Catching The Ball: Trends In The Receiving Game

"It's not the hair stats that make the man," said Witten, "it's the man that makes the stats."

Last week, when we discussed Dez Bryant's role in our offense, it became apparent that there is little consensus amongst fans as to the role Cowboys receivers ought to have. Sources of consternation included Jason Garrett's reluctance to attack the middle of the field, Bryant's contextual lack of production, and Romo's relatively even distribution of targets.

Related: Dez Bryant's Stats Are Where They Should Be, And it Doesn't Matter

With all of these concerns, it seems prudent to look at the league as a whole and see what trends come up. After the jump, we'll have a look at the league's leading receivers (in Touchdowns, Receptions, and Yards), as well as the Cowboys top receivers.

This table is sortable, so feel free to look for trends in any way you please. My analysis after the data dump.

Name Pos Ht Wt Rec Yds TDs QB(s) Comp Yds TDs Rec
Welker WR 69" 185 lbs 122 1569 9 Brady 401 5235 39 30.42% 29.97% 23.08% 23 18.85%
Harvin WR 71" 184 lbs 87 967 6 Ponder, McNabb, Webb 286 3255 20 30.42% 29.71% 30.00% 8 9.20%
Marshall WR 76" 230 lbs 81 1214 6 Moore, Henne 274 3365 20 29.56% 36.08% 30.00% 7 8.64%
White WR 72" 211 lbs 100 1296 8 Ryan 347 4177 29 28.82% 31.03% 27.59% 6 6.00%
Bowe WR 74" 221 lbs 81 1159 5 Cassell, Orton, Palko 299 3288 13 27.09% 35.25% 38.46% 3 3.70%
Fitzgerald WR 75" 218 lbs 80 1411 8 Kolb, Skelton 297 3868 20 26.94% 36.48% 40.00% 10 12.50%
Smith WR 69" 185 lbs 79 1394 7 Newton 310 4051 21 25.48% 34.41% 33.33% 4 5.06%
Gonzalez TE 77" 247 lbs 80 875 7 Ryan 347 4177 29 23.05% 20.95% 24.14% 10 12.50%
Cruz WR 72" 204 lbs 82 1536 9 Manning 359 4933 29 22.84% 31.14% 31.03% 13 15.85%
Johnson WR 77" 236 lbs 96 1681 16 Stafford 421 5038 41 22.80% 33.37% 39.02% 11 11.46%
Gronkowski TE 78" 265 lbs 90 1327 17 Brady 401 5235 39 22.44% 25.35% 43.59% 19 21.11%
Witten TE 78" 265 lbs 79 942 5 Romo, McGee 370 4366 32 21.35% 21.58% 15.63% 12 15.19%
Nicks WR 73" 208 lbs 76 1192 7 Manning 359 4933 29 21.17% 24.16% 24.14% 12 15.79%
Graham TE 78" 260 lbs 99 1310 11 Brees 468 5476 46 21.15% 23.92% 23.91% 12 12.12%
Pettigrew TE 77" 265 lbs 83 777 5 Stafford 421 5038 41 19.71% 15.42% 12.20% 19 22.89%
Hernandez TE 73" 245 lbs 79 910 7 Brady 401 5235 39 19.70% 17.38% 17.95% 13 16.46%
Sproles RB 66" 190 lbs 86 710 7 Brees 468 5476 46 18.38% 12.97% 15.22% 10 11.63%
Nelson WR 75" 217 lbs 68 1263 15 Rodgers, Flynn 376 5161 51 18.09% 24.47% 29.41% 4 5.88%
Jennings WR 71" 198 lbs 67 949 9 Rodgers, Flynn 376 5161 51 17.82% 18.39% 17.65% 4 5.97%
Colston WR 76" 225 lbs 80 1143 8 Brees 468 5476 46 17.09% 20.87% 17.39% 9 11.25%
Bryant WR 74" 218 lbs 63 928 9 Romo, McGee 370 4366 32 17.03% 21.26% 28.13% 2 3.17%
Finley TE 77" 247 lbs 55 767 8 Rodgers, Flynn 376 5161 51 14.63% 14.86% 15.69% 10 18.18%
Robinson WR 74" 194 lbs 54 858 11 Romo, McGee 370 4366 32 14.59% 19.65% 34.38% 4 7.41%
Austin WR 74" 215 lbs 43 579 7 Romo, McGee 370 4366 32 11.62% 13.26% 21.88% 5 11.63%

OTM refers to "Over the Middle," as recorded in Yahoo Sports' situational data pages.

First of all, allow me to explain the sampling. I sorted the entire NFL by receptions, and recorded everyone until I got to Witten. I added Miles, Laurent, and Dez (or else we wouldn't have much interest in this). I then checked the top 10 in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns and added any names that weren't already on the list.

Quarterback stats, from which the percentages are derived, are compiled for all quarterbacks with at least 20 completions for that particular team. If this weren't the case, Percy Harvin and Brandon Marshall's numbers would appear super-human.

Attacking the Middle of the Field

I previously brought attention to the fact that Cowboys starting receivers have traditionally not been used over the middle. This year presented an interesting case--Austin and Laurent more or less split time on the outside, which gave them both fairly average (with respect to the league) over-the-middle numbers, presumably from them both spending some time in the slot. Neither one is particularly suited to the slot, both being the tall deep-threat type of receivers that we like to use on the outside.

Who attacks the middle? Well, Tight Ends, Running Backs, and Slot Receivers! There are some notable exceptions. Calvin Johnson catches the ball all over the field. He's the sole focus of the Detroit offense, and, as such, he's forced to run all over the field. Larry Fitzgerald tells the same story. The interesting outliers are Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks. Cruz and Manningham, like Austin and Robinson on our own roster, were playing in a relative flux last season as the incumbent starter was hindered by injuries. I'm sad to report that some of those additional receptions over the middle may have come as a result of facing 15 yard cushions (courtesy of Newman), and a Bradie James or Keith Brooking manned middle zone for 120 minutes.

Dez Bryant, however, clearly has a role on this team. He's the "stud" outside receiver. The fact that he was not pushed into the slot rotation by the emergence of Laurent could indicate that he's the true "number 1" receiver, or that he doesn't know the routes for the slot. Nonetheless, the fact that he was not used in the slot gives us a clear view of what Jason Garrett intends to do with him. Stretch the field, throw bubble screens, and mix in a few curl and slant routes.

Favorite Targets

It should come as no surprise that Romo's favorite target is Jason Witten. The fact that he consistently catches the balls thrown his way also indicates that throwing to him is rarely a bad idea. It's entirely possible that Witten had the highest potential to convert the plays that went his way, given the attention devoted to our outside receivers. That being said, if you sort the table by "Reception Percentage," you can get an idea for how mild this favoritism really is.

Wes Welker accounts for over 30% of Tom Brady's completions. Despite this fact, he catches noticeably fewer of those balls for touchdowns, and is slightly below average in yards per catch (comparing his reception percentage with the other two percentages gives you this comparison--equal numbers show team-average performance).

Percy Harvin won me over with his stat line. Despite being targeted just as frequently as Welker, opposing defenses couldn't keep him out of the end zone as effectively as they did Welker. If the Vikings let him get away to a team with a solid quarterback, look out.

When asking for a primary target to build the passing game around and target 20 times per game, look no further than this list. With the exception of Welker, many of the names that top this list belong to fairly impotent offenses. As it turns out, spreading the ball around isn't such a bad idea.

Size Matters

Many of the names on this list belong to fairly tall individuals. In fact, 19 out of 24 are at least 6' tall. League average height for a Wide Receiver is about 6', yet success is weighted noticeably toward taller receivers. The shorter names on the list are known for their elite quickness and agility. If you can't get above someone, you can get away from them and still make the completion.

Now, as a potential target for the quarterback, you have two general options as to where you attack the defense. First, you can stretch the field vertically, attacking the corner and, possibly, safety help. For this task, speed, length, and jumping ability are at a premium. If you can run with defensive backs, and then out-jump them, you're likely to win that battle.

The other option is to take your route to the middle of the field, attacking linebacker zones. When running against zones, speed is less of a factor, because once you've outrun one man, you're running toward another. Leading receivers in this situation typically results in deflections or interceptions. Jumping ability doesn't help as much due to the fact that the linebackers are typically taller than the receivers (and incredible athletes, to boot). In this situation, the size and athleticism (not to mention durability) of the tight end is a decided advantage. Conversely, the elite quickness receivers (a la Welker) are able to run complex double moves in order to split seems and embarrass linebackers attempting to close on the ball. When combined with tight ends who can stretch the field, pulling linebackers deep, these agile targets are able to deal significant damage (see NE, NO).

All of these trends seem fairly important when discussing the potential problems with the Cowboys' passing attack. What's your take?

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