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VARSITY NUMBERS: Let's Rate Some Receivers!

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Robert Laberge

In this week's Varsity Numbers, I'm discussing a rankings system for receivers. I've been meaning to go down this road for about three years now.

Below, you will find a measure that attempts to answer the following questions about a given pass-catcher:

1) How much do you produce?

2) How important are you to your team's passing game?

3) How good is the passing game to which you are important?

4) And how much is the forward pass featured in your team's offense?

All four of these questions are important. To begin attempting to answer them, I simply multiplied the following four measures together:

  • Yards Per Target. This is exactly what you think it is: total receiving yards divided by total targets. This attempts to answer question No. 1 above, telling you how much a receiver has produced with his given opportunities.
  • Target Rate. This is the percentage of a team's targets targeting a given player. This addresses Question No. 2. It is, in theory, easier to produce a large per-target average if you are a small piece of your team's passing game and an opponent isn't putting its No. 1 cornerback on you (or, really, paying you much mind).
  • Passing S&P+. This is the Passing S&P+ rating for a given player's team. Question No. 3 is tricky. The quality of the quarterback throwing you the ball matters, as does the quality of the line protecting the quarterback throwing you the ball. With infinite time and resources, we could come up with a "happy place" measure that splits credit between the line, quarterback, and receiving corps. We do not have that yet. This is a decent place-holder for such a measure.
  • Team Pass Rate. The ratio of a team's passes to its overall plays. Let's put it this way: Air Force's No. 1 receiver almost always has an incredible per-target average. This year, Falcons receiver Ty MacArthur has caught 20-of-28 passes for 372 yards; that's a 71 percent catch rate, and 13.3 yards per target. Air Force's No. 2 threat, Drew Coleman, has caught 12-of-17 balls for 305 yards, a 71 percent catch rate, and 17.9 yards per target. Those are fantastic averages, but ... of course they are. Air Force runs so much that opponents are probably playing the run even on third-and-long. Five Arizona receivers have been targeted more than MacArthur. Hell, six Michigan State receivers have been targeted at least 41 times, and the Spartans aren't even an incredibly pass-heavy team. The point, of course, is that if MacArthur and Coleman were facing the normal load of targets for a No. 1 or No. 2 receiver, on a team that actually passes a normal amount (or more), they probably wouldn't be averaging 13.3 and 17.9 yards per target, respectively. The inclusion of Team Pass Rate, then, is simply a safeguard against overrating big numbers from run-heavy schools. (Of course, this probably would have punished Georgia Tech's Demaryius Thomas in 2009 to a certain degree, but his numbers were probably absurd enough to overcome it.)

Below you will see the nation's top-50 receivers according to the product of these four measures, something I am tentatively calling "RYPR," which is simply (Target Rate x Yards Per Target x Passing S&P+ x Pass Rate). We'll worry about a fancy name later.

You can find an embed for the data set below, and you can find the Top 50 receivers at the VN link above.

One thing pointed out to me about this via e-mail is that we've got a bit of a numerators-and-denominators issue here. With the measures above, the formula for RYPR (god, I need a better name for that immediately) is this:

RYPR = (targets / total team targets) * (receiving yards / targets) * Passing S&P+ * (total team passes / total team plays)

Now, there's a slight difference between "total team targets" and "total team passes" (usually only about 85% of incomplete passes have target data -- some are picked off or thrown away in the vicinity of nobody), but basically "targets" cancel out, and team targets and team passes almost cancel out. So that leaves you with a formula that is almost basically...

RYPR = (receiving yards / total team plays) * Passing S&P+

...with a slight multiplier (1 / 0.85, or the difference between passes and targets) thrown in. And honestly, I can almost justify that. Almost. But does that change any opinions? I can't complain about how good this Top 50 list looks (it's relatively close to what I might have come up with if I'd done it totally subjectively), but the equation almost becomes too simple at some point. Thoughts?

Here's a link to the entire list, and here's the embed: