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…]