You may recall that in 2013, Antonio Brown led the NFL in True Receiving Yards, which felt controversial at the time. Remember, Calvin Johnson and Josh Gordon were the runaway choices by the Associated Press as the top receivers in the NFL; in addition, A.J. Green also received more votes, and Demaryius Thomas finished with as many votes as Brown.
Well, Brown has done it again, but I doubt it will surprise many people this time around. Brown led the NFL in receptions and receiving yards, and received 49 of 50 first-team All-Pro votes. Regular readers are familiar with the concept of True Receiving Yards, but let’s walk through the system using Brown and Dez Bryant, who jumps from 8th in receiving yards to 4th in True Receiving Yards.
The first step in the True Receiving Yards calculation is to convert each player’s stat line into a single statistic, Adjusted Catch Yards. By giving each player 5 yards for each reception and 20 yards for each touchdown, Brown (129-1698-13) is credited with 2,603 Adjusted Catch Yards, while Bryant (88-1320-16) had 2,080.1
The next step is irrelevant for comparing players within the same year, but we multiply their number of Adjusted Catch Yards by the percentage of receiving yards to ACY for the entire league; in 2014, that number was 0.641, which brings Brown down to 1,669 and Bryant to 1,334. After that, we adjust for the number of team pass attempts, which is the real key to the formula.
In 2014, the average team passed (including sacks) 597 times. The Steelers had 645 dropbacks, which means the league average team dropped back 92.5% as often as Pittsburgh did. To avoid giving too much of an adjustment to receivers on pass-heavy offenses, we split the difference between that number and 100% in half. So for Brown, his 1,669 number from the previous paragraph is multiplied by 0.962 (result = 1,606). Dallas recorded just 506 dropbacks; that means Bryant gets his 1,334 number multiplied by 1.090 (result = 1,453).
The final step in the True Receiving Yards formula is another era adjustment. For each receiver in 2014, we multiply his final result by 0.852, giving Brown 1,369 True Receiving Yards and Bryant 1,238. That’s because in 2014, teams gained 251.8 yards per game, while the league average from 1970 to 2012 was 214.5.
Brown had an unbelievable season, but it is not historically great by TRY standards because Pittsburgh threw 645 passes. Still, it was the top performance by any receiver in 2014, although one other player may have something to say about that.
The table below shows the top 50 pass catchers in True Receiving Yards in 2014. Because the two era adjustments treat all 2014 receivers the same, there’s a simpler way to explain how to calculate a player’s TRY in 2014. Start with his Adjusted Catch Yards, multiply by 0.546, and then make the team pass attempt adjustment.
- The juxtaposition of Bryant and Julio Jones, at 4 and 5 on the list, show why True Receiving Yards is such an improvement on generic receiving yards. Jones had 273 more receiving yards than Bryant, but the Falcons passed 157 more times than the Cowboys! And, Bryant scored ten more touchdowns! As a result, Bryant gets credited with the better season.
- Jones also missed one game, which means he’s undersold a bit here. That’s even more of a concern with Odell Beckham, who played in just 12 games. So how would I advise dealing with Beckham? The Giants and Steelers had almost the same number of dropbacks, so to keep things simple, we can take that part of the analysis out of the equation. Beckham played in 75% as many games as Brown, but produced 76.8% as many True Receiving Yards. So on a per-game basis, Beckham would have the slight edge over Brown. That doesn’t make his season better than Brown’s, of course: being excellent for 16 games is more valuable than being excellent +1 for 12 games, but it does show you how incredible Beckham really was this year.2
- I don’t know what to say about Demaryius Thomas other than he’s awesome. Thomas ranked 6th in TRY in 2013 and 2nd last year; he and Brown were the only players to rank in the top ten in TRY in each of the past two years.
- In December, I wrote about how DeAndre Hopkins was having a magnificent season that was being noticed by very few. That’s because the Texans ranked 31st in pass attempts, and those passes were generally coming from Ryan Fitzpatrick; Hopkins actually led the league by a substantial margin at the time in percentage of team receiving yards. But here, Hopkins ranks just 10th in TRY, only a slight increase on his 12th-place ranking in receiving yards. So what happened?
- Well, a few things. One, Hopkins still has Fitzpatrick as his quarterback: while “percentage of team receiving yards” does in some ways account for quality of quarterback play, True Receiving Yards does not.
- Hopkins also finished the year with just 43 yards in the two games after I wrote that article.
- The best statistic for Hopkins was receiving yards; factoring in his receptions and touchdown totals actually hurt him relative to pure receiving yards, so he doesn’t stand out quite as much in Adjusted Catch Yards.
- As a result, the only players Hopkins passes when switching from receiving yards to TRY are Golden Tate and T.Y. Hilton.
- Randall Cobb is a big beneficiary of using True Receiving Yards. The Packers star ranked just 11th in receiving yards, but all the adjustments make his season look more special. Cobb ranked 9th in receptions and 4th in receiving touchdowns, while playing for a team that ranked just 22nd in team dropbacks. As a result, he jumps to 7th in TRY. Not included: an adjustment for the fact that he gets to play with Aaron Rodgers.
- As alluded to earlier, T.Y. Hilton is hurt pretty significantly here. The Colts led the NFL with 690 dropbacks, and Hilton had “only” seven touchdown catches. While he ranked 6th in receiving yards, he was just 12th in TRY, and would probably rank even lower if we included an Andrew Luck adjustment.
- A.J. Green missed three full games, and missed nearly all of a fourth, when he lined up as a decoy on six snaps against the Falcons. If you perform the same per-game adjust as we did with Beckham, that would give Green 1,170 TRY, ten more than he had in 2013. Green actually led the NFL in yards per route run, one of my favorite statistics.
- For the second year in a row, an Eagles wide receiver breaks into the top ten in TRY. In 2013, DeSean Jackson ranked 8th; this year, Jeremy Maclin ranked 9th.
- I thank everyone for waiting patiently for the Eric Decker update. In 2013, Decker finished with 996 TRY in 16 games while playing with Peyton Manning; in 2014, Decker had 819 TRY in 15 full games, while playing with Geno Smith, missing nearly all of the Bears game, and a long stretch in the Packers game. Given the downgrade in quarterback, Decker’s season was arguably better. He also averaged 2.11 YPRR in 2014 after averaging 2.03 YPRR in 2013. On the other hand, Decker was competing with better targets in Denver, and his numbers are inflated3 by a monster final game. Still, I’d say that Decker probably exceeded the expectations of most, producing very similar production in New York as he did in Denver on a per pass attempt or per snap basis. Obviously going from a team with 695 dropbacks to one with 545 will make a dent in your raw numbers, but that’s why we use True Receiving Yards.
- Note that the 5-yard bonus for receptions is based on the idea that receptions turn into first downs; a better idea for modern players, I think, is to give no bonus for receptions but a 9-yard bonus for first downs. I plan to look at this in a future post for the 2014 season. [↩]
- Oh, and if you’re curious: pro-rating Jones’ numbers to 16 games would still leave him two TRY behind Bryant. [↩]
- Whatever that means. [↩]