One more big stats project before the 2020 season begins is our now-annual look at DVOA by pass routes. Sports Info Solutions’ charting allows us to break down receivers by their routes — seeing which routes they run most often, and at which they are the most effective. It helps paint a more complete picture of each receiver’s skill set and usage patterns. Some of this data appeared throughout Football Outsiders Almanac 2020.
Whenever you’re breaking down a subset of a subset, small sample size caveats apply. However, we’ve been doing these studies for several years now, and we’re seeing a fair amount of year-to-year consistency, which makes sense. Different types of receivers will struggle or excel in different kinds of routes; the top of the leaderboards aren’t just random noise. Obviously, a receiver’s success will depend on the quarterback throwing him the ball and the defense covering him, but we’ll look at those soon enough. Today, we’re focusing on pass-catchers.
For an example of what this looks like, here’s 2019 DYAR leader Michael Thomas’ route chart, sorted by DYAR to show where he had the most and least value:
Thomas was the NFL’s best wideout last year, but he was just average at producing yards after the catch, and he didn’t catch a lot of deep balls either. It’s the midrange possession routes where he excelled — slants, outs, and curls were his most common patterns, making up exactly half of his 188 total targets. On the rare occasion he did go deep, he was effective, catching eight of his nine targets on deep crosses for 232 yards. He also caught each of his three targets on corner routes for 63 yards.
(Yes, one of Thomas’ routes is listed as “Thrown Away.” There were 75 of these targets in SIS’ charting, about two or three per team; Darius Slayton of the Giants led the NFL with four. We’re not sure why players were listed as targets on passes that were thrown away, but we’re including Thomas’ target here for the sake of completion.)
Space limitations prevent us from breaking down every player like this, so instead we’ll show the leaderboards for the players who had the most targets at the most commonly used routes, sorted by descending DYAR.
This year, we’re looking at the 14 routes with at least 400 targets to wide receivers and tight ends: curl, out, slant, dig, flat, drag, WR screen, deep cross, broken play, post, fade, go/fly, seam, and corner routes. The seam route returns to our list after falling below the 400-target threshold in 2018, but as Bryan Knowles noted at the time, the route is so effective it was likely to return to prominence. And it has.
We’ll look at the 25 or so receivers who ran each route most frequently. The specific number will vary depending on how many receivers were tied for 25th place. Sometimes, that number is so high it’s not practical to list everyone. Tables are sorted by DYAR, but we’ll also discuss which receivers were targeted most often on each route, regardless of success.
Once again, the curl was the most common route in the NFL (it will be a while before the order starts to shuffle), and they are on the rise — up from 2,217 in 2018 to 2,416 last season. The following table lists the 28 players with at least 18 curl targets.
Atlanta’s Julio Jones is the king of the curl route. He led the NFL in DYAR on curls for the second year in a row, and he was second in 2017. Turns out that being 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds is helpful in boxing out cornerbacks and giving your quarterback an easy target. Who knew? Jones’ teammate Calvin Ridley was near the bottom of this table, suggesting that Jones’ dominance is a credit to his own brilliance more than his scheme or teammates. (Don’t feel bad for Ridley — we’ll be praising him shortly.)
The trailer in curl route DYAR was technically a tight end — Philadelphia’s Zach Ertz — but 59% of Ertz’s targets came in the slot last year, and 4% more came split out wide. Ertz had been quite effective on curls in 2018, with 44 DYAR and a 17.8% DVOA. His struggles in 2019 may be a reflection of the Eagles’ devastated wide receiver corps, which allowed opponents to focus on Ertz.
Chicago’s Allen Robinson led the league with 41 curl targets, 13 more than anyone else, but he didn’t do much with them, just barely finishing with negative DYAR. His catch rate on curls was below average, as was his YAC.
Curl routes are efficient, but rarely explosive — only three of them gained more than 50 yards in 2019. One of those plays — Mecole Hardman’s 63-yard touchdown against Tennessee in Week 10 — was worth 33 DYAR, most of any curl route last season.
There were 2,013 out targets in 2019, up from 2018’s total of 1,835. This includes all plays where receivers cut to the sideline, so there’s a wide variety in average depth of target, but it’s no surprise that the leader in DYAR had the deepest aDOT in the ensuing table, which lists the 24 players who ran at least 18 outs last year.
See, we told you we were going to say nice things about Calvin Ridley. While he struggled on curls, he excelled on outs, catching 19 of 21 targets (!) for 258 yards. Ridley’s teammates Jones and Hooper also qualify for this table — the out was a popular arrow in Matt Ryan’s quiver.
The worst receiver on outs was Cincinnati’s Tyler Boyd, who caught fewer than half his targets when the average receiver caught two-thirds of his. The addition of Joe Burrow can only help here.
New England’s Julian Edelman led all players with 37 out targets, but as we saw in curl routes, the receiver who ran the route most often still finished with negative DYAR. In Edelman’s case, that’s due to one fumble against Buffalo that was worth -20 DYAR.
Only one out route produced more than 50 yards last season: Marquez Valdez-Scantling’s 74-yard touchdown against Oakland in Week 7. That play was worth 33 DYAR, most of any out route all year.
Slant totals dipped from 1,186 targets in the 2018 to 1,143 last year. On average, slants are more efficient than either curls or outs, mainly because they give receivers a better chance to gain yards after the catch. Not everyone needed YAC to be effective on slants, however. The following table lists the 22 receivers with at least 12 slants.
Michael Thomas led the NFL in slant route DYAR even though he averaged only 9.8 yards on those catches, much lower than the league average of 12.0 yards. However, he caught 32 of his 36 slant targets, both the highest totals in the league, and a much better catch rate than the league average of 63%. Thomas also led the league in slant DYAR in 2018; he was fourth in 2017.
Jacksonville’s DJ Chark had the worst DYAR on slants, catching only four of his 12 targets (with one DPI). Nine of those targets were thrown by Gardner Minshew, resulting in three catches for 19 yards. Three were thrown by Nick Foles, with one catch for 12 yards and one DPI for 5 yards.
Nine slant routes gained more than 50 yards in 2019. One of those — JuJu Smith-Schuster’s 76-yard touchdown against San Francisco in Week 3 — was worth 35 DYAR, most for any slant route on the year.
Totals for digs were up a bit last year, rising from 1,093 the prior season to 1,138, and they moved up from fifth place to fourth in frequency. The following table shows the 25 players with at least 11 dig targets.
In 2018, the leaders in dig route DYAR were veterans — Josh Gordon, DeAndre Hopkins, Robert Woods. In 2019, it was a pair of rookies — Tennessee’s A.J. Brown and San Francisco’s Deebo Samuel — atop the tables. Michael Gallup, a 2018 draftee, was in fourth place. Brown’s success here was built on his unprecedented YAC ability, as he more than tripled the average YAC rate on dig catches. It wasn’t just one play, either — in Week 12 against Jacksonville alone, he gained 52, 16, and 12 yards after the catch on three dig routes.
Marcus Johnson of the Colts had the worst DYAR on dig routes, catching only six of his 13 targets. What’s most remarkable is that Johnson only had 33 total targets on the season — 39% of them were digs! When one route makes up such a big share of your performance, you really need to that job well.
Once again, Julian Edelman was the leader in route frequency, with 23 dig routes. Edelman’s job in 2019 was basically to run 10 yards or so downfield and then cut sharply to the inside or outside.
Digs often led to big plays; nine of them gained 50-plus yards last year. One of those plays — Sammy Watkins’ 68-yard touchdown against Jacksonville in Week 1 — produced 33 DYAR, most of any dig catch in 2019.
Flats fell from 1,142 targets in 2018 to 1,002 in 2019. The following table shows the 21 players (mostly running backs, naturally) who had at least nine flat targets.
Christian McCaffrey’s 385 receiving DYAR were most by a running back this century, and the simple flat route out of the backfield was his most valuable pattern. McCaffrey caught every one of his 16 flat targets, turning nine of them into first downs. McCaffrey’s second-most productive route was the swing — he really was getting most of his yards on his own.
The same can not be said for Miami’s Mike Gesicki, who finished last in flat DYAR. Gesicki was one of the few tight ends to get nine or more flat targets, and given the results it’s hard to fathom why. None of those targets resulted in first downs, only three counted as successful plays, and the longest was an 11-yard gain on first-and-20.
For pure volume, nobody can top Jacksonville’s Leonard Fournette, whose 26 flat targets were 10 more than anyone else. He wasn’t terribly effective, but his totals are skewed by -24 DYAR on a fumble he had against Kansas City in Week 1.
No flat routes gained 50 yards last year; Vernon Davis came closest with his 48-yard touchdown against Philadelphia in Week 1. For DYAR, however, it was a different flat route against Philadelphia that scored highest: Buffalo’s Devin Singletary had a 28-yard touchdown on third-and-13 that was worth 26 DYAR.
Drag routes dropped sharply last year, down to just 786 targets from 855 in 2018. That said, they still move up in the rankings from seventh place to sixth, because another route dropped even more. The following table lists the 19 players with at least eight drag targets.
We’ve reached the point in the table where sample sizes get silly. With only eight targets, Dallas’ Michael Gallup just barely qualified for this table, but he still led all players with 42 DYAR. All of that DYAR and more came on two plays: a 23-yard touchdown against Minnesota in Week 10 and a 32-yard touchdown against Washington in Week 17.
Robby Anderson of the Jets also had exactly eight drag targets, and my goodness what an embarrassing set of plays they were. He caught five of them, but the longest gained only 6 yards, and even that one he fumbled (the Jets recovered, and so that still counts as Anderson’s only first down on drag routes).
Michael Thomas led all players with 15 drag targets. His 4.5% DVOA on those routes was quite poor by his standards, but better than most players — the average DVOA on these plays was just -10.8%. The drag is simply not often an effective weapon in the NFL. It does sometimes work — there were two 50-yard gains on drags, though neither could match the 31 DYAR of Taysom Hill (yes!) on his 45-yard touchdown against Carolina in Week 17.
And now for the best news you’ll read … well, in this article, at least. The wide receiver screen — one of the most hated plays of pretty much everyone on the Football Outsiders staff — appears to be on the way out. After finishing in sixth place with 1,003 targets in 2018, it fell to seventh place with only 767 targets a year ago. That’s a cut of nearly one-quarter! And that’s with one team’s abnormally high total skewing things out of proportion. The following table shows the 22 players with at least nine targets on wide receiver screens.
Let’s start with who ran the most screens: Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald, with 22. His teammate Christian Kirk was tied for second with 17. When Kliff Kingsbury brought his Air Raid offense to the NFL, some expected his Cardinals to set passing records. Instead they only threw 554 passes, just below average. But they threw a ton of wide receiver screens. Those screens were not as effective in the NFL as they had been in the Big 12, so hopefully Kingsbury will call fewer of them in 2020.
By DYAR, the top target on wide receiver screens wasn’t even a wide receiver — it was Houston Texans running back Duke Johnson, and even he only had one first down on the play, a 14-yard gain on third-and-2. Otherwise, most of his catches did nothing but help the punt team — his other five third-down catches each gained at least 8 yards, a total of 52, but none of them picked up first downs. Again, these were the BEST results any player had on wide receiver screens.
The worst results belonged to Cooper Kupp of the L.A. Rams. He did pick up two first downs on wide receiver screens, but he also had two fumbles. His longest gain on the play was just 12 yards.
Yes, wide receiver screens can be explosive. Five of them gained 50-plus yards last season, including Austin Ekeler’s 84-yard touchdown against Jacksonville in Week 14 that was worth a league-high 34 DYAR. But those plays are in the extreme minority. Wide receiver screens suck. NFL teams, please stop calling them.
Deep crosses were down just a tick in 2019, with 610 targets as opposed to 625 the year before. However, they still moved up from ninth to eighth in frequency. It’s a very effective route when thrown, but the relatively low target total indicates that quarterbacks only pull the trigger when they know their receiver is open deep — otherwise, they check down. The following table lists the 26 players with at least six deep cross targets in 2019. It’s a familiar name on top of the list.
Tyler Lockett was second in this category in 2018, and he moved into the top spot last year. That’s what happens when you catch 12 of 13 targets and average 18.3 yards per reception. Lockett is followed by Michael Thomas, whose brilliance on deep crosses was mentioned in our intro.
Buffalo’s John Brown was the only name in this table with negative DYAR. He barely qualified with just six targets, and he only caught two of them.
Robert Woods of the L.A. Rams led the NFL with 19 deep cross targets. His production on those throws was mediocre at best; it looks like opponents were not fooled.
There were oodles of big plays on deep crosses last season — 15 of them gained 50 yards or more. Arizona rookie Andy Isabella had an 88-yard touchdown against San Francisco that was worth 36 DYAR, most of any deep cross last season.
Backyard football! This is what happens when the quarterback escapes pressure and extends the play and everyone just tries to get open. There were fewer of these last season — only 573 targets, down from 617 a year ago — but they still rose in the rankings from 10th to ninth. Regardless, it’s the same team dominating the top of the list. The following table lists the 28 players with at least five targets on broken plays.
We’ll get into Jameis Winston, Tom Brady, and quarterbacks in a later piece, but it’s safe to say the Buccaneers won’t take the gold, silver, and bronze in this category again in 2020. Their trifecta wasn’t a fluke — Mike Evans and Chris Godwin finished one-two in 2018, but they were surpassed in 2019 by their new teammate Breshad Perriman, who caught each of his five targets and averaged 21.4 yards per catch. Perriman is now in New York, where the Jets are hoping he can bail Sam Darnold out of trouble.
The worst receiver on broken plays was Carolina’s Jarius Wright, who failed to establish any kind of ad-lib chemistry with Kyle Allen or Will Grier. Four of his seven targets were caught — one by Wright, three by Panthers defenders.
Tyler Lockett led the league with 14 broken play targets, six more than anyone else, but he only caught five of them. Russell Wilson may have been a little too quick to force passes to Lockett when his protection broke down.
Only one broken play topped 50 yards last season: Chris Conley’s 70-yard touchdown against the Jets in Week 8. That play was worth 34 DYAR, most of any broken play on the year.
The ultimate Cover-2 beater, the post route is a classic deep ball down the middle of the field. They fell in number in 2019 (496, down from 556), but still climbed a spot in the rankings, from 11th to 10th. The following table lists the 22 players with at least six post targets in 2019.
This was DeAndre Hopkins’ specialty last year, as he led the league in both targets and DYAR. He also fared well in this category the year before, with eight targets and 50 DYAR. Now he goes to an Arizona team that didn’t have a single receiver qualify for this table. We’ll assume Kliff Kingsbury is smart enough to call more posts this fall now that he has a player who runs them better than anyone else.
The worst player on posts was Carolina’s Curtis Samuel, who only caught one of his seven targets.
The post route produced many big plays in 2019 — 18 of them gained 50 yards or more, including one DPI. James Washington’s 79-yard touchdown against Cincinnati in Week 12 was worth 37 DYAR, most for any post route all season. Overall, however, he was nothing special on posts — it’s another route where he really shined.
If there is any route more hated than the wide receiver screen, it’s likely the fade. At least the WR screen will let you rack up fantasy points in PPR leagues. Fade routes are almost doomed to fail — nearly three-quarters of them were incomplete last season. But they’re actually getting more popular — there were 476 fade targets last year, up from 431 the year before, and it moved from 13th in popularity to 11th. The following table shows the 23 players with at least six fade targets in 2019.
James Washington, he of the most valuable post play of 2019, also led the league in fade route DYAR, catching five of his seven targets. He finishes just a few decimal points ahead of DJ Chark (71.4 to 70.6), who was less efficient but had more volume.
A lot went right for Seattle’s DK Metcalf in his rookie year, but very few of those things were fade routes — he only had one catch (a 19-yard touchdown against Carolina in Week 15) in 11 targets and finished last in DYAR.
DeVante Parker of the Miami Dolphins led the NFL with 15 fade targets, and why not? — his 25.3% DVOA on fades was even better than his overall DVOA of 14.9%. There weren’t many things Miami did well last year, so you can’t blame them for leaning on something that worked.
In addition to being hard to complete, the fade is not particularly explosive either — only four of them gained more than 50 yards. The longest of those was Golden Tate’s 64-yard touchdown against New England in Week 6, a 34-DYAR play, most for any fade route all season.
Ah, the good ol’ nine route — no cuts, no finesse, just go long as fast as you can. It’s one of the most exciting plays in football, but unfortunately it seems to be dying out. It was the eighth-most popular route in 2018 with 633 throws, but fell all the way to 12th place in 2019 with 473 throws, a drop of 25%. The following table lists the 27 players with at least six go/fly targets.
Minnesota’s Stefon Diggs and Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans tied for the NFL lead with 15 go/fly targets each, and they finished one-two in DYAR on the play. Diggs gets the edge because he had one more catch and one more DPI. Evans, however, had the more valuable play — his 67-yard touchdown against the Rams was worth 33 DYAR, best for any go/fly play all year. This is nothing new for Evans — he was second in DYAR on go/fly plays last season as well.
Nelson Agholor had the worst DYAR on go/fly routes, catching just one of his six targets. This is partly why Agholor will be playing in Las Vegas this season instead of Philadelphia.
The go/fly may be disappearing, but it still produces tons of big plays — 21 of them gained 50-plus yards a year ago.
The seam returns! There were not enough seam routes to be listed in this article in 2018, but there was a strong enough resurgence in 2019 — 457 targets — that they weren’t even in last place in 2019. The following table lists the 26 players with at least five seam routes.
Golden Tate was last among wide receivers in total DYAR in 2018, but he rebounded to 48th place last year, and his performance on seam routes was a small but critical reason why. He only had six of those targets all season, but he caught five of them for 157 yards. Each of those catches gained at least 20 yards and a first down, including two scores.
Things didn’t go so well for Chicago’s Anthony Miller. He saw five seam targets on the year (oddly, three of them came in one game against New Orleans) and only caught one of them, a 28-yard gain in that Saints game.
Baltimore tight end Mark Andrews led the league with a dozen seam targets. That’s not a surprise — most of the players in this table are tight ends, and Andrews was the Ravens’ leading receiver, so it’s natural to see him in first place there.
Only seven seam plays gained 50-plus yards last year. Mecole Hardman — last seen posting the most valuable curl route of 2019 — had the most valuable seam route as well, an 83-yard touchdown against Baltimore in Week 3.
We close with the corner route, the last route to qualify in this column in each of the last two years. The following table lists the 23 players with at least 23 corner targets in 2019.
We haven’t mentioned the Denver Broncos yet today, but Courtland Sutton cornered the market on corner routes last year. His 10 corner targets produced five catches for 183 yards and two touchdowns, in addition to a pair of DPIs for 50 more yards.
We have mentioned Robby Anderson and the New York Jets, and now we’re going to again, and once more it’s for finishing with the worst DYAR on a given route. Like Sutton, he had 10 corner targets; unlike Sutton, he caught only two of them for 26 yards and one score.
Kansas City’s Travis Kelce had the most corner targets with 12. His efficiency on those plays was nothing special, though he did have some highlights, including a 23-yard touchdown against the Chargers in Week 11.
Only five corners gained 50-plus yards last year. The most valuable (by our numbers, anyway) was another touchdown against the Chargers: Sutton’s 70-yarder in Week 5.
The Worst Receiver of the Year
We opened this story with a look at Michael Thomas, the league leader in DYAR, and how he fared on each route last season. We shall now do the same for Carolina’s Jarius Wright, who finished in last place. As noted earlier, he had the worst DYAR in the league on broken plays, but there were four routes in which he had positive DYAR — including, of all things, wide receiver screens.