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Roethlisberger will be without his best targets this year.

Roethlisberger will be without his best targets this year.

While the state of the Steelers’ receiving corps isn’t as shaky as say, that of the New England Patriots, it could certainly be called an area of potential concern for Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh offense going into 2013. One of the biggest moves on the first day of free agency involved Mike Wallace departing for Miami; meanwhile, Heath Miller’s injury status — while more encouraging than previously thought — will cost him several games, and probably some effectiveness when he does eventually return. All of this comes on the heels of losing stealth HoFer Hines Ward (albeit an older, drastically less effective version) to retirement after the 2011 season.

For Roethlisberger, this downturn in the quality of his receivers is a pretty new phenomenon. In fact, by one measure of career receiving-corps talent (which I’ll explain below), Big Ben has been blessed with the fourth-most gifted receiving group among current starting quarterbacks with more than two years of experience (behind only Peyton Manning, Matt Ryan, and Tony Romo). In fact, Roethlisberger’s 16th-ranked receiving corps in 2012 was by far the least talented group of pass catchers he’s ever had to throw to.

How do you begin to measure the quality of a quarterback’s receiving corps, you ask? Well, pretty much any method is going to fraught with circular logic, especially if a quarterback consistently has the same receivers over several years. His successes are theirs, and vice-versa. However, here’s one stab at shedding at least some light on the issue.

For each team since the NFL-AFL merger, I:

  • Gathered all players with at least 1 catch for the team in the season.
  • Computed their True Receiving Yards in that season; I then determined what percentage of the team’s True Receiving Yards was accumulated by which receiver in each year. For example, Hines Ward had 1,029 TRY in 2009, which represented 25.9% of the 3,979 True Receiving Yards accumulated by all Steelers that year
  • Figured out the most TRY they ever had in a season, a number I’m calling each player’s peak TRY; for Ward, his peak TRY is equal to 1,279.
  • Calculated a weighted average (based on the percentage of team TRY gained by each receiver) of the receivers’ peak TRY (weighted by their TRY during the season in question).

(I also threw out all teams that had a receiver who debuted before 1970, since I don’t know what the real peak TRY of any pre-merger receiver was. I should eventually calculate TRY for pre-merger seasons, of course — thank you Chase & Don Maynard.)

As an example, here are the 2009 Steelers, the most talented corps of receivers Roethlisberger has had in his career:

Hines Ward33WR951,16761,0291,27925.9942.7
Santonio Holmes25WR791,24851,0181,01825.6942.7
Heath Miller27TE76789675375318.9942.7
Mike Wallace23WR3975666261,07615.7942.7
Rashard Mendenhall22RB2526112372376.0942.7
Mewelde Moore27RB2115321744394.4942.7
Willie Parker29RB6641672701.7942.7
Matt Spaeth26TE5251411361.0942.7
Tyler Grisham22WR114011110.3942.7
David Johnson22TE29011980.3942.7
Stefan Logan28RB1506290.2942.7
Limas Sweed25WR1506580.2942.7

That weighted average of 942.7 can be interpreted as meaning “the average TRY for a 2009 Steelers receiver was gained by a player whose peak TRY was 942.7.” For the Steelers in ’09, it is based on the formula (1279 * .258) + (1018 * .256) + (753 * .189) + (1076 * .157)…. (58 * .002).

One advantage of this system is that it measures the potential ability inherent in each receiver (I think back to that old scouting saying: “if a guy does it once, it’s in there”). The weighting adjustment also kinda-sorta eliminates the need for any age adjustment. There are many issues with this system — including the facts that one peak season could just be a fluke (though this could be solved in subsequent versions by using a multi-year peak TRY total) and that active teams are short-changed by young receivers who haven’t had a chance to put up peak seasons yet. In fact, this measure should only really be used for quarterbacks who not only are retired themselves, but who only threw to receivers who are also all retired.

But that would cut down our sample (and fun!) pretty significantly, so we’re just going to press on anyway. Here are the 100 most talented receiving groups in the sample, along with their top 5 targets by TRY. As always, the table is completely searchable and sortable.

1.1996 det1,185Moore1,2321,466Perriman9771,255Morton681990Sanders164488Metzelaars142681
2.1995 det1,166Moore1,4661,466Perriman1,2551,255Morton551990Sanders374488Sloan164535
3.2004 ram1,156Holt1,1731,502Bruce1,0671,457McDonald425823Curtis357922Faulk333981
4.1999 min1,135Moss1,2491,605Carter1,1991,277Reed5551,110Glover299503Smith176380
5.2004 clt1,128Harrison1,1401,558Wayne1,1351,328Stokley1,0001,000James456617Clark4011,031
6.2003 ram1,123Holt1,5021,502Bruce8491,457Looker471471Faulk319981Manumaleuna252252
7.2000 ram1,116Holt1,2831,502Bruce1,2371,457Faulk827981Hakim640640Proehl401866
8.2008 car1,116Smith1,3491,582Muhammad9411,321King223416Rosario223307Williams189308
9.1986 sfo1,115Rice1,3881,522Clark6871,372Craig621977Francis441765Cribbs314617
10.2007 nwe1,110Moss1,4151,605Welker1,0981,280Stallworth572876Gaffney422759Watson399718
11.2002 clt1,104Harrison1,5581,558Wayne6111,328Pollard477694Ismail435952James398617
12.2005 clt1,083Harrison1,1541,558Wayne1,0091,328Stokley4941,000Clark4841,031James371617
13.1989 was1,078Clark1,0781,347Monk1,0611,297Sanders9671,076Byner459579Warren157528
14.1991 was1,076Clark1,3471,347Monk1,1151,297Sanders6451,076Byner341579Orr236363
15.2006 ram1,069Holt1,0841,502Bruce8941,457Jackson770770Curtis444922Klopfenstein202202
16.2007 ram1,069Holt1,0271,502Bruce6231,457McMichael392706Bennett3441,070Jackson275770
17.2003 car1,061Smith1,1561,582Muhammad7991,321Proehl413866Foster258383Mangum194334
18.2006 clt1,059Harrison1,2851,558Wayne1,1861,328Clark3691,031Utecht347347Addai337374
19.2002 ram1,058Holt1,0261,502Bruce8991,457Faulk546981Proehl425866Conwell351427
20.2001 ram1,058Holt1,1631,502Bruce9431,457Faulk829981Proehl526866Conwell427427
21.2005 ram1,056Holt1,1861,502Curtis717922Bruce4491,457McDonald442823Jackson338770
22.1994 det1,056Moore1,1671,466Perriman7461,255Matthews375497Sanders348488Holman165726
23.1998 den1,054Smith1,1631,375McCaffrey1,0321,217Sharpe8451,038Davis251364Green193739
24.1976 clt1,053Carr1,4601,460Doughty876876Mitchell8641,004Chester611851McCauley526752
25.1982 rai1,050Branch9441,641Christensen9381,205Allen763763Barnwell589701Muhammad149647
26.2000 min1,049Moss1,3711,605Carter1,2501,277Smith380380McWilliams226300Hatchette200205
27.2008 nwe1,047Welker1,0671,280Moss9431,605Faulk501501Gaffney418759Watson215718
28.2001 rai1,046Brown1,1081,267Rice1,0671,522Garner602839Williams322322Porter194872
29.2000 sfo1,043Owens1,3251,412Rice7971,522Garner632839Stokes443768Clark345345
30.1985 sfo1,039Craig977977Rice7541,522Clark7191,372Francis464765Solomon247908
31.2001 min1,033Moss1,1141,605Carter8191,277Chamberlain611611Reed2801,110Bennett236328
32.1997 den1,031Smith1,1451,375Sharpe9881,038McCaffrey6311,217Davis321364Green243739
33.2003 clt1,030Harrison1,2071,558Wayne8191,328Pollard498694Walters432432James340617
34.1989 sfo1,029Rice1,4241,522Taylor1,0061,006Rathman638638Jones497730Craig471977
35.1998 min1,024Moss1,2601,605Carter1,0351,277Glover503503Reed4571,110Smith297380
36.2011 nwe1,022Welker1,2801,280Gronkowski1,1491,149Hernandez784784Branch574910Johnson2011,318
37.1999 ram1,022Bruce1,1101,457Faulk981981Holt7241,502Hakim630640Proehl319866
38.1980 rai1,021Chandler8261,216Branch8171,641Chester393851van Eeghen271524Casper2681,094
39.1990 was1,021Clark1,0621,347Monk7801,297Sanders6881,076Byner293579Bryant257549
40.2001 jax1,015Smith1,2701,438McCardell1,0281,096Brady368674Dawkins203882Joseph190190
41.1985 was1,015Monk1,0791,297Clark8691,347Didier450586Griffin295295Warren162528
42.1994 atl1,014Mathis1,2021,202Rison9381,213Emanuel544977Sanders5421,076Heyward292325
43.2009 nwe1,008Welker1,1701,280Moss1,1111,605Watson372718Edelman323323Faulk290501
44.1986 was1,006Clark1,1051,347Monk9421,297Didier586586Bryant451549Sanders2471,076
45.1993 gnb1,005Sharpe1,3221,475Harris575653Bennett497592Clayton3551,281West243367
46.2006 dal1,003Owens1,1821,412Glenn9611,005Witten6931,068Crayton492658Barber222431
47.1990 sfo1,003Rice1,3891,522Taylor6951,006Jones692730Rathman348638Sherrard239838
48.1979 nor1,002Chandler1,1461,558Childs909916Galbreath601749Harris424980Muncie384384
49.2002 rai1,002Rice1,0301,522Garner839839Brown7821,267Porter639872Jolley346346
50.1996 jax996Smith1,0871,438McCardell9751,096Mitchell516516Jackson429930Rison4031,213
51.2000 den994Smith1,3751,375McCaffrey1,2171,217Carswell486486Clark325618Chamberlain251611
52.1998 sfo987Rice1,0561,522Owens1,0351,412Stokes752768Hearst465465Smith297439
53.2005 car987Smith1,5821,582Proehl441866Foster383383Colbert305657Mangum244334
54.1999 jax986Smith1,4381,438McCardell8501,096Brady324674Jones244244Barlow174174
55.1992 det982Moore9401,466Perriman8921,255Green615739Sanders282488Campbell155252
56.1983 rai982Christensen1,2051,205Branch6131,641Allen600763Barnwell438701Williams241804
57.1978 min982Rashad8741,131Young864864White8231,172Tucker5381,109Foreman5141,023
58.2010 rav981Boldin7871,279Mason7571,271Heap546829Rice541673Houshmandzadeh3691,139
59.1993 sfo980Rice1,4751,522Taylor8491,006Jones730730Logan343343Watters322719
60.1992 atl978Rison1,1591,213Pritchard843843Haynes8021,049Hill6321,222Jones147401
61.2001 clt978Harrison1,4491,558Pollard694694Dilger320606Wilkins307531Pathon300585
62.1977 nyj972Walker9571,294Gaines750750Barkum6871,107Harper328621Caster2701,200
63.1992 sfo970Rice1,2521,522Jones641730Sherrard548838Watters454719Rathman442638
64.1996 sfo969Rice1,1951,522Owens4741,412Kirby440806Jones375730Popson337354
65.1992 was969Clark9191,347Sanders7051,076Monk6451,297Byner382579Orr363363
66.1994 sfo968Rice1,4501,522Watters719719Jones685730Taylor5231,006Singleton275275
67.2003 min967Moss1,6051,605Williams654654Campbell462462Kleinsasser452452Burleson407898
68.1988 was961Sanders1,0761,076Monk8631,297Clark8151,347Bryant465549McEwen269418
69.1997 det959Moore1,2391,466Morton990990Sanders333488Sloan257535Vardell187195
70.1995 sfo958Rice1,5221,522Loville639639Jones527730Stokes434768Floyd333366
71.2002 pit956Ward1,2791,279Burress1,1141,114Randle El459644Zereoue331331Mathis2241,202
72.2000 jax955Smith1,1111,438McCardell1,0801,096Brady674674Taylor280467Whitted159272
73.1998 buf954Moulds1,2541,254Reed8061,250Williams371535Riemersma355552Thomas246705
74.1991 min953Carter9601,277Jordan650795Carter6131,089Jones381785Walker249759
75.2002 car951Smith7761,582Muhammad7741,321Walls269810Hoover201201Smith172288
76.2003 rai950Rice7761,522Brown5501,267Garner410839Porter330872Jolley269346
77.1996 min950Carter1,1241,277Reed1,1101,110Lee446755Ismail318952Evans149249
78.2002 den950Smith9321,375McCaffrey7641,217Sharpe6231,038Lelie439928Portis338378
79.1979 min948Rashad1,1311,131White6551,172Young625864Tucker2501,109Brown229638
80.1991 dal948Irvin1,4051,497Novacek680748Smith342487Harper292778Johnston264435
81.1999 sfo947Rice7631,522Owens6841,412Garner516839Stokes398768Clark312345
82.1999 kan947Gonzalez9291,128Alexander7321,188Horn5651,266Lockett408408Rison2071,213
83.1996 ram947Bruce1,2181,457Kennison881987Green289330Conwell153427Ross151151
84.1997 gnb947Freeman1,2201,279Brooks9371,299Levens475551Chmura470624Henderson383383
85.1995 dal946Irvin1,4971,497Novacek708748Williams535535Smith435487Johnston265435
86.2008 clt946Wayne9901,328Clark8001,031Harrison6121,558Gonzalez608608Rhodes347347
87.2012 nwe945Welker1,0951,280Lloyd7221,153Gronkowski6821,149Hernandez445784Woodhead375375
88.1992 dal944Irvin1,3211,497Novacek748748Harper561778Smith446487Martin397770
89.1993 atl944Rison1,2131,213Pritchard766843Haynes7491,049Hill3411,222Pegram287287
90.1984 rai943Christensen9721,205Allen740763Barnwell701701Williams439804Branch3371,641
91.1998 det943Moore9631,466Morton911990Crowell4181,111Sanders306488Vardell150195
92.1999 clt943Harrison1,5401,558James607617Wilkins531531Dilger447606Pollard388694
93.2009 pit943Ward1,0291,279Holmes1,0181,018Miller753753Wallace6261,076Mendenhall237237
94.1996 nyj942Chrebet8011,021Johnson7601,155Graham6681,108Slaughter3661,038Anderson349775
95.1991 sfo942Rice1,2251,522Taylor9811,006Jones358730Rathman296638Sherrard296838
96.1990 rai941Gault1,0481,048Fernandez9711,055Horton509731Brown3361,267Allen230763
97.1984 mia939Clayton1,2811,281Duper1,1031,103Nathan560640Moore5501,327Johnson397397
98.1993 min937Carter1,0791,277Carter7541,089Jordan541795Ismail210952Craig182977
99.1988 sfo937Rice1,1721,522Craig606977Wilson409463Rathman384638Taylor2821,006
100.1998 car934Ismail9621,033Muhammad8811,321Walls535810Carrier2741,204Johnson250527

Now, back to Roethlisberger. He went from having a group of receivers who had (as a group) 800-950 peak TRY scores (culminating with that 943 figure in ’09 — the 93rd-most talented group in our sample) every year of his career until 2012, when Pittsburgh’s targets fell to a weighted average of 698 peak TRY. And as mentioned before, this year’s group loses Wallace (peak TRY: 1,076), will be missing a chunk of time from Miller (753), and will lean heavily on Emmanuel Sanders (previous high TRY: 480) and rookie Markus Wheaton. Slated in Pittsburgh’s starting lineup at wide receiver, it’d be hard for Sanders not to improve upon his career-best TRY in 2013, but even so, it’s not at all clear the 2013 Steelers’ receiving corps will post a peak TRY average better than last year’s unit — much less those of the pass-catching groups Big Ben enjoyed earlier in his career. Other than Antonio Brown, it’s a very green group.

How will this affect the Steelers’ offense this season? Well, despite the franchise’s smash-mouth pedigree, Pittsburgh has relied more and more on their passing game in recent years, to the point that they were the 12th-most pass-oriented team in the league a year ago by both Game Script and traditional pass/run ratio. As a result, there’s been a pretty clear correlation between the team’s passing performance by Relative ANY/A and its offensive SRS since 2009:


When Pittsburgh slung the ball around effectively in ’09 and ’10, the Steelers offense was healthy; but when the passing game slipped (in part due to declining receiving talent, as well as injuries to Roethlisberger), the offense suffered.

Unsurprisingly, the general trend is for quarterbacks to see their RANY/A averages decline with a loss of receiver talent. Whether at the career or season level for QBs, the correlation between team peak TRY and RANY/A is around 0.5, meaning around a quarter of the variation in observed team passing performance is explained by variations in receiver quality (even using our simple, flawed metric thereof). For Roethlisberger, a drop in the quality of his receivers from the 700 peak TRY in 2012 to, say, 600-625 in 2013 would traditionally lead to a 0.4-point decline in RANY/A, which is worth two-thirds of a win per 16 games.

One large saving grace for Roethlisberger and the Steelers, though, is that he already weathered an even bigger dip in receiver quality last season and actually improved his RANY/A, producing essentially the same passing value over replacement in 2 fewer starts:

YearAgeTmGGSRec QualRANY/Aadj_YAR

For Big Ben at least, there actually doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to how the quality of his receivers interacts with his RANY/A performance. In the last 2 seasons alone, he’s been of pretty equal effectiveness working with both good and mediocre receiving groups, and he’s also had below-average seasons in the past despite really good receiving corps (2008 particularly stands out in this regard). So between that and the uncertainty over what the future peak TRY will actually be for the young receivers Pittsburgh must relying on, it’s tough to definitively predict a receiving-talent-related dip in Roethlisberger’s passing efficiency in 2013.

In fact, it’s safe to say the Steelers’ offensive fortunes in 2013 ride more on Big Ben simply staying upright and healthy all season than any decline in the quality of the players catching his passes. With a re-tooled offensive line and more experience in Todd Haley’s system, Pittsburgh hopes they won’t have to endure a repeat of last season, when a Roethlisberger injury forced them to give 21 percent of their dropbacks to Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich (who oversaw an atrocious -2.0 RANY/A passing attack when they were under center). Given that the backup situation (Bruce Gradkowski; Landry Jones) isn’t exactly inspiring in 2013, the biggest key to the Steelers’ season will be to keep Roethlisberger in the lineup — no matter what group of receivers he’s throwing to.

Previous “Random Perspective On” Articles:
AFC East: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, New York Jets
AFC North: Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers
AFC South: Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans
AFC West: Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers
NFC East: Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins
NFC North: Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings
NFC South: Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
NFC West: Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams

  • Chase Stuart

    This is one of my favorite Neil posts ever.

    Here’s something interesting: Randy Moss has a higher pkTRY than Herman Moore, Cris Carter has a higher pkTRY than Brett Perriman, and Jake Reed has a higher pkTRY than Johnnie Morton. But because of the percentage breakdown, the Lions rank higher.

    I don’t have time to make this look pretty, but:

    Player-PeakTRY-% of team TRY
    Herman Moore-1466-37.5%
    Brett Perriman-1255-29.5%
    Johnnie Morton-990-20.6%
    Barry Sanders-488-4.3%
    Pete Metzelaars-681-4.2%
    David Sloan-535-1.5%
    Aubrey Matthews-497-1.2%
    Ron Rivers-179-0.8%
    Derek Price-12-0.4%

    Randy Moss-1605-32.7%
    Cris Carter-1277-28.7%
    Jake Reed-1110-14.9%
    Andrew Glover-503-7.6%
    Robert Smith-380-3.8%
    Matthew Hatchette-205-4.2%
    Leroy Hoard-642-3.8%
    Andrew Jordan-283-0.9%
    Carlester Crumpler-320-0.8%
    Chris Walsh-182-0.6%
    John Henry Mills-28-0.7%
    David Palmer-217-0.6%
    Jim Kleinsasser-452-0.3%
    Moe Williams-654-0.3%
    Robert Tate-14-0.1%

  • Richie

    It seems like there is a high percentage of teams this year with lots of unknown/unproven talent at WR:

    New England
    St Louis

    Baltimore at least has Torrey Smith. San Francisco has Boldin.

    I remember seeing a list of Arizona Cardinals receivers for the 2003 season and wondered how they would ever complete a pass. But Anquan Boldin turned out to be a good rookie.

  • Really cool method, but what would really take it over the top (by removing a lot of the circularity) would be if you could somehow calculate the weighted peak TRY average based on seasons w/o the QB in question. So, in the 2009 Roethlisberger example, you would include only those receiver seasons that didn’t involve them being targeted by Roethlisberger himself.

    I don’t think circularity is as much of an issue when you’re just doing a historical comparison of different WR corps. But when you start using this WR corps measure to compare QBs, it devolves quickly into, “QB X has a worse WR corps this year because they lost WR X, but how much lower would WR X’s peak TRY have been if he wasn’t being targeted by QB X the entire time?” I’m thinking of Wallace here.

    p.s. I know you acknowledge the circularity, and know that this is something you’ve already thought about 100s of times. Just wanted to write down that idea on how to improve things somewhere.

    p.p.s. Yeah, pretty much every way one could measure “WR corps strength” (e.g., peak DYAR average) is going to suffer the same problem of circularity. Not singling you out; like I said, good job, good effort. And since you guys seem like you’re expending a lot of effort on measuring WRs, you’re the most likely ones to put in the effort required to take the next step. (Well, at least you are, Neil. Chase is a self-described good enougher.)

  • Kibbles

    Way off-topic, but this is why I think John Elway is always underrated by advanced stats. His numbers through the 80s make it look like he was an above-average QB who was getting far more credit than he deserved, but his numbers through the 80s don’t realize that he was throwing to Vance Johnson, Ricky Nattiel, and Mark Jackson while Dan Marino had the Marks Brothers and Joe Montana was throwing to some small-college kid named Rice. It’s no coincidence that Elway’s final 6 seasons were the 6 highest-rated seasons of his entire career, since they coincided with the emergence of Elway’s first legitimately good target in the passing game in Shannon Sharpe (as well, perhaps more importantly, as the dismissal of Dan Reeves). Elway’s ANY/A over his last six seasons (6.39) falls much closer to the career ANY/A of Dan Marino (6.55) and Joe Montana (6.60). Which is the most likely explanation: A) that John Elway defied every QB aging curve (including this one: http://www.footballperspective.com/another-quarterback-aging-curve-post-adjusted-net-yards-per-attempt-edition/) and was legitimately a better QB from age 33-38 than he was from age 27-32, or B) that John Elway was a better QB from age 27-32, but that his piss-poor receiving corps and crappy coaching destroyed his efficiency metrics?

    If the age 32-38 John Elway- the version that actually had pro-bowl quality targets and an innovative offensive coordinator- was able to perform a reasonable imitation of Joe Montana, I have to think that, given Jerry Rice, Dwight Clark, and Bill Walsh, the 27-32 year old John Elway could have put up advanced metrics deserving of his reputation as one of the best QBs of all time.