No, Vincent Jackson Isn't Better than Demaryius Thomas

The NFL Network's Top 100 Players ranks Vincent Jackson at 44, while Demaryius Thomas comes in at 49. Does this make any sense?

Vincent Jackson is a better wide receiver than Demaryius Thomas.

When I read this on Twitter the other day, my initial reaction, like most, was, “What the what? Are you kidding me? Who in their right mind can make such an outrageous claim?"

Well, according to NFL Network’s list of the Top 100 NFL Players of 2014, Vincent Jackson was ranked higher than Demaryius Thomas, at number 44 than Demaryius Thomas, at number 49.

Rather than drawing a line in the sand to defend my opinion (as I often do and I'm sure my wife or anyone who knows me well enough will attest to), I decided to break down the data and analyze this ranking objectively, to see if it at all validates what current players - the voters for this list - are saying.

Numbers Never Lie

As with many comparisons, we often look to statistics first to prove, or disprove, our beliefs. The following table compares the players based upon conventional metrics used to measure a receiver's performance

Demaryius Thomas201392143015.514785.889.4
Vincent Jackson201378122415.77604.976.5

The great thing about our website is that we're not limited to only using these conventional statistics. We have the unique ability, using our own metrics, to weed out all of the overvalued numbers as shown above. Because to be honest, they don't give you the clearest picture about what is truly going on around the NFL week after week.

The metric we use around here is called Net Expected Points (NEP). Basically, our advanced algorithms formulate how many points an average team would be expected to score in any given situation (down, distance, yard line, etc), and if a player performs above or below expectation from that starting point, he's credited or discredited for his play. So, if a player's performance on a given play nets him an above average NEP, then he's giving his team a higher probability of scoring on said drive, which, in turn, boosts his value to his respective team. The flip side to that is that a player can also drag a team down by performing below the average of what is expected of him on a given play.

So, what does our NEP data say about this comparison? The results from the 2013 season shouldn't surprise you.

PlayerRecRec NEPTargetsTarget NEP*Rec NEP/TargetCatch Rate*Rec Success Rate
Demaryius Thomas92130.0314283.020.9264.79%93.48%
Vincent Jackson78115.3416018.990.7248.75%93.59%

Thomas performed better than Jackson in every category, except targets. In terms of Reception NEP - the number of points added on catches only - Thomas was more effective, adding 15 more points for his team compared to Jackson. But furthermore, when we specifically look at Target NEP (the number of points a receiver adds or loses for his team on all targets, regardless of whether the pass is completed or not), you can see the greatest disparity. Thomas comes in at an outstanding 59.92 expected points higher than league average. Jackson, on the other hand, was actually below league average in this category at a -4.11 clip.

This isn't to say that Jackson isn't a good wide receiver. Rather, his catch rate and circumstances brought horrendous results when he didn't catch the football.

Extenuating Circumstances

Clearly Thomas had an advantage playing with Peyton Manning, while V-Jax was catching passes from rookie Mike Glennon. A Peyton Manning incomplete pass usually isn't as bad as a Mike Glennon one, and Manning will naturally allow a higher catch rate for his receivers.

But I also looked at Thomas' teammates from a year ago to compare how they stacked up to him, given they played under the same circumstances. What I discovered was that Thomas had a higher Target NEP than the next closest teammate, Eric Decker, by 15.83 points. In addition to this, Thomas outperformed Decker in Reception NEP by a larger margin at 17.44 points. And it's not as though Thomas saw a whole lot more volume, as he only had six more targets than Decker.

Things were a bit different for Jackson. While his Reception NEP was an amazing 58.46 points better than anyone else on his team, he actually ranked below two teammates in Target NEP: Tim Wright and Tiquan Underwood. Much of this is due to V-Jax being force-fed the ball, but it's still awfully alarming.

The Great Equalizer

To put these two in similar situations, I tried to come up with an equalizer to eliminate some of these factors. I decided to look at how each player performed when their quarterback's Passing NEP was similar. To do this, I compared Manning's 2012 year in which he put up a 164.88 Passing NEP to Philip Rivers' 2009 season in which he had a Passing NEP of 175.86. The results from Demaryius Thomas and Vincent Jackson that year are below.

PlayerYrRecRec NEPTargetsTarget NEPRec NEP/TargetCatch RateRec Success Rate
Demaryius Thomas201294114.0514178.660.8166.67%81.91%
Vincent Jackson200968110.9110776.811.0463.55%95.59%

All things being somewhat equal, we still see that Thomas performed slightly ahead of Jackson in Reception NEP, Target NEP and catch rate. However, we do notice that Jackson only saw 107 targets that year. Compare that to the massive 160 total we saw this past year, and your head may spin. It's clear that Rivers had more options than Glennon

We also notice that Jackson outperformed Thomas in a few categories. He has a better Reception NEP per target, which tells us he was more efficient than Thomas. Also, he had a higher Reception Success Rate, which is the percentage of receptions that contribute positively towards a player’s Reception NEP. So, he was more effective on his receptions, and he was more efficient. Is this the smoking gun that says "Vincent Jackson is better than Demaryius Thomas"?

I would say no. It does, however, open my eyes a bit to accept the fact that Jackson is better than I initially gave him credit for. One thing that I want to bring up is that Vincent Jackson was in his fifth season in the NFL above, whereas Thomas' 2012 season was only his third. To me, this means that Thomas is on a higher trajectory than Jackson, and by his fifth season, he'll be even better than Jackson.

While it may be closer than most would originally think, Demaryius Thomas is the better receiver. And he still hasn't even hit his ceiling.