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Receivers Under Pressure: Who performs and who stumbles?

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I wanted to do some research this year, and something that always came to my attention but was never readily available was stats about receivers performing in key situations. You might see a guy has 100 catches on the year, but how many of them mattered, how many of them helped the team, and how many were just padding numbers? The thing about receiver, more than any other skill position on the field is that their numbers are a lot more context sensitive than other positions. They need good line play so the QB isn't sacked before hand, they need the QB to throw the ball their way and deliver a catchable ball, and then there's stuff they can actually control, the route, the separation, and their own hands.


My process and methodology was very simple, break down a receivers targets in pressure situations, determine how often they caught the ball, and how often they managed to get a first down or touchdown in that situation. My definition of pressure situation was any third down play, any fourth down play, or any play in the opponent's red zone. There were other situations to consider, like two minute drives or passes backed up in your end zone, but I figured for the time being and the sake of my own sanity, to limit it down to things I could easily find.


I decided to include runningbacks and tight ends as well as wide receivers on this list, because on some teams those positions were the team's primary target and it wouldn't be fair not to include them. My criteria were that a player must meet at least one of: a) Has 100 or more targets, b) has 60 or more catches, c) Leads their own team in targets. With those criteria I ended up with 49 players, so I added one more player with 59 catches just so I could have an even 50 for my sample size. I wanted to have those restrictions so my sample data wouldn't be flooded with outliers.


The Findings: (Full data in link below)


Targets Under Pressure:

1. Adam Thielen 73

2. Keenan Allen 72

3. DeAndre Hopkins 65

4. Larry Fitzgerald 64

5. Jarvis Landry 60


22t. Rob Gronkowski 44 (mean)

22t. Evan Engram 44 (mean)

24t. Travis Kelce 43 (median)

24t. A.J Green 43 (median)

26. Delanie Walker 42 (median)


46. Le'Veon Bell 30

47. Tyreek Hill 29

48t. Adam Humphries 26

48t. Todd Gurley 26

50. Ben Watson 23


I'll go into more detail once I go into percentage of targets under pressure, but it shouldn't be surprising that the most often targets receivers are near the top of the list. The outliers to these facts are far more interesting.




Catches Under Pressure:

1. Jarvis Landry 44

2. Keenan Allen 43

3. Larry Fitzgerald 40

4. Adam Thielen 38

5. Antonio Brown 37


22t. Julio Jones 26 (mean)

22t. Devin Funchess 26 (mean)

22t. Danny Amendola 26 (mean)

25. Jack Doyle 25 (median)

26t. Dez Bryant 24 (median)

26t. Evan Engram 24 (median)


46t. Mike Evans 18

46t. A.J. Green 18

46t. Marquise Goodwin 18

49. Ben Watson 17

50. Brandin Cooks 15


What's really interesting, more so than the receivers at the top, are the receivers at the bottom, because aside from Ben Watson, none of the top 5 are shared between targets and catches. So while Mike Evans (tied for 14th in targets) and AJ Green (tied for 24th) get a fair amount of targets, those targets are often prayers rather than legitimate catchable balls. Goodwin and Cooks are both tied for 40th in targets with 35 a piece.




Successes Under Pressure (Defined as a first down or touchdown catch):

1. Keenan Allen 34

2t. Larry Fitzgerald 30

2t. Michael Thomas 30

4t. Adam Thielen 28

4t. Antonio Brown 28

4t. DeAndre Hopkins 28


21t. Evan Engram 19 (mean)

21t. Zach Ertz 19 (mean)

23t. Danny Amendola 18

23t. Doug Baldwin 18

25t. Dez Bryant, T.Y. Hilton, Mike Evans, Mohamed Sanu, Michael Crabtree 17 (median)


42t. Robby Anderson, Jason Witten, Alvin Kamara, LeSean McCoy, LeVeon Bell 12

47t. Brandin Cooks 11

47t. Tyreek Hill 11

47t. Todd Gurley 11

47t. Ben Watson 11


Now there's some more interesting things here. Despite Mike Evans having one of the lowest catch rates under pressure, he managed to jump back into the middle of the pack when it comes to successes, meaning few of his actual catches are wasted. At the top, Jarvis Landry falls right out of the usual collection of names, and Michael Thomas (9th in targets, 6th in catches) jumps into the top 5. The bottom has a lot of runningbacks, which is to be expected by the nature of their position, a lot of third plays are designed to be thrown to runningbacks not to succeed in moving the chains, but rather getting a few safe yards to make a manageable field goal or a better punt.




So those numbers give us some nice raw numbers, but what does it all mean in context? That's what I wanted to discover. This data gave me three metrics to analyze. The first being the percentage of targets under pressure as compared to their total targets. How often these receivers are relied upon on key positions, rather than simply being a target on every down. The second thing I found was the percentage of successful conversions. if QB's are throwing to this guy on third and fourth down a lot, how often is he returning the favour and making big plays? This was probably the stat I found most interesting and useful. The last stat was Useless Catch Rate, the amount of times a receiver caught a pass in pressure situations that did not lead to a successful play. This gives you a better idea of which receivers have a lot of artificially inflated numbers.




Pressure Percentage:

1. Adam Thielen 51.41% (Vikings)

2t. Stefon Diggs 50.53% (Vikings)

2t. Nelson Agholor 50.53% (Eagles)

4. Cooper Kupp 50.00% (Rams)

5. Alshon Jeffrey 49.17% (Eagles)


22. Dez Bryant 39.39% (Cowboys)

23. Golden Tate 39.17% (Lions)

MEAN 38.62%

24. Evan Engram 38.26% (Giants)

25. Delanie Walker 37.84% (Titans)

26. Michael Thomas 37.58% (Saints)


46. A.J. Green 30.07% (Bengals)

47. Todd Gurley 29.89% (Rams)

48. Ben Watson 29.11% (Ravens)

49. Le'Veon Bell 28.30% (Steelers)

50. Tyreek Hill 27.62% (Chiefs)


Now this yields some interesting results, the top 5 being wide receivers from the top three teams in the NFC is certainly an interesting result. This tells us that the Vikings, Rams and Eagles are using similar tactics when it comes to the usage of their receivers. If they're passing on first and second down, they're more inclined to go to their backs, tight ends and supplemental WR's, and then use third down and red zone plays to target their stars. This might just be a quirk of the data, or a real trend worth considering for the future. Evan Engram is doing an amazing job at being the baseline on this list so far. As for players you'd not expect at the bottom, Tyreek Hill is actually dead last in pressure situation targets. Perhaps this is just an Alex Smith thing, but Hill had most of his targets on first down plays, perhaps to catch defenses entirely off guard early and then his utilization in later down drops like a stone.



Success Rate (First Downs or Touchdown Percentage in Pressure Situations):

1. Adam Humphries 57.69%

2. Stefon Diggs 56.25%

3. Rob Gronkowski 54.55%

4. Michael Thomas 53.57%

5. Christian McCaffrey 52.08%

6. Davante Adams 52.00%


22. Jack Doyle 44.44%

23. Sterling Shepard 44.12%

MEAN 43.21%

24. Evan Engram 43.18%

25. DeAndre Hopkins 43.08%

26. Marquise Goodwin 42.86%


46. Dez Bryant 32.69%

47. Alvin Kamara 32.43%

48. Brandin Cooks 31.43%

49. Delanie Walker 31.95%

50. Robby Anderson 30.77%



I'm sure the first thing that comes to mind is 'Who the flying fuck is Adam Humphries' and the answer is the next great white WR for the New England Patriots once Tampa cuts him loose at the end of the season. He didn't get targeted very often on key downs, but he made a lot of big third down conversions for the Bucs last year. Christian McCaffrey showed some impressive moves on third downs and goalline plays, and was a force in the open field. The other names at the top are pretty expected, Gronkowski has been carrying the Patriots offense for a while now and this really tells the tale. Stefon Diggs and Michael Thomas were incredible on key downs and distances and may be underrated by fans for their work.


In the middle Evan Engram is still doing his best middle of the pack impression, At the bottom, there are some names you've come to expect. The grossly overrated Robby Anderson, the overhyped Dez Bryant, and from the previous numbers Brandin Cooks makes another appearance at the bottom. Perhaps by scheme or otherwise Delanie Walker and Alvin Kamara were simply not put in positions to succeed, but certainly in position to boost their numbers.



Useless Catch Rate (Catches in pressure situations that did not lead to first downs):

1. Marvin Jones 4.76%

2. Mike Evans 5.56%

3. Alshon Jeffrey 6.90% (nice)

4. Rob Gronkowski 11.11%

5. DeAndre Hopkins 12.50%


24. Antonio Brown 24.32%

25t. Larry Fitzgerald 25.00%

25t. Jermaine Kearse 25.00%

27. Golden Tate 25.81%

28. Adam Thielen 26.32%

29. Brandin Cooks 26.67%

MEAN 27.50%

30. Adam Humphries 28.57%


45t. Le'Veon Bell 42.86%

45t. Jamison Crowder 42.86%

47. Jason Witten 47.83%

48. Duke Johnson 50.00%

49. LeSean McCoy 55.56%

50. Alvin Kamara 60.00%


So this basically tells us who made their catches count. I wasn't expecting Marvin Jones, but big bodied guys like Alshon and Gronk being at the top of the list makes a ton sense, while your all purpose guys like Antonio Brown, Golden Tate and Larry Fitzgerald being near the middle also makes a lot of sense. At the bottom, it's mostly runningbacks, which is more of function of offenses and playcalling than actual ability. Easy screen passes that don't give runningbacks a chance to make first downs explains why you have guys like McCoy and Kamara with so many useless catches.




Anyway, I hope that was informative, and if you're interested in the full results, I posted a link to the google doc below.



Link here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1J41IRzZjymA-bIKDF2GqX95UC3I3DJGIw9u8tSAi1-Y/edit?usp=sharing

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Fitzgerald is the greatest possession receiver there ever was. He's surpassed his mentor, Cris Carter at this point.

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Successes Under Pressure (Defined as a first down or touchdown catch):


11. Christian McCaffrey 25

42t. Alvin Kamara 12


(Closest RB to McCaffrey is Duke Johnson at #T33 with 15 successes)



Success Rate (First Downs or Touchdown Percentage in Pressure Situations):

5. Christian McCaffrey 52.08%

47. Alvin Kamara 32.43%


(Closest RB to McCaffrey was Gurley at #28 with a 42.31% success rate)


Useless Catch Rate (Catches in pressure situations that did not lead to first downs):

23. Christian McCaffrey 24.24%

50. Alvin Kamara 60.00%


(The closest RB to McCaffrey was Gurley at #44 and a 42.11% useless catch rate)



This is what I've been trying to tell people about Kamara. He wasn't creating for himself downfield like McCaffrey. His numbers were artificially inflated by the New Orleans system, which rarely asked for him to get open downfield. McCaffrey would line up in the slot and face a nickel corner or safety. Kamara would peel off and get a LBer, and even then he would still be closer to the LOS as a receiver.


Kamara's had some splash plays after the catch but he wasn't consistently picking up first downs in key situations like McCaffrey because his routes just aren't on the same level. Hell, I bet if you put Kareem Hunt in there he'd have similar rates of success to Kamara and all the other backs.

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