The Best Receivers in the NFL, as Measured by Regression Analysis

The season starts in two days! The season starts in two days! The season starts in two days!

Pardon the multiple exclamation points, but I happen to be excited that the new season is starting in two days. This past Sunday of Labor Day Weekend was the last football-less Sunday we’ll have until close to Valentine’s Day; the long spring and summer of our discontent is almost over. Come Thursday night, we’ll have new games to dissect and analyze – until then, we’ll post a few more articles breaking down the stuff that has happened in past seasons. It’s not as fresh and exciting as seeing Rahim Moore’s latest screwup will be – but it’ll do for now.

One of the biggest problems – probably the biggest problem, in fact – football coaches, historians and statisticians have faced in trying to evaluate individual players is trying to separate and isolate that single player’s performance from the rest of his teammates. Since football is such a team-dominated sport, this can be a nearly impossible puzzle to solve. Watching game film is the best way to do that, but unless you’re Jon Gruden, you probably don’t have the time to fully break down every single play from every single game. And even if you did, trying to adequately remember everything you saw just from memory is going to lead to a LOT of hazy recollections (take it from someone who recently went on a Game Rewind binge and had his head spinning at the end of every session).

Efficiency statistics such as net yards per attempt usually give us a good idea of a team’s quality, but trying to parcel out who gets what percentage of the credit for a team’s success (or failure) just from basic box score statistics or play-by-play is almost as difficult as maintaining peace in the Middle East. Simply reading “Matt Schaub pass complete short left to Andre Johnson for nine yards” doesn’t tell us anything about the quality of Schaub’s pass or Johnson’s catch.

Moreover, it doesn’t say anything about the quality of the blocking on the play (which is only the most important part of every play from scrimmage in the NFL) and it doesn’t tell us what type of coverage Johnson was facing or if he made a great play after the catch to turn a two-yard completion into a nine-yard pass play. Thus, even when we say that Peyton Manning has a 7.49 net yards per attempt average, what we’re really saying is “Peyton Manning has a 7.49 net yards per attempt average playing behind Denver’s offensive line and mainly throwing to Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker but also occasionally Jacob Tamme, Joel Dreessen and Brandon Stokley.” Using basic statistics alone, there’s no real way to separate an individual’s performance from the rest of his teammates.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we still don’t try anyway. One attempt that has arisen from the recent influx of better information provided in play-by-play logs is Brian Burke’s Air Yards stat, which measures how far each NFL quarterback’s completion traveled solely through the air and completely separates yards after the catch gained by the receiver from the quarterback’s yardage ledger. Burke also provides the amount of yards after the catch each quarterback’s receivers gained for him, the percentage of the quarterback’s yards that were gained after the catch and the average air yards each quarterback gained per pass attempt. The outstanding site Sportingcharts.com has further air yardage data back to the 1992 season.

As a method of chronicling how far down the field different quarterbacks usually throw, air yards is a mildly interesting stat; as a barometer of quarterback performance, it’s completely useless. Tom Brady ranked 20th in air yards per attempt in 2012, falling behind the likes of Jake Locker, Mark Sanchez and Chad Henne. And in 2011, he ranked 16th behind Henne again, Vince Young and Dan Orlovsky. As a rule of thumb, any stat that suggests Mark Sanchez and Dan Orlovsky are better quarterbacks than Tom Brady is probably not one that should be taken seriously.

However, the concept of knowing the average distance each quarterback throws down the field is an interesting one – it doesn’t really matter whether you throw short or down the field as long as you’re accurate and efficient in doing so, but knowing the exact air yardage of every throw during a given season would allow you to determine the average completion percentage of throws at every yardage mark down the field and also the average amount of yards after the catch receivers gained from different spots away from the line of scrimmage.

And that’s basically what I found after a little more browsing at Sporting Charts: yards after the catch data for the top 300 receivers of each season going back to 1992. Plugging those numbers into Excel, it was then easy to determine the average distance away from the line of scrimmage each receiver in the NFL caught their passes.

This is an incredibly important concept to understand in regards to yards after the catch because, as you might imagine, yards after the catch are most easily gained on passes completed near the line of scrimmage and become progressively tougher to attain the further down the field a pass is completed. That’s why you almost always see running backs near the top of the leaderboard in yards after catch – virtually all running backs catch their passes at or even a little bit behind the line of scrimmage, typically giving themselves a few uncontested yards after the catch before defenders start coming in. Just because running backs typically populate the top of the yards after catch category doesn’t mean that they’re all proficient after the catch; you have to compare their performance to players who caught their passes at similar spots on the field.

Using Excel’s regression function, I found a formula that approximated the average yards after the catch an average NFL player would accrue from passes caught at any distance away from the line of scrimmage. (For the math-inclined portion of those reading, the correlation between yards after the catch and distance away from the line of scrimmage was -0.54 – a strong enough correlation to indicate that distance from the line of scrimmage is a factor in how many yards after the catch a receiver is likely to gain while also suggesting that the skill of the receiver is the most important factor to consider). After plugging in those figures for each of the top 300 receivers in the league, I was able to determine how many more or less yards after the catch each of those 300 receivers gained compared to an average player.

And that exercise caused more wheels in my head to start turning (that’s right, folks – I was THINKING! Revolutionary stuff.). Using the same distance data combined with each receiver’s target data, I performed another regression to calculate the likelihood a pass would be completed at different distances away from the line of scrimmage. The resulting formula helped me approximate whether a receiver caught more or less passes than he should have compared to what a league average player with a league average quarterback would have caught at the same spot.

And thus an attempt at separating receivers’ play from that of their quarterbacks was born. The numbers and stats that you’re about to see below are not intended to be taken 100% literally – I have no idea whether LeSean McCoy was exactly 90.68.28 yards better than an average receiver last year – but I do think they fairly judge receivers independent of their quarterbacks and provide a pretty good idea of the level of the supporting casts each team in the NFL has.

Before we get into actual player and team ratings, there are a couple more components of the receiving formula that should be mentioned. First, a regression I performed on player catch percentage compared to number of targets showed enough of a correlation to suggest that it’s easier for a receiver with a low number of targets to attain a high catch percentage than a receiver with a high number of targets (Larry Fitzgerald knows exactly what I’m talking about). Thus, receivers who were targeted 75 times or more received a boost to their catch rate that got progressively higher the more times they were targeted and receivers who were targeted fewer than 75 times got a progressive penalty to their catch rate.

Secondly, I also ran a regression to determine the average number of first downs a receiver should gain compared to the average place on the field he caught his passes – players who gained more first downs than expected were given a 15-yard bonus for each additional first down gained than expected and players who gained fewer first downs than expected were given a similar 15-yard penalty. Early versions of the formula didn’t include this component, but I realized that not including first downs gained led to 90% of tight ends ending up with horrible receiving figures, since virtually all tight ends not named Gronk or Brent Celek are terrible after the catch. And if all tight ends are horrible receivers, why do quarterbacks throw to them so often? Including a measure of a receiver’s ability to gain a first down provides a necessary boost to possession receivers that was not found in the formula before.

And, finally, each receiver’s catch rate was adjusted for the accuracy of the quarterback(s) throwing them the ball – receivers playing with Peyton Manning got a big penalty and receivers playing with John Skelton got a big bonus. I think that’s fairly self-explanatory.

So, with all that preamble out of the way, here’s a look at the best receivers in the NFL from 2012: we’ll start with the best and worst wide receivers, followed by running backs and tight ends.

Top 25 Wide Receivers, 2012. Legend: YAC +- = yards after the catch gained or lost relative to average player’s performance, Adj. C. +- = number of catches made or lost relative to average player’s performance (adjusted for number of targets and quarterback accuracy), 1DN +- = number of first downs gained or lost relative to average player’s performance, Yards +- = total number of yards gained or lost relative to average player’s performance

Rank Player Team Catches Yards YAC+- Adj. C. +- 1DN +- Yards +-
1 Calvin Johnson Det 122 1,964 57.99 35.55 4.44 679.96
2 Andre Johnson Hou 112 1,598 26.14 26.23 6.31 488.94
3 Vincent Jackson TB 72 1,384 165.79 11.55 5.29 440.54
4 Wes Welker NE 118 1,354 2.04 21.06 8.57 371.86
5 Percy Harvin Min 62 677 103.09 6.04 8.57 287.56
6 Reggie Wayne Ind 106 1,355 -114.79 22.91 4.98 277.50
7 Roddy White Atl 92 1,351 -29.58 9.85 9.42 259.65
8 Marques Colston NO 83 1,154 -55.41 10.85 9.21 240.75
9 Michael Crabtree SF 85 1,105 63.07 4.22 8.37 240.30
10 Demaryius Thomas Den 94 1,434 115.77 8.99 -0.96 227.40
11 Brandon Marshall Chi 118 1,508 -177.75 30.60 -2.87 216.38
12 Josh Gordon Cle 50 805 83.68 1.24 6.70 202.15
13 Julio Jones Atl 79 1,198 111.61 0.04 5.69 197.62
14 Lance Moore NO 65 1,041 -49.48 9.86 5.11 192.56
15 Danario Alexander SD 37 658 124.42 -0.95 4.37 176.27
16 T.Y. Hilton Ind 50 861 157.42 3.10 -2.53 163.08
17 Randall Cobb GB 80 954 8.84 11.77 0.76 159.29
18 Brandon LaFell Car 44 677 95.86 -0.12 4.02 154.57
19 Cecil Shorts Jac 55 979 149.08 2.20 -2.20 149.25
20 Malcom Floyd SD 56 814 -82.97 8.87 5.85 146.97
21 A.J. Green Cin 97 1,350 -20.25 13.99 -2.34 142.31
22 Jordy Nelson GB 49 745 42.12 3.11 3.54 139.79
23 Dez Bryant Dal 92 1,382 52.02 13.55 -7.39 137.13
24 Mike Williams TB 63 996 77.09 2.08 1.61 131.52
25 Steve Smith Car 73 1,174 15.55 9.26 -2.17 129.87

Bottom 10 Wide Receivers, 2012. Legend: YAC +- = yards after the catch gained or lost relative to average player’s performance, Adj. C. +- = number of catches made or lost relative to average player’s performance (adjusted for number of targets and quarterback accuracy), 1DN +- = number of first downs gained or lost relative to average player’s performance, Yards +- = total number of yards gained or lost relative to average player’s performance

Rank Player Team Catches Yards YAC+- Adj. C. +- 1DN +- Yards +-
1 Kenny Britt Ten 45 589 -52.63 -3.83 -5.64 -191.88
2 Laurent Robinson Jac 24 252 -64.93 -1.97 -6.72 -191.67
3 Devery Henderson NO 22 316 -4.14 -7.81 -4.77 -189.30
4 Louis Murphy Car 25 336 -31.56 -9.23 -0.95 -181.48
5 Harry Douglas Atl 38 395 -61.08 -4.57 -4.32 -180.80
6 Early Doucet Ari 28 207 -90.36 -3.60 -3.04 -174.20
7 Mike Wallace Pit 64 836 -37.61 -1.69 -7.47 -172.77
8 Jordan Shipley Jac 23 244 -70.26 -0.30 -4.56 -142.74
9 Jeremy Maclin Phi 69 857 -70.67 2.94 -7.02 -136.49
10 Kevin Ogletree Dal 32 436 -44.17 -2.92 -3.11 -134.64

The top 11 receivers are all guys you’d expect (it’s always nice to learn that Calvin Johnson is good at football and note that Percy Harvin put up those numbers in half a season – HOLY CRAP) but most of the players ranking between 12 and 20 were a surprise to me. Specifically, I had NO idea Josh Gordon was that good last year – like most of America, most of my Browns knowledge consisted of LOL BRANDON WEEDEN and nothing further. My apologies, Josh. Danario Alexander, T.Y. Hilton and Cecil Shorts were all players that used huge yards after the catch totals to fuel their top-20 rankings. And who here thought Brandon LaFell, and not Steve Smith, was the best Panthers wideout last year? Yeah, I didn’t think anyone would raise their hand, but 2012 was actually the second year in a row LaFell posted significantly above-average numbers in Yards +-, so he might be one of the most underrated receivers in the league.

On the worst receivers list, you’ll note that the Dolphins gave $30 million guaranteed, non-imaginary U.S. dollars this offseason to a guy who was the seventh-worst wide receiver in football last year. Of course, Mike Wallace also ranked as one of the ten best in both 2010 and ’11, so it was probably worth the risk, but I don’t know, man. Most of the other receivers on this list are slot receivers and/or burners who never caught the ball and didn’t gain anywhere near the yards after the catch their teams were hoping for when they did.

Top 10 Running Backs, 2012. Legend: YAC +- = yards after the catch gained or lost relative to average player’s performance, Adj. C. +- = number of catches made or lost relative to average player’s performance (adjusted for number of targets and quarterback accuracy), 1DN +- = number of first downs gained or lost relative to average player’s performance, Yards +- = total number of yards gained or lost relative to average player’s performance

Rank Player Team Catches Yards YAC+- Adj. C. +- 1DN +- Yards +-
1 C.J. Spiller Buf 43 459 159.7777 1.439038 4.251829 233.5689
2 Joique Bell Det 52 485 41.5508 2.932154 6.635923 166.0947
3 Danny Woodhead NE 40 446 87.75087 0.183178 4.825049 161.7672
4 Mike Goodson Oak 16 195 89.94182 1.98139 3.783929 159.7108
5 Pierre Thomas NO 39 354 57.55195 -2.57966 5.539915 121.0421
6 Isaac Redman Pit 19 244 72.46824 1.822412 1.782931 115.6649
7 Mike Tolbert Car 27 268 75.14998 -2.31753 3.524736 111.4678
8 Shane Vereen NE 8 149 81.02977 -2.06348 2.724149 104.3601
9 DeAngelo Williams Car 13 187 101.7634 -2.6582 0.76727 95.84357
10 LeSean McCoy Phi 54 373 39.86556 2.589325 2.322886 90.6828

Bottom 10 Running Backs, 2012. Legend: YAC +- = yards after the catch gained or lost relative to average player’s performance, Adj. C. +- = number of catches made or lost relative to average player’s performance (adjusted for number of targets and quarterback accuracy), 1DN +- = number of first downs gained or lost relative to average player’s performance, Yards +- = total number of yards gained or lost relative to average player’s performance

Rank Player Team Catches Yards YAC+- Adj. C. +- 1DN +- Yards +-
1 Adrian Peterson Min 40 217 -112.995 3.623784 -5.95299 -172.394
2 Darren McFadden Oak 42 258 -58.2697 -3.66584 -4.44343 -152.526
3 BenJarvus Green-Ellis Cin 22 104 -75.5261 -0.2765 -4.68889 -148.116
4 Arian Foster Hou 40 217 -51.2305 -5.97208 -3.28173 -140.504
5 Chris Johnson Ten 36 232 -44.6264 0.276634 -6.47674 -139.652
6 Michael Turner Atl 19 128 -8.70705 -6.71014 -4.71093 -127.651
7 Shonn Greene NYJ 19 151 -16.5893 -2.28731 -5.04656 -112.463
8 Chris Rainey Pit 14 60 -33.1579 -3.62391 -3.61735 -111.532
9 Evan Royster Was 15 109 -2.59237 -4.22633 -3.45664 -85.8838
10 Henry Hynoski NYG 11 50 -41.7343 -0.70065 -2.4297 -84.0228

The worst running backs list might actually be more interesting than the best list because of all the big names found in the top five. Obviously, AP was amazing running with the ball but those receiving stats make his MVP selection seem all the more silly to me. Arian Foster and Darren McFadden’s inclusion on the worst-of list illustrates the mercurial nature of yards gained after the catch from year to year because Foster was the best receiving running back in the league in 2011 and McFadden was one of the best in 2010. Chris Johnson, on the other hand, has always been a turd as a receiver apart from that magical 2009 season.

On the best-of list, Spiller became the second Bills running back in as many years to have a top-five season – Fred Jackson was outstanding in 2011 and Spiller slightly below-average, but those roles obviously reversed last year. If the trend is to continue, that means Tashard Choice is due for a big year in 2013 and both Spiller and Jackson will be ineffective. Football is weird, don’t count this out.

Top 10 Tight Ends, 2012. Legend: YAC +- = yards after the catch gained or lost relative to average player’s performance, Adj. C. +- = number of catches made or lost relative to average player’s performance (adjusted for number of targets and quarterback accuracy), 1DN +- = number of first downs gained or lost relative to average player’s performance, Yards +- = total number of yards gained or lost relative to average player’s performance

Rank Player Team Catches Yards YAC+- Adj. C. +- 1DN +- Yards +-
1 Rob Gronkowski NE 55 790 42.21789 7.835289 10.34772 303.9626
2 Scott Chandler Buf 43 571 -12.7336 1.227885 8.946972 138.1397
3 Heath Miller Pit 71 816 -42.0969 9.974844 3.904311 137.0225
4 Dwayne Allen Ind 45 521 -12.8693 5.832317 5.019508 131.6165
5 Tom Crabtree GB 8 203 110.0611 -0.9734 1.644277 123.4169
6 Fred Davis Was 24 325 13.98689 2.16229 2.540364 80.11319
7 Jermaine Gresham Cin 64 737 36.1984 3.476649 0.001363 74.28824
8 Jimmy Graham NO 85 982 -120.381 5.858943 7.750898 71.86832
9 Tony Gonzalez Atl 93 930 -247.579 13.00712 10.16245 69.55589
10 Greg Olsen Car 69 843 -82.7021 11.87864 -0.9355 62.62895

Bottom 10 Tight Ends, 2012. Legend: YAC +- = yards after the catch gained or lost relative to average player’s performance, Adj. C. +- = number of catches made or lost relative to average player’s performance (adjusted for number of targets and quarterback accuracy), 1DN +- = number of first downs gained or lost relative to average player’s performance, Yards +- = total number of yards gained or lost relative to average player’s performance

Rank Player Team Catches Yards YAC+- Adj. C. +- 1DN +- Yards +-
1 Anthony Fasano Mia 41 332 -147.187 -2.21453 -4.44741 -239.78
2 Jacob Tamme Den 52 555 -77.0283 -7.3301 -0.51995 -173.921
3 Dallas Clark TB 47 435 -146.908 3.39459 -4.14219 -167.013
4 Jason Witten Dal 110 1,039 -309.381 20.43729 -6.93899 -162.945
5 Clay Harbor Phi 25 186 -77.7406 -1.7237 -4.45717 -162.782
6 Joel Dreessen Den 41 356 -98.8749 -2.34969 -2.39595 -160.883
7 Tony Scheffler Det 42 504 -73.1264 -7.20868 1.274752 -153.06
8 Kellen Davis Chi 19 229 -22.0372 -8.26804 -0.65561 -141.113
9 Brandon Pettigrew Det 59 567 -107.336 -3.69818 1.356089 -129.263
10 Zach Miller Sea 38 396 -72.5639 0.358291 -3.86192 -126.075

Here’s some perspective on how historically great Gronk is when he’s healthy: as far ahead of the rest of the pack as he was last season (while only in playing 11 games, mind you), his 2011 Yards +- figure was almost twice his 2012 performance. Factor in that he’s universally considered one of the best blocking tight ends in the league and you start to figure out that we’re looking at a guy who will go down as the Jerry Rice of his position – the player who is so clearly the best in the history of his position, it’s not even a debate. If he stays healthy, anyway, which is unfortunately (or fortunately, if you’re an extreme Patriots hater) an iffy proposition right now. Also, I know full well Tom Crabtree is not one of the five best tight ends in the league – he caught three long fluky touchdown passes where NO ONE in the stadium, not even Tom himself, expected that he would get the ball. Still, he’s got one of the funnier NFL player Twitters around, so let’s let him enjoy his moment in the sun.

Both main tight ends from Denver and Detroit appear on the worst-of list, but the most shocking ranking of all is  Jason Witten coming in as the fourth-worst tight end in football last year. You’re probably dumbfounded that a tight end with over 100 catches and 1,000 yards could rate that poorly and I kind of am, too. However, the regression formula says that an average receiver would have picked up over 300 more yards than Witten did last year (which, if you saw him attempt to move at all last year, makes a lot of sense) and would have gained about seven more first downs. How Witten was able to catch as many passes as he did when his main tactic for gaining yards after the catch was “wait to get tackled” remains unaccounted for, however.

So now that we’ve gone through the best and worst receivers at each position, let’s take a team-by-team look to see which quarterbacks had the best supporting casts in 2012:

Yards +- Team-by-Team Rankings, 2012. Legend: YAC +- = yards after the catch gained or lost relative to average player’s performance, Adj. C. +- = number of catches made or lost relative to average player’s performance (adjusted for number of targets and quarterback accuracy), 1DN +- = number of first downs gained or lost relative to average player’s performance, Yards +- = total number of yards gained or lost relative to average player’s performance

Rank Team YAC+- Adj. C. +- 1DN +- Yards +- Best Receiver Worst Receiver
1 New England Patriots -26.95 19.03 30.17 699.00 Wes Welker (371.8635) Aaron Hernandez (-112.357)
2 New Orleans Saints -43.13 14.61 21.68 577.48 Marques Colston (240.7536) Devery Henderson (-189.3)
3 Carolina Panthers 312.74 5.78 3.78 503.60 Brandon LaFell (154.5734) Louis Murphy (-181.483)
4 Detroit Lions -239.15 21.31 17.34 409.28 Calvin Johnson (679.9566) Tony Scheffler (-153.06)
5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 155.87 11.64 2.50 402.86 Vincent Jackson (440.5429) Dallas Clark (-167.013)
6 Indianapolis Colts -14.11 23.96 3.25 368.45 Reggie Wayne (277.5038) Donnie Avery (-100.829)
7 Buffalo Bills 17.12 4.63 12.50 255.86 C.J. Spiller (233.5689) T.J. Graham (-107.953)
8 Atlanta Falcons -248.42 17.20 11.99 182.22 Roddy White (259.646) Harry Douglas (-180.803)
9 Houston Texans -157.64 9.43 9.12 174.58 Andre Johnson (488.9411) Arian Foster (-140.504)
10 Green Bay Packers -12.99 0.06 7.83 171.18 Randall Cobb (159.2873) Greg Jennings (-89.9004)
11 Washington Redskins 145.39 -9.76 3.92 104.16 Fred Davis (80.11319) Evan Royster (-85.8838)
12 Pittsburgh Steelers -106.60 4.13 7.46 83.21 Heath Miller (137.0225) Mike Wallace (-172.769)
13 Cleveland Browns -60.61 -5.25 8.46 -6.22 Josh Gordon (202.1507) Alex Smith (-98.6756)
14 Chicago Bears -208.22 14.86 -3.16 -31.03 Brandon Marshall (216.3843) Kellen Davis (-141.113)
15 Seattle Seahawks 6.89 -6.67 3.02 -32.48 Golden Tate (70.64275) Zach Miller (-126.075)
16 Denver Broncos -225.52 9.73 -0.83 -63.17 Demaryius Thomas (227.4) Jacob Tamme (-173.921)
17 San Francisco 49ers -60.14 -1.83 2.56 -65.03 Michael Crabtree (240.303) Delanie Walker (-95.0717)
18 Minnesota Vikings -182.77 -3.11 11.57 -76.66 Percy Harvin (287.5552) Adrian Peterson (-172.394)
19 Cincinnati Bengals -58.29 9.07 -10.28 -77.82 A.J. Green (142.3091) BenJarvus Green-Ellis (-148.116)
20 Baltimore Ravens -63.52 4.94 -6.52 -132.86 Anquan Boldin (100.2132) Jacoby Jones (-109.59)
21 St. Louis Rams -198.64 -1.96 3.42 -137.44 Brandon Gibson (122.1234) Austin Pettis (-107.371)
22 Oakland Raiders -89.69 2.04 -5.28 -174.07 Mike Goodson (159.7108) Darren McFadden (-152.526)
23 New York Giants -202.00 6.67 -8.48 -208.23 Ahmad Bradshaw (66.26937) Hakeem Nicks (-93.5713)
24 San Diego Chargers -200.07 -9.45 4.13 -209.64 Danario Alexander (176.2696) Robert Meachem (-128.727)
25 Kansas City Chiefs -176.07 -1.03 -1.97 -243.60 Dwayne Bowe (44.77443) Dexter McCluster (-106.001)
26 Miami Dolphins -207.49 4.90 -10.69 -259.44 Brian Hartline (48.76714) Anthony Fasano (-239.78)
27 Dallas Cowboys -301.02 15.76 -13.26 -283.20 Dez Bryant (137.1298) Jason Witten (-162.945)
28 New York Jets -221.29 -7.92 -2.53 -312.98 Dustin Keller (39.70787) Shonn Greene (-112.463)
29 Philadelphia Eagles -213.57 1.71 -10.78 -335.19 LeSean McCoy (90.6828) Clay Harbor (-162.782)
30 Tennessee Titans -220.04 1.56 -8.99 -347.60 Craig Stevens (38.8465) Kenny Britt (-191.877)
31 Jacksonville Jaguars -52.33 3.33 -21.95 -348.73 Cecil Shorts (149.2529) Laurent Robinson (-191.668)
32 Arizona Cardinals -521.58 11.47 -15.82 -586.21 Andre Roberts (43.76667) Early Doucet (-174.199)

The top two receiving crews on this list are generally considered to be among the best in the league and Megatron is great enough to drag a bunch of other UFL-level receivers onto the top five. But all you ever hear about the Panthers’ receiving core is Steve Smith (who deserves to be talked about and is still utterly terrifying) and how they need to find other receivers to complement him. This regression analysis thinks otherwise. The Panthers have gotten great receiving production out of their running backs – DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert and Jonathan Stewart combined for 240 receiving yards above their expectation. Factor in Greg Olson and the apparently underrated LaFell and it looks like Cam’s got plenty of people to throw to. In fact, Louis Murphy was the only receiver on the Panthers roster last year to post a negative Yard +- total and he’s on the Giants now.

The Colts are the other high-ranking team that really surprised me. Reggie Wayne obviously had a hell of a year, but T.Y. Hilton racked up 157 additional yards after catch than expected and Dwayne Allen was one of the top five receiving tight ends in the league. You have to give Andrew Luck credit for surviving behind an awful offensive line, but it looks like he was actually helped out significantly by his receivers.

The other high-ranking teams that maybe look out of place are the Bills (boosted mainly by Spiller’s amazing YAC totals and Scott Chandler’s nose for the first down marker), Browns (gotta be honest, Josh Gordon and Greg Little don’t usually look like above-average receivers when I fire up Browns games on Game Rewind, but that might have been due to the Weeden Factor), Bears (Brandon Marshall can cover up A LOT of problems) and maybe the Redskins (they accumulated a bunch of yards after the catch, but Fred Davis was their best receiver and he missed half the year). All the other teams that rate above-average pass the eye test to me.

Peyton Manning’s MVP candidacy gets a boost from the Broncos Yards +- numbers – Demaryius Thomas goes down as one of the ten best receivers in the league, but Eric Decker actually ended up rating 29 yards below average (mainly because of poor YAC relative to where he usually caught the ball) and the Broncos as a whole had a slightly below-average unit, according to these numbers. So did Seattle and San Francisco, making Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick’s seasons look even more impressive while also suggesting Alex Smith may be better than we think.

Once you get below Baltimore at #20, most of the bottom-dwelling teams had poor offenses in general except for the Giants and Cowboys – Eli was hurt by a huge regression season from Victor Cruz (who, as you’ll see shortly, was pretty amazing in 2011) and only the Cardinals quarterbacks lost more yards after the catch than Tony Romo – for that, he really only has to blame Jason Witten.

As you can see, the quality of a team’s supporting cast doesn’t tend to make a dramatic adjustment to a team’s overall passing game. At most, it generally will add or subtract about a net yard per attempt from a quarterback’s average, which is enough to change a quarterback’s stats from great to good or poor to average but never enough to make Blaine Gabbert look like Aaron Rodgers. I’ve run the formulas for the past three seasons, plus 2003 (don’t ask me why), and with one exception, no receiving crew has gone above or below 700 yards one way or another.

That exception comes from the 2011 season and it’s probably the most controversial thing to come out of the whole exercise. You’ll see it in the top ranking shortly.

Yards +- Team-by-Team Rankings, 2011. Legend: YAC +- = yards after the catch gained or lost relative to average player’s performance, Adj. C. +- = number of catches made or lost relative to average player’s performance (adjusted for number of targets and quarterback accuracy), 1DN +- = number of first downs gained or lost relative to average player’s performance, Yards +- = total number of yards gained or lost relative to average player’s performance

Rank Team YAC+- Adj. C. +- 1DN +- Yards +- Best Receiver Worst Receiver
1 New England Patriots 460.36 18.60 37.76 1260.34 Rob Gronkowski (577.6679) Chad Ochocinco (-68.964)
2 Pittsburgh Steelers 133.59 -3.38 21.44 448.33 Mike Wallace (331.6463) Hines Ward (-124.409)
3 Green Bay Packers 427.45 -7.85 0.91 398.93 Jordy Nelson (235.0801) Donald Driver (-134.649)
4 New York Giants 339.14 1.55 -2.72 373.95 Victor Cruz (436.4043) Mario Manningham (-201.807)
5 San Diego Chargers 115.56 -7.51 20.45 366.62 Malcolm Floyd (201.8762) Jacob Hester (-74.5119)
6 Arizona Cardinals 225.24 3.97 -3.00 268.35 Larry Fitzgerald (379.2588) Andre Roberts (-112.593)
7 Detroit Lions -1.86 10.55 3.11 238.61 Calvin Johnson (490.6654) Brandon Pettigrew (-226.989)
8 Houston Texans 207.34 -12.59 12.32 232.65 Arian Foster (221.4668) Derrick Mason (-120.858)
9 New Orleans Saints -113.84 6.23 14.93 229.32 Jimmy Graham (203.102) Lance Moore (-77.4783)
10 Carolina Panthers 266.05 -1.56 -6.56 215.98 Steve Smith (278.2257) Legedu Naanee (-199.562)
11 Dallas Cowboys 9.78 -7.07 7.39 143.70 Dez Bryant (119.608) Tashard Choice (-95.7474)
12 Atlanta Falcons -96.27 13.24 2.78 140.45 Roddy White (187.7661) Jason Snelling (-78.0145)
13 Philadelphia Eagles 105.46 -1.04 -0.81 108.17 Brent Celek (145.1974) Riley Cooper (-69.0179)
14 Baltimore Ravens -49.93 0.23 5.92 49.49 Ray Rice (188.856) Ed Dickson (-138.308)
15 Washington Redskins -43.77 -6.92 9.59 28.47 Fred Davis (159.885) Santana Moss (-83.299)
16 Indianapolis Colts -264.26 6.95 6.08 -57.66 Reggie Wayne (90.41893) Donald Brown (-44.4652)
17 Tennessee Titans 43.53 -2.86 -6.48 -78.70 Jared Cook (145.2408) Chris Johnson (-157.669)
18 New York Jets -54.91 -1.64 0.04 -94.43 Joe McKnight (54.70618) Shonn Greene (-80.325)
19 Kansas City Chiefs -134.15 -0.81 -1.86 -159.87 Dwayne Bowe (139.649) Jonathan Baldwin (-225.106)
20 Denver Broncos -38.04 -11.46 -0.72 -167.53 Matt Willis (43.94378) Eddie Royal (-179.77)
21 St. Louis Rams -140.93 -3.26 0.73 -168.56 Steven Jackson (52.14698) Austin Pettis (-93.3238)
22 Minnesota Vikings -67.56 -5.12 1.98 -184.90 Percy Harvin (196.8103) Devin Aromashodu (-239.021)
23 Miami Dolphins -146.58 -0.52 -4.53 -227.32 Brandon Marshall (22.64809) Davone Bess (-172.937)
24 Buffalo Bills -95.07 -3.43 -6.53 -230.55 Fred Jackson (197.5327) Donald Jones (-208.806)
25 Chicago Bears 17.53 -14.75 -6.42 -259.82 Johnny Knox (99.2642) Dane Sanzenbacher (-167.332)
26 Jacksonville Jaguars -111.79 -8.30 -3.34 -283.58 Maurice Jones-Drew (150.8224) Mike Thomas (-176.641)
27 San Francisco 49ers -121.05 -8.79 -6.92 -305.20 Josh Morgan (87.05121) Braylon Edwards (-129.747)
28 Oakland Raiders 113.44 -14.99 -12.03 -308.58 Michael Bush (85.66384) Derek Hagan (-227.976)
29 Cincinnati Bengals -179.85 -2.65 -15.52 -417.22 A.J. Green (76.70585) Andre Caldwell (-250.674)
30 Cleveland Browns -366.76 -9.48 -1.31 -502.97 Josh Cribbs (65.93999) Mohamed Massaquoi (-220.551)
31 Tampa Bay Buccaneers -298.66 -3.22 -11.38 -507.35 Preston Parker (97.81485) Kellen Winslow (-159.774)
32 Seattle Seahawks -149.86 -17.03 -14.92 -548.97 Doug Baldwin (222.4369) Zach Miller (-156.754)

I mean… TWELVE HUNDRED AND SIXTY YARDS? Sweet mother of Bruce Pearl, that’s somewhat hard to believe. But that’s what happens when you have the best receiver in the league (Gronk), another receiver that gains over 400 yards more than expected (WELKAH) and two other receivers who both wind well over 100 yards better than average (Law Firm and the suspected murderer). All in all, given that New England quarterbacks dropped back to pass 644 times in 2011 (good job completing that one pass for 22 yards, Brian Hoyer!), that means the Patriots receivers were worth about an extra 1.95 net yards per pass attempt.

Well, you want to know what happens when you take away 1.95 adjusted net yards per attempt from Tom Brady’s 2011 average? You’re not going to believe this, but it goes down. A lot. As in, from 8.25 to 6.3. If you take that discount literally, that means Brady shouldn’t have been talked about as an MVP candidate alongside Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees (either of which would have thrown for 6000 yards with the Pats receivers, if you want to take the exercise to its logical end) but rather in the above-average quarterback echelon with the likes of Carson Palmer, Jay Cutler and Alex Smith.

Brady was considered to have the best receiving core in the league in 2012, too. Though that league-leading figure of +699.00 yards wasn’t as audacious as his receivers’ 2011 rating, it still takes a pretty sizable bite out of his Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt figure (7.48 to 6.43). Since the league average for Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt has been around 5.9 for the past two seasons, Brady comes out as a merely above-average quarterback the past two seasons instead of one of the two or three best each year. Is there any chance that adjustment might be correct?

Statistically, Brady’s average completion came 6.63 yards down the field in 2012 and 6.31 yards down the field in 2011. According to the regression formula for each season, we would expect an average passer throwing to an average receiver to complete a pass at those distances 63.0% and 62.9% of the time, respectively. Brady ended up completing 65.6% of his passes in 2011 but just 63.0% in 2012, essentially hitting the average projection on the nose.

Anecdotally, I would say that the 2011 and ’12 versions of Brady inspired considerably less fear in my heart than the second half of 2010 edition that ripped up the entire league and ate its entire soul (until the playoffs, anyway). Additionally, if you watch enough Game Rewind – and Lord knows I was addicted to it for most of the summer – you find soon enough that every NFL quarterback is able to complete short throws over the middle. Those are the throws that are the shortest distance away from where the quarterback is set up in the pocket and even the likes of Brandon Weeden and Kevin Kolb are able to make those throws most of the time. It’s throws into tighter windows down the field that give the bad quarterbacks fits.

Brady is generally considered one of the greatest short-throwing quarterbacks of all time, if not the best, but it’s definitely easier to complete passes and rack up yards when Wes Welker consistently beats his man off the line of scrimmage and gets open quickly within five yards. It’s also much easier to complete passes when you have a 6’6″, 265-lb tight end with soft hands who runs a 40-yard dash in the same time Welker does. Give Brady credit for excellent decision-making and generally throwing the ball accurately, but five-yard ins and slants are throws that virtually all NFL quarterbacks deserving of a roster spot are able to make.

At any rate, determining the distance of each pass completion allows for better analysis of a receiver’s catching ability and his ability to gain yards after the catch. There may never be a stat that fully extricates the individual impact a single receiver has on a pass play, but Yards +- helps give some indication of a quarterback’s supporting cast. I’ve been working on this post for over a week now and I’m rather tired, so I’ll leave you all with a quote from Cowboys fullback Lawrence Vickers that I hope stirs your soul:

“When those ants get close to those testicles, there ain’t no laughing about that.”

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One thought on “The Best Receivers in the NFL, as Measured by Regression Analysis

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