by Scott Kacsmar
Earlier this week we looked at passing plus-minus for quarterbacks in 2017. The same methodology goes into creating receiving plus-minus, with the difference being that we are looking at things from the perspective of receivers.
Receiving plus-minus estimates how many catches a receiver caught compared to how many 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 passes were completed based on the pass distance, the distance required for a first down, and whether they were 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 +/- in terms of efficiency.
2017 Wide Receivers
A total of 82 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 2018.
|2017 Wide Receivers: Top 20 in Receiving Plus-Minus||2017 Wide Receivers: Bottom 20 in Receiving Plus-Minus|
|Rk||Player||Team||Passes||C%||REC +/-||C%+||Rk||Player||Team||Passes||C%||REC +/-||C%+|
|1||Michael Thomas||NO||139||74.8%||+14.9||+10.7%||63||Michael Crabtree||OAK||98||59.2%||-2.7||-2.8%|
|2||Antonio Brown||PIT||152||66.4%||+12.0||+7.9%||64||Pierre Garcon||SF||65||61.5%||-2.9||-4.4%|
|3||Ted Ginn||NO||68||77.9%||+10.0||+14.8%||65||Ricardo Louis||CLE||54||50.0%||-3.4||-6.3%|
|4||Tyreek Hill||KC||103||73.8%||+10.0||+9.7%||66||Robby Anderson||NYJ||113||57.5%||-3.4||-3.0%|
|5||Golden Tate||DET||116||79.3%||+8.6||+7.5%||67||Torrey Smith||PHI||66||56.1%||-3.9||-5.9%|
|6||Keenan Allen||LAC||146||69.9%||+8.3||+5.7%||68||Bruce Ellington||HOU||50||58.0%||-4.2||-8.3%|
|7||JuJu Smith-Schuster||PIT||77||75.3%||+8.1||+10.6%||69||Jaron Brown||ARI||64||48.4%||-4.4||-6.9%|
|8||Adam Thielen||MIN||133||68.4%||+8.1||+6.1%||70||Corey Davis||TEN||64||53.1%||-4.8||-7.5%|
|9||Doug Baldwin||SEA||114||67.5%||+7.7||+6.8%||71||Bennie Fowler||DEN||53||54.7%||-5.3||-10.1%|
|10||Larry Fitzgerald||ARI||153||71.2%||+7.1||+4.6%||72||Jeremy Maclin||BAL||71||56.3%||-5.4||-7.6%|
|11||Danny Amendola||NE||81||75.3%||+6.9||+8.5%||73||Brandon LaFell||CIN||86||60.5%||-5.9||-6.8%|
|12||Stefon Diggs||MIN||93||68.8%||+6.8||+7.3%||74||Corey Coleman||CLE||52||44.2%||-6.0||-11.6%|
|13||Allen Hurns||JAX||52||75.0%||+5.5||+10.7%||75||John Brown||ARI||51||41.2%||-6.4||-12.6%|
|14||Davante Adams||GB||108||68.5%||+4.7||+4.4%||76||Josh Doctson||WAS||72||48.6%||-6.7||-9.3%|
|15||Adam Humphries||TB||81||75.3%||+4.7||+5.8%||77||Roger Lewis||NYG||69||52.2%||-6.8||-9.9%|
|16||Sterling Shepard||NYG||83||71.1%||+4.5||+5.4%||78||Emmanuel Sanders||DEN||87||52.9%||-7.1||-8.2%|
|17||Robert Woods||LAR||82||68.3%||+4.4||+5.4%||79||Dez Bryant||DAL||126||54.8%||-7.4||-5.8%|
|18||Mohamed Sanu||ATL||94||71.3%||+4.3||+4.5%||80||Amari Cooper||OAK||90||53.3%||-7.6||-8.5%|
|19||Randall Cobb||GB||87||77.0%||+4.1||+4.8%||81||Alshon Jeffery||PHI||112||50.9%||-7.6||-6.8%|
|20||Ryan Grant||WAS||63||71.4%||+4.1||+6.4%||82||Zay Jones||BUF||67||40.3%||-11.8||-17.6%|
Michael Thomas, Antonio Brown, Adam Thielen, Doug Baldwin, Larry Fitzgerald, and Stefon Diggs all ranked in the top 12 for the second year in a row. That's pretty good for Fitzgerald given that Jaron Brown and John Brown both ranked in the bottom 15, and that Arizona's quarterback situation last year featured some passes thrown by Blaine Gabbert.
Playing for New Orleans means passes from Drew Brees, the king of passing plus-minus. Thomas' +14.9 ranks as the eighth-highest season since 2006; he is the third different receiver Brees has helped to that level, joining Marques Colston (+16.3 in 2011) and Kenny Stills (+15.5 in 2014). Perhaps Brees' most impressive feat here was helping Ted Ginn Jr. to a No. 3 finish with +10.0 and a league-high 14.8 C%+. Ginn always had questionable hands and shoddy catch rates, but he was a pillar of efficiency in that New Orleans offense last year. Prior to 2017, Ginn's career plus-minus was -18.1, and his best season was in 2008 (+4.0 with Chad Pennington in Miami). The Steelers (Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster), Vikings (Thielen and Diggs), and Packers (Davante Adams and Randall Cobb) were the only other offenses with duos in the top 20.
Adam Humphries (+4.7) is the only Tampa Bay receiver listed, but it is worth pointing this out in regards to Jameis Winston's surprisingly high ranking of fifth in passing plus-minus. The most common response I have seen to any high placement of Winston in a stat is that Mike Evans deserves the credit for it. Sure, Evans is an impressive athlete with a nice catch radius, but other quarterbacks have played with receivers comparable or better. In 2017, Evans actually ranked 62nd in plus-minus at -2.6, well behind that of teammates Humphries, Chris Godwin (No. 30, +2.4), and DeSean Jackson (No. 31, +2.2). Now some of that was due to a -3.3 with Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback, but oddly enough, Evans had his best plus-minus season as a rookie without Winston in 2014 when he was +3.8. We'll get into more Tampa Bay stats as time goes by, but for passing plus-minus, Evans has actually been a -3.1 for Winston.
While the top of the table is loaded with undisputable No. 1 wideouts, fans do tend to overrate that role. For instance, the only Atlanta receiver in the top 20 was Mohamed Sanu (+4.3). That's because Julio Jones (No. 26, +3.1) had his lowest season in plus-minus since he was a rookie in 2011 (+1.4).
"I don't know if any team in the league necessarily needs a No. 1 receiver," said Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott in May. For the second year in a row, Prescott struggled to connect with Dez Bryant (-7.4), who had the fourth-lowest plus-minus and remains a free agent. Bryant tied for the league lead with 10 drops. Allen Hurns (+5.5) managed a solid number in Jacksonville last year with Blake Bortles. Prescott will be hoping to click well with him in Dallas this season.
How about the Super Bowl champion Eagles? We said a year ago that Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith might not give Carson Wentz the efficiency boost he needed since both are traditionally low-percentage receivers. As it turns out, Smith (-3.9) and Jeffery (-7.6) both had bottom-20 seasons, with Jeffery actually having the second-lowest number in the league. That's not all on Wentz though -- he was +1.2 to Smith and -4.8 to Jeffery. Nick Foles finished the season after Wentz's torn ACL, and it is hard to argue with the way things ended there with the Super Bowl win, but the last three regular-season games were not good. Jeffery also had an impressive postseason, and we'll see if he can develop a stronger connection with Wentz in 2018.
Buffalo rookie Zay Jones had a rough start to his career, to say the very least. His -11.8 would rank as the 18th-lowest season since 2006. No one ahead of him really rebounded afterwards except for Larry Fitzgerald (2012). Along with being a lock for the Hall of Fame, an improvement in quarterback really helped Fitzgerald out. Jones is now stuck with AJ McCarron or rookie Josh Allen, so improvement there may not be an option. Allen already enters the league with plenty of red flags about his accuracy. Jones had a really rough year, but if we can find some positives, it would be that he only had three drops and was overthrown 16 times. He also had 17 incompletions that were defensed, a fairly high number given his 67 targets. Houston's DeAndre Hopkins led the way with 30 defensed incompletions, but we know he is used to winning contested battles for catches. Jones still has a lot to prove for Buffalo. His -17.6 C%+ was the worst in the league by five percentage points.
2017 Tight Ends
Out of 48 qualified players, we looked at a dozen of the top and bottom tight ends for a 2017 season that was not stellar for the position.
|2017 Tight Ends: Top 12 in Receiving Plus-Minus||2017 Tight Ends: Bottom 12 in Receiving Plus-Minus|
|Rk||Player||Team||Passes||C%||REC +/-||C%+||Rk||Player||Team||Passes||C%||REC +/-||C%+|
|1||Rob Gronkowski||NE||100||69.0%||+7.9||+7.9%||37||Tyler Higbee||LAR||43||58.1%||-2.6||-6.0%|
|2||Travis Kelce||KC||116||71.6%||+7.4||+6.4%||38||Zach Miller||CHI||34||58.8%||-3.0||-8.9%|
|3||Delanie Walker||TEN||103||71.8%||+6.7||+6.5%||39||Gerald Everett||LAR||30||53.3%||-3.3||-11.0%|
|4||Jason Witten||DAL||82||76.8%||+6.5||+7.9%||40||A.J. Derby||2TM||38||55.3%||-3.4||-9.0%|
|5||Hunter Henry||LAC||61||73.8%||+5.8||+9.6%||41||Jimmy Graham||SEA||91||62.6%||-3.8||-4.2%|
|6||Austin Hooper||ATL||61||80.3%||+5.8||+9.5%||42||Demetrius Harris||KC||33||54.5%||-4.0||-12.0%|
|7||Kyle Rudolph||MIN||77||74.0%||+5.3||+6.9%||43||Greg Olsen||CAR||34||50.0%||-4.0||-11.8%|
|8||Benjamin Watson||BAL||78||78.2%||+4.4||+5.7%||44||David Njoku||CLE||57||56.1%||-4.1||-7.2%|
|9||Trey Burton||PHI||29||79.3%||+4.3||+14.7%||45||Ricky Seals-Jones||ARI||28||42.9%||-4.8||-17.1%|
|10||Zach Ertz||PHI||103||71.8%||+4.0||+3.9%||46||Marcedes Lewis||JAX||45||53.3%||-5.9||-13.2%|
|11||Jack Doyle||IND||103||77.7%||+4.0||+3.9%||47||Stephen Anderson||HOU||50||50.0%||-6.8||-13.7%|
|12||O.J. Howard||TB||36||72.2%||+4.0||+11.1%||48||Evan Engram||NYG||108||59.3%||-7.1||-6.6%|
Injuries to Greg Olsen (rare) and Jordan Reed (common) did not help the status of tight ends last year, but the two best in the game, Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce, finished on top in plus-minus. What more can be said about Gronkowski at this point? He has been used vertically more in the last two years than at any point in his career, and his C%+ is 9.2 in that time, almost doubling the 4.7 C%+ he had in his first six seasons.
The 2018 season will be without two players in the top five. Jason Witten retired after 15 seasons with Dallas. Age definitely slowed his ability to produce yards, but he was still a reliable receiver, and his departure leaves another hole in the Dallas offense. The Chargers remain snake-bitten with injuries after Hunter Henry tore his ACL in May OTAs. He is one of the most promising young tight ends in the league, and the Chargers may have to resort to bringing 38-year-old Antonio Gates back. Gates was just +0.1 in 2017 and is -2.0 since 2015. Speaking of old tight ends, Benjamin Watson could see another strong year in 2018 after returning to New Orleans with Brees. He had the highest plus-minus (+4.2) of any tight end or wide receiver to play with Joe Flacco last season in Baltimore.
The tight ends were good for the Eagles last year. Beyond the Philly Special in the Super Bowl with Trey Burton, Zach Ertz (+4.0) again ranked in the top 10 after finishing 2016 as the No. 1 tight end. Burton only had 29 targets, but his 14.7 C%+ was the highest in the league. This comes after a year where he was one of the least effective tight ends. The Bears had to like what they saw in 2017 after adding Burton in free agency; he should be able to help a limited passing offense in Mitchell Trubisky's second year.
Tampa Bay also had a good tight end duo that should only get better in 2018. Rookie O.J. Howard (No. 12, +4.0) actually finished ahead of Cameron Brate (No. 17, +2.4) on half as many targets. Defenses tended to forget Howard existed on four of his six touchdowns last year, but this could be the NFL's premiere tight end duo this year if he gets more involved.
Sean McVay did a lot of great things to fix the Rams' offense last season. One area that was still a weakness was tight end, where the Rams didn't have a player ranked in the top 35 in DYAR or DVOA. Tyler Higbee (-2.6) and rookie Gerald Everett (-3.3) both ranked in the bottom 12 in plus-minus as well. In the way that quarterback Jared Goff made huge leaps over his 2016 rookie year, Higbee tried to do the same. His -27.8 C%+ was the worst on record since 2006, but he improved that to -6.0 C%+ in 2017. Still, it's a weak area for the team unless Everett makes a big leap in his second year.
The Packers added two tight ends in the bottom eight in Jimmy Graham (-3.8) and Marcedes Lewis (-5.9). One would figure that Lewis will serve more of a blocking role with Graham and Lance Kendricks in the mix. Graham's last season in Seattle featured a lot of short touchdown catches, but he was also plagued with injuries on his way to a career-low 9.1 yards per reception. We'll see if Aaron Rodgers can get more out of him with better health for both players in 2018.
Finally, there is the case of Giants rookie Evan Engram (-7.1), who finished last in plus-minus. Depending on the availability of Sterling Shepard, Engram had to become the team's de facto No. 1 option after injuries to Odell Beckham Jr. and Brandon Marshall. He struggled with eight drops, which were only surpassed among tight ends by Ertz's nine. However, there were problems with Eli Manning last year as well, so we may not see a good number from Engram here until the quarterback situation improves in New York.
2017 Running Backs
There were 61 qualified running backs, but we are listing only 32 here.
|2017 Running Backs: Top 16 in Receiving Plus-Minus||2017 Running Backs: Bottom 16 in Receiving Plus-Minus|
|Rk||Player||Team||Passes||C%||REC +/-||C%+||Rk||Player||Team||Passes||C%||REC +/-||C%+|
|1||Alvin Kamara||NO||96||84.4%||+6.5||+6.8%||46||Jordan Howard||CHI||30||76.7%||-2.3||-7.7%|
|2||Danny Woodhead||BAL||36||91.7%||+5.3||+14.7%||47||Ezekiel Elliott||DAL||34||76.5%||-2.4||-7.0%|
|3||Kareem Hunt||KC||61||86.9%||+4.3||+7.1%||48||Orleans Darkwa||NYG||26||73.1%||-2.4||-9.2%|
|4||Duke Johnson||CLE||90||83.3%||+4.2||+4.7%||49||Elijah McGuire||NYJ||26||65.4%||-2.8||-10.7%|
|5||Dion Lewis||NE||34||94.1%||+4.2||+12.3%||50||Andre Ellington||2TM||56||69.6%||-2.8||-5.0%|
|6||Mark Ingram||NO||65||89.2%||+4.0||+6.1%||51||Kenyan Drake||MIA||43||74.4%||-2.9||-6.8%|
|7||Devonta Freeman||ATL||41||87.8%||+3.8||+9.3%||52||Theo Riddick||DET||70||75.7%||-3.0||-4.4%|
|8||Lamar Miller||HOU||41||87.8%||+3.7||+8.9%||53||Jay Ajayi||2TM||33||72.7%||-3.6||-10.8%|
|9||LeSean McCoy||BUF||72||83.3%||+3.5||+4.8%||54||Isaiah Crowell||CLE||40||72.5%||-3.6||-9.0%|
|10||Kyle Juszczyk||SF||39||84.6%||+3.2||+8.1%||55||Melvin Gordon||LAC||74||78.4%||-3.6||-4.9%|
|11||James White||NE||68||82.4%||+3.1||+4.6%||56||Alex Collins||BAL||33||69.7%||-3.8||-11.5%|
|12||Matt Forte||NYJ||43||86.0%||+2.7||+6.4%||57||Wayne Gallman||NYG||46||73.9%||-3.8||-8.3%|
|13||DeMarco Murray||TEN||45||86.7%||+2.3||+5.0%||58||Marshawn Lynch||OAK||29||69.0%||-4.0||-13.9%|
|14||Le'Veon Bell||PIT||102||83.3%||+2.1||+2.0%||59||Marlon Mack||IND||30||70.0%||-5.1||-16.9%|
|15||Rex Burkhead||NE||36||83.3%||+2.0||+5.6%||60||Matt Breida||SF||34||64.7%||-5.6||-16.5%|
|16||Leonard Fournette||JAX||41||87.8%||+1.9||+4.6%||61||Carlos Hyde||SF||84||71.4%||-6.5||-7.8%|
Some of you will no doubt be curious about the absence of two of 2017's most prolific receiving backs: MVP runner-up Todd Gurley and Carolina rookie Christian McCaffrey. Gurley will be featured prominently when we do YAC+, but his plus-minus was only +1.7, good for 22nd in the league. True to form with Cam Newton's poor season in plus-minus, McCaffrey's -2.2 ranked 45th in 2017.
It comes as no surprise that Alvin Kamara was the leader in plus-minus (+6.5) after a stellar rookie season that saw him finish on top in receiving DYAR. Kamara's season could have been even greater if he didn't have six drops, the third-highest total among backs in 2017. It also doesn't hurt to have Drew Brees as your quarterback, as teammate Mark Ingram (+4.0) ranked sixth.
What really stood out here were some of the differences in other teammates, which may or may not have been due to quarterbacks. Let's start with San Francisco. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk (+3.2) ranked in the top 10 in plus-minus for the second year in a row, which is pretty impressive when he's done it with Joe Flacco in Baltimore and the trio of San Francisco quarterbacks last year. He was able to sneak free on a couple of deep shots from Jimmy Garoppolo. However, his teammates Matt Breida (-5.6) and Carlos Hyde (-6.5) were last and next-to-last in the league in plus-minus. This comes a year after Kyle Shanahan received a lot of praise for how he used his running backs in the passing game for the prolific 2016 Falcons. You can see that Atlanta's Devonta Freeman (+3.8) still finished seventh without Shanahan. So what happened to the 49ers? Well, they came down with a case of butterfingers. Hyde (eight) and Breida (seven) were credited with the most drops among running backs. In Breida's case, he did not click well with Brian Hoyer and C.J. Beathard, posting a -5.6 with those quarterbacks and a neutral +0.0 with Garoppolo. For Hyde, he was No. 10 in 2016 (+1.6), but last year was not a successful one for him. He was even -1.5 with Garoppolo, though most of the damage came from Beathard (-5.3). That was not so much due to poor passing as it was the fact that six of Hyde's eight drops were on passes from Beathard. Regardless, with Hyde in Cleveland now, the best receiving back there will continue to be Duke Johnson (+4.2), who finished fourth in plus-minus.
In Chicago, Jordan Howard ranked dead last in these stats in 2016, but improved slightly in 2017. Still, Howard and Tarik Cohen had the worst receiving metrics by any running back duo for DVOA and DYAR last year. It will be interesting to see if new coach Matt Nagy can get more out of them in the receiving game, a staple of Andy Reid's brand of West Coast offense. Kansas City rookie Kareem Hunt (+4.3) finished third in plus-minus for Nagy last year.
The Patriots had three running backs in the top 15 in plus-minus, though Dion Lewis is off to Tennessee this year. Lewis' 12.3 C%+ was only topped by another former Patriot in Danny Woodhead (14.7%). Woodhead was injured last season so Baltimore fans didn't get to see the full effect of him with Flacco, but he caught 33-of-36 passes. He would be a much better receiving option than Alex Collins, who ranked dead last in DYAR and DVOA and had the sixth-lowest plus-minus (-3.8). Collins only had one target that was thrown more than 4 yards down the field, but he did at least catch that one for 15 yards.
If you are wondering how Woodhead can score such a high ranking in plus-minus and C%+ while finishing 50th in DYAR and DVOA, then check back next week when we look at YAC+ for 2017 receivers.