2020 Receiving Plus-Minus: The Return of Stefon Diggs and the Deep Threat

We continue our examination of the passing game with our annual look at receiving plus-minus. Earlier this week, we talked about Drew Brees vacating the throne of passing plus-minus, but he’s not the only New Orleans player missing in action. All of Brees’ extra completions had to go somewhere, and the Saints have frequently been atop the receiving leaderboard for years as well.

Receiving plus-minus is a stat we annually track to help provide context to catch rate. Given the location of a receiver’s targets, it compares his catch rate in each area to historical baselines. This stat does not consider passes listed as “Thrown Away,” “Tipped at Line,” “Miscommunication,” or “Quarterback Hit in Motion” by Sports Info Solutions charting. The odds of a pass being completed are based on the pass distance, the distance required for a first down, and whether the ball was thrown to the left, middle, or right side of the field. This is a counting stat, so more targets are obviously a great thing for the purposes of what we’re talking about here.

Michael Thomas has topped the receiving plus-minus leaderboard for each of the past three seasons. In fact, his 2018 and 2019 seasons are still the highest two years we have recorded, the only two years to hit at least +20.0 since our data begins in 2006. Despite only playing for four seasons, Thomas led all receivers in passing plus-minus in the 2010s; such is the benefit of being a high-volume receiver with great hands playing with a hyper-accurate passer. But Thomas was limited to just seven games with ankle problems in 2020, limiting him to a career-worst +3.4 plus-minus. He still hit the top 15 in CPOE (Completion Percentage Over Expectation) at 6.3%, but the injury and the lesser performance of his passer means we get to crown a new plus-minus champion too.

Your new champion is someone who has been somewhat of a fixture near the top of these lists for the past five years but has never won the crown. And, indeed, after changing teams this past offseason, there were concerns about whether he could keep producing despite being paired with a less productive quarterback. Well, about that…

2020 Wide Receivers

A total of 85 wide receivers qualified last season, but we’ll just show the 15 from the top and bottom of the rankings to save space here. Each receiver’s plus-minus can be found in Football Outsiders Almanac 2021.

 

Stefon Diggs is no stranger to these tables. Since he entered the league in 2015, only Michael Thomas has had a higher receiving plus-minus than Diggs’ +58.3, and Diggs’ 8.8% CPOE over that period is third behind Thomas and Tyler Lockett among receivers with at least 500 targets. And yet he never has been atop the mountain. In fact, he had never finished higher than fourth, which he did in both 2016 and 2019. And he had always had accurate passers in Minnesota to help boost those numbers. There are plenty of things you can ding Kirk Cousins or Teddy Bridgewater for, but accuracy isn’t one of them. Going to Buffalo would surely help reign in some of Josh Allen’s wilder deep shots, but Diggs’ numbers would have to drop with such an inaccurate passer under center, right?

Well, apparently not. Based on our numbers, an average receiver would have caught about 67.7% of the 162 passes thrown Diggs’ way in 2020. He instead caught 78.4% of them, giving Diggs a plus-minus of +17.4, the sixth-highest result we have ever recorded. While Diggs’ increased target volume certainly helped, his CPOE of 10.7% is also the highest of his career, topping his Sam Bradford-powered 2016 season. I think it’s safe to say that none of us saw that coming.

Diggs represents the return of the deep threat to the top of these leaderboards. Three straight years of Michael Thomas and a year of Doug Baldwin have meant that the top receiver for the past four years has average single-digit average depth of targets, catching a ton of short passes and vaulting their way up the leaderboards. But before that—and before we were writing yearly wrap-up articles—the deep-threat player was a fixture atop these standings. In 2014 alone, the top six wideouts (Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Kenny Stills, T.Y. Hilton, Jordy Nelson, and Odell Beckham) all had aDOTs in the double-digits, and players such as Brown, Nelson, Andre Johnson, Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison, and Marques Colston led the league with a steady diet of intermediate and deep targets. It makes sense that those sorts of players would lead the league; the deeper a pass is, the less likely it is to be completed, all things being equal, and so catching deep balls racks up plus-minus more quickly than catching short passes. But over the past half-decade, the high-volume, low-distance player has slowly but steadily climbed up these leaderboards. And they’re not gone; spots two through six atop the leaderboards all were under 10 yards in aDOT, with Curtis Samuel’s 7.7 leading the way. So in some ways, Diggs climbing back atop the leaderboards is refreshing, the player with the third-most targets at least 10 yards downfield showing his mettle. Somewhere, Al Davis is smiling.

Then again, Cole Beasley climbed into the top 15 with a career-high +9.7, and he had an aDOT of just 7.9. Buffalo’s passing attack was dynamite on all levels (well, almost all levels; stick a pin in that), and all of their receivers benefitted. It can be hard to separate a quarterback from his receiver in stats like these; receiver stats get inflated by passers who can put the ball on target, and quarterback stats are inflated by receivers who can track down errant balls. Considering, however, that Diggs has had high numbers with every passer he has ever worked with, and Beasley has as many years with negative values as he does with +5.0 or more, I’m willing to posit that Diggs’ great year was more due to him being a great receiver, while Beasley’s good year was more due to Josh Allen taking a leap forward.

The two players other than Diggs to hit double-digits are a bit of a surprise. This was Davante Adams’ first year with more than +5.0 plus-minus; it has just never been a stat he has particularly shined in. A lot of that can be chalked up to the relatively poor quality of his supporting cast over the years. Adams has seen more separation over the last couple of seasons due to a combination of Mike LaFleur’s offensive scheme and the development of Allen Lazard and Marquez Valdes-Scantling, so while hitting double-digits is a surprise, it’s not a shock for a player of Adams’ caliber.

More surprising is Curtis Samuel, who was fourth worst in the league at -6.0 in 2019. Samuel has one of the oddest statistical packages I can remember: he is the only receiver in our database to finish in the top 10 in plus-minus but the bottom 10 in both YAC+ and aDOT—catching a ton of short passes, and then doing very little with them. Loosening our requirements to the top/bottom 15, you get 2014 Brandin Cooks, 2010 Jason Avant, 2008 Ike Hilliard, and 2006 Derrick Mason. I’ll be honest with you, I see very little connecting that group together. It’s a bizarre collection of down years from stars (Mason), small sample-size seasons from part-time players (the very young Cooks, the very old Hilliard), and a random season from a solid possession receiver (Avant). The arrival of Joe Brady certainly helped Samuel’s numbers, but I have no idea where Samuel goes from here now that he’s in Washington.

We also have to quickly note Rashard Higgins here, somewhat buried on the leaderboards but with a league-leading 14.2% CPOE. Higgins took advantage of Odell Beckham’s absence to set career bests across the board. It’s up in the air whether or not he’ll even qualify for our leaderboards next year—he’s sliding back into the third wideout slot on a team that uses a lot of 12 personnel—but there are certainly worse guys to have as your third receiver out there.

Elsewhere in the top 15, there were plenty of repeats from last year—Diggs is joined by Tyler Lockett, Chris Godwin, DeAndre Hopkins, Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Amari Cooper, and Will Fuller from 2019’s list. Diggs and Hopkins repeating despite changing teams bodes well for our other top receivers relocating in 2021—Samuel, Jones, Fuller, and Corey Davis all will be in new situations in 2021.

At the bottom, Jerry Jeudy’s rookie season did not exactly go as hoped. The fact that teammate KJ Hamler shows up in the bottom five as well does show that this isn’t just a receiver problem; Drew Lock struggled in 2020. But Jeudy didn’t exactly bail Lock out when the chips were down, finishing second in the league with 13 drops, with the highest drop percentage of any qualified receiver. I’d bet on him improving after a normal offseason, but there’s really nowhere to go but up. At the very least, I like his odds of improving more than A.J. Green, who shows up at the bottom of any receiver stat list you might want to look at.

It’s worth noting that we only are ranking receivers with at least 50 targets in these tables. If we included all receivers, Trent Taylor, Jeff Smith, and John Hightower would all crack the bottom 15. None are expected to play major roles in 2021, and for good reason.

2020 Tight Ends

A total of 48 tight ends qualified last season, but we’re only listing the top and bottom 10 for space reasons.

 

Robert Tonyan’s +12.6 mark is the highest we have seen at this position since Jason Witten had +14.0 in 2012, and Witten had nearly two and half times as many targets. Tonyan’s CPOE of 22.1% is the highest we have ever seen for a qualified tight end. Tonyan was expected to be the top Packers receiving tight end after Jace Sternberger floundered during the offseason, but there’s nothing in his pro history that led up to this. His career CPOE before 2020, albeit on just 21 targets, was an even 0.0%. It was a breakout year and a half for the former undrafted wide receiver, and I’d fully expect to see more from him in 2021. Maybe not at quite this level of efficiency—that feels like a once-in-a-lifetime sort of thing—but Matt LaFleur loves his play-action and rollouts, and Tonyan was a beast on those sorts of plays. The Packers will happily trade some efficiency for more volume there.

Travis Kelce, Darren Waller, and Tyler Higbee all repeat in the top 10 from last season. Those are three of your top five tight ends in DYAR from last season, joining Tonyan and George Kittle, who finished 11th despite missing half the season with injuries. This list generally looks very similar to the top DYAR list every year; you don’t usually get boom-and-bust deep threat tight ends, so the most reliable targets tend to dominate the leaderboards.

At the bottom of the list, Evan Engram repeats his bottom-10 appearance from 2019, and we must continue to ask how on Earth Engram made the Pro Bowl over Tonyan last season; it was a baffling snub and one of the worst blunders we have ever seen. We also see some formerly great tight ends who appear to be cooked in Zach Ertz and Jimmy Graham, as well as the floundering Chicago tight end game in Graham and Cole Kmet; rookie tight ends generally don’t perform well. Most interesting might be Dawson Knox, the other returner from 2019’s bottom 10. Nearly all the Bills saw their boats rise with Josh Allen’s massive jump last season, but not Knox. There’s a reason the Bills kicked the tires on nearly every free agent tight end this offseason, and Knox is currently working with a “vision specialist” to improve his hand-eye coordination. The Bills would like to see Knox in 20/20 form, not 2020 form.

2020 Running Backs

There were 46 qualified running backs, but we are just going to list 10 from the top and bottom here.

 

I know it says the leader is Jonathan Taylor there, and a 94.7% catch rate is impressive no matter how short those passes are. But your real leader should probably be Joshua Kelley, who was at +3.6 after catching all 23 of his 23 targets; you can’t ask someone to do better than to catch literally everything thrown his way. Taylor was the much better player, don’t get us wrong—Kelley was dead-last in rushing DYAR and DVOA, and it’s not like the Chargers had much call for another pass-catching back considering Austin Ekeler’s continued excellence in the role. But missing out on the top slot by two targets is rough, and Kelley deserves at least an honorable mention next to Taylor.

Because there are relatively few backs who catch a ton of passes, there are actually a number of running backs who would have made these tables if they had seen enough targets to qualify. On the positive side of the ledger, both Raheem Mostert and Royce Freeman had +1.8 with only one incomplete target. On the negative side, Jeff Wilson (-6.4) and Dare Ogunbowale (-4.8) miss out on qualifying; there’s a reason they weren’t targeted 25 times.

One name missing here is Christian McCaffrey, who will likely be a regular feature in this series alongside Ekeler as the top receiving backs in the league. Carolina still led the league in running back plus-minus, however; Mike Davis isn’t the same kind of receiving threat that McCaffrey is, but he still ground out respectable totals. Altogether, Panthers running backs were at +4.2, and only the Bengals and Colts joined them above +3.0. The league average was -2.8; as a running back, the expectation is that you’ll catch essentially everything thrown your way as your card gets filled with screens and dump-offs. There’s almost nowhere to go but down.

And, with that in mind, we turn to Miles Sanders and his 54.9% catch rate. His -13.1 isn’t just the record for the position, it’s the only time we have ever seen a running back hit negative-double digits. Eight drops on 53 targets is atrocious. It’s a huge fall from grace from a player who was seventh in receiving DYAR as a rookie, though you have to wonder in retrospect how much of that 2019 success was based on unsustainable big plays. For what it’s worth, Sanders had a -31.1% CPOE when targeted by Carson Wentz and a -8.5% CPOE when targeted by Jalen Hurts. It’s conceivable that Sanders was just brought down by Wentz’s 2020 implosion. Eagles fans better hope that that’s true, because word out of camp is that Nick Sirianni is bringing “more emphasis on the screen game” in 2021. If Sanders can’t recover from the drops, that bodes very poorly going forward.

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