Most-improved offensive skill players by position last season

John Gatta takes a look at the players who took the biggest leap in PFF grade from 2015 to 2016.

| 3 months ago
DeMarco Murray

(Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/ Getty Images)

Most-improved offensive skill players by position last season


This list takes a look at the players who saw the largest increase in PFF overall grade from the 2015 season to the 2016 season. The players considered had to see enough snaps during both seasons to qualify for a ranking. Many on this list had very unimpressive 2015 seasons, so while they did improve, they still did not achieve a high-quality or elite-level grade.

Quarterback

1. Andrew Luck, Colts

2015 season grade: 45.1

2016 season grade: 92.4 

Since 2013, Luck has ranked ninth, fifth, 37th, and fourth in PFF grades among QBs. In his 2015 season, he was plagued by injury, missing the first two games of his career (shoulder) before going down with a lacerated kidney and a partially-torn abdominal muscle. In 2016, Luck recorded a 112 QB rating (fifth) when throwing from a clean pocket. For perspective, this number dropped to 91.9 (29th) in 2015. He is elite when healthy, ensuring his place on the list because of an outlier season.

(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

2. Colin Kaepernick, 49ers

2015 season grade: 42.9

2016 season grade: 61.9

Kaepernick may come as a surprise to most, as his 2016 campaign wasn’t very impressive. While he didn’t improve on his passing, he was once again dangerous with his legs. Kaepernick earned an 89.6 run grade this past season, third-highest among QBs since 2015. 6.8 yards per rush is nothing to sneeze at, and if he wants to keep his value in the league, he’ll continue to make plays with his feet by scrambling.

3. Matthew Stafford, Lions

2015 season grade: 76.8

2016 season grade: 85.4

Shortly following WR Calvin Johnson’s retirement, Matthew Stafford earned the highest PFF grade of his career. Who would’ve thought? He vastly improved in two vital stats that measure QB success—deep-ball accuracy (34.0 percent in 2015 compared to 42.4 percent in 2016) and accuracy under pressure (61.5 percent compared to 65.7 percent). In stepping up his game in these areas, Stafford led the Lions’ charge to the playoffs. Get this man some more weapons and missing O-line pieces (Detroit has signed RT Ricky Wagner and G T.J. Lang this offseason), and his improvement should continue. 

Running back

1. DeMarco Murray, Titans

2015 season grade: 51.9

2016 season grade: 77.7

Moving from Chip Kelly’s inside zone to Mike Mularkey’s “exotic smashmouth” proved to be an absolute game-changer for DeMarco Murray. From Dallas to Philadelphia to Tennessee, the running back hasn’t been a stranger to changes in scenery. Not only did Murray run the ball more aggressively, but his pass blocking improved, as well. He allowed just four QB pressures across 115 pass-blocking snaps. Running behind one of the league’s best O-lines with an emerging quarterback will continue to help Murray, and he may find even more success next season if the Titans can add some playmaking wide receivers.

2. Tevin Coleman, Falcons

2015 season grade: 50.3

2016 season grade: 74.1

As one of Matt Ryan’s most dangerous weapons during the Falcons’ Super Bowl run, Coleman did most of his damage catching the football. He gained a position-high 2.44 yards per route run, having massive success on running back screens, flares, backfield outs, and standard WR routes. Running these patterns, Ryan had a perfect passer rating (37 targets, 33 receptions, 463 yards, and five TDs) when targeting Coleman. He did show slight improvement running the football, but is better used as a versatile change-up to teammate Devonta Freeman.

3. Melvin Gordon, Chargers

2015 season grade: 59.4

2016 season grade: 82.5

2016 was an incredible breakout sophomore season from Gordon, who notched 12 total TDs and two fumbles. What a difference from his rookie season, in which he failed to find the end zone and fumbled a position-high six times. After undergoing knee surgery this offseason, Gordon’s believers were few and far between. Teammate Danny Woodhead tore his ACL in Week 2, yielding nearly all responsibilities to Gordon—and boy, did he shine. Showing explosiveness, Gordon recorded 16 runs of 15-plus yards (tied for fourth among 53 RBs).

(Tim Warner/Getty Images)

Wide receiver

1. Taylor Gabriel, Falcons

2015 season grade: 48.9

2016 season grade: 81.3

Another Falcon on the list, Gabriel made leaps and bounds this past season after leaving Cleveland for Atlanta. The change of scenery did wonders, leaving a below-average passing attack for the best in the NFL. He spent 78 percent of his snaps as an outside receiver, compared to 52 percent as a member of the Browns. This proved to do great things for Gabriel, as he dominated DBs after the catch on screens. In 2015, he gained just 0.88 yards per route run (tied for 83rd among 85 qualified WRs). With the Falcons utilizing his shiftiness and speed correctly, he nearly tripled his production on a per-route basis. His 2.45 yards per route run ranked third among WRs, just behind teammate Julio Jones and Bengals star A.J. Green.

2. Brandon LaFell, Bengals

2015 season grade: 47.2

2016 season grade: 75.7 

Brandon LaFell left Tom Brady in 2015 for Andy Dalton in 2016 and recorded the highest-graded season of his career. So what was different for LaFell in Cincinnati? The answer is rather simple: he dropped only two of 66 catchable passes, good for a 3.03 drop rate that ranked 14th of 96 qualified WRs. In New England, LaFell dropped 10 of 47 catchable passes, ranking dead last among WRs in that regard. It’s true that he dealt with a foot injury in 2015, and that very well may be the reason he struggled so immensely after an encouraging 2014 season with the Patriots. Playing next to one of the NFL’s best WRs in Cincinnati—A.J. Green—probably didn’t hurt, either.

Brandon LaFell

3. Dontrelle Inman, Chargers

2015 season grade: 49.4

2016 season grade: 77.6

After Keenan Allen went down in Week 1 with an ACL tear, the Chargers were short their team’s best receiver. Needing playmakers to step up, Inman answered the call. In 2015, he split his time evenly out wide and in the slot. This past season, Inman spent 71 percent of his snaps as the outside WR. He seemed to prefer this, as his production on deep passes exploded. He was targeted seven times on deep passes without a single catch in 2015. A season later, he was targeted 13 such times, and he notched six receptions for 215 yards and a TD. The Chargers would be wise to utilize Inman more as a deep threat going forward to see continued improvement on his end. 

Tight end

1. Jared Cook, Packers (now with Raiders)

2015 season grade: 52.6

2016 season grade: 79.9

Cook left the Rams and joined the dynamic Packers’ offense in 2016. While he saw some drop-off in production as a run-blocker, he became a reliable target for Aaron Rodgers down the stretch. Only Travis Kelce earned a higher receiving grade than Cook from Week 14 on. The biggest difference for the former Green Bay tight end was his sure-handedness. In 2015, he dropped a staggering 10 of 48 catchable passes, finishing last in drop rate (20.83) among TEs. Cook made an effort to better his hands going into this past season, hauling in 30 of 32 catchable passes.

2. Vernon Davis, Redskins

2015 season grade: 56.6

2016 season grade: 73.3

Who said you can’t make a comeback at age 33? Davis hit his stride in 2010 and kept running until 2013, never ranking worse than 14th among TEs in terms of PFF overall grade. When the 2014 season came along, however, he found himself ranked near the bottom of the league for consecutive seasons (63rd in 2014 and 47th in 2015). Then Davis came to Washington, and his career took a turn for the better. His blocking numbers stayed relatively steady, but it was his receiving numbers that saw a large uptick. In terms of yards per route run, Davis went from 1.14 (32nd) to 2.05, which ranked fifth among 40 qualified TEs this past season.

3. Travis Kelce, Chiefs

2015 season grade: 72.8

2016 season grade: 88.3

Arguably the league’s best receiving TE, Kelce took his play to a whole new level in 2016. He didn’t just see improvement from a receiving perspective, either—his blocking took a step up, as well. In 2015, Kelce surrendered three QB pressures on 52 pass-blocking snaps, leaving him in the middle of the pack in terms of pass-blocking efficiency (95.2). A year later, Kelce surrendered only one QB pressure on 32 pass-blocking snaps, finishing with a 97.7 pass-blocking efficiency that ranked 11th among 46 qualified TEs. On the ground, Chiefs RBs gained 6.1 yards per carry running to the outside of the TE. In 2015, they gained 5.3 yards per carry. On top of all this, Kelce nearly doubled his deep-pass production in 2016, as he caught five-of-five targets for 157 yards. If he continues to round out his game, he’ll likely find himself as PFF’s top-graded TE yet again in 2017.

| Analyst

John Gatta has been an analyst at Pro Football Focus since 2015, with a particular focus on the NFL.

  • Bill Hansen

    How is Adam Theilen not on this list? he went from an unknown WR who had about 20 catches in his career to a monster last year where he almost hit 1000 yard! He is a stud and everyone is going to realize it this year

    • Joe Doe

      He is not on the list because the increase in his grade was less than the other players on the list. That is why he isn’t on the list. Further questions can be relayed to your Minnetonka drinking buddies.

      • Bill Hansen

        take off the blinders Joe,(I’m sure the fact you’re a packers fan has nothing to do with the way you view a Viking player. lol) pro football isn’t the only game in town. Yes they provide a lot of useful information but just like any website this is their opinion bases on the way they evaluate player. It does not mean since pro football said it that it is law. When a player can’t even sniff the field on a regular basis then goes on to put up numbers like Theilen it stands to reason that he was much improved. I don’t know what your God like website rated him last year or the jump he took in these ranking but anyone with an eye for the game can see he took a major leap and it should be noted across the board!

        • Joe Doe

          Bill, where you are way off is how I view Vikings players. Although, I am a Packers fan, I both respected the talent and enjoyed watching Vikings players over the years. Robert Smith, Chris Carter, Chris, AP, among others. I enjoyed Thielen’s play more than any other Viking in the half dozen or so Vikings games I watched last year. He is dedicated to quality route running and plays his heart out. The guy is literally open all game long (particularly against the Packers, lol).

          Yet all that is irrelevant. What you are likely missing is that while he was on the field last year, he wasn’t as bad as what you might think which would warrant a spot on the list. The point he didn’t see the field much is irrelevant as well.

          Now if I did you’re doing, I would be crying for Davante Adams to be on the list.. But when I read the article I was more curious about learning about other players.

  • Chad

    How is Terrelle Pryor not on this? He literally wasn’t even a WR two years ago and became a solid starter.
    For TE I would say Jack Doyle and Cameron Brate should both be on this list.

    • crosseyedlemon

      Pryor only had 91 snaps in 2015 so apparently he didn’t meet the criteria needed for consideration.

  • Mr McMurderer

    I can’t wait to see what a healthy Cook can do wit Carr slinging him the rock in a TE needy offense. Once Cook got healthy in GB, he started making clutch plays left and right. That was the first legit QB he had in his whole career, and it showed. Now with another legit QB, he should shine in a Raiders offense that features 2 excellent WR’s and a franchise QB (not to mention the possibility of Lynch, or at worst RM will draft a power back to take advantage of the powerful Oline). Raiders offense is gonna kick some serious ass this season.

    • Joe Doe

      I didn’t get the opportunity to watch the Raiders much last season, except for the abysmal Thursday night game against the Chiefs, but as a Packers fan I contend that it’ll be difficult to replicate this season in any offense other than Mike McCarthy’s. His offense thrives on making safeties make the choice between doubling the TE or the WR and Rodgers was great at making the right decision. I’m not sure how transferable this is.

      • Mr McMurderer

        Carr is an elite lvl QB that has been held back by subpar surrounding talent, i.e. having the worst ground game in NFL history in ’14, with worst WR corps in the NFL (James Jones was his best WR, who was the #3 option the yr before for you guys), not to mention his WR’s leading the league in drops every year. In ’15 they brought Coop, Crab, a new OC and an elite Oline in, but everyone was learning each other as well as a new playbook. DC finally broke out this yr, unfortunately you witnessed his worst game as a pro, which had many reasons for happening in its own right. Thursday night games should be eliminated, the away teams always ALWAYS struggle, unless it’s timed directly after their bye giving them 10 days to prepare instead of 2, before traveling Wed. The Raiders first freezing cold game mixed w/practice time and Carrs broken finger (and the most drops by a WR corps in a single game all season) all added up to a terrible performance. Anyway, Carr has been aching for a TE that that can get open down the seam (or at all), our GM drafted Clive Walford (who had star potential), only for Clive to get in an ATV accident that destroyed his knee last offseason that essentially crushed any chances of him being an elite TE. Hopefully Cook can be that playmaker and give RM a few seasons to find a replacement in the draft.

        • Lee Z

          I’m a Titans fan– let me tell you, you cant wait to see what Jared Cook can do for your team.. don’t worry I’ll spoil it now… You’ll still be waiting to see what he can do at the end of next year… So inconsistent and never has put it together, good luck waiting for more of the same.

        • cyberry

          The Raider’s only beat 3 teams with winning records(one went into OT). Let’s see what happens when they play against winning and play-off caliber teams. Not to mention, no more top picks each year. Eventually, the Raiders are going to need to develop players or make better picks (Mack and Cooper are no brainers) rather that build a team on Free-Agency.. After the Raiders pay Mack, Carr and Coop..and several others.. The money dries up Quick…

          Fans are way to quick to call players “Elite” and also busts..
          Making excuses for injuries doesn’t cut, the good teams overcome. The Pats lost Brady for 4 games and only lost one. The Chiefs lost Pro-Bowls Jamaal Charles, Justin Houston, Derrick Johnson..then Howard, Bailey, Mauga..No excuses..next man up.

          • Mr McMurderer

            QB is the most important position on the field, especially if it’s a franchise QB. The defense was bottom 5, so of course losing Carr would make a difference. The Pats have a top 10 defense, so Brady or not they can win games (bad example though, considering they’ll win regardless bc they cheat). They’re are no such things as no brainer draft picks. There’s risks and rewards with all of them, it’s just a crap shoot. Nobody knew at the time Mack was better than Clowney or Fowler Jr, but so far he has been. RM coups have picked a QB 1st since we needed one so bad at the time, which would have made sense, and Manziel was the best QB on the board at the time. He picked Mack over a potential franchise QB, amongst other potential franchise changing players, as the ’14 draft was deep at the top. The Denver Broncos have proven that you can successfully build a team through the draft AND free agency, as half their team was built with other teams free agents, especially during the very successful Manning years. RM has done an excellent job of building the Raiders so far, already having a top 5 offense that will only improve. The defense is a work in progress, but RM will hit that hard in the draft.

          • cyberry

            But the Denver has had to let some of there top play makers walk because they couldn’t keep them. That caused them to go from one of the top run defenses to one of the most vulnerable in a season. It would be really bug me if my teams top 8 highest paid players where Not drafted by my team..
            I disagree, I watched tape on Mack… I knew. When the Raiders pick him.. I was like.. Oh Fuck. that just changed everything.

    • Cory

      The whole cook hype train is so old. The guy did nothing special last year. 300 some yards right? And he makes a few decent grabs in the playoffs and people act like he’s gronk jr. He is 30 years old, it’s obvious who he is; a replacement level tight end. Nothing more.

      • Mr McMurderer

        Last yr was the very first yr he ever played w/ a top 20 QB, and unfortunately he was injured most of the season. Once he was healthy and integrated into the offense, he started making big plays. Now he’s on a team w/ another top 10 QB, and health permitting there’s no reason to think he won’t stay productive in an explosive offense that desperately needs a TE. He’ll be on my fantasy team, I’ll tell you that.

        • Cory

          Your crazy. Hes 30 and hasnt done a thing. If qb play holds you back for 7 years, your not that good. Hes just not that good.

  • Joe Doe

    Once again I’m hearing, “I don’t subscribe and I really don’t know anything about this website but there was this guy on my favorite team that I thought was better than last year and because he’s on my team he has to make this list or your website sucks.”

    • Zach

      ^This guy gets it