Which Wide Receiver Duo Was Best in 2013?

The Bears and Broncos boasted duos that were a cut above the rest in 2013. But which one was best?

Debates about which team has the best wide receiving duo have become commonplace in the NFL. And nowadays, mostly due to their terrific 2013 production for the Chicago Bears, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery are often considered the best tandem when this topic arises.

Spoiler alert: They are. Mostly.

I decided to go in depth and look at who the top receiving duos were in 2013, utilizing numberFire’s very own Net Expected Points (NEP) metrics, which you can read more about here.

To start, it’s important to clarify that this article deals with 2013 only. That means, due to injury, the receiving pairings of Julio Jones and Roddy White, Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson, and Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton aren't considered. Obviously, these are some of the twosomes that come up often in this discussion, but with half of each of those duos being out of commission for a significant chunk of 2013, their numbers simply wouldn't stack up. Additionally, to be considered for this list, both receivers needed at least 80 targets last season.

Without further ado, let’s take a gander at these numbers.

PlayerReception NEPTarget NEP
B. Marshall & A. Jeffery240.23114.64
D. Thomas & E. Decker242.62151.21
A. Johnson & D. Hopkins164.6033.80
A. Green & M. Jones209.1462.00
J. Jones & J. Nelson180.7187.51
D. Jackson & R. Cooper184.7123.19

To the surprise of likely no one, Marshall and Jeffery combined for an utterly impressive 240.23 Reception NEP (the number of points added on catches only) in 2013, giving them an average Reception NEP of just over 120.00. Considering that, among receivers with at least 80 targets, a Reception NEP of 120.00 would have placed a wideout eighth overall and just one point from sixth overall, that's pretty impressive. And that's the average of the Bears’ top two receivers.

As you can see, however, Marshall and Jeffery didn't add up to the highest Reception NEP among the duos listed. That honor goes to Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, who had an extra 2.39 points on them. Among wide receivers with at least 80 targets, Thomas finished third overall in terms of Reception NEP in 2013. It’s not like he’s pulling up the Broncos’ duos numbers up, however, as Decker more than held his own per the Reception NEP metric, producing a higher number than Andre Johnson and DeSean Jackson, among others.

But that's just reception-based, and clearly the top receivers in one of the most historic - if not the most historic - offenses ever is going to compile great numbers.

Looking at the Target NEP between the Bears’ and Broncos’ duos is where we see some pretty significant separation. Target NEP looks at the number of points added by a receiver on all targets, factoring in incompletions and interceptions. And one interesting thing to do with this data is find the difference between it and Reception NEP to get the amount of points that the team lost when the receiver didn't catch the passes thrown his way. This makes sense logically, as Target NEP considers all passes thrown to a receiver, and when you take away the plays in which the player caught passes, which are the plays considered in Reception NEP, then you have the missed passes.

This can reveal as much about the quarterback of these teams as it does the receivers. Outside of the Jackson and Cooper combo, who benefited from Nick Foles’ pinpoint accuracy, none of the listed duos had a Target NEP as close to their Reception NEP as Thomas and Decker.

What exactly does this mean when comparing them to Marshall and Jeffery? While a smaller difference between the two metrics can indicate a receiver had a high catch rate - and Thomas and Decker both had higher catch rates than Marshall and Jeffery - it also means the quarterback of their team made fewer mistakes. So in essence, we're seeing that Peyton Manning is darn good.

While I don’t want to turn this into a quarterback-centric article, there’s no debate that Manning’s 2013 campaign was historically good. The Bears passing game was better than it had been in a long time last year, ranking seventh according to our schedule-adjusted metrics. Manning and the Broncos finished first in that category. The fact that Marshall and Jeffery were able to produce at a similar level compared to Thomas and Decker is nothing short of sensational, considering Denver's total passing offense added roughly 168 more Net Expected Points than Chicago's last year. For context, 168 points is more than the third-ranked San Diego Chargers compiled across the entire 2013 season. In other words, a lot of points were to be had in Denver last year.

Given all this, I think it's safe to say, given quarterback play and wide receiver production, that Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery were the best receiving duo in 2013. And while that may not come as a surprise, what's probably most impressive is that they did it with the eighth-best passing offense.