Targets and Catches (Part One)

One of the measures I am looking to track more in-depth in the future, in terms of my play-by-play data, is the notion of catches versus targets.  In the play-by-play data exists a line that I have yet allowed to go unrecorded: "Pass incomplete to _____."  Obviously I record that the pass is incomplete, but I have not really paid attention to who the pass was intended for.  It's a rather objective measure -- does everybody record who a pass was intended for the same way?  If the QB is throwing the ball away and it goes 20 feet over a certain receiver's head, does it count as an incompletion "to" that receiver?  Does every score-keeper even keep track of this?  Plus, if a ball is tipped by a receiver and intercepted (e.g. Jerrell Jackson in the Oklahoma State game), the "intended for" bit isn't recorded.  Clearly this is a piece of data that is rather inconsistent.

That said, this is also one of those measures where you figure that the inconsistencies balance out over time.  Even if it doesn't paint a perfect picture, it probably tells an interesting story.  Therefore, let's take a look at how our view of a receiver's (or quarterback's) performance changes when adding in "intended for" data.

The categories below are:

  • Catches: receptions
  • Targets: receptions + incomplete passes intended for that receiver (as recorded in the play-by-play data).  In general, you can think of those incomplete passes as either being a) dropped or b) too well-covered to be completed.  If your QB is accurate, you will obviously catch more of your targeted passes, but if you struggle to get open and clear space from the guy covering you, a lot more of your targeted passes are going to fall incomplete.
  • Catch%: the percentage of "targets" a receiver catches
  • Target%: the percentage of a team's overall targets aimed at a specific receiver

Without further ado, let's take a look at the last four years of Mizzou "target" data and see what it tells us.

2006

Image via Phoebe Sexton / Columbia Missourian

2006 Targets and Catches
Name Catches Targets Catch% Target%
Chase Coffman 58 89 65.2% 20.2%
Will Franklin 48 83 57.8% 18.8%
Martin Rucker 53 68 77.9% 15.4%
Jared Perry 37 55 67.3% 12.5%
Brad Ekwerekwu 32 50 64.0% 11.3%
Tommy Saunders 25 34 73.5% 7.7%
Danario Alexander 15 21 71.4% 4.8%
Jason Ray 6 15 40.0% 3.4%
Tony Temple 6 7 85.7% 1.6%
Greg Bracey 3 6 50.0% 1.4%
Marcus Woods 2 5 40.0% 1.1%
Earl Goldsmith 5 5 100.0% 1.1%
Jimmy Jackson 1 2 50.0% 0.5%
Andrew Hoskins 0 1 0.0% 0.2%
TOTAL 291 441 66.0% 100.0%

 

WRs: 60.1% of targets
TEs: 35.6%
RBs: 4.3%

 

Before looking at ensuing seasons, it is hard to get a grasp on what these numbers actually mean, but a couple of things should stick out pretty quickly.  First, thanks to a midseason bout with the dropsies, Chase Coffman's numbers were only decent, not great.  Martin Rucker was a rather automatic target at TE, but Coffman wasn't amazing.  Meanwhile, if your #1 WR is only catching 58% of the passes thrown at him, that is going to do a number on your completion percentage.

Anyway, before we try to interpret this too much, let's take a look at how 2007 unfolded.

2007

Image via ESPN.com

2007 Targets and Catches
Name Catches Targets Catch% Target%
Jeremy Maclin 80 111 72.1% 20.6%
Martin Rucker 84 108 77.8% 20.1%
Will Franklin 49 76 64.5% 14.1%
Chase Coffman 52 65 80.0% 12.1%
Tommy Saunders 41 55 74.5% 10.2%
Danario Alexander 37 48 77.1% 8.9%
Jared Perry 13 20 65.0% 3.7%
Derrick Washington 10 14 71.4% 2.6%
Jason Ray 8 10 80.0% 1.9%
Greg Bracey 3 9 33.3% 1.7%
Tony Temple 7 9 77.8% 1.7%
Earl Goldsmith 4 6 66.7% 1.1%
Jimmy Jackson 6 6 100.0% 1.1%
Blake May 0 1 0.0% 0.2%
TOTAL 394 538 73.2% 100.0%

 

WRs: 63.9% of targets
TEs: 32.2%
RBs: 3.9%

 

Despite a deep, experienced cast of receivers (Rucker and Franklin were seniors, Coffman and Saunders were juniors), Jeremy Maclin came out of nowhere to become Chase Daniel's most trusted receiver.  His 72% Catch%  was much higher than Will Franklin's 58% from the season before.  Meanwhile, MotherRucker stayed right around 78% while Chase Coffman improved dramatically, from 65% to 80%.  Franklin did improve to 65%, but he was still a far less reliable target than others around him.  Of course, he obviously ran deeper routes than guys like Coffman, Rucker or Saunders, so that might have something to do with it.  Then again, were his routes any different than those of Maclin?  Maclin still outshone him in that regard.

With Maclin and an extra year of experience for Chase Daniel, the overall Catch% rose from 66% to 73% in 2007.  This, of course, tells us nothing about how many passes Daniel chose to throw away (which would just go in the play-by-play as "pass incomplete" with no "intended for" information), but it does show that Daniel was completing one more pass for roughly every 14 catchable balls in 2007, and that could make a difference of 2-3 completions per game.

2008

Image via Chris Lee / Post-Dispatch

2008 Targets and Catches
Name Catches Targets Catch% Target%
Jeremy Maclin 102 135 75.6% 25.5%
Chase Coffman 90 102 88.2% 19.2%
Tommy Saunders 72 92 78.3% 17.4%
Jared Perry 41 60 68.3% 11.3%
Danario Alexander 26 43 60.5% 8.1%
Derrick Washington 29 38 76.3% 7.2%
Andrew Jones 20 24 83.3% 4.5%
Jerrell Jackson 9 13 69.2% 2.5%
Michael Egnew 4 8 50.0% 1.5%
Earl Goldsmith 5 6 83.3% 1.1%
Jimmy Jackson 3 4 75.0% 0.8%
Wes Kemp 1 2 50.0% 0.4%
Jon Gissinger 1 1 100.0% 0.2%
Brandon Gerau 0 1 0.0% 0.2%
Forrest Shock 0 1 0.0% 0.2%
TOTAL 403 530 76.0% 100.0%

 

WRs: 66.6% of targets
TEs: 25.5%
RBs: 7.9%

 

In 2008, Missouri lost Martin Rucker and his 78% catch rate but still improved as a team, from 73% to 76%.  Danario Alexander aside (this was the year he was recovering from knee injuries and was clearly not as confident/aggressive a receiver), just about everybody showed improvement.  Coffman improved to a sickening 88% (that means that eight of every nine balls that were thrown at him and were even remotely catchable, were caught...yeah, he deserved the Mackey Award), Saunders improved to 78%, which is the highest you'll see from a highly-targeted receiver, and even Maclin improved to 76%.  Having a ton of reps with the same quarterback helped a ton, I'm sure, as did the fact that said quarterback (Daniel) was as automatic as a computer in his reads, especially over the first half of the season.

So what happens when you lose your quarterback and your top three targets?  As shocking as it may sound, your numbers go down!

2009

Image via the one, the only Bill Carter

2009 Targets and Catches
Name Catches Targets Catch% Target%
Danario Alexander 107 145 73.8% 35.6%
Jared Perry 46 86 53.5% 21.1%
Jerrell Jackson 37 61 60.7% 15.0%
Wes Kemp 23 44 52.3% 10.8%
Derrick Washington 23 33 69.7% 8.1%
Andrew Jones 7 12 58.3% 2.9%
Rolandis Woodland 4 6 66.7% 1.5%
Michael Egnew 3 5 60.0% 1.2%
T.J. Moe 2 5 40.0% 1.2%
De'Vion Moore 3 3 100.0% 0.7%
Brandon Gerau 2 3 66.7% 0.7%
Kendial Lawrence 2 2 100.0% 0.5%
Gilbert Moye 1 2 50.0% 0.5%
TOTAL 260 407 63.9% 100.0%

 

WRs: 86.0% of targets
TEs: 4.2%
RBs: 9.8%

 

So here's where I start to get encouraged about Blaine Gabbert's prospects moving forward.  With a relatively similar cast of characters in the receiving corps (Alexander was clearly better than any receiver in 2006, but Gabbert was without anyone nearing the reliability of Rucker, so they cancel out) and the propensity for throwing many more deep balls than Daniel, the Catch% for Gabbert's sophomore season was almost identical to Daniel's.

Now, unless one of our redshirting freshmen is suddenly capable of pulling a Jeremy Maclin impersonation (doubtful, to say the very least), Gabbert will head into 2010 without his top two targets, which is obviously something Daniel didn't have to worry about heading into 2007.  However, while losing Alexander is a huge concern, losing Perry simply might not be too big a deal.  Jackson has done a lovely Perry impersonation in recent weeks, and besides, Perry's 54% catch rate is simply horrendous.  We know that Perry had a decent amount of bad luck this season -- how many times did Gabbert throw too high for him in the Oklahoma State game? -- but 54% is too low to blame simply on bad luck.  Over four seasons, Perry never topped 70%, and while Jackson's 61% is nothing impressive, it is still better than what Perry managed this season.  With another year (at least) of getting used to catching Gabbert's fastballs (and another year of Gabbert learning to keep the ball down as much as possible), I would expect Jackson's catch rate to be closer to the 65-70% range next year.

However, is that good enough?  Gabbert can be expected to improve a decent amount next year, but ... who becomes the #1 target?  And if it's Jackson, can Mizzou succeed at a high level with a #1 WR target catching only 65-70%, especially when there is suddenly no ultra-reliable tight end option to fall back on in times where a completion absolutely must be made?

Speaking of the tight end position, I guess this is the year in which we officially learned that WRs and TEs are basically exactly the same in this system.  Alexander's Target% of 35% this year was 10% higher than Maclin ever managed and came within 10% of matching that of Maclin and Coffman from 2008.  Lining up in the tight end slot position quite often, Alexander was actually able to approximately compensate for the loss of both players this year and catch passes at a very high rate for a receiver.  Meanwhile, thanks to Alexander being a WR, tight ends accounted for only 4% of targets this year, and that's only if you count Michael Egnew as a tight end.  The position disappeared from Mizzou's repertoire, but the passing numbers stayed relatively successful thanks to Alexander.  With Alexander gone in 2010, do we see guys like Andrew Jones or Egnew working their way back into Gabbert's sights, or will another big receiver like Wes Kemp move into that role?

I have a lot more questions here than answers, but answers weren't the purpose of this exercise.  I wanted to see if target data was viable and interesting, and while I found it both of those things, I'm curious what you think.

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