Skip to Main Content
Fan Engagement, Industry Analysis Articles, Media & Tech, Team Performance

Burned Up: Taking a QB-Independent Approach to Analyzing the Receiver-Defender Relationship

 

Stats like completion percentage and QB rating don’t tell the whole story. In Part II of a series on our advanced football metrics, we examine how Burn% and Open% measure the impact of pass-catchers and their defenders by removing the passer from the equation. 

By: Greg Gifford

It’s easy to look at a box score and see which receiver caught the most passes or gained the most yards.

But is that a reliable way to determine how well a receiver played when so much of his success depends on the player throwing him the ball? There’s a big difference between being fed by Tom Brady and Blake Bortles, so it stands to reason that the best way to evaluate receivers is to remove the passer from the equation as much as possible.

The same problem exists for defenders. Statistics like completion percentage or QB rating when targeted might seem valuable, but consider this: An incomplete pass into perfect coverage and an overthrow on a receiver that should have been an 80-yard touchdown produces the same value in those stats.

Faced with this problem, Stats Perform has its own metrics that analyze the receiver-defender relationship by removing quarterback play as much as possible.

Will Fuller tops all WRs in Stats Perform’s Burn Yards Per Target and ranks fifth in Burn%

BURNS

Most Stats Perform receiving and coverage metrics are based around one concept: the Burn.

A Burn occurs when the targeted receiver does his part to achieve a successful play (that is, a significant gain towards a first down or touchdown), regardless of the quality of the throw by the quarterback. The receiver doesn’t even have to catch a pass to be credited with a Burn. If he gets open beyond the first-down marker but the QB doesn’t deliver a catchable ball, the receiver still gets credit for doing his part in making the play successful. (Likewise, the defending player in coverage is credited with a Burn Allowed.)

Conversely, if a receiver makes a catch for a seven-yard gain on third-and-10, no Burn is credited because he wasn’t able to earn his team a new set of downs. Each target is also credited with Burn Yardage that represents how many yards were gained on a reception. He’s also credited with Burn Yardage if he was open but the pass wasn’t completed.

OPEN%

This is simply how often a receiver is open when he is targeted. Open% has an indirect correlation with average target depth — that is, how far downfield a receiver is targeted. This makes sense because it is generally easier to get open on short, quick routes as opposed to longer downfield passes that have less margin for error.

As shown below, Open% is also affected by where a receiver lines up. Receivers in the slot are more likely to get open for two reasons: (1) They require a shorter throw because they are closer to the middle of the field, and (2) their defenders need to cover routes in either direction, whereas outside cornerbacks are able to use the sideline as an extra defender.

Let’s take a look at how these numbers vary based on position:

Metric - Position75th Percentile50th Percentile25th Percentile
Burn% - OWR65.161.056.8
Burn% - SLOT65.959.352.6
BYds/Tgt - OWR12.711.310.3
BYds/Tgt - SLOT10.79.88.8
Open% - OWR73.466.160.3
Open% - SLOT80.977.672.9

As noted above, the most obvious difference between outside receivers (OWRs) and slot receivers (SLOTs) are their respective Open%.

One might think being open more would translate to a higher Burn%, but that isn’t the case. Because routes from the slot are much more likely to be short of the sticks (52% of the time, as opposed to 42% of the time for OWRs), SLOTs will be open without recording a Burn on more occasions. That’s also seen in the 1.5-yard difference between OWRs and SLOTs in Burn Yards Per Target.

When looking at defensive numbers, it is immediately clear that defensive backs have lower numbers across the board than wide receivers. (OCB — outside cornerbacks, ICB — inside cornerbacks)

Metric - Position75th Percentile50th Percentile25th Percentile
Burn-A% - OCB45.850.056.8
Burn-A% - ICB44.748.152.4
BYds-A/Tgt - OCB8.710.211.7
BYds-A/Tgt - ICB8.89.410.8
Open-A% - OCB55.961.967.6
Open-A% - ICB68.071.076.4

The biggest reason for this is the amount of zone coverage played in the NFL. Underneath or in-breaking routes are often the responsibility of linebackers dropping into coverage; so cornerbacks, both inside and outside, are less likely to get burned.

So how does that look when applied to the 2019 season?

Michael Thomas makes the catch that gave him the single-season pass reception record.

Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints, OWR119 targets as OWR (2nd most), 81.5 Burn% (1st of 59 qualified), 10.9 BYds/Tgt (34th), 84.9 Open% (1st)

In a season in which Thomas shattered the all-time record for catches, it shouldn’t be a surprise that no other player got open or burned his coverage as often as Thomas. His Burn Yards Per Target is only middle of the pack because of the number of short routes he runs; his average depth of target of 8.3 yards is actually the lowest among all players with 40 or more targets at OWR. But that’s just a minor blemish on Thomas’ extraordinary season.

Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs, SLOT46 targets as SLOT (t-29 most), 82.6 Burn% (1st of 39 qualified), 11.9 BYds/Tgt (6th), 78.3 Open% (18th)

Kelce is considered the best receiving tight end in football, and a big reason for that is his incredible success when lined up in the slot. While he spent only about a quarter of his snaps lined up there, Kelce’s Burn% from the slot dwarfed that of all other players — Randall Cobb was second best at 70.4%.

Patriots cornerback Jason McCourty

Jason McCourty, New England Patriots, OCB29 targets as OCB (76th most), 24.1 Burn-A% (1st of 94 qualified), 9.1 BYds-A/Tgt (31st), 55.2 Open-A% (21st)

Although he was able to play only 12 games due to injury, Jason McCourty was by far the best OCB in the NFL at preventing Burns — next was Quinton Dunbar at 32.7%. The pairing of McCourty and Stephon Gilmore (8th in Burn% and 4th in Open%) gave New England one of the best cornerback combos in the league.

D.J. Hayden, Jacksonville Jaguars, ICB32 targets as ICB (t-25th most), 28.1 Burn-A% (1st of 34 qualified), 7.9 BYds-A/Tgt (3rd), 65.6 Open-A% (4th)

Hayden was downright fantastic as the Jaguars’ nickelback last season. While his 32 targets were only 25th most among ICBs, his 286 coverage snaps from the position were eighth most in the NFL, so teams had plenty of opportunities to throw at him. He was also one of two ICBs to finish the season in the top 10 of all three coverage categories, along with Brandon Carr of the Baltimore Ravens.