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Buccaneers 2017 Receiving Efficiency

Who stands out from a loaded receiving corp?

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Last week Bucs Nation looked at Jameis Winston’s steady improvement in accuracy and his underrated 2017 season. His positive 18.7 plus-minus ranked fifth in the NFL last season. Plus-minus is derived from the length of the pass and the yards needed for a first down, and is simply a modern version of completion percentage that incorporates the context of the passes actually being attempted, whether short or deep. Perhaps one reason why Winston ranked so high is deeper passes are harder to complete and so the formula rewards deeper passes more than short passes (and the penalty for not completing a short pass is higher). A quarterback’s plus-minus will equal the team’s receiving plus-minus. So, which receivers stood out the most last season?

The Receivers

Receiving plus-minus estimates how many catches a receiver caught compared to how many an average receiver would have caught given the location of the passes. Tampa Bay didn’t have any receivers in the bottom 20, and just one in the top 20: the sure-handed reliable Adam Humphries, who ranked 15th. Scott Kacsmar wrote about Tampa Bay extensively:

Adam Humphries (+4.7) is the only Tampa Bay receiver listed, but it is worth pointing this out in regards to Jameis Winston’s surprisingly high ranking of fifth in passing plus-minus. The most common response I have seen to any high placement of Winston in a stat is that Mike Evans deserves the credit for it. Sure, Evans is an impressive athlete with a nice catch radius, but other quarterbacks have played with receivers comparable or better. In 2017, Evans actually ranked 62nd in plus-minus at -2.6, well behind that of teammates Humphries, Chris Godwin (No. 30, +2.4), and DeSean Jackson (No. 31, +2.2). Now some of that was due to a -3.3 with Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback, but oddly enough, Evans had his best plus-minus season as a rookie without Winston in 2014 when he was +3.8. We’ll get into more Tampa Bay stats as time goes by, but for passing plus-minus, Evans has actually been a -3.1 for Winston.

A lot has been written about Evans lately and his yards after the catch (YAC) or the lack thereof, which we’ll also revisit later in this piece. But for now, it’s worth noting that while Evans' catch rate isn’t where it should be for a player of his caliber it’s also only fair to point out Evans is often asked to make difficult contested catches around multiple defenders. With Humphries ranking 15th and Godwin and Jackson at 30 and 31, this isn’t a Winston issue. It may be a bit of both a scheme issue and an Evans inconsistency issue. With that said, Evans is still clearly a beast. But even All-Pro’s can improve their game.

The Tight Ends

O.J. Howard placed 12th among all tight ends last year with a positive 4.0 receiving plus-minus. Kacsmar writes:

Tampa Bay also had a good tight end duo that should only get better in 2018. Rookie O.J. Howard (No. 12, +4.0) actually finished ahead of Cameron Brate (No. 17, +2.4) on half as many targets. Defenses tended to forget Howard existed on four of his six touchdowns last year, but this could be the NFL’s premiere tight end duo this year if he gets more involved.

It was pretty disappointing to see the Bucs draft Howard in the first round of the 2017 draft to pair with Cameron Brate and then run 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends) less often than they did in 2016, but Howard was a rookie after all and did contribute heavily in the running game. Humphries is reliable but he’s also a short-yardage role player and probably shouldn’t ever be third in targets on a team with Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Chris Godwin, O.J. Howard, and Cameron Brate. I believe the Bucs could reap huge rewards from being more creative and making Howard a much bigger part of the offense going forward, not to mention both tight ends a much larger focus of the offense. Last season Humphries’ value over average per play (DVOA) ranked 36th among all wide receivers at 5.1 percent better than average. But Howard ranked 5th among all tight ends in DVOA and Brate ranked 8th - at 32.2 percent and 24.7 percent better than average. Both tight ends’ total value appears much greater than what Humphries provides and both of them and Godwin should take away the lion’s share of Humphries’ targets in 2018.

The Running Backs

None of Tampa’s running backs placed in the top 16 or the bottom 16. Doug Martin has moved on, and Peyton Barber and Jacquizz Rodgers are reliable journeymen, but un-dynamic. Ronald Jones III should provide some much-needed and exciting electricity to the position this season, especially if he can improve his inconsistent hands while catching.

Yards after Catch Plus

Okay, so plus-minus counts up to the catch - but what about after it? FBO states:

YAC+ is similar to plus-minus; it estimates how much YAC a receiver gained compared to what we would have expected from an average receiver catching passes of similar length in similar down-and-distance situations. This is imperfect due to variations in YAC stemming from the routes the receivers run, but it does a fairly good job of telling you if this receiver gets more or less YAC than other receivers with similar usage patterns.

The Receivers

Of the top 20 receivers in YAC+, Tampa Bay only had one represent. Can you guess who?

Surprise, it‘s Chris Godwin!

Give yourself a pat on the back if you guessed that correctly. Godwin’s average depth of target was 13 yards downfield and had a YAC+ of 0.8. So on average he would gain almost an entire yard more per reception than what he could be expected to gain. Did Tampa have any receiver in the bottom 20? Unfortunately, yes, and not for the first time. Of the 82 receivers who qualified, Mike Evans finished second-to-last. Evans had an average depth of target of 13.9 yards, but his YAC+ was a negative 2.0. I thought Trevor Sikkema did a great breakdown of some of the reasons for Evans’ extremely low YAC rates. It’s not really a part of his game, and it doesn’t really have to be; but nevertheless it is an area that Evans could improve upon. Kacsmar expanded on this point:

Finally, we have the case of Mike Evans in Tampa Bay. After ranking dead-last in YAC+ (-1.9) in 2016, he was saved by Coleman to finish next to last in 2017 at -2.0, a career low. This really isn’t a Jameis Winston accuracy issue. You can see that rookie Chris Godwin (+0.8) finished 12th and Adam Humphries was No. 2 in 2016 while playing with Winston. This is more about usage as Thomas Bassinger reviewed recently for Tampa Bay Times. Evans often takes advantage of his size and catch radius, but he could still use some more YAC from time to time. Will that change ever come? Well, if a gifted player like Antonio Brown is still giving us the same results in this area after eight years, then maybe it is wise to keep asking a player to do what he does best instead of trying to do something different, but not as well.

The other thing that sticks out here is the absence of DeSean Jackson. Tampa Bay’s staff absolutely has to do a better job of designing plays for Jackson in space or on the move - Jackson does many things well and to ignore an entire phase of his game, especially one as game-breaking as his yards after catch ability, is borderline criminal. Plays like the one below are exactly what this offense needs more of:

But this is just mini-camp. It’s encouraging they appear to be working on it, but it needs to actually be called in a game, and in more variations. If Winston struggles throwing past 30 yards the staff needs to do more than just call go routes with Jackson.

The Tight Ends

With an average depth of target of 11.8 yards and a YAC+ of 1.5, O.J. Howard comes in at No.9! of the top tight ends in yards after the catch. A lot of this probably comes from his couple big wide open throwback touchdown plays, and Tampa needs more of that in 2018. Howard is great on the move and using him in route concepts with Jackson could produce huge plays. For as good as Howard was after the catch, Brate was almost equally bad. Brate ranked 42nd out of the 48 qualifying tight ends, with an average depth of target of 9.7 yards and a YAC+ of negative 1.2 yards. Is usage partly to blame? Brate is obviously more physically limited than Howard, but does he also run more curls, for example?

The Running Backs

Again, Tampa had no running backs in the top 20 but also none in the bottom 20. Ronald Jones is nothing if not explosive, with elite acceleration, so hopefully he can take some passes for big gains in 2018.

The Quarterbacks

YAC+ for quarterbacks is really more of an indicator of the type of offense the quarterback runs and the talent in it rather than his individual performance level. Here are the 2017 results for our 35 qualified quarterbacks.

Winston‘s negative 0.3 YAC+ ranks 24th, or tied for 10th fewest. His average depth of target was the 2nd highest in the league, behind only Deshaun Watson. However, Watson finished with the second highest YAC+ at 1.0, behind only Jared Goff. Other interesting notes, if Garroppolo had thrown enough passes to qualify he would have finished second in YAC+. High rates of yards after the catch appears to be a hallmark of Kyle Shanahan offenses. It is not a hallmark of Dirk Koetter’s offenses.

In conclusion, the numbers and metrics back up what we see on Sundays - the Bucs have one of the most vertical offenses in the NFL, and it’s not particularly well-designed for YAC even if they do have some dynamic pass catchers. However, it‘s pretty clear one area where the team sorely lacked talent in the passing game is at running back. In this scheme, the checkdowns, when they are included at all, are most often whoever the running back is, and Humphries. These players are most frequently asked to chip defensive ends and leak into the flat at the line of scrimmage. While Humphries is really good in this role and may account for his large number of targets, the running backs have not been. Many fans call for Winston to check the ball down more but it seems doing so is a rather poor option in general, at least compared to the other available targets on the team. Is having a wasted down better than a turnover, and could Winston take the safer play a bit more? Of course.

Often these checkdowns are...not decoys, but they help pull the linebackers down, contributing to the hi-lo stretch that is responsible for creating that space behind the backers and in front of the safeties that Tampa wants to attack. Plus, in certain situations like 3rd and long defenses know they can drop 6 or more defenders into coverage to take away the deep ball and rally to the checkdowns for minimal gains. Again, a wasted play. With the lack of dynamic options between the running back position and Humphries, coupled with Winston’s aggressive mentality, it’s really not a surprise Winston often looks elsewhere most of the time. One of the more suspect parts of Ronald Jones’ game coming out of USC was his pass catching. If he can improve there enough to be reliable, he could be a big weapon for Winston and help take his game to the next level.