Michael Thomas set the single-season receptions record in 2019, his greatest achievement yet in a career that is sure to include additional feats.
What some folks might not know is he racked up many of those catches while also defying expectations.
Thomas was one of just four receivers with at least 50 targets who posted a catch percentage that was 10 percent above expectation, per Next Gen Stats. His mark of +12.7 percent equaled the highest rate of unlikely catches made in the NFL; when combined with his incredibly high target total (185) and additional metrics we'll delve into below, his season was truly remarkable.
Thomas was the best receiver of difficult receptions in the NFL in 2019. Let's explore his company and identify the 10 best pass-catchers in 2019 from a Next Gen Stats standpoint, focusing on the ability to haul in more targets than they were supposed to.
The most important metric used for this exercise will be the difference between catch rate (the percentage of targets caught) and expected catch rate (average completion probability when targeted). Completion probability takes into account a number of factors, including QB pressure, separation between the target and the closest defender, distance of throw, speed of the receiver and so on. From a pass-catcher's perspective, the factors that are most important are separation, tight-window percentage, cushion (at time of snap), double-team percentage and air yards per target, among others. But catch rate above expectation is not the only stat we used. Some notable differences will help paint the picture of why the pass-catchers listed are among the league's best.
Enough introduction. Time to get into the numbers. Here are the top 10 pass-catchers as I see them when viewed through a Next Gen Stats lens:
Catch rate: 80.5%. Expected catch rate: 67.8%. Difference: +12.7 percentage points.
Thomas was targeted an incredible 185 times in 2019, 28 more than anyone else. We find an early explanation for his record-setting 149 receptions in Next Gen Stats: Thomas put up just 8.1 air yards per target. Of the remaining nine players on this list, eight bested that relatively low mark by 2 yards or more (tight end George Kittle averaged 5.7 air yards per target). The Saints clearly fed Thomas early and often, producing the second-lowest average cushion of this group (4.8 yards) and also resulting in the second-highest press-coverage rate of these 10 pass-catchers. Defenses knew New Orleans was looking for Thomas, pressed him accordingly and still couldn't stop him, because the Saints took the very small space given. This might have inflated his receptions, sure -- Thomas was targeted on 31.9 percent of his routes run, just below group leader Kittle (33.5%) -- but the combined efforts made to tightly cover Thomas and his effectiveness despite being blanketed often produced his excellent catch rate difference and placed him atop this list. Just imagine what he can do now that he'll have a legitimate second receiver (Emmanuel Sanders) on his team.
Catch rate: 74.5%. Expected catch rate: 61.9%. Difference: 12.6 percentage points.
Lockett's catch-rate difference is nearly equal to Thomas', but he achieved it via a much different method. Lockett enjoyed an average cushion of more than a yard above Thomas' rate (6.1 to 4.8), and as a result, his targets came with over 4 more air yards on average. Interestingly, Lockett's opponents rarely pressed him, doing so just 15.5 percent of the time, likely fearful of his potential to beat them deep after winning the jam at the line. That produced a lower yards-per-target average of 9.6, which is similar to Thomas' (9.3) despite facing much different coverage at the snap. Lockett has a flair for making the tough catch, though, so it should come as little surprise that he tied Thomas atop the catch-rate difference leaderboard. Defenses should probably stop leaving him wide open, though; he owned the highest wide-open rate of this group (22.7%).
Catch rate: 67%. Expected catch rate: 56.3%. Difference: 10.7 percentage points.
We've entered the home-run hitters portion of this list. In what turned out to be his final season with the Minnesota Vikings, Diggs caught just 63 passes but outgained Lockett in receiving yards, riding a yards-per-reception rate of 17.9 to 1,130 total yards (compared to Lockett's 1,057). His catch percentage wasn't nearly as high as Thomas' or Lockett's, but he made the most of his opportunities, posting a +10.7 percent catch-rate difference -- and he did so by winning press challenges. Diggs was pressed on 42 percent of routes run, enjoying just 2.5 yards of separation on average, yet his targets came with an air-yards average of 14.9. Most of his success was earned in single coverage, a testament to Adam Thielen's presence (despite Thielen's injuries) and a multi-level Vikings offense that didn't focus too heavily on Diggs.
Catch rate: 68.1%. Expected catch rate: 57.7%. Difference: 10.4 percentage points.
Surprise! Many of these names might sound right, but you're likely raising an eyebrow at Jones landing here. Of those listed, only one pass-catcher recorded fewer receiving yards than Jones' 779 -- Chargers tight end Hunter Henry, listed seventh, had 652 yards -- but most of the guys on this list also didn't have to play half a season without their starting quarterback. Jones' numbers illustrate one of two scenarios: He's either a receiver who can't get open, or he was running routes for subpar quarterbacks. The fact that Lions QB Matthew Stafford sat out the second half of 2019 gives us a hint.
Jones, who missed three games himself in 2019, has an interesting week-by-week stat line, with the most peculiar game coming in Week 12 against Washington, with Jeff Driskel under center. Jones was targeted 11 times and caught just five of those passes; those numbers indicate either a receiver having a bad outing or a quarterback giving a receiver few chances to make a play. Jones' expected catch rate that date was 44.1 percent and he caught 45.5 percent of his targets, meaning he performed slightly better than expectation. He was afforded just 1.3 yards of separation on average when targeted in that game and battled through a tight window on 54.5 percent of targets. This isn't the receiver's fault.
Jones overcame plenty -- including the second-highest tight-window percentage (29.7) of any of these pass-catchers -- to post our fourth and final double-digit positive catch-rate difference of 2019 (among receivers). His yardage total doesn't say it, but he made plenty of plays amid disadvantageous circumstances.
Catch rate: 67.7%. Expected catch rate: 59%. Difference: 8.7 percentage points.
If the top four were in a pack near the front of the race, there's a bit of a gap between those contenders and the rest of the field. Ridley quietly had a nice season for a Falcons team that fell out of national consciousness thanks to a horrid start -- and he did his quarterback a few favors along the way, as evidenced by his catch rate difference of +8.7 percent.
A very intriguing detail in Ridley's line: In a receiving corps that features Julio Jones, Ridley saw double teams more often than anyone else in this group (at a rate of 5.4%). He also enjoyed a greater cushion than the rest at an average of 6.6 yards at time of snap. Aware of Ridley's 4.43 speed, teams rarely pressed him, instead content to cover him with numbers while also trying to keep his superstar teammate from destroying them. Matt Ryan will probably keep throwing to Ridley plenty, as the Atlanta quarterbacks compiled a 113.5 passer rating when targeting him. The Falcons will hope that produces more wins in 2020 than it did in 2019.
Catch rate: 66.4%. Expected catch rate: 57.8%. Difference: 8.6 percentage points.
Defenses liked to press Cooper on nearly one fourth of all routes run by the receiver, but his separation at time of pass arrival (2.6 yards) falls in line with the rest of these receivers. His tight-window percentage (25.2) was third highest, but none of his advanced metrics illustrate a receiver who was blanketed in 2019. With that said, Cooper was a receiver who made his quarterback, Dak Prescott, better last season, helping the signal-caller put together a 114.4 passer rating when targeting him. Prescott enjoyed doing that plenty, with Cooper posting the third-highest average of targets per routes run (23.8%) of this group.
Cooper is a case that will be fascinating to watch in 2020, thanks to the addition of 17th overall pick CeeDee Lamb. Might these numbers jump with more dangerous targets available to Prescott?
Catch rate: 72.4%. Expected catch rate: 64%. Difference: 8.4 percentage points.
Tight end time! We limited the players on this list to those who were targeted at least 75 times, yet Henry and George Kittle (see more below) still found their way into the room. Henry battled through the adversity of suffering a torn ACL in 2018 to return, appear in 12 games and catch over 70 percent of the passes intended for him in 2019. While the Chargers struggled in the final year of the Philip Rivers era, Henry did not, posting a positive catch-rate difference of over 8 percent. He flourished in the end zone, catching 60 percent of his targets in the money-making stretch of 10 yards for three of his five total touchdowns.
Most importantly, Henry succeeded by finding the soft spots in the defense. His air yards per target (10.2) landed near what the wideouts in this group managed, and he did so by creating space for himself in those soft spots, as evidenced by his tight-window percentage of just 13.2. Talk about increasing your chances.
Catch rate: 79.4%. Expected catch rate: 71.8%. Difference: 7.6 percentage points.
There are a few interesting details in the advanced metrics line of America's tight end (or is that Travis Kelce?). We highlighted how little distance was covered by the football on average when Michael Thomas was targeted, but no one comes close to Kittle's minuscule mark of 5.7 air yards per target. Kittle made his money by catching passes early and getting a move on, racking up 641 (60.9 percent) of his 1,053 total receiving yards after the catch. Yes, that's correct: Kittle caught the ball just feet from the line of scrimmage on average, then raced upfield to post an average yards per reception mark of 12.4, better than Henry and Thomas. This is a product of the 49ers wisely getting the ball in Kittle's hands quickly and letting him do the work from there. Add in his positive catch rate above expectation and you have a fantastic weapon at tight end.
Catch rate: 68%. Expected catch rate: 60.8%. Difference: 7.2 percentage points.
The vet, who signed with the Saints this offseason, has been doing this for some time now, but 2019 was truly a rare achievement. Sanders played in the Hall of Fame Game with the Broncos, adding another week to his already long season, got traded before Denver's bye week but after San Francisco's week off, and then helped the 49ers all the way to the Super Bowl. He got exactly one (1) week off of football, the wild-card bye the 49ers earned with their regular-season mark. And through all of that, Sanders posted a +7.2 percent catch-rate difference, broke 850 receiving yards and did so while fighting through press coverage on nearly 30 percent of all routes run. He was targeted in a tight window 20.6 percent of the time while covering an average of 23.5 yards per route run. For those keeping score at home, Sanders ran 481 routes and covered 11,303.5 yards, while calling two different cities home, wearing two different uniforms and catching passes from two different quarterbacks (Joe Flacco and Jimmy Garoppolo). Had Denver's quarterback situation broken down earlier, that number could have escalated to four (Brandon Allen and Drew Lock saw starts in Denver after Sanders' departure). That +7.2 percent catch-rate difference is starting to look mighty impressive.
Catch rate: 61.9%. Expected catch rate: 54.7%. Difference: 7.2 percentage points.
A breakout rookie who too often was overlooked nationally, Brown ripped up defenses with his combination of size and speed. Remember Ryan Tannehill's league-leading passer rating? He can thank Brown for much of that, as Tannehill and Marcus Mariota compiled a combined passer rating of 127.6 when targeting Brown, the best mark of any of these pass-catchers. Teams afforded him 5.3 yards of cushion off the line on average, but they also learned that pressing Brown can get them beat, too. The receiver faced the third-highest press rate (38.3 percent) of these 10 pass-catchers, yet still managed to catch 52 passes for more than 1,000 yards. In fact, defenses blanketed Brown, who faced a greater tight-window percentage than any of these 10 players at 33.3 percent of all targets. He was only open on 25 percent of targets and rarely wide open (9.5 percent), helping explain his positive catch-rate difference. Brown won with size, strength, drive and desire in 2019. He's going to be a nightmare for opposing defenses in the years to come.