AFC North Roundup Finale: Receivers II

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

In which we look at the numbers for the non-wide receivers, including running backs. (Would that be "narrow" receivers? Eligible tackles need not apply...)

In the previous post we looked at a dazzling array of statistics for the three primary wide receivers from each team. This post shouldn't be quite so dazzling, as I am only going to track the principal tight end for each team. This will also be the case for running backs, except for Pittsburgh. There were so many different backs utilized in Pittsburgh, the only way to get any sort of picture as far as receiving goes is to chart the three(!) principal backs.

We'll then take a nostalgic tour through my projections last July. Once we've all had a good laugh, we can look at what each team might consider for next year, given the contract status of their primary receiving corps.

Here goes. All figures are for the regular season only.

Tight Ends:

I'll begin with Pro Football Focus's Signature Stat, Drop Rate. Since I'm only ranking four tight ends, they will be all jumbled together regardless of years in the league, unlike the receivers who were separated by how many years they had been playing.

For the wide receivers the average number of targets was stable, except for a definite bump up last year. It returned to the normal average in 2012, right around 50 targets. For the TEs, though, the average targets saw a small but definite upward trend over the years since 2008: 30 in 2008 and 09, 31 in 2010, 32 in 2011, and 33 in 2012.

Just as with the wide receivers, the difference between the average drop rate for all receivers and the average drop rate for high target receivers varied between a small portion of a percentage point (.o4% in 2008) to almost 4% (in 2009.)

For each season a receiver played you can not only see his performance in 2012 compared to earlier seasons (if any,) but you can compare his performance to the league high and average. Thus you can observe that only once did Heath Miller exceed the league average (2009,) while Jermaine Gresham has never managed to even match it. Dennis Pitta gets the Sure-Handedness Award, though, however you look at it, although he was targeted very little in 2010. In 2011, when he also had a 0% drop rate, he was targeted well over the league average. For 2012 he was ranked No. 6 in drop rate, with Heath Miller right behind at No. 7, for the 37 most-targeted tight ends. (BenWatson was No. 9, Jermaine Gresham No. 28.)

Below each receiver's chart is a comparison of their "catchable targets." As usual, you can click on the chart and it will open in another window if you wish to be able to read the numbers more easily. Also note 2012 is the blue bars on the left-hand end, and you go back in time as you go to the right. Also, I wanted to keep the upper number on the chart consistent, and as low as possible, so note in 2012 the league high is 30%, but the chart only goes to 25%. The only player who wasn't with an AFC North team for the duration is Ben Watson, who was with the Patriots in 2008 and 09.

I have given the highest drop rate for the high-target tight ends and the average for each year, but not the low, which is almost always 0%. (However, in 2010 Heath Miller's 2.99 drop rate was the lowest in the league for high-target tight ends. That's the sole exception.)

Here are the tables:


Te_drop_1_medium

Te_drop_2_medium

Although being "sure-handed" is probably a larger part of the job description for a TE than for a wide receiver, there are plenty of other things a tight end is called upon to do. PFF ranks the tight ends by various criteria, including pass blocking, run blocking, number of penalties drawn, catch rate, number of touchdowns, yards after catch, fumbles, and so on. Here is this season's ranking (lower is better:)

Pff_te_ranking_medium

Thirty five tight ends were ranked (filtering for the most-targeted TEs in the league,) and Jermaine Gresham was the worst overall. Heath Miller was the best in the AFC North, although he didn't come close to matching last year, when he was the No. 3 tight end in the league in this ranking.

I decided to dig a little more deeply, into something which interests Steeler fans a great deal—blocking. This is one of the things we have always lauded Heath Miller for, since our offensive lines have been so crappy (or injured, which generally comes to the same thing) that blocking by the rest of the offense is critical. It was fascinating to have a look at how much the rest of the AFC North teams used their tight ends in pass blocking, relatively speaking.

Dennis Pitta is used so little for pass blocking, I had to up the filter so he would make it onto the chart for Pass Blocking Efficiency. When he was used he did very well, in fact better than any of the other three AFC North tight ends we are looking at. But he was only pass blocking for 23 snaps, or 5.5% of his total of 420 passing plays. By comparison, Jermaine Gresham was pass blocking 17% of his 584 passing plays (99 times); Ben Watson was pass blocking for 20.5% of his 473 passing plays, and Heath Miller was pass blocking a whacking 22.6% of his 589 passing plays. After Pitta, with a 96.7% Pass Blocking Efficiency rating, is Watson, with 95.6%, Miller with 93.8%, and Gresham with 93.2%.

In the typical PFF way, the Signature Stat of "Pass Blocking Efficiency" is not quite the same as their Pass Block rating in the positional ratings. None of the AFC North tight ends are anything to write home about, in terms of pass blocking, at least according to PFF. On the other hand, they aren't embarrassingly bad. PFF considers everything between a +1.0 and a -1.0 to be neutral, and that is where about 50% of the tight ends fall, including all of the guys we're considering today. Ben Watson ranks the highest, with a +0.5 rating, and all the others are negative numbers—Pitta a -0.3, Gresham -0.5, and Miller -0.8. The only two AFC North tight ends to rate above a +1.0 were Orson Charles (CIN), with +1.4, and Leonard Pope (PIT) with +1.3.

So if the fans of the other AFC North teams will excuse me for a moment, I want to delve a bit deeper into the curious case of Heath Miller. Everyone was so excited this season, because he was supposedly blocking less and was targeted more. (And indeed there is a substantial uptick in his targets for 2012 compared to 2011 and 2010.) But when I look at the figures for the percentage of pass plays he was pass blocking, the 22.6% for this season was substantially higher than any of the previous seasons. (2008, 443 pass plays, 17.2% of them pass blocking; 2009, 588 pass plays, 17.2% of them pass blocking; 2010, 400 pass plays, 16.8% of them pass blocking; 2011, 540 pass plays, 16.7% of them pass blocking.) There was only a difference of one pass play between 2009 (588) and 2012 (589,) but 32 more of those plays this season were pass blocking (133 vs. 101 in 2009.)

So how did he measure up, according to PFF, in those earlier seasons? The pass blocking figures were neutral for 2008, 09, 2010, and 2012, and a stellar +4.3 in 2011. Run blocking has varied more: +1.8 in 2008, +4.6 in 2009, -7.0 in 2010, making him one of the worst run blockers in the league, +10.5 in 2011, making him one of the best, and -8.6 in 2012, again making him one of the worst. (The best in 2012 was none other than Matt Spaeth of CHI.)

I wondered if this is commonly the case for a player to vary so widely from year to year, without a definite trend. Obviously I would have to look at a lot more players (and a lot more years, except that PFF only goes back to 2008) to say with any degree of certainty. But for the heck of it, I choose four TEs at random to look at. They were chosen because I knew who they are, and they had been in the league in 2008. Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten, Antonio Gates, and Ben Watson were the lucky guys. And, so far as my small sample size can be said to demonstrate anything, Miller does seem to be an oddity.

It seems either as if a player sucks at run blocking, is good at run blocking, or used to be good but the skill is declining. Antonio Gates is a good example of sucking at run blocking—his best season was 2008, when he earned a +0.2. Generally he is well under -1. Jason Witten is good at run blocking—his worst season was 2011, when he only earned a +3.0, and his best season was an amazing +22.6 (2009.) Watson and Gonzalez both used to be better than they are now, and have been steadily dropping. (Gonzalez's numbers, starting with 2008—+8.4, +3.6, -7.3, -7.0, -17.1. Watson didn't have such a classic curve to the numbers, but it's still an obvious trend. Starting with 2008: +12.4, +3.4, +1.9, -7.0, -2.0.

But now let us return to our regularly-scheduled comparison. Let's see how Football Outsiders feels about the guys. (Click on the link for an explanation of DYAR and DVOA.) These are rankings; lower is better.

Fo_tes_medium

The FO ranking is only concerned with the tight ends as receivers, so blocking and such like doesn't play into the equation.

And, as with the wide receivers, a few odds and bits:

Te_misc

The "YAC" is "Yards after Catch," and this is not the number of yards, obviously, but how they rank among all receivers, including running backs used as receivers. Interestingly, the first AFC North wide receiver to make it onto the YAC list is A.J. Green, and he is bested by two running backs (Ray Rice and Trent Richardson) and a tight end (Jermaine Gresham.) It is also interesting to note Jermaine Gresham, for whom PFF has so little use, tied with Heath Miller for the highest Pro Football Reference Approximate Value this season. To each his own, I suppose.

And finally, Running Backs (but only when used as receivers.)

There aren't quite as many stats and ranking for the backs, because some sites (Football Outsiders, for instance) don't separate their snaps into receiving and rushing. But here's what we've got:

Drop Rate:

Pff_dr_rb_medium

Well, there are the Pittsburgh backs in all their glory. I threw Rashard Mendenhall in while I was at it, as he has a longer history than anyone else besides BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and of course Green-Ellis was on the Patriots roster before this season.

Once again, Baltimore wins the Sure-Handed Award, with Ray Rice showing himself to be amazingly consistent. (Rashard Mendenhall's 0% drop rate is great, but it was on a grand total of nine catchable targets, compared to Rice's 80. That puts him under the cut-off point for 'high catchable targets.') BJ G-E, conversely, is wildly inconsistent. Note his drop rate in 2009 was 60%! (Mind you, that was on five catchable passes.) Also note Chris Rainey's drop rate was perilously close to worst in the league this season.

In case you were wondering, the league average number of targets for running backs this season was 18. (The totals for the past five years, beginning with 2008: 19, 19, 20 19, 18.) None of the Pittsburgh backs had a lot of catchable targets, at least comparatively. Dwyer had the most, with 25.

Pff_pbe_rb_medium

Here's a shocking figure. Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer were Nos. 1 and 2 in the league, respectively, in this metric. They were asked to block a lot, too—36.4% of their passing plays for Redman, 28.1% for Dwyer. Ray Rice was asked to pass block a lot too—on 28.8% of his pass plays. He just wasn't very good at it. Green-Ellis blocked on 25.3% of his pass plays, and Trent Richardson on only 17.9% of his. You can see why.

Chris Rainey doesn't appear on the chart, and as you might imagine he wasn't asked to pass block much, but when he did he was actually better than Ray Rice. It's nice to know there's at least something Rice isn't great at. However, when we look at the PFF rankings overall for the backs when receiving, Rice is, not surprisingly, No. 1. The other backs ranked as follows: Trent Richardson, No. 12, Isaac Redman, No. 14, Jonathan Dwyer, No. 35, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, No. 47 (out of 60.)

Finally, in ascending order of Pro Football Reference Approximate Value: Chris Rainey (1) Rashard Mendenhall (2) Isaac Redman (4) Jonathan Dwyer (5) Trent Richardson (6) BenJarvus Green-Ellis (8) Ray Rice (13). If you add up all the Steelers backs it makes one back almost as good as Rice...

I've put it off as long as possible, but I can no longer avoid looking at my pre-season assessment of the AFC North receivers. Here's what I said. First, the wideouts:

...it appears the best receiver in the AFC North last season was Mike Wallace, by almost any measure.

That doesn’t come as breaking news, of course, except to those of the BTSC faithful who have busily been trying to persuade themselves we don’t really need Wallace. (This may, of course, be true, but shouldn’t downplay what he has done for the Steelers thus far.) A. J. Green is in hot competition with Antonio Brown for the #2 spot, and Torrey Smith makes a case for himself if he continues to play the way he did in the latter part of last season. Mohamed Massaquoi is the undisputed holder of last place. Greg Little is better than his drop rate would indicate, and if he can clean this up (or buy himself a vat of pine tar) he will be a force to be reckoned with this season.

So now for my (usual disclaimer about homerism) ranking of the AFC North, combining the information about the quarterbacks and receiving corps:

1. Pittsburgh Steelers

2. Baltimore Ravens

2. Cincinnati Bengals

4. Cleveland Browns

At this point I believe slot No. 1 and No. 4 are fairly obvious. I have the Ravens and the Bengals tied because while the Bengals have, I believe, the better quarterback as well as an excellent No. 1 receiver, the question mark at the No. 2 receiving slot makes me unwilling to put them in front.

Cue hollow laugh. Anquan Boldin shocked us all, in a good way (for Ravens fans at least.) So did the Young Money Crew, in a bad way. The Ravens had the healthiest and best-producing wideouts. The Browns made the most improvement during the season. A.J. Green was fully as good as anticipated, and fully healthy. Mike Wallace didn't do himself any favors.

But what about when we add the TEs and backs to the equation? Here's what I said about the TEs, with the caveat I was referring to their whole TE complement, as the TEs had a separate post:

The Ravens have two young TEs who played well last season, although PFF was not very impressed with them. Admittedly they are not great run blockers. Given the age of the Ravens' offensive line, this might turn out to be a bigger factor than I am assuming it is at the moment. But I expect them to continue to improve this year, and to continue to provide solid play for BAL.

Despite Jermaine Gresham's Pro Bowl invite he doesn't appear from the numbers to be substantially better than the best of the AFC North TEs. He's just coming into his third year, however, and I suspect he still has a fair amount of upside, particularly as he and Andy Dalton work together for their second year. Although Orson Charles looks good on paper, he's still a bit of a wild card.

Heath Miller is a stud. There's no getting around that. But Leonard Pope is not, although he is a hero. If anyone is drowning in the wave pool, he's your man, but I'm hoping that having a much better QB throwing to him is going to help increase his production. And I'm hoping somebody shows him how to run block.

The Browns' TEs have promise, and provided much more of the offense last year than they ought to have done by rights. It won't help them to have yet another QB to deal with, but if Weeden turns out to be a big upgrade from Colt McCoy they will presumably benefit. Watson really needs to stop dropping the ball, though. Between him and Greg Little, that was a lot of missed opportunities last season.

Overall, I would say this is the most difficult position to rank so far. I don't see a clear No. 1 team. If pressed, I would rate them thus:

1. Ravens

1a. Bengals

3. Steelers

4. Browns

I'm not so sure I got this right, either. Dennis Pitta emerged as an impressive receiver, if not blocker. Jermaine Gresham continued to be fairly ordinary, although Football Outsiders liked him a lot. Heath Miller of course had a great year, and the emergence of rookie David Paulson saved us from depending on Leonard Pope for the second spot. Ben Watson apparently read my post, because his 5.77% drop rate was the best in his career by far.

Of course, I didn't include the running backs as receivers in my posts last summer. So how does one make a determination about all of this? Well, I suppose one could just go with the basic metric of wins. But a lot goes into a win besides the ability of your receivers.

One could look at touchdowns, I suppose. Touchdowns caught by only the reviewed receivers (so, for example, Leonard Pope and Will Johnson's touchdowns don't count), the totals look like this:

Baltimore Ravens: WR TDs: 13 TE TDs: 7 RB TDs: 1 Total: 21

Cincinnati Bengals: WR TDs: 16 TE TDs: 5 RB TDs: 0 Total: 21

Cleveland Browns: WR TDs: 9 TE TDs: 3 RB TDs: 1 Total: 13

Pittsburgh Steelers: WR TDs: 14 TE TDs: 8 RB TDs: 0 Total: 22

Ironically, the Steelers win the TD competition. But what about if we include all receiving touchdowns?

Ravens: 22

Bengals: 28

Browns: 16

Steelers: 27

In this case the Bengals win. Ironically, the Ravens were exactly equidistant between the Bengals and the lowly Browns, and yet they won the Super Bowl. Which goes to show it's all hot air, really. Myself included.

And speaking of hot air, here are my suggestions for each team's receiving corps for 2013:

Ravens: Don't mind me, I have nothing to say. Other than that if the Ravens continue to be as fortunate with offensive injuries as they have been recently, they're set for next season.

Bengals: Although I think the Bengals desperately need another receiver to take some of the onus off of A.J. Green, they may already have said receiver on their roster, as a couple of the IR'd guys, namely Mohamed Sanu, last year's 3rd round pick, and Armon Binns, both looked good. Sanu probably has the bigger upside. They could really use a TE with surer hands, but Gresham has other good qualities. (He likes long walks on the beach and reading poetry by the fire, I hear.) Orson Charles is a promising No. 2 who can perhaps take some of the snaps from Gresham. The Law Firm has been somewhat of a disappointment, I think, and his receiving creds haven't helped that impression.

Browns: Greg Little was perhaps the most improved receiver of the bunch, although he had a lot of room for improvement. Hopefully, for the Browns' sake, this will continue. In the meantime rookie Josh Gordon came out of nowhere to have a great season. Mohamed Massaquoi may not be the answer for their No. 3 receiver. Every year he is available for less games, and makes less of them. His best year was his rookie season in 2009. The Browns should IMO address the WR situation either in the draft or free agency. (The Browns are one of the top spots rumored for Mike Wallace to end up.) Ben Watson seems to be a waning talent, and probably should be replaced fairly soon. (Said replacement might already be in the ranks, of course.) Trent Richardson appears to be quite a good receiver, and presumably should only get better.

Steelers: Like the Chinese curse, the Steelers live in interesting times. Only one wide receiver is signed beyond next season (Antonio Brown.) Mike Wallace may or may not return, but the overwhelming opinion is he won't. Heath Miller may or may not be able to play. That may mean "play during the early part of next season," or "play ever again." Nobody knows at this point. And as for the running back situation, let's just say it's possible the Steelers will begin next season with scarcely anyone who has played a snap with the team. It's hard to even know what to recommend, as everything is so interdependent.

But if I were to give it a try, I would draft a good TE and hope Heath Miller will be back partway through the season. I would thank Mike Wallace for his years of service, wish him well, re-sign Plaxico Burress to a one-year contract, and see who else I could take a flyer on in the draft. And I would let Mendenhall and Dwyer walk, re-sign Isaac Redman to a short-term contract, (reasons will become clearer with the RB post), get Baron Batch a dark visor for his helmet so the lights don't dazzle his eyes, and plan to get the bulk of my catches out of my wideouts and TEs.

That's all for the moment. Stay tuned for the Battle of the Offensive Lines/Running Backs, coming soon to a blog near you.

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