Secrets to Travis Kelce's Success: DVOA by Route 2020

Kansas City Chiefs TE Travis Kelce
Kansas City Chiefs TE Travis Kelce
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

Travis Kelce had a season for the ages in 2020. Despite sitting out of a meaningless Week 17 game, he collected a league-high 415 receiving DYAR, becoming the first tight end on record to lead all players in that category. He also had the second-best receiving DYAR for a tight end we have ever measured, and nearly became the first player ever at that position to lead the NFL in receiving yardage. The key to Kelce's dominance? He was the league's best player in the mid-range routes that move the chains and keep drives alive.

One more big stats project before the 2021 season begins is our now-annual look at DVOA by pass routes. Sports Info Solutions' charting allows us to break down receivers by their routes—seeing which routes they run most often, and at which they are the most effective. It helps paint a more complete picture of each receiver's skill set and usage patterns. Some of this data appeared throughout Football Outsiders Almanac 2021.

Whenever you're breaking down a subset of a subset, small sample size caveats apply. However, we've been doing these studies for several years now, and we're seeing a fair amount of year-to-year consistency, which makes sense. Different types of receivers will struggle or excel in different kinds of routes; the top of the leaderboards aren't just random noise. Obviously, a receiver's success will depend on the quarterback throwing him the ball and the defense covering him, but we'll look at those soon enough. Today, we're focusing on pass-catchers.

For an example of what this looks like, here's Kelce's route chart, sorted by DYAR to show where he had the most and least value:

Travis Kelce's DYAR by Route, 2020
Route DYAR DVOA Tgt Yds Catch% aDOT YAC
Out 157 103.2% 22 290 86% 9.4 6.1
Curl 93 50.5% 24 225 83% 7.0 4.2
Corner 61 125.2% 7 112 71% 14.4 7.6
Slant 54 55.5% 13 152 85% 6.4 7.7
Deep Cross 46 107.5% 6 120 83% 16.2 9.8
Go/Fly 34 159.9% 3 76 67% 32.3 9.5
Wheel 12 162.7% 1 29 100% 11.0 18.0
Chip - Curl 11 37.4% 4 38 75% 6.5 8.7
Screen - Quick 9 62.5% 1 1 100% -2.0 3.0
Screen - Beneath 8 50.9% 2 22 100% 0.0 11.0
Screen - Shovel 8 69.8% 1 3 100% -1.0 4.0
Seam 6 89.6% 1 15 100% 16.0 -1.0
Whip 6 33.1% 2 16 100% 3.5 4.5
Screen - Tunnel 5 45.1% 1 10 100% 0.0 10.0
Chip - Seam 4 73.2% 1 11 100% 2.0 9.0
Out & Up 2 11.5% 2 18 0% 21.0  
Flat - Left 0 -8.5% 4 22 100% 0.5 5.0
Screen - Bubble -1 -19.1% 1 6 100% 0.0 6.0
Dig -2 -10.4% 10 59 50% 9.7 0.8
Broken Play -2 -8.9% 20 148 45% 12.4 0.8
Sluggo -8 -106.5% 1 0 0% 7.0  
Screen - TE -11 -48.0% 5 28 80% -0.6 8.8
Drag -11 -80.4% 2 3 50% 2.0 0.0
Beneath -13 -71.9% 3 7 100% -1.7 4.0
Post -20 -65.9% 5 15 20% 14.2 0.0
Chip - Flat -32 -100.1% 5 26 60% 1.2 6.3
Total 415 35.7% 147 1452 72% 8.7 5.6

Kelce did most of his damage on outs, curls, corners, and slants, all of which are typically thrown to receivers 5 to 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. By DYAR, his best play of the year was this 45-yard gain on a corner route against New England. Fittingly for a possession receiver, this was not one of the career-best 11 touchdown passes Kelce caught last year.

Kelce wasn't nearly effective on shorter routes targeted closer to the line of scrimmage, plays such as screens, flats, and drags. This brings up an interesting point, however, which is that the folks at SIS got a lot more detailed in some of their route listings in 2020. Flat routes were split by direction, left and right; we have combined them for purposes of this article. (The same was done for swing passes, but it turns out that's not relevant today. Those were the only two routes where this was done.) Also, wide receiver screens were divvied up into six different categories: Beneath, Bubble, Drag, Quick, Shovel, and Tunnel, in addition to "Screen - RB" and "Screen - TE." We lumped all these screens into one bucket, then filtered out plays where the receiver lined up in the backfield and labeled the results WR/TE screens.

Space limitations prevent us from breaking down every player like this, so instead we'll show the leaderboards for the players who had the most targets at the most commonly used routes, sorted by descending DYAR.

This year, we're looking at the 13 routes with at least 400 targets to wide receivers and tight ends: curl, out, slant, flat, dig, WR/TE screen, broken play, drag, deep cross, go/fly, corner, post, and fade routes. The seam route, which has come in and out of this article in recent years, fell well short of qualifying with only 352 targets in 2020. Otherwise, these are the same routes that were most common in 2019, though there was some significant shuffling in the order.

We'll look at the 20 or so receivers who ran each route most frequently. The specific number will vary depending on how many receivers were tied for 20th place. Sometimes, that number is so high it's not practical to list everyone. Tables are sorted by DYAR, but we'll also discuss which receivers were targeted most often on each route, regardless of success.

Curl

Once again, this was the most common route in the NFL with 2,403 targets, down just a bit from the 2,416 we saw in 2019. The following table lists the 19 players with at least 21 curl targets.

Curl Route Leaders, 2020
Player Tm DYAR DVOA Tgt Yds Catch% aDOT YAC
87-T.Kelce KC 93 50.5% 24 225 83% 7.0 4.2
14-S.Diggs BUF 88 10.1% 51 435 86% 7.7 2.8
11-C.Beasley BUF 78 35.9% 22 186 91% 6.3 3.1
13-T.Hilton IND 61 23.2% 22 189 77% 8.5 2.2
83-T.Boyd CIN 54 27.0% 21 176 86% 7.0 2.8
11-J.Reynolds LAR 44 13.3% 21 230 85% 7.6 5.2
86-H.Henry LAC 44 27.0% 21 169 81% 7.0 3.1
10-D.Hopkins ARI 40 2.4% 35 321 82% 7.0 4.1
19-A.Cooper DAL 40 4.2% 30 224 83% 6.6 2.2
83-D.Waller LV 40 21.0% 22 176 71% 6.5 4.5
12-A.Robinson CHI 30 1.6% 26 173 77% 6.7 2.8
11-D.Parker MIA 29 2.6% 24 206 70% 9.5 3.1
81-M.Williams LAC 26 2.8% 21 135 76% 8.3 0.7
10-C.Kupp LAR 22 0.2% 23 181 82% 7.0 2.1
13-M.Gallup DAL 9 -8.2% 27 193 59% 10.9 2.6
13-M.Evans TB 8 -6.8% 21 160 65% 8.2 2.0
13-K.Allen LAC 1 -12.4% 28 204 74% 6.4 3.1
87-S.Shepard NYG -3 -14.3% 22 150 68% 8.8 1.9
10-T.Hill KC -26 -26.5% 25 153 60% 7.8 2.3
NFL Curls 2,313 1.6% 2,403 17,330 76% 6.8 2.9

Kelce finished as the top receiver here, though at this point we should note that he gets something of an unfair advantage because his DYAR is based on the production of an average tight end, not an average wide receiver, so he's clearing a lower bar. Mind you, he was more productive than most wideouts too—among the players in this table, only L.A.'s Josh Reynolds averaged more yards per target on curls (11.0) than Kelce (9.4).

Kelce's teammate, Tyreek Hill finished last among qualifying players in curl DYAR and DVOA. He was next to last in catch rate and below average in yards after catch on the play. Here the numbers confirm the obvious: while Hill is the more explosive player, Kelce is more consistent and reliable.

Buffalo's Stefon Diggs finished second behind Kelce in curl DYAR, mainly because he ran so dang many of them—51 targets, 16 more than anyone else. Cole Beasley was third in curl DYAR, which probably tells us a lot about Josh Allen, but we'll get to quarterbacks in a later article.

By DYAR, the best curl route of the year was James Washington's 50-yard touchdown for Pittsburgh against the Washington Football Team.

Out

There were 1,877 out targets in 2020. That's a big drop from the 2,013 we saw in 2019—the biggest drop of any route in this article, in fact—but still good enough to finish in second place. The following table lists the 19 players who ran at least 18 outs last year.

Out Route Leaders, 2020
Player Tm DYAR DVOA Tgt Yds Catch% aDOT YAC
87-T.Kelce KC 157 103.2% 22 290 86% 9.4 6.1
10-C.Kupp LAR 73 34.1% 19 183 83% 7.6 4.7
18-C.Ridley ATL 73 29.5% 21 222 76% 11.3 2.7
83-R.Gage ATL 63 27.1% 20 157 80% 9.0 0.9
19-A.Thielen MIN 60 26.6% 19 140 79% 8.8 0.9
10-D.Hopkins ARI 56 12.8% 28 199 79% 8.3 1.0
17-D.Adams GB 52 14.7% 23 136 87% 5.7 1.7
19-A.Cooper DAL 34 8.5% 20 136 80% 7.2 1.9
80-J.Landry CLE 28 5.6% 20 167 85% 5.9 3.7
88-C.Lamb DAL 24 3.7% 18 140 72% 9.4 2.2
14-S.Diggs BUF 12 -5.2% 20 140 80% 7.7 1.4
11-R.Anderson CAR 11 -6.4% 23 165 73% 7.6 3.6
11-C.Beasley BUF 2 -11.6% 21 121 76% 6.1 2.4
11-C.Claypool PIT 0 -12.5% 19 130 68% 9.1 1.8
17-R.Woods LAR -3 -14.2% 27 167 69% 7.9 1.4
88-T.Hockenson DET -27 -29.2% 18 105 56% 9.0 4.1
86-Z.Ertz PHI -28 -28.7% 20 97 45% 7.4 2.6
82-L.Thomas WAS -33 -32.6% 20 116 55% 8.2 1.7
12-A.Robinson CHI -47 -38.5% 23 122 61% 5.4 3.1
NFL Outs 1,088 -3.9% 1,877 12,697 69% 7.5 2.6

Kelce had a slight edge in curl DYAR, but he laps the field in out DYAR—nobody else had even half his total of 157 DYAR. This is what happens when you average 13.2 yards on outs. Atlanta's Calvin Ridley (10.6) was the only other player in double digits (not a surprise, since he led the league in out DYAR in 2019). Zach Ertz, a tight end like Kelce (well, not very much like Kelce, but you get the idea) averaged fewer than 5 yards per out target.

Chicago's Allen Robinson was last in out DYAR. And it didn't much matter who was throwing those passes—he had -36 DYAR on 13 out routes from Mitchell Trubisky, -11 on 10 from Nick Foles. Andy Dalton was better on outs last year than either of those players, so either he or Justin Fields should be an upgrade here.

Arizona's DeAndre Hopkins, who was second in the league in curl targets, finished first with 28 out targets, because Kliff Kingsbury's Air Raid is just a never-ending stream of short throws that don't stretch the defense or generate a lot of YAC. This is going to be a theme of today's story.

The best out target of 2020 was Deonte Harris' tackle-breaking 40-yard gain against Tampa Bay in Week 9.

Slant

Slant totals climbed from 1,143 targets in 2019 to 1,283 last year. That was still a distant third after curls and outs, though the gap is closing. On average, slants are more efficient than either curls or outs, mainly because they give receivers a better chance to gain yards after the catch. That's especially true of the receiver who finished in first place. The following table lists the 19 receivers with at least 14 slant targets.

Slant Route Leaders, 2020
Player Tm DYAR DVOA Tgt Yds Catch% aDOT YAC
11-A.Brown TEN 106 58.6% 19 273 74% 7.7 12.1
12-A.Robinson CHI 90 18.0% 36 302 75% 7.1 3.6
19-A.Cooper DAL 78 37.7% 19 235 74% 5.8 10.5
18-C.Ridley ATL 76 45.1% 16 185 94% 7.3 4.9
17-T.McLaurin WAS 69 21.1% 26 264 75% 6.9 6.9
14-D.Metcalf SEA 61 17.1% 25 189 68% 7.4 3.1
11-B.Aiyuk SF 32 9.6% 18 136 71% 6.7 3.3
18-A.Green CIN 12 -7.0% 27 169 60% 7.9 2.2
11-R.Anderson CAR 10 -7.3% 23 189 83% 5.2 5.1
11-D.Parker MIA 9 -8.4% 25 141 61% 6.1 3.4
18-Di.Johnson PIT 5 -9.5% 18 104 67% 4.9 3.7
12-D.Moore CAR 4 -9.5% 15 127 53% 5.9 10.3
85-T.Higgins CIN -1 -13.7% 14 108 64% 7.1 4.8
17-D.Adams GB -4 -15.1% 21 158 71% 6.4 3.4
86-D.Slayton NYG -11 -19.4% 22 138 50% 7.3 4.0
11-C.Claypool PIT -12 -22.1% 15 100 60% 6.4 4.6
13-K.Allen LAC -12 -21.0% 18 119 56% 6.2 5.5
10-D.Hopkins ARI -23 -26.8% 20 97 47% 5.3 3.2
10-J.Jeudy DEN -49 -57.0% 14 53 31% 8.8 4.3
NFL Slants 1,502 3.2% 1,283 9,785 66% 6.8 4.6

A.J. Brown may be the most dangerous receiver in the league with the ball in his hands—he led the NFL in YAC+ as a rookie and finished third in 2020. And he did a lot of that damage on slant routes, where he averaged a dozen yards after the catch, more than two and a half times the league average. That includes 66 YAC on his 73-yard touchdown against Pittsburgh, the best slant play of the year.

That's why Brown finished first in slant DYAR even though Allen Robinson had nearly double the slant targets. Mind you, Robinson still shined, winning the silver medal in this category. Dallas' Amari Cooper finished third while playing with Andy Dalton, another reason to believe Robinson's numbers might improve this year.

Denver rookie Jerry Jeudy finished last in slant DYAR despite getting exactly the 14 targets needed to qualify for our table—and two of those targets were thrown by Jeff Driskel (though none were thrown by Kendall Hinton). DeAndre Hopkins was next to last in slant DYAR because Kliff Kingsbury's Air Raid remains a never-ending stream of short throws that don't stretch the defense or generate a lot of YAC.

Flats

And now, everything changes. From this point forward, no route ranks in the same position that it did in 2019. Flats, for example, move from fifth place up to fourth, as their totals climbed from 1,002 to 1,076. The following table shows the 21 players (mostly running backs, naturally) who had at least 10 flat targets.

Flats Route Leaders, 2020
Player Tm DYAR DVOA Tgt Yds Catch% aDOT YAC
30-J.Williams GB 45 47.3% 11 71 100% 0.8 5.6
28-J.McKinnon SF 42 72.6% 10 65 90% 2.4 5.1
32-D.Montgomery CHI 40 20.9% 18 133 89% 0.7 7.4
41-A.Kamara NO 33 39.3% 10 55 80% 2.4 4.1
28-M.Davis CAR 33 14.7% 18 108 94% 0.6 5.9
28-J.Taylor IND 28 24.2% 13 94 92% 0.1 7.8
30-J.Robinson JAX 27 19.5% 14 72 93% -1.3 6.9
25-G.Bernard CIN 24 11.0% 14 71 86% 1.6 4.2
81-D.Smythe MIA 22 23.9% 10 63 100% 2.5 3.8
30-A.Ekeler LAC 20 12.1% 13 64 85% 1.8 4.0
81-H.Hurst ATL 17 12.3% 13 95 85% 4.8 3.5
41-J.McKissic WAS 4 -10.3% 15 69 73% 0.8 5.5
25-C.Edwards-Helaire KC 1 -13.2% 12 64 67% 0.9 7.5
88-E.Engram NYG -13 -22.3% 14 72 79% 1.8 4.5
41-K.Drake ARI -15 -35.3% 11 35 55% 0.5 5.2
28-L.Fournette TB -16 -37.8% 11 47 100% 0.0 4.3
27-R.Jones TB -17 -36.1% 12 66 67% 1.3 7.1
83-D.Waller LV -18 -30.7% 11 64 91% 0.8 5.6
25-M.Gordon DEN -24 -48.5% 11 26 73% 0.5 2.4
19-J.Smith-Schuster PIT -33 -51.3% 10 31 80% 0.4 3.5
26-M.Sanders PHI -34 -62.2% 12 26 50% 1.0 3.3
NFL Flats 276 -8.1% 1,076 5,504 81% 1.3 5.0

Green Bay's Jamaal Williams was just 15th among running backs in receiving DYAR, but he led the league in flat DYAR, mostly because he caught each of his 11 targets. He may get a lot more than that this season on a Detroit team with one of the NFL's worst wide receiver depth charts.

Philadelphia's Mile Sanders was last in flat DYAR, mainly because he only caught half of his 12 targets—and when he did catch them, he didn't go anywhere, averaging just 3.3 yards after the catch.

Chicago's David Montgomery and Carolina's Mike Davis tied for first with 18 flat targets apiece. Davis, for what it's worth, did that in only 579 offensive snaps, while Montgomer played 759.

The best flat play of 2020 was Ronald Jones' 37-yard touchdown for Tampa Bay against Kansas City—which is ironic considering Jones' poor numbers on slants overall. His other 11 flat targets gained a total of only 29 yards between. His teammate Leonard Fournette was hardly any better. The flat route may have been the only thing Tampa Bay did badly last season.

Dig

With flats moving up to fourth place, digs fell to fifth, as their total targets fell from 1,138 to 1,071. The following table shows the 18 players with at least 11 dig targets in 2020.

Dig Route Leaders, 2020
Player Tm DYAR DVOA Tgt Yds Catch% aDOT YAC
11-J.Jones ATL 76 81.5% 11 172 82% 15.4 2.9
18-J.Jefferson MIN 62 45.9% 14 169 79% 10.1 4.7
11-A.Brown TEN 55 36.6% 14 166 71% 10.3 7.5
85-T.Higgins CIN 52 31.5% 15 142 73% 7.1 5.7
16-J.Meyers NE 50 34.8% 15 193 73% 14.2 2.5
13-M.Evans TB 47 39.9% 11 122 70% 10.6 3.7
12-D.Moore CAR 45 26.6% 16 150 63% 13.4 1.5
11-M.Jones DET 38 14.6% 18 148 67% 11.3 1.7
13-B.Cooks HOU 31 15.1% 14 139 64% 11.1 2.7
17-D.Adams GB 25 13.4% 12 123 67% 12.6 3.6
13-K.Allen LAC 20 10.4% 11 102 73% 11.8 2.9
19-A.Cooper DAL 15 4.0% 12 87 91% 6.3 2.5
15-W.Fuller HOU 11 1.4% 11 68 45% 11.2 1.4
10-J.Jeudy DEN 4 -9.3% 14 124 43% 12.9 6.3
84-K.Bourne SF -11 -25.9% 11 73 45% 10.7 1.8
18-Di.Johnson PIT -13 -26.0% 14 79 64% 5.3 2.8
11-B.Aiyuk SF -14 -28.1% 12 86 42% 11.3 6.4
18-C.Ridley ATL -15 -27.7% 12 84 42% 13.0 4.4
NFL Digs 1,300 4.9% 1,071 9,099 62% 10.3 3.6

Some crazy results for the Falcons here as Julio Jones was first in dig DYAR but Calvin Ridley was last. You'll recall that Ridley was among the leaders in out DYAR—clearly, he's more comfortable breaking to the outside than to the middle. Jones, meanwhile, moves onto Tennessee. He joins A.J. Brown, who was third in DYAR on the same route. Those Titans are going to be dangerous attacking the middle of the field. None of this is a fluke, by the way. Brown was first in dig DYAR in 2019 while Jones was sixth and Ridley was below average.

Detroit's Marvin Jones led the NFL with 18 dig targets. Jones is now in Jacksonville (which is one of the reasons Jamaal Williams may get more flat targets), where he fits an obvious hole in the lineup. No Jaguars player had enough dig targets to qualify for this table; Keelan Cole led the team with just seven.

The top dig play of last season was Cedric Wilson's 40-yard touchdown for Dallas against Seattle.

WR/TE Screen

And now for some depressing news: the wide receiver screen is back. After dropping from 1,003 targets in 2018 to 767 in 2019, they were back up to 1,042 in 2020, moving up from seventh place to sixth. This is awful, because the wide receiver screen is such a terribly weak play at the NFL level. Just look at these numbers, which show the 19 players with at least 11 WR/TE screen targets:

WR/TE Screen Route Leaders, 2020
Player Tm DYAR DVOA Tgt Yds Catch% aDOT YAC
10-T.Hill KC 22 8.4% 12 90 92% -2.3 10.6
87-T.Kelce KC 17 14.5% 11 70 91% -0.5 8.0
88-T.Hockenson DET 9 5.1% 11 73 91% -2.6 10.1
83-D.Waller LV 6 -1.7% 16 114 100% -1.6 8.8
81-A.Brown TB 6 -8.3% 17 114 94% -0.8 7.9
14-C.Godwin TB 5 -7.2% 12 91 100% -2.1 9.7
17-D.Adams GB 0 -12.5% 20 135 100% -0.8 7.5
11-L.Fitzgerald ARI -13 -30.4% 11 62 100% -1.6 7.3
19-J.Smith-Schuster PIT -13 -21.2% 19 91 100% -1.4 6.2
14-S.Diggs BUF -16 -33.2% 11 68 82% -1.8 9.6
13-H.Renfrow LV -21 -35.7% 12 78 92% -2.4 9.7
13-K.Allen LAC -24 -28.6% 20 110 90% -2.4 8.4
10-L.Shenault JAX -26 -44.4% 11 45 82% -2.1 6.7
18-Di.Johnson PIT -28 -40.5% 14 69 93% -1.6 6.9
88-C.Lamb DAL -36 -48.2% 14 57 100% -2.1 6.2
11-R.Anderson CAR -41 -56.6% 12 51 100% -2.3 6.3
17-T.McLaurin WAS -52 -59.8% 16 72 94% -2.4 7.1
17-R.Woods LAR -57 -43.1% 26 145 85% -2.3 9.2
10-D.Hopkins ARI -64 -59.0% 20 83 100% -1.8 5.9
NFL WR/TE Screens -1,182 -28.0% 1,042 6,163 92% -2.0 8.5

Only seven qualifying players had positive DYAR on WR/TE screens, and only four of those players were actually wide receivers. (All four of them played in the conference championship games—make of that what you will.) We should point out again that Travis Kelce, T.J. Hockenson, and Darren Waller get a slight boost here because they are being compared to the average tight end, not the average wide receiver. Still, it's funny to see Kelce finish with the best DVOA of any qualifying player, considering we mentioned in the intro that it was one of his worst plays. Kelce turned his 11 WR/TE screen targets into 10 completions for 70 yards, with two touchdowns and only two failed completions. 

Meanwhile, Kelce's teammate Tyreek Hill led all players in WR/TE screen DYAR, catching 11 of 12 targets for 90 yards and a touchdown. He was not quite as reliable as Kelce, with three failed completions, but he picked up six first downs to Kelce's four. It's probably not a coincidence that teammates finished one-two in this category—it says a lot about the individual talents of Kelce and Hill, but also about the schemes and play calling of Andy Reid. 

Those are the best numbers anyone had on WR/TE screens; most players were much worse. Take, for example, Arizona's DeAndre Hopkins. He had 20 WR/TE screen targets (only Robert Woods of the Rams had more) but finished with a league-worst -64 DYAR on those plays. Yes, he caught each of those 20 passes, but for a total of just 83 yards, with more catches going for no gain or a loss (six) than producing first downs (four) Because why wouldn't you take your best player on offense and ask him to do what he's worst at over and over again? This is how Kliff Kingsbury's Air Raid produced a never-ending stream of short throws that don't stretch the defense or generate a lot of YAC.

Mind you, not every WR/TE screen failed. Even the Jets made them work every once in a while—most notably on Jamison Crowder's 69-yard touchdown against the Bills in Week 1, the best WR/TE screen play of the season.

Broken Play

Along with the grey cloud of more wide receiver screens comes the very silvery lining of more broken plays—a lot more broken plays. There were 573 broken-play targets in 2019, a number that soared to 943 in 2020, moving up from ninth place to seventh. That's an increase of 370 plays—nearly two-thirds more than we saw the year before! That's 370 more plays of scrambling quarterbacks slipping tackles in the backfield and trying big throws downfield. No, that's not terribly efficient, but it's exciting—note that average depth of target of 11.7 yards, deepest of any route we have covered so far. The following table lists the 16 receivers with at least eight targets on broken plays.

Broken Play Route Leaders, 2020
Player Tm DYAR DVOA Tgt Yds Catch% aDOT YAC
14-S.Watkins KC 45 53.0% 9 87 78% 12.8 3.9
16-T.Lockett SEA 41 17.3% 17 135 71% 9.5 3.0
10-D.Hopkins ARI 28 28.2% 9 99 56% 16.9 0.8
11-C.Beasley BUF 25 29.9% 8 97 63% 13.4 0.8
13-T.Fulgham PHI 24 28.7% 8 101 57% 16.8 0.5
14-S.Diggs BUF 23 6.7% 16 99 69% 10.6 0.7
15-M.Brown BAL 18 10.7% 10 102 70% 14.5 4.3
85-T.Higgins CIN 5 -5.9% 9 76 44% 15.6 1.8
82-J.Crowder NYJ 4 -6.9% 8 73 50% 12.9 5.5
87-T.Kelce KC -2 -8.9% 20 148 45% 12.4 0.8
41-J.McKissic WAS -5 -25.4% 8 38 38% 7.5 1.7
89-M.Andrews BAL -6 -16.1% 10 104 60% 13.4 3.8
19-J.Smith-Schuster PIT -7 -26.0% 8 45 43% 11.4 0.7
13-B.Cooks HOU -11 -28.7% 9 70 56% 15.1 0.8
13-G.Davis BUF -17 -31.8% 11 45 36% 11.6 0.3
80-J.Landry CLE -30 -51.8% 10 52 40% 11.2 3.5
NFL Broken Plays 243 -8.1% 943 6,753 52% 11.7 3.6

The top receivers here were catching passes from Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson, Kyler Murray, and Josh Allen. In fact, three of Allen's receivers got enough broken-play targets to qualify, as did two of Lamar Jackson's. Yes, this is a very quarterback-driven stat. You'll recall that the top three players in this department in 2019 all played for Tampa Bay, but not one of them qualified again in 2020. Turns out that Tom Brady is very different from Jameis Winston. Who knew?

The top broken-play target was not produced by any of our qualifiers, however. Instead it's Nelson Agholor, who only had three such targets all season. The first two were both incomplete, but the third was an 85-yard touchdown in Week 16 against Miami.

Drag

Drags were technically more common last year, from 786 targets in 2019 to 817 in 2020, but due to the explosion of WR/TE screens and broken plays, they actually fell in the rankings from sixth place to eighth. The following table lists the 16 receivers with at least eight targets on drags.

Drag Route Leaders, 2020
Player Tm DYAR DVOA Tgt Yds Catch% aDOT YAC
11-M.Pittman IND 80 80.8% 11 182 90% 4.2 15.7
16-T.Lockett SEA 46 28.5% 15 109 87% 4.0 4.4
88-E.Engram NYG 38 53.6% 10 92 100% 3.5 5.7
17-D.Adams GB 31 21.6% 10 90 90% 2.7 7.7
83-D.Waller LV 28 31.6% 10 109 80% 4.2 9.5
13-B.Cooks HOU 25 15.2% 10 64 80% 4.9 3.1
41-J.McKissic WAS 25 40.3% 8 75 100% 3.0 6.4
11-R.Anderson CAR 0 -12.4% 16 124 75% 2.6 8.7
85-E.Ebron PIT -1 -8.2% 10 64 60% 3.0 7.0
19-J.Smith-Schuster PIT -3 -15.1% 15 107 87% 2.7 5.7
88-T.Eifert JAX -6 -16.9% 8 38 71% 4.4 2.2
17-T.McLaurin WAS -12 -23.7% 14 105 64% 3.4 7.7
82-L.Thomas WAS -12 -27.8% 9 35 67% 3.0 3.3
16-J.Meyers NE -13 -32.8% 8 47 75% 3.1 5.0
10-L.Shenault JAX -25 -48.8% 8 25 63% 2.6 2.6
18-Di.Johnson PIT -36 -39.9% 17 62 53% 1.2 5.6
NFL Drags 66 -10.2% 817 5,452 73% 3.5 5.7

We have reached the point where small sample sizes are starting to wreak havoc. You'll note that Indianapolis' Michael Pittman finished first here, largely because he averaged 15.7 YAC, nearly triple the league standard. But more than half of those post-catch yards came on just two plays: a 40-yard gain against Tennessee in Week 10 and a 46-yard touchdown against Green Bay in Week 11. On the other hand, Pittman was reliable on the play, picking up eight first downs in 11 targets. Perhaps what's most amazing about all this is that Pittman didn't get a drag target until Week 10—he did all this in half a season.

Pittsburgh's Diontae Johnson led the NFL with 17 drag targets, but that's not a good thing because he was last in drag DYAR. Only four of those targets produced first downs; from Week 8 onwards, he only caught three of nine drag targets for a total of 12 yards.

The best drag of the year was Robby Anderson's 41-yard touchdown for Carolina against Minnesota in Week 12.

Deep Cross

Like drags, deep crosses were up in total from 2019 (from 610 targets to 660), but down a place in the rankings (from eighth to ninth). It's a very effective route when thrown, but the relatively low target total indicates that quarterbacks only pull the trigger when they know their receiver is open deep—otherwise, they check down. The following table lists the 17 players with at least eight deep cross targets in 2020.

Deep Cross Route Leaders, 2020
Player Tm DYAR DVOA Tgt Yds Catch% aDOT YAC
13-K.Allen LAC 107 147.0% 9 154 89% 15.9 3.4
18-J.Jefferson MIN 65 54.9% 12 197 67% 17.4 7.8
84-C.Davis TEN 64 57.8% 11 177 73% 15.3 7.3
19-A.Thielen MIN 59 68.3% 8 164 75% 15.8 11.7
81-T.Patrick DEN 56 74.8% 8 140 71% 19.0 7.0
14-S.Diggs BUF 51 40.2% 12 162 67% 18.8 2.6
19-B.Perriman NYJ 50 40.1% 12 153 64% 14.3 6.6
11-M.Jones DET 50 46.9% 10 124 56% 16.9 5.2
13-B.Cooks HOU 49 70.8% 8 128 63% 19.8 1.8
10-T.Hill KC 45 33.0% 12 142 50% 16.8 4.3
14-D.Metcalf SEA 39 42.7% 9 107 63% 17.6 0.6
14-Z.Pascal IND 21 15.7% 9 109 56% 17.6 4.8
10-J.Jeudy DEN 13 0.7% 13 128 62% 14.0 2.1
87-R.Gronkowski TB 6 -0.5% 12 158 50% 16.4 7.2
17-M.Hardman KC -3 -17.2% 8 76 38% 21.3 8.7
83-D.Waller LV -6 -15.0% 11 69 45% 14.5 1.8
83-T.Boyd CIN -18 -41.1% 8 70 63% 13.8 0.0
NFL Deep Crosses 2,240 32.7% 660 8,157 60% 16.0 4.7

Justin Herbert threw nine deep crosses to Keenan Allen. Eight of them were completed, and each of those eight picked up first downs; three of them were touchdowns. That includes conversions on each of his three third-down targets.

On the flip side we have Tyler Boyd. Joe Burrow threw him eight deep crosses, but Boyd only caught five of them, and only four of them picked up first downs. He fumbled at the end of the other one. If it's any consolation, this is not the last time a Bengals receiver will show up at the bottom of one of these tables.

Denver's Jerry Jeudy led the NFL with 13 deep cross targets (12 from Drew Lock, one from Jeff Driskel). He turned them into eight first downs, but also committed a fumble.

Justin Jefferson's first career touchdown, a 71-yard touchdown against Tennessee, was the best deep cross play of the year according to DYAR.

Go/Fly

Ah, the good ol' nine route—no cuts, no finesse, just go long as fast as you can. It's one of the most exciting plays in football. It was the eighth-most popular route in 2018 with 633 throws, but fell all the way to 12th place in 2019 with 473 throws. In 2020, however, it finished in 10th place with 480 throws. The following table lists the 18 players with at least eight go/fly targets.

Go/Fly Route Leaders, 2020
Player Tm DYAR DVOA Tgt Yds Catch% aDOT YAC
15-W.Fuller HOU 147 181.7% 10 299 67% 28.9 12.7
18-Di.Johnson PIT 91 123.6% 10 205 56% 32.3 4.0
11-C.Claypool PIT 84 62.5% 14 270 42% 31.6 11.2
83-M.Valdes-Scantling GB 76 92.0% 9 234 44% 32.0 25.0
13-M.Gallup DAL 75 112.2% 8 197 57% 32.6 5.3
15-J.Guyton LAC 58 82.4% 8 195 38% 37.1 29.7
10-S.Miller TB 58 64.9% 10 177 38% 35.7 0.0
15-M.Brown BAL 53 56.7% 10 187 33% 33.3 25.3
13-G.Davis BUF 53 71.5% 8 136 50% 35.0 3.5
81-T.Patrick DEN 53 83.0% 8 169 50% 31.6 9.8
12-D.Moore CAR 45 54.2% 9 165 44% 35.6 6.0
14-D.Metcalf SEA 40 34.8% 10 151 40% 35.7 4.5
10-D.Hopkins ARI 25 27.8% 8 100 20% 30.1 1.0
10-T.Hill KC 11 2.0% 9 99 33% 30.0 3.0
10-J.Jeudy DEN 10 4.5% 8 89 25% 26.8 6.5
19-B.Perriman NYJ 10 3.9% 8 91 14% 37.6 3.0
13-M.Evans TB 5 -6.0% 9 113 14% 37.9 4.0
18-A.Green CIN -47 -78.7% 9 30 11% 28.8 3.0
NFL Go/Flies 1,429 27.3% 480 6,911 32% 32.9 7.7

Will Fuller's season was cut to 11 games before he was suspended for performance-enhancing drugs. That's not good, but at least those drugs seemed to be effective, because Fuller's performance sure looked enhanced. Forget the high catch rate—Fuller's 10 targets resulted in five touchdowns, a 50% touchdown rate. Those five scores gained a total of 218 yards, an average of 43.6 yards apiece. Fuller is now in Miami, and though he has one game remaining in his suspension, he should bring a new deep sideline threat to the Dolphins. Preston Williams led Miami with five go/fly targets last year, and he only caught two of them.

That's much better, however, than what A.J. Green did in Cincinnati. He was targeted nine times on go/fly routes, but he caught just one of them, a 30-yard gain against Pittsburgh in Week 15. Oddly, that one completion was thrown by Ryan Finley—Green went 0-for-5 on go-/fly attempts from Joe Burrow. Green's failures on go/fly routes are an indication that he may have nothing left in the tank.

Pittsburgh's Chase Claypool led the league with 14 go/fly targets. That includes this 84-yard touchdown against Denver, the best go/fly play of the year.

Corner

On the surface, the frequency of corner routes does not appear to have changed much. There were 459 corner targets last season, only five more than in 2019. However, while the corner was the last route we covered in both 2018 and 2019, it climbed to 11th place in 2020 while two others fell behind it. The following table lists the 23 players with at least five corner targets last season.

Corner Route Leaders, 2020
Player Tm DYAR DVOA Tgt Yds Catch% aDOT YAC
88-M.Gesicki MIA 74 62.9% 15 243 67% 15.2 6.6
18-C.Ridley ATL 62 48.5% 13 161 62% 20.8 0.5
87-T.Kelce KC 61 125.2% 7 112 71% 14.4 7.6
89-T.Higbee LAR 29 74.5% 5 101 60% 22.8 8.3
13-T.Hilton IND 25 27.4% 8 73 57% 18.3 0.8
88-T.Hockenson DET 25 34.0% 7 113 71% 11.4 7.0
87-N.Fant DEN 22 46.3% 6 48 50% 17.3 0.7
11-C.Claypool PIT 21 42.4% 5 49 33% 25.2 0.0
85-E.Ebron PIT 21 59.8% 5 65 80% 16.2 1.0
15-W.Fuller HOU 16 25.5% 5 72 50% 19.4 11.5
86-H.Henry LAC 15 28.3% 6 49 50% 11.7 4.3
12-A.Robinson CHI 14 18.9% 6 54 40% 18.7 1.5
81-M.Alie-Cox IND 11 19.2% 6 86 60% 15.2 6.0
10-T.Hill KC 5 -7.0% 11 88 36% 27.9 0.3
88-C.Lamb DAL 3 -4.2% 5 26 40% 18.8 2.5
17-T.McLaurin WAS -4 -22.3% 6 31 33% 18.7 3.0
81-J.Smith TEN -5 -14.5% 6 23 50% 9.3 0.0
87-R.Gronkowski TB -7 -23.8% 6 23 33% 17.0 1.0
16-T.Lockett SEA -18 -55.1% 5 24 20% 24.6 2.0
13-K.Allen LAC -19 -62.9% 5 21 20% 17.6 3.0
84-K.Cole JAX -22 -56.1% 6 13 17% 17.7 0.0
17-R.Woods LAR -32 -72.4% 7 30 14% 23.9 7.0
17-D.Chark JAX -33 -72.5% 7 27 14% 21.9 3.0
NFL Corners 933 15.8% 459 4,706 46% 19.0 3.2

This was a popular route among tight ends; 10 of the 23 players in the table played that position, including five of the top seven players in DYAR. It was Miami's Mike Gesicki, however, who led all players in both targets and DYAR. Each of his 10 completions on corners picked up first downs, including two touchdowns and a 70-yard gain against San Francisco. Only three of those were thrown by Tua Tagovailoa, but Gesicki caught two of them for 42 yards.

The worst player on corners was Jacksonville's DJ Chark, who caught just one of his seven corner targets. Chark's teammate Keelan Cole was third from the bottom; he also had just one catch on corners. Here's hoping that Trevor Lawrence is better at throwing corner balls than Gardner Minshew and company.

Detroit's Marvin Jones just missed our table with just four corner targets, but all four of those targets produced first downs. That includes this 43-yard touchdown against Minnesota, the highest-DYAR corner route of 2020.

Post

The ultimate Cover-2 beater, the post route is a classic deep ball down the middle of the field. It seems to be disappearing, however, going from 556 targets in 2018 to 496 in 2019 to just 449 and a 12th-place finish in 2020. The following table lists the 26 players with at least five post targets (or, more often than not, exactly five post targets) last year.

Post Route Leaders, 2020
Player Tm DYAR DVOA Tgt Yds Catch% aDOT YAC
15-N.Agholor LV 88 160.3% 6 201 75% 28.8 12.7
88-C.Lamb DAL 85 167.6% 6 170 100% 22.8 6.6
19-K.Golladay DET 78 127.2% 8 150 83% 21.6 1.0
17-R.Woods LAR 67 173.8% 5 105 100% 14.8 6.2
12-A.Robinson CHI 65 87.9% 8 148 88% 18.1 3.4
11-M.Jones DET 58 88.8% 8 144 88% 20.6 2.4
14-C.Godwin TB 57 124.2% 5 136 80% 22.6 9.5
11-B.Aiyuk SF 48 100.2% 5 100 100% 18.4 1.6
12-D.Moore CAR 36 87.0% 5 118 40% 31.4 16.5
11-C.Claypool PIT 35 52.8% 7 104 50% 23.0 3.7
13-T.Hilton IND 34 88.3% 5 91 40% 33.0 8.0
85-T.Higgins CIN 25 38.7% 6 64 67% 19.5 2.3
10-J.Jeudy DEN 25 50.2% 5 117 40% 31.0 35.5
88-M.Gesicki MIA 23 43.1% 7 87 57% 16.7 4.0
83-R.Gage ATL 18 33.6% 5 65 50% 16.6 5.5
13-M.Gallup DAL 11 23.7% 5 61 60% 15.4 4.0
87-Q.Cephus DET 11 14.0% 5 54 60% 18.8 5.7
18-M.Hall CLE 1 -9.3% 5 35 25% 23.0 0.0
81-T.Patrick DEN -2 -18.4% 5 26 25% 22.4 0.0
15-M.Brown BAL -6 -29.0% 5 18 20% 35.2 0.0
18-C.Ridley ATL -8 -28.3% 6 39 17% 31.3 2.0
13-B.Cooks HOU -18 -44.4% 7 38 14% 26.4 1.0
81-M.Williams LAC -19 -60.2% 5 21 20% 24.2 2.0
87-T.Kelce KC -20 -65.9% 5 15 20% 14.2 0.0
17-D.Chark JAX -23 -69.2% 5 14 20% 23.0 0.0
18-A.Green CIN -36 -61.8% 9 35 22% 19.7 2.0
NFL Posts 1,147 22.2% 449 5,280 45% 23.7 4.5

The post is a deep route, usually thrown to targets 20-plus downfield. And it's not very common, with no player hitting double digits in targets. So Las Vegas' Nelson Agholor only needed three catches for 106 yards and a touchdown to top the leaderboards here, although two DPIs for 95 more yards certainly helped.

That's much better than what A.J. Green did in Cincinnati. Green was targeted a league-high nine times on post routes but he caught just two of them (one from Joe Burrow, one from Brandon Allen) for a total of 35 yards. Green's failures on post routes, like his failures on go/fly routes, are an indication that he may have nothing left in the tank.

Carolina's D.J. Moore more than doubled Green's post-target yardage total on just one play: this 74-yard touchdown against New Orleans, the best post target of last season.

Fade

We close today with the fade, perhaps the only route more hated than the wide receiver screen. At least the WR/TE screen will let you rack up fantasy points in PPR leagues. Fade routes are almost doomed to fail—nearly two-thirds of them were incomplete last season. Perhaps that's why they are getting less popular, falling from 476 targets in 2019 to 436 in 2020. The following table shows the 20 players with at least six fade targets in 2020.

Fade Route Leaders, 2020
Player Tm DYAR DVOA Tgt Yds Catch% aDOT YAC
13-M.Evans TB 110 128.8% 10 172 71% 20.2 3.4
11-R.Anderson CAR 62 97.2% 7 136 80% 22.3 0.8
17-D.Adams GB 57 65.3% 9 126 57% 19.3 5.8
19-A.Thielen MIN 45 61.3% 7 59 57% 16.0 1.0
18-J.Jefferson MIN 43 49.9% 8 146 57% 23.3 6.0
11-D.Mims NYJ 36 64.7% 6 98 60% 23.3 2.3
88-E.Engram NYG 35 65.5% 7 137 50% 24.1 13.0
17-D.Chark JAX 29 35.2% 8 67 50% 18.8 0.0
85-T.Higgins CIN 26 39.0% 7 109 33% 26.3 19.5
12-A.Robinson CHI 23 17.9% 9 114 43% 18.7 3.3
13-B.Cooks HOU 16 10.5% 9 116 44% 20.3 7.3
19-B.Perriman NYJ 10 5.3% 7 57 33% 23.1 1.0
86-D.Slayton NYG 6 -5.3% 10 97 30% 19.5 8.0
11-C.Claypool PIT -1 -14.5% 9 78 14% 27.3 0.0
11-D.Parker MIA -19 -39.6% 9 57 14% 15.8 4.0
13-M.Gallup DAL -21 -55.1% 6 7 20% 10.3 0.0
18-C.Ridley ATL -23 -45.4% 9 55 25% 18.7 1.0
14-D.Metcalf SEA -28 -48.6% 10 36 20% 20.7 1.5
81-M.Williams LAC -38 -46.1% 14 74 15% 17.0 0.0
18-A.Green CIN -62 -110.2% 8 0 0% 19.9  
NFL Fades 432 0.8% 436 3,983 35% 19.9 3.6

Before we get into the best and worst players, we have to ask: what is up with Mike Williams and the Chargers? Williams only had 85 targets, but a league-high 14 of them were fades. That's practically one out of every six throws! There were 14 teams that didn't throw that many fade routes—the Patriots only threw two all year. And it's not as if Williams was effective on those plays, with a DVOA well below average. Here's hoping that Anthony Lynn and Shane Steichen took the "fade to Williams" play with them when they were dismissed after the year.

Now then. Let's hear it for another Mike, Tampa Bay's Mike Evans, who led the NFL in fade route DYAR. His 10 fade targets turned into five catches (four of them touchdowns, the other a 48-yard gain on second-and-20), plus three DPIs for a combined 57 yards. He did not have the best fade target of the year, however. That honor goes to San Francisco's Richie James for this 41-yard touchdown against Green Bay.

That's much better than what A.J. Green did in Cincinnati. Green was targeted eight times on fade routes (seven of them thrown by Joe Burrow) but didn't catch any of them. Green's failures on fade routes, like his failures on go/fly routes and post routes, are an indication that he may have nothing left in the tank.

But then again, maybe he does.

Hope for A.J. Green?

OK, so if A.J. Green was the NFL's worst target on go/flies, and the worst target on posts, and the worst target on fades, is there any way he can benefit his new team, the Arizona Cardinals? Though Green was last among all players with -172 receiving DYAR, it turns out there were a few things he still did well.

A.J. Green's DYAR by Route, 2020
Route DYAR DVOA Tgt Yds Catch% aDOT YAC
Curl 21 4.5% 16 106 80% 7.6 1.9
Whip 17 214.9% 1 5 100% 4.0 1.0
Hitch & Go 16 184.0% 1 33 100% 26.0 7.0
Fade - Back Shoulder 15 31.3% 4 55 67% 13.8 2.5
Slant 12 -7.0% 27 169 60% 7.9 2.2
Deep Cross 7 78.9% 1 15 100% 15.0 0.0
Corner 2 0.6% 2 19 50% 22.0 0.0
Quick 1 -4.1% 1 5 100% -1.0 6.0
Broken Play -7 -30.6% 5 22 40% 19.6 1.5
Sluggo -7 -101.5% 1 0 0% 22.0  
Comeback -7 -95.5% 1 0 0% 18.0  
Seam -9 -119.8% 1 0 0% 31.0  
Dig -17 -63.2% 5 13 20% 14.4 1.0
Drag -26 -107.4% 3 5 67% 2.0 0.0
Post -36 -61.8% 9 35 22% 19.7 2.0
Out -43 -57.6% 13 43 38% 10.5 0.0
Go/Fly -47 -78.7% 9 30 11% 28.8 3.0
Fade -62 -110.2% 8 0 0% 19.9  
Total -172 -33.0% 108 555 45% 13.5 1.8

There were four routes where Green had multiple targets and a positive DVOA: curls, back-shoulder fades, slants, and corners. He was also useful if not dominant on slants, finishing with a negative DVOA but positive DYAR on 27 targets, his most common route. In short, he was a decent weapon on midrange possession passes and midrange possession passes only. This actually makes him a perfect fit for Kliff Kingsbury's Air Raid which—as you may have heard—is a never-ending stream of short throws that don't stretch the defense or generate a lot of YAC. For what it's worth, this 5-yard touchdown on a whip route against the Washington Football Team was, by DYAR, his best target of the year. It's a bad sign when your best catch all season gains only 5 yards.

Comments

5 comments, Last at 31 Aug 2021, 3:39am

1 Richie James TD

Obviously, not the best view here, but for all the different ways that SIS labeled routes, none was called "busted coverage"?

2 I wondered that, too.  Once…

In reply to by Joseph

I wondered that, too.  Once he was left alone with a big hole in the coverage in front of him, I wasn't sure if James was still running a route or just hanging out in open space waiting for the ball.

3 Jet Sweep?

How are jet sweeps charted? Functionally, it's more of a run than a pass but they usually are executed as passes.

And how do they end up from a DVOA perspective?

4 If it's a handoff, where the…

In reply to by kramerthefirst

If it's a handoff, where the ball goes backwards, or is always in the hand(s) of at least one player, it's a run play. If the ball goes forward in the air, even just an inch, it's a forward pass and counts as a passing play. SIS charts them as "Jet Sweep Pass." There were 111 of those in the league last year, about three and a half per team. RayRay McCloud of the Steelers led the league with eight of them but gained only 16 yards and -43 DYAR, worst in the league. Most DYAR was San Francisco's Deebo Samuel, who has seven Jet Sweep Passes for 102 yards. They were not a terribly effective route with a collective DVOA of -20.3%, an average of 5.2 yards per play, and a 50% success rate. But that's still better than WR/TE screens (-28.0%, 5.9 yards per play, 44% success rate).

5 Thanks!

I'm not terribly surprised that they aren't effective. I think it's one of those plays that you run once in a while to make the motion a more effective fake/distraction.