How Sustainable Are Big Plays from Receivers Year after Year?

Turning receptions into big gains and touchdowns is a great way to make the highlight reels, but just how sustainable are the results?

In the NFL, difference-making plays come in all situations and from both sides of the ball. But some of the most exciting, electric plays are made on pass connections on long bombs or picked up on yards after the catch, sometimes resulting in touchdowns.

Whether it's a tight end who becomes a red zone specialist or a burner who can get behind seemingly any type of coverage, a few players every year emerge as threats either to move the ball down the field or to cap off a drive with a touchdown grab. Marvin Jones and Riley Cooper made good on a lot of their receptions this year by turning them into six points. Kenny Stills and Doug Baldwin took a more scenic route, picking up yards in bunches.

These types of players show the promise of being game-changers, but how consistently do these emerging threats stay atop the league in terms of big-play effectiveness?

Defining the Approach

The basis of this study is going to center on Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) or, more accurately, Reception NEP per target. If you're unsure of what that is, then just click the link and read up. As a quick summary, Reception NEP measures the actual impact of a player's receptions (based on game situation and field position and the like) and quantifies it in terms of actual points earned for his team over the duration of a season.

Reception NEP per target, then, acts as a good measure to gauge how big of an impact a player makes on the game with each target. For instance, this season, Stills posted a Reception NEP per target of 1.16, tops among all players who tallied at least 30 receptions. Aside from Stills, only Marvin Jones (1.02) had a mark better than 1.00. Jerricho Cotchery (0.98), Baldwin (0.95), and Jordan Reed (0.95) round out the top five, a group that includes both deep threats and touchdown-dependent players.

More prominent names fill out the bottom half of the top 10: Anquan Boldin (0.95), Keenan Allen (0.95), Calvin Johnson (0.92), Demaryius Thomas (0.92), and Jordy Nelson (0.92).

This top 10 serves as a good example of how players with both modest and high target totals can still be factors on every target.

However, posting elite per-target numbers in one year is a much different accomplishment than doing it consistently well. This makes an interesting exploration for the top five from this season, but more importantly, for the overall trend of receivers and tight ends who post big plays in a single season.

Examining 2012's Top 15

While 2013 was kind to these emerging players, it wasn't quite so nice to the top-15 pass catchers from 2012.

Player2012 RankRec NEP/Tar2013 RankRec NEP/Tar
Danario Alexander11.12DNQ-
Lance Moore20.98380.74
Rob Gronkowski30.96170.87
Sidney Rice40.94DNQ-
Golden Tate50.94310.76
Jordy Nelson60.93100.92
Santana Moss70.921260.44
T.Y. Hilton80.92650.64
Vincent Jackson90.91440.72
Eric Decker100.88210.83
Marques Colston110.88230.82
Malcom Floyd120.88DNQ-
Brandon Gibson130.87200.84
Randall Cobb140.87240.80
James Jones150.85540.68

Only five of the top 15 players in terms of Reception NEP per target (and who caught at least 30 passes) could get back into the top 30 this year, but only one, Nelson, could stay inside the top 15. Five finished outside the top 60 or didn't catch 30 passes this season, earning a "did not qualify" (DNQ).

One year is far too inconclusive to uncover any trends - especially since this one is evenly distributed. Looking further back into the annals might help make things a bit more conclusive.

Examining 2011's Top 15

Just like I did with the 2012 class, I'll provide the progression of the 2011 class.

Here's how the top-15 receivers from 2011 fared in 2012.

Player2011 RankRec NEP/Tar2012 RankRec NEP/Tar
Jordy Nelson11.2260.93
Malcom Floyd21.22120.88
Rob Gronkowski31.0630.96
James Jones41.05150.85
Brandon LaFell51.03330.75
Victor Cruz61.01320.75
Laurent Robinson70.99DNQ-
Marques Colston80.99110.88
Antonio Gates90.97380.72
Robert Meachem100.95DNQ-
Mike Wallace110.91700.62
Doug Baldwin120.91DNQ-
Calvin Johnson130.90240.80
Dez Bryant140.89230.80
Devery Henderson150.88DNQ-

The 2011 class of top receivers did well - much better than the 2012 group. Seven finished in the top 30 (and five finished in the top 15 again). However, four of the more enigmatic names failed to qualify in the follow-up season, and some of the other less proven receivers experienced legitimate drop-offs.

The further back we go in history, we can see that flashes in the pan exist in every group, which isn't very surprising. Still, falling from a top-15 player in terms of hauling in big receptions to outside the top 60 is quite the drop off. This indicates, to me, that relying on big-play guys is a gamble and that potential new big threats are often fool's gold.

Is It a Trend?

Does this trend hold up over the past decade? Sort of, but it's quite a loaded answer. This chart displays the distribution of results from top-15 players the year after making the top 15 (i.e. the "2012" row tracks the top 15 from 2012 and sees how they finished in 2013).

Top-15 Class1-30 Finish31-60 FinishOutside Top 60 or DNQ

Surprisingly, the big plays were actually quite sustainable. However, players were only slightly more likely to follow up with a top-30 season as they were to drop entirely outside the top 60 or fail to catch 30 passes: 38% finished top 30, 26% finished between 31 and 60, and 36% dropped outside the top 60.

That's as reassuring to guys like Stills and Jones as it is scary - they could almost just as easily lose their big-play ability in 2014 as they could remain top-30 types.

Who Remains Elite?

So which players are recurring in the top 30? Before answering that, I'll give you some idea of the players who dropped off the production cliff for one reason or another.

Here are the players (and former fantasy heroes) who dropped out of the top 60 in each year over the past five seasons.

Dropouts (Following Year Rank)
2012Danario Alexander (DNQ), Sidney Rice (DNQ), Santana Moss (126), T.Y. Hilton (65), Malcom Floyd (DNQ)
2011Laurent Robinson (DNQ), Robert Meachem (DNQ), Mike Wallace (70), Doug Baldwin (DNQ), Devery Henderson (DNQ)
2010Kenny Britt (DNQ), Todd Heap (DNQ), Ben Obomanu (DNQ), Brandon Lloyd (88), Austin Collie (96)
2009Sidney Rice (DNQ), Vincent Jackson (DNQ), Kelley Washington (DNQ), Patrick Crayton (DNQ), Percy Harvin (71), Brian Hartline (81)
2008Bernard Berrian (65), Anthony Fasano (127), Justin Gage (DNQ), Anthony Gonzalez (DNQ), Jerheme Urban (DNQ), Michael Jenkins (76), Chansi Stuckey (91)

While players like Nelson, Marques Colston, and Rob Gronkowski consistently find themselves inside the top 30 in Reception NEP per target, some players emerge and then fail fail to return to the top 30, let alone the top 15 the next year - guys like Laurent Robinson and Bernard Berrian.

Over the past decade, there have been 100 unique names inside the top 15 in Reception NEP per target, meaning 50 of the other names have been repeats. For instance, Antonio Gates has been inside the top 15 in 5 different seasons. Greg Jennings and Colston did it four times, and a slew of receivers have 3 top-15 finishes.

But how many are one-hit wonders with their top-15 seasons? 34. For 34 of the guys who were once top-15, their top-15 finish was their only time inside the top 30, and 33 other players with a top-15 year found the top 30 just one other time. This means that, of the 100 players who have had a top-15 year, 77 have reached the top 30 just once or twice.

Sure, that includes young players like T.Y. Hilton and Victor Cruz, who haven't had many chances to post big seasons and who might find their way back into the top 30, but only 11 of the 34 receivers with a single top-15 year have a team this season - the rest have retired or are free agents. Also, 11 of the 33 receivers who added a top-30 season to their top-15 performance have a team for the upcoming season. Most of these guys were just one- or two-season studs.

That's not very reassuring for this year's top five. Those repeat performers (the guys who get back inside the top 30) are most often just a few players doing it very frequently. Colston has been top-30 in 8 different seasons; Gates and Reggie Wayne have done it 7 times, and Randy Moss and Jennings have done it 5 times. A few of the top 15 could turn into annual members of the top-30 club, but it's most likely not going to happen.

Projecting 2014

Now that you've seen the trend, I'll leave the subjective interpretation part to you to guess which of the top 15 will be subject to the drop off. Just remember that 77 of the 100 players to post a top-15 season could only reach the top 30 once or twice. And that, based on the past decade, 5.7 receivers from this year's top 15 will find themselves inside the top 30 at least, 5.4 will drop at least 45 places or fail to catch 30 passes, while 3.9 will land somewhere in between.

See if you can find 5 or 6 players from the top 15 who might have had their one big year and finish outside the top-60 (Cole Beasley, Brandon LaFell, and DeAndre Hopkins territory): Kenny Stills, Marvin Jones, Jerricho Cothcery, Doug Baldwin, Jordan Reed, Anquan Boldin, Keenan Allen, Calvin Johnson, Demaryius Thomas, Jordy Nelson, Vernon Davis, Eddie Royal, Riley Cooper, Josh Gordon, and DeSean Jackson.