It Looks Like Julio Jones Is the Best Receiver in the NFL
Julio Jones can't be stopped.
Through three games, Jones has amassed 34 receptions, 440 receiving yards, and 4 touchdowns. He's seen 46 targets.
Not that he'd be able to sustain it, but at his current per-game pace (11.3 receptions, 146.7 yards, and 1.3 touchdowns), he's headed for a 181-catch, 2,367-yard, 21-touchdown season.
For some more realistic and useful context, Jones, who has had at least 9 receptions and 135 yards in each of his 3 games, is just one of two players (Andre Johnson) to post 3 consecutive games with those baselines in league history.
The yardage, target, and reception totals through three are historically remarkable, but just how good has Jones been in terms of the advanced analytics?
Last year, Jones posted a 104-catch, 163-target, 1,593-yard, 6-touchdown season in 15 games. Of course, some of those marks ranked near the top of the league, but how far from Antonio Brown's stellar season and Demaryius Thomas's high-volume campaign was he in terms of our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric?
NEP, for those who are unfamiliar, is our way of identifying how far above or below expectation-level a player performs. A 15-yard reception will boost yards per catch averages, but if it happens on a 3rd-and-25 and leads to a punt, the impact isn't quite as significant as a 5-yard grab on a 3rd-and-2, for example. Over a full season (and 100-plus targets), those plays add up and can significantly impact a player's true impact on the field.
So, despite seeing 18 fewer targets and 25 fewer receptions, Jones' Reception NEP (142.69) wasn't significantly less than Brown's league-leading mark (151.91). Thomas, unsurprisingly, finished third with a score of 140.59. Those three and Jordy Nelson (140.05) were the only players to post a mark better than 128.
Of course, Jones did similar damage on fewer targets (Brown had 181 and Thomas had 184), so how efficient was he? Among the 40 receivers who saw at least 100 targets last year, Jones' per-target Reception NEP (0.88) ranked sixth. Brown's 0.84 was seventh. Thomas (0.76) finished 14th in the group.
Now, Jones' catch rate (63.80%) was 15th in that subset; Brown's 71.27% was fourth, and Thomas' (60.33%) was 23rd. But a more distinguishing efficiency measure, Success Rate (the percentage of receptions that added to a team's NEP), put Jones in more elite company.
Only Calvin Johnson (98.59%) and Vincent Jackson (92.86%) posted a mark better than Jones (92.31%) last year. Only 86.82% of Brown's receptions actually impacted Pittsburgh's offense positively, a mark that ranked 20th in the 40-receiver group. Thomas' 88.29% ranked 14th.
I know we're looking at Jones here, but he managed to post similar cumulative marks to Brown and Thomas despite the target and reception discrepancy, and in terms of efficiency -- possibly because of the difference in volume -- Jones was the best of the trio.
Is Jones' Hot Start For Real?
We've been over the raw marks Jones has posted through three games, but has the efficiency remained while seeing monstrous volume?
Well, entering Week 3, Jones' Reception NEP (22.01) trailed just Brown (31.59) and Larry Fitzgerald (22.67) among all receivers. Among 58 receivers to see at least 10 targets entering the week Jones (26 targets) ranked 16th in Reception NEP per target (0.85). He was also one of just three players to see at least 20 targets and own a mark greater than 0.80 (Brown and Odell Beckham [0.98] being the others).
However, just 72.73% of his receptions in Weeks 1 and 2 led to NEP gains for Atlanta, ranking 46th among 58 double-digit target receivers. That suggests that while the overall impact he made through two weeks was no mistake, his sheer volume numbers might have overstated his early success on a per-reception basis.
Of course, unless you missed football yesterday (in which case, I'm sorry), then you likely already know about Jones' 20-target, 12-catch, 164-yard, 2-touchdown game against Dallas. According to our initial numberFire Live tallies, Jones' Week 3 game netted him 17.19 points above expectation with his receiving game.
Only A.J. Green (20.42) and Steve Smith (19.73) performed better, per our initial marks. With Fitzgerald (13.64) getting outpaced by Jones and Brown (8.63) mustering "just" 11 catches for 108 yards in a low-scoring matchup with the Rams, Jones should emerge as the leader in Reception NEP through three weeks once the dust clears from Monday Night Football.
Whether it's efficiency or sheer prolificness, it's hard to argue against the case that Jones has been the league's best wide receiver since the start of 2014 through three weeks of 2015.
At the very least, he could be on pace to put up the best season in recent history whether based on analytics or traditional statistics.