What does it take to be a top-five wide receiver in the NFL? Does Player X have to lead the league in receptions, yards or touchdowns? Must there be a noticeable dip in production from his position when he isn't on the field? How much does consistency weigh in?
Obviously, there's a lot to consider. As I thought more and more about what someone of that caliber must possess, I was drawn to three fundamental qualities: production, efficiency and reliability.
Production is the number one key to being a top-five wideout. Whether it be in terms of yards, yards after catch or touchdowns, a top-five wide receiver eats up yardage and puts points on the board almost routinely.
Efficiency and reliability almost go hand in hand. We can measure wide receiver efficiency by looking at how well they perform on a per target basis, which will be examined through our Reception Net Expected Points per target metric, while reliability can be quantified through catch rate, the number of passes dropped and the quarterback's rating when targeting that specific wide receiver.
Consensus top-five wideout conversations nearly all include guys like Calvin Johnson, Demaryius Thomas, A.J. Green and Brandon Marshall because they're widely regarded as the most productive at their position, But what about Green Bay wide receiver Jordy Nelson? The seventh-year wideout - has it really been seven years? - has never led the league in any of the three major statistical categories (receptions, yards and touchdowns) since entering the NFL in 2008, but he has become one of the league's most efficient and reliable wide-receiving weapons.
Last season, Nelson compiled 85 catches for 1,314 yards and 8 touchdowns in his first full season since 2011. He has 15 touchdowns over the last two years, equaling his 2011 output of 15 touchdowns, which, ironically, didn't even lead the league thanks to Rob Gronkowski's historic 17-touchdown season.
Since breaking out in 2011, Nelson has put up solid numbers, most notably in the form of touchdowns. But when compared to those of his counterparts across the league, his reception and yardage totals are near the bottom of the list.
I don't see these numbers as so much of a knock on Nelson, who's missed four games since 2011, the most of anyone in the table not named Andre Johnson or Demaryius Thomas. Rather, they're a testament to how many big-time receivers are in the NFL right now, and the fact that Green Bay has gradually moved toward running the ball more than any team on the chart outside of the Cincinnati Bengals.
Nelson isn't seeing the volume of balls the other top wideouts are seeing, and, because of that, his stats aren't as flashy. A top-five wide receiver needs to consistently maintain a high level of production, and if it wasn't for his injury in 2012, he likely would have had his third-consecutive 1,000 yard season last year. But if you think touchdowns and yards per catch are what define a top wideout, it's hard to keep Nelson out of the conversation.
At numberFire, we can look at how efficient a wide receiver is through Reception NEP target, which essentially gives us a look at how many points a player is adding via receptions on a per target basis. In 2013, Jordy Nelson finished 10th in Reception NEP, the number of points added on receptions only, and eighth in Target NEP, the number of points a player gets on all targets. But how efficient was he?
|Player||Reception NEP per Target|
Nelson was without a doubt a top-five wide receiver in terms of efficiency last year, giving him his second consecutive season with at least a 0.92 Reception NEP per target. Although he finished with a fewer targets and receptions last season because of injury, he was still able to maintain a superior level of efficiency with a 0.93 Rec. NEP/Target. And that was without Aaron Rodgers for part of the season.
Catch rates, dropped passes and quarterback ratings when throwing to a particular wide receiver can give us a great sense at just how reliable a wide receiver is. Among the top-10 players in our Reception NEP and Target NEP rankings in 2013, Nelson was third to only San Diego's Keenan Allen and New Orleans' Marques Colston in catch rate, which gives us the percentage of targets caught. He caught 66.93 percent of the balls thrown his way last year, giving him three consecutive seasons of posting a catch rate of at least 66 percent. Impressive.
Another way we can look at wide receiver reliability is through dropped passes. According to Pro Football Focus, Nelson dropped six passes on 91 catchable balls in 2013, and finished with the ninth-best drop rate at 6.59 percent among wideouts with at least 100 targets. Neither Johnson, Thomas, Marshall, Green or Bryant finished inside the top 20.
Lastly, the connection a receiver has with a quarterback is a great way to measure his reliability. One of PFF stats is wide receiver rating, which tells us what the quarterback's rating is when throwing at a receiver. Nelson finished 2013 with a rating of 111.6, the sixth-best in the league among receivers with at least 100 targets. The only receivers ahead of him were DeSean Jackson, Demaryius Thomas, Anquan Boldin, Keenan Allen and Eric Decker.
In essence, there's no doubt Nelson is among the best in the league in terms of efficiency and reliability. But when you factor in his all-around production, the consistency of that production and how it compares to that of his peers, Nelson falls just short of being tabbed a top-five wideout. We all know anything is possible with Aaron Rodgers quarterbacking your team, so he could just be one more massive statistical year away from making the leap into the top-five wide receiver conversation.