Home > NFL > Wide Receiver is the Highest Variance Position for an NFL Team

Wide Receiver is the Highest Variance Position for an NFL Team

Teams that can’t throw the ball will have poor production stats from their quarterbacks and wide receivers and tight ends.  Teams that throw the ball well will have good production stats from their quarterbacks, wide receivers, and tight ends.  Glad that I’ve established that.  Now for the fun part.

I need to qualify the fun part by saying that I am going to make factual statements that will mislead the reader in terms of cause and effect.  The case I am going to make is that you can tell the strength of an entire offense just by looking at the meaningful numbers of the entire roster of its receivers.  This can easily be taken a step further to suggest that teams need five good receivers to truly be an elite offense, and perhaps even further to assert that only receivers should be drafted, all else equal, because you can never have enough good receivers.  That may all be true, I am just not even going attempt to prove it.  What I am going to argue below is that productive offenses make their receivers look good.  But also that certain indicators between the receivers can indicate a successful offense in the near term future.

This is the average (starting) receiver line in ranges between 2006 and 2010 in the NFL:

  • Targets/season: 95-108
  • % of Targets: 18.0%-19.0%
  • Yards per Target: 7.4-7.8
  • Catch %: 54.6%-58.5%
  • Receiving TDs/season: 4.4-5.5
  • Yards/season: 742-812
  • Receptions/season: 55-61
  • Yards per Catch: 13.3-13.7
  • Successful Play Rate: 50.4%-52.9%
  • Win % Added/season: 0.62-0.81
  • Points Added/season: 23.7-27.6
  • Win % Added/play: 0.044-0.055
  • Points Added/play: 0.207-0.255
You are reading this correctly: all else equal, throwing the ball to an average receiver creates some points over all else that can be done with a football (taking a sack, handing it off, throwing it to a below average receiver, pass batted down at line).  Throwing the ball, within reason, is a winning strategy.  Keep in mind that everything said about variance in this article has to do with variance around the mean.  The mean isn’t zero.  It’s a non-zero, positive value.  But teams that do it badly can end up in the negative in terms of scoring points and winning game.  Such is the concept of natural variance.

Now what the win percentage added stats and estimated points added stats suggest is that only about 2/3 of wide receivers in a given sample help their teams win.  We know that because of the standard deviation statistic.  One standard deviation below the mean is roughly equivalent to 0% WPA, meaning that passes to this player don’t help or hurt a team win games.  Aggressively, this also functions as sort of a replacement level concept.  Teams that allow players like 2010 Terrell Owens and 2010 Chad Ochocinco to qualify in terms of plays are just shooting themselves in the foot.  But a guy like Brandon Marshall consistently comes in about a standard deviation below the mean.  Marshall does not actively hurt his team, although he always seems to collect too high a percentage of his team’s offense.

Rare is the receiver in the sample of roughly 75 per year, give or take, who actively torpedoes his team’s chances to get points, and while this player can be in his formative years (Mohammad Massaquoi in 2010, Eddie Royal, Johnnie Knox, or Danny Amendola in 2009, Ted Ginn in 2007), the main culprits are typically successful vets who are either unhappy in current situations allowing it to affect performance (Randy Moss, Chris Chambers, or Peerless Price in 2006, Lee Evans or Jerry Porter in 2007, Justin McCariens or Braylon Edwards in 2008, Antonio Bryant or Deon Branch in 2009, Steve Smith in 2010), if not guys who have simply hung on too long.  It’s avoiding the situations chronicled in the latter two cases that may be the best way to produce an acceptable offense.

But while receivers themselves trend quite predictably from a statistical perspective, at no position on the field is the difference between great, acceptable, and unacceptable performance more glaring.  And the truth is, that most of this happens below the consciousness level of the average fan.  In 2010, the difference in impact between NFC West quarterbacks Matt Hasselbeck, Alex Smith, and Sam Bradford was quite insignificant.  However, plenty of sources can show us that San Francisco dominated the division in passing offense.  And while some of the Troy Smith playing time is a mitigating factor, the truth is that the 49ers mitigated having to deal with inadequate receiving threats, concentrating a high percentage of throws to Josh Morgan, Michael Crabtree, and Vernon Davis.  These were not equal passing attacks, even though quarterback performance was fairly indistinguishable.

Two teams, Cleveland and Carolina, played through the year with multiple receivers performing more than a standard deviation below the mean.  The underperformance of these passing games* has been well chronicled in other sources (*Cleveland did have a lot of success throwing to TEs), but what I want to examine in this space is whether or not teams should have known better.  Here are a complete list of qualified receivers (and their 2010 performance) who already had posted “unacceptable” totals in 2007-2009.  I have omitted any players who would have made this list thanks to performances as rookies.

  • Nate Washington (7.3 YPA, 6 rec TD)
  • Eddie Royal (6.0 YPA, 3 rec TD)
  • Terrell Owens (7.1 YPA, 9 rec TD)
  • Braylon Edwards (9.0 YPA, 7 rec TD)
  • Michael Jenkins (6.9 YPA, 2 rec TD)

Speaking generally, players decline to low, team-killing levels of receiver rarely become valuable players again, though Braylon Edwards has proven to be a notable exception and is probably a safe target in free agency.  But for once-productive players like Eddie Royal or Michael Jenkins, there is reason to believe they’ve run out of chances in Denver and Atlanta respectively.  And the lesson to be learned here is that while players like Larry Fitzgerald, Davone Bess, and Devin Hester can probably all rebound from down years in 2010, receiver decline is a nasty, sudden, and offensive limiting factor.  And longtime productive guys like Jerricho Cotchery, Steve Smith, Donald Driver, and maybe even Chad Ochocinco could be nearing the end of their productive careers.  When was the last time you heard from T.J. Houshmandzadeh?  It can hit fast.  And in Fitzgerald’s case, I think it’s a 50-50 proposition whether he has a big rebound to all-pro level, or merely just a better quarterback to get him the ball.

Some “strugglers” discussed in this article will never get an opportunity to produce again.  Others will, and will fail miserably.  Others will have a rebound season. And more receivers yet have a performance cliff waiting for them on the other side of this lockout.  But a big predictor of who will throw/win in 2011, and which teams will fall in order to open the door for up and comers has to do with the natural variance spread with NFL wide receivers, and how that affects the way the quarterbacks and coaches call their offenses that determines who can sustain winning, and who cannot.

What is abundantly clear is that fantasy numbers and total production stats may obscure the reality of the receiver equation, but who your receivers are is only an insignificant concern until one of them is actively killing your team.  And the middle of the season is a terrible time to find out that you have such a problem.

  1. June 14, 2011 at 7:26 pm

    I wrote Neil Paine of Stathead to tell him about your blog. Glad to see he’s found your articles!

    David @ http://codeandfootball.wordpress.com

  1. June 14, 2011 at 4:45 pm

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