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The Gut Check No.298 - WR Drop Rates

Which WRs are the best and worst at catching the rock? Be prepared for some of your perceptions to be altered. 

Drop rate is not a straightforward statistic. The Vikings targeted Jerome Simpson 100 times last year and he only dropped 1 pass. But when it comes to production, Simpson's sterling 1 percent drop rate doesn't translate for his team.

Compared to Simpson, Brandon Marshall is a drop machine. The Bears' primary option had a drop percentage more than seven times higher than Simpson. However, Marshall is one of the most productive receivers in the game.  

Drops aren't even a major factor when it comes to the way fantasy owners evaluate receivers for the coming season.. Tavon Austin was last year's first overall selection at wide receiver in the NFL Draft and Kenbrell Thompkins was the against-all-odds UDFA-starter. Both players offered bye-week production (Austin No.55 WR and Thompkins No.65 WR) and both dropped 10 percent of their targets.

Of course, there's a far more optimistic outlook for Austin who is currently WR40 in 2014 ADP analysis. Yet Thompkins--who is earning a lot of praise in OTAs for his performance--is not even on an ADP list. Meanwhile rookie Davante Adams is WR63 and the most I've heard about him this spring is that he wants a pet monkey that he'll dress in suits and name Julius Cesar.

Despite the fact that several factors can obfuscate the analysis of drop rate, the act of examining this statistic still provides worthwhile considerations for fantasy owners evaluating rising talent. This week's column profiles the best and worst 2013 drop rates and three-year drop rates (2011-2013) for receivers. I'll do the same with running backs and tight ends in my next column. 

Receivers: One-Year and Three-year Drop Rates

I based all drop rates on a minimum of 32 receptions per season. I chose this number because it equates to two receptions per game and that's enough to say that the receiver is a consistent presence in the offensive rotation. With three-year drop rates, I chose 96 receptions (3 years x 32 receptions) as the minimum qualifier for receivers. 

I find it notable that 11 of the top 24 receivers were free agents joining new teams between 2012-2014. Production is the big seller, but reliability also has value.  

 

Jason Avant's drop rate is almost twice as good as Larry Fitzgerald's. However, he has never broken the top-60 at his position. What makes Avant a fascinating late-round selection this year is that he could work the slot on a team that lacks experience beyond Jerricho Cotchery--also a quality slot man. Some project Avant as the player most likely to lose time to rookie Kelvin Benjamin, but I wouldn't be surprised if Benjamin and Cotchery see enough time outside that Avant earns enough priority targets inside that he could sneak onto fantasy rosters by midseason as a productive option off the waiver wire. 

The contrast between Larry Fitzgerald and Golden Tate is a fun one. Fitzgerald is tall, slow by primary receiver standards, and an excellent technician. Tate is shorter, fast, and still has more targets that he traps to his body than one might expect from a quality starting receiver. However, Tate illustrated a knack for using his hands to make tough receptions in tight coverage as far back as his years at Notre Dame.

While Avant has shown a flair for the acrobatic, he has made a living in the NFL catching targets in open zones. Fitzgerald and Tate have a track record for contested catches. This is the quality I see most from younger receivers.

Percy Harvin earned enough targets in 2011-2012 to make the list despite an injury-marred 2013. Harvin did his exemplary work with Christian Ponder. Can you see why he might be undervalued in the Seahawks offense?

What will be interesting to watch is Harvin's target percentage. With Minnesota, Harvin's reception-to-target percentage was 72 percent--by far the highest on this list. I anticipate that this figure will decrease because he'll earn more difficult targets from a confident, accurate Russell Wilson than he did from Ponder. However, I there will be enough short passes that Harvin will still have a strong target rate. 

If the Jets can get good quarterback play, Jeremy Kerley may no longer be an unsung option. He continues to be a smart, late-round pick in fantasy drafts that you can discard without much angst if the New York offense remains a mess.

Pierre Garcon was known for drops early in his career with the Colts, but he has been consistent in Washington. Will a change of offensive scheme that may not include the same amount of wide-open, quick-hitting plays (that read-option plays generated) hurt him? It won't be enough to downgrade him--especially when Desean Jackson is another consistent pass catcher on this short list.

If Robert Griffin can play to his potential, Washington has 3-4 production options in the passing game that could elevate him to elite fantasy production. The question is how soon can Griffin and Jay Gruden put it all together and is the offensive line capable of supporting these quality skill players?

Fitzgerald and Garcon represent a contingent of players on this list with a high volume of targets and a low percentage of drops. Reggie Wayne, A.J. Green, and Dez Bryant also belong in this group. All three face the opposition's top cornerback and still perform admirably while often seeing more challenging targets

The most surprising player on this list is Mike Wallace, but the more I consider his game the more I understand how he made this group. While classic deep threats earn targets with a higher percentage of difficulty--the lower target percentages of Green and Brandon Lloyd are a reflection of this--I would bet that Wallace had fewer vertical targets with a high degree of difficulty compared to Green, Lloyd, or Fitzgerald. 

I've heard talk that Lloyd drops his share of passes, but the three-year totals demonstrate that this assertion is overblown. Lloyd's issues have always been centered on his personality and willingness to play well with others. If he has matured during his year away from the game and the 49ers call upon him, Lloyd can be an asset. 

If Wallace gets free and the pass is on-time, it's an easier big play. When Wallace isn't going deep, he's earning plays that are also common targets for Jackson: quick-hitting plays where the team relies on these two speedsters to get yards after the catch. While I'm giving reasons that Wallace isn't as skilled as some of the players on this list, he's still a reliable receiver with catchable targets and his first year in Miami was still good enough for him to make the 2013 list. 

It's also notable that Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders were catching passes from Ben Roethlisberger. There are four other pairs of receivers on this list from the same team: Lance Moore and Marques Colston paired with Drew Brees; Miles Austin and Dez Bryant with Tony Romo; Avant and Jackson with Mike Vick/Nick Foles; and Jordy Nelson and James Jones with Aaron Rodgers. Add one of Greg Jennings' years in Green Bay and make it a trio. 

Anyone surprised that Greg Little as at or near the top of this list? Crickets. However, I was shocked to see Davone Bess with the second-highest three-year drop rate. Bess is known as one of the better third-down receivers in the game, but his three-year drop rate doesn't jibe with his high third down conversion rate in Miami. 

The factor for Bess--and a lot of these players--could be the target percentage. It could stand to reason that a higher target percentage indicates the receiver is getting open and/or he has good quarterback play. A lower target percentage could mean poorer routes and/or poorer quarterback play. 

Brandon Marshall and Demaryius Thomas' drop rates are among the worst in the league, but it would be interesting to see how many of their targets have a high degree of difficulty by comparison. Roddy White, Wes Welker, and Eric Decker also sport higher than average drop rates, but it hasn't stopped them from being high-end producers. 

It's notable that Decker and Thomas had Peyton Manning throwing them the ball the past two years and Welker was dropping passes from Manning and Brady. My guess is that a higher drop rate paired with a reasonably high target perception is acceptable, but as that target percentage drops closer to 50 percent and the drop rate rises, we're looking at less reliable players. 

Little, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Denarius Moore, and Cecil Shorts headline this dubious list. Shorts could be the exception if Jacksonville develops good enough quarterback play to test my notion. 

There are also 9 receivers on this high-drop list that played in the slot compared to the 4 slot receivers on the low-drop list. Does this have to do with the demands of the role? Are there a greater variety of reads and quick plays?  

I know that Welker and Julian Edelman had to make more adjustments in the Patriots offense? Then again, so did Welker, Decker, and Thomas in Denver's offense with Manning. There might be a bit of a higher learning curve and room for mental mistakes with coach-on-the-field passers.

If that's the case, I'm not that excited about Brandon LaFell's arrival in New England. Although his drop rate is lower than some of the Patriots' 2013 rookies, LaFell will be among the least experienced options in this offense and his three-year drop rate--while not horrible--was still a little higher than average in Carolina's offense where Cam Newton wasn't as strategic at the line of scrimmage as Tom Brady

One-Year Drop Rates

 

 Nate Washington earns some difficult targets, but he didn't drop a single pass last year. He's another handy late-round or free agent option--especially with Kenny Britt out of the picture. Justin Hunter still needs to prove he can be a consistent weapon. 

While I contrasted Simpson with Marshall to begin this column, I'd still keep tabs on him. He's a talented player whose seasons have been marred by injury and poor quarterback player. He never had a high-end talent delivering him the football on a consistent basis. 

Simpson, Robert Woods, Kerley, Andre Roberts, Chris Givens, and Vincent Brown are all viable late-round options worth a look in deep drafts or early risk-rewards off the waiver wire. Woods, Simpson, and Givens all have very low target percentage, which I believe is a reflection of quarterback play. If E.J. Manuel can improve, Sam Bradford says healthy, and Teddy Bridgewater or Matt Cassel play well, they might surprise. 

DeAndre Hopkins might have petered out in the second half of his rookie year, but he only dropped two passes in 2013. Some fantasy analysts may downgrade his long-term prospects, but I wouldn't be too quick to judge. He may lack elite upside without a top quarterback, but you could do worse than acquiring a perennial fantasy WR2 with excellent hands. 

Keenan Allen is another player that seems to be earning "yeah, but..." from some fantasy writers. The receptions and yards decreased when the Chargers leaned on Ryan Mathews down the stretch, but Allen had five touchdowns during those final four weeks. If the logic of the doubters is that Allen faced more primary cornerbacks during that portion of the season then Allen also did well in the red zone. The game recaps at Footballguys indicate Rivers was also complicit in the lower production from Allen.

The Patriots' youth at receiver is on display at the top of this list. Some say Aaron Dobson looked better than Kenbrell Thompkins; others say it was the opposite. Both dropped about 10 percent of their targets. Tavon Austin is the third rookie in the top four on this list. I'm optimistic all three players will have a lower drop percentage this year. 

Santana Moss had a fine career in New York and Washington but last year's drops notwithstanding, he's old enough that the influx of Andre Roberts and Desean Jackson was called for. Mohamed Sanu may have dropped his opportunity to maintain a platoon with Marvin Jones.

Despite Reggie Wayne's strong three-year performance, he had more drops than usual before succumbing to an ACL tear. Brian Hartline was considered Mr. Reliable in Miami his his percentage of drops is a little higher than one might like to see and the Dolphins added two receivers in the draft that are known for being sure-handed. 

Kris Durham is a good example of a player I characterized for his drops, but his percentage--while higher than average--isn't as bad as I broach on the Thursday night Audible podcasts. The drops I saw were in critical situations and targets of easy to moderate difficulty. Still, Durham could be behind Tate and rookie tight end Eric Ebron in the pecking order by September and Nate Burleson and his 7.32 percent drop rate (fourth-highest amonot receivers from 2011-2013) is in Cleveland.

Notable points about receivers from these four charts:

  • Of the 24 players with the lowest three-year drop rates, 16 players had a highly productive receiver or tight end working with them in the same offense. A theory based on this could be that productive receiving corps create more mismatches and easier targets. 
  • Of the receivers with the lowest three-year drop rates, only Golden Tate has a tendency to trap passes to his body. 
  • Of the receivers with the highest three-year drop rates, Greg Little, Donnie Avery, Denarius Moore, and Darrius Heyward-Bey display a greater tedency to trap passes. 
  • There's no discernable difference in representation among possession receivers, deep threats, or slot receivers. 
  • There were three rookie receivers on each list. Youth may be a negative factor in individual cases, but not as a trend. 
  • Freedom to change plays at the line of scrimmage may have some impact on drop rate. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have multiple receivers with higher than average drop percentages, but all of them are productive.
  • Drop rates do not include the difficulty of the target. Some players have roles that require targets of higher difficulty than others. 
  • The difference between the best and worst drop rates is a dropped target every other week. 

The most important thing I took from this analysis is that drop rate is rarely a concern if a receiver has earned a role in the starting lineup. Quarterback play, target frequency, and production with the allotted targets are more important.

One exception is when the drop rate for a player is close to double digits and the player has only 1-3 years of experience in the league. These are players to monitor with caution.

Next week, one and three-year rates for RBs and TEs. 


More from Matt Waldman:

Gut Check No.313: Waiver Wire Prep - August 25
Gut Check No.310 - Non-PPR Tiers Update 8/22 - August 22
Gut Check No.311 - PPR Tiers Update 8/22 - August 22
Dear Draft: It's Not All About You - August 18
Gut Check No.309 - PPR Tiers Update 8/16 - August 16
What if Montee Ball is lost for the season? - August 13
What if Rob Gronkowski is lost for the season? - August 13
The Gut Check No.307: Upside Down Draft Update - August 11
What if Jordan Reed is lost for the season? - August 9
The Gut Check No.306 - Updated PPR Tiers and Notes - August 5