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Michael Thomas, Adam Thielen among most impactful WRs of '18

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The standings might still be in flux in 2018, but one thing is readily apparent: Offenses are scoring like crazy.

Through Week 6, NFL teams have scored 4,489 combined points, 239 more than the fastest prior six-week scoring pace (4,250 points, set in 2014). This season, 328 passing touchdowns have already been scored, 25 TDs ahead of the pace in '14 (303 passing TDs through Week 6). And games are coming down to the wire. If this season's current average margin of victory (10.58) holds, it will be the third-lowest since 1991. Meanwhile, we've had a record nine overtime games to start the season.

But how are games being won or lost amid the flurry of points being scored? That is to say, who is having the greatest impact on the final outcome in this offensive bonanza?

In an effort to find out, I reevaluated my measurement of each position, and each player in each position. Because the reality is, while the game is evolving, it will always be true that personnel and matchups dictate game plans, execution and, ultimately, outcomes. For example, if your team doesn't have an elite wide receiver, the opposing defense will likely play you differently, and the opportunity at other positions changes.

Given the uptick in receiving touchdowns, I wanted to zero in on the wide receiver position and determine which wide receivers in today's NFL have the greatest impact on winning games. I first layered spatial data from 2011 to 2017 (like yards of separation and tackles broken) on top of traditional stats from that same span (like receptions and touchdowns) using computer vision. I combined that with tracking data from '11 to '17 about receivers when they weren't the intended target of a pass (like whether or not the receiver drew double coverage or the opponent's best defender, or changed the alignment of the safety, and how well the receiver blocked). I then enlisted the help of five coaches and six former and current players to generate the most accurate criteria possible for determining impact on team wins. Finally, I put it all together to create the list you see below.

One thing to note: The weighting of off-ball action will vary from team to team, depending on what each team's offensive system requires of its receivers. But the ability to convert first downs and score touchdowns in outcome-relevant situations is tantamount. So all aspects of a receiver's play factor in, but the more effectively a receiver can move the chains or find the paint, the more valuable he is.

Without further ado, here are the top five most valuable receivers in terms of impact in 2018 thus far, followed by a bonus five, for extra measure:

1
Michael Thomas
WR
Saints


No receiver has had a greater combined on- and off-ball impact so far this season than No. 13. In his third year, defenses have ramped up the attention they pay to Thomas, with their best secondary players and multiple defenders accounting for him in the red zone. He's also creating more separation outside of the red zone than he has in years past. Thus, among the players on this list, Thomas boasts the biggest total-impact rating gap between himself and the next closest receiver on his team. In his first three games, he hauled in 38 of 40 targets -- including eight of his nine red-zone receptions -- and he earned (by breaking tackles, earning yards after contact and catching contested passes) all three of his TDs. Thomas' traditional on-ball stat line looked less dominating in his fourth and fifth games (he's now caught 46 of 49 targets, which still makes for a 93.9 percent catch rate), but don't be tricked. His off-ball work in Weeks 4 and 5 helped fortify big wins for New Orleans.

2018 traditional stats: 5 games | 49 targets | 46 rec | 519 rec yds | 11.3 ypc | 3 rec TDs

2
Adam Thielen
WR
Vikings


Thielen's on-ball impact couldn't be higher, between his leading the NFL in receiving yards and topping the century mark in each of his six games thus far. The traditional stats make sense. The advanced stats show that he has created the most separation and yards after the catch on plays where Kirk Cousins is under pressure and holds onto the ball for more than 2.5 seconds. Given that Cousins has been under pressure more than any other quarterback, Thielen's ability to adjust and adapt is helping to both reduce the risk of turnovers and extend drives for the Vikings. This propels him all the way to second on this list, despite the fact that he has not faced as many No. 1 corners as some of the others listed here.

2018 traditional stats: 6 games | 81 targets | 58 rec | 712 rec yds | 12.3 ypc | 4 rec TDs

3
DeAndre Hopkins
WR
Texans


Hopkins' overall impact is driven by his on-ball production -- because it has to be. The Texans' O-line has allowed the second-most sacks (25) in the NFL this season, while quarterback Deshaun Watson has had up-and-down games, as has Houston's run game. No receiver has created more first-downs himself when a defender is within six feet of him, or when the ball is thrown further than three feet away from him. He also has more catches in which he caught the ball with his hips facing a direction other than upfield, and then turned in the direction of a gain, than any other receiver. (This happens when a QB throws while getting hit and the WR reacts and adjusts to get the pass.) A review of the historical data reveals that a very low percentage of receivers whose offenses resembled the Texans' were able to consistently impact wins to such a high degree for more than a few games. However, Nuk has actually been almost equally impactful with even less favorable surrounding conditions in past seasons. If Watson is able to keep improving, then Hopkins will maximize the good in addition to minimizing the bad.

2018 traditional stats: 6 games | 63 targets | 44 rec | 657 rec yds | 14.9 ypc | 3 rec TDs

4
Julio Jones
WR
Falcons


Three of the Falcons' four losses have been by six points or less. A big reason why they've been within striking distance late in games is the combination of Jones' on-ball impact on getting them into the red zone and his off-ball impact within the red zone. Jones has earned 32 first downs on receptions outside the red zone (second only to Adam Thielen, who has 35). I realize fantasy players don't love that he's caught zero of his three red-zone targets, but his presence -- and the space it creates for others -- has helped drive the Falcons' 69.6 percent red-zone TD rate (tied for fourth best). Atlanta is also tied for fifth in red-zone points scored per game, with 20.8.

2018 traditional stats: 6 games | 69 targets | 44 rec | 707 rec yds | 16.1 ypc | 0 rec TDs

5
A.J. Green
WR
Bengals


Re-watch the second-half comeback win the Bengals pulled off against the Dolphins in Week 5. Look for when Green lines up in the slot and see how he has tons of space (separation) on crossing routes in the middle of the field -- you won't need computer vision measurements to discern how he changes the defense. It's been really interesting to track the use and production of both Green and Tyler Boyd so far. Boyd's impact has been shooting up the charts, but Green's combined on- and off-ball relationship to the Bengals' four wins is elite. His 28 receiving first downs make for the highest percentage by any receiver with at least 30 total receptions (84.8 percent).

2018 traditional stats: 6 games | 55 targets | 33 rec | 494 rec yds | 15.0 ypc | 5 rec TDs

AND NOW, THE NEXT FIVE ...

6
Tyreek Hill
WR
Chiefs


2018 traditional stats: 6 games | 51 targets | 34 rec | 567 rec yds | 16.7 ypc | 6 rec TDs

7
Keenan Allen
WR
Chargers


2018 traditional stats: 6 games | 51 targets | 36 rec | 434 rec yds | 12.1 ypc | 1 rec TD

8
Mike Evans
WR
Buccaneers


2018 traditional stats: 5 games | 44 targets | 33 rec | 484 rec yds | 14.7 ypc | 3 rec TDs

9
JuJu Smith-Schuster
WR
Steelers


2018 traditional stats: 6 games | 63 targets | 42 rec | 561 rec yds | 13.4 ypc | 2 rec TDs

10
Davante Adams
WR
Packers


2018 traditional stats: 6 games | 71 targets | 47 rec | 557 rec yds | 11.9 ypc | 6 rec TDs

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter @cfrelund.

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