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Today’s guest post/contest comes from Adam Harstad, a co-writer of mine at Footballguys.com. You can follow Adam on twitter at @AdamHarstad.

This guy can pick up first downs

This guy can pick up first downs

Regular readers of Football Perspective are well acquainted with the sneaky-greatness of DeAndre Hopkins, who led the NFL in percentage of his team’s receiving yards in 2014 despite not even leading his own team in targets.1 And, indeed, by “percentage of team receiving yards”, Hopkins is having another terrific season; his 37.0% share is slightly above the league-leading 35.0% he posted last year, (though it trails the 38.6% share he carried through his team’s first 14 games in 2014).

But Hopkins is having an even better season by a far less esoteric statistic: receiving first downs. As best as I have been able to determine, the all-time record for receiving first downs in a season is 92, set by Marvin Harrison in 2002 and tied by Calvin Johnson in 2012.2 Through eight games this year, Hopkins has converted for a new set of downs a remarkable 54 times, putting him on pace for 108, a ridiculous 17.4% more than the previous NFL record. (For context, if a quarterback wanted to break Peyton Manning’s single-season passing yardage record by 17.4%, he would need to throw for 6430 yards.)

How has Hopkins been doing it? The easy answer would be that he’s been racking up huge numbers against prevent defenses. And, indeed, Hopkins has been racking up impressive statistics when his team trails big; Hopkins is on pace for 596 yards earned while his team is trailing by 14 or more points, which would make him just the seventh receiver since 1994 to top even 400 such yards.3

The problem with the easy answer is that, playing for a bad team like Houston, Hopkins has had fewer opportunities to accrue stats when his team wasn’t down big. Hopkins’ 298 yards while trailing by 14+ points represents 34.3% of his overall total of 870 yards. Houston’s 136 pass attempts while trailing by 14+ points, on the other hand, represents 37.6% of their season-long total. Their 963 passing yards represent 41.0% of their season-long total. Indeed, on a per-pass basis, Hopkins has been proportionally less productive when his team is down big.

While Hopkins has been slightly less productive on a per-pass basis, one could theorize that garbage time skewed the pass:run ratio enough that the extra volume would more than offset. And that’s true to some extent. But over the whole offense, 32.5% of Houston’s plays have come while trailing by 14+ points, which is again right in line with Hopkins’ yardage share while down big.

So Hopkins isn’t feasting on garbage-time defenses so much as he’s playing on a terrible team where he spends a disproportionate amount of his time on the field while the team is down big. It’s not that he’s a garbage-time hero, it’s that he has fewer non-garbage-time opportunities to produce statistics.

So if he’s not padding his receiving totals against uncaring competition, how is Hopkins on pace to demolish the first down record by such a prodigious margin? The old-fashioned way; he’s setting league-best marks in both volume and efficiency. Many know about Hopkins’ targets; his current pace would put him at 224 for a full season, which would also be a likely league record, (albeit not by 17%).

But Hopkins has also been insanely efficient at converting his targets and receptions into first downs. Since 2002, there have been 171 receivers who have received at least 135 targets. Hopkins’ 0.486 first-down rate would stand as the 9th-best mark in that group. Over that same span, there have been 185 receivers with at least 80 receptions; Hopkins’ 0.818 first-down rate would stand as the 5th-best total in that group. (Going back to 1992 only adds one more name above Hopkins.)

This is just raw conversion percentage, too, and makes no adjustment for the quality of the team or the difficulty of the conversion. Given that the Texans currently rank 32nd in the NFL in rushing yards per carry and 29th in the NFL in completion percentage, we would expect many of Hopkins’ targets to come on later downs in obvious passing situations. And, indeed, that’s exactly what we see; 70 of Hopkins 112 targets have come with 10+ yards to go for a new set of downs. Of the 32 receivers with at least 30 such targets, Hopkins’ .471 conversion rate ranks second only to John Brown’s .531.4 On 3rd or 4th down with 10+ yards to go, Hopkins again paces the league with 7 conversions on 12 targets; second place is a 4-way tie of players with 4 conversions each.

Perhaps most amazingly, despite routinely facing long-yardage opportunities and converting at a tremendous rate, Hopkins averages just 13.2 yards per reception. Among all receivers converting at least 75% of their receptions for a first down, the average yards per reception is 15.3. Overall, the profile is of a player who is routinely getting just enough to move the chains; if someone could be said to have a nose for the first-down marker, Hopkins might be it.

How impressive is Hopkins’ combination of volume and efficiency? One way to measure it would be “marginal first downs over average”. So far in 2015, receivers have drawn 4963 targets. They have caught 3011 of those passes for 1868 first downs. Across all NFL receivers, the average is 0.376 first downs per target and 0.620 first downs per reception.

The number of marginal first downs a receiver added, then, would be his rate above (or below) that league average, times his total number of targets or receptions. Here is a chart of how many marginal first downs each receiver has been responsible for through the first half of the season. The table lists all 168 wide receivers who have caught a pass so far this season, although by default, the table lists just the top 20. Note that the table is fully searchable and sortable, and you can change the number of receivers displayed by using the dropdown box on the left.

RkPlayerTmTarRecYardsYPR1DTDFD/TarFD/RecMar FD/TgtMar FD/Rec
1DeAndre HopkinsHOU1116687013.25460.4860.81812.313.1
2Mike EvansTAM542438616.12110.3890.8750.76.1
3Calvin JohnsonDET794865913.73530.4430.7295.35.2
4John BrownARI503756215.22830.5600.7579.25.1
5Brandon MarshallNYJ775068613.73640.4680.7207.05.0
6Vincent JacksonTAM402131915.21820.4500.8573.05.0
7Allen RobinsonJAX693458617.22660.3770.7650.14.9
8Allen HurnsJAX513151316.52450.4710.7744.84.8
9Kamar AikenBAL442533313.32020.4550.8003.54.5
10Nate WashingtonHOU502641115.82030.4000.7691.23.9
11Alshon JefferyCHI372334114.81820.4860.7834.13.7
12Michael FloydARI372031916.01630.4320.8002.13.6
12Ted GinnCAR472034317.21630.3400.800-1.73.6
14Eric DeckerNYJ453039413.12250.4890.7335.13.4
15James JonesGNB312242619.41760.5480.7735.33.4
16Andre JohnsonIND452428812.01830.4000.7501.13.1
17Willie SneadNOR533653714.92530.4720.6945.12.7
18Dorial Green-BeckhamTEN14710414.9720.5001.0001.72.7
19Terrance WilliamsDAL422031315.71520.3570.750-0.82.6
20Julio JonesATL1027089212.74660.4510.6577.62.6
21Rishard MatthewsMIA473350015.22340.4890.6975.32.5
22Stefon DiggsMIN402541916.81820.4500.7203.02.5
23Ryan GrantWAS311719411.41310.4190.7651.32.5
24Leonard HankersonATL392229113.21620.4100.7271.32.4
25Corey BrownCAR231417512.51120.4780.7862.42.3
26Emmanuel SandersDEN694054913.72730.3910.6751.12.2
27Jarius WrightMIN211118016.4900.4290.8181.12.2
28Steve JohnsonSDG372428311.81720.4590.7083.12.1
29Brian HartlineCLE351618211.41220.3430.750-1.22.1
30Kenny StillsMIA251320515.81010.4000.7690.61.9
31Larry FitzgeraldARI705570612.83670.5140.6559.71.9
32Danny AmendolaNWE322630011.51820.5630.6926.01.9
32Mike WallaceMIN422629211.21810.4290.6922.21.9
34Marquess WilsonCHI331830216.81310.3940.7220.61.8
35Jerricho CotcheryCAR151010810.8810.5330.8002.41.8
36Kenny BrittSTL261222418.7910.3460.750-0.81.6
37Bennie FowlerDEN10912814.2700.7000.7783.21.4
37Nick WilliamsATL1499810.9700.5000.7781.71.4
39Andre HolmesOAK11610717.8530.4550.8330.91.3
40Bryan WaltersJAX251922812.01300.5200.6843.61.2
41Marqise LeeJAX634013.3300.5001.0000.71.1
41Brice ButlerDAL6310836.0300.5001.0000.71.1
41Devin StreetDAL635618.7310.5001.0000.71.1
41JJ NelsonARI837023.3300.3751.0000.01.1
45Torrey SmithSFO311634221.41120.3550.688-0.71.1
46Odell BeckhamNYG745065413.13270.4320.6404.21.0
47Martavis BryantPIT251323117.8930.3600.692-0.40.9
47Markus WheatonPIT261325719.8910.3460.692-0.80.9
49Brenton BersinCAR656713.4400.6670.8001.70.9
50Stedman BaileySTL201016916.9710.3500.700-0.50.8
51Marquise GoodwinBUF222412.0201.0001.0001.20.8
51DeAndrew WhiteSFO22189.0201.0001.0001.20.8
51Justin HardyATL422110.5200.5001.0000.50.8
51Jeff JanisGNB527939.5200.4001.0000.10.8
55Antonio BrownPIT775271813.83330.4290.6354.00.8
56Justin HunterTEN231520013.31000.4350.6671.40.7
57Devin FunchessCAR2179012.9500.2380.714-2.90.7
58Tyler LockettSEA282025312.71310.4640.6502.50.6
59Chris MatthewsSEA745413.5300.4290.7500.40.5
59Rashad RossWAS848621.5300.3750.7500.00.5
61A.J. GreenCIN674664914.12940.4330.6303.80.5
62Dontrelle InmanSDG18914215.8610.3330.667-0.80.4
62Harry DouglasTEN239819.0610.2610.667-2.60.4
64Marlon MooreCLE111515.0101.0001.0000.60.4
64Rod StreaterOAK1188.0101.0001.0000.60.4
64Brandon TateCIN115555.0111.0001.0000.60.4
64Eric WeemsATL111111.0101.0001.0000.60.4
64Sammie CoatesPIT211111.0100.5001.0000.20.4
64Marcus EasleyBUF215858.0110.5001.0000.20.4
64Russell ShepardTAM2166.0100.5001.0000.20.4
64T.J. JonesDET311111.0100.3331.000-0.10.4
64Marc MarianiCHI611919.0100.1671.000-1.30.4
73Lance MooreDET322225711.71430.4380.6362.00.4
74Chris ConleyKAN261416011.4910.3460.643-0.80.3
75Keshawn MartinNWE769515.8410.5710.6671.40.3
75Jaron BrownARI1569015.0410.2670.667-1.60.3
77Michael CrabtreeOAK684048312.12530.3680.625-0.60.2
78Aaron DobsonNWE151111910.8700.4670.6361.40.2
78Brandon ColemanNOR211115113.7710.3330.636-0.90.2
78Miles AustinPHI211118516.8710.3330.636-0.90.2
78Riley CooperPHI231120518.6720.3040.636-1.60.2
78Phillip DorsettIND231116715.2710.3040.636-1.60.2
83Jaelen StrongHOU635819.3220.3330.667-0.30.1
83Corey FullerDET736120.3200.2860.667-0.60.1
83Jerome SimpsonSFO1033411.3200.2000.667-1.80.1
86Roddy WhiteATL281621013.11010.3570.625-0.50.1
87Griff WhalenIND989411.8510.5560.6251.60.0
88Jermaine KearseSEA312133816.11310.4190.6191.30.0
88Malcom FloydSDG402140919.51330.3250.619-2.00.0
90Robert WoodsBUF362629511.31620.4440.6152.5-0.1
90Cecil ShortsHOU452629911.51610.3560.615-0.9-0.1
92Louis MurphyTAM181019819.8600.3330.600-0.8-0.2
93Rueben RandleNYG463138412.41920.4130.6131.7-0.2
93Anquan BoldinSFO543137212.01920.3520.613-1.3-0.2
95Cordarrelle PattersonMIN22105.0100.5000.5000.2-0.2
95Geremy DavisNYG322110.5100.3330.500-0.1-0.2
95Brian QuickSTL52157.5100.2000.500-0.9-0.2
95Darren WallerBAL62189.0100.1670.500-1.3-0.2
99Chris Givens2TM11711316.1400.3640.571-0.1-0.3
100Kendall WrightTEN462834312.31730.3700.607-0.3-0.4
101Ricardo LocketteSEA746917.3210.2860.500-0.6-0.5
101DeVante ParkerMIA844912.3200.2500.500-1.0-0.5
103Steve SmithBAL724667014.62830.3890.6090.9-0.5
104Travis BenjaminCLE653860115.82340.3540.605-1.4-0.6
104T.Y. HiltonIND813862116.32330.2840.605-7.5-0.6
106Lucky WhiteheadDAL21-3-3.0000.0000.000-0.8-0.6
106Donteea DyeTAM3144.0000.0000.000-1.1-0.6
106Myles WhiteNYG6188.0000.0000.000-2.3-0.6
109Devin SmithNYJ1766010.0300.1760.500-3.4-0.7
110Demaryius ThomasDEN865669512.43410.3950.6071.7-0.7
111Jamison CrowderWAS42322929.11900.4520.5943.2-0.8
112Chandler WorthyHOU43144.7100.2500.333-0.5-0.9
113Tavon AustinSTL392428511.91440.3590.583-0.7-0.9
114Pierre GarconWAS57373509.52230.3860.5950.6-0.9
115Cameron MeredithCHI1189511.9400.3640.500-0.1-1.0
115Charles JohnsonMIN11810212.8400.3640.500-0.1-1.0
115Nelson AgholorPHI17810112.6400.2350.500-2.4-1.0
118Jeremy KerleyNYJ20131239.5720.3500.538-0.5-1.1
119Adam HumphriesTAM105285.6200.2000.400-1.8-1.1
120Mohamed SanuCIN271827015.01000.3700.556-0.2-1.2
120Dwayne HarrisNYG281822112.31030.3570.556-0.5-1.2
122Julian EdelmanNWE755258411.23160.4130.5962.8-1.2
123Donte MoncriefIND623639911.12150.3390.583-2.3-1.3
124Dez BryantDAL137608.6300.2310.429-1.9-1.3
124Josh BellamyCHI1577911.3310.2000.429-2.6-1.3
126Chris HoganBUF292023511.81120.3790.5500.1-1.4
127Albert WilsonKAN231216513.8610.2610.500-2.6-1.4
128Amari CooperOAK593856514.92230.3730.579-0.2-1.6
129Adam ThielenMIN14911612.9400.2860.444-1.3-1.6
129Jeremy RossBAL149889.8400.2860.444-1.3-1.6
129Andre RobertsWAS18910912.1400.2220.444-2.8-1.6
129Seth RobertsOAK19910711.9420.2110.444-3.1-1.6
133Cole BeasleyDAL30222149.71200.4000.5450.7-1.6
134Quinton PattonSFO231416411.7710.3040.500-1.6-1.7
135Kenbrell ThompkinsNYJ76416.8200.2860.333-0.6-1.7
135Andre CaldwellDEN96518.5200.2220.333-1.4-1.7
135Chris OwusuNYJ1368013.3200.1540.333-2.9-1.7
135Brandon LaFellNWE1567212.0200.1330.333-3.6-1.7
139Marques ColstonNOR402733412.41510.3750.5560.0-1.7
140Percy HarvinBUF301921811.51010.3330.526-1.3-1.8
141Sammy WatkinsBUF181114713.4520.2780.455-1.8-1.8
141Jordan NorwoodDEN1811807.3500.2780.455-1.8-1.8
143Josh HuffPHI191314110.8610.3160.462-1.1-2.1
144Michael CampanaroBAL65357.0100.1670.200-1.3-2.1
144Preston ParkerNYG125438.6100.0830.200-3.5-2.1
146Greg JenningsMIA211010410.4400.1900.400-3.9-2.2
147Randall CobbGNB563637710.52040.3570.556-1.1-2.3
148Darrius Heyward-BeyPIT291720912.3820.2760.471-2.9-2.5
149Jason AvantKAN149667.3300.2140.333-2.3-2.6
149Rashad GreeneJAX179353.9310.1760.333-3.4-2.6
151Bruce EllingtonSFO76528.7100.1430.167-1.6-2.7
152Quincy EnunwaNYJ1789411.8200.1180.250-4.4-3.0
153Jeremy MaclinKAN614256613.52320.3770.5480.1-3.0
153Jarvis LandryMIA644246611.12320.3590.548-1.1-3.0
155De'Anthony ThomasKAN19131037.9510.2630.385-2.1-3.1
156Marvin JonesCIN432633312.81330.3020.500-3.2-3.1
157Davante AdamsGNB171010010.0300.1760.300-3.4-3.2
158Doug BaldwinSEA403134511.11620.4000.5161.0-3.2
159Ty MontgomeryGNB19151369.1620.3160.400-1.1-3.3
160Keith MumpheryHOU29141299.2500.1720.357-5.9-3.7
161Marlon BrownBAL29131068.2400.1380.308-6.9-4.1
162Andrew HawkinsCLE352020710.4800.2290.400-5.2-4.4
163Golden TateDET69403779.42010.2900.500-5.9-4.8
164Brandin CooksNOR664153213.02030.3030.488-4.8-5.4
165Jordan MatthewsPHI633939810.21810.2860.462-5.7-6.2
166Taylor GabrielCLE33231948.4800.2420.348-4.4-6.3
167Keenan AllenSDG896772510.83440.3820.5070.5-7.5
168Eddie RoyalCHI36261716.6610.1670.231-7.5-10.1

First downs isn’t as well-known of a stat as receptions or yards, but they are arguably more important to offensive success. And no matter how you look at them, DeAndre Hopkins is having a season for the ages.

  1. Hopkins had 127 targets in 16 games, or 7.9 per game. Then-teammate Andre Johnson had 146 targets in 15 games, or 9.7 per game. []
  2. Obviously play-by-play data is virtually impossible to come by for older seasons. Thanks to frequent guest contributor Bryan Frye, I have complete first-down data going back to 1992; however (a) the best first-down conversion rate by a receiver with 80 catches over that span was 85%, (Michael Irvin’s 75 first downs on 88 catches in 1993), (b) only 2.9% of 80-catch receiver since 1992 even managed to top an 80% first-down rate, and (c) there were only 12 seasons prior to 1992 that even had more than 92 total receptions. Assuming an 85% conversion rate, a receiver would have needed 109 receptions to beat 92 first downs. Assuming an 80% conversion rate, he would have needed 116 receptions. Art Monk had 106 receptions in 1984, but given his sub-13 yard per reception average, I find it impossible to believe he converted on 88% of them. So with all due respect to Jerry Rice’s 1990 season and Charley Hennigan’s 1964, I feel pretty confident calling 92 receiving first downs the all-time NFL record. []
  3. The others are Andre Johnson in 2010, Calvin Johnson in 2008, Anquan Boldin in 2003, Marvin Harrison in 2002, David Boston in 2000, and Rob Moore in 1995. As you might expect, the list is largely a “who’s who” of great receivers who played on terrible teams. []
  4. The only other receiver converting more than 40% of their long-yardage targets into first downs is Larry Fitzgerald, with 0.447. Carson Palmer is having a heck of a season. []
  • I like to think of Marginal FDs by targets as a “quality” stat. It identifies players who are producing really well over a really high volume. But marginal FDs by receptions is more of a “flavor” stat. It sorts players based on their style of play more than their quality of play. The guys with the highest volume will tend more towards the extremes, both high and low.

    With that in mind, the following things make complete sense:
    1) Among players with at least 10 receptions, the two highest FD:Rec ratios belong to Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson.
    2) Among players with at least 30 targets, the top four FD:Target ratios belong to receiver who play with either Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, or Carson Palmer. (Thing that makes less sense: the next three receivers play with Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Tannehill, and Brian Hoyer.)

    Interesting contrast: by total targets, Keenan Allen and Mike Evans have produced nearly identical “marginal first down” totals, (0.5 for Allen, 0.7 for Mike Evans). But Allen did it by catching a ludicrously high percentage of ludicrously short passes, giving him the second-worst marginal first down total by receptions (-7.5), while Evans did it by catching a ludicrously low percentage of ludicrously long targets, giving him the second-best marginal first down total by receptions (+6.1). I am not totally convinced that Mike Evans is not just the negative space that exists around Keenan Allen. Or perhaps that Keenan Allen is not just the negative space that exists around Mike Evans.

  • sacramento gold miners

    Very interesting numbers, but I wonder if anyone complied career third down conversions by receivers since 1992. It’s one thing to catch a pass for a first down on first and second downs, but quite another when it’s third and eight, and defenses know a pass is coming. Hines Ward would likely rate well in this category.

    • Good point. It’s annoying that Steelers players are always being underrated.

    • I have numbers going back to 2002. Of the top 200 receivers in 3rd-and-8+ targets, Hines Ward ranks 54th in first downs per target.

      If we limit ourselves just to the guys with 100+ targets, (the best of the best), our list shrinks to 39 names. Ward ranks 14th on that list. So, slightly above-average, but certainly not worth mythologizing. He’s no Marques Colston, Roddy White, Derrick Mason, Reggie Wayne, Dwayne Bowe, Randy Moss, Donald Driver, Jabar Gaffney, Chad Johnson, Torry Holt, Vincent Jackson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, or Anquan Boldin.

      If you prefer raw totals, since 2002 Ward ranks 22nd in targets and 18th in conversions on 3rd-and-8+. Solid, but hardly worth singling out. Really, if this is your metric of choice, you must *LOVE* Roddy White, because he absolutely dominates it. Or perhaps Dwayne Bowe, who has been nearly as impressive with much worse QB play. Bowe’s also a pretty good blocker, too.

      • sacramento gold miners

        Dwayne Bowe did make some third down conversions, when the ball wasn’t bouncing off his hands, and when he wasn’t complaining. I was just tossing out the eight yards number, we can just focus on third down conversions, or fourth quarter performance.

        Also, your data is incomplete, missing three season’s of Ward’s great career.

        • The data is not incomplete. It just doesn’t extend back before 2002. They also don’t capture the entire career of Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Marvin Harrison, Rod Smith, Jimmy Smith, Jerry Rice, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, or Tim Brown. So it’s not like Ward is uniquely inconvenienced. And including those four extra seasons would likely only hurt Ward’s averages, anyway; he averaged about a yard more per target from 2002 through retirement than he did from 1998 through 2001. If anything, it’s an advantage for Ward that he doesn’t have his early-career struggles dragging his numbers down.

          If you’re just looking for a pro-Hines Ward stat, I can help you with that. Since 2002, Ward ranks
          47th out of 59 in conversion rate on 3rd-and-1
          19th out of 62 in conversion rate on 3rd-and-2
          2nd out of 58 in conversion rate on 3rd-and-3
          9th out of 59 in conversion rate on 3rd-and-4
          21st out of 61 in conversion rate on 3rd-and-5
          14th out of 57 in conversion rate on 3rd-and-6
          10th out of 57 in conversion rate on 3rd-and-7
          3rd out of 60 in conversion rate on 3rd-and-8
          34th out of 56 in conversion rate on 3rd-and-9
          28th out of 62 in conversion rate on 3rd-and-10+

          Now that you’ve seen the data, feel free to pick and choose which you want to emphasize. The true value of statistics lies in their ability to tell us exactly what we wanted to hear after we peek at them first to decide which are important and which are superfluous.