Framework for Evaluating Receivers

GENERAL COMMENT: While I believe in a 50/50 split between data and video to assess a player’s performance, this post will primarily focus on the former.

The Dolphins’ re-signing of Kenny Stills for $32 M understandably left some puzzled. While thinking about the contract, I began to contemplate the type of framework teams should use when evaluating a wide receiver. Below is an attempt at a starting point:

CONTEXT

I) Quarterback Skills: Not only will the overall level of ability of the quarterback affect the receiver’s performance, but the extent to which their strengths match is also crucially important. Brian Hoyer is an objectively decent quarterback, but pairing him with Torrey Smith would be disastrous for the wide receiver.

II) Offensive Line Pass Blocking Performance: If an offensive line performs poorly by providing little protection time to its quarterback, the latter will surely throw many more short passes and many fewer medium to long balls than he would have desired. This outcome must be adjusted for since it unjustly benefits short pass receivers and penalizes medium to long ball receivers.

III) Running Game Performance: A high-performing running game will typically force the defense to load up the box, significantly facilitating a wide receiver’s task of getting open.

IV) Opposing Defense Performance: Not only will a strong secondary affect a receiver’s performance, but a high quality pass rush will have similar effects on his output to those of poor offensive line pass blocking.

V) Double Coverage% (Double Covered Routes/On-Field Passing Snaps)

VI) Routes Breakdown by Starting Position (Outside or Slot) and Support (Island or Other Receiver Near): A deep threat has the ability to stretch an opponent’s defensive coverage and provide a receiver that lines up next to him with greater openings than if he were on an island.

VII) Routes Breakdown by Distance (Short, Medium or Long): Since long passes are correlated with lower Reception%, an adjustment for route distance must be made so as to not unjustly penalize deep threats.

RECEIVER PERFORMANCE

I) Target% (Targets/On-Field Passing Snaps): Merely being targeted is a decent indicator of success since it implies that the Quarterback determined that you were the best receiving option on the play.

II) Reception% (Receptions/Targets)

III) Drop% (Drops/Targets): Although Drop% represents an imperfect gauge of a receiver’s responsibility for an unconverted target (not reaching the spot of the catch in time is not recorded in Drop%), it does at least provide the evaluator with a baseline for receiver fallibility.

IV) Average Yards per Target (Yards/Targets)

V) Average Yards After the Catch (Yards After the Catch/Receptions)

VI) Avoided Tackles% ((Broken + Missed Tackles)/Total Tackle Attempts Against): While both broken and missed tackles represent positive outcomes for the offense, the latter are much more desirable since they do not typically involve as significant a decrease in the player’s forward momentum as the former. Generally, a team would also prefer that a player avoid contact as a means of maximizing his health.

VII) 1st Down%: While somewhat controversial, 1st Down% can potentially capture a receiver’s ability to “mold his skills to the situation” in order to convert a first down. A player’s typical receiving location in relation to the first down marker should be kept in mind, since receiving a dump off 7 yards short of the market versus a pinpoint pass 1 yard short represent two very different situations.

VIII) Role in Passing Game over Time (Y2 Passing Snaps% – Y1 Passing Snaps%), where Passing Snaps% (On-Field Passing Snaps/Total Team Passing Plays): A team that sees a player’s performance on an everyday basis has a clear information advantage over one that does not. However, a potential signal of player development does exist for the latter: an increase in a player’s participation in his team’s passing snaps relative to the prior season. Once again, key caveats exist: this measure could easily be jeopardized by a coaching change or an injury to a receiver higher-up the depth chart (leading to increased snaps for our receiver only out of necessity).

Which measures do you think are crucial when evaluating a wide receiver?

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