It’s July, which means it’s time for the 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? This year, we’re starting by looking at the best receivers with the ball in their hands in our annual look at YAC+.
What is YAC+? This description is from the newly released Football Outsiders Almanac 2021, 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.
Last year’s numbers were more muted than numbers we have seen in the past. In recent years, we have seen the records for individual YAC+ (A.J. Brown’s +4.4 in 2019) and team YAC+ (San Francisco’s +1.8 in 2018). No records fell last year, though our top tight end can at least carve a bit of history out for himself. We have seen strange quarterbacks top the list; backups such as Nick Mullens or career turnarounds like Ryan Tannehill. This year, the table is led by the consensus pick for top passer in the league. It’s amusing that in one of the least conventional seasons in recent memory, YAC+ ends up being fairly standard.
That’s not to say there are no interesting tidbits in here by any stretch of the imagination. YAC+ is frequently a stat dominated by younger players, and 2020 was no exception. The top five receivers have a combined 10 years of experience, and the leaderboards are littered with freshmen and sophomores. The last receiver to lead the league in YAC+ any later than his third season was DeSean Jackson in 2014; as players age and lose speed, they generally become less adept at turning upfield and racking up excess yardage. YAC+ is a young man’s game, making the few greybeards who crack the top of the leaderboards all the more impressive.
And here’s where you’re expecting us to turn to Justin Jefferson, as any time someone praises a rookie wideout from 2020, you expect it to be Jefferson. And yes, Jefferson featured fairly high in our rankings, but no, he’s not quite at the very top. In fact, our top YAC+ player this year didn’t even crack the top 60 in either DYAR or DVOA—and, in all honesty, wasn’t really the player with the top YAC+ in the league, if you look at the bigger picture.
Confused? Well, let’s try to clear that up with some massive tables.
2020 Wide Receivers
A total of 85 wide receivers qualified this season, but we’ll just show the 20 from the top and bottom of the rankings to save space here.
Note: For the purposes of this stat, targets do not include pass interference, where no YAC could be gained.
Michael Pittman’s counting numbers are no great shakes, but what he did in just 40 receptions was impressive. He only ran a 4.52-second 40-yard dash at last year’s combine, but he plays much faster than that, and Frank Reich took advantage, utilizing Pittman on plenty of play-action crossing routes and end arounds. You can see that his average depth of target was significantly lower than the rest of the top six, reflecting how he was used. In the second half of the season, once Pittman had recovered from his calf surgery, the Colts started trotting Pittman out on drags and quick slants over and over again. His releases off the line were superb, allowing him to gain separation, and then his ability with the ball in his hands surprised most everyone.
Pittman was projected as this big vertical threat coming out of college, and that really didn’t develop as a rookie, but when he was healthy and involved, he looked like a legitimate starter. Over the last eight weeks of the season, Pittman’s YAC+ improved to +4.4, the most for any receiver with at least 25 targets. Ideally, the Colts would like to see that aDOT go up next season, and for him to take over the role of top dog from T.Y. Hilton, whose contract expires after the season. Giving him deeper targets would likely lower his YAC+; I would not expect Pittman to lead the league in this category again. But it’s entirely plausible his counting stats double this season, with a healthy year and a full offseason program to develop. It was a small sample size, for sure—the smallest sample size we have seen since Danario Alexander won the YAC+ crown in 2012—but it was a promising start to Pittman’s career.
Because it was on such a comparatively small sample size, however, it’s fair if you want to look elsewhere to really crown the YAC+ king for 2020. A.J. Brown couldn’t match last year’s mark of +4.4, falling to third place, but he put up very good numbers over 101 targets. His +2.2 total is the most we have seen for a receiver with at least 100 targets since Josh Gordon had a +2.8 in 2013. While he couldn’t quite top Pittman on the leaderboards, I’d be more comfortable calling Brown the best YAC receiver in football for the second straight year considering how much success he was able to have even as his target share went up. Asking him to duplicate 2019’s 8.9 YAC per reception was simply not going to happen; that’s almost a once-in-a-career mark. The highest YAC/R for a qualified receiver last year was 7.3, shared by Pittman and Marquez Valdes-Scantling; you’ll see the two of them sitting pretty in first and second place on ye olde leaderboard there. Brown had a more human year of YAC/R at 6.2, but it’s his ability to put up that level of play over such a volume of targets that makes him extra valuable. Ditto DJ Moore (back in the top 20 after a one-year absence in 2019), Cooper Kupp, or Davante Adams; they may not be able to match the YAC+ rates that less-targeted receivers put up, but doing it on heavy volume is worth something in and of itself.
Speaking of Kupp, he has now been in the top 20 in YAC+ in each of his four seasons in the league. He has a career YAC+ of +1.2, the most for anyone with at least 200 targets over the last four years. The Shanahan/McVay type of offenses love to find their YAC guys, and Kupp has been Sean McVay’s man throughout his career. Kupp and Brown are joined by Hunter Renfrow and Corey Davis as repeats from 2019. But we can’t quite leave the 2019 table there.
Both Nelson Agholor and Breshad Perriman made our tables last year—but they were both in the bottom 20 of YAC+, not the top listing. Agholor had a bit of a career resurrection in Las Vegas and turned that into a hefty new deal in New England. It feels like 2020 is a bit of a quirk for Agholor, whose numbers rely heavily on a number of fluky big plays, the sort of 40-plus-yard receptions that happen when defenders fall down or blow a coverage. His previous career high for YAC+ was -0.2, and while the Raiders did use him differently than the Eagles did, I don’t think the Patriots can count on him putting up those kinds of numbers again. Perriman, at least, had had positive seasons before, so I’d trust his +0.6 a little more than Agholor’s. If Perriman had a role as a deep threat, a third or fourth receiver type, I think he could duplicate 2020’s success. Unfortunately, he’s probably Detroit’s top receiver, so we’ll have to see how that works out.
The other name we have to bring back from the 2019 tables is Deebo Samuel, who finished second that year with a +2.4 YAC+. Samuel, like most of the 49ers, was hurt for significant portions of last season, and thus didn’t qualify for our main tables. However, he did still manage 43 targets, so he only just missed out. And on those 43 targets, Samuel put up a +4.7 YAC+, the highest number since 2009 for a receiver with at least 40 targets. I would argue that a +4.7 on 43 targets is more impressive than Pittman’s +2.7 on 57; the 50-target threshold is fairly arbitrary as is and the gap in YAC+ is exceptional. Of course, calling Samuel a receiver almost feels wrong. Samuel had an aDOT of just 2.4; the lowest total for a qualified receiver was JuJu Smith-Schuster at 5.6. Samuel is simply used differently than most other players, making it almost unfair to compare him to other wideouts who run more traditional passing patterns. Samuel’s +3.2 career YAC+ is the highest for a receiver with at least 100 targets since our tracking began in 2005, just eking out A.J. Brown’s +3.1. Of course, Samuel wasn’t alone. Every San Francisco receiver with at least 20 targets—Samuel, Kendrick Bourne, Brandon Aiyuk, and Richie James—had positive YAC+ totals. Together, the 49ers wideouts led the league with +1.2 YAC+. We’ll get back to that in a little bit.
Flipping to the bottom of the table, we see how the mighty have fallen. Golden Tate ranked ninth in 2019 with a +1.1 YAC+; he fell to dead last in 2020. Some of that is age and injury, for sure—you don’t fall to -2.5 all willy-nilly—but it can’t be denied that Jason Garrett’s first year as coordinator for the Giants went about as badly as one could have imagined. This was not a Tate-only problem. Every New York wide receiver not named Austin Mack had a negative YAC+ last season, and the Giants receiving corps as a unit was last in the league with a -1.4 YAC+. Garrett does not have a significant history of producing negative YAC+ offenses; his only such years prior to 2020 were 2012 and 2017. But something clearly did not click in New York last year, as the Giants’ 28th ranking in passing DVOA would indicate. You can see why the Giants grabbed Kadarius Toney in the first round, though I’d argue that the Giants’ YAC issues won’t be fixed by adding one player.
Tate’s teammate Sterling Shephard makes his second straight appearance in the bottom 20, as do Marvin Jones, Allen Robinson, and Calvin Ridley. But the anti-Kupp here is really Curtis Samuel, who has now made trips to the bottom 20 in each of his three qualified seasons in the league. You can blame a lingering knee injury for his 2020 numbers, perhaps, but Samuel’s now at a -1.5 YAC+ for his career. This may surprise you; Samuel has the reputation of being an athletic playmaker at receiver. But his -1.4 YAC+ in 2020 is actually the high-water mark in his career to this point. Some of this might be poor usage, as Samuel led all receivers with 11 targets from the backfield, earning a -33.7% DVOA in 2020. Considering Samuel was in the bottom 10 in aDOT at 7.7, it’s not acceptable that his 4.2 YAC wasn’t even in the top 50 among wideouts. Free agent preview articles around the league highlighted Samuel’s YAC skills, but those talents just don’t show up on the field. Both Samuels—Deebo and Curtis—are used out of the backfield as almost a receiver/runner hybrid. But while Deebo is putting up record numbers, Curtis can’t get out of the negatives. Maybe getting away from Kyle Allen, the ghost of Cam Newton, and Teddy “Checkdown” Bridgewater will help Samuel turn his obvious physical skills into more actual on-field production.
We do want 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. And just because a receiver had poor YAC+ numbers doesn’t mean they were bad, just that their skills lie elsewhere. Rashard Higgins was sixth in DVOA and Marvin Jones and Calvin Ridley cracked the top 20 in DYAR, despite not doing much after the catch; they ran enough deep routes and won enough contested balls to provide plenty of value for their teams. This is a measure of style as much as it is a measure of skill, and while there are more good receivers on the positive side of the ledger than the negative, just appearing on one or the other doesn’t necessarily mean anything in and of itself. Then again, if you’re putting up numbers like A.J. Green did on 95 targets, well, it may be time to hang up the cleats.
This was the play with the most YAC+ for a receiver in 2020; Tyler Boyd turning a little out route into a 72-yard touchdown. It helps when Drew Sample can take out the only two defenders on that side of the field with one block, but hey, you take what you can get.
TYLER BOYD. 72 YARDS TO THE HOUSE
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 6, 2020
2020 Tight Ends
A total of 48 tight ends qualified, but we’re only listing the top and bottom 15 for space reasons.
He just squeaks into qualifying range with 28 targets, but Darren Fells’ +4.3 YAC+ would have topped the table in both 2019 and 2020. It’s not just a matter of a fluke season on a small number of targets, either; Fells had a YAC+ of +1.2 in 2019 on 46 targets, making back-to-back top-10 finishes for the now ex-Texan. Fells really clicked with Deshaun Watson in a way he never really did with his quarterbacks in Arizona, Detroit, or Cleveland. Of course, the Texans ignored most of that and used Fells as an inline blocker for most of his time in Houston, leading to him losing his role in the offense to Pharaoh Brown, but that’s about par for the course in Houston. No one’s going to argue that Fells should have been a TE1 or the focal point of an offense or anything like that, but Fells has been in the top 10 in DVOA for tight ends in each of the four years he has received enough targets to qualify. The Lions should find some way to use him in two-tight end sets in 2021.
Perhaps slightly more impressive than Fells’ numbers was Travis Kelce’s +1.5 on 140 targets, which represents something of a return to form for the big man. Kelce has had positive YAC+ in every year in the league, but his last three seasons saw him going +0.2, +1.1 and +0.0 and miss the top of the tight end tables more often than not. The question is less why is Kelce so high—of course the best route-running tight end in the game is going to rank high—but why Kelce had been so low in previous years with Patrick Mahomes. Of course, “low” is a relative term; Kelce is second in the league among tight ends with 1,588 YAC over the past three seasons. The fact that Travis Kelce is very good at his job is one of the many astute insights you’ve come to expect from the Football Outsiders team.
As mentioned, this was Fells’ second consecutive year in the top 15 among tight ends. Noah Fant, last year’s leader, and Darren Waller, one of the three tight ends with over 1,000 YAC over the past three years, join him as back-to-back finishers. Then you have Jonnu Smith and Tyler Higbee, who have graced the top 15 in three consecutive seasons. But the king of tight end YAC remains George Kittle, who has now placed in the top eight in each of his four seasons in the league. He’s sitting on a career YAC+ of +2.6, the most for any tight end in our database with even 50 targets, much less Kittle’s 359.
Then you have Will Dissly, who jumped from a -1.5 YAC+ in 2019 to second in the league at +2.1 in 2020. I guess that’s proof that a torn Achilles (suffered in Week 6, 2019) is less damaging to your explosiveness than a torn patellar tendon (suffered in Week 4, 2018). Dissly can’t catch a break, and now has to be part of a three-headed monster with Gerald Everett and Colby Parkinson. At least he can actually train this offseason rather than rehabbing yet another injury.
We also need to give a quick shout out to Arizona’s tight ends. Dan Arnold made the table at +1.1, but all four Cardinals tight ends who had a reception ended up with positive YAC+, and they led the league with +1.8 at the position. Arnold is off to rejoin Joe Brady in Carolina, so we’ll see if Maxx Williams and Darrell Daniels can keep their high YAC numbers up in larger roles in 2021.
Coming to the flipside of the table, we have Zach Ertz sitting in dead last. Ertz has never been a YAC+ guy; this is his third consecutive year in the bottom 15 and he has never had a positive season in his career. Normally, that has been OK; Ertz’s game has been his great hands, not his ability with the ball. Not so last year, when everything fell apart, for both the Eagles in general and Ertz in particular. He was dead last in DYAR, DVOA, and catch rate among qualified tight ends. Add the YAC+ “crown” to that total, and he’ll have a couple more “accolades” coming in stat articles this month. At this point, with Ertz not attending offseason workouts, it seems exceptionally unlikely that he will be on the Eagles in 2021. They may well be better off for it.
But at least the Eagles had some solid play out of Dallas Goedert and Richard Rodgers. There is no such silver lining for the Jacksonville Jaguars, who saw all four tight ends finish below -1.0 in YAC+ in 2020, with both Tyler Eifert and James O’Shaughnessy qualifying for the bottom of the table and the team as a whole finishing with a league-worst -1.2. It’s alright, though; their tight end problems have surely been solved with the addition of Tim Tebow.
Ertz and Eifert are both repeat offenders on bottom of tables, along with Jacob Hollister and Mike Gesicki. But amazingly, this marks the sixth year in a row that Cameron Brate has been among the bottom 15. He has a career YAC+ of -1.5, worst among all tight ends with at least 300 targets. Again, this is a good reminder that YAC+ isn’t necessarily a marker of good versus bad; Brate’s sure hands has had him top 60 DYAR in four of his six qualified seasons, and he was the Buccaneers’ leading receiver among tight ends in the playoffs last season. Just don’t expect him to do anything after he has caught the ball.
This was the play with the most YAC+ for a tight end in 2020; Jonnu Smith turning a blown assignment into a 62-yard romp.
— NFL (@NFL) September 20, 2020
2020 Running Backs
There were 46 qualified running backs, but we are just going to list 15 from the top and bottom here.
Kerryon Johnson barely squeaks into qualified range. The barely-used back ended up second in receiving DVOA on the rare occasions the Lions looked his way, but he was clearly the third man on the totem pole behind D’Andre Swift and Adrian Peterson all year long. Perhaps he’ll have more luck earning snaps in Philadelphia in 2021.
Instead, Alvin Kamara’s +1.7 on 105 targets is probably your best result for 2020. It’s interesting because Kamara was part of the bottom 15 last season. Kamara was nursing a knee injury, back injury, and high-ankle sprain throughout the back half of 2019, explaining his one year in the wilderness. With the quarterback situation very much up in the air in New Orleans in 2020, I’d expect Kamara to get more work if anything. It’s worth noting, however, that Kamara had a +2.2 YAC+ with Drew Brees and a -1.0 YAC+ with Taysom Hill. He was at +3.0 with Jameis Winston, but that’s three targets and isn’t significant.
Dalvin Cook led the league in 2019 and remained in the top four last year. The Vikings excelled at throwing to their running backs, with Cook, C.J. Ham, Alexander Mattison, and the rest combining for a +1.9 YAC+. Most of the other teams with strong values for running backs here had someone who would split out wide on a regular basis—the Saints and Kamara, the Rams and Malcolm Brown, the Patriots and James White. But nearly all of Minnesota’s passes to running backs came with them line up as, well, running backs. Score one for tradition, I suppose.
The bottom of the list sees a similar situation as the top. Wayne Gallman just has enough targets to reach the bottom of the list; it will be interesting to see how those numbers change as he enters the 49ers’ YAC-friendly offense in 2021. His performance is somewhat overshadowed by the man in second place as Melvin Gordon’s -2.0 led the way for the Broncos. Gordon has never been particularly good at catching the ball, but all four Broncos running backs ended up with negative YAC+, perhaps indicating that neither Drew Lock’s passing nor Pat Shurmur’s play calling was doing them any favors.
All in all, though, the running back tables this year are just a bit odd. Kamara, David Montgomery, and Giovanni Bernard were all in the bottom 15 in 2019; they’re top-15 players in 2020. Ronald Jones ranked third in 2019; he’s now in the bottom five. This stat is usually a bit more consistent from year to year. That’s not to say there were no constants, mind you. J.D. McKissic, Dion Lewis, and Todd Gurley all made repeat appearances at the bottom of the list; two of them are unsigned as we enter the season. Meanwhile, Cook is joined by Duke Johnson and Austin Ekeler as fixtures on the positive side of the ledger. Ekeler has now been in the top 15 for four seasons in a row; his career YAC+ of +2.5 trails only Joique Bell all-time among running backs with at least 200 targets.
This was the play with the most YAC+ for a running back in 2020; Raheem Mostert running an angle route and taking off against the Cardinals. Mostert hit 22.7 miles an hour on this run, making it the second-fastest play in the league last season. It was only beaten by Raheem Mostert the next week on a run against the Jets. Raheem Mostert is fairly fast.
— NFL (@NFL) September 13, 2020
YAC+ for quarterbacks is really an indicator more of the type of offense the quarterback runs and the talent in it rather than his individual performance level. Here are the 2020 results for our 36 qualified quarterbacks.
Some offenses are more reliant on YAC than others, so when a Dwayne Haskins appears ahead of a Tom Brady, we can be clear that this is not, in fact, a statement that Haskins was better than Brady at … well, anything in particular.
Mahomes finally takes home the crown this season after finishing second and fourth in his first two years in the league. There’s no doubting that Mahomes is an exceptionally skilled player, but he also happens to be in an Andy Reid offense which routinely finishes very high in these sorts of things. Reid’s offenses have finished in the top 10 in YAC+ in each of the last seven years, and he has averaged a ranking of ninth stretching back to 2006 when our data begins; his Eagles were the first team to lead the league in this stat. The Chiefs end up with the second-most YAC+ this season, but Mahomes was the quarterback who played enough to qualify and thus takes home the title. We’ll get to the top team shortly.
The quarterback with the most improvement over his 2019 numbers is Mitch Trubisky, who was dead last in 2019 but rebounded to a very respectable 14th a year ago. And he was even better after regaining the starting job in Week 12, going from -0.4 to +0.4. He didn’t suddenly become an acceptable starting quarterback last season, but he climbed well back into the realm of above-average backup passer, a point brought in sharp relief when you see Nick Foles at the very bottom of the chart. Foles’ -1.7 YAC+ is the worst mark we have ever seen from a qualified passer, and the gap between Foles and Trubisky shows that it’s not just the scheme that’s doing Foles in. Foles is getting $4 million in cash this season to be the third-string passer for the Bears; nice work if you can get it.
Other passers who saw their YAC+ rise by at least 0.5 were Ryan Fitzpatrick, Aaron Rodgers, and Deshaun Watson. There’s a real chance that none of them will be starting for the same team in 2021 as they were last season, though the definition of “real chance” varies from player to player there.
Daniel Jones and Ryan Tannehill essentially share the title for most regression in their YAC+. For Tannehill, that just means he was above average rather than the best in the league like he was in 2019; a +0.4 is much more in line with what he was doing in Miami than the +1.3 he pulled off last season. For Jones, his fall puts him right among the dregs of the league; this season is probably his last chance to prove he deserves to be the Giants’ starter. Carson Wentz, Lamar Jackson, and Sam Darnold also saw their YAC+ drop by at least 0.5, in the world’s easiest game of “one of these things is not like the others.”
But once again, I get my contractually obligated yearly paragraphs to praise Kyle Shanahan. You can see Nick Mullens and his +0.5 there in fifth place; it’s not quite his YAC+ title from 2018, but it’s a fairly impressive result notwithstanding. What you don’t see is C.J. Beathard’s +0.6, or Jimmy Garoppolo’s exceptional +2.0. That’s the most for a passer on at least 100 targets since Troy Smith had a +2.2 in 2010. No matter which passer Shanahan had back there, he still found ways to manufacture YAC+.
That means the 49ers have now led the league in each of the last three seasons in this stat; their +0.93 squeaks past the Chiefs’ +0.87 last season. Shanahan’s Falcons also led the league in 2016. The only time since then when Shanahan’s offense has not finished first was in 2017, when he was working with Brian Hoyer and his former assistant Sean McVay took the crown. When we say it’s not the quarterbacks, it’s the system, this is what we’re talking about. The quality of the passer matters somewhat—there’s a reason Garoppolo scored higher than his backups—but it’s Shanahan’s scheme that is creating a YAC+ dynasty. There’s every reason to expect Trey Lance will be near or at the top of this table as soon as he gets under center for San Francisco.