OTD Improvement Project – Part 3: Receiving
Mike Clay concludes his three-part series on opportunity-adjusted touchdowns with a lengthy look at receiving.
OTD Improvement Project – Part 3: Receiving
I saved the best for last.
In the third and final portion of the study, I’ll take a look at pass catchers.
If you’re new the stat, be sure to check out my initial introduction from six months ago. In a nutshell, the OTD metric weighs every carry/pass/target and converts the data into one number that indicates a player’s scoring opportunity. The purpose, of course, is to eliminate the constant referencing of badly-flawed red zone data.
Note: Remember that passing/receiving OTD is based on the depth of the pass and receiver’s distance from the end zone when he is targeted — not the line of scrimmage. This allows us to better weigh throws in and around the end zone.
Our first chart shows the receiving OTD leaders during the entire 2013 regular season.
No player enjoyed a better opportunity to lead the league in receiving touchdowns than Brandon Marshall. Jay Cutler’s favorite target scored 12 times, which put him right in line with his 11.6 OTD. Only A.J. Green matched Marshall’s 23 end-zone targets. Only Dez Bryant matched his 10 end-zone receptions. Marshall’s two other scores came after short runs of 1 and 5 yards.
We talked a lot about Calvin Johnson’s 2012 scoring struggles in the aforementioned offseason introduction article. Johnson only caught two of 16 end-zone targets last season, which explained why he only scored five times. Fast forward one season and Johnson is fresh of a 12-touchdown campaign. What changed? Johnson saw 21 end-zone looks this past season. He hauled in six. In addition, Johnson scored after catches inside the opponent’s 5-yard line on three occasions. Big plays were another reason for the burst. Johnson ran the ball in for a score after catches that were 15, 35, and 65 yards away from the end zone. Johnson is now 32-of-121 (26 percent) on end-zone targets over the past six years. Per OTD, he should be closer to 41 scores.
If Calvin Johnson wasn’t the most-discussed name as a result of June’s study, Andre Johnson sure was. Having scored only four touchdowns despite sitting at No. 5 in the NFL with 159 targets, there were major question marks as to why Johnson wasn’t finding paydirt. This is where OTD became very valuable. Johnson finished No. 49 in the NFL in receiving OTD last season (4.4). This meant that his four-touchdown campaign was not a sign of bad luck, but rather an indicator of a lack of opportunity. Johnson had been targeted in the end zone only six times, only one of which was caught.
In 2013, Johnson faced similar struggles with Matt Schaub under center early in the season. That quickly changed in the second half, however. Johnson ended up with an NFL-high 176 targets, including 13 in the end zone. That helped him to a Top-10 finish in OTD. Of course, as we learned with Calvin Johnson, opportunity doesn’t necessarily guarantee touchdowns. Andre Johnson caught four of his end-zone targets, but only took one in from outside the 10 x 53.5 rectangle. That one came from 23 yards out. Johnson still has a higher OTD than actual touchdown output over the past six years, which suggests he’s in line for regression in 2014. That’s especially the case with Houston’s offensive overhaul in progress.
Kendall Wright isn’t listed in our Top 15, but he’s worth a quick examination. Despite finishing No. 16 in the NFL with 134 targets, Tennessee’s slot man managed only two touchdowns. Consider that Wright only saw one (yes, one) end-zone target all season. In fact, it was barely an end-zone target, as he was targeted while right at the goal line. Even worse, he was targeted while within 15 yards of the end zone only five times. At the end of the day, Wright put up a 2.1 OTD, which trailed 136 other players. This means that his two scores make perfect sense despite the massive target workload. In case you’re wondering, Wright scored four times as a rookie. He was 1-of-6 on end-zone looks. Wright remains a PPR monster, but he’s going to continue struggling in the touchdown department if his usage near the goal line doesn’t change. A new coaching staff – led by the coach, Ken Whisenhunt, who helped San Diego slot man Eddie Royal to eight touchdowns in 2012 – figures to help Wright’s production going forward.
Our second chart shows the players with actual touchdown production that exceeds their OTD by the largest margins.
Everyone on this list seemingly makes sense, but for a variety of reasons. We see two Broncos and three Eagles, which are the teams that finished one-two in offensive touchdowns. Royal, Cotchery, Jones, and Davis certainly fit the bill of “lucky”, as they were among the NFL leaders in scoring despite underwhelming target numbers.
That leaves Jimmy Graham, who fits a similar bill to the Broncos and Eagles players, but is also simply a freakishly, dominant player, especially in his capacity as a target near the goal line. Graham was only targeted 10 times while in the end zone, but he hauled in six of those looks. That means an absurd 10 of his touchdowns required post-catch production. Graham ran distances of 1, 3, 3, 5, 6, 8, 10, 13, 15, and 32 yards on those scores. This may surprise you, but Graham has now seen a total of 17 end-zone targets over two seasons since racking up 18 back in 2011.
Graham, Thomas (4-of-7), Jones (9-of-11), Davis (9-of-15), Cotchery (6-of-10), Cooper (5-of-8), and Celek (3-of-3) were a combined 36-of-54 (67 percent) on end-zone targets. That’s an exceptional and unsustainable figure. That’s especially the case for Jones, who defied all odds by hauling in 81 percent of his end-zone targets. Jones had to run a total of 7 yards to the end zone on his 10 touchdowns.
As interesting as Jones’ numbers are, Royal has him beat. San Diego’s slot man exploded out of the gate with five touchdowns during the team’s first two games. He cooled off from there, as expected, but still reached eight tallies for the season. Here’s the crazy part: Royal only caught one touchdown while inside the confines of the end zone. He was 1-of-4 on end-zone targets, with the other seven touchdowns coming after runs of 3, 3, 6, 6, 9, 18, and 19 yards. Royal’s only touchdown during the 2012 season came by virtue of an end-zone target. Royal is a slam dunk regression candidate in 2014.
Our next chart includes the players with actual touchdown totals significantly lower than their expected marks.
No player who failed to score a touchdown saw more targets than Nicks this past season. The impending free agent was looked at 98 times, which put him No. 42 in league. As was the case in 2012, Nicks struggled badly on end-zone targets. He saw nine this season after going 0-for-7 in the department in 2012. Nicks was 13-of-29 in the department during the 2010 and 2011 seasons.
We already discussed Johnson, but his teammate DeAndre Hopkins is worth a look. One of my favorite breakout candidates for 2014, “Nuk” scored only twice despite 91 targets. The rookie saw 10 end-zone targets, which is where he hauled in both scores. This means that he failed to find paydirt on 81 targets outside the end zone. The quarterback play in Houston was atrocious this past season, but Hopkins will need to do more after the catch if he hopes to take a big step forward in his sophomore season. Houston’s move to a more wide-open, pass-heavy attack under Bill O’Brien will only help his cause.
Finally, we have a running back worth discussing. Le’Veon Bell finished No. 2 in rushing OTD and should’ve had another pair of scores, according to receiving OTD. Pittsburgh’s rookie tailback didn’t see a single end-zone target (common for running backs), but was targeted three times while inside the opponent’s 5-yard line. He saw another five looks while within 10 yards of the end zone. Expanding on a stat from the rushing OTD piece, Bell failed to convert any of 275 touches from 10-plus yards away from the opposing end zone into a touchdown.
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Our final chart displays the Top 10 running backs in Receiving OTD during the 2013 regular season.
Because they line up in the backfield and usually run horizontal routes, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see only three backs over the 2.5 mark. For perspective, Woodhead’s 4.8 OTD ranks out at No. 44 among all players.
In his first year with the Chargers, Woodhead became a favorite target of Philip Rivers near the end zone. He hauled in three of four end-zone targets and was looked at another 10 times while inside the opponent’s 10-yard line.
Charles, meanwhile, did more of his damage on bigger plays. He caught only one of three end-zone targets. That means he scored six receiving touchdowns after the catch. They came from distances of 2, 6, 19, 45, 50, and 53 yards out. Charles entered the 2013 season with seven career receiving touchdowns. As talented as he is, it’s fair to expect a drop in receiving scores in 2014.
That’s a wrap for my three-part series on opportunity-adjusted touchdowns. I’ll have plenty more on the topic throughout the offseason and the newly-adjusted OTD calculation will, of course, be a big part of the projected touchdown totals you see on the site.
Follow Mike Clay on Twitter: @MikeClayNFL