I'll give you the answer upfront. YES. Of course, it is not all about speed and measurable traits. In a game as complex as football the answer is never binary. It is never one thing... or even two things.
A Summary of the Impact of Speed and other Traits:
Recently, I posted a Post that laid out the importance of speed and other measurable traits for WRs (https://www.buffalorumblings.com/2023/3/15/23642346/finding-a-wr-does-speed-matter-what-role-do-we-need). Speed was the most dominant trait for 3 of the 4 WR roles but other measurable traits mattered too, depending on the WR role.
I will summarize the findings from my previous post because the concepts and formats carry over into this extension topic.
WR Roles & Tiers:
In my opinion, there are 4 main WR roles:
- Intermediate Route WR - Average 10-14 yards Depth of Target
- Deep Route WR - Average 14 yards or greater Depth of Target
- Short Route/Slot WR - Average less than 10 yards Depth of Target or greater than 50% of snaps in the slot
- Positionless WR - Average 10 yards or greater Depth of Target and between 30% and 70% of snaps I the slot
I also broke the data up to show the distribution into "Tiers". The Tiers are based on team's volume of usage (targets/team pass attempt) of each player.
- Tier 1 - the most targeted for this role
- Tier 2
- Tier 3
- Tier 4 - the least targeted for this role
- Speed was the dominant athletic measurable trait that separated Tier 1 and Tier 2 WRs from the other tiers for 3 for Intermediate Route WRs, Deep Route WRs, and Positionless WRs.
- Speed was not a factor for Short Route/Slot WRs.
- The "Numbers Game" Effect: While Speed appears to be a major impact to an individual WR's success, it also has a major impact on the offense beyond just the benefit to the individual WR. elite speed has a compounding effect on the rest of the offensive matchup. It throws the "numbers game" between the offense and the defense heavily in favor of the offense. Because the defense is forced to dedicate extra resources to make sure that speed does not get behind their defense for an easy score. That frees up space and less defenders for the rest of your offense and less defenders for the defense to use for ball hawking and blitzing. It make the run game better, the Ol better, the QB better, and the other receivers better.
- Of the top 10 passing offenses in 2022, the Bills were only 1 of 2 teams that did not have any sub 4.4 receivers or RBs. The 49ers were the other one, but they had Deebo Samuel, Brandin Aiyuk, Christian McCaffrey and George Kittle and a creative top-end offensive scheme. And many of those teams didn't just have one elite speed weapon, they had multiple elite speed weapons: Kansas City Chiefs: 4, Miami Dolphins: 3, Detroit Lions: 2, Seattle Seahawks: 3. And both Miami, Detroit, and Seattle had QBs that magically seemed to improve with the addition of speed. Coincidence? I think not. QB stats are team stats.
The Impact of other traits:
Intermediate Route WR - the Speed impact was the greatest by far, but all of the other measurable traits also seemed important compared to the NFL average WR
- Speed (by far the biggest impact)
- Burst (some impact)
- Agility & Quickness (some impact)
- Catch Height (some impact)
- Power (some impact)
Deep Route WR -Speed impact was the greatest by far, but Catch Height was important too.
- Speed (by far the biggest impact)
- Catch Height (a decent impact)
- Burst (to a lesser extent)
- Power (to a lesser extent)
Short Route/Slot WR - No measurable physical traits had any meaningful impact on the success of players in this group
Positionless WR - Speed impact was the greatest by far, but Burst and Agility & Quickness had some impact
- Speed (by far the biggest impact)
- Burst (a decent impact)
- Agility & Quickness (a decent impact)
Sorry for the history lesson, but these concepts flow into the next topic.
What Else Is Important Beyond Traits?
While athleticism seems very important for 3 of the 4 main WR roles, but as I said in the beginning, it is never just one or two things that matter. Ultimately, athleticism is only kind of interesting unless the WR can be ... well... a "receiver". If we just picked up a track guy from the underwear Olympics, then we would just be the Al Davis Raiders and the impact would be marginal. The concept of what Al was trying to do years ago was very sound, but where he failed was in the execution of that concept. He ignored all of the other traits and skills needed. If a WR is fast and can get behind the defense, but they don't have the skills to complete the catch, then a defensive coordinator is only kind of worried about that player. But if a receiver has elite physical traits and is also a great receiver then ... boom! You have a real game changer.
Beyond measurable physical traits (speed, catch height, agility, etc...) there are 4 main traits that I think are important
- Route running technique
- Great Hands
- Ball Security
- Blocking technique and effort (Yes. It is important)
While Route and Blocking Technique are important and I use them in assessing a WR, I don't have any data to share for those categories. But they matter too!! That said, I will focus on Catching the Ball and Securing the ball.
True Catch Rate:
In Skarekrow's recent Bills Mathia post (https://www.buffalorumblings.com/2023/3/23/23652777/bills-mathia-catch-rate-featuring-gabe-davis-nfl-analysis), he discussed Catch Rate wrt Gabe Davis. As he pointed out, there are many factors that impact catch rate: QB, Accuracy, distance of throw, etc.... For those reasons, I find Catch Rate entirely meaningless.
PlayerProfiler.com has a good metric called True Catch Rate. It is like Catch Rate, but much better. True Catch Rate eliminates the uncatchable throws. This removes the impact that the QB has on the throw.
Even though True Catch Rate is a good metric, I think it can be better. Over the last 5 years I have been collecting data and refining True Catch Rate. PlayerProfiler.com also has good metrics on WR target accuracy, Average Distance of Target, WR slot snaps, uncontested throws, contested throws, and many others. By putting all of this together, I have come up with some other derivatives of True Catch Rate that I think are even better: Uncontested True Catch Rate and Contested true Catch Rate. I adjust both of these rates to account for QB accuracy, Number of targets, and Target Distance. Those things matter too. Looking at all of these metrics, there are correlations between catch rates and all of these factors. Deep throws are much harder than short to intermediate throws because the receiver is usually facing away from the QB and the accuracy is much harder for the QB on deeper throws.
Uncontested True Catch Rate:
In general, I have noticed that Uncontested Catch Rates seem to be very consistent for any individual WR as long as the WR has a reasonable volume of targets. I did see some WRs improve over time (Like Dawson Knox did), but it was rare to see a player make huge strides in improvement in this area. Target Distance and Target Accuracy definitely had an impact on this metric. Deep routes are much tougher to catch than Short and Intermediate Routes. I did adjust the Ture Catch Rates on both Target Distance and Target Accuracy so that impact should be smoothed out.
Intermediate Route WR
Zoikes!! Now that is a story! If you ever wondered if hands were an important trait, this is the picture that says it. It is not as sexy as 40 time, but it definitely matters, maybe even more than speed. And it makes sense when you think about it. It is not that a couple of percentile differences in True Catch Rate is hugely significant impact in one game. It may end up being 1 or so missed catches per game, but when you add that up for each receiver, it can add up to a lot. If those missed catches were for a 1st down or a TD, then the impact is huge. In addition, this effect also impacts TRUST. Trust is very big in football. Once a QB or an OC loses trust in a player, then they are used less and less in the offense. The less they are used, the less important they are to the whole passing offense. That tips the advantage in the "numbers game" to the opposing defense. It just snow balls.
Deep Route WR
Again, this is a compelling story. Not as compelling as the story for intermediate Route WRs, but still very telling. The big differences is that the "floor" or Min for the Deep Route Wrs is lower than for Intermediate Route WRs. I call that the DK Metcalf effect. Many of the Deep Route WRs are so athletic and strong and big, that just their mere presence in the game matters even if they struggle to catch the ball. While it is not great if they have higher drops, as long as they are effective enough defenses will be terrified.
Short Route/Slot WR
This really surprised me. My pre-conceived motion was that Short Route/Slot WRs made up for their lack of athleticism with great hands. While Tier 1 does shows some of that (the Median is much higher than the Median for All NFL WRs), the catch rate impact is not as significant as it is with the Intermediate and the Deep Route WRs. So much for pre-conceived notions!
This was probably the most interesting of all of the charts. Look at Tier 1! This grouping showed the most dramatic difference of any of the charts. Tiers 2 and 3 were.... Ehhhh.
Uncontested True Catch Rate Summary:
It is hard to look at this data and come to any other conclusion other than ... Catching the Ball matters!! While this statement is in the Captain Obvious realm, I don't think that this trait gets enough attention. Tiers 1 and 2 are clearly better at catching the ball. Tiers 1 and 2 are the groups of WRs that get the highest volume of targets on their teams. The NFL has spoken. QBs and OCs design their offense to go to their most reliable receivers.
Contested True Catch Rate:
Contested True Catch Rates are a very different beast than Uncontested. Not all contested catches are created equal. I have found that this is a very fickle statistic over small volumes or even for a single year. What I look for in a WR is sustained success across multiple years in this category. As a result, use the Contested True Catch Rate metric with that thought in mind.
Intermediate Route WR
This picture of Intermediate Route WR Contested Catch Rate is a much different picture than with Uncontested Catch Rate, but it is also a compelling story. The more important thing to look at is the floor (min) for the Top 3 tiers. They are much higher than the Tier 4 and whole NFL WR population. Again, it makes a difference in TRUST.
Deep Route WR
Tiers 1 and 2 of the Deep Route WRs also show a similar dominance in Contested Catches as they do in Uncontested Catches. Almost 75% of Tiers 1 and 2 are above the All NFL WRs Median.
Short Route/Slot WR
This did not surprise me. Slot and Short Route WRs tend to be smaller, so They are not typically as good at Contested Catches. Still, Tier 1 again showed to be above the others.
Not much to see here either. Tier 2 sets itself apart, but the rest are very average. But if you think of it, Positionless receivers are not just fast, but they are agile too. Those receivers tend to be less physical or tall, so maybe it makes a bit of sense that they would not be great at Contested Catches.
Contested True Catch Rate Summary:
Based on this data, contested catches are not 50/50 balls. They are more like 40/60 balls. When you think of it, it makes sense. The defense has the advantage in these situations. All they have to do is knock it down. The receiver has to do much more. They have to complete the catch.
Side note... This is why the best passing offenses in the league work really hard to develop schemes that ensure that their primary target is wide open. Even the best Contested Catch WR is not as good as most every other WR in an uncontested catch throw. Scheme matters too!!!
Fumbles can ruin a game. Not only can it stall a drive, but it can result in a turnover. I did not break this down into each WR Role because the picture looked the same for all WR Roles.
Again, this is in the Captain Obvious realm. The NFL has spoken! If players fumble a lot, then they are not going to going to be getting the ball very much. Ball security matters!!
How do the Bills Receivers Measure Up?
I will lump in all of the 2022 Bills and the new guys too.
2019 - 2022:
NOTE: These are official 40 times. I know that both Trent Sherfield and Deonte Harty have reports that their pro day 40 times were significantly faster (4.45 and 4.35, respectively), but I have to go by the official reports. Pro Day results are almost always more favorable because the fox is in the hen house. College teams want to make their prospects look as favorable as possible.
A couple of things that stick out to me are...
- Look at how slow Gabe Davis is for being used as a deep threat. He is not a legitimate deep threat WR. Square peg. Round hole. Adding a legit deep threat to this group will be like adding 2 (or more) players. Gabe can go back to being a short to intermediate inside outside WR. This is a role that he excelled at.
- The drop rates for this group are concerning outside of a few. Over 4 years the rates are not great, but 2022 was a bad year across the board. While Gabe got all of the press for his drops, he was not nearly the worst. Even Diggs was above his stellar 4 year average.
- The Contested Catch Rates for this group really dropped in 2022, even for Diggs.
- Shakir's drops and True Catch Rates do not look great, but take that with a grain of salt. He was the only one in the list that had very low number of targets. He had only 14 catchable so far in his career. It is not really enough to make a judgement. At 14 targets, the Standard Deviation (or Variation) of for these metrics for all NFL WRs is between 7% and 14%. Time is the only thing that will tell whether he is reliable or not. But it is something to keep an eye on.
- Fumbles are something to watch with Deonte. I know that there have been several reports that most of those fumbles were on kickoff/punt returns. But at some level fumbles are fumbles. Also, most of his opportunities/touches were kickoff/punt returns. He has had 152 kickoff/punt returns compared to only 64 receptions in his whole career. It is something to watch for sure.
- I wouldn't mind John Brown coming back on a 1 year vet min contract. He is fast and he is reliable. He is not the future, but if they don't get an elite speed WR in the draft. He would be a decent stop-gap.
The Remaining FAs:
2019 - 2022:
The Draft Prospects:
Unfortunately, I don't have access to a full set of data for the draft prospects
Drop Rate (piecing together from reports - take with a grain of salt)
- Matt Landers: ?? (career) - but watched film and there were drops all over the place
- Trey Palmer 13.8% (career), 12.0% (2022)
- Rakim Jarrett 11.8% (career)
- Jonathan Mingo: 11.8% (career)
- Kayshon Boutte 11.0% - (career), 13.8% (2022)
- Zay Flowers 10.8% (career), 10.3% (2022)
- Bryce Ford-Wheaton: 10.8% (career)
- Quentin Johnston 10.2% (career), 13.0% (2022)
- Tyler Scott 10.2% (career)
- Jordan Addison: 9.5% (career), 3.1% (2022)
- AT Perry: 9.4% (career)
- Jalin Hyatt: 8.4% (career), 6.7% (2022)
- Marvin Mims: 7.9% (career), 6.5% (2022)
- Jaxon Smith-Njigba: 4.8% (2021)
- Andrei Iosivas: 2.7% (career)
Everyone calculates Drop rate differently - I can't tell what unit it is based on. Some calculate it based on all targets, some calculate it based on only catchable targets.
You all know that I have been pounding the table for an elite deep speed WR, but do not mistake that I only care about Speed. While it is hugely important and one of the traits that could take this passing offense to the next level, I do not want a track star WR. That would only help marginally. But if somehow, we could add an elite deep speed, great hands, physical, big WR, it could definitely be the addition that could help us catch up to the Chiefs... in my opinion. It would help us get the advantage that the other top offenses already have. It is all about team-building and fit. We already have a great volume catch, great hands, physical Short to Intermediate range WR. If we add a legit deep speed threat, then it automatically makes out great volume catch, great hands, physical Short to Intermediate range WR and the QB throwing to him much better. This is the design of the Chiefs offense. Kelce is great, but what makes him elite is all of the elite speed around him. That is Andy Reid's cheat code. I want that cheat code for us too... as long as they are a great receiver too.
What do you see in the data?
What do you want to see the Bills do at WR?
What do you think is the most important trait or skill in a WR?