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Smith has excelled despite playing for a ground-based attack

Smith has excelled despite playing for a ground-based attack.

We don’t rank quarterbacks by passing yards because “passing yards” is largely a function of pass attempts. The same is true for receiving yards, as the number of times a team passes the ball has a big impact on a receiver’s yardage total. I’ve spent some time this year looking at ways to rank wide receivers and am throwing another log on that fire today. One idea I like in theory is receiving yards per team pass attempt, as it helps to solve the problem of dealing with receivers who play on pass-heavy teams.

But there are some obvious drawbacks to that approach. There are more passing options on the field now than ever before, so it’s tough to use receiving yards per team pass attempt across eras. For example, Jim Benton in 1945 owns the record in this metric at 5.36 yards per team attempt in 1945; even if you consider that high number a byproduct of World War II, Harlon Hill averaged 4.5 yards per team pass in 1956 for the Bears. Carolina’s Steve Smith is the single-season leader in yards per team attempt since 1970. And he also holds down the #2 on that list. Smith averaged 3.48 yards per team pass attempt in 2005; three years later, he averaged 3.43 Yd/TPA (but in the 14 games he played, Smith averaged an absurd 4.04 Yd/TPA).

A few weeks ago, I ranked receivers by their percentage of team receiving yards in their best six seasons. I thought it would be fun to do the same thing with yards per team pass attempt (excluding sacks). The results are listed below for the top 200 receivers; I’ve also included the six years selected for each receiver to come up with their average. As always, you can use the search box to find your favorite receiver, and the table is sortable, too.1

1Don Hutson3.391939-1941-1942-1943-1944-1945
2Lance Alworth3.061963-1964-1965-1966-1968-1969
3Jerry Rice2.841986-1988-1989-1993-1994-1995
4Michael Irvin2.821991-1992-1993-1994-1995-1998
5Mac Speedie2.781946-1947-1948-1949-1951-1952
6Steve Smith2.762003-2005-2006-2008-2011-2012
7Randy Moss2.691998-1999-2000-2002-2003-2007
8Paul Warfield2.671964-1968-1969-1970-1971-1972
9Dante Lavelli2.651946-1947-1950-1951-1953-1954
10Marvin Harrison2.641999-2000-2001-2002-2003-2006
11Jim Benton2.631938-1939-1944-1945-1946-1947
12Bob Hayes2.621965-1966-1967-1968-1970-1971
13Don Maynard2.591960-1962-1965-1967-1968-1969
14Otis Taylor2.581966-1967-1969-1970-1971-1972
15Andre Johnson2.572003-2004-2006-2008-2009-2012
16Jimmy Smith2.551996-1997-1998-1999-2001-2004
17Harold Jackson2.551969-1972-1973-1975-1976-1979
18Billy Wilson2.551953-1954-1955-1956-1957-1959
19Ray Renfro2.551953-1955-1957-1958-1959-1961
20Buddy Dial2.541959-1960-1961-1962-1963-1965
21Tim Brown2.531993-1994-1995-1997-1999-2000
22Bobby Mitchell2.521960-1962-1963-1964-1965-1966
23Del Shofner2.511958-1959-1961-1962-1963-1965
24Hugh Taylor2.511949-1950-1951-1952-1953-1954
25Max McGee2.51958-1959-1960-1961-1962-1963
26Carroll Dale2.51966-1967-1968-1969-1970-1971
27Billy Howton2.51952-1954-1955-1956-1957-1961
28James Lofton2.51978-1980-1981-1982-1983-1984
29Chad Johnson2.492003-2004-2005-2006-2007-2009
30Raymond Berry2.471956-1957-1958-1959-1960-1961
31Rod Smith2.471997-1998-2000-2001-2004-2005
32Torry Holt2.462000-2001-2003-2004-2005-2007
33Herman Moore2.441992-1993-1994-1995-1996-1997
34Terrell Owens2.442000-2001-2002-2004-2006-2007
35Cliff Branch2.431974-1975-1976-1977-1980-1982
36Stanley Morgan2.421978-1979-1980-1981-1982-1986
37Isaac Bruce2.421995-1996-1999-2000-2001-2004
38Art Powell2.411960-1961-1962-1963-1964-1966
39Tommy McDonald2.41959-1960-1961-1962-1963-1965
40John Gilliam2.41969-1970-1971-1972-1973-1975
41Harlon Hill2.41954-1955-1956-1957-1958-1959
42Henry Ellard2.41988-1989-1990-1991-1994-1996
43Elroy Hirsch2.41951-1952-1953-1954-1956-1957
44Hines Ward2.392001-2002-2003-2004-2005-2009
45Steve Largent2.381978-1979-1981-1983-1984-1986
46John Stallworth2.361977-1978-1979-1981-1984-1985
47Roddy White2.362007-2008-2009-2010-2011-2012
48Brandon Marshall2.362007-2008-2009-2010-2011-2012
49Andre Reed2.31988-1989-1990-1991-1994-1996
50Reggie Wayne2.282004-2005-2006-2007-2009-2012
51Boyd Dowler2.281959-1961-1962-1963-1967-1968
52Pete Brewster2.281953-1954-1955-1956-1957-1958
53Gary Clark2.271986-1987-1989-1990-1991-1992
54Jimmy Orr2.271958-1960-1962-1964-1965-1968
55Eric Moulds2.251998-1999-2000-2002-2004-2005
56Pete Retzlaff2.241958-1960-1961-1963-1964-1965
57Art Monk2.221982-1984-1985-1986-1989-1991
58Sterling Sharpe2.221989-1990-1991-1992-1993-1994
59Derrick Mason2.22001-2002-2003-2004-2008-2009
60Larry Fitzgerald2.22005-2007-2008-2009-2010-2011
61Gene A. Washington2.21970-1971-1972-1974-1975-1977
62Cris Carter2.21991-1993-1995-1996-1999-2000
63Pete Pihos2.181948-1949-1951-1953-1954-1955
64Harold Carmichael2.181973-1977-1978-1979-1981-1982
65Drew Pearson2.171974-1975-1976-1977-1978-1979
66Joe Horn2.162000-2001-2002-2003-2004-2005
67Gary Garrison2.161968-1969-1970-1971-1972-1974
68Sonny Randle2.151960-1961-1962-1963-1964-1965
69Roy Jefferson2.151966-1968-1969-1970-1971-1972
70Joey Galloway2.151995-1996-1998-2005-2006-2007
71Eric Martin2.151987-1988-1989-1990-1992-1993
72Charley Taylor2.151964-1966-1967-1969-1972-1973
73Red Phillips2.141958-1959-1960-1961-1962-1963
74Lionel Taylor2.141960-1961-1962-1963-1964-1965
75Wes Welker2.142007-2008-2009-2010-2011-2012
76Cris Collinsworth2.131981-1982-1983-1984-1985-1986
77Santana Moss2.132003-2004-2005-2008-2009-2010
78Muhsin Muhammad2.131998-1999-2000-2003-2004-2008
79Ken Burrough2.131975-1976-1977-1978-1979-1981
80Fred Biletnikoff2.121967-1968-1969-1971-1972-1973
81Alfred Jenkins2.111975-1976-1977-1979-1980-1981
82Charley Hennigan2.111960-1961-1962-1963-1964-1965
83Laveranues Coles2.112001-2002-2003-2004-2005-2006
84Nat Moore2.111974-1975-1976-1977-1978-1979
85Paul Flatley2.111963-1964-1965-1966-1969-1970
86Drew Hill2.11985-1986-1987-1988-1989-1991
87Roy Green2.091981-1982-1983-1984-1988-1990
88Keyshawn Johnson2.091998-1999-2000-2001-2002-2004
89Keenan McCardell2.091996-1997-1998-2000-2001-2003
90Calvin Johnson2.092007-2008-2009-2010-2011-2012
91Plaxico Burress2.092001-2002-2004-2005-2006-2007
92Lenny Moore2.091957-1958-1959-1960-1961-1964
93Homer Jones2.081965-1966-1967-1968-1969-1970
94Tony Hill2.071978-1979-1980-1981-1982-1985
95Andre Rison2.071990-1991-1992-1993-1994-1997
96Gail Cogdill2.051960-1961-1962-1963-1964-1969
97Frank Clarke2.051961-1962-1963-1964-1965-1966
98Gary Collins2.051963-1964-1965-1966-1967-1969
99Wesley Walker2.051977-1978-1979-1982-1983-1986
100Anthony Miller2.031989-1990-1992-1993-1994-1995
101Tom Fears2.031948-1949-1950-1952-1954-1955
102Elbie Nickel2.031949-1950-1951-1952-1953-1954
103Tony Martin2.021994-1995-1996-1997-1998-1999
104Tony Gonzalez2.022000-2004-2005-2006-2007-2008
105Lance Rentzel2.021967-1968-1969-1970-1971-1974
106Irving Fryar2.011991-1992-1993-1994-1996-1997
107Todd Christensen21982-1983-1984-1985-1986-1987
108Antonio Gates22004-2005-2006-2007-2008-2009
109Wes Chandler21979-1980-1981-1982-1985-1986
110Anquan Boldin1.992003-2005-2006-2008-2009-2010
111Lynn Swann1.991975-1976-1977-1978-1979-1980
112Frank Gifford1.981955-1956-1957-1959-1962-1963
113Eddie Brown1.981985-1986-1988-1989-1990-1991
114Lee Evans1.982004-2005-2006-2007-2008-2009
115Bernie Casey1.981962-1963-1964-1965-1967-1968
116Steve Watson1.971981-1982-1983-1984-1985-1986
117Jackie Smith1.961964-1966-1967-1968-1970-1973
118Mel Gray1.951974-1975-1976-1977-1978-1980
119Charlie Joiner1.941975-1976-1979-1980-1981-1982
120Jack Ferrante1.941945-1946-1947-1948-1949-1950
121Donald Driver1.942002-2004-2005-2006-2008-2009
122Rob Moore1.941991-1993-1994-1996-1997-1998
123Amani Toomer1.941999-2000-2001-2002-2003-2004
124Isaac Curtis1.931973-1974-1975-1976-1978-1979
125Willie Gault1.931983-1984-1985-1986-1989-1990
126Louis Lipps1.931984-1985-1988-1989-1990-1991
127Brian Blades1.931988-1989-1991-1993-1994-1995
128Darrell Jackson1.922000-2001-2002-2003-2004-2006
129Terance Mathis1.921994-1995-1997-1998-1999-2000
130Anthony Carter1.911985-1987-1988-1989-1990-1993
131Chris Burford1.911960-1961-1962-1963-1964-1966
132Antonio Freeman1.911996-1997-1998-1999-2000-2001
133Terry Glenn1.911996-1999-2000-2003-2005-2006
134Eddie Kennison1.911996-2002-2003-2004-2005-2006
135Mark Duper1.91983-1984-1986-1990-1991-1992
136Pat Tilley1.891978-1979-1980-1981-1982-1983
137Mike Ditka1.891961-1962-1963-1964-1965-1966
138Mark Clayton1.891984-1985-1986-1988-1989-1991
139Mark Carrier1.881988-1989-1990-1993-1995-1996
140Bob Chandler1.881972-1973-1975-1976-1977-1980
141Carlos Carson1.871982-1983-1984-1985-1987-1988
142Dwayne Bowe1.872007-2008-2009-2010-2011-2012
143Vincent Jackson1.862006-2007-2008-2009-2011-2012
144Bobby Joe Conrad1.861961-1962-1963-1964-1965-1967
145Derrick Alexander1.861994-1996-1997-1998-1999-2000
146Dwight Clark1.861980-1981-1982-1983-1984-1986
147Danny Abramowicz1.861967-1968-1969-1970-1971-1972
148Mike Quick1.841983-1984-1985-1986-1987-1988
149Greg Jennings1.842006-2007-2008-2009-2010-2011
150Jason Witten1.842004-2007-2008-2009-2010-2011
151Frank Lewis1.841973-1978-1979-1980-1981-1982
152J.T. Smith1.841980-1981-1986-1987-1988-1989
153Johnny Morris1.841961-1962-1963-1964-1965-1967
154Al Toon1.831985-1986-1987-1988-1990-1991
155Bill Brooks1.831986-1987-1988-1989-1990-1991
156Carl Pickens1.831994-1995-1996-1997-1998-1999
157Johnnie Morton1.831997-1998-1999-2000-2001-2004
158Gary Ballman1.831963-1964-1965-1966-1967-1970
159T.J. Houshmandzadeh1.822004-2005-2006-2007-2008-2009
160Elbert Dubenion1.821960-1961-1962-1963-1964-1966
161George Sauer1.821965-1966-1967-1968-1969-1970
162Ben Hawkins1.811967-1968-1969-1970-1971-1972
163John Jefferson1.811978-1979-1980-1981-1982-1983
164Haven Moses1.81969-1970-1974-1977-1978-1979
165Stephone Paige1.81985-1986-1987-1988-1989-1990
166Rich Caster1.81970-1971-1972-1973-1974-1975
167Ernest Givins1.791986-1987-1988-1989-1990-1991
168Shannon Sharpe1.791993-1994-1996-1997-2000-2003
169Jeff Graham1.791992-1994-1995-1999-2000-2001
170Kyle Rote1.781954-1955-1956-1957-1960-1961
171Reggie Rucker1.781972-1973-1975-1976-1977-1978
172Bob Boyd1.781950-1953-1954-1955-1956-1957
173Ken Kavanaugh1.771940-1941-1945-1946-1947-1949
174Marques Colston1.772006-2007-2009-2010-2011-2012
175Brett Perriman1.771991-1992-1993-1994-1995-1996
176Ed McCaffrey1.751992-1997-1998-1999-2000-2002
177Dave Casper1.751976-1977-1978-1979-1981-1982
178Jack Snow1.741966-1967-1969-1970-1971-1972
179Bob Schnelker1.741954-1955-1957-1958-1959-1960
180Chris Chambers1.742001-2002-2003-2004-2005-2007
181Jim Mutscheller1.741955-1956-1957-1958-1959-1961
182Ozzie Newsome1.731979-1981-1982-1983-1984-1985
183Bobby Walston1.731951-1953-1954-1956-1960-1961
184Alyn Beals1.731946-1947-1948-1949-1950-1951
185Preston Carpenter1.721957-1958-1959-1960-1961-1962
186Ahmad Rashad1.721972-1974-1976-1977-1979-1980
187Curtis Conway1.721995-1996-1998-2001-2002-2003
188Webster Slaughter1.711987-1989-1990-1991-1993-1994
189Santonio Holmes1.712006-2007-2008-2009-2010-2011
190John Mackey1.711963-1964-1965-1966-1967-1968
191Ron Jessie1.711972-1973-1974-1975-1976-1978
192Gordie Soltau1.711951-1952-1953-1954-1955-1956
193Bob Trumpy1.711968-1969-1970-1971-1972-1973
194Roger Carr1.71974-1975-1976-1978-1980-1981
195Sean Dawkins1.71994-1995-1997-1998-1999-2000
196Dave Parks1.71964-1965-1966-1970-1971-1972
197Fred Barnett1.691990-1991-1992-1994-1995-1996
198Val Jansante1.691946-1947-1948-1949-1950-1951
199Jake Reed1.691994-1995-1996-1997-1998-1999
200Kellen Winslow1.681980-1981-1982-1983-1986-1987

I treated AAFC stats the same as NFL stats, so Speedie and Lavelli show up very high on the list. Another Browns wide receiver who looks great in this metric is Paul Warfield, a receiver who has always confounded statisticians.

What do you think?

  1. Note that I am only giving a receiver credit for his receiving yards with each team in each season, so for say, Wes Chandler, his 1981 season is undervalued. []
  • Piascik, in his book on the Browns, makes a pretty good case that Mac Speedie is the best receiver not in the Hall of Fame. He’s #5 on your list, and the first on your list not in the HOF.


    • Chase Stuart

      Thanks David. I agree that those AAFC guys have been really overlooked.

  • I was thinking about the Browns, too. Specifically Speedie, Lavelli, and Otto Graham. Quite a trio.

    • Chase Stuart

      Absolutely. Not too many like that.

  • Richie

    The best thing about coming up with career WR ratings, is that no matter what method is used, Don Hutson and Jerry Rice are usually at, or very near, the top of the list.

    • Kibbles

      And Alworth, for any metric that isn’t too compiler-friendly. It seems I always wind up talking about Alworth when Chase does these things, but for my money, he doesn’t get his due often enough. He’s earned a seat by the other two as the clear, consensus top-3 receivers in history. Alworth’s ’63-’68 was probably the most dominant six-season stretch the league has seen. He averaged 100 yards per game over that span. His per-16-game stats over that stretch would be 79/1590/14. That was just a typical, ho-hum, average season for Alworth.

    • Chase Stuart

      Yes, that is nice. Although I’ll point out that Rice didn’t fare so well by Rice standards in the percentage of team receiving yards one. But there’s a good reason for that.

  • Quinton

    Pivoting off of this: “the problem of dealing with receivers who play on pass-heavy teams”, and not disagreeing that it’s something to think about, but better receivers would cause teams to pass more, right? A similar line of thinking could be applied to Quarterbacks and pass attempts. I don’t even know if it would be true for all better wide receivers, but it certainly seems plausible that for superstar quality guys, coaches would say we have to get that guy the ball more, which could hurt him in this metric (assuming their efficiency drops as they increase volume).

    All stat analysis needs context, of course, and the fact that someone named Mac Speedie entered my consciousness is validation enough (what a name!), but this post for some reason made me think about the difficulty of independence, even in something that makes as much sense as controlling for pass attempts.

    I offer no solutions, just vague and rambling thoughts.

  • Kibbles

    Chase, I’m assuming that this is all broken down at the season level, and not at the game level, right? So am I correct in assuming that a receiver who misses time would be penalized by the system?

    • Chase Stuart


  • Chase Stuart

    Jimmy Smith is #15; Andre Reed is #49. I think that’s pretty interesting.

    I’m a bit surprised to see how low Reggie Wayne is on this list. Makes some sense, though.

    • I still fail to understand the anti-Jimmy Smith crowd. I know you have already covered the subject thoroughly, but the guy was a great player, and there doesn’t seem to be a way of looking at this position statistically that doesn’t show it.

      • Bob

        It’s hard to understand. It’s even more difficult to deny how good Jimmy Smith was, as Chase and others have underscored.

        The two biggest things working against Smith, in my speculation, are playing his entire career for an overlooked, small-market team and substance abuse issues toward the end of his career / after his career. Also hurting his case are the lack of a championship or signature performance. Realistically, he does have that signature performance (this game: http://www.pro-football-reference.com/boxscores/200009100rav.htm against the ’00 Ravens).

        Fred Taylor also probably doesn’t get his due.

  • The most interesting sort of surprise names high on the list to me are Buddy Dial, Chad Johnson, and Rod Smith.

    Dial ends up on lists of great seasons or pairs of seasons and such because he had a truly amazing four-year stretch with Pittsburgh, but that four-year run is surrounded by a decent rookie year and then three years in Dallas that add up to a huge pile of nothing. It’s interesting that his peak was so dominant that essentially a four-year run stands up with some of the best in six-year terms.

    Chad Johnson keeps surprising me on these lists–I guess I underestimated him forever. Oddly, I think it is because he was paired with another big name WR in T.J. Houshmandzadeh (whose name was so prominent that I actually spelled it correctly from memory), even though the other WR was nowhere near as good or productive. How strange is it that someone who got as much attention and exerted so much energy seeking it ends up rather underappreciated because of the less talented quiet guy playing across from him?

    I always check to see where Rod Smith ends up on any WR list like this, and I’m always rather pleasantly surprised how high he ranks.

    • Chase Stuart

      Good stuff.

  • Jack Ham

    This article brings to the surface a valid point, that statistics are exceptonally misleading. The analysis of comparing receivers needs to strongly consider the time the receiver played. The pre-1978 modern era, from 1960 to 1977 would be the most difficult time to for a WR to rack up receiving yards. Then there’s the 1978-1988 rule set, which liberalized the use of hands by offensive linemen and limited contact with the receivers. 1989 to present, same basic rules as previous group, only the interpretation and enforcement of the rules are even more biased in favor of the offense. You also need to consdier the 12 and 14 game schedules versus 16 game seasons. The frequency of running the ball prior to 1978 is also a major factor. At the end of the day nothing beats an astute observer of the game having actually watched the guy they are rating. Numbers on a spread sheet are worthless. If you’re a young person who didn’t see a guy like Paul Warfield play on very run oriented Cleveland and Miami teams…How could you possibly know that he was head and shoulders above guys like Chad Johnson or Terrell Owens? Which he was. Vastly superior to these guys. I suppose what I’m saying is analysis in a bubble, without watching film or actually having been there to see them play is futile.

  • Tim Truemper

    I get what Jack Ham is saying to a point. I was going to fiddle with the list some just to see how players ranked when you divided out the list by era, perhaps not in the way Jack exactly did so. But in disagreement to his post, numbers are not “worthless.” And they are only misleading if you misinterpret them. I have maintained that “the stats” can be an indicator of how a player performs under certain conditions– his team, the era he competed in, and competition. Chase’s metric apparently does that- Don Hutson and Lance Alworth are in the top 3 in eras with considerable less passing than the current one. But I heartily agree that the eyeball test is important. They provide the qualitative aspect of how good a player is. Numbers say more about career success and perhaps less about how “good” a player is in talent and the expression of said talent.

    • Chase Stuart

      I’m not really sure about the comment, either, since Warfield is well above both Owens and Johnson.