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Ranking the receivers yet again

Posted by Doug on March 5, 2007

Here are four posts (I, II, III, IV) where I have made some attempt to rank the post-merger wide receivers. This will be another.

Let me start with this basic metric:

Adjusted receiving yards = (rec. yards) + 20*(rec. TDs) + 6*(receptions)

and the rationale behind it:

in The Hidden Game of Football, Carroll, Palmer, and Thorn argue that a touchdown is worth about one point more than having the ball at the one yard line. They also argue that 12 yards (or so) is worth one point. On that basis, they claim that it makes sense to give a 12ish-yard bonus for each touchdown scored. Ten is pretty close to 12, but a bit rounder, so they used that instead. I'm using 20 for no good reason except that it matches most people's intuitions better. You could also argue that the presence of a prolific touchdown-scorer at receiver opens up other red zone possibilities.

Why the six-yard bonus for each reception? The theory is that, given two players with the same number of yards, the one with more catches probably had more third-down catches. And third-down catches are more valuable than other catches because they keep drives alive. Someday I'll do some research with the aim of estimating the number of first-down catches snagged by old-time receivers for whom we don't have play-by-play data, but here is a quickie that gives me at least a little confidence that six yards is in the right ballpark.

I took all wide receiver seasons during the last three years during which the receiver in question had 40 or more first downs (there were 92 of them), and I ran a regression to predict the number of first downs a receiver would have based on his totals in catches and yardage. The result:

Estimated First Downs = 6 + .023*RecYd + .30*Rec

R^2 = .77, so it's a decent fit. Both coefficients are highly significant so there is no question that receptions are worth something, at least in terms of first downs, above and beyond the yardage they generate. The coefficient on receptions is about 13 times that on yards. So if first downs were the only thing that mattered, we'd give a 13-yard bonus per reception. But they're not the only thing that matter. Receivers do more than just actually catch passes that result in first downs. The receiver with fewer catches (and the same yards) presumably had bigger catches. In general, the first downs he did get must have been further down the field than the first downs achieved by the lower yards-per-catch guy. Gaining seven yards on third-and-six is great. But gaining eight yards on third-and-six is better. Gaining twenty is better still.

And what is the value of a first down anyway? Again using the estimates from The Hidden Game, we see that in general possession of the ball is worth about four points, which is equivalent to 50ish yards. So a typical punt that nets say, 30 yards, represents a net loss of 20 yards --- or somewhere between one and two points --- to the punting team. The regression says a catch is worth .3 first downs, so a catch must be worth .3*20, or 6 yards.

These are, of course, broad generalities. Some catches are worth much, much more than others. But we can't, at this point, track down all of Harold Carmichael's third down catches and try to assess the value of each one. So we have to estimate.

OK, so we've got a way to roll a receiver's stat line up into a single number. I think it feels about right, but whether or not that's the best way to do it doesn't concern me too much at the moment. If at some point I decide that 5 or 7 yards per reception makes more sense than 6, or if I want to start using 25 yards per touchdown instead of 20, I can make that change.

The next step is to adjust for the context in which the stats were generated. For all sorts of reasons, the game Cliff Branch was playing differed dramatically from the one Keyshawn Johnson played and is playing. In this post I ruminated on some ideas for accounting for that.

In 2006, 50% of the league's adjusted receiving yards (by WRs) were accounted for by 36 guys. The 36th guy was Deion Branch, who had 1158 adjusted yards. Branch will serve as the baseline for 2006. Anyone who did better than Branch gets credit for the difference. Anyone who did worse than gets a zero (not a negative score).

In 1973, 50% of the league's adjusted receiving yards were accounted for by 22 players, so the 22nd guy (Jerry LeVias, 817 adj. yards) is the baseline. So the top receivers in 1973 get compared to a lower baseline, which is appropriate because receiving yardage was tougher to come by in 1973. But at the same time, the top receivers of 2006 aren't getting unduly penalized for the fact that receiving yards are less concentrated at the top than they were in the 70s.

Finally, I give a receiver this much credit (same as in this post)

1100 * (PlayerAdjYards - BaselineAdjYards) / BaselineAdjYards

for every season in which he was above the baseline.

Here, according to this method, are the top 20 single seasons since 1970:


1. Wes Chandler 1982 1670
2. Jerry Rice 1995 1511
3. Cliff Branch 1974 1451
4. Torry Holt 2003 1443
5. Randy Moss 2003 1443
6. Dwight Clark 1982 1425
7. Isaac Bruce 1995 1398
8. Mike Quick 1983 1369
9. Herman Moore 1995 1352
10. Marvin Harrison 2002 1342
11. Sterling Sharpe 1992 1337
12. Jerry Rice 1986 1253
13. Roy Green 1983 1241
14. Carlos Carson 1983 1236
15. Jerry Rice 1993 1215
16. Jerry Rice 1987 1201
17. Roy Green 1984 1198
18. Harold Carmichael 1973 1186
19. Steve Smith 2005 1185
20. Jerry Rice 1994 1168

It's somewhat encouraging to see the top four seasons include one from each decade, but I can't deny that the 70s seem underrepresented in general. I'm not quite sure what to do about that, or if anything should be done about that. As you'll see, the top receivers of the 70s do rank much higher on this list than on any career stat list (e.g. Cliff Branch ranks #24 here but isn't in the top 50 in terms of total career receiving yards). Do they rank high enough? Who knows?

One final observation before I post the list: while this ranking does make an effort to account for the differing league environments each receiver played in, it makes no effort to account for the differing team environments. Marvin Harrison and Joey Galloway entered the league at essentially the same time, but Harrison has played most of his career with Peyton Manning, while Galloway has played most of his with Rick Mirer, Quincy Carter, Bruce Gradkowsi, et al. It's safe to say the environments they played in were very, very different. So this system is probably best thought of as a ranking of the receivers' statistics, not receivers themselves.

I won't be diminishing the suspense too much if I tell you that Jerry Rice ranks first, so I'll show his numbers to explain what everything means.


1. Jerry Rice 13629
1985 20 30 142
1986 1 29 1253
1987 1 32 1201
1988 3 31 801
1989 1 32 1116
1990 1 34 1159
1991 2 33 720
1992 3 34 860
1993 1 32 1215
1994 1 31 1168
1995 1 32 1511
1996 2 34 670
1998 6 34 492
2000 24 32 164
2001 13 33 450
2002 11 36 560
2003 26 36 140

Rice amassed 13629 Adjusted Yards Above Baseline (AYAB) in his career. Shown below are all the seasons in which he finished above the baseline. The first number after the year is Rice's rank in AY for that season, the second number is the rank of the baseline player, and the final number is his AYAB for the year.

Here are the top 51 among all receivers debuting in 1970 or later, or you can examine the full list of all receivers debuting since 1970 who finished above the baseline at least once:


1. Jerry Rice 13629
1985 20 30 142
1986 1 29 1253
1987 1 32 1201
1988 3 31 801
1989 1 32 1116
1990 1 34 1159
1991 2 33 720
1992 3 34 860
1993 1 32 1215
1994 1 31 1168
1995 1 32 1511
1996 2 34 670
1998 6 34 492
2000 24 32 164
2001 13 33 450
2002 11 36 560
2003 26 36 140

2. Marvin Harrison 7750
1996 28 34 85
1997 22 32 151
1998 33 34 6
1999 1 34 1012
2000 2 32 988
2001 1 33 1014
2002 1 36 1342
2003 5 36 862
2004 9 35 646
2005 8 36 673
2006 1 36 967

3. Steve Largent 6996
1976 13 24 323
1977 13 24 294
1978 1 26 850
1979 2 24 559
1980 6 28 461
1981 4 27 606
1982 14 29 292
1983 7 31 945
1984 7 30 777
1985 2 30 724
1986 8 29 547
1987 6 32 612

4. Torry Holt 6045
2000 4 32 935
2001 6 33 597
2002 10 36 581
2003 2 36 1443
2004 4 35 833
2005 6 36 904
2006 6 36 748

5. Cris Carter 5901
1988 29 31 33
1991 17 33 283
1992 28 34 51
1993 7 32 611
1994 3 31 885
1995 5 32 1115
1996 7 34 565
1997 8 32 536
1998 12 34 397
1999 5 34 563
2000 10 32 739
2001 26 33 119

6. James Lofton 5774
1978 12 26 250
1979 19 24 155
1980 2 28 611
1981 2 27 630
1982 5 29 713
1983 5 31 1043
1984 6 30 802
1985 8 30 497
1986 21 29 186
1987 12 32 378
1991 13 33 357
1992 19 34 147

7. Tim Brown 5625
1988 30 31 1
1992 26 34 59
1993 6 32 642
1994 5 31 787
1995 9 32 782
1996 11 34 466
1997 2 32 773
1998 15 34 361
1999 6 34 532
2000 15 32 534
2001 11 33 513
2002 24 36 170

8. Randy Moss 5388
1998 2 34 700
1999 3 34 621
2000 5 32 892
2001 8 33 542
2002 4 36 751
2003 1 36 1443
2004 29 35 95
2005 21 36 339

9. Isaac Bruce 5362
1995 2 32 1398
1996 4 34 601
1999 9 34 421
2000 6 32 868
2001 23 33 273
2002 15 36 373
2003 17 36 341
2004 7 35 661
2006 17 36 421

10. Michael Irvin 5327
1991 1 33 975
1992 2 34 962
1993 4 32 834
1994 9 31 612
1995 4 32 1138
1996 26 34 90
1997 10 32 490
1998 21 34 224

11. Terrell Owens 5253
1997 21 32 179
1998 8 34 449
2000 3 32 977
2001 3 33 854
2002 3 36 784
2003 11 36 598
2004 8 35 658
2005 36 36 0
2006 5 36 752

12. Jimmy Smith 5126
1996 10 34 516
1997 7 32 565
1998 7 34 476
1999 2 34 897
2000 12 32 638
2001 5 33 781
2002 19 36 336
2003 30 36 65
2004 17 35 471
2005 20 36 375

13. Sterling Sharpe 4913
1988 27 31 59
1989 2 32 1009
1990 6 34 456
1991 21 33 247
1992 1 34 1337
1993 2 32 997
1994 4 31 806

14. Rod Smith 4649
1997 9 32 516
1998 4 34 518
1999 23 34 182
2000 1 32 1040
2001 4 33 812
2002 18 36 348
2003 23 36 200
2004 15 35 491
2005 12 36 538

15. Gary Clark 4544
1985 13 30 314
1986 4 29 724
1987 3 32 759
1988 20 31 309
1989 7 32 702
1990 4 34 547
1991 3 33 714
1992 10 34 336
1993 24 32 135

16. Art Monk 4441
1980 23 28 90
1981 19 27 142
1982 21 29 145
1983 24 31 237
1984 3 30 1081
1985 3 30 657
1986 12 29 464
1988 15 31 402
1989 8 32 682
1990 21 34 122
1991 10 33 413

17. Henry Ellard 4400
1985 23 30 97
1987 18 32 305
1988 1 31 1065
1989 5 32 778
1990 3 34 650
1991 16 33 285
1992 34 34 0
1993 19 32 208
1994 7 31 729
1995 24 32 206
1996 30 34 72

18. Herman Moore 4232
1992 14 34 291
1993 12 32 275
1994 10 31 602
1995 3 32 1352
1996 1 34 713
1997 3 32 724
1998 20 34 271

19. Andre Reed 4159
1986 26 29 80
1987 14 32 340
1988 13 31 439
1989 4 32 833
1990 10 34 364
1991 5 33 565
1992 13 34 302
1993 22 32 145
1994 6 31 768
1996 17 34 232
1997 27 32 77
1998 31 34 8

20. Mark Clayton 4148
1984 2 30 1121
1985 10 30 351
1986 6 29 586
1987 15 32 337
1988 2 31 857
1989 18 32 407
1991 7 33 486

21. Wes Chandler 4135
1979 7 24 345
1980 10 28 367
1981 9 27 442
1982 1 29 1670
1983 17 31 432
1984 28 30 57
1985 4 30 647
1986 22 29 172

22. Harold Carmichael 3982
1973 1 22 1186
1974 4 25 606
1975 18 23 130
1977 11 24 348
1978 4 26 637
1979 15 24 184
1980 18 28 168
1981 12 27 293
1982 9 29 426

23. Andre Rison 3878
1989 27 32 60
1990 2 34 717
1991 8 33 475
1992 4 34 852
1993 3 32 892
1994 13 31 517
1997 14 32 361

24. Cliff Branch 3819
1974 1 25 1451
1975 3 23 481
1976 1 24 988
1977 22 24 49
1978 25 26 37
1979 20 24 106
1980 20 28 147
1982 8 29 435
1983 28 31 120

25. Chad Johnson 3818
2002 16 36 365
2003 4 36 919
2004 5 35 732
2005 3 36 971
2006 2 36 829

26. Drew Hill 3582
1985 5 30 581
1986 10 29 480
1987 7 32 592
1988 6 31 702
1989 21 32 330
1990 9 34 395
1991 6 33 500

27. Mike Quick 3450
1983 1 31 1369
1984 11 30 523
1985 1 30 747
1986 15 29 359
1987 10 32 451

28. Roy Green 3441
1982 18 29 196
1983 2 31 1241
1984 1 30 1198
1987 21 32 189
1988 10 31 572
1990 30 34 43

29. Dwight Clark 3401
1980 3 28 523
1981 7 27 460
1982 2 29 1425
1983 12 31 583
1984 18 30 232
1985 24 30 92
1986 25 29 83

30. Joe Horn 3313
2000 8 32 770
2001 7 33 558
2002 8 36 627
2003 14 36 482
2004 2 35 876

31. Cris Collinsworth 3296
1981 11 27 346
1982 4 29 765
1983 9 31 827
1984 14 30 416
1985 9 30 466
1986 11 29 474

32. John Stallworth 3254
1977 5 24 491
1978 10 26 261
1979 3 24 513
1981 10 27 350
1982 16 29 266
1984 4 30 1027
1985 11 30 342

33. Anthony Miller 3052
1989 6 32 720
1990 13 34 287
1992 6 34 579
1993 5 32 648
1994 17 31 362
1995 16 32 453

34. Keenan McCardell 3047
1996 13 34 358
1997 11 32 458
1998 26 34 115
1999 31 34 88
2000 14 32 595
2001 14 33 425
2003 8 36 671
2005 22 36 332

35. Hines Ward 3021
2001 20 33 305
2002 2 36 854
2003 7 36 763
2004 22 35 315
2005 17 36 419
2006 22 36 361

36. Keyshawn Johnson 2932
1996 27 34 86
1997 20 32 202
1998 5 34 492
1999 10 34 418
2000 23 32 222
2001 9 33 540
2002 20 36 334
2004 25 35 277
2005 26 36 207
2006 28 36 149

37. Mark Duper 2926
1983 11 31 688
1984 5 30 821
1986 3 29 808
1987 28 32 51
1990 26 34 68
1991 11 33 386
1992 23 34 99

38. Eric Moulds 2922
1998 3 34 598
1999 28 34 141
2000 11 32 703
2001 28 33 99
2002 5 36 720
2003 32 36 41
2004 19 35 412
2005 28 36 204

39. Irving Fryar 2875
1986 29 29 0
1990 22 34 105
1991 18 33 272
1992 20 34 135
1993 9 32 346
1994 8 31 624
1995 23 32 207
1996 6 34 568
1997 6 32 615

40. Drew Pearson 2859
1974 2 25 1134
1975 6 23 342
1976 7 24 535
1977 4 24 505
1978 23 26 54
1979 9 24 287
1982 29 29 0

41. Stanley Morgan 2808
1978 17 26 150
1979 10 24 278
1980 12 28 264
1981 17 27 200
1982 10 29 393
1983 18 31 382
1986 2 29 1065
1987 26 32 72

42. Derrick Mason 2778
2000 26 32 144
2001 16 33 389
2002 22 36 283
2003 6 36 859
2004 12 35 605
2005 14 36 456
2006 34 36 37

43. Steve Watson 2679
1981 3 27 615
1982 11 29 391
1983 10 31 781
1984 8 30 651
1985 17 30 239

44. Tony Hill 2643
1978 11 26 255
1979 5 24 384
1980 7 28 456
1981 21 27 104
1982 15 29 290
1983 20 31 363
1984 17 30 232
1985 7 30 546
1986 28 29 8

45. Wesley Walker 2635
1977 15 24 253
1978 2 26 698
1981 26 27 34
1982 6 29 691
1983 14 31 528
1986 13 29 429

46. Carlos Carson 2635
1982 20 29 180
1983 3 31 1236
1984 13 30 423
1985 25 30 68
1987 4 32 726

47. Ernest Givins 2601
1986 14 29 367
1987 8 32 553
1988 16 31 359
1989 29 32 33
1990 7 34 421
1991 14 33 303
1992 11 34 329
1993 17 32 231

48. Muhsin Muhammad 2582
1998 25 34 179
1999 7 34 520
2000 13 32 635
2002 36 36 0
2003 29 36 77
2004 1 35 966
2005 32 36 46
2006 27 36 156

49. Eric Martin 2543
1987 16 32 325
1988 8 31 661
1989 14 32 487
1990 14 34 229
1991 28 33 84
1992 8 34 493
1993 14 32 261

50. John Jefferson 2543
1978 3 26 676
1979 4 24 415
1980 1 28 967
1982 28 29 29
1983 16 31 455

51. Joey Galloway 2513
1995 20 32 333
1996 21 34 161
1997 12 32 412
1998 17 34 325
2002 26 36 116
2005 7 36 774
2006 20 36 390

This entry was posted on Monday, March 5th, 2007 at 5:41 am and is filed under General, History. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.