Takeaways from ESPN Receiver Tracking Metrics: Who leads rankings

BySeth Walder via ESPN logo
Thursday, September 29, 2022
ESPN

Mark Andrews' exceptional ability to get open and come down with contested catches is what makes him an elite pass-catcher, not just a great tight end. That's true despite the fact the Ravens tight end's ability to generate yards after catch relative to expectations is just average.

That's the top-line takeaway from ESPN's new Receiver Tracking Metrics (RTMs), NFL player-tracking-based stats we're unveiling Wednesday. ESPN Sports Data Scientist Brian Burke laid out the details of the new metrics, which include Open Score, Catch Score, YAC Score and the combination of the three (overall) for all pass-catchers.We have numbers, which use data helped by NFL Next Gen Stats tracking, going back through the 2017 season.

The abridged version: Each metric is designed to isolate receivers' play as much as possible. Openness is calculated on all routes -- targeted or not -- factoring in the route the receiver is running, coverage, leverage and defender positioning. Catch Score and YAC Score are reflections on players' ability to catch the ball and achieve yards after catch relative to expectation on the play based on the positioning of players on the field.Skill of the quarterback is controlled for in Catch Score and, to a lesser degree, Open Score.

All four metrics are on a 0-99 scale, with 50 being roughly average. The overall score is based on a combination of the three attribute scores, with Open Score weighted more than the others. There's variance in these metrics, so RTMs are calculated on the season level (as opposed to game by game).

Let's get into the biggest takeaways from what we've learned in the RTMs.Because we're just three weeks into the 2022 season, we're going to focus mostly on scores since the start of last season. Here are the top 10 receivers and tight ends overall since the start of 2021:

Andrews nipped Rams wideoutCooper Kupp in the last week, though Kupp's overall score was No. 1 for the 2021 season. What makes the RTMs useful, however, is the attribute breakdown, where we can see Andrews is strong in Open Score and Catch Score but has an average YAC Score,while Kupp is strong across the board.

Let'sbreak down our RTMs with nine big takeaways based off the numbers since 2017:

A.J. Brownhad the NFL's best Open Score in 2021 ... and still was traded

The new Eagles receiver had a 99 Open Score last season, which drops slightly to 94 if we include the first three games of this season. Why did the Titans trade him, again?

Here's one of my favorite examples of Brown demonstrating an ability to get more open than expected, and this one is against man coverage, which counts for more in our metrics. It came matched up with the Bengals' Chidobe Awuzie in the divisional round of the playoffs:

You can see how effectively Brown put a move on Awuzie and completely lost the cornerback. The result was a pass 34 yards in the air to Brown with a safety closing but not there yet and Brown open for the deep grab.

Brown, 25, has been elite in two of the three categories in his career. In addition to being one of just three players to record a 99 Open Score in a season since 2017, he also has the second-highest ever YAC Score in a season, a 97 in 2019. Why did Brown put up just 869 yards last season? His Catch Score was poor (33), while Tennessee was a run-first team and he missed four games due to injuries.

Top 10 WRs and TEs In Open Score:

(for 2021-22, including postseason, with minimum 80 targets)

1. A.J. Brown: 94

2. Stefon Diggs: 92

3. Diontae Johnson: 91

4. Justin Jefferson: 89

5. Mark Andrews: 87

6. Odell Beckham Jr.: 86

7. Russell Gage: 85

8. Davante Adams: 84

9. Travis Kelce: 81

10. Marquise Brown: 80

Should the Eagles be alarmed by Brown's Catch Score? Not particularly. For starters, getting open is the most important attribute, and it's also the most stable. In other words, we can be more confident in Brown's ability to get open being excellent than his catch rate over expectation being below average. Plus, Brown's Catch Scores the two prior seasons were 63 and 53, respectively.

Two other players had Open Scores of 99 since 2017: the Packers'Davante Adams (2020) and, believe it or not, the Patriots'Jakobi Meyers(2020). Speaking of shockingly strong numbers from Patriots wide receivers ...

Kendrick Bourneleads the NFL in Catch Score since 2021

Bourne technically just missed our qualifying cutoff, but his 91 Catch Score over the past two seasons was too strong a result to ignore. It's surprising, not only because Bourne isn't a big name but because he has had a hard time getting on the field for New England in 2022. In fact, if we lowered the qualifying threshold to include Bourne, he would have ranked third overall in 2021 and would be first from the start of 2021 to now.

Top 10 WRs and TEs In Catch Score:

(for 2021-2022, including postseason, with minimum 70 targets)

1. Kendrick Bourne: 91

2. Tyler Lockett: 85

3. Adam Thielen: 83

4. Amari Cooper: 81

5. Christian Kirk: 79

6. Marvin Jones Jr.: 78

7. Michael Pittman Jr.: 76

8. Cooper Kupp: 75

T-9. Mark Andrews: 74

T-9. Terry McLaurin: 74

You can see some of the evidence of Bourne's Catch Score prowess in his box score stats. Since the 2021 season, he has caught 79% of his targets. While his 9.2 air yards per target is not exceptionally deep, it's slightly longer than stars such as Kupp or Keenan Allen(Chargers), and yet Bourne has a higher catch rate than either.

Bourne's ranking doesn't necessarily mean he's one of the top three wideouts in the NFL.The RTMs are descriptive and not predictive, and Open Score -- his worst attribute -- is far more stable than the other two categories. Plus, Catch Score and YAC Score are reliant on openness; if a receiver isn't open, he'll have fewer opportunities to make catches and accrue YAC. While Bourne has been an extremely efficient (and underrated), he likely isn't quite that strongpredictively.

For what it is worth, Bourne's 3.4 yards per route run this season ranks fourth among receivers and tight ends who have run at least 30 routes, behind Jaylen Waddle(Dolphins), Tyreek Hill(Dolphins) and A.J. Brown(Eagles). He has just seven catches for 115 yards, but perhaps he should play more snaps for the Patriots.

Deebo Samuel's yards-after-catch production in 2021 nearly broke our metrics

The 49ers receiver posted a 99, which was more than four standard deviations above the average YAC Score. Outside of Brown's 2019 campaign (97), no other player has come close since 2017;Ja'Marr Chase's 2021 for the Bengals was the third-ranked YAC performance (84) in our dataset.

Top 10 WRs and TEs In YAC Score:

(for 2021-2022, including postseason, with minimum 80 targets)

1. Deebo Samuel: 94

2. Ja'Marr Chase: 82

3. Dallas Goedert: 69

4. DeVonta Smith: 66

5. CeeDee Lamb: 65

6. Brandon Aiyuk: 64

T-7. Cooper Kupp: 62

T-7. George Kittle: 62

T-7. Chris Godwin: 62

T-7. Laviska Shenault Jr.: 62

What does a 99 YAC Score look like? It's tough to show in just one play because Samuel is so great at beating expectations over and over again. This touchdown against the Ramsfrom 2021 is a nice example, though. At the moment Samuel catches this fourth-and-6 pass, he has three defenders around him, plus a fourth with a blocker on him. Samuel threads the needle between them all to open space and break away for the score.

If you add in the first three games of the season, Samuel's YAC Score since the start of last season drops a few points to 94, because his YAC Score through three games is only 52.

Michael Thomas has the best overall numbers since 2017 -- and it's not close

Looking at the cumulative list of performance since 2017, what first struck me was the starpower, which should be expected:

Then I focused in on the scores themselves, and Thomas is blowing out the field. He's the career leader in Catch Score, which is notable because Catch Score (81) is adjusted for the quality and accuracy of the quarterback. That means it takes into account that Drew Brees was throwing Thomas most of those passes for the Saints.

His 83 Open Score ranks third in that span, trailing only Diontae Johnson (Steelers) at 91 and Justin Jefferson(Vikings) at 85. Thomas' YAC Score is just moderate.

To put that kind of distance between the superstars on this list is a reminder of how dominant Thomas was in the early seasons in his career and -- perhaps -- what he still could be again. He played in just seven games in 2020, missed all of last season and has 16 catches for 171 yards and three scores so far this season.

One slight surprise might be Doug Baldwin(Seahawks), whose Open Score (78) landed him among the NFL's best. And if you're wondering where Kupp ranks, it's No. 16. While he led the league in 2021, he was merely above average before that.

Why Andrews, not Travis Kelce, has been the top tight end since 2021

Both Andrews and Kelce (Chiefs) have excelled at getting open over the past two seasons; Andrews posted an 87 Open Score, while Kelce had an 81. Those are the top two Open Scores among tight ends in that span and both rank in the top 10 among all pass-catchers.

The difference between their overall scores -- Andrews at 85, Kelce at 70 -- is in their Catch Scores, where Andrews has a 74 and Kelce a 43.

Burke noted in his piece explaining RTMs that two of Patrick Mahomes' superpowers are making the right read and extending the play, both factors that lead to the Chiefs' success and strong box-score statistics from his receivers. Those are also measures that Catch Score adjusts for, because they are the quarterback's skills not the receiver's. That partially explains what's going in with Kelce here: He's exceptional at getting open and has a great quarterback, so he'll produce at a very high level, but over the past two seasons, he has converted targets to receptions at just under an average rate based on the expectations set by the circumstances of those plays.

While there's much more than this that goes into Catch Score, we can see the clues in the basic statistics: Since the start of 2021, Andrews and Kelce both have 71% catch rates but Andrews' have come on targets that average 10.5 air yards, while Kelce's have averaged just 7.8.

Russell Gage knows how to get open

The Open Score leaderboard since the start of last season is filled with big names ... and Gage, who spent last season as part of a badFalcons team before being scooped up by the Bucs in free agency. Gage started the season with pedestrian numbers before soaring for 12 catches on 13 targets in the Bucs' loss to the Packers on Sunday, in a game in which the Bucs' top three options were unavailable.

The signs were there before Sunday, in the form of his 84 Open Score. Entering Week 2, he had the 28th-highest target per route rate since the start of 2021, which is solid but indicates he was somewhat underused based on his ability to create space. Of the eight receivers ahead of him on the Open Score list, only Odell Beckham Jr. was targeted at a lower rate than Gage since the start of 2021, and he also was contending with Kupp for targets for the Rams.

Here's an example of Gage going untargeted when open against the Patriots in Week 11 of last season:

Robbie Anderson has the worst overall score since 2021

The bottom of these lists can be informative, too. Anderson had brutal 2021 season, with 53 catches for 519 yards and five touchdowns on 110 targets. He recorded a lowest-possible Catch Score of 0, which drags him down here. Since the start of last season, he has caught his targets at a 49% rate, lowest among all qualifiers who played in both seasons.

There aren't many shocking names at the bottom of this list, but there are a few players who caught my eye:

  • Darnell Mooney(Bears) has an above-average Open Score (61) but a dismal Catch Score (12) since the start of 2021, and that draws his overall number down to 37.
  • Two tight ends generally considered in the upper echelon have weaker RTMs: Darren Waller(Raiders) and Kyle Pitts(Falcons), who both have a 42 overall score. Pitts has a weaker Open Score (34) but moderate Catch (54) and YAC Scores (49), while all three attributes are in the 40s for Waller.

Cordarrelle Patterson leads running backs since 2021

The overall score for running backs is calculated differently, with the importance of each attribute reversed. YAC Score is the most important, followed by Catch Score with Open Score last. That's because backs often are running routes like swings and checkdowns. Thus, their skill comes more from creating yards after catch than generating the target opportunity.

Since the beginning of last season, it's the veteran Patterson (Falcons) who comes out on top. He has the second-highest YAC Score in that timeframe -- Jets backup Ty Johnson, who had 34 catches last season, actually is No. 1 -- and third-highest Catch Score.

Keep in mind, samples are small for running backs, but it's still useful to see their numbers. At the bottom of the running backs list: Ezekiel Elliott, whose 27 is worst among qualifiers.

Tyler Lockett and Diontae Johnson lead the way in 2022 -- for different reasons

These metrics contain a lot of noise and are best to look at with larger samples, but we had to peek at the numbers from the first three games of 2022, right? Two receivers playing with weaker quarterbacks -- remember, we're trying to isolate from QB performance -- stand out.

Lockett (Seahawks) and Johnson (Steelers) each have an overall score of 73, with Lockett leading all players in Open Score (91) and Johnson in Catch Score (71). Both have been weak in YAC, which is traditionally a weak category for Lockett.

Below is an example of one of Johnson's most improbable grabs. He runs a deep fade down the left sideline with tight coverage from BengalscornerbackChidobe Awuzie. Quarterback Mitch Trubisky fired in Johnson's direction anyway, and he made a stellar one-handed grab while contending with both the defender and the sideline:

Even with small samples, we see stars at the top, though there are other receivers off to nice starts who have worked their way high up this list, includingZay Jones(Jaguars) and Mack Hollins(Raiders).

Here are a few other notable 2022 numbers. Again, keep in mind these are tiny samples:

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