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Advanced WR stats say Dede Westbrook was great and Josh Malone was underrated

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We’ve done data dumps for QBs and RBs. Time to move to the pass catchers.

NCAA Football: Baylor at Oklahoma Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

This post will follow the same structure as the QB and RB pieces: I’ll share the data in Google Doc form, define player types, and then share a ton of rankings.

First: the Google link. You can find all relevant receiver data there — targets, catches, success rate, etc., etc. Play with it however you like, and as I’ve written before, feel free to send your work to me or share in comments. I’d love to see it.

(Meanwhile, I’m actually including the receiver types and percentile ratings in the Google doc. I didn’t do that for the others, but I could be convinced to.)

Now, the types. As with QBs and RBs, I decided to play with the idea of player types — breaking out players in a given position into given categories based on averages or tendencies, then comparing apples to apples. Within each group I give different weights to different key stats (catch rate, yards per catch, target rate, success rate, TDs per catch, etc.), then basically give each player a percentile grade.

Receiver types:

  • Possession Receivers. Players averaging under 12 yards per catch. Some can be good if registering a high catch rate and/or success rate. Others are not good.
  • Mr. Play Action. Players averaging 20-plus yards per catch with at least 60 percent of targets happening on standard downs (i.e. downs that are more likely to see play-action bomb attempts).
  • Mr. Go Route. Players averaging 20-plus yards per catch with under 60 percent of targets happening on standard downs. These are the “go deep on third-and-long” guys.
  • Basic Receivers (small) and (large). This is basically everybody else in the middle, broken into those who are above or below the 50th percentile in size.

Looking only at players with at least 11 targets, here’s the head count for each group:

  • Possession receivers: 283
  • Mr. Play Action: 16
  • Mr. Go Route: 12
  • Basic (small): 193
  • Basic (large): 212

Honestly, I probably could have broken possession guys into “large” and “small” as well. And Mr. PA/Go probably didn’t need their own categories, but they are so unique that I went with it.

You will indeed find a lot of low-target guys here. 11 targets is a low bar. But I like big sample sizes within the groups. Plus, a sophomore who kicked butt in 15 targets could be a major breakout candidate moving forward.

Without further ado, here are your mounds of receiver rankings and lists. (I’ll do tight ends later in the week.)

Best basic receivers (small)

Allstate Sugar Bowl - Auburn v Oklahoma
Dede Westbrook
Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
  1. Dede Westbrook, Oklahoma (99th percentile)
  2. Shun Brown, Arizona (99th)
  3. Jordan Frysinger, Idaho (98th)
  4. Allenzae Staggers, Southern Miss (98th)
  5. Ahmmon Richards, Miami (98th)
  6. Jon’Vea Johnson, Toledo (98th)
  7. Nicholas Norris, WKU (98th)
  8. Taywan Taylor, WKU (98th)
  9. Jonathan Giles, Texas Tech (97th)
  10. Sean Modster, Boise State (96th)

Westbrook brings some baggage with him to the NFL but was almost certainly the best receiver in college football last year. 19 yards per catch with a 77 percent catch rate in a power conference (and yes, the Big 12 still counts as that)? Absurd.

Best basic receivers (large)

Vanderbilt v Florida
Caleb Scott
Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images
  1. Caleb Scott, Vanderbilt (99th percentile)
  2. Cody Thompson, Toledo (98th)
  3. Josh Malone, Tennessee (98th)
  4. Sam Martin, Miami (Ohio) (97th)
  5. Equanimeous St. Brown, Notre Dame (96th)
  6. Jerome Lane, Akron (96th)
  7. Amba Etta-Tawo, Syracuse (95th)
  8. Josh Reynolds, Texas A&M (95th)
  9. Corey Davis, WMU (95th)
  10. Daiurs Slayton, Auburn (95th)

Not going to lie: I didn’t expect a Vandy receiver to top one of these lists, but here’s what the 6’2, 202-pound junior produced last year: 24 catches with a 67% catch rate, 19.4 yards per catch, and a 67% success rate. He was the primary reason for Vandy’s late-season offensive improvement — 18 of his 24 catches came in VU’s last five games. He had four catches for 117 yards against Tennessee.

Best possession receivers

Lamar v Houston
Linell Bonner
Photo by Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images
  1. Linell Bonner, Houston (98th percentile)
  2. KeVonn Mabon, Ball State (96th)
  3. Steve Ishmael, Syracuse (96th)
  4. Zay Jones, ECU (96th)
  5. Tim Crawley, SJSU (95th)
  6. Deontay Burnett, USC (95th)
  7. Jalen McCleskey, Oklahoma State (94th)
  8. Jake Oliver, Texas (94th)
  9. Tre Tipton, Pitt (94th)
  10. Jordan Reid, Ohio (94th)

Bonner was one of the most heavily targeted receivers in the country, averaging more than 10 targets per game but combining low per-catch production (11.4 yards) with extreme consistency (73% catch rate, 56% success rate). His production made up for the fact that Houston’s run game stunk.

Best Mr. Go Route/Mr. Play Actions

NCAA Football: Navy at Air Force
Jalen Robinette
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
  1. Jalen Robinette, Air Force (95th percentile, Go Route)
  2. Cywettnie Brown, Ball State (93rd, Play Action)
  3. Q’ Drennan, New Mexico (93rd, Go Route)
  4. Jester Weah, Pitt (88th, Play Action)
  5. Tyler Williams, Air Force (85th, Play Action)

Yeah, I would have bet you a lot of money that Robinette was going to lead this category.

Best freshmen

NCAA Football: Russell Athletic Bowl-West Virginia vs Miami
Ahmmon Richards
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
  1. Ahmmon Richards, Miami (98th percentile, basic-small)
  2. Darius Slayton, Auburn (95th, basic-large)
  3. Tre Tipton, Pitt (94th, possession)
  4. Q’ Drennan, New Mexico (93rd, Mr. Go Route)
  5. K.J. Hill, Ohio State (91st, basic-small)
  6. Deondre Farrier, ECU (89th, basic-small)
  7. Keenen Johnson, Tulsa (88th, possession)
  8. Ty Lee, MTSU (87th, possession)
  9. Van Jefferson, Ole Miss (86th, possession)
  10. Ja’Marcus Bradley, UL-Lafayette (basic-small)

Frazier was a top-150 recruit for Mark Richt last February and caught 49 of 75 balls for 934 yards and three touchdowns right out of the gates. Meanwhile, Slayton was more of a small-sample guy: 24 targets, 15 catches, 292 yards. Look for him to catch a lot of passes from Jarrett Stidham.

Best sophomores

NCAA Football: Hawaii at Arizona
Shun Brown
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports
  1. Shun Brown, Arizona (99th percentile, basic-small)
  2. Jon’Vea Johnson, Toledo (98th, basic-small)
  3. Jonathan Giles, Texas Tech (97th, basic-small)
  4. Sean Modster, Boise State (96th, basic-small)
  5. Equanimeous St. Brown, Notre Dame (96th, basic-large)
  6. Deontay Burnett, USC (95th, possession)
  7. Jalen McCleskey, Oklahoma State (94th, possession)
  8. Nick Westbrook, Indiana (93rd, basic-large)
  9. Trenton Irwin, Stanford (92nd, possession)
  10. Gary Jennings, WVU (92nd, basic-large)

Arizona was almost completely off of my radar this year, and I had no idea what kind of production Brown was coming up with on few targets. He caught 24 of 36 passes for 466 yards. On a better team, he could become a name quickly.

Best juniors

NCAA Football: New Orleans Bowl-Southern Mississippi at UL Lafayette
Allenzae Staggers
Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports
  1. Caleb Scott, Vandy (99th percentile, basic-large)
  2. Allenzae Staggers, Southern Miss (98th, basic-small)
  3. Cody Thompson, Toledo (98th, basic-large)
  4. Josh Malone, Tennessee (98th, basic-large)
  5. Linell Bonner, Houston (98th, possession)
  6. Sam Martin, Miami (Ohio) (97th, basic-large)
  7. Steve Ishmael, Syracuse (96th, possession)
  8. Carlos Henderson, Louisiana Tech (96th, basic-small)
  9. Jerome Lane, Akron (96th, basic-large)
  10. Michael Gallup, Colorado State (96th, basic-small)

Staggers was one of my favorites last year. He was targeted only 85 times all year but produced 1,157 yards and a 55% success rate.

One interesting observation, by the way: the Best Sophomores list was full of “basic-small” guys, while the Best Juniors list has a lot of “basic-large.” This could be total randomness, but there’s something interesting to the thought that the smaller, quicker guys find success more quickly while the bigger guys have to grow into the game a bit more. Maybe they’re used to being bigger than the competition in high school and have to adjust? Maybe this is complete speculation based on tiny lists, and I should stop?

Best seniors

NCAA Football: C-USA Championship-Louisiana Tech at Western Kentucky
Nicholas Norris
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports
  1. Dede Westbrook, Oklahoma (99th percentile, basic-small)
  2. Jordan Frysinger, Idaho (98th, basic-small)
  3. Nicholas Norris, WKU (98th, basic-small)
  4. Taywan Taylor, WKU (97th, basic-small)
  5. KeVonn Maybon, Ball State (96th, possession)
  6. Zay Jones, ECU (96th, possession)
  7. Amba Etta-Tawo, Syracuse (95th, basic-large)
  8. Josh Reynolds, Texas A&M (95th, basic-large)
  9. Jalen Robinette, Air Force (95th, Mr. Go Route)
  10. Tim Crawley, SJSU (95th, possession)

Poor Jordan Frysinger didn’t have a picture in my photo tool, but damn — he caught 26 of 31 passes for 465 yards last year. And some of those passes had a crazy degree of difficulty.

Best overall power-conference WRs (high-frequency)

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Vanderbilt
Josh Malone
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
  1. Dede Westbrook, Oklahoma (99th percentile)
  2. Ahmmon Richards, Miami (98th)
  3. Josh Malone, Tennessee (98th)
  4. Jonathan Giles, Texas Tech (97th)
  5. Steve Ishmael, Syracuse (96th)
  6. Amba Etta-Tawo, Syracuse (95th)
  7. Equanimeous St. Brown, Notre Dame (96th)
  8. Josh Reynolds, Texas A&M (95th)
  9. Deontay Burnett, USC (95th)
  10. James Quick, Louisville (94th)

Our line at SB Nation was that Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs was so drastically overrated for so long that he suddenly became underrated. The backlash that hit him during his senior year was too strong and skewed perceptions too far.

I think Josh Malone got caught up in that. The former blue-chipper is 6’3, 200 pounds and averaged 19.4 yards per catch with a 67% catch rate last year. How does a guy like that last until the fourth round in the draft? The Bengals might have gotten a steal there (just like they did in selecting Joe Mixon in the second round).