route had 799 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 25 receivers with at least eight drag routes.
|Drag Route Leaders, 2017|
This is a fun one as the table is bookended by Jacksonville wideouts. Marqise Lee led everyone with 67 DYAR. Only Pittsburgh rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster had a higher DVOA, thanks in part to catching all 10 of his drag routes. While Lee was productive on these plays, his young teammates Keelan Cole and Dede Westbrook had the worst DYAR totals in the table. Tight end Marcedes Lewis (now with Green Bay) also had -33 DYAR on seven drag routes, the second-worst DYAR in 2017, but he also had two drops. Was there a big Blake Bortles influence here? On the 15 drags to Lee, there was one drop and one play where the defense got away with rerouting the receiver. On Cole's 14 drags, he had two drops, but also multiple plays where the ball was tipped before he ever had a chance to make a catch. Westbrook also had some bad luck as two of his eight targets were batted down at the line. So there's some quarterback influence there, but overall, more of these plays should probably be going to Lee in 2018.
We called Tyrell Williams "The Drag King" last year with 29 drag routes and the best DYAR (103). The Chargers tried to repeat this success as Williams again led the league with 18 drag routes, but he only produced 18 DYAR this time.
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 25.2 percent of the time in 2017. But if it's going to be a big gain once every four plays, it's worth the risk sometimes. There were 694 of these last season, and we looked at 25 players with at least nine go/fly routes.
|Go/Fly Route Leaders, 2017|
In 2016, the go route seemed to be the only time Dak Prescott and Dez Bryant connected well in Dallas. Bryant's 140 DYAR, 130.4% DVOA, and 285 receiving yards led all receivers in 2016. When those numbers dropped off drastically in 2017, the Cowboys parted ways with the receiver after eight seasons.
Meanwhile, some younger receivers were thriving deep down the field in 2017, especially in Detroit. Marvin Jones led all receivers with 149 DYAR on deep balls, but rookie Kenny Golladay was also impressive with 55 DYAR. Tyreek Hill became a great deep threat in his second season. Alex Smith will miss him, but Josh Doctson at least did well in this area in Washington last year with 87 DYAR. Antonio Brown led all players with 20 go routes, but Ben Roethlisberger could have been sharper on a few of those throws to do better than 82 DYAR.
Some great wide receivers have negative DYAR, including Julio Jones, A.J. Green, and Mike Evans. The fact that DeSean Jackson also ranked in the bottom four doesn't say much for Jameis Winston's ability to throw the go route with accuracy, but we'll get into the quarterbacks next week.
The Eagles brought in Alshon Jeffery to stretch the field in 2017, which he did, but he was actually 0-for-10 at connecting on a go route. He did draw a 41-yard flag for defensive pass interference on one of those plays, but was overthrown four times and had one other pass defensed after he had it in his hands. Only two of those 10 passes were thrown by Nick Foles, including one underthrown interception.
The wide receiver screen, which is often a bubble screen, is one of the easiest completions in the game (88.4 percent complete last year). It was used 706 times last year, even though the modern game makes it feel like so many more. We can spend a lot of time berating this play, which had -27.5% DVOA, but we'll let these numbers do some of the talking for us. Here are the 25 receivers with at least eight wide receiver screens last year.
|WR Screen Leaders, 2017|
|NFL WR Screens||TOT||-720||-27.5%||706||3,859||88.4%||-1.8||8.1|
There is some fascinating stuff here for Miami and Kansas City fans. Jarvis Landry was of course prominently featured on screens with 25 of them, tied with Golden Tate and only trailing Larry Fitzgerald (28) for the most in the league last year. Even though Landry caught all 25 of them, they weren't very successful plays (-58 DYAR), and only three gained more than 9 yards. Meanwhile, Albert Wilson put up a league-high 51 DYAR on 12 screens, and he could have done even better if he didn't drop his three incompletions. Seven of Wilson's screens gained at least 10 yards with six first downs on those plays, so he wasn't just gaining 10 yards on third-and-25. Wilson could replace this role in Miami for Landry and do it better. Beyond that, Miami's Jakeem Grant (not listed) had 44 DYAR on seven WR screens, second-most DYAR in the league. Oh, and Tennessee's Rishard Matthews, a former Dolphin and DVOA darling, also did a great job last year with 33 DYAR on eight screens.
The blocking obviously matters a lot on WR screens, and you wouldn't expect a lot of year-to-year consistency on the success of these plays if only due to the small sample sizes where one broken tackle can wildly skew results. However, Golden Tate and Taylor Gabriel repeated in the top 10 in DYAR. It also wouldn't be surprising to see the two rookie backs known for their versatility in Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey get a lot of chances again in 2018 on these plays.
One thing that definitely did repeat in 2017 from 2016 was that, contrary to Wilson's success in this offense, Tyreek Hill is nothing special on these screens. Somehow I doubt Hill is an incredible blocker and Wilson is a terrible one that is creating this difference, but that would be one hypothesis. In 2016, Hill had the third-lowest DYAR (-58) on 23 screens. You might think the 2017 numbers say otherwise since 16 DYAR on 19 passes is respectable given the league averages, but Hill's numbers include the outlier of all outliers in 2017. Remember that time he caught a "Hail Mary Checkdown" for a 56-yard touchdown against Dallas before halftime? We charted that as a WR screen, because what else would you call it? In that situation, no offense would really be looking to throw a pass like that, and no defense would line up to defend that type of route, but the Chiefs made it work after some incredibly bad tackling and nice moves from Hill, who had -13 DYAR on his other 18 screens. That play was worth 29 DYAR; believe it or not, but five other WR screens beat it in 2017. The biggest DYAR gain (34) was when DeAndre Hopkins, never known for YAC, went 72 yards for a touchdown against Seattle. Kam Chancellor had a great chance to minimize that gain, but Hopkins put a move on him.
The post route is another longer throw in the game (average: 21.3 yards), but once again no route produced more DYAR (2,097) in the NFL last year. There were 607 post routes in 2017. We looked at the 25 receivers with at least six post routes.
|Post Route Leaders, 2017|
It was not a banner year for Kendall Wright in Chicago, but the post route was money for him as he caught all seven of his opportunities. Chalk that up as another reason to believe he would make a lot of sense in the slot for Minnesota. In 2016, Kirk Cousins had great success on post throws to DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon. Also, Laquon Treadwell (not listed) had a league-low -22 DYAR on three post routes. Incredibly, the player right above Treadwell with -22 DYAR was Julio Jones, who crushed post routes in 2016 when he had a league-high 115 DYAR on 17 post routes. What happened last year? It was only five plays, but Jones dropped one and had two more defensed by the Patriots in Week 7.
A.J. Green had the most post routes (16), but Mike Evans was the DYAR leader at 98. Arizona's Jaron Brown is an interesting name to rank second behind Evans, but he caught five of his six post routes, including a great 52-yard touchdown from Blaine Gabbert, of all people.
With Andrew Luck back in Indianapolis, let's hope we'll see the return of more post routes. In 2016, T.Y. Hilton tied Julio Jones for the league lead with 17 post routes, and he was second in DYAR with 112. But last year without Luck, Hilton only had four post routes and caught three of them for 61 DYAR. That will work for the Colts.
Corey Coleman wasn't working out in Cleveland as he only had -36 DYAR on six post routes, catching zero of those plays. Was an inaccurate quarterback to blame? Coleman had one drop, but also saw two passes defensed, two overthrown, and one come out funky after the quarterback was hit in motion. At least Coleman has a new quarterback in Buffalo, which should … not change a damn thing, probably.
These plays have the lowest average YAC (0.9) of any route type with at least 100 attempts, but when the play is well timed and the pass is accurate, it is nearly impossible to defend. There were 376 comeback routes last year. We looked at 25 players with at least five comeback routes.
|Comeback Route Leaders, 2017|
Prior to adding the full names here, I was confused by this table when I saw "J.Nelson" and assumed it was Jordy Nelson, only to find it was J.J. Nelson in Arizona. But Carson Palmer was 6-for-6 on his comeback throws to Nelson, who likely would have led in DYAR here had Palmer not been injured last season. It's a pretty good idea for Nelson to run those routes as a change-up when he's known for going deep with his speed.
A lot of the players listed here are more possession receivers, and no one had more comebacks than DeAndre Hopkins (14), another explanation for why his YAC is limited through usage. However, his YAC (2.6) is the highest listed in this particular table, though we are only talking about 14 plays here.
Eric Decker caught all five of his comeback routes in Tennessee for the best DYAR and DVOA last year. He could certainly fill a role in New England this year as Tom Brady loves those throws that have very little chance of being intercepted. Decker is also … well, you know.
"Who is left out there in free agency, Bill?" pic.twitter.com/YHzfkNrjNJ
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) April 3, 2018
The biggest DYAR gain (30) on a comeback in 2017 easily belonged to Golden Tate when he picked up 37 YAC for a 45-yard touchdown against the Saints. No other comeback gained more than 17 DYAR. It wasn't the most demoralizing touchdown the Saints allowed last season.
These are always fun and unpredictable. These are not broken plays like aborted snaps, but plays where the quarterback scrambles and the receivers break their original routes. This is backyard/sandlot football in number format. There were 593 broken-play targets in 2017 after 567 in 2016, making this one of the most consistent in terms of totals from the last two years. We looked at 25 players with at least five broken-play targets.
|Broken Play Route Leaders, 2017|
|NFL Broken Plays||TOT||-23||-12.6%||593||3,814||42.5%||12.1||3.1|
We can have some more fun with this one in the quarterback study, but Adam Thielen led the way with 13 targets on broken plays. This did not surprise me since I wrote in January how Case Keenum relied heavily on Thielen when he was under pressure. Going from that article, it's also not a surprise to see that Rob Gronkowski (best DVOA) made some great plays with Tom Brady, but Thielen's numbers here were not that special with just 2 DYAR thanks to eight incompletions (no drops).
Detroit's Marvin Jones' ability to make contested catches certainly helped him here with a league-high 59 DYAR. The Eagles had two wideouts in the top five (Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor) with Carson Wentz making a lot of plays after scrambling last season, but Torrey Smith failed to catch any of his five targets.
For the second year in a row, the Eagles had the top DYAR gain (34) on a broken play. It was way back in Week 1 when Wentz extended the play on a third-and-12 to find Agholor open for a 58-yard touchdown. Unlike in 2016 when the Eagles faded after their September success, this was a precursor of what was to come throughout the season in Philadelphia with breakout years by Wentz and Agholor, and a dominant year on third-and-long.
With Aaron Rodgers out for much of the season, this very much became the Russell Wilson show with Paul Richardson (34 DYAR), Tyler Lockett (26 DYAR), and Doug Baldwin (17 DYAR) all ranking in the top nine in DYAR. He's not listed, but Jaron Brown had 32 DYAR on three broken plays for Arizona last year. He's in Seattle now and should be scrambling along with Wilson this year.
We move onto everyone's most hated red-zone strategy: the fade pass. There were 427 of these in 2017, and yes, 149 of them came in the red zone. We looked at the 23 players with at least six fade routes.
|Fade Route Leaders, 2017|
You know a play might be a bad idea if it goes 0-for-8 to A.J. Green. Then again, he dropped two of those passes from Andy Dalton. Kelvin Benjamin was 0-for-7, but had worse DYAR than Green since he didn't draw a pass interference flag like Green did. Benjamin dropped one of his fades, but had three more defensed and the other three were overthrown.
Antonio Brown isn't listed, but he had 43 DYAR on four fades (three catches). That was one of the few highlights in 2017 for the fade, which is something often reserved for the stars. Dez Bryant led the way with 16 fades, which just supports the idea that Dallas had bad play-calling last season. Bryant caught 18.2 percent of his fades in 2016 and was only at 21.4 percent last year. Rob Gronkowski was the only listed player to catch more than half of his fades, but that was just seven plays. This is another route that the Texans love with Hopkins, but at least he was second in DYAR instead of last like he was in 2016.
We hinted at this a year ago, and in 2017 the charting by Sports Info Solutions actually broke down fades into back-shoulder throws, which are a more effective type of fade. We compared in the following table the numbers for all 2016 fades to the regular 2017 fades and the 2017 back-shoulder fades.
|Comparisons of Fades, 2016-2017|
|Fade - Back Shoulder||2017||400||12.3%||202||1570||45.3%||14.3||2.4|
The regular fade numbers are eerily similar between the two seasons with just under zero DYAR and a DVOA around -12.5%. However, those back-shoulder fades in 2017 were actually productive with 400 DYAR and 12.5% DVOA. That's a pretty good argument for using the fade more, but only if the quarterback can be on the same page with his receiver for a back-shoulder throw. The lazy lobs into the end zone are what we don't want to see more of in the NFL.
Finally, how about more seam routes? These had a great 27.0% DVOA last year, but there were only 443 of them. We looked at 19 players with at least five seam routes.
|Seam Route Leaders, 2017|
Gronkowski is hard to stop here, but he was actually even more dominant down the seam in 2016 when he had 93 DYAR on six passes. He's still the seam DYAR leader for 2017, but on a league-high 16 attempts. Other slot-heavy players such as Doug Baldwin and Larry Fitzgerald also shined on seam routes last year.
He's not listed, but JuJu Smith-Schuster had 59 DYAR on four seam routes, his top route by DYAR in 2017. That's of course boosted by his 97-yard touchdown right down the seam in Detroit, the largest DYAR gain (36) in 2017.
In Part II next week, we'll focus our route analysis on quarterbacks. You can refresh yourselves with last year's study here.