Reggie Wayne led the NFL in targets last year, but that’s a little misleading since the Colts ranked 6th in pass attempts. As a percentage of team targets, Wayne ranked second in the league, but he was a distant number two to Brandon Marshall, who saw two out of every five Bears passes in 2013.
But that doesn’t make him the best receiver. It was easier for Marshall to receive a high number of targets because the rest of the Chicago supporting cast was weak, so Jay Cutler consistently looked Marshall’s way. Chicago ranked 25th last year in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, so essentially we have a player on a bad passing offense receiving a ton of targets. It’s not all that obvious how you compare a player like that to Roddy White, who deserves credit for being in a great passing offense but loses targets because of the presence of Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez (of course, without them, would Matt Ryan start looking like Jay Cutler?)
I identified the leader in targets for each team, and then calculated the percentage of team targets each leading receiver had in 2012. The table below lists that percentage on the Y-Axis; the X-Axis represents the number of ANY/A that player’s team averaged. Someone like Marshall (represented by the first four letters of his last name and the first two letters of his first name, MarsBr) will therefore be high and to the left, while Randall Cobb is low and to the right:
Grading receivers on different teams is complicated because receivers are so dependent on their teammates to produce. But at least in theory, I like plotting percentage of team targets (or receiving yards) against team passing efficiency. If the counter-argument to Marshall being great because of his high target numbers is that he’s being force-fed, then his team’s ANY/A would reflect that fact.
Similarly, if a player like Calvin Johnson is constantly double-teamed, presumably his lower target percentage would be offset by a higher team ANY/A average.
I’m reproducing the table below, but I’ve added a line that splits the data into two groups of 16 players/team: above and to the right of the line would be players that exceed expectations, while those below and to the left would underachieve relative to the other top receivers:
We know that players like Brandon Marshall, Michael Crabtree, Wes Welker, and Demaryius Thomas did well, but who did the best? One way to measure across teams is to calculate how far above the diagonal line each player was. For example, Brandon Marshall’s target rate was at 39.9% and his team averaged 5.10 ANY/A. However, the diagonal line at 5.10 ANY/A corresponds to 30.1%; therefore, we could say that Marshall’s target rate was 9.8% above expectations. If we perform that exercise for every receiver, we get the following table:
As usual, there are some positives and negatives to this. Let’s start with what I like about this model:
- Josh Morgan played on the 2nd best passing offense in the league, according to ANY/A. But he comes in as below-average in this system, even though he was the team’s #1 wide receiver in terms of targets and receptions (he was actually 4th in receiving yards). Wes Welker played in an offense that was nearly as efficientg, but he was a much bigger part of the New England passing attack, and gets credited as such. On the other hand this is a bit of a strawman, as no one talks about Morgan as being a special player. But I’m glad this doesn’t overrated someone like him, which was a potential concern I had.
- Attempts are removed from the analysis. Players on high-passing offenses like Detroit don’t have a built-in advantage over players on teams like Chicago and Seattle.
- Jeremy Kerley gets dinged pretty severely in this system, which basically says: you were the biggest part of the third worst passing offense in the league; but unlike Larry Fitzgerald and Dwayne Bowe, you couldn’t even get a higher percentage of your team’s targets. If you can’t get 25% of the team’s targets on a terrible passing offense, you’re probably not a number one wide receiver. For the most part, I think this system generates pretty believable results.
There are some pretty obvious negatives, though.I think Calvin Johnson’s 2012 season has been overrated by many folks, but that just means I might put him at 2nd or 3rd in 2012 instead of as being one of the greatest seasons in history. Having him rank 12th feels ludicrous. Let’s try to understand why. Detroit ranked 16th in ANY/A, which is merely average. And Megatron was only 8th in target rate among number one receivers. This system thinks that if Johnson was the best receiver in football, Detroit’s ANY/A would have been a lot higher. And if Detroit’s ANY/A wasn’t higher because the other receivers on Detroit were so terrible, than Johnson should have been first, and not eighth, in target rate. After all, Brandon Marshall was on a terrible passing offense and saw 40% of the targets.
That is a legitimate argument, at least in theory. Now, what is the counter?
Perhaps the Lions erred by not throwing his way more frequently. It seems odd to suggest that, since usually such an argument would be reserved for a breakout player: that doesn’t apply here, since Johnson led the league in receiving yards in 2011. But consider that on 204 targets to Johnson, Detroit averaged 9.6 yards per target. On the Lions other 526 targets, the team averaged just 6.0 yards per target.
The two big offenders are Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler, although much of the blame also falls on Titus Young. Despite recording the second most targets among wide receivers on the Lions, Young only finished fifth in targets on the team behind the two tight ends and Joique Bell. He was so bad he couldn’t get looks, while the tight ends simply did nothing with the targets they received. Among the top 30 tight ends in targets, Pettigrew and Scheffler ranked 28th and 30th in catch rate. That alone is not damning, just like a quarterback’s low completion percentage is not the final word on his production. The problem for Pettigrew is that he wasn’t balancing out high-risk passes with high rewards: among those 30 tight ends, he ranked just 23rd in yards per completion. As a result, Pettigrew ranked just 28th in yards per target, and while Scheffler had a solid yards/catch ratio, due to an abysmal catch rate of 49.4%, he ranked only 25th in yards per target among those 30 tight ends. As for the other wide receivers, Young and Nate Burleson combined for 60 catches on 99 targets for only 623 yards.
When you look at why the Lions regressed in 2012, the tight end production sticks out like a sore thumb. In 2011, Pettigrew and Scheffler had 25.0% of the team’s targets, but combined had a 66% catch rate and averaged 6.8 yards per target and 10.3 yards per completion. Those aren’t great numbers, but in 2012, they accounted for 25.7% of the team’s targets and averaged 10.6 yards per completion, roughly in line with their 2011 production. The problem was their catch rate dropped to just 54 percent and they collectively averaged only 5.7 yards per target. With Titus Young imploding and Nate Burleson simply not being a good enough player to command more targets, the Lions passing game sank. If there’s a criticism of Johnson, it’s that perhaps he is not as complete a receiver as Brandon Marshall or Andre Johnson, who are able to be both possession receivers and big play threats. Arguably the Lions should have utilized Johnson more, which is pretty scary considering how many yards he picked up. But instead, Detroit wasted 286 targets on Pettigrew, Scheffler, Young, and Burleson.
There are other negatives to this system, although I’ll only focus on two more today. One is that we’re told that Larry Fitzgerald stinks, although I don’t know how you come up with any system that says otherwise based on what happened in 2012. I’m less concerned with that (just because I see no solution) than I am with the fact that the model thinks Michael Crabtree is the man. On one hand, perhaps he is.
Crabtree ranked only 14th in receiving yards, but the 49ers were 31st in pass attempts, which put Crabtree as a disadvantage. In terms of receiving yards per team attempt, Crabtree ranked 4th. But seeing him rank first here should sound the skepticism alarm in your head. My guess is that he’s benefiting from the 49ers great rushing attack, which was amplified once Colin Kaepernick came into the lineup. San Francisco ranked 7th in the league in ANY/A, but I doubt that would hold up if they threw 600 passes. Crabtree is fortunate to face defenses that aren’t expecting the pass.
But I don’t want to sell Crabtree short, either. Washington and Seattle ranked even higher in ANY/A than the 49ers, but their receivers do not stand out in the same way. Perhaps it’s a sign that Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson are better at spreading the ball around, but I think the more likely scenario is that Crabtree is a very good receiver capable of carrying a passing offense on a run-heavy team, much like a Jimmy Smith or Michael Irvin. But it’s early: it will be interesting to see how Crabtree does next year.