In 2013, Kenny Stills saw his average reception come 13.9 yards past the line of scrimmage, the farthest amount of yards in the air per catch of any receiver in the NFL. He’s the deep threat in the Saints offense, and he’s being utilized in a similar way this year, with his average catch from Drew Brees coming 12.8 yards downfield. When it comes to the top deep threats in the NFL, Stills and Arizona’s Michael Floyd stand out. Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians loves the vertical passing game, and Floyd has been the perfect weapon: he averaged a healthy 11.7 air yards per catch in 2013, but that number has spiked to 16.5 in 2014!
But not every player’s role is so static. In 2013, the Bengals used A.J. Green (average reception 10.5 yards in the air) and Marvin Jones (9.6) as deep threats, while Tyler Eifert (5.6), Mohamed Sanu (4.3), and Jermaine Gresham (4.2) were used on short/intermediate routes. But Jones will miss all of 2014 due to a foot injury, while Green has been limited to just 43% of the Bengals offensive snaps to date (and he was playing injured for a percentage of those plays, too). As a result, Sanu’s air yards per catch has jumped from 4.3 to 8.4, and his yards per reception has increased from 9.7 to 15.2.
Similarly, Emmanuel Sanders has seen his role change in 2014, as a result of switching teams. Last year, in Pittsburgh, Todd Haley’s offense called for lots of short routes for his wide receivers, but even among the wide receiver group, Sanders (6.3) had the shortest air yards per catch. Eric Decker, meanwhile, had his average reception come 10.8 yards downfield while playing with Peyton Manning. This year, Sanders — taking over Decker’s role — has averaged 10.3 yards in the air per catch.
The graph below shows wide receiver air yards in 2014 (on the X-axis) and 2013 (on the Y-axis):
- Wes Welker, Kendall Wright, Pierre Garcon, Julian Edelman, and Cordarrelle Patterson stand out as the five receivers who have run very short runs in each of the past two years. And while Sanu and Sanders have increased their route length in 2014, some players have gone the opposite way.
- Riley Cooper and Robert Woods were legitimate deep threats in 2013, but both players have seen their air yards averages drop significantly this year. In Philadelphia, Cooper’s air yards per catch ratio has decreased from 12.8 to 6.6, while Woods’ has fallen from 11.9 to 6.2 in Buffalo.
- Jeremy Kerley (8.0 to 5.6) and Cecil Shorts (7.6 to 5.3) have both seen similar drops. A reasonable explanation for that is the introduction of deep threats in New York (Decker) and Jacksonville (Allen Hurns, Allen Robinson).
- A quartet of receivers who switched teams have also seen their roles change a bit: that includes Decker (10.4 to 7.6), Andre Roberts (Arizona to Washington, 8.3 to 5.4), Hakeem Nicks (Giants to Colts, 11.2 to 7.2), and Jason Avant (Philadelphia to Carolina, 9.7 to 5.1). Nicks had a high average last year, as did his teammates Victor Cruz and Rueben Randle: all three have seen their averages fall significantly this year. For Cruz and Randle, the Giants new offensive system under Ben McAdoo calls for more horizontal routes than his predecessor. Eli Manning’s air yards per pass has dropped from 2nd farthest in the NFL in 2013 to 25th in 2014. Of course, in the process, Manning’s completion percentage has spiked from 57.5% to 64.9%.
- In addition to Stills and Floyd, who are the premier deep threats in the NFL? Well, Calvin Johnson is always part of the discussion, as is Torrey Smith. Those names probably don’t suprrise you, but what about Dallas’ Terrance Williams? After averaging 12.1 air yards in 2013, he’s at 13.9 this year. With Jason Witten and Dez Bryant handling the intermediate routes, and DeMarco Murray keeping defenses focused on the run, Williams has found a great niche in the Cowboys offense as the over-the-top threat.