On receiving efficiency

We all know that Russell Wilson has put up some ridiculous passing efficiency numbers over the course of the last several games. But someone has to be catching those balls, so someone should be putting up ridiculous receiving efficiency numbers, too, right?

Over here, expatbayern pointed out that certain Seahawks are doing remarkably well in both yards per target and catch percentage:

But the season is over, so let's have a look at the final regular season numbers. All stats are taken from ESPN:

Let's start by ruling out small sample size issues. All players must have at least 3 receptions per game (48 for the season) to qualify. 77 players meet that threshold. Subject to that, the league leaders in yards per target are:

11.02  WR  BUF  Sammy Watkins
10.28 WR SEA Doug Baldwin
10.07 WR SEA Jermaine Kearse
9.93 WR ARI John Brown
9.91 WR JAX Allen Hurns
9.83 WR CIN A.J. Green
9.80 TE NE Rob Gronkowski
9.76 WR SEA Tyler Lockett
9.65 WR NO Willie Snead
9.54 WR ARI Michael Floyd

Some of the best receivers in the league there, some deep threat speedsters, and oh look, three Seahawks in the top 10. Not bad.

So now let's look at the league leaders in catch percentage:

83.3%  RB  NO   Mark Ingram
82.4% RB CLE Duke Johnson, Jr.
80.8% RB DET Theo Riddick
76.3% TE WSH Jordan Reed
75.5% RB SD Danny Woodhead
75.3% WR SD Keenan Allen
75.3% RB ATL Devonta Freeman
75.2% WR ARI Larry Fitzgerald
75.0% WR SEA Doug Baldwin
75.0% WR SEA Tyler Lockett

You've got some check-down guys who don't get very many yards, and oh look, two of those Seahawks again. Interesting.

So what happens if we want people who both catch the ball when it's thrown to them and also get a lot of yards? Let's try multiplying the formulas above, which effectively gives us (yards) * (receptions) / (targets^2). In that case, the list looks like:

7.71  WR  SEA  Doug Baldwin
7.32 WR SEA Tyler Lockett
7.26 WR SEA Jermaine Kearse
6.96 WR BUF Sammy Watkins
6.56 WR PIT Antonio Brown
6.53 WR NO Willie Snead
6.40 WR CIN A.J. Green
6.39 WR ARI John Brown
6.37 TE WSH Jordan Reed
6.30 TE KC Travis Kelce

That's not bad company at all. And the top three most efficient receivers in the league are all Seahawks? Pedestrians, indeed. Incidentally, Jimmy Graham is #32 on that list. Lest you think I'm cherry picking numbers, here's the DVOA leaders among wide receivers on Football Outsiders (minimum 50 targets):

39.6%  SEA  Doug Baldwin
36.5% MIA Rishard Matthews
35.1% SEA Tyler Lockett
29.9% ARI John Brown
29.8% SEA Jermaine Kearse
28.9% BUF Sammy Watkins
26.5% CIN A.J. Green
23.9% ARI Michael Floyd
19.7% PIT Antonio Brown
18.9% ARI Larry Fitzgerald

Incidentally, Rishard Matthews was not on my lists above because he had too few catches (43 on the season). The Football Outsiders numbers are for wide receivers only, which eliminates the other positions on my lists earlier.

So if Seahawks receivers are so efficient, why don't they get more credit as being among the best in the league? The answer is people looking at totals rather than rate statistics. Doug Baldwin is the only Seahawk in the top 50 in receiving yards this year, and he's not in the top 20. Baldwin is also the only Seahawk in the top 80 in the league in targets.

If a team has one star receiver and the quarterback is constantly looking to get the ball to that receiver, he tends to have more passes thrown to him than if the quarterback is spreading the ball around more. A player's efficiency numbers will tend to be better if he is only targeted while open than if the ball is often thrown to him whether he's open or not. As a competent quarterback is more likely to target players when they're open, the extra passes from forcing the ball to a star receiver will tend to be in situations where he's less open. That drives down the efficiency numbers of a lot of the best receivers in the league, which is why I'm not claiming that Angry Doug Baldwin is the NFL's best.

But while that can happen to your #1 WR, it shouldn't happen to your #3. I'm not sure whether you'd regard Kearse or Lockett as the Seahawks #3 WR, but whichever it is, he's got a case for being the best #3 WR in the league. Either that or Russell Wilson is just ridiculously good in ways that even the other "elite" quarterbacks in the NFL aren't, as the quarterback does affect his receivers' stats. There are a lot of Cardinals on those lists above, too, though.

So what would happen if we dropped the minimum receptions threshold? In that case, my product efficiency list starts with:

41.0  QB  TEN  Marcus Mariota
40.0 WR SEA Paul Richardson

That's one reception on one target for a whole lot of yards, so it's heavy dose of small sample size issues. But still, not bad.