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Julius Thomas and Expected Touchdowns

In 2013, NFL players combined for 129,177 receiving yards and 804 receiving touchdowns. That means, on average, a touchdown was scored every 160.7 receiving yards. Denver tight end Julius Thomas gained 788 receiving yards that year, which means we might have “expected” him to catch 4.9 touchdowns. But Thomas was no average scorer: he finished with 12 touchdowns, or 7.1 more than expected.

In 2013, only Jimmy Graham and Vernon Davis scored more receiving touchdowns relative to expectation than Thomas (Davis scored 13 times on just 850 receiving yards, or 7.7 more than expected, while Graham converted 1,215 receiving yards into 16 touchdowns, or 8.4 more than expected).

Well, as good as Thomas was in 2013, he was even crazier at scoring touchdowns last year. Despite gaining just 489 receiving yards, Thomas again scored 12 touchdowns, 8.9 more than expectation (the league average was 159.7 receiving yards per receiving touchdown). That was the most in the NFL, and only Dez Bryant (1,320/16/+7.7) was within shouting distance of him.

In fact, Thomas was so prolific in 2014 at converting receiving yards into touchdowns — relative to league average — that he ranks 11th all-time in this metric. Take a look at the top 50:

RkPlayerYearTmLgPosRec YdExpRec TDDiff
1Jerry Rice1987SFONFLWR107872215
2Randy Moss2007NWENFLWR14939.22313.8
3Sterling Sharpe1994GNBNFLWR11196.41811.6
4Carl Pickens1995CINNFLWR12347.2179.8
5Mark Clayton1984MIANFLWR13898.4189.6
6James Jones2012GNBNFLWR7844.7149.3
7Rob Gronkowski2011NWENFLTE13277.9179.1
8Daryl Turner1985SEANFLWR6703.9139.1
9Alyn Beals1948SFOAAFCRE5915149
10Cris Carter1995MINNFLWR13718179
11Julius Thomas2014DENNFLTE4893.1128.9
12Randy Moss1998MINNFLWR13138.1178.9
13Jerry Rice1989SFONFLWR14838.4178.6
14Jimmy Graham2013NORNFLTE12157.6168.4
15Sonny Randle1960STLNFLSE8936.6158.4
16Andre Rison1993ATLNFLWR12426.7158.3
17Bill Groman1961HOUAFLWR11758.8178.2
18Randy Moss2004MINNFLWR7674.9138.1
19Braylon Edwards2007CLENFLWR12897.9168.1
20Gary Collins1963CLENFLFL6745138
21Marvin Harrison2004INDNFLWR11137.1157.9
22Leon Hart1951DETNFLRE5444.1127.9
23Terrell Owens2001SFONFLWR14128.2167.8
24Dwayne Bowe2010KANNFLWR11627.2157.8
25Dez Bryant2014DALNFLWR13208.3167.7
26Vernon Davis2013SFONFLTE8505.3137.7
27Anthony Miller1995DENNFLWR10796.3147.7
28Paul Warfield1973MIANFLWR5143.3117.7
29Visanthe Shiancoe2009MINNFLTE5663.4117.6
30Jerry Rice1991SFONFLWR12066.4147.6
31Mark Clayton1988MIANFLWR11296.4147.6
32Cris Carter1989PHINFLWR6053.4117.6
33Jordy Nelson2011GNBNFLWR12637.5157.5
34Cloyce Box1952DETNFLLE9247.5157.5
35Don Hutson1942GNBNFLLE12119.6177.4
36Nat Moore1977MIANFLWR7654.7127.3
37Harold Jackson1973RAMNFLWR8745.7137.3
38James Jett1997OAKNFLWR8044.7127.3
39Randy Moss2003MINNFLWR16329.8177.2
40Vernon Davis2009SFONFLTE9655.8137.2
41Dallas Clark2007INDNFLTE6163.8117.2
42Terrell Owens1998SFONFLwr10976.8147.2
43Wesley Walls1999CARNFLTE8224.8127.2
44Chris Burford1962DTXAFLSE6454.8127.2
45Bubba Franks2001GNBNFLTE3221.997.1
46Tony Martin1996SDGNFLWR11716.9147.1
47John Jefferson1978SDGNFLWR10015.9137.1
48Julius Thomas2013DENNFLTE7884.9127.1
49Muhsin Muhammad2004CARNFLWR14058.9167.1
50Tommy McDonald1960PHINFLFL8015.9137.1

Okay, but what about the fact that over the last two years, Thomas has scored 16 more touchdowns than expected! Is that the record? Well, it’s close, but Thomas still falls behind the two two-year Jerry Rice periods that straddle 1987, along with 2007-2008 Randy Moss. The table below shows the top 50 performances in this metric over a two-year period:

RkPlayerYear 2Tm (Yr 2)Lg (Yr 2)Pos (Yr 2)Diff
1Jerry Rice1987SFONFLWR20.9
2Randy Moss2008NWENFLWR19.1
3Jerry Rice1988SFONFLWR16.5
4Julius Thomas2014DENNFLTE16
5Alyn Beals1949SFOAAFCRE15.9
6Sterling Sharpe1994GNBNFLWR15.8
7Rob Gronkowski2011NWENFLTE15.7
8Randy Moss2004MINNFLWR15.4
9Rob Gronkowski2012NWENFLTE15.4
10Carl Pickens1996CINNFLWR14.8
11Daryl Turner1985SEANFLWR14.8
12Carl Pickens1995CINNFLWR14.3
13Daryl Turner1986SEANFLWR14.1
14Randy Moss2007NWENFLWR13.6
15Nat Moore1978MIANFLWR13.5
16Marvin Harrison2005INDNFLWR13.3
17Alyn Beals1948SFOAAFCRE13.2
18Sonny Randle1961STLNFLSE13.1
19Andre Rison1993ATLNFLWR13.1
20Dez Bryant2014DALNFLWR13.1
21Terrell Owens2002SFONFLWR13.1
22Jimmy Graham2014NORNFLTE12.9
23Terrell Owens2007DALNFLWR12.8
24James Jones2012GNBNFLWR12.5
25Terrell Owens2001SFONFLWR12.5
26Cris Carter1998MINNFLWR12.5
27Jerry Rice1990SFONFLWR12.5
28Cris Carter1996MINNFLWR12.1
29Gary Collins1964CLENFLFL12.1
30Marvin Harrison2001INDNFLWR12
31Don Hutson1942GNBNFLLE11.9
32Tommy McDonald1961PHINFLFL11.8
33Michael Jackson1996BALNFLWR11.8
34Paul Coffman1984GNBNFLTE11.6
35Randy Moss1999MINNFLWR11.6
36Jimmy Graham2013NORNFLTE11.5
37Andre Rison1992ATLNFLWR11.5
38Bubba Franks2002GNBNFLTE11.5
39Jerry Rice1991SFONFLWR11.5
40Cris Carter1999MINNFLWR11.4
41Jerry Rice1994SFONFLWR11.4
42Visanthe Shiancoe2009MINNFLTE11.3
43Calvin Johnson2011DETNFLWR11.1
44Eric Decker2012DENNFLWR11
45Tommy McDonald1960PHINFLFL10.9
46Jerry Rice1992SFONFLWR10.9
47Cloyce Box1952DETNFLLE10.8
48Mark Clayton1989MIANFLWR10.8
49Randy Moss2009NWENFLWR10.8
50Terrell Owens2008DALNFLWR10.7

So if you feel like you’ve been watching a historically efficient player at converting yards into touchdowns, you’re right. But now there’s a new test for Thomas: seeing how he converts yards into touchdowns catching passes from Blake Bortles instead of Peyton Manning.

Oh, and Alyn Beals deserves his own post.

  • Josh Sanford

    This is fantastic. Will you do a career examination? Yesterday I was looking at Gerald Riggs and how he had 11 TDs on just 78 carries in 1991, then added 6 TDs on 11 carries in the Redskins SB run. But it seems like he wouldn’t be a qualifier if you set up a similar table for rushing TDs because his numbers (except TDs, of course) are just so low.

    • sacramento gold miners

      Riggs did have three big years in Atlanta, but wasn’t able to sustain anywhere close to that level of performance later, 1991 was his swan song with the Redskins. That year, he was helpful as a short yardage/red zone runner in limited action.

      • Josh Sanford

        Not to make this all about Riggs, but he has a strange distribution of high yardage games: the overwhelming majority of his 100 yard games are also more than 120. I think it’s like 19 out of 27. That contrasts with someone like Larry Csonka, who ran for more than 120 in a game 3 more times than I have.

        • sacramento gold miners

          Good point, I would guess having backs like Morris and Kiick, reduced Csonka’s carries just enough so he fell short of the 120 mark. I think Riggs was the main man in Atlanta, but it should be noted he went off for 221 against Philadelphia in 1989 as a Redskin.

          Getting back to these tables, Carl Pickens was a very dangerous WR without the great QB in Cincinnati.

          • Cory

            Along those lines, Zack Crockett (remember him?) scored 8 touchdowns on just 40 carries in 2002 with the Raiders, plus 2 more on just 5 carries in the post-season that year. At that time Crockett, like Riggs with the Redskins, was used exclusively as a short yardage back.

  • LightsOut85

    Very interesting way to frame TD production. I wonder how (each year’s) Yds/TD would change if we group by position. (I would guess that RBs would have the greatest, & TEs the lowest).

    • LightsOut85

      I looked up the numbers for 2013, just to compare

      Total: 160.7 yd/TD
      TE: 116 yd/TD
      WR: 165.5 yd/TD
      RB: 224.1 yd/TD

      Turns out my gut was right. If we compare Thomas’ 2013 to this number, we’d expect 6.8 TD – almost 2 more. So, his 12 is still very impressive, but isolating positions does hurt TEs a little.

  • Josh Sanford

    I think you are right–but you know there are those jumbo TEs and OT and some DL (JJ Watt?) who come in “just” catch TD passes. It would be interesting to see the list of the everyone who has abnormally high TD percentages with respect to their receptions.

  • Richie

    Alyn Beals is a name I don’t think I’ve come across before. It looks like he might be a small data point in favor of the AAFC being a weaker league than the NFL. His first 4 seasons were the 4 seasons of the AAFC. Beals led the league in receiving TD’s each of those years (impressive!) with double-digit TD’s each year. Then in 1950 (in the NFL) his receptions were halved, and his TD’s fell to 3. Then his stats took another nosedive in 1951 and he was out of the league the following year. One mitigating factor is that he was a 25-year-old rookie, so he was 29 when he went to the NFL, an age where modern players sometimes begin to slow down.

    And that is the extent of my newfound knowledge of Alyn Beals.

  • Anonymous

    TDs just measure who ultimately gets the last catch or run of a scoring drive. I’ve always felt that measuring players by TDs is a bit overblown. Is it really fair for the RB to get credit for a TD if there’s a drive with a 79 yard pass followed by a 1 yard run? A QB with a low TD number might just be on a team that mostly runs in the red zone.

    • Richie

      Agreed.

      Though, I don’t think the purpose of this post is to assess value based on touchdowns scored, just to note which players seem to score receiving touchdowns at a high rate relative to their yardage.

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