Punch Drunk Wonderland

Who Is the Most Dangerous Receiving Threat in the NFL?

We all know the names. Megatron. Gronk. Dez. A.J. Jordy. The tops of the fantasy rankings show us who the receiver stars are each week. But, who is really the best of the best? Are there clear dividing lines between tiers of the elites? Brandon Gdula of numberFire.com has taken a look at the numbers and has some very good analysis concerning who is the NFL’s most dangerous receiving threat.

The NFL is a new league.

The increased emphasis on passing in the NFL has redefined the tight end position, and wide receivers are putting up bigger numbers than ever before.

But who is the best receiver of all? That Calvin Johnson has been the most dominant receiver in recent history is an easy argument to make, but Demaryius Thomas has been surging, A.J. Green has been consistently elite – right? – and Dez Bryant might be the best red zone threat of any receiver in the league.

Add in Josh Gordon, Julio Jones, and Jordy Nelson, and the best of the best gets very cloudy.

To make this more of a complex issue, the advent of the dominant tight ends – Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, and Julius Thomas – has given legitimacy to the notion that the deadliest receiver is actually not a receiver at all, but a tight end.

But is there any way to crown a singular winner?

I don’t know. Probably not. But digging through the numbers indicates that a few players have been putting up better numbers than the rest, and some of the players in the best-of-the-best discussion really aren’t able to compare.

The research will mainly center on Net Expected Points (NEP), which is our way of quantifying how much a player adds to his team by identifying how well he plays above or below expectation.

Defining the Approach

No foolproof plan is in place for trying to figure out who really is the deadliest weapon in the NFL, and as far as I know, no groundwork or precedent really exists, either. Yard per catch, touchdowns, reception totals, and yards after catch all accumulate differently for different players within the wide receiver position, and the tight end conundrum makes things worse. Also, looking solely at the 2014 season would be shortsighted. Digging too much deeper into the past dilutes the relevance of what’s going on right now.

So I’ve decided to segment off some data and compile a conclusion at the end. Ultimately, I have decided to rely on just three season’s worth of data, 2012-2014, but use it in an overlapping manner. Some benchmarks, like minimum Reception NEP scores, may seem arbitrary, but they are both inclusive and purposive. For example, in 2012, Jimmy Graham’s Reception NEP per target was lower than my original threshold, but this isn’t academia, so I was lenient – but consistent – with the cut-offs.

My two periods of analysis are (1) 2012 and 2013 combined and (2) 2012, 2013, and 2014 through Week 13 combined. Relying too heavily on 2014 could have skewed numbers and make, for instance, Antonio Brown appear more lethal than injury-plagued players such as A.J. Green or Calvin Johnson.

2012 and 2013 Numbers

So, while I don’t want to focus too much on the past and I really didn’t want Tony Gonzalez making an appearance on the list (spoiler: he does hit the benchmarks for these seasons), I also didn’t want to overlook the fact that football has been played prior to the 2014 season.

The cutoffs to be included in this first set were only two. The wide receiver or tight end (which I’ll group together as “receiver(s)” for simplicity) had to post a Reception NEP greater than 50.00 and a Reception NEP per target greater than 0.65 in each season. This may seem random, like I said before, and without context, it’s sort of useless.

To justify, in 2012 and 2013, 146 instances of a receiver’s recording a Reception NEP greater than 50.00 has occurred. Of those 146, the top 98 – roughly the top two-thirds – secured a Reception NEP per target better than 0.65. Why dig so low, then? Jimmy Graham’s Reception NEP per target of 0.67 in 2012 was very low, and I didn’t want to be unnecessarily exclusive with an arbitrary cut-off because I wanted to generate plausible discourse.

Of those 98 instances, 25 players met the threshold both years. Factoring out Tony Gonzalez, we have a 24-player set to examine.

Here is where things really start to get tricky.

If we look solely at Reception NEP, the winner is obvious: Megatron. Of the 24 receivers, only Calvin has a combined Reception NEP greater than 300. His is 306.12. Only one other receiver, Brandon Marshall, is over 250. His is 263.21. Those two also happen to be the only receivers with over 200 catches in that span who fit the criteria, and I saw that Reception NEP largely correlates with receptions. This may sound obvious, but Wes Welker-types don’t necessarily earn a high Reception NEP.

Here is a graph of the 11 receivers with a Reception NEP greater than 200 in the 2012-13 span.

Because of this, it’s unfair to look at just Reception NEP. Doing so penalizes guys who don’t see as much volume – such as tight ends or deep threats – or players who were hurt. So we can pivot to Reception NEP per target, which more accurately measures efficiency of production.

Continue reading at numberFire.com… (@numberfire)


K. Smelser About K. Smelser
Kelly Smelser is Owner/Senior Writer for Punch Drunk Wonderland and PDFantasy Sports. Architect of the PDW fantasy football world and general spinster of NFL and Fantasy Football news and analysis. Long walks on the beach, sunsets, and other such niceties are also fine...