Why Wide Receivers Have Little to Do With the NFL's Passing Surge

The NFL has turned into a pass-happy league, but wide receivers may not be a big reason for it.

The NFL game we watch today is completely different than the one we saw even 10 years ago.

In 2005, two quarterbacks threw for 4,000 or more yards. One passer hit the 30-touchdown mark. And one signal-caller threw the ball more than 565 times.

This past year, 12 passers reached 4,000 passing yards. There were 11 30-plus touchdown quarterbacks. And 10 teams saw their top quarterback throw more than 565 times.

I'd say things are different.

Quarterbacks are better today than they were when players like Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning were new to the league. And it's not just within volume statistics -- they're more efficient. But, interestingly enough, this efficiency may have little to do with a quarterback's favorite weapon -- wide receivers have remained relatively consistent through the years, while running backs and tight ends have gotten better. 

Allow me to explain.

Unwavering Efficiency

Even casual NFL fans know quarterbacks are throwing the ball more in today's NFL, while running backs are seeing fewer touches. In turn, pass-catchers are seeing more volume. For the most part.

Total NFL Targets, 2000-215

Since the turn of the century, we've gradually seen an increase in wide receiver targets (approximately 91 more among all wide receivers per season), running back targets have pretty much remained the same (a loss of 11 targets per season within the entire position), and tight end targets have increased at a high rate (an increase of about 61 per season).

In other words, quarterbacks are throwing the ball more to tight ends and wide receivers, all while targeting running backs at a surprisingly lower rate.

This doesn't tell us, though, that running backs haven't played a role in the increase in quarterback effectiveness over the years. All it shows is that teams are throwing it more, and the volume is being spread to wide receivers and tight ends.

It doesn't show us efficiency. 

And that's where things get interesting.

At numberFire, we often use our own metric called Net Expected Points (NEP) to help show how well a player performs versus expectation. Rather than give you the down low on what NEP is all about here, head on over to our glossary and learn more.

NEP, at the highest level, shows how many points a player is adding (or losing) for his team. And it's all compared to historical expectation levels.

With pass-catchers, the efficiency metric we use is called Reception Net Expected Points per target. Or, in other words, the amount of points a pass-catcher is adding on his catches only, divided by the number of targets that pass-catcher is seeing.

We've already established that wide receivers have seen a general increase in volume over the last 15 years, while running back targets have remained constant and tight end looks have gone up dramatically. But what about efficiency? What about the positions' Reception NEP per target rates?

Pass-Catcher Efficiency, 2000-2015

Over the last 15 seasons, running backs have seen a general increase in Reception NEP per target of 0.003, tight ends have increased their Net Expected Points efficiency by 0.007 per campaign, while wide receivers -- well, wide receivers have remained almost exactly the same.

To put this another way, a huge reason for quarterback success over the last decade and a half has to do with a boom from the tight end position. And while running backs are seeing similar volume through the air, they've been far more efficient as pass-catchers out of the backfield.

That's helped quarterbacks out a lot, too, I'm sure.

Wide receivers, meanwhile, aren't doing anything different. Aside from the fact that they're seeing more volume, of course.

This doesn't mean wide receivers are unimportant -- there's something to say about seeing an increase in volume and maintaining efficiency. But what it could tell us is that teams may want to do more to involve their tight ends and running backs in the passing game.

Maybe there's a reason New England -- a team that always utilizes their tight ends and running backs in the passing game -- has consistently been so good offensively during this time.