Today, I’m going to normalize each player’s catch rate based on these two factors. I’ll be adjusting for the depth of each target seen by the player and the completion percentage of the quarterback who made each throw.
I’m going to start with catch rates adjusted only by depth. This is fairly obvious, but the idea here is that players who tend to see a lot of targets deep down field will have a much lower catch rate and vice versa. By calculating each receiver’s expected catch rate, we’ll be able to better distinguish the league’s best and worst ball-catchers.
Our first chart shows the players who exceeded their expected catch rate (again, based only on depth this time) by the largest margins during the 2013 season. Note that only players who saw 50 or more targets are included in this study.
The 70 percent catch rate Kenny Stills put up as a rookie is even more impressive when you consider that no player in this sample had a higher average depth of target (aDOT). Of his 50 targets, 15 had a depth of at least 20 yards. Stills caught six for 340 yards and five scores. On targets inside 20 yards, he caught a ridiculous 29 of 35 targets (83 percent). Stills only dropped one pass on the season. As we’ll see later, Drew Brees under center helped boost Stills’ catch rate, but not by a ton.
When you consider that he has one of the lowest catch rates and highest aDOTs in our first chart, DeSean Jackson’s presence at No. 8 overall is quite interesting. Jackson was exceptional in his first campaign under Chip Kelly. Despite a hefty 14.3 aDOT, Jackson hauled in 68 percent of his targets. That’s almost exactly 10 percentage points above expected. Jackson was nothing short of exceptional near the line of scrimmage. He caught 47 of 52 targets (90 percent) when positioned behind or within 7 yards of the line of scrimmage. Jackson hauled in 10 of 21 targets (48 percent) when the depth was at least 30 yards down field. Much has been made about how the loss of Jackson’s field-stretching ability will hurt the Eagles’ offense, but this helps explain the team’s addition of Darren Sproles. Consider that Sproles hauled in 76 of 87 targets (87 percent) when behind or within 8 yards of the end zone last season. Sproles caught 45 of 51 targets (88 percent) when in the 0-to-10-yard range.
The next chart shows the players who fell short of their expected catch rates by the largest margins.
Davone Bess was a competent possession receiver while in Miami, but was downright dreadful in his first season in Cleveland. Bess barely caught half his targets despite primarily operating near the line of scrimmage. Bess actually caught all five of his targets at or behind the line of scrimmage, but hauled in only 25 of 55 in the 1-to-7-yard range. The Browns cut Bess earlier this offseason and will replace him in the slot with Andrew Hawkins. Hawkins has a career 80 percent catch rate on targets within 9 yards of the line of scrimmage.
An undrafted free agent signing by New England last season, Kenbrell Thompkins received an absurd amount of hype. Unsurprisingly, he failed to live up to it. Thompkins caught only 32 of his 72 targets (44 percent) despite a 12.6 aDOT. He managed only 13 receptions on 39 targets 10-plus yards down field. Thompkins is already on the bubble for the team’s 2014 53-man roster.
Our next two charts are very similar to the first two, but this time we’re adjusting for the influence the passer had on the play. Common sense tells us catch rates will be influenced quite a bit if Peyton Manning is a team’s quarterback instead of Mark Sanchez.
This chart shows the players who exceeded their aDOT and passer-adjusted expected catch rates by the largest margins last season.
Entering 2013, we knew Jordan Cameron was a physical freak with a high ceiling. Finally positioned as a starter, he turned those skills into one of the top receiving performances of the year by a tight end. Cameron ranks out as having the best catch rate in the NFL when aDOT and quarterback play are factored in. Based on my math, Cleveland’s poor quarterback play cost him four percentage points off his catch rate. Couple that with his 9.9 aDOT and Cameron’s 73 percent catch rate was 14 percentage points above expected. Cameron caught 45 of 55 (82 percent) targets in the 0-to-8-yard range. Only 25 and with the Cleveland offense improving around him, Cameron is a rising star.
Bucs’ tight end Tim Wright shows up in the Top 4 of both “good” lists we’ve seen. Wright caught 54 of his 72 targets as a rookie. More of a receiver than a tight end, his 9.4 aDOT was on the high side at the position. Wright only saw one target behind the line of scrimmage, instead doing most of his damage in the intermediate range. He hauled in all 20 of his targets in the 0-to-5-yard range and caught of 5 of 6 balls thrown 19 yards or deeper down field. Tampa Bay added Brandon Myers this offseason, but new offensive coordinator will have a hard time keeping Wright off the field on passing downs.
Finally, we have the players who fell short of their aDOT and quarterback-adjusted expected catch rates by the largest margins.
Le’Veon Bell wasn’t even in the aDOT-only version of this list, so his ranking of eighth-worst is worth a look. Bell’s aDOT was less than 1 yard down field, but he managed only 54 receptions on 62 targets. Bell’s catch rate was nine percent points below expected. He actually did alright on short targets, hauling in 35 of 41 looks (85 percent) with 1 yard of the line of scrimmage. OC Todd Haley had him run a few deeper routes, however, which turned out poorly. Bell caught zero of six targets nine-plus yards down field. Bell was competent as an “innings eater” as a rookie, but he’ll need to be more effective if he hopes to hold LeGarrette Blount off in Pittsburgh.
Detroit’s addition of Golden Tate looks even prettier when you realize just how poorly Kris Durham performed last season. On the field for 84 percent of Detroit’s snaps, Durham was an offensive fixture opposite Calvin Johnson. He wasn’t very good, hauling in only 38 of 82 targets (46 percent) despite a middle-of-the-pack 12.4 aDOT. Durham racked up 44 targets 10-plus yards down field, but caught only 13 (30 percent). Durham is likely ticketed for No. 4 or 5 duties in 2014.
Follow Mike Clay on Twitter: @MikeClayNFL
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