Guest post by Tyler Brandt
As the 2015 season wraps up, it is clear that wide receivers had another incredible season. There were two receivers with over 1,800 yards (Julio Jones and Antonio Brown), and two more over 1,500 (DeAndre Hopkins and Brandon Marshall). If it weren’t for his antics with Josh Norman, Odell Beckham Jr. (1,450 yards) probably would have joined them. There were 22 receivers who reached 1,000 yards, with four tight ends joining them, making that once impressive benchmark seem like a meaningless number. With two rookies (Amari Cooper and Stefon Diggs) leading their respective teams in receiving yards, this position is still getting deeper and better. With all of this in mind, we’ll take a look at a metric in its second season, Wide Receiver Efficiency Rating (WRER). While efficiency is not necessarily a measure of how good a player was, it should tell us who was performing well in his role during the past season. WRER should tell us which wideouts were helping their teams the most on a per-route-run basis.
I created WRER between the 2014 and 2015 seasons and only have the data going back to 2014. The idea was to figure out a way to rate players on a per-route-run basis so that I could find which players were efficient on limited snap counts, which skills make a receiver most efficient, and whether deep threats or underneath targets are more efficient. My thinking was that there are three things that a receiver is asked to do: get open, catch the ball, and run with it. If we have ways to accurately rate how well each player is doing in those three categories, then we should be able to put it together in a way that makes sense and helps us determine how much each player is helping his team for each play that he is out on the field.
The part of the metric that rates a receiver’s ability to get open I’m calling the separation score, his ability to catch the ball is his hands score, and his ability to rack up yards after the catch is his open field score. You might be able to figure out where each part of the formula comes from, but here are those three formulas inside the larger one:
The separation score is just the combination of average depth of target and targets per route run. Targets per route run is a pretty good measure of how often a receiver is able to find separation, at least to the point where the quarterback is comfortable throwing him the ball, but we need to add in the depth factor because getting open every play three and ten yards downfield every play do very different things for your team. By multiplying this statistic with average depth of target, we get targeted air yards per route run which combines how often a receiver gets open with how much it helps his team.
We multiply the separation score by the hands score, which is the percentage of catchable passes that a receiver is able to reel in, because the hands score represents the percentage of opportunities that the receiver is able to take advantage of his separation and turn it into a gain for his team. We should note that I’m not just counting catches and drops as catchable balls. Most places where you’ll find “drops” as a statistic will count only passes that they deemed were 100 percent the fault of the receiver while there are plenty of passes that are, say, 80 percent the fault of the receiver that he really should have caught. I tried to make catchable balls a statistic that reflected any target that a receiver could have caught rather than just the ones that definitely should have been caught.
Finally, the open field score is simply yards after the catch per catch divided by five. The reason for that multiplier in the denominator is that about one-third of all the wide receivers’ receiving yards comes after the catch. I put in the multiplier to make sure that the open field score represented, on average, one-third of the total WRER score. Lastly, it was added to the first part of the score instead of multiplied because it more accurately represents the way a receiver works. The air yards and the yards after the catch have been separated in WRER by adding the open field score the the separation and hands score.
As a new metric, the raw numbers won’t mean anything unless we provide some context, so here is a loose scale to go by:
|Score||What it Means|
|3.500||Very good efficiency|
|2.800||Above average efficiency|
|2.250||Below average efficiency|
|Below 2.250||Poor efficiency|
Separation vs. Hands vs. Open Field
I mentioned that I wanted to find which skills were most important for a receiver to have and what I’m really talking about here is whether route running, catching, or the ability to make defensive players miss tackles is the most important for a wide receiver. In an attempt to see which category affected WRER the most overall, I compared the ranking of each player in WRER to his ranking in each of the three categories. In 2014, the average receiver differed 14.6 spots between his WRER ranking and separation ranking, while those numbers were 42.3 spots for his hands ranking and 32.8 for his open field ranking. In 2015 those numbers for separation, hands, and open field were 15.6, 49.4, and 38.3, respectively. You can argue the soundness of the method I used for determining which skill is most important, but with results that obvious, it is clear that getting open and getting open deep are the most important things a receiver can do for his efficiency. While many high draft picks are spent on receivers whose highlights show an incredible ability to make would-be tacklers miss, a smarter strategy would be to draft the ones who find the most separation. It can be difficult to identify those receivers since they are going up against weak cornerbacks during half of their college games but drafting a guy for what he can do when he has the ball does not make sense if it is going to be a struggle to get him the ball.
Deep Threats vs. Underneath Targets
The next thing I wanted to find was whether or not it is more efficient to run most of your routes deep downfield or closer to the line of scrimmage. Obviously getting open downfield helps your team more, but it is also easier to get open closer to the line of scrimmage, so I wanted to see whether the extra yards on the deep passes outweighed the extra targets on the short passes. I haven’t run the numbers for 2015, but the results from 2014 show a pretty clear conclusion. The NFL defines a “deep” pass as any pass traveling at least 15 yards in the air. I took the twenty receivers who had the highest percentage of their passes come as deep passes and the twenty receivers who had the lowest percentage of their passes come as deep passes and compared the two groups. The top twenty deep threats averaged a WRER of 3.037 and and had an average rank of 46.9. The top twenty underneath threats averaged a WRER of 2.182 and an average rank of 90.8. For reference, there were only five receivers who had a WRER better than 4.000 and 45 receivers better than 3.000 in 2014. That being said, some of these deep threats benefitted from teams that try to throw deep more often, so I added in a normalized version of WRER that accounts for how often each team throws deep passes. When we look at this version, the deep threats averaged an nWRER of 2.910 with an average rank of 54.5 while the underneath threats averaged an nWRER of 2.210 with an average rank of 89.4. While the two sides were a little bit closer, it is still clear that those who spend more plays running deep routes are significantly more efficient than those who stay closer to the line of scrimmage. While many people liked what they saw from Jarvis Landry in 2014, his great hands and work in the open field were not enough to overcome the lack of depth on his targets. This suggests that even teams that opt for a more conservative approach should consider going more to the deep ball as those looking to go downfield more often are winding up with more efficient offenses.
The rest of what is written here will loosely cover the third question I wanted to answer of which receivers were the most efficient on limited snaps and should be viewed as good backups. I talk about many different players in here that go under different categories. If you’re specifically interested in those backups, view the section titled “Good Backups”, but the rest of this just talks about the results in general.
|Player||Team||Separation Score||Hands Score||Open Field Score||WRER|
Table 1: Top 10 WRER Performers in 2015
In what may come as a minor surprise, Alshon Jeffery topped our WRER rankings and it wasn’t that close. He was first at 4.728 and Martavis Bryant came in second for the second straight year at 4.166. He battled injuries all season long and rarely played a full game, but Jeffery was very effective for the snaps that he did play. He did it the same way you would expect from Jeffery, too. His hands weren’t very good and he didn’t do much after the catch, as he ranked 95th and 96th in those categories, respectively. None of that mattered, though, as his separation score of 5.111 blew everyone else out of the water. Mike Evans came in second at 4.550. That may seem a bit weird since sometimes Jeffery gets targeted even though he hasn’t necessarily uncovered himself, but that constitutes separation for Jeffery. If he’s just given a couple of inches he usually finds a way to make the defensive back pay. Regardless of how he’s doing it, he’s getting just open enough that Jay Cutler wants to throw him the ball on almost one out of every three routes he’s running. Given the offense that they run, this is a very good sign for the Bears. Although Adam Gase is headed to Miami, it can be reasonably assumed that they will run the same offense since Cutler had one of his better seasons. That offense relies on a good running game and an efficient passing game. They limit the number of passes per game and try to get more out of their quarterback and passing attack on a per-play basis. If Jeffery is the most efficient receiver in the game, then that will help a lot. It’s possible that the scheme helped the receiver in this regard, but Jeffery was still 23rd last season on a much higher snap count. Add in the fact that there were three Bears receivers outside the top 90 (of 134) and it sure looks like this offense won’t work without Jeffery doing what he does on every passing down.
Over in Buffalo, there were weeks where it seemed like Tyrod Taylor had no idea that he could throw to someone not named Sammy Watkins. That makes it a little less surprising that Watkins ranked third in WRER. Like Jeffery, he missed some time but the results were spectacular when he played. Although he didn’t do much after the catch (his open field score ranked 118th out of 134), his separation score ranked third and his hands score was .832. This is also essential to the offense that Buffalo runs because of how seldom they pass the ball. The Bills ran the ball more than any other team in the league but you can’t win if you can’t do anything through the air. The more you rely on the running game, the higher the need for efficiency in the passing game is, so if it weren’t for Watkins then this offense may have completely fallen apart. His ability to get open downfield would probably represent an important piece of any offense, but he matters even more for the Bills than he would for other teams given their style of play.
While the past two players had similar stories in 2015, Ted Ginn took a much different path to being ranked fourth in WRER. When you think of all of Ginn’s long touchdown catches, you might believe that he did well in terms of efficiency. However, it seems unlikely that a team’s top wide out with only 44 catches on 90 targets for a little more than 700 yards would end up doing that well. As it turns out, Carolina did not use Ginn like its top receiver. He played only 60 percent of his team’s snaps and Corey Brown was on the field more often than he was. Greg Olsen was used as the Panthers’ top target but Ginn’s playing time is about what you would expect from someone who is sharing time as the team’s second receiver regardless of who the tight end is. This surely helped Ginn’s efficiency, as we have seen him enough throughout his career to know that he wouldn’t do so well playing close to 90 percent of his team’s snaps. Credit should be given to Ginn for getting open when he was asked to but I think the interesting takeaway here is that the Panthers’ receivers did much better than anticipated. Although none of them played more than 70 percent of the team’s snaps, the Panthers’ wide receivers were very efficient. One of the arguments that people have been using to vote Cam Newton for MVP is that he has had no weapons to work with on the outside. While none of these guys were established top weapons and probably would not have done as well if they played more often, they did quite well in limited time. Ginn finished fourth, Devin Funchess was 21st, Jerricho Cotchery was 55th, and Corey Brown was the only one who was underwhelming at 115th. Brown played the most but only a little bit more than Ginn, so this group averages out to a pretty good efficiency rating. These four were also on the field enough to account for a little more than two receivers on the field for every play. In other words, Ron Rivera kept rotating his receivers to make sure that none of them were on the field too much so that each one could still be effective in the role he was asked to perform. At the end of the season, this group as a whole was above average, showing that Newton really did have weapons to work with. If you want to vote Newton for MVP for other reasons that is fine, but using his weapons as a reason to cast your ballot for him is unfair considering what these guys were able to do on a per-route-run basis.
We’ll wrap up the top performers here with one that we should be very happy about in Steve Smith. Smith finished at seventh place in WRER and even if you didn’t like him very much you have to admit that it would be better if he came back and performed well in what will probably be his last season instead of struggling to get any kind of separation against mediocre cornerbacks when he’s out there. There is nothing worse than seeing a player who has been good for a long time slowly fade into irrelevance but we don’t have to worry about that as much with Smith. It is possible that the injury will sap whatever he had left, but the fact that his efficiency was this high offers us hope that his last year could be a good one.
|Player||Team||Separation Score||Hands Score||Open Field Score||WRER|
Table 2: Worst 10 WRER performers in 2015
Most of the players who were inefficient would not be all that surprising. You might not be able to guess their names because most of these players would not immediately come to mind when you think of wide receivers, but that’s kind of the point. Most of these receivers are third or fourth wide receivers that aren’t supposed to make a difference and weren’t helped by the fact that they didn’t play much. We’ll focus here on players that were more surprising to see here at the bottom of the rankings.
After DeSean Jackson was replaced by Jordan Matthews, many believed that any wide receiver could perform well in Chip Kelly’s system. Kelly found out that this was not the case the hard way as his first round pick, Nelson Agholor, ranked 125th out of 134 wide receivers in WRER. Being a rookie last year, Agholor still has time to improve but this isn’t a good start. To make matters worse, Jeremy Maclin ended the year at number 32 in WRER. There were many things that went wrong for the Eagles in 2015, but the drop from Maclin to Agholor was one of the worst in terms of on field production. Jordan Matthews was supposed to slide into the number one slot vacated by Maclin and Agholor would replace Matthews as the team’s second wide out. Matthews was fine, ranking 57th in efficiency which is made more impressive by Sam Bradford’s unwillingness to throw the ball downfield, but Agholor struggled all the way through his rookie season. He didn’t do well in any of the three categories that make up WRER and ultimately was just part of the great big problem that was the 2015 Philadelphia Eagles. The good news for Agholor is that he has some time to work with as neither Riley Cooper nor Josh Huff did well either. Since Agholor has the injury excuse and the Eagles had higher hopes for him, he’ll probably be given every chance to win the starting job opposite Matthews again next season. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either. I only started tracking WRER in 2014, but Brandin Cooks, another first round draft pick, jumped from 102nd to 31st between his rookie and sophomore seasons. Sometimes all a receiver needs is more time to gel with his quarterback, as Drew Brees clearly got more comfortable with Cooks as the season went on. I have no idea if Bradford will be the Eagles’ quarterback next season, but if he stays then it would give Agholor the chance to develop a better rapport with him and hopefully help the young receiver improve his separation skills. Agholor’s .108 targets per route run was one of the worst marks in the league so he has to quickly find more ways to get open. Agholor looks like a bust right now, but he still has a lot of time to develop and the Eagles best option will be to give him that chance.
Perhaps one of the more difficult things to explain is Mohamed Sanu’s huge drop in efficiency despite having significantly less playing time. While his passing and kicking skills have made him a piece the Bengals value, it’s unclear what he is as a receiver. Last year he had a lot of drops and was often criticized for it but he did very well after the catch and got open a good enough portion of the time that he turned out to be around league average in terms of efficiency. This year was a different story as his separation ranked 127th and his hands were all the way up to 35th. His open field rank was the same at 18th. He was targeted less often when on the field and his average depth of target dropped by over three yards. That can’t be blamed on A.J. McCarron since the rest of the team did not see the same drop and McCarron did not play enough games to create that big of a drop in the average. What’s more likely is that Marvin Jones’ return influenced the way the Bengals used Sanu. Jones had 33 deep targets to Sanu’s 9 after Sanu recorded 27 in the year before with Jones injured the whole season. Jones’ average target traveled nearly 13 yards in the air, so with A.J. Green and Jones both going downfield frequently, Sanu was forced to the underneath routes. That doesn’t explain his drop in targets per route run but it is also possible that Sanu was not as effective at getting open on the shorter routes. I don’t have anything to back that up and am just throwing it out as a possibility but he clearly was not used downfield as much this season and he was not at an age where his separation skills should have decreased. That leaves undisclosed injuries, or the possibility that Sanu was better when he ran different kinds of routes as two of the more likely explanations left. In any case, Sanu’s efficiency took a significant hit very early in his career.
When Dez Bryant went down in week 1 with an injury that would keep him out for awhile, the Cowboys needed Cole Beasley to help out more in the passing game. If you’ve seen Beasley play, you can probably understand why he doesn’t do too well in WRER. He is almost exclusively an underneath target as he had a grand total of two targets go more than 15 yards in the air. What makes Beasley interesting is that he did really well in both the hands and open field categories. He ranked 10th and 17th in those categories, respectively, but his score was held down by his awful separation score. He ranked 130th there and his WRER did not even get above 2. Even though his .174 targets per route run were about average for wide receivers, he just couldn’t get open deep and he rarely tried. This is where we shouldn’t let efficiency get in the way of determining how good a receiver is. If Beasley were used solely in third-and-short situations he would have done a great job moving the chains when his team needed a conversion. He was not used like this in Dallas, as he played over 50 percent of the team’s snaps but there is a role that he can do well in. WRER treats all yards equally so that isn’t reflected here but just because Beasley was towards the bottom of the rankings does not make him a bad receiver. At the same time, him being on the field outside of those situations made the Dallas’ offense less efficient as he did not make much of an impact when they had more yards to go for the first down.
In what goes down as somewhat of a failed project for Tom Coughlin, Reuben Randle was given nearly 90 percent of his team’s snaps and was the 107th most efficient receiver. He was given the number of plays you would expect from a team’s top wide out and yet wound up behind names like Miles Austin and Adam Thielen, among many others in terms efficiency. All year long Coughlin kept trying to find ways to get Randle more involved in the offense but when Sunday came around, Randle just couldn’t find separation. As the Giants kept cycling through backup receivers trying to find someone who could complement Beckham they kept Randle on the field and kept throwing away from him. He should have been able to find more room to get open with his teammate drawing so much attention but he just couldn’t find a way to shake the defensive backs that were thrown at him. The Giants already lacked depth at the position, so having Randle come up with so little on so many opportunities really hurt them. As long as Beckham is wearing a Giants’ uniform, wide receiver can’t really be considered a need for this team, but they could certainly use some help outside instead of just putting the same, inefficient players out onto the field.
The players listed here are the ones who increased their efficiency the most from 2014 to 2015.
|Player||Team||2014 WRER||2014 Rank||2015 WRER||2015 Rank||WRER Difference||Rank Difference|
Table 3: Top 10 players who rose the most in the WRER rankings in 2015
As noted above, Brandin Cooks jumped 71 spots in his WRER ranking which was second to only Marquess Wilson who moved up 75 spots from 120th to 45th. Wilson increased his efficiency despite playing more snaps, which is a good sign of his progression as a wide receiver. That large a jump kind of overstates his improvement but he did do enough on the outside to be an efficient option alongside Jeffery. Wilson improved his WRER score by 1.353, which ranked second to Jeffery in terms of improvement from last season, and that would be a little more encouraging if he had done that in a different way. He ranked 81st in separation which was still better than 2014, but the main reason he did this well overall was his 1.400 open field score that ranked 3rd among qualified receivers. While some receivers can certainly do more than others with the ball in their hands, yards after the catch is still a number that fluctuates from year to year. It is telling that Wilson improved from 2.35 yards after the catch per catch to 7.00 this past season. Given the small sample size (only 27 catches), it would be hard to bank on Wilson replicating that number in future seasons. What the Bears would have preferred is that Wilson make his improvement in targets per route run. He stayed at the same number there while he was targeted downfield more often, leading to the increase in his separation score. If Wilson’s yards after the catch come back down to earth, he’ll only be a small upgrade over the inefficient receiver we saw in 2014. In the end, the Bears should be more excited about Kevin White’s return than Wilson’s improvement.
Another receiver who went from the bottom of our rankings to a respectable score was Tavon Austin. He tripled his separation score and climbed all the way up to 98th in that category. Yeah, he was that bad. In 2015, he improved his overall score by a full point and ended up 62nd in WRER. Austin is still a tough one to gauge for next year, though. He was actually above average in terms of yards per route run but the Rams insist on throwing him so many screen or swing passes that it’s fair to wonder how often he can get open on his own. He had one of the lowest average depth of target marks despite 16 of his 81 targets coming 15 or more yards downfield. That is a below average percentage of deep targets but it should be enough to keep you from the bottom of the league in average depth of target. Like Wilson, Austin’s score was buoyed by a very high open field score of 1.319 but he did catch 52 passes, making it less likely that it was a fluke. At the same time, I think it is that high for the wrong reasons. In general, I think that quick swing passes are a waste of time and offenses would be better served to run different passing plays. If the Rams let Austin just run actual routes instead of forcing the ball to him, he would probably end up being more efficient. His targets per route run would decrease, but not by enough to outweigh the significant increase in average depth of target. His open field score would come down, but there are receivers who manage to do well after the catch without all of those passes at the line of scrimmage. Austin has the speed and elusiveness to do that, so while that score would drop, I believe he would still post a good open field score without screens and swing passes. Also, the separation score matters more than the other two categories by a pretty wide margin, so changing Austin’s route tree might be the best way to improve his efficiency. If not, then St. Louis would be better off just having Kenny Britt and Brian Quick on the field, who both did well in WRER for the second straight year.
While the last two receivers went from the bottom to above average, Allen Robinson had already done pretty well in 2014, his rookie season. Before a season ending injury midway through the year, Robinson was having a very nice season and he was even better in 2015. Undoubtedly helped by the Jaguars encouraging Blake Bortles to throw downfield more often, Robinson ended up 11th in separation score while playing more than 90 percent of his team’s snaps. His average target was what the NFL considers a deep pass, going more than 15 yards in the air and he was targeted more than once every five routes run. He routinely beat the best cornerbacks in the league, including Brent Grimes, Darrelle Revis, Jonathon Joseph, among others. Josh Norman and Vontae Davis were the only two corners who were able to hold their own against him and that’s nothing to be ashamed of from Robinson’s standpoint. He doesn’t have the best hands and he’s solid after the catch, but what makes Robinson special is his ability to get open against anyone deep downfield. He emerged as one of the best receivers this year and there were only five receivers who played at least 80 percent of their snaps that did better in WRER. The Jaguars have a lot of holes to fill but Robinson is more than capable of holding down the top receiver spot for years to come.
It wouldn’t really be fair if I didn’t mention Jarvis Landry in this space since I mentioned his 2014 season as a reason for why certain types of receivers are more efficient than others. Landry jumped 38 spots in WRER and his score improved by nearly half of a point. Landry deserves credit for working on his deep routes as that was the part of his game that was holding back his efficiency. His hands and open field scores were almost the same as they were in 2014 but his separation score improved by more than .6. His average target traveled nearly two more yards in the air than last year and he was actually targeted more often. He’s good enough at getting open that he doesn’t need to be near the league leaders in average depth of target to be efficient and he proved that this season. It would still be better for the Dolphins if he could go downfield a little bit more often, but if they get someone else to pair with him then Landry would make for a really good number two receiver. That other receiver may be DeVante Parker, who placed 44th in WRER, four spots ahead of Landry. Parker didn’t do too well in the hands or open field department, but he ranked 36th in separation as a rookie. Nearly one out of every three of his targets was a deep pass, so he would represent the type of deep threat that a team would need if it starts Landry at the other receiver spot. If either one of those two receivers improves just a little bit then this team will be in really good shape, having two efficient receivers in their rookie contracts.
|Player||Team||2014 WRER||2014 Rank||2015 WRER||2015 Rank||WRER Difference||Rank Difference|
Table 4: Top 10 players who fell the most in the WRER rankings in 2015
Over on the other end of the spectrum, the receivers who fell the most in WRER had a bigger change than those who rose the most. Taylor Gabriel took the biggest tumble in our rankings, with his WRER decreasing by nearly 50 percent (-1.914) and his rank decreasing by 103 spots. Last year the Browns looked like they had a really efficient and diverse group of wide receivers with Andrew Hawkins doing well on the short routes and both Gabriel and Travis Benjamin stretching the field. Gabriel looked like a promising rookie who had succeeded sharing time as the team’s second wide out and was ready for a bigger role. Instead of taking a step forward, he regressed in all three categories and just didn’t find open space on deep routes like he did in 2014. Benjamin was the only one of those three who did well in efficiency this year and although Gary Barnidge and Duke Johnson emerged as non-receiver passing options, having Gabriel and Hawkins regress so much hurt them a lot. They were capped at one reliable option on the outside the entire season as nobody they tried in that second wide receiver slot was able to move the ball. They could catch the occasional short pass but if they tried going downfield, they could not find any kind of separation. Not having Josh Gordon definitely hurts this group, but the drop in efficiency of the players they tried to rotate in hurt just as much.
While Cleveland had nobody to replace their inefficient receivers, the Vikings at least got rookie Stefon Diggs to pick up the slack. While he was able to find room to work with past the safeties, both Mike Wallace and Charles Johnson struggled all season long. Both of them dropped around 60 spots in WRER. After a year in which both receivers were targeted often and both had aDOT’s above 14, neither one posted an aDOT above 13 and they were a bit below average in terms of targets per route run. Some of this was due to Teddy Bridgewater throwing mostly short passes. When we look at normalized WRER, both receivers move up the rankings ahout 15 spots so it wasn’t like they had terrible years. Besides, Wallace and Johnson were both in the middle of the pack rather than falling all the way to the bottom, so it’s not as though they didn’t bring anything to the table. With Diggs ranking 30th, the Vikings don’t need their second receiver to be all the way at the top, but having another inside the top 50 would go a long way towards balancing out their offensive gameplan. Johnson probably has the better chance of being that player since he still ranked 68th in separation and his score was brought down by his terrible open field score and his injuries. He graded out well across the board in 2014, so if he can avoid the injury bug there is still a decent chance that he can improve his efficiency. Wallace, on the other hand, should probably be relegated to a backup role. His efficiency would likely improve if he were playing only 40-50 percent of the team’s snaps instead of 70 percent as he would serve as a nice deep threat to have when they use bigger sets. While Johnson and Wallace both took steps backwards in 2015, the Vikings could still work with the pieces that they have to make a more efficient offense next season.
After posting 1,300 yards in 2014, Golden Tate could not come anywhere near replicating that performance this past season. You probably only need to look at his 9.0 yards per reception (career average of 12.3) to tell that he was going to drop in efficiency but he lost nearly a full point in WRER as he tumbled 56 spots. This one is all due to his separation score as he barely reached 1.000, which ranked 122nd of all qualified receivers. Although he is mostly an underneath target, Tate was asked to stick even closer to the line of scrimmage this year, decreasing his aDOT by nearly two full yards when it wasn’t very good to begin with. He didn’t do as well in this role, as his targets per route run dropped by about .04. Either defenses were daring him to go downfield more often or he was just better when he ran more deep routes, but Tate struggled to find separation when always staying underneath. The Lions kept trying to feed him the ball five yards or less from the line of scrimmage, but it’s much easier to defend a receiver when he isn’t asked to diversify his route tree a little more. As a result, defenses kept sticking with Tate on the short routes, not worrying that he might go deeper, and he had a very disappointing and inefficient second season in Detroit.
Finally, if you watched a lot of Green Bay Packers games this season you might not be surprised to find that Randall Cobb was far less efficient in 2015 than he was in 2014. Cobb’s WRER dropped by .655 points. Cobb has never been great in getting open downfield, but he has been very good on underneath routes and you could always count on him racking up short targets. This year was not the case as he was targeted much less often, while still doing well in the hands and open field categories. This one is a much simpler explanation than most cases as Cobb just struggled as the team’s top receiver, but did much better as the team’s second option. He ranked 44th in efficiency when Jordy Nelson was there and he could match up against lesser cornerbacks but against the opponents’ top cover guys he was just below average at 79th. Cobb is still a very good second receiver as his skills weren’t diminished this past season but if he doesn’t have someone better to work with then he isn’t going to be able to do what the top wide outs in the game are asked to do. That’s what Green Bay was hoping he could accomplish this season and it didn’t work out, with their passing offense looking less like the unstoppable force it had been in recent years. With Nelson healthy again next season, look for Cobb to return to being somewhere in the top 60 most efficient receivers.
Good on Small Sample
|Player||Team||WRER||<50 Percent Rank||Overall Rank|
Table 5: Top 10 in WRER while playing less than 50 percent of team’s snaps in 2015
The players we’re looking at here are all players who played less than half of their team’s snaps by design. Players that were injured or suspended don’t count because we’re trying to find players that play less often but are very efficient in those roles, making them good third or fourth receivers to have.
We’ve covered a couple of Dallas wide receivers in Cole Beasley and Terrance Williams, but Brice Butler was the most efficient of the group even though he only played 25 percent of the Cowboys’ snaps. His WRER of 3.608 ranked 15 among all receivers and fifth among receivers who played less than half of their teams’ snaps. His nWRER ranked even higher at sixth overall. Butler would not have done so well if it weren’t for some long runs after the catch. Those are unsustainable but Butler still ranked 33rd in separation. Before I started tracking wide receiver efficiency, there were times in Oakland where it seemed like Butler was having a decent impact although it was unclear what his role was. In his short time in Dallas, Butler has shown that he can be a valuable player to have on your bench, providing efficiency and the chance for some big plays in limited opportunities. Even if he doesn’t always hit on the big plays that often, his separation score shows that he will still provide something when he isn’t doing as much work after the catch.
I also mentioned the Panthers’ efficient weapons before but Devin Funchess beat out all of his rookie peers in WRER. While Amari Cooper was talked about more and Stefon Diggs had more highlight plays, Funchess was quietly helping his team just as much when he was on the field. His separation score ranked eighth among qualified receivers and his WRER was 21st overall. Although he wasn’t on the field too much to start his career, he averaged more than a target for every four routes he ran, a mark that Cooper and Diggs didn’t even come close to. Seeing that Corey Brown didn’t play nearly as well as Carolina had hoped and that Ted Ginn doesn’t play every down, Funchess may be in line for a bigger role next season. Even if he isn’t quite ready, the Panthers will have Kelvin Benjamin back and Greg Olsen is still their next best receiving option, so the entire offense won’t falter because of him. If Funchess shows that he isn’t ready yet then the Panthers would have other options to turn to. Right now, though, Funchess is definitely one of the better backup receivers in the game and might have the ability to turn into a good starter, too.
As a Rams fan, I personally find Brian Quick equal parts intriguing and maddening. He had the worst hands score of any qualified receiver and caught only a little bit more than half of his catchable passes but he still wound up the 28th most efficient receiver. When I watch him play I can understand why he graded out the way he did since he does seem to get open on routes that go more than ten yards downfield quite often. When he’s out there the ball is often thrown his way, but it is anyone’s guess as to whether the ball will end up in his hands or on the turf. The odd thing is that Quick did the same thing when he was the team’s top wide out in 2014. His decreased playing time improved his separation score a lot, but he won’t go down in terms of his overall score too much if he played more. The point is, if Quick is getting open this often, he deserves to be on the field for more than one-third of his team’s snaps. I don’t know if he can play a very high percentage of the snaps but he should be closer to 60 percent than 30 percent. The Rams are a run-first team but their offensive line is so bad that they often wind up in third-and-long situations. Kenny Britt showed that he can make some deep plays work, but Quick is far more consistent in his ability to get open on passes that would move the chains in those instances. If they let Quick on the field more, it should open up the passing game a bit more as they would be getting someone who has routinely beat his coverage when his snaps are limited. If nothing else, he represents a good player to split time at the second receiver position as having him play that often will still keep him efficient while increasing the efficiency of those who would get to play less as a result.
Bad on a large sample
|Player||Team||WRER||>50 Percent Rank||Overall Rank|
Table 6: Bottom 10 in WRER while playing at least 50 percent of team’s snaps in 2015
The following players have played more than 50 percent of their teams’ snaps and should have played less because they were very inefficient when they were on the field.
The least efficient receiver in the NFL this year was Lance Moore as he somehow got past the 50 percent threshold despite Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate being healthy for most of the season. Moore showed some good hands but was rarely targeted and was mostly a nonfactor when asked to run routes. Moore averaged one target for every ten routes he ran, which begs the question of why the Lions even kept putting him out there. Most receivers that end up on this list are here because they were forced into extra duty because of injuries or their career legacy exceeds their current production. Moore doesn’t fall into either of these categories and the Lions had Corey Fuller and T.J. Jones to rotate in. I have to believe that playing either of those two a little bit more would have helped if just for the sake of getting Moore off the field. Neither Jones nor Fuller did particularly well when given the chance, but there was a better balance to be had where the Lions could have improved the total efficiency of their offense had they not kept throwing Moore out there and waiting for him to get open once every ten passing plays.
An example of someone whose career legacy exceeds his current production is Roddy White. He ranked 129th of 134 receivers in efficiency and that is not something new. He was 99th out of 126 receivers in 2014 and he is getting any younger. White had the second lowest separation score among all Falcons’ receivers (Nick Williams was worse), including unqualified ones, but he was still on the field 82 percent of the time. For reference, Julio Jones was on the field 85 percent of the time. None of the other options were particularly good at getting separation, and Justin Hardy was almost as inefficient as White, but they have to find a way to start getting White off the field. Leonard Hankerson was not a terrible option but he battled injuries all season and couldn’t help as much as was initially planned. The Falcons have a lot of needs so they may not get enough receivers in the draft, but this team needs to get at least two, maybe three receivers in the offseason that they can expect to be efficient in smaller amounts of playing time. Ideally they would get someone who can play a high percentage of the snaps, but it is more likely that they will have to rotate guys in and hope to keep up the efficiency opposite Jones. If not, then this passing offense will remain a work in progress despite having one of the best receivers in the NFL.
As the New England Patriots’ receivers dropped like flies this season, Danny Amendola was given the opportunity to show that he could still provide some value. Unfortunately, he squandered that opportunity, ranking 62nd of the 71 receivers who played more than half of their team’s snaps. Amendola will most likely be cut this offseason, as the Patriots will be able to save a lot of cap space by doing so and will be able to replace Amendola with a more efficient and less injury prone player. Amendola’s hands ranked fourth, as he still does bring some skills to the table and it’s always fun watching him fight for yards, but he just will not go downfield often enough. He is still a decent route runner on short passes, but unless he tries to stretch the field more, which is something he has shown flashes of, then his efficiency will always be towards the bottom of the league.
There is a normalized version of WRER that accounts for the tendencies of certain teams to throw downfield more or less often. This version takes the average throw for each team and adjusts it to league average, so these are just some quick notes on what we learned from it.
The Cardinals once again got dinged by the normalization of deep passes, but that shouldn’t be mistaken to mean that the scheme makes the receivers efficient instead of the actual players. While Palmer and the Cardinals do love to throw it deep, John Brown and Michael Floyd both posted top 40 nWRER scores, while Larry Fitzgerald was right around average at 79th. They do benefit from the scheme, but these receivers are still efficient and the style of play doesn’t necessarily make it easier to beat deep coverage.
On the other end of the spectrum it was Kansas City and Philadelphia whose receivers received the largest bump in nWRER ranking, as Miles Austin, Riley Cooper, Jordan Matthews, Albert Wilson, Jeremy Maclin, and Chris Conley all placed at least 20 spots higher in nWRER than in WRER. None of that should come as a surprise since we’re talking about teams quarterbacked by Alex Smith and Sam Bradford, but it is interesting to note that Eagles’ receivers went down when switching to nWRER in 2014. While much is made of Chip Kelly’s scheme, this indicates that sometimes the quarterback running it has more of an impact on how the team plays the game.
2016 Breakout Picks
It isn’t too hard to guess which names you’ll hear a lot about heading into the next season, as the breakout picks often tend to be young players in their first or second seasons who had good years and showed flashes of brilliance throughout the season. In general, these players are also projected to get a little bit more playing time. One thing to keep in mind when you’re hearing all of these names is that if they weren’t efficient on a lower number of snaps, they would have been even less efficient on a higher number of snaps. Here is a list of some of the names you’ll hear about before next season: Stefon Diggs (30th), Tyler Lockett (41st in WRER), DeVante Parker (44th), Willie Snead (50th), Dorial Green-Beckham (65th), Dontrelle Inman (71st), Jaelen Strong (81st), Chris Conley (97th), Nelson Agholor (125th).
I may have missed on a few of those names, with Inman and Conley less likely to be talked up than some of the other names, but I expect some buzz around all of these players. If he’s given the shot to start, I like Funchess’ (21st) chances of breaking out more than any of the other candidates I just named but I don’t think he’ll be talked up as much. Keep in mind that these receivers are still very young and can easily improve their efficiency in the next couple of years, but a jump from the bottom to the top is not likely to happen. It did happen last year with Brandin Cooks, but even he struggled in the beginning of the season. Here are some of the names you heard last year and where they ranked in WRER in 2014: Donte Moncrief (27th), John Brown (35th), Allen Robinson (54th), Jordan Matthews (68th), Jarvis Landry (86th), Cooks (102nd), and Davante Adams (104th).
Cooks made a huge jump in efficiency and Moncrief just took the expected step back in efficiency that comes with more snaps while not really improving but the others generally did better the higher they were on that list. All of this is to say that, while players this young are still developing, Strong, Conley, and Agholor have a lesser chance of breaking out in 2016. Expect those names to be talked up more than they should and go earlier than they should in your fantasy drafts. The rest of those players listed above have a much better chance of breaking out next year, but we should keep in mind what that means for different receivers. Diggs and Lockett play in offenses that limit the production of their receivers because of how much they run the ball and how seldom they try to get the ball into the hands of their receivers. Those two may very well break out without having the gaudy numbers you expect when you hear those words. Snead, on the other hand, plays with Drew Brees in a place where they love throwing the ball, and he nearly reached 1,000 yards in what seemed like an inconsistent season from him. If he doesn’t reach big numbers, then it probably can’t be considered a breakout season for him. At any rate, there will be a lot of players who will step into larger roles next season. Before predicting huge years out of those players, make sure they were efficient in a smaller role first and then think about what that means he might be able to do in 2016. If he wasn’t efficient doing less, then you might want to look elsewhere for your breakout pick next season.