Isn’t this just the best time of the year? Every year there is massive change across the NFL whether its rules changes, trades, free agency and the draft. With all the personnel changes occurring across the league comes a lot of hype. “Ooo! Receiver X is now in offense Y! Oh snap!” or “Receiver X is now with passer Y?!? It’s about to go down!” Avid fantasy players must set aside the hype and crunch data when these moves occur to avoid getting caught up in the inevitable hype trains that depart prematurely.
Reigning in the Hype
In an effort to provide some insight into some of these new quarterback/receiver relationships, we can utilize Matt Harmon’s reception perception data (which measures how often receivers run certain routes, and how often they get open per route) and cross reference it with the quarterback passer rating grid available here. If we cross reference these sets of data while using a little bit of imagination, we can build a picture of compatibility between receivers and their new signal callers and compare it to existing QB/WR pairs. Here is a sample of a QB Grid (Alex Smith) from the NFL’s NextGenStats:
What the QB grid gives us is a peek into how well different passers throw to different areas of the field. Of course there are plenty of factors contributing to this picture including offensive philosophy, receiver strengths, and opposing defensive weaknesses. Therefore, the results of this exercise should only be accepted and utilized with those caveats.
So how does this work? Essentially, the squares on the grid are numbered 1-12 starting from the bottom-left to top-right moving from left to right, top to bottom. Areas 1-3 are thrown out for the sake of this evaluation because these areas are limited to screens and shovel passes occurring behind or at the line of scrimmage. These areas remain in case there is a use for them in later analysis. Areas 4-12 cover the areas where most passes are thrown to receivers.
Based on the routes from a basic route tree, we can estimate where a route should intersect with specific areas based on alignment. For example, a dig route from the left side of the offensive formation would typically intersect with areas 4, 5, 7, and 8. Typically these types of routes are targeted as the receiver approaches/crosses the middle of the field. While most routes break at 12-15 yards deep (areas 7-9), they can be executed at shallower depths and this is mostly true for all routes other than the post, corner, and nine routes.
To apply some quantitative measure to this analysis, here is how the overlap was measured:
- Examine the Matt Harmon’s Reception Perception data for a given receiver and identify routes with a 70+% Success Rate Versus Coverage (SRVC)
- Based on qualifying routes, intersecting areas of the NextGenStats QB grid for the receiver’s current QB are evaluated for a passer rating of 90+
- If any of the areas qualify then the receiver route/passer area accuracy combination earn a point
- An extra point is awarded if the overlap includes a 75+% SRVC and 100+ QB area passer rating
- A final point is awarded if the overlap includes a 80+% SRVC and 110+ QB area passer rating
With the above criteria, a receiver/passer combination may earn up to 3 points per route per alignment. Four alignments have been considered: left outside, right outside, left slot, right slot. Even though most receivers do not move around a ton, it is important to illuminate the possibilities.
Before discussing the findings based on this model, it must be understood that the data leverages reception perception data from the 2017 preseason, but the passing area data is from the 2017 season. The model proves to have some validity as the most compatible pairs included the following on the outside of the field:
- Michael Thomas – Drew Brees, 29 compatibility rating (T-2nd), 6th in ESPN scoring
- Mike Evans – Jameis Winston, 25 compatibility rating (4th), 17th in ESPN scoring
- Antonio Brown – Ben Roethlisberger, 23 compatibility rating (5th), 1st in ESPN scoring
- Keenan Allen – Phillip Rivers, 22 compatibility rating (6th), 3rd in ESPN scoring
- A.J. Green – Andy Dalton, 21 compatibility rating (7th), 10th in ESPN scoring
- Julio Jones – Matt Ryan, 19 compatibility rating (9th), 7th in ESPN scoring
All but one of these receivers was a WR1 per ESPN’s scoring system. We can also look at the slot:
- Keenan Allen – Phillip Rivers, 34 compatibility rating (1st), 3rd in ESPN scoring
- A.J. Green – Andy Dalton, 28 compatibility rating (T-3rd), 10th in ESPN scoring
- Michael Thomas – Drew Brees, 26 compatibility rating (T-5th), 6th in ESPN scoring
- Odell Beckham – Eli Manning, 24 compatibility rating (7th), DNF
- Antonio Brown – Ben Roethlisberger, 23 compatibility rating (8th), 1st in ESPN scoring
The above groups identify some of the popular WR/QB combinations, but there were some notable absences including the Vikings receivers and DeAndre Hopkins. For the Vikings receivers, they currently do not have a QB and these calculations focused on known pairs. Hopkins absence is likely due to the extremely small sample size of Deshaun Watson’s season, which resulted in a middle of the pack compatibility rating.
Reason to Get Hyped?
As eluded to earlier, this model was constructed to illuminate the potential of new WR/QB pairs as trades and free agency commense. This will also be used to evaluate rookie receiver potential as well.
Already trades have occurred, creating new pairs. Let’s take a look at a few of those combinations:
Tyrell Pryor was not included here because his gamble on himself failed, and he is unlikely to be back in Washington. I was stunned at first of the low compatibility between passer and receiver, but then I thought about how he was used when Cousins led the charge. The model indicates they only have a compatibility of 8 (28th) on the outside and 6 (31st) in the slot (which is where Crowder has flourished in the past). Just looking at Smith’s passing grid may explain much of this as he really wasn’t that great in passer rating from 1-20 yards down field, but his deep passing was crazy good with not one of those areas being below 125 passer rating. This could actually be a good indicator for Doctson, but I am wary as Tyreek Hill was just a unique deep threat that may have inflated those numbers.
Buffalo finally moved on from Taylor, which I think is great for him as he now has access to one of the more dynamic receiving corps in all of football between Landry, Coleman, and Gordon. Gordon’s compatibility was not evaluated due to Reception Perception data being unavailable, Landry appeared interesting being ranked 13th in the slot. I’m very excited to see how this pans out now that an organization is likely to give Tyrod a fair shake with decent receivers and a solid offensive line. Can the Browns avoid the “dumpster fire” label this year? It’s a possibility now!
Like Josh Gordon, there was no data on Marquis Goodwin, but I can imagine that this pair is going to be nasty if Goodwin starts to draw double coverage due to his speed. This pair is ranked 12th (18 outside rating) in the model, just behind Manning/Beckham. The highest compatibility for Jimmy G and Garcon seemed to be on in breaking routes from the left side like the slant, dig, and curl. This could make Garcon a PPR beast next season.
Mitch did not have a great performance last season, but there are a number of contributing factors. John Fox’s lack of offensive innovation is surely one of these, and with Matt Nagy coming in that is sure to change. Also, Trubisky never got to play with Meredith last season, who was arguably the best receiver on the roster. Trubisky also lost TE Zach Miller to a horrific leg injury. Because of all of these things working against him his QB grid looks horrible with only three of the nine viable passing areas rated over 90.
Trubisky’s receiving core will improve with Meredith’s return. Add to that a significant boost with Allen Robinson coming to town in free agency and perhaps Trubisky has an opportunity to rise. The compatibility for Meredith and Robinson looks abysmal currently with Meredith is tied for 30th and Robinson is 35th out of the pairs evaluated on the outside. While this may make you want to stay away, my recommendation is you share this data and buy low in dynasty or draft these guys at a crazy value in redraft. Trubisky should improve, the offense should be more creative, and then we could be the benefactor of the perceived downgrade.
Keenum is rumored to be the new signal caller in Denver, and this is probably one of the best destinations for him with established receivers in Thomas and Sanders. It was interesting that Sanders (4th on the outside) actually looks more compatible with Keenum than does Thomas (26th on the outside), but Thomas has high marks where it counts for his play style and body type. Thomas has a high compatibility on the slant and post routes, where even if he is covered, he can box out defenders in the middle area of the field.
If Sanders gets a bump in value it will be well deserved as he only projects to struggle with corner routes. He has the highest possible compatibility on the slant and dig routes from the left side of the formation and slant, dig, and curl routes from the right side of the formation. Sanders is also tied for 3rd in compatibility from the slot from which he has seen plenty of snaps. Sanders has proven to be a great route runner in the past, and with a better quarterback in Keenum, we could see him rise once again.
More to Come…
As the off season continues, there will be updates to this information as data is made available. Therefore, it is reasonable to expect some of the compatibility rankings to slide once other passer or receiver destinations are solidified. Additionally, as rookie receiver data becomes available and the NFL draft has been concludes, there will be additional posts providing insights on the landing spots for these prospects. What an exciting time free agency can be!