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Larry Fitzgerald led the NFL in receptions this year, with 107. That’s good, but how important is leading the league in catches? The triple crown is thought of as the leaders in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns, but I think we can all agree that receiving first downs is a better indicator of receiver play than receptions. If I was in charge of stats-keeping, I’d place far more emphasis of receiving first downs than receptions, because receptions that don’t go for first downs are far less valuable than receptions that do go for a first down. And while receptions may be a decent proxy for receiving first downs, there’s a lot of variance there.

The leader in receiving first downs this year was Mike Evans, and he certainly had a better statistical year than Fitzgerald.  Evans had a stat line of 96-1321-12, with 81 first downs, compared to Fitzgerald’s 107-1023-6 and 59 first downs.  That’s right: Evans had 22 more first downs on just 11 fewer grabs, thanks to his 84.4% first down rate compared to Fitzgerald’s 55.1%. Evans dominated the league in this metric, finishing with 15 more than anyone else.1 Evans finished with 6 out of the 100 votes cast for the AP All-Pro team, which seems like a criminally low number that would be higher in first downs were as widely-reported as they should be.

In the interest of data disclosure, the table below shows the receptions, receiving yards, touchdowns, *and receiving first downs* for the top receivers last season. I have also included each player’s receiving first down percentage, and their total number of Adjusted Catch Yards, defined here as receiving first downs * 9, plus receiving yards, plus receiving touchdowns * 11 (because a receiving TD already gets 9 yards since it is counted as a first down, too).

RkReceiverTeamRecRec YdsTD1D1D %ACY
1Mike EvansBuccaneers961321128184.4%2182
2T.Y. HiltonColts91144866672.5%2108
3Odell BeckhamGiants1011367106564.4%2062
4Julio JonesFalcons83140966477.1%2051
5Antonio BrownSteelers1061284126460.4%1992
6Jordy NelsonPackers971257146263.9%1969
7Michael ThomasSaints92113796267.4%1794
8Doug BaldwinSeahawks94112875255.3%1673
9Brandin CooksSaints78117384557.7%1666
10Travis KelceChiefs85112545463.5%1655
11Jarvis LandryDolphins94113645255.3%1648
12Julian EdelmanPatriots98110635556.1%1634
13Amari CooperRaiders83115354756.6%1631
14Larry FitzgeraldCardinals107102365955.1%1620
15Michael CrabtreeRaiders89100385662.9%1595
16Greg OlsenPanthers80107335467.5%1592
17Demaryius ThomasBroncos90108355055.6%1588
18Tyrell WilliamsChargers69105974869.6%1568
19Pierre GarconRedskins79104135265.8%1542
20Emmanuel SandersBroncos79103255063.3%1537
21Golden TateLions91107744650.5%1535
22Davante AdamsPackers75997124560%1534
23DeAndre HopkinsTexans7895445671.8%1502
24Terrelle PryorBrowns77100744862.3%1483
25Kenny BrittRams68100254769.1%1480
26Kelvin BenjaminPanthers6394175079.4%1468
27Mike WallaceRavens72101744359.7%1448
28Rishard MatthewsTitans6594594366.2%1431
29Adam ThielenVikings6996754463.8%1418
30Allen RobinsonJaguars7388365169.9%1408
31Willie SneadSaints7289545170.8%1398
32Jimmy GrahamSeahawks6592364569.2%1394
33A.J. GreenBengals6696444162.1%1377
34Kyle RudolphVikings8384075060.2%1367
35Stefon DiggsVikings8490334756%1359
36DeSean JacksonRedskins56100543460.7%1355
37Cole BeasleyCowboys7583355168%1347
38Marvin JonesLions5593044174.5%1343
39Cameron MeredithBears6688844466.7%1328
40Brandon LaFellBengals6486264265.6%1306
41David JohnsonCardinals8087944252.5%1301
42Marqise LeeJaguars6385134469.8%1280
43Zach ErtzEagles7881644253.8%1238
44Jamison CrowderRedskins6784773450.7%1230
45Dez BryantCowboys5079683876%1226
46Quincy EnunwaJets5885743662.1%1225
47Brandon MarshallJets5978834474.6%1217
48Alshon JefferyBears5282124178.8%1212
49Steve SmithRavens7079953955.7%1205
50Delanie WalkerTitans6580073553.8%1192
51Dontrelle InmanChargers5881043763.8%1187
52Jordan MatthewsEagles7380433852.1%1179
53Sterling ShepardGiants6568384264.6%1149
54Jordan ReedRedskins6668664162.1%1121
55Cameron BrateBuccaneers5766084070.2%1108
56Kenny StillsDolphins4272693071.4%1095
57DeVante ParkerDolphins5674443460.7%1094
58Dennis PittaRavens8672923743%1084
59Martellus BennettPatriots5570173156.4%1057
60Eric EbronLions6171113760.7%1055
61Anquan BoldinLions6758484161.2%1041
62Ted GinnPanthers5475242750%1039
63Jason WittenCowboys6967333347.8%1003
64Jeremy Kerley49ers6466733351.6%997

What do you think?

  1. Best as we can tell, the record for receiving first downs in a season was 92, shared by Calvin Johnson (2012) and Marvin Harrison (2002), until Julio Jones broke it last year with 93. []
  • Anders

    How did TY Hilton receive zero All Pro votes?

    • I don’t think it’s that hard to argue that Evans, Beckham, Jones, and Brown were better.

      • Anders

        I think Hilton had the most stealth leading the NFL in yards ever.

        How often does the NFLs leading receiver not even get 1 single all pro vote?

        • Richie

          Skimming the list of leaders: http://www.pro-football-reference.com/leaders/rec_yds_year_by_year.htm

          I don’t think it’s ever happened. I think ever receiving yardage leader (at least since the merger) was either 1st or 2nd team All Pro.

          • It wouldn’t be too hard to imagine Brandon Lloyd not making it in 2010. If Kurt Warner hadn’t retired and/or if Andre Johnson hadn’t gotten hurt, Lloyd might easily have been the one left out in the cold when Fitz/AJ got theirs.

            • But if those imaginary things had been real things, it would have been less likely for Lloyd to lead the league.

              • A good point and a conundrum, particularly since Andre’s 16-game pace would have put him 48 yards ahead of Lloyd. Fitzgerald would have been less of a threat; Lloyd’s 1448 yards in 2010 would be a career-high for Fitz, who topped out at 1431 in 2008.

          • Kyle

            I think Torry Holt in 2000 was another All Pro snub.

            • LightsOut85

              That year the top THREE receivers (by yards) didn’t make it. He, Rod Smith**, & Isaac Bruce were snubbed for TO & Moss at 4 & 5. I think it was the relative lack of TDs (6-9) that kept them out. TO & Moss had 13 & 15 respectively. (Though, if you give 20yd bonuses for TDs, they only raise to #3 & 4). Owens DID only play 14 games & led the league in YPG (same can be said for Julio Jones this year).

              Although, I couldn’t find any source that listed *votes* from 2000, so I don’t know if all 3 of those snubs received no votes, as with Hilton.

              **Rod Smith was AP2, though.

              • Randy Moss, Minnesota 40 1/2; Terrell Owens, San Francisco 22; Marvin Harrison, Indianapolis 15; Rod Smith, Denver 13; Torry Holt, St. Louis 2; Ed McCaffrey, Denver 2; Isaac Bruce, St. Louis 2; Cris Carter, Minnesota 1 1/2; Tim Brown, Oakland 1; Joe Horn, New Orleans 1

              • Richie

                “Although, I couldn’t find any source that listed *votes* from 2000”

                This seems like a project that needs to be researched. I wonder if the info is available anywhere publicly. (Newspaper publishings, books, etc.)

            • Richie

              Oops. *deleted* I said basically the same thing as LightsOut85.

              Good find.

          • Anders

            As Chase said, I have no problems with the rest getting votes over him. Its just that the voters normally just seems to look at stats leaders when voting

        • See above!

      • On the one hand, you’re obviously right. But on the other hand, I don’t think it’s that hard to argue that Hilton was better, either.

        Hilton led in yards and ranked 2nd in first downs. It’s not just that he didn’t make the first or second team, no one voted for him. I mean, I did, but I don’t vote for AP. Zero out of fifty, for the player who led in the most important stat at his position, is pretty remarkable.

        • Yeah, I would have guessed that someone would have voted for him. I mean, Gronk got 1 vote! James Carpenter got 1 vote! That said, it’s easy to see how nobody put him in their top 3, because:

          1) Julio Jones averaged 146.5 ACY/G and 100.6 receiving yards per game; both led the NFL. He missed 2 games, but Hilton only had 57 ACY in two extra games.

          2) Antonio Brown averaged 132.8 ACY/G; he was held out of week 17 but that shouldn’t be held against him. Hilton had 116 ACY in 1 more game, so Brown (barely, of course) has the statistical edge here.

          3) Evans – well, we know about him. Sure, Hilton had more yards, but Evans had twice as many TDs and 15 more 1Ds, which is why he led the NFL in ACY.

          4) Beckham and Nelson are the trickier ones. I think it’s clear that both got benefits from being the clear star receiver on playoff teams, whereas Hilton’s team missed the playoffs. Is that fair? Probably not, but I also think it’s clear that both GB and the NYG are screwed without those guys, and I’m not sure it’s to the same degree in IND without Hilton.

          Beckham led the NFL in percentage of team receiving yards through 16 weeks: https://twitter.com/fbgchase/status/814653006855700481 Hilton was 2nd, of course, but I think any slight statistical edge Hilton has over OBJ (46 ACY) was due to having a much better QB.

          Nelson? He is probably the toughest one to justify over Hilton, but he also was 5th in AP votes out of these 5. My hunch is that voters simply see that he led the NFL in receiving TDs plus his hot finish. Over the last 8 games, he had 59-748-7.

          • First of all, I don’t really disagree with any of that. I think it’s totally reasonable to rate Beckham, Brown, Evans, and Jones ahead of Hilton this year.

            But I’m pretty sure the AP voters don’t use ACY/G. Hilton doesn’t have the reputation yet, he wasn’t on TV enough, and the voters are obsessed with touchdowns.

  • AgronomyBrad

    It would be interesting to see this on a per-snap or per-route-run basis.

    Any idea how this season’s numbers compare to last year?

    • Good questions. I agree, per route run is the way to go. Baby steps here.

      Let me see what I can do about historical numbers.

      • AgronomyBrad

        I think ProFootballFocus charts “routes run” for WRs, TEs, and RBs, but I don’t know if you have to pay to see those (my hunch is “probably”). And I was just asking about historical numbers if you already had them. Don’t feel like you have to go out of your way to put those together.

        Someone else mentioned “successful” receptions. I think that’s similar to successful runs like FootballOusiders uses in their DVOA/DYAR stats

        • PFF used to include routes run in their basic subscription package. Last year they changed it so that package only includes their grades, (far less useful than their charting stats). I believe you can get the charting stats still if you upgrade to a media subscription, but that’s prohibitively expensive. ($250 a month if you just want it for personal research and don’t need publishing rights, and “contact us for a quote” if you do want publishing rights.)

        • LightsOut85

          PFF released WR (& CB) route data from weeks 1-13 in this chart
          https://media.profootballfocus.com/2016/12/WR-CBChartWk14.pdf (from this article https://www.profootballfocus.com/fantasy-football-notable-wr-cb-matchups-for-week-14-2016/)

          So you could use the game-finder (or play finder for 1st downs) at PFR & just return weeks 1-13, then apply those stats to routes-run. (That PDF only has the WRs playing in wk14, so some notable WRs won’t appear, like AJ Green or Alshon Jeffery).

          That came from their fantasy section. I’m not familiar with anything they’ve ever done with fantasy (as I don’t play FF), but perhaps you can get SOME charting stats in their fantasy packages? (I should look into this, as that may be worth it depending on how much you get…).

  • I like looking at total successful receptions as my go to for receivers. Of course, not everyone has easy access to a stat like this, but I have attached a chart with every receiver over 50 this year. As expected, this isn’t much different from plain old first downs, but it does reward the 9-yard-catch-on-first-and-ten type guys.


    • Last season, when Julio Jones almost certainly* broke the NFL receiving first downs record, he also had 113 successful receptions. Antonio Brown had 105, DeAndre Hopkins had 100, and Brandon Marshall had 95.

      *I say almost certainly because I have receiving first down data back to 1991, and prior to that there were only 7 seasons with enough catches to have a shot at the record:
      Rice had 100 in 1990, when the 49ers picked up 201 passing first downs and he had 28% of the team’s catches for 34% of its yards. With a solid 15.0 Y/R, he certainly could have picked up 93 first downs.
      Toon had 93 in 1988, but with 11.5 Y/R, it’s hard to see him with a 100% first down rate. He’s not Henry Ellard.
      Christensen had 95 catches in 1986, but his 12.1 Y/R gives me the same feeling as Toon’s.
      Monk had 106 catches in 1984, but see Christensen for caveats.
      Johnny Morris had 93 catches in 1964, but I don’t see him with a 100% rate either.
      Hennigan’s 1964 may be the best bet, with 101 receptions at 15.3 per catch, but that wouldn’t be an NFL record.

      • Good stuff.

      • I use this formula to estimate WR first downs: Receptions * (.55 + [ (Yards/Rec – 10) * .0312 ])

        It’s not perfect, or close to perfect. It doesn’t solve the Norv Turner problem. It’s not fair to Henry Ellard. But I think using estimated first downs is better than relying on receptions, and I try not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

        I estimate that Rice gained 71 first downs in 1990, that Toon gained 55, Christensen 59, Monk 68, Morris 60, and Hennigan 72.

        My formula is based on data from the last 25 years, and I suspect it underrates older players, since I believe they passed less frequently on first down and ran fewer screens on 3rd-and-7. But I also think it’s pretty clear that none of them challenge Julio, Megatron, and Harrison for the record.

        • Interesting — I am sure you spent some time developing that formula, and it at least seems to pass the sniff test. I do wonder why Evans was such an outlier. That itself may be worth looking into. Agree that Julio is almost certainly the record-holder.

          • Re: Evans, I suspect it’s primarily because of scheme. Norv Turner’s receivers consistently and dramatically over-performed their expected first downs, and that seems to be true (much less dramatically) with Dirk Koetter as well. I think certain teams, certain offensive coaches, do things like [1] pass frequently in short-yardage situations and [2] don’t let their receivers run 6-yard routes on 3rd-and-8. If you looked closely enough, you might even find that such teams are more likely to run a draw on 3rd-and-20, when they’re unlikely to pick up the first down even by passing.

            Last year, Evans gained 8 more first downs than the formula predicts, which is a lot. The year before, when Koetter was in Atlanta, Evans gained 3 fewer first downs than expected. He’ll regress toward expectations somewhat in 2017, but I’d bet he’ll be above his expected first downs again, and probably by at least 5.

        • I went through all of San Fran’s 1990 game books, and your formula was very close to Rice’s actual number. After starting off at a breakneck pace (aided largely by a 12 first down game in Atlanta), he came back down to earth and finished the year with 73 first downs.

          If I can get my hands on more game books, I’ll check out Toon, Christensen, and Monk. I doubt I have any shot at finding reliable play by play data for the AFL.

          • I can now cross Toon off the list, as expected. It did take till week 4 for him to catch a pass that didn’t go for a first down, which is impressive.

            • I can officially say Christensen is also not the record holder.

              • I can now officially say Monk is also not the record holder.

          • That’s great, I’m glad the projection for Rice is on-target, and I’d be interested to see the others if you can find them.

            • For the others, many of the gamebooks are either missing or almost completely illegible. Instead of trying to count every first down, I just made note of every catch they made that wasn’t a first down, until I got to the point where 93 would be impossible.

              I’m sure you’ve seen them before, but here’s an example of what I’m trying to read: Washington 20, Eagles 0, 1984 https://pbs.twimg.com/media/C1_ctt9WIAM2O7G.jpg

    • Richie

      Fitzgerald and Nelson really get a boost in your metric. (Note that you and Chase are off by 1 reception from each other on Fitzgerald.)

      • Ahh, this is pre-stat corrections. Fitzgerald had a 4 yard catch that was later changed to a run, and I didn’t change it in the dataset.

        • sacramento gold miners

          Larry Fitzgerald also did something this season unrelated to receiving was added value to his team. The Cards moved him inside more, into the Hines Ward role. While not a great blocker, Fitzgerald did help David Johnson enjoy a strong rookie season. There are receivers of such slight build you could never move inside.

    • Hot – I like this.

    • LightsOut85

      Nice! I was just scrolling through the comments, about to bring up successful plays. (And now I’m saved having to calculate anything by hand w/the Game Play Finder :D). I think it’s a nice way to reward receivers who are used by their teams to “simulate” running game (lots of short passes), but for whatever reason don’t pick up a lot of first downs (relative to routes-run/team attempts).

      Curious – is there a specific “origin” (/statistical reasoning) to the 50%/70% marks? Or are they just larger than the typical rushing marks, simply because the average pass attempt is longer than the average rushing attempt?

      • I use 50/70/100 for all plays, passing or rushing. It isn’t fair to running backs, but then running isn’t as effective as passing (usually). I believe this is also the model FO uses for determining success rate in college.

        If I have time in the offseason, I’d like to do some research to find what the actual numbers should be. Perhaps something like at what yardage point does the probability of picking up a first down exceed X%. I don’t have the idea in stone yet, and I plan on talking to some smart people to help nail it down.

        • Justin Barber

          I often wonder if the 50/70/100 thresholds were derived via empirical methods. Although intuitively accurate, if these thresholds are ecologically questionable, this would be a warranted and informative line of inquiry.

          • Anything ending in zeros probably is either made up or rounded a great deal. At least, that’s what I usually feel in my skeptical little heart.

  • Tom

    Someone set me straight on this, ’cause this has always been a little foggy for me. What are we saying when we reward a receiver with a first down? That he made more of an attempt to catch the ball because he knew the situation? That he made more of an effort after the catch to get the first down then other receivers? That he extended his route in such a way so that he’s past the first down marker and other receivers wouldn’t think to do that? If the answer is “yes” to those questions, I’ll go with that, just hoping to have someone explain it a bit…(of course, no need to explain that first downs are important, I’m good with that)

    • Tom

      Answering my own question. Spoke with my older brother who played receiver in a small college (he was pretty good at this school, but didn’t go pro, not in the draft, take this for what it is) and he specifically said that it’s something that receivers are absolutely told to be aware of. He said his first few years, he’d catch a pass good for 9 yards on 2nd-and-10 and his coaches would rip him a new one when he got to the sideline. In his last two years, his ability to convert actually improved, and, being more valuable to the offense, his playing time increased.

      I’d have to assume that this same dynamic must exist in the pros…

      • Thanks for sharing. I think the other piece of it is we want to give credit for hard stuff and valuable stuff. I don’t think it’s hard to make a catch on 3rd and 10 for 4 yards. But every first down is valuable (due to blown coverages, not all are difficult, of course). But you can only “game” receptions when the Win Probability won’t change, and that is an issue with all stats. Receptions are very easy to game: a 5-yard reception that lowers your team’s Win Prob is not a good thing.

    • Richie

      I guess you are questioning the value of awarding a player for achieving first downs, like I did.

      It seems like way too often I see receivers run 8-yard patterns on third and 10 and the QB still throws to them. It’s frustrating. But I don’t know who is usually to blame. Is it a bad play design? Did the WR run the wrong pattern? Did the QB throw to the wrong receiver?

      I know there is some gamesmanship at play, but it happens way too often to be that.

      • Tom

        Right, that’s what I’m thinking. See my comment below, my wide receiver brother thinks the receiver does have at least some responsibility to make that first down happen…

      • I agree with Chase: part of our concern is that if it’s 3rd-and-10 and the receiver runs an 8-yard pattern, the DB is going to give it to him. A couple yards deeper, and it’s likely to be a tougher catch.

    • James

      I think the main thing we are saying is that measuring yards *and first downs* is more accurate than just measuring yards.

  • sacramento gold miners

    I think third down conversions may be another strong indicator of receiver quality. Frequently in third down situations passing is expected, so that’s an advantage to the defense.

    • I agree with this.

  • Richie

    “I think we can all agree that receiving first downs is a better indicator of receiver play than receptions.”

    I’m still trying to decide how much I agree with this. I guess, yeah, a first down reception is more valuable than a reception (undefined as to whether it gets a first down or not).

    But a 9-yard reception on first and 10, for instance, is still a pretty valuable play.

    • Richie

      FWIW, I’m still not fully convinced that players should get much of an analysis boost from scoring touchdowns, either. I still feel like a lot of touchdowns are about circumstance and opportunity.

      • I don’t think an 11-yard boost (on top of the 9 from a first down) is very much.

    • Sight unseen, I would take a player with 60 receptions and 50 first downs over one with 65 receptions and 45 first downs.

  • Richie

    Surprised to see Kelvin Benjamin at #2 in 1D%. I had him on 2 fantasy teams this year and was so frustrated with him. That guy is so big and looks so unstoppable on some plays. Yet there are large portions of games where he just disappears from the offense.

    • I think those are related; Benjamin isn’t running a ton of short routes that make him “appear” in the game like an Edelman or Tate or Fitzgerald, which is why he “disappears” but also such a high percentage of his receptions go for first downs.

  • sacramento gold miners

    This topic is also relevant in context to the exciting Clemson vs. Alabama game we saw Monday. Although the Crimson Tide had the lead, with their defense playing well much of the game, But Alabama’s offense couldn’t buy a first down in the second half, and Clemson was either getting an acrobatic catch by a future NFL first round draft pick, or short reception by a slow walk-on receiver to keep drives alive, and tire out Bama’s defense.