Football Outsiders (FBO) recently published some of their results on 2017 wide receiver routes by defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA), which is simply an attempt to value a player on a per-down basis, and is expressed as a percentage above or below average.
What FBO has done is take a receiver’s (a few RBs and TEs show up) per-down (DVOA) and total (DYAR - defense-adjusted yards above replacement) value for the twelve most common routes in the NFL: curl, out, dig, slant, drag, go/fly, WR screen, post, comeback, broken play, fade, and seam. In this article we will look at the first six and tackle the last six in Part 2. Because that’s an insane amount of information, FBO only focused on the roughly 20-30 or so receivers that ran these routes the most.
From this information, we can see who was good at what route, who was bad, and perhaps even where a team might be using routes they probably shouldn’t as much or routes they could use more. Patterns can also emerge that tell us about the scheme. Because receiver numbers are to a small extent inherently derivative from a quarterback, it also gives us a little bit of a peek into their performance as well.
Let’s go down the list:
The curl is a big play in the Buccaneer’s offense. Only one Buc makes the list here though and it’s Mike Evans, who was targeted on the curl route 30 times, the second-most in the NFL. Unfortunately, out of the 21 receivers who caught curls the most, Evans was the third-worst in value.
Travis Kelce led all players with 32 targets on curls, but Keenan Allen had the most DYAR (94), and Julio Jones had the highest DVOA (32.7%). Jones and Mike Evans tied for the deepest curls, thrown at an average distance of 9.0 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
Also, Evans’ 1.2 YAC average was the 3rd worst behind T.Y. Hilton and the ancient Jason Witten.
Looking back to 2016, not much has changed. Evans is still the only Buc that shows up, and his YAC and average depth of target is about the same. But, his value on curls was 8th best - it appears his catch percentage fell from 69.2 percent in 2016 to 56.7 percent in 2017. The reason is probably a mix between ball placement and Evans needing to do a better job using his frame to shield defenders from the ball. It’s also important to keep in mind as we go down this list that Evans’ frame prevents him from being as good of a route runner as other players ( and that’s ok). Routes that allow him to use his frame should be his bread and butter.
Of the 26 players who were targeted on quick out routes the most, none were Buccaneers. The Bucs did not have any players on the 2016 list either.
Out of the nine route types with at least 650 plays in 2017, the dig had the highest DVOA (7.6%). These throws are a few yards deeper than the typical curl or out, but they were still completed at a rate of 60.0 percent in 2017.
The dig is a staple of Dirk Koetter’s offense. It is a play that often nets a big reward but can lead to quarterbacks taking more hits as it is a long and slow-developing route, usually paired with a seven step drop or a similarly timed but shortened drop from shotgun. Koetter often runs it iso, meaning it is not packaged with another route to form a concept, like Mills, though he sometimes does that too. When run iso it is just the receiver running a deep dig or crossing route by themselves and up to him to get to his spot on time and the quarterback to beat the coverages of the cornerback and safety with his eye manipulation and throw. Because of this, the dig also comes with one of if not the highest rate of interceptions in the league. Big risk, big reward.
Again, Evans is the only Tampa Bay player to make the list, with 14 such passes in 2017. Of the 24 players, Evans ranked 14th in value and had a 53.8 percent catch rate. His average depth of target was 12.9, third highest, but his 0.4 YAC average was easily the worst. Clearly Evans struggles to gain separation, which isn’t all that surprising. And the NFL is a contested catch league, after all. But he could also do a much better job being more physical at the catch point which might allow him to break tackles. Because the Bucs like to run their routes deeper than most teams it’s possible safeties are also often in the area, but that also means Evans is just a broken tackle or two from gaining huge yards with no one else between him and the end zone. It’s one of the few remaining holes in his game.
In 2016 Evans had the worst dig value out of all listed receivers, with a 43.5 percent catch rate, 12.5 average target depth, and 1.1 YAC.
The slant is a play with good value and a pretty good completion rate. Evans is again the only Buccaneer to get enough targets to qualify. His value was below average, but his catch rate and target depth were average. A theme is emerging, as Evans’ YAC was 5th fewest out of the 30 players listed, ahead of players like Zach Ertz, Kelvin Benjamin, and Roger Lewis. However, that’s double his YAC average from 2016 and his value got better too.
The drag is a shorter another short throw for the quarterback that yields a high completion rate, often used in a Mesh concept that uses a rub to get one of the receivers open for YAC. No Buccaneers show up on this list in 2017 or 2016.
Two Bucs show up - Evans and DeSean Jackson, but unfortunately they are second-to-last and fourth-to-last in value, respectively. They had 21 total targets, third-most behind just Pittsburgh (Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant) and Detroit (Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay).
Since the average go route comes more than 30 yards down the field, these were only completed 25.2 percent of the time in 2017. But if it’s going to be a big gain once every four plays, it’s worth the risk sometimes. There were 694 of these last season, and we looked at 25 players with at least nine go/fly routes.
A 25 percent catch rate is a low-percentage play, among the lowest in the NFL. Jackson’s catch rate was 11.1 percent and Evans’ was even worse 9.1 percent, which, you don’t need me to tell you is awful. Interestingly, Evans’ target depth was 29.1 but Jackson’s was 38.1, tied with Tyreek Hill and second deepest to just Bryant.
Obviously, Jameis Winston’s deep accuracy issues are at play here, as are a myriad of other factors. This is a huge discussion and has been a major point of contention among fans, but we’ll just hit the key points. First, in 2017 Winston actually improved his accuracy over his 2016 season pretty much everywhere, and he was the 11th most efficient deep ball thrower in the NFL last season. This is largely because in today’s game anything past 16 air yards can be considered deep, and secondly Winston earns most of his keep from 10 to 25 yards out as he targets that area more often than almost all quarterbacks. However, his accuracy past 35 yards isn’t good (ranked 15th from 30-34, 25th between 35-39, and 26th 40+). If your definition of a deep ball is different then obviously this ranking will change for you. It’s also worth noting completed passes longer than 50 yards are statistically random and can’t be replicated from year to year.
Winston’s deep ball mechanics appear to have suffered his pre-draft work with QB guru George Whitfield and haven’t been the same since. Lastly, it has to be noted that Winston suffered an injury to his throwing shoulder in Week 3 of last season vs. the Minnesota Vikings and did not look healthy until the last few weeks of the season. He has improved in every year; did the injury rob us of seeing some of that improvement in his deep ball, or did it just cover up a problem that’s still there? Or make a bad problem look even worse? We will have to wait until Weeks 4 and 5 of this season to find out.
In 2016 Evans’ value was better but still below average, and his catch rate was 20 percent, and Jackson’s value was the fourth-best in the NFL.
So the bottom line is this: the Bucs have a quarterback who struggles a great deal to hit deep vertical passes, for whatever reason, but is nonetheless operating in an offense that not only attempts these low-percentage passes at a high rate, but also half the time at an extreme depth. What that says is the team is repeatedly expecting their quarterback to do something he cannot do. Something has to change.
In Part 2 we will look at how the Bucs did with WR screens, posts, comebacks, broken plays, fades, and seam routes.