News & Analysis

Ranking the NFL’s most efficient wide receivers from 2019

Wide receiver production can be summed up in just a few box-score statistics: receptions, yardage and touchdowns. But while that might give you an indication of a wideout's broad production, what about how efficient they were in amassing those statistics? Efficiency metrics for wide receivers provide a better indicator of which players can repeat those box-score data points going forward and which are likely to see a regression in their overall production.

PFF has a wealth of data and grades available that can help us dive deeper and measure this efficiency:

[Editor’s Note: PFF’s advanced statistics and player grades are powered by AWS machine learning capabilities.]

Yards Per Route Run

One of the most predictive data points around, yards per route run (YPPR) applies some context to broader production numbers and is one of the simplest data points available. Instead of just looking at cumulative production totals, let’s look at how much production receivers had per play where they were out in a passing pattern. This YPPR figure shows not only which receivers produced efficiently, beyond just an overwhelming weight of opportunities, but also indirectly folds target share into the equation. If a receiver doesn’t receive a high percentage of the team’s available targets when he is on the field, he will struggle to attain a high yards per route run figure.

Yards Per Route Run Among Wide Receivers | 2019
Player Yards Per Route Run
1. Michael Thomas 2.88
2. Stefon Diggs 2.69
3. A.J. Brown 2.67
4. Tyreek Hill 2.45
5. Julio Jones 2.44
6. Davante Adams 2.33
7. Mike Evans 2.30
8. Amari Cooper 2.29
9. Chris Godwin 2.24
10. Michael Gallup 2.16

*Minimum 50 targets during the 2019 regular season

This is a statistical category that has been absolutely owned by Julio Jones since he entered the league, and 2019 represented the first season in five years that he didn’t end as the top name on the list. Michael Thomas was the most efficient receiver in football in terms of yards per route run, but Stefon Diggs and rookie A.J. Brown were hot on his heels. Brown’s number is hugely encouraging for Titans fans but certainly relied on an unsustainable level of quarterback play from Ryan Tannehill that will almost certainly regress in 2020. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers didn’t just have two of the highest-graded receivers in the league, but also two of the most efficient by this measure.

PFF Receiving Grade

As always at PFF, we circle back to the grades. For as much work as you can do with conventional statistics, the grades will always add in a layer of context that numbers miss along the way. Our data scientists have shown that including grades — even though they include a degree of subjective framework — increases the predictive power of the data because they factor in things that regular data points disregard.

For receivers, our grading system allows us to include a qualitative measure of what the player had to do to earn yardage that is independent of the defense or the quarterback. Did the receiver have to go up and rescue a poorly thrown ball to get the catch, or was it a perfect dime dropped in against a busted coverage? These don’t matter when you’re just recording the result of the play, but they are significantly important in analyzing how impressive the receiver’s performance was and how likely it is to repeat.

PFF Receiving Grade Among Wide Receivers | 2019
Player PFF Receiving Grade
1. Michael Thomas 90.7
2. Chris Godwin 90.4
3. Julio Jones 90.3
4. Tyreek Hill 87.8
5. DeAndre Hopkins 87.8
6. Terry McLaurin 86.5
7. Mike Evans 85.2
8. Davante Adams 84.4
9. Amari Cooper 84.2
10. A.J. Brown 83.0

*Minimum 50 targets during the 2019 regular season

Michael Thomas again tops the list with the highest PFF receiving grade during the regular season, and the same thing remains true when including the playoffs.

A.J. Brown again makes this list, but this time he is joined by fellow rookie Terry McLaurin, highlighting the difference between pure statistics and the qualitative — albeit subjective — context grades can add. Brown was more efficient than McLaurin, but on the other hand, he had a quarterback playing as well as any other in the league for at least half the season. McLaurin never saw plus quarterback play at any stage of his rookie year, so his efficiency numbers suffered. But when looking at what he did independent from everything else, he fares far better.

Passer Rating When Targeted

Passer rating is a very flawed data point, but it does tell us a lot if we’re willing to acknowledge what it is measuring, and perhaps more importantly, what it is not measuring. It is not simply a quarterback measurement, but rather one of the passing offense as a whole. Passer rating heavily weights big plays on both ends of the scale — touchdowns and explosive plays boost the number a lot while interceptions drag it down.

These building blocks can all be heavily influenced by a variety of different factors and players, from the receivers and quarterbacks all the way to the defense.

Passer Rating When Targeted Among Wide Receivers | 2019
Player Passer Rating When Targeted
1. Mecole Hardman 153.9
2. Marquise Brown 134.4
3. Adam Thielen 131.9
4. A.J. Brown 127.6
5. Tyler Lockett 127.0
6. Kenny Stills 126.4
7. Michael Thomas 123.3
8. Chris Godwin 121.7
9. Kendrick Bourne 121.1
10. Deebo Samuel 120.2

*Minimum 50 targets during the 2019 regular season

Here, we see a couple of big-play and deep threats leap to the top of the list, with Mecole Hardman leading the way. Passes sent his way last season earned an almost perfect passer rating of 153.9. Adam Thielen also appears on the list despite a relative down year for him by virtue of the fact that Kirk Cousins didn’t throw a single interception on passes where Thielen was the target.

Chris Godwin — playing with Jameis Winston — was the only player in the top 10 with more than two passes sent his way going for interceptions. But thanks to nine touchdowns and over 1,300 yards, he was still able to put up a top-10 passer rating in the league when targeted. Terry McLaurin didn’t make the top 10 but ranked just outside it at 12th, again highlighting how impressive his performance was in Year 1 despite iffy quarterback play.

Catch Rate

Catch rate is another statistic dependent on other things — with depth of target being the most obvious — but still shows a degree of efficiency from receivers even if role is a significant factor.

Catch Rate Among Wide Receivers | 2019
Player Catch Rate
1. Michael Thomas 82.8%
2. Adam Humphries 78.7%
3. Tyler Lockett 75.9%
4. Olabisi Johnson 75.6%
5. Kenny Stills 75.5%
6. Chris Godwin 75.4%
7. Deebo Samuel 74.0%
8. Hunter Renfrow 73.1%
9. Mecole Hardman 72.2%
10. Larry Fitzgerald 72.1%

*Minimum 35 targets during the 2019 regular season

I have deliberately kept the bar for qualifiers relatively low here to include players lower down the depth chart who were still efficient, which pulls in receivers such as Minnesota’s Olabisi Johnson and Tennessee’s Adam Humphries. But if you move that bar a little, it adds in players such as DeAndre Hopkins (71.2%), Keenan Allen (70.8%), Robert Woods (69.8%) and Stefon Diggs (69.2%), all of whom were extremely effective at catching the targets sent their way.

Michael Thomas led the NFL with 180 targets and yet also led the league in catch rate — in large part due to having one of the lowest average depths of target of any big-time receiver. But he also dropped just six of those targets over the season, which gave him a top-10 drop rate (3.9%) from catchable targets during the year.

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