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In 2014, Julio Jones led the NFL with 31 catches of at least 20+ yards. He also was tied for 3rd with 25 receptions on either 3rd or 4th down that picked up a first down for his team. Those are two pretty different skill sets, but Jones fared well in both areas.

I thought it would be fun to try to see which wide receivers were big outliers in one of those two metrics relative to the other.1 There were 56 players with at least 10 receptions of at least 20+ yards last season. I ran a simple linear regression using “20+ Yard Receptions” as my input and “1st down receptions on 3rd/4th down” as my output. The best-fit formula was:

1st down receptions on 3rd/4th down = 6.77 + 0.63 * 20+ Yard receptions

Let’s use Jones as an example. With 31 big play catches, he’d be “expected” to pull in 26.3 first downs on either 3rd or 4th down; as noted above, he came pretty close to hitting that exact number.

Then there are players like Washington’s DeSean Jackson. He had 16 “big play catches” last year, which means we’d “project” him to have about 16.8 first down grabs on 3rd/4th down. In reality, he had just five, falling 11.8 catches short of expectation. As it turns out, that’s the most extreme player in that direction from the 2014 season. The narrative meets the numbers: Jackson is a great deep threat, but not a move-the-chains receiver (or, at least, he’s not being used like one).

In the other corner, we have Anquan Boldin. The crafty veteran had 14 receptions of at least 20+ yards, which means we’d expect him to have recorded about 15.6 first down catches on 3rd or 4th down. In reality, he had 27, giving him 11.4 more than expected. That makes him the most extreme “possession receiver” by this methodology.

The full list, below:

RkPlayer20+ Yard1st Down (3/4)ExpDiff
1DeSean Jackson16516.811.8
2T.Y. Hilton2112208
3Michael Floyd15916.27.2
4Roy Helu10613.17.1
5Coby Fleener161016.86.8
6Taylor Gabriel10713.16.1
7Terrance Williams10713.16.1
8Jeremy Maclin2114206
9Allen Hurns11813.75.7
10Nate Washington11813.75.7
11Dez Bryant221620.64.6
12Marques Colston171317.54.5
13Delanie Walker121014.34.3
14Kendall Wright10913.14.1
15Demaryius Thomas251922.53.5
16Mike Wallace101013.13.1
17Brandon LaFell101013.13.1
18Kenny Britt131214.92.9
19Torrey Smith131214.92.9
20A.J. Green131314.91.9
21Malcom Floyd131314.91.9
22Rueben Randle121314.31.3
23Julio Jones312526.31.3
24Andrew Hawkins131414.90.9
25Robert Woods111313.70.7
26Andre Johnson141515.60.6
27Steve Smith151616.20.2
28John Brown111413.7-0.3
29DeAndre Hopkins202019.4-0.6
30Mike Evans202019.4-0.6
31Travis Kelce151716.2-0.8
32Reggie Wayne101413.1-0.9
33Jordan Matthews161816.8-1.2
34Eddie Royal141715.6-1.4
35Doug Baldwin151816.2-1.8
36Le'Veon Bell101513.1-1.9
37Emmanuel Sanders242421.9-2.1
38Randall Cobb242421.9-2.1
39Calvin Johnson161916.8-2.2
40Martellus Bennett111613.7-2.3
41Sammy Watkins141815.6-2.4
42Alshon Jeffery172017.5-2.5
43Vincent Jackson121714.3-2.7
44Rob Gronkowski192218.7-3.3
45Michael Crabtree101713.1-3.9
46Kelvin Benjamin142015.6-4.4
47Larry Fitzgerald111913.7-5.3
48Roddy White142115.6-5.4
49Odell Beckham162316.8-6.2
50Jordy Nelson192518.7-6.3
51Antonio Gates122114.3-6.7
52Golden Tate172517.5-7.5
53Kenny Stills102113.1-7.9
54Eric Decker122314.3-8.7
55Antonio Brown192818.7-9.3
56Anquan Boldin142715.6-11.4

For the most part, this list seems to pass the eye test pretty well (other than a Roy Helu sighting near the top). Guys like Jackson, T.Y. Hilton, and Vincent Jackson are renowned deep threats. Boldin, Golden Tate, and Antonio Gates checking in as possession receivers makes sense, too, and Antonio Brown falling on that end of the spectrum isn’t a surprise given how dominant he is in the intermediate game. But there are still some surprises.

For example, Kenny Stills only had 10 20+ yard catches last year? That’s on the heels of him leading the NFL in yards per reception in 2013 (although he did have just 7 catches of 20+ yards that season). Odell Beckham and Jordy Nelson can be big play machines, but also move the chains, and wind up looking more like possession receivers than guys like Roddy White or Larry Fitzgerald. On the other side, Marques Colston had 17 catches of at least 20+ yards last year. That one caught me by surprise. What stands out to you?

  1. The original inspiration for this post came from this Mike Tanier article. []
  • db

    I notice Maclin, Dez, and Terrence Williams are near the top. Any relation between this stat and teams that pickup a lot of rushing first downs or find themselves in 3rd and short often? I feel like there’s a bigger picture here (as is usually the case in football).

  • Ben Fitzgerald

    This stat needs adjusting imo for guys who have a lot of both. They seem to end up classed as possession receivers due to the fact that at that volume they end up with a lot of first down catches, even though they have a lot of deep catches as well.

  • Clint

    Eric Decker and Anquna Boldin proved to be pretty reliable on third down. How is Boldin still doing it?
    Also, odd that Roy Helu only had a 5 3rd/4th down conversions. Always thought he was a 3rd down back. Maybe he gets a lot of 3rd down catches that just fall short of getting the first. Haha

    • jtr

      Helu is definitely a weird fit with the deep threats; you would expect RBs to have lots of chain-moving checkdowns as opposed to lots of big receptions. I’d be curious to see more RBs, but at a glance it looks like Le’Veon Bell was the only other RB with enough catches to qualify. He was slightly to the 1st down side of average.

    • Andropov

      Maybe he had a bunch of big gains on screen passes? I don’t watch a lot of Washington games, so I don’t really know how they used him. My guess is that, for one reason or another, Helu’s presence here is pretty fluky.

      • Clint

        If he were with a good team, I bet he could replicate this production, but I feel like it’ll be hard for him to keep that up on a team like the Raiders. Maybe Derek Carr will fall in love with him. Haha.
        I’d love to see Helu with the Patriots. Could be like Shane Vereen on roids.

  • sacramento gold miners

    How far back does this research go on the third down catches for first downs? It would be interesting to see the leaders in this department from 2010 and before, it really helps tell the value of a receiver. In terms of helping to win a game, the receiver with fewer yards but more first downs can be more valuable than the receiver with more yards, but unable or unwilling to get open in traffic. Randy Moss is a lock for Canton, and helped win many games, but wasn’t called on to run those short patterns over the middle on third down situations.

  • Richie

    I’m surprised to see Coby Fleener up there at #5.