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Julio Jones Is the Best

Let’s get this out of the way at the top: Julio Jones was the best receiver in football this season. Just about any way you slice it, whether using traditional stats,1 advanced metrics2 or even play-by-play grades,3 Jones was the receiver who kept defensive coordinators up at night worrying about all the havoc he could wreak. His explosiveness and diversity of skills enabled offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to build the one of the best offenses in NFL history.

But what makes Jones so good?

At the most basic level, Jones dominates because of an unmatched combination of size and speed. Posting a 4.34-second 40-yard-dash before he was drafted, Jones ran the ninth-fastest combine time of any wideout who had at least 400 receiving yards in the 2016 season.4 All of the faster receivers are also smaller — nearly 5 inches shorter than the 6-foot-3 Jones, on average. While Jones was one of the fastest at the position regardless of height, most NFL wide receivers as tall as Jones ran the 40 slower than the overall position average of 4.47 seconds.

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Wideouts that big and that fast are very difficult to cover. Think of Randy Moss (who, at 6-foot-4, ran an “unofficial” 4.25 second 40 in 1998) or, more recently, the two unrelated Johnsons, Andre (6-foot-2, 4.40) and Calvin (6-foot-5, 4.35), who used that formula to dominate the league’s receiving leaderboard in recent years. Moss in particular showed that a receiver who can stretch the field in all directions with speed, and then pluck balls from over defenders’ heads, can make an offense run far more efficiently than its individual components suggest it should.

But Jones’s dominance is more than just a product of “big guy runs fast.” Since he returned from a foot fracture that cost him most of the 2013 season, no receiver has put those gifts to better on-field use than Jones — across every aspect of the position, from the flashy to the technical.

We can measure how good Jones has been by breaking down what makes a great all-around receiver:

  • The guy has to get open, so we’ll look at how often the ball comes his way (targets) as a percentage of his routes run.
  • Ideally, receivers can go deep, so we’ll look at how far the ball travels before it gets to him (air yards per target).
  • Then he still has to catch the darn ball, so we’ll look at his catch rate. (Air yards and catch rate are usually at odds with each other,5 since it’s harder to catch deep throws than short ones.)
  • Once he’s open, has run a long ways and has caught the pass, it’d be nice if he could keep running without being tackled. So let’s also look at yards after the catch per reception.
  • Oh, and one more thing — being a receiver isn’t all about receiving, so let’s look at blocking ability by using ProFootballFocus.com’s run-blocking grades.

If we rank every active receiver6 in those categories over the past three seasons and add up the ranks (with some weighting based on the relative importance of each category7), Jones rates as the most complete wide receiver in the NFL. Among the 98 receivers in our sample, he ranks 40th or better in every area of the game — the only receiver in the league who can make that claim.8

RANK
RECEIVER TEAM TARGET FREQ. AVG. DEPTH CATCH RATE RUN BLOCK AFTER CATCH WEIGHTED SUM
Julio Jones ATL 2 40 30 27 28 103.0
Antonio Brown PIT 4 57 15 19 44 105.2
A.J. Green CIN 5 31 31 29 61 109.4
Odell Beckham NYG 7 51 37 15 17 115.5
Demaryius Thomas DEN 3 59 49 4 32 123.9
Mike Evans TB 6 6 81 7 96 126.0
Jordy Nelson GB 19 42 29 22 41 128.5
Emmanuel Sanders DEN 14 23 41 31 75 130.1
Jarvis Landry MIA 8 96 11 16 12 135.6
DeAndre Hopkins HOU 12 27 69 3 90 139.1
Larry Fitzgerald ARI 20 82 14 1 64 142.9
Rishard Matthews TEN 29 36 33 20 56 143.5
Alshon Jeffery CHI 17 32 68 9 42 143.7
Eric Decker NYJ 22 46 45 5 83 149.0
Brandon Marshall NYJ 18 35 72 9 80 161.7
Willie Snead NO 39 80 18 2 25 164.5
Allen Robinson JAC 24 20 83 6 84 165.1
Steve Smith BAL 10 64 34 53 33 166.3
Doug Baldwin SEA 48 73 2 16 27 167.4
T.Y. Hilton IND 25 25 62 38 44 167.8
Weighted overall rank comparison of wide receivers, 2014-16

Rankings are out of the 98 wide receivers with a minimum of 500 receiving yards in 2016 or 900 yards from 2014 to 2016.

Sources: ESPN Stats & Information Group, ProFootballFocus.com

Jones’s impressive combination of size and speed shows up most notably in his ability to get free of defenders — Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan targeted Jones on 30 percent of the routes he ran, the second most of any receiver (behind Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill at 31.5 percent) — as well as in his rare talent for keeping his catch rate up even as he goes deep. Based on the length of Jones’s average target — 11.9 yards beyond the line of scrimmage — we’d expect him to have caught only about 60 percent of the balls thrown in his direction; instead, he caught nearly 66 percent, a difference that amounts to 26 extra catches, many of the big-play variety. (Jones has 20 total receiving touchdowns over the past three seasons.) In other words, Jones mixes the reliability of a possession receiver with the big-play potential of a deep threat.

And once he catches the ball, he’s frequently off to the races:

So what hope do the New England Patriots — specifically, their defensive coordinator, Matt Patricia — have of containing Jones on Super Sunday?

For their part, the Patriots had the NFL’s 10th-worst pass defense during the regular season and the 13th-worst D against No. 1 receivers like Jones. But they also boast two of the 12 highest-rated cover cornerbacks in football (according to PFF) in Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan, plus Devin McCourty, PFF’s top-rated coverage safety. And in the playoffs, they’ve also held both Antonio Brown (No. 2 in our receiver rankings above) and DeAndre Hopkins (No. 10) to relatively tame performances.

In Jones and Atlanta’s high-powered offensive “buzzsaw,” however, the Pats face their toughest challenge yet. The Falcons have had a startling offensive breakout this season: They easily led the league in expected points added (EPA) through the air — and offensive EPA in general — during the regular season, QB Matt Ryan enjoyed one of the most efficient passing seasons in league history, and the offense has only improved in the playoffs.9

At the center of that offense is Jones. “Nobody can stop us but us,” Jones told reporters after the NFC title game. Whether that’s true or not will largely depend on whether New England can slow down the game’s most uncoverable receiver. Based on Jones’s performance these past few seasons, that’s a pretty tall (and fast) order.

Footnotes

  1. Yards per game, for instance.
  2. Like FootballOutsiders.com’s defense-adjusted yards above replacement.
  3. Such as the ones compiled by ProFootballFocus.com.
  4. One limitation to this approach is that combine data is a snapshot of speed at age 21 or so. Needless to say, that number is probably a tad outdated for an NFL veteran like, say, 37-year-old Steve Smith Sr. Still, for most players, combine times give a decent approximation of their pure speed.
  5. In my sample of top receivers from 2014 to 2016, the correlation between those two metrics was -0.7.
  6. With a minimum of either 500 receiving yards in 2016 or 900 total yards from 2014 to 2016.
  7. Specifically, the ranks for air yards per target and catch rate were assigned no special weight; targets per route was given 50 percent extra weight; yards after the catch was given 75 percent less weight; and run blocking was given 15 percent less weight. These weights were determined by regressing the first four categories against adjusted catch yards per route, an overall measure of receiving effectiveness, and running a separate regression against PFF’s “overall” grade to determine the relative value of blocking.
  8. Green Bay’s Jordy Nelson ranks in the top 42 in each category.
  9. During the regular season, Atlanta averaged 11.5 more offensive EPA per game than an average team, 9.0 of which came in the passing game. After adjusting for the defenses they faced, the Falcons are averaging 21.5 offensive EPA above average in the playoffs, 20.9 of which have come via the pass.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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