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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). [click to continue…]

  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. []
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In December, I noted that Antonio Brown was leading the NFL in Adjusted Catch Yards per Team Attempt. Now that the season is over, I wanted to update that post. Based on the end-of-year numbers, Brown once again led the NFL in that metric, just slightly edging Julio Jones.

ACY/TmAtt is pretty simple to calculate. Let’s use Brown as an example. He gained 1,834 yards, caught 10 touchdowns, and picked up 84 first downs. If we give 20 yards for each touchdown and 9 yards for each first down (excluding the ones that were touchdowns), you can see that Brown gained 2,700 Adjusted Catch Yards. By contrast, Julio Jones gained 1,871 receiving yards, 8 touchdowns, and had 93 first downs. That’s slightly more impressive — mostly based on the first downs total — and translates to 2,796 Adjusted Catch Yards.

But Jones played for the Falcons, who had 653 pass plays in 2015; Brown’s Steelers had only 623, which means Jones had more opportunities to pick up targets, receptions, first downs, and yards. On a per-team pass attempt basis, Brown gained 4.33 ACY/TPA, while Jones averaged 4.28. In other words, slight edge to Brown.

Bears receiver Alshon Jeffery had a sneaky good year. He was only on the field for 502 offensive snaps, which is about half that of the average star receiver (and about half of Chicago’s team snaps total). If you were to double his numbers, he’d have a 1600-yard, 86-first down season, which is even more impressive when you consider that the Bears were a run-heavy team.1 When calculating the ACY/TPA for players who played in fewer than 16 games, I used a straight line multiplier based on games played. For example, Jeffery had 1,238 Adjusted Catch Yards, and the Bears had 556 team pass attempts. That would give Jeffery 2.23 ACY/TPA, but we multiply that by 16/9 (since Jeffery only played in 9 games) to get at a 3.96 ACY/TPA number found in the table. Since Jeffery only played in about half of the games in St. Louis and in Minnesota, even that may understate things: if we used 8 games in the denominator instead of 9, he’d vault to number one on the list. [click to continue…]

  1. Jeffery had monster games in Detroit and San Diego, though, so it’s unlikely that he would have kept up this pace over a full season. []
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Antonio Brown, after hearing he leads the league in ACY/TmAtt

Antonio Brown, after hearing he leads the league in ACY/TmAtt

Last year, Antonio Brown edged Jordy Nelson in Adjusted Catch Yards per Team Attempt by a few thousands of a yard. Brown beat Nelson for the True Receiving Yards crown in 2014, too, repeating as champion after a great 2013 campaign. Antonio Brown is awesome, so seeing him lead the league in a metric isn’t very surprising anymore. But let’s run through the process for new readers.

  • We begin with each player’s number of receiving yards. Then, we add 20 yards for every touchdown catch, and 9 yards (here’s why) for every first down gained (other than first downs that resulted in touchdowns). For Brown, this gives him exactly 1,900 Adjusted Catch Yards, as he has totaled 1,310 receiving yards, 57 first downs (including touchdowns), and 7 touchdowns this season.
  • Next, we divide that number by the number of team pass attempts, excluding sacks,1 by that player’s offense in the games he played. Now Brown hasn’t missed a game this season, so it’s pretty simple: Pittsburgh has thrown 426 passes so far in 2015, which means Brown is averaging 4.46 ACY/TmAtt. By comparison, Julio Jones — who leads all players in Adjusted Catch Yards with 2,016 (1,338 receiving yards, 68 (!) first downs, 6 touchdowns) — is averaging “only” 4.21 ACY/TmAtt, because the Falcons have thrown 479 passes. Think of it this way: Jones has essentially played in one more, super high-volume passing game than Brown, yet has “only” 116 more Adjusted Catch Yards than him (and Brown is averaging 158 ACY/G). As a result, after adjusting for pass attempts, Brown is number one in this metric.
  • One player who really stands out by looking at Adjusted Catch Yards per Attempt but excluding games that player missed is Alshon Jeffery. The Bears wide receiver has had a somewhat quiet season: after all, he’s scored just two touchdowns and has missed five games. But the Bears have been pretty run-heavy this year, and Jeffery has been a first down machine. He has 47 catches for 690 yards and 37 first downs, good enough for 1,045 Adjusted Catch Yards in seven games. Chicago has thrown only 236 pass attempts in those games, giving Jeffery a remarkable 4.43 ACY/TmAtt average this year. Thought of another (perhaps simpler) way, Jeffery ranks 3rd in the NFL in receiving yards per game. In fact, the Bears have totaled just 49% of the pass attempts in Jeffery games as the Falcons have in Jones games, while Jeffery has 52% as many ACY. As a result, he slides past Jones into the number two slot.

[click to continue…]

  1. Why am I excluding sacks? Just to save time. In the offseason, I will re-run these numbers and include sack data. []
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