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Comparing the Steelers receivers to the rest of the NFL

How valuable were the Steelers receivers?

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

It’s easy to look at stat totals and judge players by where they rank based on those totals, but we all know that football is a team sport, and receivers rely heavily on the rest of the offense for their production. A decade ago I came up with a simple metric designed to rate receivers by their importance to the team they play for. I call it MVR (Most Valuable Receiver) and it isn’t hard to calculate.

If you don’t care how the metric works, feel free to skip over this next part.

MVR starts with a players receiving yards divided by team passing attempts. yards per team passing attempt is essentially an adjustment on yards per target based on how often the team they are on throws the ball. Obviously teams that throw the ball more give receivers more opportunity to gain stats. This simply accounts for that.
Then you add percentage of team passing touchdowns that player accounts for. Receiving touchdowns fluctuate by player much more than other receiving stats, they aren’t a great way to judge a receiver. But they are important. This metric looks at receivers by how much of the scoring load they carried, not just points scored. Since passing touchdowns correlate to offensive scheme and quarterback much more than the receiver, this is a good compromise on the value of scoring.

For an example, here’s the math on Cooper Kupp, the No. 1 receiver in MVR in 2021.

Cooper Kupp: 1,947 yards/607 team passing attempts = 3.21 yards per team attempt. 16 TDs/41 team TDs = 39% of team passing TDs. 3.21+0.39= 3.60 MVR.

MVR and the Pittsburgh Steelers

Here’s the top 10 receivers by MVR in the 2021 NFL season, and their rank in total receiving yards

1. Cooper Kupp: 3.60 (#1)
2. Ja’Marr Chase: 2.98 (#4)
3. Justin Jefferson: 2.97 (#2)
4. Deebo Samuel: 2.96 (#5)
5. Davante Adams: 2.90 (#3)
6. Mark Andrews: 2.66 (#6)
7. Tyler Lockett: 2.64 (#9)
8. D.K. Metcalf: 2.35 (#28)
9. Michael Pittman Jr.: 2.30 (#18)
10. D.J. Moore: 2.22 (#11)

Cooper Kupp stood out above all the other receivers in the NFL in 2021, while the next four stood out from everyone below them on the list. After that there are a few surprises. Both Tyler Lockett and D.K. Metcalf jump up the charts. That’s because the Seattle Seahawks threw the ball the second fewest times of any NFL team, so they were competing for fewer passes. The two Seattle receivers accounted for 49.8% of team targets. Defenses knew the ball was going to one of those two, and yet they still produced.

Three receivers finished in the top ten in yards and yet missed the top ten in MVR.

Tyreek Hill: Seventh in yards, 18th in MVR (2.08)

Stephon Diggs: Eighth in yards, 14th in MVR (2.15)

Diontae Johnson: Tenth in yards, 17th in MVR (2.10)

Those three receivers were part of extremely high volume offenses, with KC 2nd, Pittsburgh 4th and Buffalo 5th in team pass attempts, and didn’t produce enough to offset that volume.

Diontae Johnson dropped from 10th in yards to 17th in MVR, how did other Steelers fare?

Chase Claypool: 35th in yards, 51st in MVR (1.38)
Pat Freiermuth: 88th in yards, 79th in MVR (1.05)
Najee Harris: 96th in yards, 102nd in MVR (0.83)
Ray-Ray McCloud: 135th in yards, 139th in MVR (0.42)

142 players qualified for this list with a requirement of 34 receptions (2 per week average)

Pat Freiermuth was the only Steeler to rank higher in MVR than in yards, and that is because at his level of production he had a ridiculously high touchdown share. If you compare target percentage to touchdown percentage, Pat Freiermuth ranked 4th in the entire NFL in increased importance on touchdown passes.

Accounting for the quarterback

MVR does a good job for what it is designed to do, showcase highly efficient receivers that simply played on an offense that didn’t throw the ball as much. But MVR leans highly on efficiency, and receivers aren’t the sole drivers of a passing offense’s efficiency.

To account for team offense, I look at the team’s yards per pass attempt and normalize it to the NFL average for that year, which in 2021 was 7.1 yards per attempt. MVR2 adjusts a player’s yards per team attempt to show what we could expect those numbers to be if every NFL team averaged 7.1 yards per pass attempt. This variant gives a boost to players who played in poorly designed offenses or offenses that suffered from poor quarterback play.

Here’s the top ten receivers in MVR2 along with their ranking from MVR to compare.

1. Cooper Kupp, 3.37 (#1)
2. Justin Jefferson, 3.00 (#3)
3. Mark Andrews, 2.87 (#4)
4. Davante Adams, 2.84 (#5)
5. D.J. Moore, 2.82 (#10)
6. Ja’Marr Chase, 2.71 (#2)
7. Tyler Lockett, 2.70 (#7)
8. Deebo Samuel, 2.59 (#4)
9. Darnell Mooney, 2.59 (#11)
10. Diontae Johnson, 2.53 (#18)

Cooper Kupp’s lead shrinks, but he’s still easily the #1 receiver from 2021. Mark Andrews moves up to #3 in MVR2 after MVR gave him a boost. Mark Andrews was the #1 target on a team that didn’t throw the ball a ton, and didn’t throw it particularly well either, yet he was dominant. That’s how you end up the #3 player on this list. It’s even more impressive that he did it as a tight end.

Ja’Marr Chase drops substantially, because the entire Bengals passing game was crazy good, he was just the best part of the receiver side of it, Joe Burrow has a lot to do with his success and that shows up in how much Burrow boosted the production of the players around Chase.

The biggest gains are from D.J. Moore and Diontae Johnson. Moore was the #1 receiver on a Carolina team that threw the ball poorly, and yet showed up 11th in yards and 10th in MVR. Impressive season for him in a contract year, and he got a very nice extension out of it.

Diontae Johnson moves back up to tenth after MVR dropped him to 18th. The Steelers offense was a high volume, low efficiency offense, and these contrasting rankings showcase the dilemma of whether that volume padded stats for a good, not great player or if the limitations of the offense hurt his ability to produce. Both play a part, but how much of a factor each was will shape his value in the future.

How bad was the Steelers passing offense? Diontae Johnson was second only to D.J. Moore in the difference between MVR and MVR2, he was behind only D.J. Moore. Chase Claypool ranks 7th in the difference between MVR and MVR2 and Pat Freiermuth ranks 21st.

The difference between MVR and MVR2 is a number I watch for ever since 2016, when DeAndre Hopkins had his worst season on a bad offense with a revolving door of quarterbacks. The gap between his MVR and MVR2 was the highest in the NFL, and the next season the Texans drafted Deshaun Watson and Hopkins made three straight All-Pro First Teams, while leading the NFL in MVR.

What does that mean for Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool? Diontae Johnson is #2 in that gap for the 2021 season, and the Steelers are bringing in a new quarterback and have invested in making the Matt Canada offense work better.

While Johnson’s gap isn’t nearly as big as Hopkins’ was, there are clear signs that we could see much more efficient production from the Steelers top offensive targets. Also if you think highly of Matt Corral, you might want to consider D.J. Moore for your fantasy team.