Recently, I’ve found that explosive plays are really important to overall offensive production and explosive plays are extremely inconsistent from year to year on a team level. Today I want to look at explosive plays on an individual level to see if players can be fairly reliable counted on to be more or less explosive than expected.
Like with the team-level data, I used performance from 2014-19 as my sample size. I used the Pro Football Reference Game Play Finder to identify all players who had at least 200 pass attempts, 50 pass targets, or 100 carries in each season. I chose these numbers as somewhat arbitrary thresholds to get a good mix of a sufficient data sample each year and a big enough sample size within each data point to make the data as reliable as possible.
I then looked up the explosive plays (runs of 15+ yards, passes of 20+ yards) each of those players achieved in those seasons. I used the data in aggregate to get average explosive play rates for each. Full data can be seen here.
- Passing: on average, 8.7% of all passing plays (including sacks) resulted in explosive passes. This data did not seem to change much from 2014-19, with each year fluctuating between 8.3% and 9.1% and no clear year-to-year pattern. I also double checked that smaller sample sizes didn’t skew the data, but the rate stayed the same when I only looked at player seasons with 300+, 400+, or 500+ pass attempts.
- Rushing: on average, 4.8% of all running back carries resulted in explosive runs. I’ll note I excluded QBs with 100+ carries in a season from this, because many of those are scrambles and thus have a much higher explosive rate, and the sample size of QBs with 100+ carries was too small to study independently. Again, this number didn’t change much year-to-year or if I had a larger carry threshold for inclusion (I checked 150+, 200+, and 250+ carries).
- Receiving: I split this one up by position, since WRs, TEs, and RBs are used quite differently in the passing game. Overall, 5.5% of targets to running backs, 11.1% of targets to WRs, and 9.3% of targets to TEs resulted in explosive completions. Again, there was little variation year-to-year.
I then used those rates as a baseline for how many explosive plays an individual should be expected to produce based on their volume for the year. For example, a RB with 100 carries and 100 pass targets should be expected to have 4.8 explosive carries and 5.5 explosive receptions. If they actually produced 6 explosive carries and 4 explosive receptions, they had 1.2 more explosive runs and 1.5 fewer explosive catches than expected.
To save words, from here on out I’m going to refer to that as the explosive differential.
So if you get 6 explosive runs when 4.8 were expected, you have an explosive differential of +1.2. If you get 4 explosive catches when 5.5 were expected, you have an explosive differential of -1.5.
In order to measure for consistency, I tracked seasons with an explosive differential of at least +/-2 for runs and receptions and +/- 3 for passes (due to a higher volume of attempts, expected explosive plays were higher, and thus I used a larger threshold). Seasons with an explosive differential of less than 2 (or 3 for QBs) were considered to be roughly in line with expectation.
I then looked at players with at least 3 qualifying seasons between 2014-19 to see how consistent they were in producing explosive plays at a higher or lower than expected level. Let’s look at the results.
- Of the 34 QBs who have at least three seasons with 200+ passes since 2014, none produced an explosive differential of 3 or greater every season they qualified.
- Only 3 produced an explosive differential of 3+ in all but 1 season.
- Only 2 had multiple seasons with an explosive differential of 3+ while avoiding a season with an explosive differential of -3 or worse.
- No QBs had an explosive differential of -3 or worse in every season they qualified, but 7 of the 34 (roughly 20%) had an explosive differential of -3 or worse in every season but 1.
- Of course, 6 of those 7 only have three qualifying years, and it’s hard to say for sure if 2 of 3 is a trend or not (if you believe it is, you’re probably not thrilled to read that 2 of those 6 are Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles). Otherwise this list is mostly a who’s who of bad quarterbacks (Tyrod Taylor, Colin Kaepernick, Josh McCown, Jay Cutler on his last legs, and Dak Prescott, the one exception). There’s a reason most of them didn’t get to 4 years with 200+ passes in this time frame.
So it looks like there are a few QBs who can sustainably put up more explosive plays than expected, but the overwhelming majority of them cannot be relied upon to be consistently explosive year in and year out. Those 3 who exceeded explosive expectations almost every year are Russell Wilson (5 of 6 seasons), Drew Brees (5 of 6 season), and Jared Goff (3 of 4 seasons). Brees and Wilson are widely considered to be 2 of the best QBs in the game, while Goff has worked with one of the best play callerers in Sean McVay for all three of those years.
If the majority of quarterbacks don’t consistently produce more or less explosive plays than expected, you probably aren’t surprised to hear that pass catchers don’t either. 79 players qualified for at least 4 seasons with 50+ targets in this sample, so I went with that as the threshold instead of 3 seasons because it produces a clearer pattern. A few numbers:
- 2 of 79 players had an explosive differential of +2 or higher in every season (hello Julio Jones and Tyrell Williams). 1 had an explosive differential of -2 or worse every year (Danny Amendola).
- A few more were at least +2 or -2 in every year but one (3 in either direction).
- All together, that means 9 of 79 players could be reliably expected to be more or less consistent than average.
With that said, there were a higher % of players who typically only strayed from average in one direction, even if they couldn’t do it every year.
- 14 players had multiple seasons with an explosive differential of +2 or greater without having a season with an explosive differential of -2 or worse.
- 15 players had multiple seasons with an explosive differential of -2 or greater without having a season with an explosive differential of -2 or worse.
- All together, 29 of 72 (40%) of players only strayed from average explosion rates in one direction.
This makes sense given that pass catchers often have specialized roles. Guys who largely serve as deep threats should have a fairly high explosive rate (think Tyrell Williams, DeSean Jackson, Robby Anderson, etc.), while possession targets will have a relatively low rate of explosive plays (think Cole Beasley, Jason Witten, Julian Edelman, etc.).
Still, most of those players don’t stray from expected rates on a year-in, year-out basis. Only 5 targets – Julio Jones, Tyrell Williams, DeSean Jackson, Doug Baldwin, and Rob Gronkowski – have shown they are more explosive than expected almost every year.
By now, you can probably guess what we’ll find when we look at running backs consistently producing explosive plays: for the most part, that doesn’t happen. 40 players have at least 3 seasons with 100+ carries since 2014. Here are some numbers for consistent explosion:
- 0 produced an explosive differential of at least +2 every year. 3 (LeSean McCoy, Tevin Coleman, Devonta Freeman) did so in every year but 1.
- On the negative side, 1 player had an explosive differential of -2 or worse every year (Jamaal Williams). 7 did it every year but 1, though it’s worth noting 5 of those only qualified in 3 seasons, and 2 for 3 isn’t necessarily a super strong pattern.
Here we see that a number of runners don’t consistently deviate from average, but only go in one direction when they do. 11 – more than 1/4 of the sample – have multiple seasons with an explosive differential of +2 or greater and none with an explosive differential of -2 or worse. Only 2 can say the opposite (multiple – deviations, 0 +). Again, a large number of that sample comes from those with only 3 seasons, and 2/3 is not necessarily a strong trend that will continue.
There are very few players in the NFL who can be counted on to be consistently explosive. In an individual season, explosive rates can vary tremendously, but just like we saw with offensive explosion on a team-by-team basis, there doesn’t seem to be much year-to-year carryover.
Again, this is good news for the Bears, who were the least explosive offense in the NFL in 2019. Like the team as a whole, several individual players who were not explosive last year (Tarik Cohen had a passing explosive differential of -3.7 and David Montgomery had a running pass differential of -6.6) should expect some regression to the mean in 2020.
Quarterback play is certainly a concern in limited sample for both Foles and Trubisky, but none of their main targets with a track record – Cohen, Ted Ginn, Allen Robinson, Anthony Miller, and Jimmy Graham – stand out as being particularly more or less explosive than expected, which means there’s little reason to think they don’t have the weapons to at least field an offense with average explosive capabilities.