It’s July, which means it’s time for our annual airing out of our statistical database, starting with our look at the passing game. The goal of these upcoming articles is to put standard passing and receiving stats in context, adjusting them for based on context — how likely was a given pass to be completed? How likely was a given play to earn big yards after the catch? And which players routinely outperformed what the averages would predict? We’re doing things a little differently this year, and starting with our look at the best receivers with the ball in their hands in our annual look at YAC+.
What is YAC+? This description is from the upcoming Football Outsiders Almanac 2020, where every player with his own table will have both his plus-minus and YAC+ listed for the past three seasons:
YAC+ is similar to plus-minus; it estimates how much YAC a receiver gained compared to what we would have expected from an average receiver catching passes of similar length in similar down-and-distance situations. This is imperfect due to variations in YAC stemming from the routes the receivers run, but it does a fairly good job of telling you if this receiver gets more or less YAC than other receivers with similar usage patterns.
This year’s data is especially exciting, for a number of reasons. First, the three-year reign of Kyle Shanahan/Sean McVay quarterbacks atop the table is over, with a brand-new offensive coordinator reviving what had looked like a moribund career and bringing it to the very top. Secondly, exciting young players abounded last season, with three rookies ending up in the top five for receivers. And thirdly, one of those rookies ended up breaking the all-time record for YAC+ — or, at least, going back to 2006, which is how far back our database goes.
If you had had to guess which rookie receiver would have a historic YAC season in 2019, Deebo Samuel would have been a very good guess. The 49ers broke the all-time YAC+ record in 2018 at +1.8 and were the league leaders again in 2019 at +1.2. Samuel has always had great vision and speed with the ball in his hands, and putting him in the Shanahan system is almost unfair. But you would be wrong; Samuel finished second in the league with +2.4 YAC+. That would have led the league in 2018, but didn’t come with spitting distance of our champion.
If you had to guess which rookie receiver would have a historic YAC season in 2019, Hunter Renfrow would not have been a very good guess. As a Day 3 pick, there was no guarantee Renfrow would even see the field very often, and his scouting report suggested that he was lacking in explosive athletic traits. Still, an opening surprisingly opened up in the Raiders’ receiver corps when Antonio Brown Antonio Browned all over the place, and Renfrow took the opportunity and ran with it, much like he did with the football all season long. His +1.8 YAC+ would have led rookie receivers in most seasons and still was enough to get him into the top five in 2019. But he’s not our champion either.
Instead, it’s fitting that the one to bring down a titanic mark was a Titans player. 2019 was the year of A.J. Brown.
2019 Wide Receivers
A total of 81 wide receivers qualified this season, but we’ll just show 20 from the top and bottom of the rankings to save space here.
A +4.4 mark for A.J. Brown is incredible. The previous record belonged to Devery Henderson, who had a +4.0 in 2008. And Henderson just barely qualified for the tables that season, with just 50 receptions; small sample sizes can bring with them exceptional results. The previous record for a player with at least 75 targets belonged to Greg Jennings, who put up marks of +3.0 and +3.5 in 2006 and 2007. Those were the only two years in our database where a wide receiver had at least +3.0 YAC+ and 75 targets. These are not supposed to be obtainable numbers.
You can credit Arthur Smith’s use of play-action for some of Brown’s numbers, but that alone doesn’t get someone to shatter a record. It also isn’t a factor of switching from Marcus Mariota to Ryan Tannehill; while Tannehill was more successful overall (we’ll get to him), Brown actually had a +5.0 YAC+ from Mariota, outpacing his Tannehill numbers in a smaller sample size. Brown’s ability to navigate his routes towards gaps in the coverage and then use his speed and balance to burst into open space would make him a big-play threat no matter who was throwing him the ball.
It’s fun to look at Brown and Samuel together, as the two rookies were such extreme outliers. They both averaged over 8.0 YAC per reception (8.9 for Brown, 8.3 for Samuel); no other wide receiver even managed to hit 7.0. They just did it in very different ways. If you look at passes 5 yards downfield or less, Samuel easily leads the league with +2.1 YAC+, compared to Brown’s +1.3. Samuel’s game is catching those quick passes in open space and then racing upfield; that’s the point of that offense. You can see Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods joining Samuel with high YAC+ and low depth of targets, as that’s what drives the Shanahan/McVay system. But Brown takes a significant lead in the 6- to 15-yard range (+5.8 to +3.5) and the 15-plus-yard range (+6.4 to +0.6). Those deepest shots are what ensure that Brown would shatter the record, but those tremendous results in the intermediate game should be what sets Titans’ fans salivating; that’s a higher sample size and is typically more consistent from year to year.
Intermediate passes typically have the lowest YAC; they’re too long to give the receiver the space to pick their way through the front seven, but too short to go over the top of the secondary. Brown is the first wide receiver since 2014 Golden Tate to top 9.5 YAC per catch in the difficult 6- to 10-yard zone (minimum 15 targets; we’re talking about small sample sizes here) … which makes Hunter Renfrow averaging 11.6 YAC on 14 targets there all the more impressive. All three rookies were tremendous at what they excelled at; the much-lauded 2020 class of wideouts have a heck of an act to follow.
There are plenty of other headlines we could have grabbed here, if it hadn’t been for Brown and the rooks. Chris Godwin is the first receiver to hit +2.0 on at least 100 targets since 2014 Randall Cobb. Tom Brady must be salivating over getting to throw to Godwin rather than the three Patriots who appear in the bottom 20. The redemption of John Ross, who ranked 72nd last year, is another one; his half-season around his broken collarbone finally saw him translate some of his blazing speed into actual production. Jarvis Landry is in a similar, if less extreme boat.
Then there’s the issue of year-to-year consistency, or lack of it. YAC+ always has a decent amount of variance in it; a few big plays here or there can have significant impacts on a player’s final numbers. But typically, somewhere between six and 10 of each year’s top 20 make return visits the following season. Not last year, though — only Cooper Kupp, Sammy Watkins, and Kenny Golladay found their way back into the top 20. Nearly as many went from the top 20 all the way to the bottom 20 (Mohamed Sanu and Calvin Ridley). This is most likely a combination of weird splits happening, the arrival of so many high-scoring rookies, and the unfortunate situations the top of last year’s list found themselves in — Josh Gordon suspended again, D.J. Moore losing his quarterback, Quincy Enunwa suffering a possible career-ending injury, and so on. Still, it’s worth noting that the leaderboard looks a lot different than it did last year.
And then down at the very bottom, we have Ted Ginn. This isn’t the first time Ginn finished dead last — he actually was the worst receiver covered the very first time we published our YAC+ numbers, back in 2010. He has been below -1.0 in three of the last four years, and has had negative results in nine of the 13 seasons we have on record for him. And now, he gets to go to Chicago, where his quarterback … you know, hold that thought; we’ll get back to that.
Ginn’s trip to the NFC North will see him join the majority of the bottom of the leaderboard, as four of last five now all ply their trade in the division. Marvin Jones has never been a massive YAC threat and can blame Matthew Stafford’s injury for some of his decline. Geronimo Allison is now in a battle for fourth wideout in Detroit and is unlikely to be relevant going forward. And then we have Allen Robinson, who jumps out on film as an incredibly talented receiver, but never has the stats to back that up. A ton of that can be blamed on his terrible history of quarterbacks, with his time in Chicago being highlighted by … yeah, keep that pin there next to Ted Ginn.
The bottom of the leaderboard is filled with low numbers on a team level, not just the individual level. Joining the Patriots with multiple offenders were Philadelphia, Carolina, Atlanta, and Miami. This is where it’s important to stress that maximizing YAC+ is not the goal of an offense. It’s a useful tool, it’s beneficial to have an option or two who can pick up big numbers, and you certainly can base an offensive philosophy around it, but it’s not required. The Falcons were 12th in passing DVOA, and neither the Eagles nor Patriots’ passing offenses were disasters. It is, perhaps, concerning that Calvin Ridley fell from +0.7 in 2018 to -1.9 last season, but that’s partially a result of the Falcons going from Steve Sarkisian to Dirk Koetter on offense. Ridley is still capable of putting up large amounts of YAC, but that’s not prioritized in Koetter’s system; his offenses haven’t had a positive YAC+ since 2007 and he rarely even has one qualified wideout with positive value. It’s a good reminder that these numbers are going to be partly scheme-dependent; different routes have different opportunities for YAC, and if a player isn’t asked to run those routes, there’s only so much they can do! Seeing as how Ridley’s non-YAC numbers all took a massive swing upwards in Year 2, I believe the Falcons will accept the results.
This was the play with the most YAC+ for a receiver in 2019; Odell Beckham splitting a pair of Jets defenders and spinning Marcus Maye around on his way to the end zone.
Odell Beckham took off like a Jet and scored a career-long 89 yard TD. pic.twitter.com/8TrSrhaRab
— Ryan Field (@RyanFieldABC) September 17, 2019
2019 Tight Ends
A total of 48 tight ends qualified, but we’re only listing the top and bottom 15 for space reasons.
Another big season for rookies, with Noah Fant taking the top of the table and T.J. Hockenson squeaking into the top five himself. At the same time, a terrible season for rookies, with both Irv Smith and Kaden Smith finishing in the bottom three overall. For completionists, the only qualified rookie we’re missing was Dawson Knox at +0.3.
The Fant versus Jonnu Smith versus Jared Cook race came down to the wire, with Fant finishing at +2.411, Smith at +2.374, and Cook at +2.372. Such a tight race means that you can find little points of contention that could have any of the three rank highest if you take one thing or another into account. Fant was the least consistent; he actually had negative YAC+ in eight of his 16 games, but mixed in big YAC days against Jacksonville, Cleveland, Houston, and Kansas City to put him over the top. Fant had negative results with Joe Flacco (-1.4) but positive numbers with both Drew Lock (+7.5) and Brandon Allen (+4.9), so perhaps Denver’s quarterback change bodes particularly well going forward. The other two contenders had quarterback splits as well, of course. Cook was +3.7 with Drew Brees but just -0.7 with Teddy Bridgewater; Smith only had seven targets from Marcus Mariota, so his +8.6 YAC+ should come with several tons of grains of salt.
This is Smith’s second year in a row finishing second place on the YAC+ leaderboards. His numbers aren’t quite as high as they were last year, but he also saw a substantial increase in targets, which helps balance that out. This time, however, he wasn’t alone. Smith was one of four Titans to finish with +1.0 YAC+ or better with at least 20 targets, alongside Brown, Derrick Henry, and Anthony Firkser. As a team, the Titans had a +1.1 YAC+, their highest on record and their first positive season since 2014. Obviously, a ton of that is the addition of A.J. Brown, but the Titans would still have been positive without him. Full credit has to Arthur Smith for scheming his players into wide-open areas, but this is a pretty solid group of offensive talent Tennessee has been able to assemble. It will be very interesting to see how much of 2019’s success they can roll over into 2020.
Smith is one of three tight ends to make the top 15 list in consecutive seasons; the other two handle a significantly larger workload than he does. Both George Kittle and Tyler Higbee pop back up in the top 15, playing similar roles in the Rams’ and 49ers’ iterations of the same offense. Kittle didn’t come close to repeating last year’s +4.7 number, but he repeated as the best tight end among players with a heavy workload, just pipping Darren Waller to that line. Kittle became the first tight end to have +1.5 YAC+ or higher with more than 50 targets since Rob Gronkowski retired.
And speaking of Gronk…
Both O.J Howard (-0.7) and Cameron Brate (-1.6) finished in the bottom 15 among tight ends, so you can see why the Buccaneers would be excited at the potential Gronkowski brings to their offense. Gronkowski has the best career YAC+ of any tight end with at least 300 targets at +1.8; prime Gronk was a barely stoppable monster once he got going. It is worth noting, however, that Gronk’s last season had him at -0.3, the only time in his career he put up negative YAC+. Even that Gronk was more of a threat moving with the ball than Howard or Brate was, mind you, but the hope is that with a year off to rest and recuperate, we’ll get to see prime Gronkowski once again. I have my doubts, but it’s easy to see what Tampa Bay is trying to do there, above and beyond just surrounding Brady with friendly faces.
Brate is a returner to the bottom 15, as are Zach Ertz and Mike Gesicki. Ertz, at least, has usually been a sure-handed possession receiver, although he’s coming off of a down year overall last season; the Eagles aren’t asking him to gain a ton of yards after the catch. Brate just had his contract restructured to reflect that he’s not going to be a significant part of the Buccaneers’ offense going forward, so he likely won’t return to the bottom 15 next year. The Dolphins are still waiting for 2018 second-round pick Gesiciki to make the leap
This was the play with the most YAC+ for a tight end in 2019; Darren Waller turning a third-down screen in the shadow of his own goalposts into a 76-yard catch and run. Suffice it to say, this is not the standard result for tight end screens on third-and-9.
— Win City Silver & Black Pride (@SilverBlakPride) December 29, 2019
2019 Running Backs
There were 50 qualified running backs, but we are just going to list 20 from the top and bottom here.
Memo to Dalvin Cook’s agents: you guys have been using advanced stats all offseason long to try to make an argument for Cook being worth one of those mondo running back extensions which never pay off. Well, here’s another one for you!
Cook has now had positive YAC+ in each of his three seasons in the league, though +3.2 is a new high-water mark for him. To be a valuable running back in 2020 — or, at least, to be a running back worth a valuable contract in 2020 — you need to contribute in the receiving game. Cook certainly did last season; his +5.7 YAC+ on passes behind the line of scrimmage was the best number for any player at any position. Now, whether or not teams should be throwing so many passes behind the line is a different discussion altogether, but at least Cook made the most out of what was a substantial part of the Vikings’ offense last season.
When it comes to running backs used more like a receiver, it’s Austin Ekeler, not Christian McCaffrey, who ends up atop the YAC+ leaderboards. McCaffrey isn’t a thousand miles away or anything, but Ekeler, who now is the unquestioned top running back on the Chargers’ depth chart, has had a better YAC+ in each of the three seasons that both players have been in the league. 2019 was the first year Ekeler shouldered anywhere near McCaffrey’s workload, as well as the first year his receiving plus-minus has been in the same ballpark, so it remains to be seen if Ekeler can keep up his high levels of YAC efficiency in years to come. There’s also the slight problem with both backs adjusting to a new quarterback situation in 2020. I’d bet on Ekeler pipping McCaffrey again in 2020, but that will be a fun race to watch.
Ekeler is one of just two running backs to hit the top 10 in each of the last two seasons; the other was Tevin Coleman. Coleman, of course, went from the Falcons to the 49ers, who will be featured on Hoarders just as soon as they choose to dedicate an episode to pass-catching backs. Two-dozen running backs last season had at least 20 targets with a YAC+ of +1.0 or greater. The 49ers had three of them in Coleman (+1.9), Kyle Juszczyk (+2.4), and Raheem Mostert (+4.4; the league leader if you put the cutoff at 20 targets). The one back they had with 20 targets without a positive score was Matt Breida; they traded him away to Miami. In San Francisco, you gain yards after the catch or you go.
There were no returnees in the bottom 10. That’s mostly because 2018’s worst YAC+ finishers simply weren’t given a chance to improve in 2019, but we will take sanity prevailing at a certain point. Kareem Hunt, who led the league in Kansas City, plummeted to 32nd — still a positive YAC+, but way down after setting a record with +6.3 in 2018. Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense was slightly more effective than Baker Mayfield and the Browns; this is the kind of award-winning analysis you’ve come to expect from Football Outsiders.
Ty Johnson was forced into action last season due to injuries and may not have a roster spot in 2019, so the true low mark really should go to Tarik Cohen. In fact, both Cohen and teammate David Montgomery finish near the bottom and … oh, keep that pin stuck in for one more video, OK?
This was the play with the most YAC+ for a running back in 2019; Austin Ekeler taking a screen from a wide position to the house, complete with the most underwhelming call you’ve ever heard for an 84-yard touchdown.
— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) December 8, 2019
YAC+ for quarterbacks is really more of an indicator of the type of offense the quarterback runs and the talent in it rather than his individual performance level. Here are the 2019 results for our 34 qualified quarterbacks.
We print that disclaimer every year. Some offenses are more reliant on YAC than others, so when a Kyle Allen appears ahead of a Matt Ryan, we can be clear that this is not, in fact, a statement that Allen was better than Ryan at … well, anything in particular. That being said…
There are two ways for a passing game to move the ball. You can throw the ball deep and let the ball travel through the air, or you can throw the ball short and let your receivers carry the ball forward on the ground. You expect to see somewhat of an inverse relationship between aDOT and YAC, as teams that throw deeper rely less on their YAC and vice versa. And for the most part, that’s exactly what we see in the table of quarterbacks up above. And then we look all the way down to the bottom and we see Mitchell Trubisky and his -1.3 YAC+.
Trubisky had a negative YAC+ in both 2017 and 2018 as well, but those were both at -0.4 — low, but not unfathomably so. A -1.3 is the lowest result any quarterback has had since Ryan Mallett had a -1.6 in 2015 — and remember, Mallett wasn’t the starter for Houston that season. Trubisky was the man Chicago’s offense was designed around, and it just did, not, work. Again, a low YAC+ is not necessarily indicative of a bad offense, but Trubisky was near the bottom in both ALEX and aDOT; those are the sorts of passes that need to be turned upfield if they’re going to result in anything positive to speak of. Trubisky was one of 13 quarterbacks with an average depth of target under 8.0 yards. Not only was he the only one to fail to hit 4.5 YAC, he was the only one to fail to hit 5.0. As a group, Chicago had the second-worst YAC+ among wide receivers (-1.5, just above Philadelphia’s -1.6) and the worst among running backs by a country mile (-1.5; Denver was second with -0.8).
It defies belief to suggest that it’s a matter of all of Trubisky’s receivers being terrible with the ball in their hands, or an offense that doesn’t care if they gain any yards after the catch. If you’re going to throw the majority of your passes short, they need to be put in places where the receiver can turn upfield and do something with them. Trubisky utterly failed to do that last season. At least the Bears signed Nick Foles, who didn’t have enough attempts to qualify for the main table, but was light years ahead of Trubisky’s mark at, uh, -1.2 YAC+.
The Bears are never going to have a quarterback, are they?
Speaking of outliers in the other direction, hello, Ryan Tannehill! Tannehill actually has seen his YAC+ improve even before 2019; his only three positive seasons were in his last three seasons. But +1.3 is way, way outside of anything he’s done before; just another of the many career highs Tannehill set last year. As we mentioned earlier, the Titans didn’t quite manage to knock the 49ers off the YAC+ throne, as the Marcus Mariota weeks (+0.7) were enough of a weight to let yet another Shanahan offense take the crown. But Tannehill’s numbers are, in their own way, just as crazy as Trubisky’s were, only positively. The last passer to top 6.0 YAC while throwing as deep as Tannehill did last season was Michael Vick in 2010; these are hard numbers to hit. Arthur Smith’s system doesn’t have a long track record, as 2019 was his first year as offensive coordinator. It’s unclear, then, whether or not Tannehill will be able to repeat his performance in 2020. But Tannehill’s great YAC+ under Smith isn’t an illusion; maybe it just took this long for a team to find a system that fits Tannehill’s skillset. That’s a bit of an indictment on Miami’s coaching since 2012 but, I mean, if the shoe fits…
Finally, yes, this makes four years in a row that either a Kyle Shanahan or Sean McVay offense has led the league in YAC+. In the past four years, there have been seven qualified quarterbacks to hit +1.0 YAC+; Shanahan is responsible for three of them (2019 Jimmy Garoppolo, 2018 Nick Mullens, and 2016 Matt Ryan). Garoppolo is, to a certain extent, a system quarterback, but it’s a system that works. Unlike Arthur Smith’s offense, the Shanahan system seems to be fully battle tested. Even if Deebo Samuel misses extensive time with his broken foot, rookie Brandon Aiyuk seems ready to step in and rack up massive YAC yet again. Don’t bother taxing that arm, Jimmy G; the scheme will take it from there.