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What do you think of targets?

Posted by Chase Stuart on September 4, 2007

Targets -- the number of times a player has been the intended receiver of a given pass -- are becoming mainstream data these days. People generally cite a receiver's impressive reception to target ratio as a reason to think he's one of the best in the league. Conversely, critics will argue that a WR's terrible catch ratio proves that he's overrated. There hasn't been a lot of target discussion on the PFR blog yet, outside of this post, but Doug and I have been discussing what to do with target data over the past few days.

Let me skip the discussion for a minute and just present some stats first. Note: targets are not an official NFL statistic, and there are always differences in target data depending on which site you use. Often, the sum of the targets for all the skill position players on a team is fewer than the total pass attempts for the team, due to human error. Regardless, all target data used here are from Footballguys.com, and I believe them to be as accurate as the target data available on any other site.

Here's a list of the 25 most targeted WRs from last season:

Torry Holt		STL	178
Donald Driver GB 171
Andre Johnson HOU 165
Chad Johnson CIN 154
Chris Chambers MIA 154
Roy Williams DET 153
Anquan Boldin ARI 152
Laveranues Coles NYJ 151
Terrell Owens DAL 151
Marvin Harrison IND 148
Mike Furrey DET 146
Joey Galloway TB 142
Steve Smith CAR 140
Reggie Wayne IND 137
Lee Evans BUF 137
T.J. Houshmandzadeh CIN 133
Keyshawn Johnson CAR 128
Isaac Bruce STL 126
Hines Ward PIT 126
Jerricho Cotchery NYJ 125
Javon Walker DEN 125
Braylon Edwards CLE 123
Plaxico Burress NYG 121
Muhsin Muhammad CHI 117
Marques Colston NO 115

Now, here are the 25 WRs with the best catch-to-target ratio, minimum 90 targets:


Player Team Targ Rec Rec/Targ
T.J. Houshmandzadeh CIN 133 90 67.7
Mike Furrey DET 146 98 67.1
Wes Welker MIA 100 67 67.0
Jerricho Cotchery NYJ 125 82 65.6
Marvin Harrison IND 148 95 64.2
Larry Fitzgerald ARI 108 69 63.9
Terry Glenn DAL 110 70 63.6
Reggie Wayne IND 137 86 62.8
Andre Johnson HOU 165 103 62.4
Marty Booker MIA 90 55 61.1
Marques Colston NO 115 70 60.9
Derrick Mason BAL 112 68 60.7
Reche Caldwell NE 101 61 60.4
Laveranues Coles NYJ 151 91 60.3
Lee Evans BUF 137 82 59.9
Steve Smith CAR 140 83 59.3
Mark Clayton BAL 114 67 58.8
Isaac Bruce STL 126 74 58.7
Hines Ward PIT 126 74 58.7
Chad Johnson CIN 154 87 56.5
Reggie Williams JAX 92 52 56.5
Terrell Owens DAL 151 85 56.3
Darrell Jackson SEA 112 63 56.2
Rod Smith DEN 94 52 55.3
Javon Walker DEN 125 69 55.2

Lots of intelligent people believe that receptions per target is a very good measure of the productiveness of a WR. But a metric that ranks Mike Furrey and Wes Welker as the 2nd and 3rd best receivers in the league is one that doesn't come close to passing the smell test. Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton over Steve Smith and Terrell Owens? I'm not buying that one.

One of the obvious problems is that guys like Welker and Furrey run short routes, while Owens and Smith are bigger play threats. It's just like how David Carr had a great completion percentage last year but wasn't very good. So perhaps yards per target, just like yards per attempt for QBs, will even the playing field? In theory this makes a bit of sense. If you are targeted five times on short passes, you might get four eight-yard receptions. If you're targeted five times on longer passes, you could end up with two receptions for sixteen yards each. Your yards per target would be the same, which seems like a more appropriate way to explain how you did.

But then again, that's just in theory. Who were the league leaders in receiving yards per target last year?


Player Team Targ RecYd Y/T
Reggie Wayne IND 137 1310 9.6
Terry Glenn DAL 110 1047 9.5
Lee Evans BUF 137 1292 9.4
Marvin Harrison IND 148 1366 9.2
Marques Colston NO 115 1038 9.0
Reggie Brown PHI 91 816 9.0
Chad Johnson CIN 154 1369 8.9
Larry Fitzgerald ARI 108 946 8.8
Isaac Bruce STL 126 1098 8.7
Javon Walker DEN 125 1084 8.7
Roy Williams DET 153 1310 8.6
Darrell Jackson SEA 112 956 8.5
Eddie Kennison KC 101 860 8.5
Steve Smith CAR 140 1166 8.3
Marty Booker MIA 90 747 8.3
Mark Clayton BAL 114 939 8.2
Plaxico Burress NYG 121 988 8.2
T.J. Houshmandzadeh CIN 133 1081 8.1
Antonio Bryant SF 91 733 8.1
Anquan Boldin ARI 152 1203 7.9
Santana Moss WAS 101 790 7.8
Terrell Owens DAL 151 1180 7.8
Hines Ward PIT 126 975 7.7
Jerricho Cotchery NYJ 125 961 7.7

That looks a little better, I think. Welker and Furrey drop off the list, and the top guys are all very good. But seeing TO way behind Terry Glenn, Torry Holt (not listed) well behind Isaac Bruce, and Eddie Kennison above Steve Smith should raise some eyebrows. And I won't forget 2004, when Brandon Stokley, Ashley Lelie and Eddie Kennison ranked 1st, 2nd and 4th in the league in receiving yards per target.

So what do you think of targets? Are they worthwhile or not? Let me try and characterize Doug's position:

For the most part, yards per target and receptions per target are meaningless statistics. Much more often than not, on an incomplete pass, the targeted receiver was the *best* receiver on the field that play. If you consider all "bad" passing plays -- incompletions, interceptions, and also 4-yard-gains on 3rd-and-10 -- the targeted receiver was the best (or at least, not the worst) receiver on on that play the majority of the time. There's a positive correlation between how well the WR does his job and the probability that he gets the target.

I think Doug brings up a lot of good points. The fact that Bruce, Kevin Curtis and Steven Jackson all ranked ahead of Holt in yards per target last year is disturbing. Bryant Johnson has a better YPT average than Larry Fitzgerald or Anquan Boldin. Patrick Crayton, Terry Glenn and Jason Witten ranked ahead of Terrell Owens, too. A plausible explanation would be that Crayton only gets the target when he's wide open (which is rare, because he's not that good) whereas Owens gets the target when no one is open (since Owens is the best of the bunch). This is very much a Simpson's Paradox problem. Consider this hypo:

The Cowboys run 200 pass plays with just Crayton and Owens as the targets. On 50 of them, Crayton is open and Owens is covered. On 100 of them Owens is open and Crayton is covered. On 50 of them, neither was open. When he's open, Crayton will get 50 targets, and catch 36 passes. When Owens is open, he'll catch 50 of the 50 passes thrown to him. So far, edge to T.O.. On the 100 passes when neither is open, Owens will get the target 90% of the time because he's so much better than Crayton. Owens will convert 20 of the 90 passes into receptions, while Crayton will convert none of the ten targets into receptions. Clearly, Owens has outperformed Crayton. But Owens will have a catch-to-target ratio of 50%, while Crayton will have a catch-to-target ratio of 60%. So it's certainly plausible that Simpson's Paradox comes into play in target data, despite the relatively extreme hypothetical.

It's also possible that strong WR2s and WR3s should do well, because of matchups. Assume a team has the 10th best WR1 in the league and the best WR2 in the league, but that team's WR1 is still better than that team's WR2. But since the WR1 is only a little better than the average CB1 he faces and the WR2 is a ton better than the average CB2 he faces, it stands to reason that he'll have much better receptions and yards per target ratios.

However, Chad Johnson actually ranks ahead of T.J. Houshmandzadeh in yards per target, and both rank ahead of Chris Henry. Since many claim Chris Henry is the best WR3 in the league, you'd think he'd do well in this statistic. After all, Patrick Crayton did. And Lee Evans ranks behind Peerless Price and Josh Reed -- two of the weaker receivers in the league -- in receptions per target. I don't think Price ranked well because he's such a good WR2, but rather because Losman wouldn't throw his way unless no one was anywhere near him.

So in the end, what's the best use of target data to measure how good a receiver is? Yards per target? Receptions per target? Targets? I'll throw out one last one, that I think has some validity to it: targets per team pass. Raw target data is skewed towards teams that pass a lot, but this gets at the key question: When your team is throwing the ball, who is the QB throwing it to? Obviously this isn't perfect because Marvin Harrison would get a ton more targets if Reggie Wayne wasn't around, and vice versa. The quality of your supporting cast factors in significantly here. But here's the list:


Andre Johnson HOU 0.343 165 481
Lee Evans BUF 0.318 137 431
Laveranues Coles NYJ 0.310 151 487
Torry Holt STL 0.301 178 592
Terrell Owens DAL 0.298 151 506
Chad Johnson CIN 0.293 154 526
Anquan Boldin ARI 0.281 152 541
Javon Walker DEN 0.275 125 454
Donald Driver GB 0.272 171 629
Marvin Harrison IND 0.266 148 556
Joey Galloway TB 0.265 142 535
Chris Chambers MIA 0.261 154 591
Steve Smith CAR 0.259 140 541
Jerricho Cotchery NYJ 0.257 125 487
Roy Williams DET 0.256 153 598
T.J. Houshmandzadeh CIN 0.253 133 526
Reggie Wayne IND 0.246 137 556
Mike Furrey DET 0.244 146 598
Braylon Edwards CLE 0.241 123 510
Hines Ward PIT 0.241 126 523
Keyshawn Johnson CAR 0.237 128 541
Plaxico Burress NYG 0.231 121 523
Muhsin Muhammad CHI 0.229 117 512
Eddie Kennison KC 0.226 101 447
Drew Bennett TEN 0.220 98 445

Donald Driver moves down, Javon Walker moves up. Lee Evans goes up, Chris Chambers goes down. And Cotchery, Houshmanzadeh and Reggie Wayne become the top WR2s on the list, ahead of Mike Furrey. That's enough for me, at least.

But what are your thoughts? What do you think of targets, and how should we use target data?

This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 4th, 2007 at 1:06 am and is filed under General, Statgeekery. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.