5 Big-Play NFL Pass-Catchers Who Could Regress in 2016

Stefon Diggs did great things in 2015, but a lot more than we expected. Was it a fluke?

I’m sore all over.

I’m finally getting back into running shape, and hitting the gym three or four times a week when you’ve taken time off is hard on the body. The whole goal there is to not rush things, to build up slowly and consistently before you get to the intense and long runs. 

So, of course, I leapt right back into doing 45-minute elliptical sessions, and here we are.

Going too big, too hard, too fast can actually be detrimental sometimes. When it comes to the world of statistics, we don’t want to see someone playing beyond their means when we’re projecting for the future. That actually indicates future inconsistency and negative regression.

With this in mind, we continue our series looking at 2015 big-play beneficiaries in the NFL who may see their production drop in 2016 due to regression. Which pass-catchers may wake up bruised after falling back to earth in 2016?

The Method

First of all, let’s define the term “big play”. A big play (some call it an “explosive play”) is any that results in a gain of 20 or more yards on offense. These plays are often fairly fluky, happening usually as a result of a broken coverage or missed tackle, and don’t tend to be consistent year-to-year.

I used the play-by-play search function of Pro Football Reference to pull up every receiving play that resulted in a gain of 20 or more yards in 2015. By comparing their production on big plays -- in the form of receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns -- to their production overall, I was able to find what percentage of their production was due to a big play.

I then took only the players who had at least 50 total receptions last season (73 of them) and ranked them in each category. Those with the highest average rank are our “flukiest” wide receivers and most likely to regress in 2016. The table below shows the average percentages of attempts, yards, and touchdowns on receiving big plays over the last five years, for reference.

20+ Yards Receptions Yards TD
% of Total 14.85% 39.12% 34.27%

5. Brandin Cooks, New Orleans Saints

20+ Yards Receptions Yards TD
% of Total 21.43% (16th) 53.78% (10th) 77.78% (4th)

We can already see just how much more Brandin Cooks’ production was reliant on big plays than the five-year average. Cooks thrived on a lot of deep passes in 2015, essentially taking over as the New Orleans Saints’ speed threat with the trade of Kenny Stills in the offseason. Add in the fact that he has incredible agility and can make a short pass into a big play, and you have a player whose profile lends itself well to explosiveness.

The Saints will surely be picking up more receiving talent this year, so we could see some regression from the slight slot man. Almost certainly there will be a regression in his big-play touchdown rate. Still, if Cooks occupies the same role and still has a talented Drew Brees tossing to him, perhaps the receiving value isn’t as likely to diminish as hard as we think.

4. Stefon Diggs, Minnesota Vikings

20+ Yards Receptions Yards TD
% of Total 23.53% (12th) 50.79% (12th) 75.00% (6th)

Stefon Diggs was a surprising rookie sensation for everyone in my home state of Minnesota, and even across the football sphere. When it looked like quarterback Teddy Bridgewater would get no help last year, the speedy, sure-handed Diggs stepped into the starting lineup and dominated the receiving game. Diggs, like Cooks, has a skill-set that lends itself well to yards after the catch, but no one should have this big of a share of their usage coming on big plays.

The yardage and touchdown rates will undoubtedly regress, as Diggs profiles best as a possession-type slot receiver. If Minnesota is able to find a legitimate outside wideout, Diggs will move inside in 2016. While it’s great to have the ability to score from a long way out, three-quarters of one’s touchdown percentage being bombs isn’t a way to thrive in the NFL.

3. Allen Hurns, Jacksonville Jaguars

20+ Yards Receptions Yards TD
% of Total 29.23% (5th) 57.52% (5th) 50.00% (16th)

One thing we can say for Allen Hurns is that at least he wasn’t scoring a majority of his fantasy points on fluky touchdowns. His 50.00 percent big-play touchdown rate is the lowest among top-10 wide receivers in this metric. That being said, he was well above the average in big-play catch rate and big-play yardage rate. He was clearly one of the prime beneficiaries of quarterback Blake Bortles’ equally unsustainable big-play production in 2015.

I could see some of the top-end value of Hurns regressing fairly easily, unless he improves his catching ability (61.5 percent catch rate in 2015), Bortles feeds him more targets, or the quality of passes improve. Without some underlying factor helping him sustain this high outlier production, I have no doubt that Hurns is hitting his peak value for the near future right now.

2. James Jones, Green Bay Packers

20+ Yards Receptions Yards TD
% of Total 36.00% (2nd) 66.63% (2nd) 62.50% (12th)

Everyone has been screaming about negative regression for James Jones since his Week 1 four-catch, two-touchdown game. Yet, he defied the odds at age 31 and put up a ridiculous 890 yards on just 50 receptions, along with 8 touchdowns. Now we know why.

Over one-third of Jones’s receptions came off of plays of 20 yards or more, and we know that he has little to offer after-the-catch these days. That means that this was all fluky long bombs and almost no skill involved. Add in the fact that almost 600 of his receiving yards came off of these, and I don’t care who you are: those are unsustainable numbers for anyone. Jones will likely not be re-signed by the Green Bay Packers, so his age and a likely shift to a worse offense will bring him right back down to earth.

1. Sammy Watkins, Buffalo Bills

20+ Yards Receptions Yards TD
% of Total 30.00% (4th) 63.71% (3rd) 88.89% (2nd)

Of course, it had to be this way, right? Tyrod Taylor earned the top spot for the quarterbacks, so it had to be a near-lock that his number one target, Sammy Watkins, garnered the top spot here. With top-five fluke ratings across the board, there’s almost no way to suggest that Sammy Watkins' rate of production won't regress in 2016. I understand that he’s fast, quick, and very powerful at the catch point, but no one can sustain this level of production off of big plays.

His 1,047 receiving yards came on just 60 receptions and just 95 targets. These rates indicate that a surprising 18 of those 60 catches were big plays, and 667 of his receiving yards and 8 touchdowns came this way. I love Sammy Watkins, and I truly think he is one of the best young wide receivers in the NFL, but the rates he is on won't sustain unless he increases his workload going forward.