by Rivers McCown
We have run receiving plus-minus as a seasonal overview every offseason since 2015. In 2016, hitched to Drew Brees, Michael Thomas was third in receiving plus-minus. In 2017, he led the NFL. This year, hey, guess who gets a repeat?
Receiving plus-minus is a stat we annually track to help provide context to catch rate. Given the location of a quarterback's passes, it compares a receiver's catch rate in each area to historical baselines. This stat does not consider passes listed as "Thrown Away," "Tipped at Line," or "Quarterback Hit in Motion" by Sports Info Solutions charting. The odds of a pass being completed are based on the pass distance, the distance required for a first down, and whether the ball was thrown to the left, middle, or right side of the field. This is a counting stat, so more attempts are obviously a great thing for the purposes of what we're talking about here.
For example, the average receiver would have caught 69.0 percent of the balls that Brees targeted at Thomas in 2018. Thomas caught 85.6 percent of them in 146 targets -- a ratio that made him one of the most efficient receivers we've ever tracked. As far as our targeting data goes -- back to 2006 -- no receiver had ever generated a plus-minus of +20.0 until Thomas did that this year. Only nine receivers have even cracked +15.0, and three of them hit it last year:
|Best Single-Season WR Rec +/-, 2006-2018|
Over the last three seasons -- his first three seasons -- Thomas has created a role for himself by stepping into the Marques Colston slot and elevating it from "efficient marvel" to "mindbogglingly valuable." When running these numbers, I first thought Thomas was merely one of the leaders in this category since 2016. Then I realized that, due to a sorting error, I needed to also include the numbers of the 17th-place finisher on our list -- a certain "13-M.Thomas-NO" -- to Thomas' total. Yes, Thomas' rookie season is the 17th-most valuable campaign from a pure counting perspective over the last three seasons. Add it to Thomas' other two seasons, and he's nearly got +15.0 receiving plus-minus over the second-place player in that span, Adam Thielen. Thomas has been so far and away the most efficient receiver of the last three years that it's kind of ridiculous that he has only made one All-Pro team.
2018 Wide Receivers
A total of 84 wide receivers qualified for this list, 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 2019.
|Top/Bottom 15 WR by Rec +/-, 2018|
|Player||Team||Targets||Catch Rate||Plus-Minus||Player||Team||Targets||Catch Rate||Plus-Minus|
|Michael Thomas||NO||146||85.6%||+24.2||Antonio Brown||PIT||167||62.3%||-4.2|
|Tyler Lockett||SEA||65||87.7%||+17.7||Keelan Cole||JAX||64||59.4%||-4.8|
|Adam Thielen||MIN||147||76.9%||+16.6||Antonio Callaway||CLE||78||55.1%||-5.0|
|DeAndre Hopkins||HOU||159||72.3%||+14.2||Donte Moncrief||JAX||87||55.2%||-5.3|
|Julio Jones||ATL||167||67.7%||+10.1||Michael Gallup||DAL||65||50.8%||-5.7|
|Stefon Diggs||MIN||134||76.1%||+9.7||Courtland Sutton||DEN||81||51.9%||-5.9|
|Brandin Cooks||LAR||112||71.4%||+9.1||Quincy Enunwa||NYJ||63||60.3%||-6.1|
|Tyreek Hill||KC||131||66.4%||+8.3||Zay Jones||BUF||99||56.6%||-6.2|
|Rashard Higgins||CLE||50||78.0%||+7.6||Jarvis Landry||CLE||140||57.9%||-7.9|
|Tyler Boyd||CIN||102||74.5%||+7.4||Michael Crabtree||BAL||99||54.5%||-9.7|
|Keenan Allen||LAC||131||74.0%||+7.2||John Brown||BAL||93||45.2%||-11.2|
|Jordy Nelson||OAK||84||75.0%||+6.8||Kelvin Benjamin||BUF/KC||64||39.1%||-11.8|
|Emmanuel Sanders||DEN||95||74.7%||+6.8||Jermaine Kearse||NYJ||74||50.0%||-12.6|
|Alshon Jeffery||PHI||92||70.7%||+6.5||John Ross||CIN||57||36.8%||-13.3|
|Minimum 50 targets.|
The lowest expected completion rate among wide receivers with the best plus-minus numbers belonged to Mike Evans, one of the three players here with a catch rate lower than 70 percent. On the targets Evans saw, we would expect an average receiver to have a catch rate of just 57.8 percent. Tyreek Hill and Tyler Lockett were both barely over 60 percent. Lockett was able to blow away his expected catch rate in his well-documented year of efficiency by 27.2 percent, a number that is still ridiculous even in a small sample size.
Last week, we teased that we'd talk a little bit about why Derek Carr's plus-minus was so good -- that'd be Jordy Nelson. Nelson, who was supposedly washed after being released by the Packers, turned in a stellar season under the radar. Outside of Marcell Ateman, every single receiver the Raiders had with more than two targets outperformed their catch rate. Of course, except Ateman, every Raiders receiver who finished the year on the team had an average depth of target of less than 10.
One name that might jump out at you on this list is Rashard Higgins. He's kind of the overlooked option in Cleveland with everyone focusing on Odell Beckham and talking about Antonio Callaway's chances of improving on his rookie year. Higgins wasn't exactly rocking Cleveland's deep-ball focused game, but at 11.7 yards, his average depth of target was comparable to that of DeAndre Hopkins. Higgins, a one-time FO Top 25 prospect, still may have quite a role to play this year. Jarvis Landry, on the other hand ... eww. Even as much as he has been slagged on FO, I don't think anyone expected a season with this little combined efficiency. He seemed to be phased out of the offense a bit when Hue Jackson was fired. Perhaps playing with former college teammate Beckham will open some more holes for him again, but this is a deep roster. If Freddie Kitchens' designs continue, Landry might have a surprisingly low number of targets next season.
Most of the bottom of the list makes sense -- John Brown and Lamar Jackson weren't on the same page, and Michael Crabtree's career appeared to finally run out of juice. The Jets and the Jaguars had multiple players representing them. However, it is interesting to find Antonio Brown in that section. (OK, barely, and only because Arizona's Chad Williams had a -8.7 plus-minus on 42 targets instead of 50. But still.) Brown's ego and Jon Gruden's tendency to spread the ball around appear to be on a collision course, and Brown's efficiency last year plainly shouted not to send him all the team's targets.
This is actually fairly consequential because with that plus from Nelson and that down year from Brown, Nelson overtook Brown as the top plus-minus receiver since we started keeping track of the data:
|Top 10 WR by Rec +/-, 2006-2018|
Zay Jones over the past two years has put together a startling -18.0 combined plus-minus by catching 50 percent of his balls compared to an expected 60.8 percent. However, he's not anywhere near the bottom of the list historically. Braylon Edwards is dominating that with a -41.4 that is over 10 points worse than second-place Tavon Austin.
2018 Tight Ends
Qualifiers for this will need 25 targets -- yes, the bar is that low:
|Top/Bottom 10 Tight Ends by Plus-Minus, 2018|
|Name||Team||Targets||Catch Rate||Plus-Minus||Name||Team||Targets||Catch Rate||Plus-Minus|
|Austin Hooper||ATL||88||80.7%||+8.1||C.J. Uzomah||CIN||64||67.2%||-2.4|
|Zach Ertz||PHI||152||75.7%||+7.7||Matt LaCosse||DEN||36||66.7%||-2.7|
|Kyle Rudolph||MIN||80||80.0%||+6.7||Cameron Brate||TB||48||62.5%||-2.9|
|Ben Watson||NO||46||76.1%||+5.6||David Njoku||CLE||86||65.1%||-2.9|
|Travis Kelce||KC||144||71.5%||+5.0||Jeff Heuerman||DEN||47||66.0%||-3.9|
|Mark Andrews||BAL||47||72.3%||+4.3||George Kittle||SF||130||67.7%||-3.9|
|Chris Herndon||NYJ||54||72.2%||+3.4||Jordan Reed||WAS||81||66.7%||-4.7|
|O.J. Howard||TB||47||72.3%||+3.3||Eric Ebron||IND||106||62.3%||-4.9|
|Trey Burton||CHI||73||74.0%||+3.1||Ryan Griffin||HOU||42||57.1%||-5.3|
|Geoff Swaim||DAL||30||86.7%||+2.7||Ricky Seals-Jones||ARI||68||50.0%||-10.7|
Boy, I wonder if another Saint will be mentioned in the next few paragraphs? It would be simply stunning if so.
George Kittle was the breakout tight end of 2018, so it's interesting to find him at the bottom of this metric. In this case, it's not so much that Kittle was bad as it is that he had a huge workload compared to the others at his position. Kittle was only expected to catch about three percent more of his passes than he actually did. Same goes for Eric Ebron, who was expected to catch about four percent more of his. Of course, Ebron is a known drop machine, so that one probably did not surprise you very much.
Ricky Seals-Jones finished last in 2017 and last again in 2018 -- he's got almost double the second-worst plus-minus over the last two seasons. I guess that's what happens when you have a 47.9 percent catch rate. David Njoku also repeats in the bottom 10 from last season. Demetrius Harris absolutely would've had he garnered one more target. Harris is third-from-last in the totals.
I'm glad we created a list where the unlisted Anthony Firkser (+4.7) finishes above Mark Andrews on the strength of a 95 percent catch rate on 20 targets. I think that's a good and normal thing and clearly says a lot about their respective values. Lotta rookies in the top 10 this year! By the way, 2017 had ... a grand total of zero rookies in the top 12.
The Texans have placed a player in the bottom 10 in every season since we started writing these articles since 2015. Just so Jordan Thomas is aware for what he's up for.
Entering his fourth season in 2019, Austin Hooper has been the third-best tight end by receiving plus-minus over the course of his career. Largely this is on the strength of a catch rate that is pretty unprecedented for a player with as many targets as he has had. In 175 targets, Hooper has a 79.4 percent catch rate over the last three years. Jack Doyle is at 78.9 percent on 209 targets. Those are the only two players over a 77 percent catch rate with more than 150 targets in those seasons.
If you're curious about Rob Gronkowski's performance, he was slightly above-average in his last season. Much like Tom Brady, he's a little undervalued by this metric. However, he has the lowest expected catch rate of any tight end in the 2006-2018 top 10 at 63.3 percent. He was truly a different player -- just a different player who was worth much, much less than Jason Witten by this metric:
|Top 10 TE by Rec +/-, 2006-2018|
2018 Running Backs
Qualifiers again will need just 25 targets:
|Top/Bottom 10 Running Backs by Plus-Minus, 2018|
|Name||Team||Targets||Catch Rate||Plus-Minus||Name||Team||Targets||Catch Rate||Plus-Minus|
|Christian McCaffrey||CAR||122||87.7%||+8.2||Isaiah Crowell||NYJ||28||75.0%||-2.7|
|Alvin Kamara||NO||95||85.3%||+5.4||Todd Gurley||LAR||75||78.7%||-2.8|
|Jalen Richard||OAK||79||86.1%||+3.9||Jamaal Williams||GB||36||75.0%||-3.0|
|Tarik Cohen||CHI||88||80.7%||+2.8||Peyton Barber||TB||28||71.4%||-3.3|
|Javorious Allen||BAL||40||87.5%||+2.8||Nick Chubb||CLE||29||69.0%||-3.6|
|Dion Lewis||TEN||67||88.1%||+2.2||Elijah McGuire||NYJ||30||63.3%||-4.0|
|Ito Smith||ATL||30||90.0%||+2.2||Ty Montgomery||GB/BAL||37||67.6%||-4.6|
|Matt Brieda||SF||31||87.1%||+2.1||Saquon Barkley||NYG||117||77.8%||-4.9|
|Jaylen Samuels||PIT||29||89.7%||+1.8||James White||NE||117||74.4%||-5.7|
|Kyle Juszczyk||SF||37||81.1%||+1.7||David Johnson||ARI||71||70.4%||-8.2|
Christian McCaffrey was below average in this stat in 2017, but in 2018 he took a target spike and dominated with it by raising his catch rate by 12 percent.
Alvin Kamara led the league in his rookie season, but was merely second place this season. One of the things I think is interesting is just the extent that certain teams wind up dominating this category -- Kamara is obviously a special talent put in a special situation, much like Thomas is. But even without them, Mark Ingram was top 10 for the Saints in 2016. The Chiefs had Kareem Hunt at No. 3 last season, and would have placed Damien Williams in the top 10, but he narrowly missed the 25-target threshold. The Ravens, of all teams, have had great receiving plus-minus from their backs despite those backs always changing -- Javorius Allen this year, Danny Woodhead last year, and Kyle Juszczyk in 2016. The Falcons had Devonta Freeman in the top 10 each of 2016 and 2017, then Ito Smith last season. Good running back rates appear to be more about scheme and coaching than talent.
As I say this, let's meander over to the bottom list, where Saquon Barkley was abysmal. Of course, as we noted in 2017, Evan Engram was bad mostly because so many of his targets were, for lack of a better term, bad checkdowns from Eli Manning. Barkley inherited a lot of those passes in 2018, and we saw how that worked out. There's certainly nobody saying Barkley is a bad receiving back -- the fact that he was targeted as often as he was would go wildly against that idea. But his offense was bad, his quarterback was bad, and a running back with Barkley's targets would have been expected to catch 82 percent of them.
David Johnson suffered similar problems. Johnson is comfortably a good back by his career plus-minus, but last year under whatever Mike McCoy decided an offense was, he was put in a situation where there was no chance for him to succeed. James White went from top-10 in 2017 year to second-to-last last year due to a target spike and a lack of a deep-ball game plan by the Patriots.
Hey, back to explaining why Derek Carr worked out pretty well: one of the best receiving seasons was by Jalen Richard! Richard hasn't established himself as much of an actual runner, but he's got a nice little niche as a passing-down back.
You might expect the history of this statistic to be very New Orleans-centric if you've been paying attention. You would be quite right to believe that:
That's three of the top 11 who have spent their careers almost entirely with the Saints, and Kamara is just one good year from breaking into the upper crust of the list. Freeman still may have some helium too. I wasn't surprised to see Woodhead or Kevin Faulk here -- those are the guys I think about when "receiving running back" gets mentioned. I was a bit surprised that DeMarco Murray made the list. Murray was a top-20 back in essentially every non-2015 year of his career as far as plus-minus is concerned.
Just outside the top eleven are a couple of other still-actives with a chance to make a move: Johnson and Juszczyk.