Kyle Shanahan, Deebo Samuel, Jimmy Garoppolo Lead 2021 YAC+
NFL Offseason - It’s Kyle Shanahan’s world, and the rest of us are just trying to catch up.
Every July, we start the annual process of airing out our statistical databases, starting with our look at the passing game. The goal of these upcoming articles is to put standard passing and receiving stats in context. How likely was a given pass to be completed? How likely was a given play to earn big yards after the catch? And which players routinely outperformed what the averages would predict? This year, we're starting by looking at the best receivers with the ball in their hands in our annual look at YAC+.
What is YAC+? This description is from Football Outsiders Almanac 2022, where every player with his own table will have both his plus-minus and YAC+ listed for the past three seasons:
YAC+ estimates how much YAC a receiver gained compared to what we would have expected from an average receiver catching passes of similar length in similar down-and-distance situations. This is imperfect—we don’t base YAC+ on what route a player runs, and obviously a go route will have more YAC than a comeback—but it does a fairly good job of telling you if this receiver gets more or less YAC than other receivers with similar usage patterns.
One of the biggest questions when it comes to breaking down stats like this is what exactly we’re measuring. Is scoring high in YAC+ related to a player’s individual skill, the ability to turn the ball upfield and find holes to run in? Or is it a matter of scheme and play design, with routes and concepts designed to get the ball into the hands of playmakers early and often? And, of course, these factors are in no way independent; if you want to run an offense relying on yards after the catch, you’re going to scout, draft and sign players who are good with the ball in their hands. Untangling the effects is extraordinarily difficult, and the answer here is some of column A and some of column B.
The general consensus we’ve come to after years of looking over the data is that it’s YAC+ is more an individual stat for receivers and more a team stat for quarterbacks, but we have to loop back around to Kyle Shanahan. For the fifth time in the last six seasons, Shanahan’s team has led the league in YAC+, and it wasn’t particularly close. The 49ers had +1.5 YAC+ last season; the Bengals were in second place at +1.1 and were the only other team in the league to hit at least +1. A +1.5 mark is the third-best total we’ve seen since our data started in 2006, trailing only Shanahan’s 2018 49ers (+1.8) and the 2011 Patriots (+1.7). Since Shanahan took over the 49ers in 2017, they have a +1.1 YAC+, clear leaps ahead of the Chiefs and Rams at +0.7 each. The only year Shanahan's team hasn’t led the league since 2016 was his first in San Francisco where he was stuck with Brian Hoyer and a roster built by Chip Kelly – and even then, the 49ers were first in the league over the back half of the season.
The entire Shanahan/McVay tree does very well in this stat every year, and 2021 was no exception. Six of the top ten teams last season had someone from that tree at either head coach or offensive coordinator: the 49ers, Bengals, Packers, Chargers, Rams and Jets. But Shanahan is a full leap and beyond all of his disciples and collaborators as they continue their gradual takeover of the league. His offense is more dynamic after the catch than any other in football today.
All that being said, Shanahan had never had a wide receiver actually lead the league in YAC+. He’s had some close calls, with players just failing to qualify for the leaderboards or finishing just a hair under an all-time great performance. He’s had George Kittle lead the tight end leaderboards, but never a receiver. Until 2021.
2021 Wide Receivers
A total of 91 wide receivers qualified this season, but we'll just show the 20 from the top and bottom of the rankings to save space here.
|2021 Wide Receivers: Top 20 in YAC+|
|6||Deonte Harty (Harris)||NO||55||0.6||10.5||+1.8|
|2021 Wide Receivers: Bottom 20 in YAC+|
Note: For the purposes of this stat, targets do not include pass interference, where no YAC could be gained.
Deebo Samuel is currently in a contract dispute with the 49ers. San Francisco should move heaven and earth to keep him in town, because he just had arguably the greatest YAC season in modern NFL history.
A +4.2 YAC+ is crazy on its own merits. Since records begin in 2006, only three receivers have topped +3.5 over a full season. Samuel’s +4.2 fits between 2019 A.J. Brown (+4.4) and 2008 Devery Henderson (+4.0), head and shoulders ahead of any other receiver year in NFL history. And then you look at the usage stats – Henderson barely scraped onto the leaderboards with 50 targets, while even Brown’s phenomenal rookie year only saw him targeted 83 times. Samuel put up this average on over 100 targets. The record for a receiver with 100 targets coming into 2021 was Josh Gordon in 2013 with a +2.8. Samuel destroyed it. Demariyus Thomas had been the all-time leader among with wide receivers, gaining 253 YAC above expectation in 2013. Samuel was at +330; he lapped the field. He may not have caught Brown for highest YAC+ in history, but considering that he kept his level of play that high on 40% more targets that Brown had, I’m comfortable calling Samuel number one.
Here’s where you might say hold on; Samuel played an odd wideback role last season, lining up in the backfield on a regular basis. He’s YAC+ is based on receiver baselines, but he has a fair share of running back routes; it may not be fair to compare him to a receiver running a standard route tree. There’s a bit of an argument there, but I’m not sure it really holds up. Samuel does fall to +3.6 if you take out the 25 targets he had behind the line of scrimmage last season, but that still leads all receivers. And it’s not like this is a one-year blip for Samuel, either. He had a YAC+ of +4.7 in 2020; he just failed to make the leaderboards because he only had 43 targets in an injury-plagued season. He was second in the league as a rookie in 2019 with a +2.4 YAC+, trailing only that amazing year from A.J. Brown. Samuel has been amazing with the ball in his hands since he entered the league, which is how he led the league in yards per reception last season despite finishing 108th in aDOT. Even if he refuses to ever take a handoff again, Samuel is an exceptionally valuable weapon in Shanahan’s scheme, and the 49ers should do anything needed to keep him in town.
And if it wasn’t for Samuel, we would have spent the last couple paragraphs singing the praises of Ja’Marr Chase. We kept saying that Samuel broke records and giving you the numbers as they stood before 2021. But Chase also broke all those records; it’s just that Samuel broke them harder. Chase’s +3.2 YAC+ is now the second-highest for a wide receiver with 100 targets, behind Samuel. His +259 YAC above expectation is now the second-highest for a wide receiver, behind Samuel. Chase just had a phenomenal season in his own right; he just had the misfortune of doing it in the same year Samuel put up his outstanding numbers.
|Most YAC Above Expectation Gained, 2006-2022|
It’s not quite as simple as Samuel generating his YAC+ behind the line of scrimmage with Chase pulling in numbers on deep balls, however. While Chase has a huge +4.0 to +1.7 advantage on passes 0-14 yards downfield, Samuel actually retakes the lead on deep shots, +7.3 to +2.2. Some of that comes from Chase’s deep shots being even deeper than Samuel’s – while both are in the mid-20s on targets 15-29 yards downfield, Chase had 21 targets of 30+ yards to Samuel’s two. Joe Burrow has a stronger arm than Jimmy Garoppolo; film at 11. When Samuel ends up getting those deep targets, it’s frequently a dig or a deep cross, usually coming out of the slot, where he has a chance to use his speed to get off a slot corner and get wide open. With Chase gets those deep targets, it’s usually a go or a fade lined up wide against the defense’s top corner; it’s not surprising he has different YAC results from a very different situation. Both guys win in different ways, but win they do. They would make a heck of a complimentary pair.
And speaking of pairs, this year had an inordinate number of teammates in the top 20. Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk both finished in the top five for San Francisco; Chase was joined by Tyler Boyd in the top 10 in Cincinnati; CeeDee Lamb and Cedrick Wilson both show up for Dallas. And then there’s Green Bay, with Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Davante Adams and Allen Lazard right next to each other. All three will be in different places in 2022, so that will be interesting to watch going forward; it’s also interesting that MVS and Adams were the two holdovers from last year’s top 20, and those are the two the Packers let go.
Adams and Valdes-Scantling were joined by Kendrick Bourne, Mecole Hardman and Cooper Kupp, returning from 2020’s list of top YAC+ players. Kupp’s been in the top 20 all five years he’s been in the league, making him the king of consistency here. His +1.5 career YAC+ is third in the league since 2017 among players with at least 200 targets, behind only Samuel (+3.7) and Brown (+1.9).
Being bad at YAC+ does not necessarily mean you’re a bad receiver, of course. Christian Kirk and Tyler Lockett both finished in the top 10 of DVOA and DYAR despite doing very little after the catch. It isn’t a coincidence, however, that five of the bottom six in DYAR and five of the bottom seven in DVOA are all represented here; if you’re not going to get anything done after the catch, you’d better be phenomenal elsewhere if you want to justify your presence on a roster – players such as Tyler Johnson, Cole Beasley, Darius Slayton, Zach Pascal, Robby Anderson or Ray-Ray McCloud were not phenomenal in most aspects of the game, and so it’s no surprise they’re near the bottom of this list, too.
Repeating on the bottom of the list, however, is not necessarily a bad thing. Emmanuel Sanders is back here for the second straight year, and he’s had positive DVOA each year since 2018. Eventually, though, you would like to get off this list. Sterling Shepard, Calvin Ridley, Allen Robinson and Marvin Jones have all been in the bottom 20 since 2019; none of them topped a -6.1% DVOA last season.
The most interesting name at the bottom of the list is Nelson Agholor. Agholor saw a career revival in 2020 with the Raiders, ranking 15th with a +0.6 YAC+. That was the only year of his career he had put up positive YAC+, and he parlayed that career resurrection into a new deal in New England. It turns out, fluky long-touchdown performance is not predictive going forwards, and he fell back into a much more comfortable 79th place last season at -1.3. Don’t pay for the outliers, kids.
This was the play with the most YAC+ for a receiver in 2021: Deebo Samuel turning a give-up pop screen into a season-altering 83-yard touchdown. You can see the tremendous blocking that helps the Shanahan offense generate so much YAC at work here.
DEEBO SAMUEL. 83 YARDS. #FTTB
— NFL (@NFL) October 31, 2021
2021 Tight Ends
A total of 55 tight ends qualified, but we're only listing the top and bottom 15 for space reasons.
|2021 Tight Ends: Top 15 in YAC+|
|2021 Tight Ends: Bottom 15 in YAC+|
Will Dissly was second last year; he climbs one spot in the rankings by barely holding off Josiah Deguara by +0.02. It makes sense that the Seahawks would want to continue to find ways to use Dissly in their offence, even with Noah Fant coming over in the Russell Wilson trade. I’m not sure it makes sense to pay him $8 million a year to be a second tight end, as he’s never had more than 30 targets in a season, but he has done well in the limited looks he has gotten. As for Deguara, he was better than most observers would have expected in his rookie season. His success last year will help soften the blow for the Packers if Robert Tonyan isn’t ready to start the season.
Dissly and Deguara only just qualified for the leaderboards, and in fact most of the very top are players who didn’t see a ton of usage in the passing game. Travis Kelce’s +1.8 on 128 targets is the most impressive total for a tight end last season; he holds his own against the top wide receivers. Kelce is getting up there in age, but his production hasn’t come close to falling off of a cliff. And maybe it won’t -there’s Rob Gronkowski, continuing to put up big numbers even in his final season (we think).
Kelce, Gronk and Dissly join Jonnu Smith, Mo Alie-Cox and George Kittle as return names in the top 15. Kittle has the longest active streak, having appeared on the leaderboards in all five seasons he’s been in the league. His +2.3 YAC+ over the last five years is best for any tight end with at least 50 targets, just ahead of Darren Fells (+2.1). You may be surprised to see Smith’s name here at all, considering he ranked 54th out of 55 in DVOA. Stay tuned for the receiving plus-minus list for more on Smith, as his problems weren’t when he caught the ball.
One slot below Smith on the DVOA tables was Pharaoh Brown, and he’s in a much more reasonable spot at the bottom of the YAC+ tables, too. He just squeaks out a victory over Hayden Hurst, but Hurst at least brought a league-leading 84% catch rate to the table; Brown was just sort of there. He has said his goal is to be an All-Pro in 2022, and, well, it’s good to have goals.
The name worth watching the most going forward is Mike Gesicki, a good receiving tight end who does not get a lot of YAC+. His -1.3 mark last year was the worst of his career, but his career total is -1.0, so it’s not like this was out of character. But now, he gets Mike McDaniel coming over from San Francisco and bringing that Shanahan system with him. A change in coach is not suddenly going to turn Gesicki into George Kittle, but a new scheme might help pry him off of the bottom of these tables – and no matter how good a receiver you are, a -1.3 YAC+ over 110 targets is less than ideal.
Gesicki joins Ian Thomas, James O’Shaughnessy, Cameron Brate and Evan Engram as repeat offenders on the bottom of the table. Brate’s actually been in the bottom 15 every year since 2015; he’s a solid possession receiver but nowhere close to a Gronk replacement for Tampa Bay.
This was the play with the most YAC+ for a tight end in 2021: Josiah Deguara’s 62-yard touchdown on a screen late in the Week 18 game against the Lions. The NFL was nice enough to screw up the capitalization on his last name.
62-yard Josiah DeGuara TD gives the @packers the lead!
Green Bay looking to finish 14-3. #GoPackGo
— NFL (@NFL) January 9, 2022
2021 Running Backs
There were 57 qualified running backs, but we are just going to list 15 from the top and bottom here.
|2021 Running Backs: Top 15 in YAC+|
|2021 Running Backs: Bottom 15 in YAC+|
Ty Johnson is going to score very low when we get to receiving plus/minus, but when he actually got the ball in his hands, he did quite well. The Jets, as a team, led the league with +2.3 YAC+ for their running backs, with Johnson and rookie Michael Carter both finishing in the top 15. The Jets would not like to see Johnson repeat in 2022, buried on the depth chart behind Carter and Breece Hall and Tevin Coleman. Any value he gained by running after the catch was offset by his position-leading eight drops; they’ll take their chances with the rest of the running back stable.
Running back YAC+ is much less stable than YAC+ is for wide receivers or tight ends. Changes in system or quarterback can have a huge impact on a running back’s final totals, just based on how often those quarterbacks go to their checkdowns. James Conner had the ninth-lowest YAC+ in 2020; he rises all the way to second after moving from Pittsburgh to Arizona. Kenyan Drake goes from 41st to 11th moving from Arizona to Las Vegas. J.D. McKissic goes from 34th to 10th not with a team move, but with a quarterback change from Alex Smith and Dwayne Haskins to Taylor Heinicke. It makes you appreciate the backs who can stay near the top year over year. Jonathan Taylor stayed near the top despite the switch from Philip Rivers to Carson Wentz. Alvin Kamara had troubles linking up with the Saints’ late-season quarterbacks, but still was a threat when passes were actually on target. Austin Ekeler remains a weapon even with the change in coordinators in Los Angeles.
The biggest surprise, however, is Myles Gaskin. Gaskin was exceptional … in 2020. He led the league in receiving DVOA, was fourth in DYAR, and was second in YAC+ at 2.4. All of that fell apart in 2021 as Gaskin just stopped being any sort of a threat at all with the ball in his hands. He had 250 YAC last season on 49 receptions. He had 388 YAC in 2020 on 41 receptions. Dropping 4.4 yards per catch is not good, and while you can blame some of it on the lack of a vertical passing game in Miami last season, Gaskin went from a +2.2 YAC+ with Tua Tagovailoa in 2020 to a -2.2 with him last season; it’s not like Tua only started throwing short last September. Gaskin would be helped by McDaniel coming in as the new Miami coach, if it weren’t for the other additions of Chase Edwards, Sony Michel and Raheem Mostert. Your guess as to why Gaskin regressed is as good as mine, but I think it’s safe to say he won’t get a chance to redeem himself in 2022.
David Johnson is the other name that jumped from the top to the bottom of the table in YAC+ last season; a combination of there being no gas left in his tank and the less-than-ideal state of the Texans’ offense last season forcing him to be their third-biggest target; I wouldn’t expect Johnson to get a chance to redeem himself in 2022, either. As for returnees, both Ezekiel Elliott and Mike Davis appear in the bottom 15 for the second year in a row, as pass catching hasn’t exactly been high on either player’s list of priorities.
This was the play with the most YAC+ for a tight end in 2021: Jonathan Taylor going 76 yards on a give-up screen against the Ravens on Monday Night Football.
JONATHAN TAYLOR 76 YARDS TO THE HOUSE pic.twitter.com/cQLUNyDDfS
— PFF Fantasy Football (@PFF_Fantasy) October 12, 2021
YAC+ for quarterbacks is really an indicator more of the type of offense the quarterback runs and the talent in it rather than his individual performance level. Here are the 2021 results for our 34 qualified quarterbacks.
|2021 Quarterbacks: YAC+|
So, yes, any passing stat that has Jimmy Garoppolo at number one obviously has more to do with system than with player, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing that we can learn about the players themselves from the quarterback results.
Justin Fields finishing way behind Andy Dalton in the same offense is interesting. The fact that Fields averaged an extra 2.7 yards in aDOT explains a significant chunk of it; there are significant style differences between Fields and Dalton, and it’s easier to get plenty of YAC on checkdowns than it is on deep shots. But that’s at least somewhat accounted for by the YAC+ system; that’s how Deebo Samuel and Ja’Mar Chase can finish one-two despite running very different depths of route. There were five Bears with more than 10 targets from both Fields and Dalton; Dalton had the higher YAC+ to each one. So while that does include players like Allen Robinson or Darnell Mooney, where there are significant usage differences – 12.5% of Dalton’s passes to them were screens, compared to 1.8% from Fields – it also includes players like David Montgomery or Cole Kmet, who were used in very similar fashion. At the moment, Dalton throws a more catchable ball than Fields does – SIS charted 75.1% of Dalton’s throws as catchable, compared to 67.2% for Fields. That’s getting the ball into receivers hands on time and in rhythm, letting them do more with the ball after the catch. Now, the fact that Dalton was dinking and dunking and required his receivers to make plays to get any value out of the majority of his completions in the first place was a significant problem, and Fields doesn’t need to reach Dalton’s catchable ball percentage if he’s hitting with deeper shots on a regular basis. But it’s something to keep an eye on going into Year 2; it’s an area where Fields really needs to progress.
And that progression is possible. Joe Burrow shot up a -0.5 YAC+ to +1.0 this last season; that’s the biggest year-over-year improvement we saw in 2021. Some of that is “hey, Ja’Mar Chase is pretty good,” but Burrow also seemed more confident and in control of the offense as he continued to gain experience. The biggest dropoff came from Jared Goff, as it turns out leaving Sean McVay’s offense isn’t great; he fell from +0.7 in his last year in the Rams to +0.0 in his first year in Detroit.
And talking about systems brings us back to Garoppolo. It appears now that Garoppolo will not have a starting job in 2022, barring another late surprise, so he likely will not defend his YAC+ crown next season. He has absolutely benefitted from Shanahan’s system and the plethora of YAC machines surrounding him, as this is primarily a system stat. The top 10 quarterbacks in this metric with at least 400 pass attempts since 2006 are Garoppolo (+1.3), Nick Mullens (+1.0), Patrick Mahomes (+0.9), Jared Goff (+0.6), C.J. Beathard (+0.6), Aaron Rodgers (+0.5), Donovan McNabb (+0.5), Tom Brady (+0.5), Brett Favre (+0.4), and Kevin Kolb (+0.4). Or, to put it another way, you’re either a Hall of Famer, an Andy Reid disciple, or a beneficiary of the Shanahan/McVay tree.
But I want to leave you with one final thought. Yes, Garoppolo has benefitted from a great offensive scheme, with great weapons around him. But he’s not the only quarterback who has been in a positive situation over the past 16 years. He’s not even the only quarterback who has worked with these 49ers teams, or with the Shanahan/McVay system in general. And yet, Garoppolo still stands in first place in YAC+ since 2006, and by a substantial margin. That takes skill – maybe not the skill needed to remember that linebackers exist on a down-to-down basis, but significant skill notwithstanding. He’s a significant outlier, and runs Shanahan’s system better than anyone else has to this point.
In all the years in running variations of this scheme in cities around the league, Garoppolo’s YAC+ with Shanahan (+1.4) is better than Matt Ryan’s (+0.4), or Aaron Rodgers’ with Mike LaFleur (+0.6), or Jared Goff (+0.8) or Matthew Stafford (+0.3) with Sean McVay or Kirk Cousins with the lot (+0.7). In fact, there’s only one passer who has worked with the Shanahan tree who does have a greater YAC+ than Garoppolo…
Trey Lance (+1.5).
The king is dead. Long live the king.