Michael Thomas set the single-season receptions record in 2019, his greatest achievement yet in a career that is sure to include additional feats.
What some folks might not know is he racked up many of those catches while also defying expectations.
Thomas was one of just four receivers with at least 50 targets who posted a catch percentage that was 10 percent above expectation, per Next Gen Stats. His mark of +12.7 percent tied with Seattle's Tyler Lockett for the highest rate of unlikely catches made in the NFL; when combined with his incredibly high target total (185) and additional metrics we'll delve into below, his season was truly remarkable.
Thomas was the best receiver of difficult receptions in the NFL in 2019. Let's explore his company and identify the 10 best pass-catchers in 2019 from a Next Gen Stats standpoint, focusing on the ability to haul in more targets than they were supposed to.
The most important metric used for this exercise will be the difference between catch rate (the percentage of targets caught) and expected catch rate (average completion probability when targeted). Completion probability takes into account a number of factors, including QB pressure, separation between the target and the closest defender, distance of throw, speed of the receiver and so on. From a pass-catcher's perspective, the factors that are most important are separation, tight-window percentage, cushion (at time of snap), double-team percentage and air yards per target, among others. But catch rate above expectation is not the onlystat we used. Some notable differences will help paint the picture of why the pass-catchers listed are among the league's best.
Enough introduction. Time to get into the numbers. Here are the top 10 pass-catchers as I see them when viewed through a Next Gen Stats lens:
Catch rate: 80.5%. Expected catch rate: 67.8%. Difference: +12.7%.
Thomas was targeted an incredible 185 times in 2019, 28 more than anyone else. We find an early explanation for his record-setting 149 receptions in Next Gen Stats: Thomas put up just 8.1 air yards per target. Of the remaining nine players on this list, eight bested that relatively low mark by 2 yards or more (tight end George Kittle averaged 5.7 air yards per target). The Saints clearly fed Thomas early and often, producing the second-lowest average cushion of this group (4.8 yards) and also resulting in the second-highest press coverage rate of these 10 pass-catchers. Defenses knew New Orleans was looking for Thomas, pressed him accordingly and still couldn't stop him, because the Saints took the very small space given. This might have inflated his receptions, sure -- Thomas was targeted on 31.9 percent of his routes run, just below group leader Kittle (33.5%) -- but the combined efforts made to tightly cover Thomas and his effectiveness despite being blanketed often produced his excellent catch rate difference and placed him atop this list. Just imagine what he can do now that he'll have a legitimate second receiver (Emmanuel Sanders) on his team.
Seattle Seahawks · WR
Catch rate: 74.5%. Expected catch rate: 61.9%. Difference: 12.7%.
Lockett's catch-rate difference is equal to Thomas', but he achieved it via a much different method. Lockett enjoyed an average cushion of more than a yard above Thomas' rate (6.1 to 4.8), and as a result, his targets came with over 4 more air yards on average. Interestingly, Lockett's opponents rarely pressed him, doing so just 15.5 percent of the time, likely fearful of his potential to beat them deep after winning the jam at the line. That produced a lower yards-per-target average of 9.6, which is similar to Thomas' (9.3) despite facing much different coverage at the snap. Lockett has a flair for making the tough catch, though, so it should come as little surprise that he tied Thomas atop the catch-rate difference leaderboard. Defenses should probably stop leaving him wide open, though; he owned the highest wide-open rate of this group (22.7%).
Buffalo Bills · WR
Catch rate: 67%. Expected catch rate: 56.3%. Difference: 10.7
We've entered the home-run hitters portion of this list. In what turned out to be his final season with the Minnesota Vikings, Diggs caught just 63 passes but outgained Lockett in receiving yards, riding a yards-per-reception rate of 17.9 to 1,130 (compared to Lockett's 1,057). His catch percentage wasn't nearly as high as Thomas' or Lockett's, but he made the most of his opportunities, posting a +10.7 percent catch-rate difference -- and he did so by winning press challenges. Diggs was pressed on 42 percent of routes run, enjoying just 2.5 yards of separation on average, yet his targets came with an air-yards average of 14.9. Most of his success was earned in single coverage, a testament to Adam Thielen's presence (despite Thielen's injuries) and a multi-level Vikings offense that didn't focus too heavily on Diggs.