Posted by Chase Stuart on February 9, 2009
Ranking every WR in NFL history is a daunting task -- rule changes have made comparing across eras very difficult and we have only three main stats to guide us. While I don't think it's perfect, I've come up formula that incorporates the important features of being a valuable WR in any era.
You know I'm worried about selling you guys on a system when I publish the results first. Here are the seven wide receivers that have posted the best statistics in NFL history (according to my formula):
I think it's generally agreed that those seven guys are among the very best WRs ever. No one should be upset seeing Rice and Hutson at the top, and Harrison/Owens/Moss in some order deserve the spot right behind them (and Moss should pass Owens before his career ends). Alworth (and Maynard) dominated the '60s and Largent (and Lofton) dominated the '80s; no one really dominated the '70s in the same way, although Harold Jackson and Cliff Branch were very, very good.
Since those seven guys come out on top, maybe my system isn't so kooky. I'll let you guys decide. Let me get a couple of things out of the way first:
1) Post-season stats are not included, yet. This gets complicated enough as it is -- I thought the first time around it was best to just stick to the regular season numbers and add playoff numbers into the system along with other modifications the next time around.
2) Rushing data, passing data and fumble data were also excluded for the same reason. And while important, each receiver's blocking ability was ignored because of a lack of any objective measure.
3) Yes, a player's stats do not perfectly tell the story of how good they were. The quality of the QB, OL and the system a team runs all heavily impact a WR's numbers. So does playing in Chicago compared to playing in Miami. These are all important factors but I chose to leave them out of the system and let each reader subjectively tweak a player upward or downward based on their own thoughts.
Now that the disclaimer is out of the way, the first step is to combine the three WR stats -- receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns -- into one stat: Adjusted Catch Yards. We know that a passing TD is worth about 20 yards and a rushing TD is worth about 20 yards, so it's not surprising that I'm stipulating a receiving TD is worth 20 yards. Doug has argued that at least in modern times, a reception is worth about six yards because of the correlation between receptions and receiving first downs, an important stat that unfortunately was not tracked for most of football history. I don't want to give too much credit to simple possession receivers, though, so I'm going to go with five yards per reception. Making 80-1000 equivalent to 65-1075 seems like we're giving enough of a reception bonus to me. We could quibble about making a reception worth anywhere from three to seven yards, and that might be one of the tweaks for version two of this series.
So we're off to a good start. We know how many ACY each WR has for each season of his career. But there's something else we need to consider: the difference between passing (or catching) and rushing:
Allow me to make some gross generalizations. When you’re a good passing team (measured by ANY/A), you probably won’t need to pass that often. You’ll score points and you’ll be winning, so you’ll stop throwing. If you’re a bad passing team, you’ll throw some INTs, have a bunch of three and outs, and are likely to have to pass a bunch in the fourth quarter. That’s exactly why raw passing yards is a bad way to measure passing production — bad passing teams are likely to have a bunch of passing yards late in the game and good passing teams aren’t going to accumulate many passing yards at the ends of games. That means passing yards doesn’t accurately measure passing ability, since it penalizes good passing teams and helps bad passing teams.
The opposite happens with rushing. If you’re a great rushing team, you’ll keep rushing. If you’re a bad rushing team, you’ll stop rushing.
It is obvious that we have to use per attempt statistics with QBs, although we certainly will give extra credit to QBs who are good and throw a high number of passes. Using just adjusted net yards -- passing yards + 20*PTD - 45*INT - SackYardsLost -- would be an inappropriate way to rank QBs. That's because 3,000 adjusted net yards on 400 attempts is a lot better than 3,000 adjusted net yards on 500 attempts.
The same theory applies to receivers, too. Having a 1200 yard season is more impressive when your team throws 400 passes than when it throws 550 passes. It's also a lot more valuable. Quantifying that difference is a complicated question, but to cherry pick a 2008 example, Derrick Mason had 1537 ACY this year while Lance Moore had 1523 ACY. Moore's team threw 636 passes while Mason's team threw 433 passes. Mason's season looks much more "impressive" to me.
So what do we do? I totaled the number of adjusted catch yards by all wide receivers (and only wide receivers) in the NFL each season. I also found the number of NFL (and AFL) passing attempts in that season. Then I divided the number of WR ACY by the number of team attempts; let's call this ACY/A. For the 2008 season, NFL WRs had 109,351 ACY and NFL teams passed 16,521 times, for an average of 6.62 ACY/A. Remember, that's the sum of all WRs; on an average passing team with an average passing distribution to RBs, WRs and TEs, all WRs will total about 6.62 ACY/A. No individual WR will match that number, of course, but the group of WRs will.
When we did the Greatest QB Ever series, it was easy to use the league average as a baseline -- QBs got credit for being above the baseline and received no credit for their work below the baseline. This system worked well to reward the elite and not merely the compilers. There isn't a natural baseline to use here, though -- we can't use 6.62 since no one will reach that. While arbitrary, I decided to simply divide the league ACY/A ratio by 3, and declare that the baseline for every season.
So now WRs will get credit for their ACY over one-third of the league average for all WRs per team, per pass attempt. To use some real numbers, if WR A's team passes 500 times, he'll need (in 2008) to have 1105 adjusted catch yards to be over the baseline -- maybe 60-705-5. On a team like the Saints with 636 pass attempts, a WR would need 1406 ACY (e.g., 70-896-8) to be above the baseline.
Let's compare Andre Johnson and Roddy White. Johnson had 115-1575-8 (2310 ACY) and White had 88-1382-7 (1962). Clearly, White's raw numbers are not as impressive as Johnson's. On the other hand, the Texans threw 554 passes and the Falcons threw 434 passes. So how do we calculate a score for White and Johnson? Johnson averaged 4.17 ACY/A while White averaged 4.52 ACY/A, a nice edge to White. But our baseline is 2.21 for the 2008 season, which means Johnson averaged 1.96 ACY/A over the baseline and White averaged 2.31 ACY/A over the baseline. While Johnson was less impressive on a per attempt basis, he was still terrific and his team threw more passes which means he was bringing more above baseline value. Therefore, we multiply their value over the baseline by their number of team attempts. That means Johnson has 1088 in Value and White has 1004 in Value. So Johnson ranks ahead of White, but it's closer than their raw totals indicate. I think that's pretty good.
That's pretty much how the system works, at least for modern players. There's one other important calculation -- an adjustment for games played. Steve Smith had 1931 ACY last year in only 14 games played. How do we handle that? The quick and simple fix is to divide the Panthers' number of pass attempts by 1.14 (16/14); since Carolina threw 414 passes, we'd say that Carolina threw 362.25 passes in games that Smith played. Obviously for Smith we can find out exactly which games he missed and how many passes the Panthers threw in the 14 games he played (352, to be exact). But for older players we'll have to approximate, so the formula of (WR games played / Team Games) * Team Pass Attempts will have to be used.
For Smith, he had 1931 ACY and his team threw (we project) 362.25 passes. That's an incredible 5.33 ACY/A ratio, and it's over three yards above replacement. Therefore, his Value for the season would be 1132, best in the league. Here's the list of the top 30 WRs in 2008:
tm g rec yd td ACY att ACY/A Value Steve Smith car 14 78 1421 6 1931 414 5.33 1132 Andre Johnson htx 16 115 1575 8 2310 554 4.17 1088 Roddy White atl 16 88 1382 7 1962 434 4.52 1004 Calvin Johnson det 16 78 1331 12 1961 509 3.85 838 Larry Fitzgerald crd 16 96 1431 12 2151 630 3.41 761 Greg Jennings gnb 16 80 1292 9 1872 541 3.46 678 Anquan Boldin crd 12 89 1038 11 1703 630 3.60 661 Brandon Marshall den 15 104 1265 6 1905 620 3.28 623 Wes Welker nwe 16 111 1165 3 1780 534 3.33 602 Derrick Mason rav 16 80 1037 5 1537 433 3.55 582 Antonio Bryant tam 16 83 1248 7 1803 562 3.21 563 Vincent Jackson sdg 16 59 1098 7 1533 478 3.21 478 Hines Ward pit 16 81 1043 7 1588 505 3.14 474 Muhsin Muhammad car 16 65 923 5 1348 414 3.26 435 Santana Moss was 16 79 1044 6 1559 510 3.06 434 Dwayne Bowe kan 16 86 1022 7 1592 541 2.94 398 Randy Moss nwe 16 69 1008 11 1573 534 2.95 395 Terrell Owens dal 16 69 1052 10 1597 547 2.92 390 Reggie Wayne clt 16 82 1145 6 1675 585 2.86 384 T.J. Houshmandzadeh cin 15 92 904 4 1444 513 3.00 383 Bernard Berrian min 16 48 964 7 1344 452 2.97 347 Lee Evans buf 16 63 1017 3 1392 478 2.91 337 Donald Driver gnb 16 74 1012 5 1482 541 2.74 288 Eddie Royal den 15 91 980 5 1535 620 2.64 253 Matt Jones jax 12 65 761 2 1126 537 2.80 237 Justin Gage oti 12 34 651 6 941 453 2.77 191 Greg Camarillo mia 11 55 613 2 928 491 2.75 183 Laveranues Coles nyj 16 70 850 7 1340 529 2.53 173 Santonio Holmes pit 15 55 821 5 1196 505 2.53 151 Isaac Bruce sfo 16 60 833 7 1273 509 2.50 150 Jerricho Cotchery nyj 16 71 858 5 1313 529 2.48 146 Kevin Walter htx 16 60 899 8 1359 554 2.45 137 Braylon Edwards cle 16 55 877 3 1212 488 2.48 135 Michael Jenkins atl 16 50 777 3 1087 434 2.50 129 Lance Moore nor 16 79 928 10 1523 636 2.39 120
How does that list look to you guys? Obviously the quality of the QB is significant when looking at a wide receiver's numbers, and that's ignored here. So it might be best to think of this as a ranking of the WRs' stats and not the WRs themselves. Even better, we could call this a statistical look at the WRs whose statistics produced the most value for their team. Tomorrow, I'll explain how to rank every WR in NFL history, and provide a list of the greatest WR seasons of all time. Wednesday I'll look at the top 100 WRs of all time, which star WRs have played in the most and least pass happy offenses, and other general thoughts.