Throughout my time as a scout with the New Orleans Saints, we always honored the Parcellsian tradition of breaking the season into quarters to self-evaluate and help deconstruct the ebbs and flows of the long season into smaller chunks. This made sense since Sean Payton came from Bill Parcells’s coaching tree. It also makes sense because great football coaches often have a knack for solving complex problems by distilling them down to their simpler parts.
In that spirit, I thought it would be interesting to look at the receivers who have been most impactful in terms of Total Points through the first quarter of the NFL season to see who is there that we would or wouldn’t expect, how they have gotten there, and what the list can tell us about what to expect over the rest of the NFL season. As a reminder, Total Points is our total value stat that takes all of the Expected Points Added (EPA) created on each play and divides it amongst the 22 players on the field according to their impact on the play. The EPA column in the chart above shows the total EPA gained (or lost) on plays where the receiver was targeted, and Positive% is the percentage of those plays that resulted in a positive EPA.
Bills, Bills, Bills
While Josh Allen is earning himself plenty of what Destiny’s Child was referring to with his play through the first four weeks—he is second behind Aaron Rodgers (by a sliver) in Passing Total Points in his third season of his rookie contract—the first thing that pops out from this list is two Buffalo receivers in the top four.
The addition of Stefon Diggs has changed the Bills offense, specifically their ability to attack man coverage schemes. As you will see on the following charts, Allen’s problem has never been against zone:
Josh Allen vs zone, 2018-2020
Josh Allen vs man, 2018-2020
While the Bills QB has seen about equal amounts of man and zone over the last two years, he created what rounds to zero Total Points against man coverage but performed at a solid level against zone. He has been good against both schemes in 2020, but his astronomical improvement against man has made teams more reluctant to play it against him. Which brings us back to the receivers…
By bringing Diggs in as a true number one, not only has he been able to produce over 12 yards per target against man, but John Brown has benefitted as well. When targeting Brown against man, Buffalo quarterbacks have increased their completion percentage by ten percentage points and their rating by 40 points compared to 2019.
Traditional football wisdom says that it takes great receivers to beat man coverage, and the Bills went from having a mediocre matchup against the opposition’s number one corner to having good matchups against both the number one and number two corners on most teams by virtue of adding just one player. Diggs is fourth in the NFL in Total Points against man and Brown is fifth so far this year.
So what is going on with Cole Beasley? The simple answer is that teams are playing more zone against the Bills because of the presence of Diggs and Allen’s 65% Positive% against man. While Beasley only has six targets against man, he has crushed zone coverage to the tune of 9 Total Points (14 EPA when targeted) on 15 targets through four games. A closer look shows that 12 of those targets and all of those Total Points came between the numbers, evidence that Buffalo is optimizing Beasley by getting in mismatches with linebackers who can’t keep up with his shiftiness and ability to find soft spots in zone.
While Diggs leads the league in Receiving Total Points, the Bengals’ Tyler Boyd has by far the most EPA in the NFL when targeted, as well as the highest Positive% amongst players with 25 or more targets. His rookie quarterback, Joe Burrow, sits at number ten on the Passing Total Points leaderboard, but he is just 20th in Positive% on all throws, so it’s easy to see how Boyd has been key to his productivity.
Terry McLaurin of the “Football Team” is second in Total Points and third in EPA, but that didn’t prevent his quarterback from getting benched this week. It will be interesting to see if McLaurin can keep his production up in light of the QB change, but if history is any indication, he will be in okay shape.
A quick look at the SIS On-Off Splits Tool shows that Case Keenum was more productive than Dwayne Haskins was in 2019 with McLaurin on the field, and…let’s hope that McLaurin stays healthy:
Washington Passing with and without Terry McLaurin, 2019
Running Backs and Tight Ends
Alvin Kamara of the Saints slots in at number five on the first quarter Receiving Total Points list, but it has rarely been the slot where he has done his damage from this year. 31 of his 35 targets and nine of his ten Total Points have come when he is out of the backfield. With just 20 Completed Air Yards, he leads the league with 306 Yards After the Catch while the second-ranked player has 211.
Meanwhile, “tight end” Travis Kelce has all of his 8.4 Total Points coming out of the slot. Patrick Mahomes has a quarterback rating of 134 when targeting him from this alignment, and ten of Kelce’s 13 slot receptions have resulted in first downs. The Tight End Total Points leaderboard is worth keeping an eye on, as Noah Fant is emerging to fight George Kittle for the number two spot thus far. Tyler Higbee of the Rams and Mo Alie-Cox of the Colts round out the top five list, and I’ll be intrigued to see if they can keep their production up over the remaining three-quarters of the season.
High Volume vs Low Volume
The number seven and eight spots on this list are almost identical in terms of total production, but they couldn’t be more different in terms of how they got there. Amari Cooper has been targeted a league-leading 50 times but the Cowboys have just eight EPA on those targets despite nine Total Points by Cooper. What explains this is that ten of those targets were charted as uncatchable by Sports Info Solutions (SIS) Video Scouts, and 22 of Cooper’s 37 receptions went for first downs.
On the other hand, Vikings rookie Justin Jefferson has done his damage on just 20 targets so far this year, but those have been an extraordinarily efficient 20 plays responsible for 19 EPA. Amongst players with at least ten targets, Jefferson leads the NFL with a ridiculous 17.4 yards per target. Living up to the standard he set for himself at LSU, all 11 of his receptions out of the slot have resulted in first downs.
NFC South Sleepers
Rounding out our list are two receivers from the same division that get slept on too much. The Panthers haven’t missed a beat without Christian McCaffrey, and Robby Anderson has been their go-to guy. He has changed the narrative about Teddy Bridgewater by placing third in the NFL in Total Points on passes that travel at least ten air yards.
The Falcons’ Calvin Ridley is right behind Anderson at fourth in Total Points on passes that travel ten or more yards downfield, and he has done all of his damage and then some against zone coverage this year. In fact, he has 8.9 Total Points against zone and negative Total Points against man.
Last year, Ridley had 7 of his 13 Total Points against man, so this might be a small sample aberration, but it’s worth keeping an eye on if teams are finding ways to handle him in man with Julio Jones out of the lineup. One more look at the On-Off Tool shows that so far this year Ridley has 0.75 EPA/Target when targeted with Jones on the field but -0.28 EPA/Target with him off the field.