Touchdown Receptions: Skill or Opportunity?
Mike Clay tests a theory that receiving touchdowns are based more on opportunity than they are skill.
Touchdown Receptions: Skill or Opportunity?
The response was strong, with over one hundred football fans suggesting what turned into a list of 46 unique names. Rob Gronkowski, Julius Thomas and Eddie Royal were popular responses in the “good” category. On the other end, Andre Johnson and Julian Edelman popped up most often.
My research on touchdowns over the past few years has led me to a theory that, with few exceptions, touchdowns are more about opportunity than they are about skill.
Today, my goal is to test that theory. I’ll be analyzing each of the 46 players you suggested, as well as, a few overlooked prominent/underwhelming touchdown scorers.
I’ll be referring to OTD (or opportunity-adjusted touchdowns) throughout this piece. In a nutshell, OTD weighs each target in terms of the probability it will result in a score and converts the total into one number that indicates what a player’s touchdown total should look like. You can read more about OTD by scanning my archives.
Top Touchdown Scorers
The obvious place to kick off the study in the end zone. The following list includes the NFL leaders in receiving touchdowns over the past five years. Note that since we’re primarily going to be comparing opportunity to actual data (essentially a rate stat), playoff data will be included.
All of the usual suspects are here. These players are heavily featured in their respective offense and have been fantasy stars for years.
The important column to monitor today will be ‘+/-’. This shows the difference between a player’s actual touchdown and his OTD (again, this is essentially a weighted touchdown total based solely on opportunity).
We see that 90 percent of these players have exceeded their OTD. Of course, that’s to be expected and doesn’t necessarily tell us that these players are better at scoring touchdowns than their counterparts. Think about it this way: You and your neighbor each buy one Powerball ticket. You lose, but your neighbor hits the jackpot. You both had the same odds of winning, but he now has a lot more money. Does that mean he’s better at the lottery than you? Of course not. Again, that’s not my way of saying all touchdown-scoring is luck – it’s just justification as to why this first chart doesn’t conclude the opposite.
Our next step is to determine if these players with high touchdown totals are able to consistently exceed their touchdown totals. Here’s a year by year breakdown. Note that seasons with fewer than 50 targets are eliminated from the “+/-“ section.
Now we’re getting somewhere. For perspective, note that since 2007, there have been 1,056 50-plus target seasons. Of those 1,056 instances, 799 (or 76 percent) resulted in an actual touchdown total that was within 2.0 of the player’s OTD. There were 25 instances (two percent) where a player’s actual touchdown total exceeded his OTD by more than 5.0 and only three (0.3 percent) where a player’s OTD exceeded his touchdown total by more than 5.0. This at least proves that absurdly high touchdown totals are unlikely without the presence of significant high-value targets (and vice versa).
Rob Gronkowski: If our theory that touchdowns are mostly opportunity-based with few exceptions proves true, Gronkowski will be one of those exceptions. With 60 scores in five seasons, he’s destroyed his 40.7 OTD mark. You can see from our chart that Gronkowski was dominant in the area in 2010, 2011 and 2014, but didn’t stand out much in 2012 and 2013. Normally, this would suggest regression, but we all know he wasn’t healthy for chunks of both seasons. Gronkowski is a physical beast who, at least so far, has shown the ability to make more with less.
|Largest single-season TD>OTD gaps since 2007|
Dez Bryant: Is Bryant a better touchdown producer than Gronkowski? The data suggests he is. Bryant is the only player the NFL with a +2.5 mark or better in all of his pro seasons. And no one is particularly close. He has a +23.5 career mark, which is easily best in the NFL since he entered the league in 2010. Of course, as good as Bryant is, his +8.5 mark this past season isn’t close to sustainable. Of the 1,056 instances noted earlier, Bryant’s +8.5 is the second-highest. Only Jordy Nelson’s +9.2 in 2011 was larger and his 2012 mark was +2.4. In fact, of the aforementioned 25 instances where a player had mark above +5.0, 20 saw 50 or more targets the following season. The average +/- of those 20 players was +0.7. All 20 players had a smaller +/- the next year and seven of the players were actually in the negative. It doesn’t get any more cut and dry than that. Bryant, Gronkowski and Julius Thomas were in this category in 2014 and are thus obvious regression candidates in 2015.
Calvin Johnson: Make a list of the most-dominant pass-catchers of the past half-decade and Johnson will be the consensus number one. Of course, that hasn’t led to consistent touchdown production. Johnson does see a massive volume of targets, but he’s not particularly efficient in the area. Johnson’s touchdown totals, in order, are five, 12, 18, five and 12 over the past five years despite OTDs that have ranged no higher than 12.8 and no lower than 9.0. Blame Matthew Stafford. Blame the coverage. Blame Johnson’s deodorant. It doesn’t matter. The volatility in touchdown production from one of the most dominant receivers of all time despite consistent opportunity certainly hurts any theory that suggests touchdown-scoring is a skill.
Vernon Davis: The 2014 season was a disappointing one for Davis, but only Gronkowski has caught a higher percentage of his end zone targets since 2007 (min. 25 EZ targets). Davis was fairly dominant in the touchdown and +/- department from 2007 to 2013, catching 36 (or 61 percent) of 59 end zone targets, but was inexplicably ignored near the goal line in 2014. He caught one of two end zone targets en route to scoring only twice total on the year. A case could be made that Davis is a “good” touchdown scorer, but the 49ers failed to take advantage of that in 2014.
Jimmy Graham, Jordy Nelson, Mike Wallace, Demaryius Thomas, Antonio Gates: These five are in a similar boat. They are consistently producing above their expected touchdown totals, but sans a few exceptions/spikes (eg. Nelson in 2011, Graham in 2013), they are hanging fairly close to their OTD. This suggests that there might be a handful of players who have a moderate ability to find the end zone, but note that all five have played most of their career with a very good-to-elite quarterback.
Brandon Marshall: Marshall is an interesting case study because he’s been on three teams since 2007. He’s put up five “negative” seasons, including at least one with each team. Marshall sits eighth in receiving touchdowns since 2007, but this suggests it’s more about opportunity than it is ability.
Top OTD +/-
The next chart includes the 20 players whose actual touchdowns exceed their OTD by the largest margin since 2007.
I already spoke about several of players, but there are a few others worth noting.
Surprisingly, not one person suggested Greg Jennings as a ‘good’ touchdown scorer. That’s recency bias at its finest. Jennings’ +8.4 mark with Green Bay back in 2007 is the third highest mark we’ve seen over the past eight years. After regressing hard the following two years, Jennings again put up healthy rates in 2010 and 2011. Keeping with the roller coaster theme, he was just above zero in 2012 (his final year with Green Bay) and 2013 (his first with Minnesota). Quietly, Jennings scored six times despite a 3.8 OTD in 2014. Jennings clearly benefited from Green Bay’s offense earlier in his career, but eight consecutive “plus” years suggest he has some hint of ability in the department.
James Jones took advantage of Aaron Rodgers from 2009 to 2012, but was still above average in 2014…Darren Sproles is the only running back on our list, but it’s no secret that he’s a uniquely-gifted player…Robert Meachem caught a lot of jump balls from Drew Brees from 2009 to 2011…Anquan Boldin has been extremely inconsistent since the Kurt Warner days…It’s been “too easy” for Julius Thomas in Denver, but the sample size here is small and Peyton Manning-influenced…There isn’t much consistency from the rest of the names on our list. Many of these players spiked when in good/great offenses and dropped off via regression or with the team’s offensive effectiveness. It’s hard to suggest any of these players as “good” at scoring touchdowns.
Low Touchdown Scorers
Analyzing players who don’t score many touchdowns is trickier, as I’ll need to convert from raw numbers to a rate stat. Our next chart shows the 10 wide receivers/tight ends with the lowest touchdown per target rates who have accrued at least 300 targets over the past five years.
Of the 57 rates shown, 43 (75.4 percent) are positive numbers. At the top of the list, we definitely see a few players who habitually struggle to exceed their OTD. Jason Avant, Harry Douglas and Brian Hartline have consistently underwhelmed in the department.
|Largest single-season OTD>TD gaps since 2007|
Reggie Wayne: Wayne is another interesting case study as he’s pretty much always been a strong fantasy producer despite clearly struggling to maximize his scoring opportunity. In each of the past five seasons, Wayne’s actual touchdown total was below his OTD. He was in the positive in 2007 and 2008, but not by a significant margin. Last offseason, friend of the site Jonathan Bales suggested Wayne is overrated and that his scoring rate/production was more opportunity-driven that it was talent-based. OTD analysis aligns with Bales’ findings.
Andre Johnson: One of the poster boys for touchdown deficiency over the past few seasons, Johnson sits seventh in targets, but is 57th in receiving touchdowns since 2007. He scored eight, eight, nine and eight touchdowns, respectively, from 2007 through 2010 before scoring three, four, five and three, respectively, from 2011 to 2014. Johnson’s average OTD from 2007-2010 was 5.9. From 2011-2014? 5.9.
So what the heck happened?
Some will point to Matt Schaub’s departure, but Schaub was around through 2013 and failed to connect with Johnson for a single touchdown in 2013 despite Johnson’s 4.9 OTD when Schaub was under center. Could it be extra defensive attention? Maybe, but Johnson’s worst two seasons in this department were 2013 and 2014 when DeAndre Hopkins was in the picture. And there was a coaching change mixed in there as well. Did age catch up with him? Considering he’s the only player we’ve seen change course so drastically, it’s unlikely. Did Johnson forget how to catch the ball? He caught 16-of-37 end zone targets from 2007-10 and 10-of-35 from 2011-14. That’s a bit of a drop-off, but note that he dropped exactly two passes during both stretches. All this data considered, I struggle to label Johnson “bad” at scoring touchdowns. There could be some credence to a theory that he had a harder time producing touchdowns after the catch once he turned 30, but (a) we need a larger sample to really study that and (b) his RAC (yards after catch per completion) was less than one-third of a yard lower in the second four-year segment. In the meantime, Johnson saw 33 percent of the Texans targets when active in 2014. He’s still a major part of their passing game and is sure to be undervalued in 2015 drafts. Assuming 16 games (might be asking a lot at age-34), I have him down for seven scores.
Low OTD +/-
The next chart includes the 20 players whose OTD exceeded their actual touchdown total by the largest margin since 2007.
|Steven R. Jackson||6’2″||240||48||56||68||59||56||49||44||23||–||-0.5||-1.8||-1.8||0.0||–||–||–|
*the other one
I don’t have too much to add here, as we’ve already discussed most of the relevant players. It’s definitely interesting that Marshall shows up here despite ranking eighth overall in receiving scores during the same span. As dominant a fantasy performer he’s been, this suggests he should’ve been better.
I promised I’d provide data on each player you asked about on Twitter. Here that is, less players previously discussed.
|Odell Beckham Jr.||5’11”||198||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||129||–||–||–||–||–||–||–||3.3|
As shown in an earlier chart, Vincent Jackson’s -4.8 mark in 2014 was the seventh-lowest we’ve seen in eight years. He was “plus” in the department during each of his six previous seasons. Jackson is a lock for regression to the mean in 2015. Don’t undervalue him.
Eddie Royal was an obvious regression candidate after his bizarre 2013 showing. He started off hot again, but his OTD and TD numbers ended up much closer…It’s possible we’ve yet to see Julio Jones’s finest fantasy season. He’s hung right around his OTD each of the past two years, but has remained a fantasy star. If you believe 6’3/220 wideouts with big-time ability will inevitably score at will, he’s a “buy” option…If you’ve been paying attention, Torrey Smith, Kendall Wright, Terrance Williams and Odell Beckham Jr. should stand out as players on this list who should expect to see a dip in per-game touchdown production next season. Add Randall Cobb to the list if he leaves Green Bay…On the other hand, Julian Edelman, Cecil Shorts, Rueben Randle and Jordan Reed figure to regress in a positive direction.
I believe the evidence suggests that my theory is correct. With a few exceptions, touchdowns are significantly more opportunity-based than talent-driven. Keep in mind that we did locate most (if not all) of the “exceptions” while only focusing on players with extreme touchdown numbers in both directions. Ignored we’re the thousands of players who consistently scored at a rate close to their OTD. It doesn’t take a stat nerd to understand that it’s easier for big/tall players to fight off defenders than it is for undersized receivers, but those players can’t score if the ball isn’t consistently thrown their direction near the goal line (Davis being the perfect example). There are a handful of players who are able to get a little bit more out of their targets (and vice versa), but it’s important that these unique situations don’t distort your thinking on the bulk of the league. When opportunity and touchdown production fail to align, regression to the mean is a near certainty.
Want more detail? Ask away.
This article is already over 2,200 words so I can’t cover every player at length. If you’re interested in some additional detail on an individual player or two, feel free to leave a comment, ask on Twitter (@MikeClayNFL) or shoot me an email ([email protected]).