As the NFL season drags on, it often becomes a war of attrition. Quarterbacks who play favorites with their receiving targets might find those receivers injured by the time December rolls around. Julian Edelman of the New England Patriots, Odell Beckham, Jr. of the New York Giants, Greg Olsen of the Carolina Panthers all tallied 1000 yards last year but find themselves on injured reserve. These injuries don’t help the offenses of their respective teams, but it’s a challenge to quantify how much we can expect them to hurt.
I identified 25 instances where a wideout or tight end posted a 1000-yard receiving season only to follow that up with a season with fewer than 500 receiving yards the following season for the same team. This captures injuries, drastic drops in effectiveness, and players leaving via trade or free agency (as 1000-yard receivers Terrelle Pryor, Brandin Cooks, Kenny Britt, and DeSean Jackson did this past offseason). To control for fluctuations in quarterback performance, the set is limited to cases where the same quarterback started at least 12 games in both seasons.
The data suggests a fairly mild drop-off across the board, with quarterbacks completing slightly fewer passes at a reduced yards per attempt, taking slightly more sacks while throwing fewer touchdowns. Interestingly, quarterbacks post a slightly better interception rate without their top targets. Teams lose a little less than a point per game and 16 or so yards. The Pythagorean formula suggests that a team with an average defense would dip by a bit more than a quarter of a win over the course of a season.
That doesn’t sound like much. It’s worth considering that any receiver is just one player of 11 on any given offensive play, and the offense is on the field for only half the game. Still, this is a surprisingly small impact for a position that often dominates the highlight reels and where the top players command salaries north of $10 MM per year. A sample set of 25 is still small, so it’s worth digging into some of the specific examples to see what we can tease out.
The following table shows the quarterback seasons that experienced the most dramatic statistical dropoffs, sorted by the quarterback’s change in Adjusted Net Yards / Attempt.
Some quarterbacks actually had better seasons without their 1000-yard receivers:
It’s hard to draw firm conclusions from the raw data, so digging into some of the examples and the context surrounding the situation is critical.
The Role of Age
Brett Favre had an outstanding year in 2009, his first year with the Minnesota Vikings. At the age of 40, he posted a career best in completion percentage, touchdown-to-interception ratio, yards per attempt, and passer rating. His top target was 23-year-old Sidney Rice, who broke out in his third season with 83 catches for 1,312 yards. Sadly, he injured his hip in the NFC Championship game and missed the first nine weeks of the 2010 season. While Rice would play three more years after that, he never reached the heights he did in 2009; his second-best season was 50 catches for 748 yards in 2012. He retired in the summer of 2014 at the age of 27.
Rice’s injury could not have helped, but it seems more likely that Favre’s statistical drop-off was age-related. The three-time MVP endured up-and-down seasons throughout his late-30’s, including a 2005 season where he threw 29 interceptions and a 2006 campaign where he completed only 56% of his passes. With the fullness of time, it appears his prolific 2009, not his disappointing 2010, was the aberration. For one season, the most decorated quarterback of the 1990s was able to recapture his prime form, but on the wrong side of 40, it could not endure.
There’s a similar factor in the drop-off of Peyton Manning’s statistics from 2013 with the loss of Eric Decker (#6 on this list). The Broncos capably replacement Decker with Emmanuel Sanders, but Manning began to see age – and injury – related decline as the 2014 season wore on, a trend which continued through 2015.
Conversely, some of these seasons caught younger QBs on the right side of the aging curve. Eli Manning in 2008 (with Plaxico Burress missing time because of suspension, injury, and accidentally shooting himself in the foot), Ryan Tannehill in 2014 (with Brian Hartline ineffective after an injury late the previous season), and Cam Newton in 2015 (with Kelvin Benjamin out for the year) posted better numbers without their top receivers, and at least part of this appears to be due to those quarterbacks simply improving.
A major factor that often appears in the QBs who improved without their 1000-yard receivers is that they weren’t all that efficient throwing to those players in the 1000-yard years.
Benjamin led the Panthers with nine receiving touchdowns and tied for the team lead with 1000 yards, both impressive totals for a rookie, but Newton completed barely 50% of the targets going the big receiver’s way. Benjamin averaged a hair under 7.0 yards per target, or almost exactly Newton’s overall yards per attempt figure. Burress was a similar story – Eli completed fewer than half the passes his way despite team-leading figures of 70 catches, 1,025 yards, and 12 touchdowns (not to mention the game-winning TD grab in Super Bowl XLII). Tannehill completed just 57% of his passes to Hartline for a fine-but-not-special average of 7.6 yards per attempt. Replacing the raw numbers these receivers compiled may have been a challenge, but replacing their efficiency was not.
The #2 and #6 entries also exhibited this phenomenon. Matt Hasselbeck completed just 56% of his passes to Darrell Jackson in 2004 for 7.7 YPA. Tony Romo completed less than half his passes to Terrell Owens in 2008 for 7.5 YPA. There appears to be a considerable difference between losing a receiver who produces at high efficiency versus a volume receiver of modest efficiency.
A Tale of Two Bradys
The only big improver who lost a receiver who was highly efficient was Tom Brady, whose Patriots dealt away Randy Moss only four games into the 2010 season. Interestingly, Brady also shows up on the list of biggest decliners; his ANY/A dropped almost a yard-and-a-half going from 2012 to 2013, when slot master Wes Welker signed with the Denver Broncos. Was Welker more critical to the Patriots’ success than Moss? The truth isn’t that simple, and a closer look shows how the whole context plays a big factor into what happens when a top receiver leaves.
The 2009 Patriots got great seasons out of Moss (1,264 yards and 13 touchdowns) and Welker (123 catches for 1,348 yards) but little from the rest of the receiving corps. Tight end Ben Watson ranked third on the team in receiving yards, but he barely cracked 400. It was a two-man show, a point reinforced when Welker tore his ACL in the season finale and the one-dimensional Patriots were blown out by the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round. Brady also missed virtually the entire 2008 season with a knee injury, and looked rusty at times in his return.
For 2010, the Patriots overhauled the skill positions, which let them thrive even without Moss and with Welker less effective in his return from injury. Notably, they drafted tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. While individually their numbers were modest – neither topped 600 receiving yards – they combined for more than 1,100 yards, 16 touchdowns, and a catch rate north of 70%. Shortly after dealing away Moss, the team traded for former Patriot Deion Branch, who didn’t miss a beat with his old QB Brady, racking up 706 yards in only 11 games. Despite the loss of Moss, the overall situation in 2010 was better.
That wasn’t the case when Welker departed in 2012. That squad led the NFL with 557 points and 6,846 yards, buoyed by Welker, 900 yards from #2 receiver Brandon Lloyd, and fine-but-somewhat-injury-marred campaigns from Gronkowski and Hernandez, who combined for 1,200 yards and 16 TDs. Scat back Danny Woodhead contributed 300 yards on the ground and another 400 through the air.
Gronkowski was the only one of those five to return, however. Welker and Woodhead departed in free agency, Lloyd was cut, and after a shocking homicide charge Hernandez was let go as well. Injuries struck early and often. Gronkowski missed the early part of the season recovering from arm and back surgeries, and his season was cut short thanks to a knee injury after only seven games. Danny Amendola, signed in the offseason to replace Welker, tore his hamstring in Week 1, missing time and losing effectiveness when he did return. Receiving back Shane Vereen broke his wrist Week 1 and landed on injured reserve, playing only eight games. That pressed into service rookie wideouts Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, who combined for nearly 1,000 yards but at a catch rate under 50%, and bench players Michael Hoomanawanui and Brandon Bolden, far less dangerous receiving options than Gronkowski and Vereen.
Ironically, replacing Welker is the one aspect of the season that went well. Amendola’s injury opened the door for Julian Edelman’s emergence, and the former Kent State quarterback nabbed 105 catches for 1,056 yards and six touchdowns. The rest of the group, however, was a mess for much of the year, and the performance of Brady and the offense suffered accordingly.
The Brady examples above highlight the importance of context – the loss of a #1 WR isn’t the only thing going on with any team, even if it draws most of the headlines. It’s also important to understand that not all replacements are created equal. Brady lost Edelman in the preseason this year, but the offense is still humming along because they added Brandin Cooks to the receiving corps.
That wasn’t the case for the 2003 Bills, the 2005 Packers, or the 2015 Packers. The Bills lost Peerless Price to free agency and saw the offense fall apart, dropping from 11th in scoring to 30th. The 2005 Packers slipped from fifth to 22nd when Javon Walker tore his ACL in the season opener, and the ‘15 Pack slid from first in points to 15th with Jordy Nelson suffering the same injury.
Why were these teams unable to weather the loss of those receivers while other teams continued chugging along? The key dimension appears to be that these teams did not have a viable replacement. That caused a loss in production for the #1 WR that also extended to many of the other receiving options.
The 2002 Bills boasted two top receivers in Price and Eric Moulds, who both topped 1,200 yards paired with Drew Bledsoe. Price signed with the Atlanta Falcons in free agency, however, and was replaced by journeyman Bobby Shaw, who caught 56 balls for 732 yards in his last season of major playing time. The drop-off from Price to Shaw was nearly equalled by the drop in Moulds’ individual production. The three-time Pro Bowler missed three games and slipped to 780 yards and only one touchdown.
The Bills were able to bounce back in 2004. Price was still gone, but the team used the thirteenth-overall pick on wideout Lee Evans, who contributed 48 catches for 843 yards in his rookie campaign. With Evans and better health, Moulds rebounded to 88 catches for 1,043 yards, and the Bills finished seventh in points scored.
The Packers had an even tougher time replacing Walker than the Bills had replacing Price. Green Bay is notoriously stingy when it comes to signing free agents, so they attempted to fill from within by expanding the roles of young receivers Robert Ferguson and Antonio Chatman. It didn’t work. Ferguson started seven games but finished the year with only 366 yards and three touchdowns. Chatman played all 16 games, starting three, but had only 549 receiving yards. Compounding things, lead back Ahman Green was held to five games with a ruptured thigh tendon, and backup RB Najeh Davenport missed the whole season. While top receiver Donald Driver didn’t seem to miss a beat, catching 86 passes for 1,221 yards, Favre threw a whopping 10 interceptions targeting his top wideout, as opposed to only three the season before. The Packers offense struggled again in 2006, but rallied in 2007 with the addition of rookies Greg Jennings and James Jones.
Jones appears again in the last example. By 2015, he was on the downside of his career, a street free agent after a disappointing season with the Oakland Raiders. The Packers picked up Jones off the scrap heap to replace Nelson, coming off a stellar 1,500-yard, 13-touchdown 2014 season. The hoodie-clad Jones wound up with a respectable 50 catches for 890 yards and eight touchdowns, but that was a far cry from the efficiency and production they were accustomed to getting from Nelson. Jones’ catch rate barely eclipsed 50%. Despite 12 starts, second-year man Davante Adams failed to make an impact, with 483 yards and only one touchdown. Most surprising was the dip in flanker Randall Cobb’s performance. Cobb had 91 catches for 1,287 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2014, but his yardage total slipped to 829 in 2015.
With Nelson back in 2016, Rodgers’ ANY/A rebounded to 7.3, still off the 8.0+ he put up in his prime but significantly better than his 6.7 2015 mark. Better still, he threw 40 touchdowns against only seven picks and the Packers finished fourth in the league in scoring. Nelson’s return coupled with the emergence of Adams played a major role in the Green Bay offense returning to form.
The data here is not conclusive, but we can infer certain things. One, losing a top wide receiver is not necessarily a death knell for a team or even an offense. Two, it’s easier to replace an high-volume but inefficient receiver than an efficient one. Three, it matters what’s going on with the other elements in the offense; you can compensate for a drop-off at one receiver position with superior play elsewhere. Four, it matters who you’re replacing the receiver with. Almost all the teams with the biggest drop-offs wound up replacing the missing receiver with a replacement-level or sub-replacement-level alternative.
Context matters, and when a top receiving target goes out for the season, we need to consider that context when projecting how much a quarterback and offense will suffer. These examples show that a team can still thrive missing a key receiving piece, with the right replacement and the right complements.
Note: almost all data for this article was taken from Pro-Football-Reference.com. Check out their website and follow them on Twitter @pfref.