Eckert Review: 2020 College WR Stats Study
Continuing with the third post in the series, I wanted to review and provide more context for the post with the 2020 college football season using Sports Info Solutions (SIS). Similar to the last study, I’m focusing on players selected in the 2022 NFL Draft, and a few players were excluded because the SIS doesn’t track players from smaller schools. This time around I’m also going to grab players with larger samples. Today’s focus is to see how George Pickens and Calvin Austin III compared to their peers in the 2020 season.
Let’s dive in, starting with target catch percentage (total receptions/number of catchable targets) which highlights target quality and connectivity as well as drop percentage (falls/catchable targets) to see who shot the most of their expected capture situations:
Right away, we can see a high number (eight) of the 19 qualified players with a high drop percentage, which is impressive considering that only five of the 22 players in my last study accomplished this feat. Pickens was one of those players in 2020, an encouraging aspect of what he can hopefully continue in a Steelers uniform. Skilled players also performed well in target catch percentage overall, and while Pickens was below average, he was one of 12 players above 90%.
Austin III landed below average in both data points, with the third-lowest target capture percentage (although a slightly better rating than 2021). That was my main concern since the last study, and it was no different in 2020. With the sample size on Austin III, and with the challenge of jumping to the NFL, it seems vital for Pittsburgh to use and to maximize his skills as a splitter and road runner to hopefully provide him with ideal opportunities as a rookie. Austin III also recorded the third-worst drop percentage of 8.6, the encouraging result being its improved rating by more than three percentage points (5.3% in 2021).
Next, let’s look at yards per run (total number of receiving yards / number of runs taken excluding RPO transfers) and yards per target (receiving yards per pass attempt in which the receiver is targeted, including incompletions) to get an idea of how wide receivers were used:
Both of the Steelers’ rookie wide receivers have landed below par at every data point. Austin III was near average in yards per course, but had the fifth-lowest yards per target just under nine. Each of these stats have improved from last season, encouraging context, especially when it comes to his yards per throw (3.1), which would have placed him in the top five on the chart above. .
Interesting results for Pickens, who has a reputation for being a target on the field but tied for third-lowest yards per yardage in 2020. He had a slightly better result than Austin at nine yards per target. It’s important to note that this is more of an overview, so let’s take a closer look at wide receiver usage with average target depth (average distance traveled by target shots, excluding spikes and disposables) and average depth of completion to focus on opportunities more within the receiver’s control:
Very encouraging results here for Pickens and Austin III, each performing above average in both data points. Both players ranked in the top five for average target depth, the former also in the top five for average completion depth, and the latter ranked seventh. It’s very encouraging to see both players with double-digit results in both data points as well, with Austin III also having an average depth of 11.3 from the target number last season but a lower average depth result of completion of 8.3.
Continuing with more important factors, here are the wide receiver first down percentages (percentage of receptions where the receiver made a first down) as well as broken + missed tackles per reception, a fun and eye-opening data point. The goal here is to see who made sure the chains moved plays and which players showed the ability to miss the guys:
USC’s Drake London (Falcons) provided the best “chart breaking” broken tackle + missed tackle result by far. Austin III matched its 2021 result with an even better first down percentage of over 70% that ranked sixth (up from 63.5 last season). Hopefully he can move closer to his 2020 value for Pittsburgh, with the data from his last two seasons giving me optimism. Pickens landed in the bottom tier in the broken tackle + miss stat, and more encouragingly landed above average in first down percentage with Austin III. Here’s hoping the two can help the 2022 Steelers offense to more sustained workouts than recent memory.
Here is a view similar to the first study, displaying the percentage of airyards completed by wide receivers (%CAY = airyards completed / airyards planned) to get a context of opportunity and connectivity as well as a and yards after catch percentage (% YAC = yards after catch / total yards) to see what wide receivers created once the ball was in their hands. This gives us great context of what the players brought to their team and how they were used, as well as seeing who did best in their last season:
As I pointed out in the first article, Pickens had the lowest YAC % and one of the top five CAY % in the study. Looking only at 2020, we can see that the YAC result is true while its CAY% was below average but above 50%. So even though 2021 has been limited, the opportunities he has had have boosted his results to almost 60%. Austin III landed below average in both data points, with a slightly better CAY% than last season but a much lower YAC%. The encouraging aspect was his improvement last season with a better result of more than 10 percentage points. This aspect of his game will likely have to continue for NFL success, and our very own Jonathan Heitritter has done a great job highlighting his abilities in this excellent article.
Finally, I wanted to provide a view of total value using points earned per route (a player’s total EPA liability on routes run using the total points system which distributes credit among all players on the pitch for a given play Totals are scaled up to equals the average points scored or allowed at a team level, with the number of player snaps determining the level of adjustment. , this includes consideration of offensive line play, off-target passes, dropped passes and broken tackles. Values are modulated using a competition grade multiplier based on each opponent’s previous performance year) and the EPA per target (the total change in expected points of offense that came from passes thrown at the player):
Players who performed well in both data points are Ohio State’s Garrett Wilson (Jets) and Arkansas’ Treylon Burks (Titans), who also performed very well last season. Pickens fared better in the EPA per target data point, with seventh place. His points earned per course result were below average and clustered with many players, including Austin III, who was below average in both stats in 2020 with an improvement in points earned per course result last season.
Through the studies so far, Pickens has achieved the best results in sink percentage, CAY%, average target depth and completion, target catch percentage, first down percentage and EPA per target. His lowest ratings were YAC%, yards per course and yards per target, tackles broken + missed per reception, and points won per course. Overall, the pros outweigh the cons in my opinion over his final two college seasons, delivering great value, especially in CAY%, Target Depth/Completion, and EPA.
In 2020, Austin III had the best results in average target depth and completion, broken + missed tackles per reception, and first down percentage. It had lower ratings in drop percentage, target catch percentage, yards per route flown and target, % CAY and YAC, points earned per route, and EPA per target. Encouragingly, improvements were made last season in fall percentage, yards per run and points earned per run. So the areas of concern in each of Austin III’s last two seasons were yards per target, CAY%, EPA per target, and most importantly, catch percentage on target.
Throughout the rest of the offseason, I’ll be diving deeper into the data as we continue to learn more about the new Pittsburgh Steelers. How do you think George Pickens and Calvin Austin III will fare in their rookie year? What are some of your takeaways in the league? Thanks for reading and let me know your thoughts in the comments!