For the real playmakers in today's pass-happy NFL, catching the ball is just the beginning. Who are the most prolific players when it comes to yards after the catch? Below, Nick Shook uses Next Gen Stats to identify the top 10 YAC monsters in 2020.
NOTE: All stats and rankings are current heading into Week 8.
New Orleans Saints · RB
Yards after catch (YAC): 448 in 6 games
Yards after catch over expectation (YACOE): +128
YACOE per reception: +2.8
Most running backs with any receiving yards of significance end up artificially high in YAC rankings because, well, most of their yards gained come with the full distance to the line to gain still in front of them. Swing passes, screens and the like traditionally dominate the route tree for pass-catching backs, though we've seen an increase in angle routes and similar modern paths in recent years.
Because of this, we'd typically overlook a decent amount of middle-of-the-pack running backs, but not Kamara. The explanation is simple: In the absence of Michael Thomas, and in Week 7, Emmanuel Sanders?, Kamara has become a focal point of the Saints' passinggame.
Kamara leads the entire NFL in target rate (minimum 70 routes run), being targeted on 35.6 percent of his 149 total routes run, regardless of position. A good chunk of those routes are screens, with Kamara running the route 43 times in 2020, more than twice as many as the next-closest player on the list, Cardinals receiver DeAndre Hopkins?. Kamara has been targeted on 19 of those screens, catching 16 of them for 139 yards.
Kamara's 448 YAC is an example of the aforementioned inflation, but his value exceeds that impact. The Saints are in a world of trouble if they don't have the contributions of Kamara, who is still exceeding expectation by nearly 3 yards per catch. Positions be damned: Kamara is a baller.
San Francisco 49ers · WR
Yards after catch (YAC): 215 in 4 games
Yards after catch over expectation (YACOE): +65
YACOE per reception: +4.1
Samuel is an interesting case, because his method of success isn't all that different than that of many running backs. Samuel is averaging just 2.3 air yards per target (AY/T) in 2020, an incredibly low mark for a receiver who ends up ripping off big gains. In search of context? We've got it for you: Niners tight end George Kittle is averaging over 6 AY/T, and rookie Brandon Aiyuk is serving as San Francisco's downfield choice, averaging over 11 AY/T this season.
Samuel, meanwhile, is making his money by catching short passes and getting busy. His average YAC over expectation (YACOE) is nearly a full yard greater than the next receiver on this list, Pittsburgh's Chase Claypool?, and it's a product of the 49ers eschewing the home run in favor of a higher-percentage attempt in order to get the ball in Samuel's hands quickly.
Over the course of his first season and a half, Samuel has proven his coaching staff wise in taking this approach. Entering Week 7, Samuel averaged 9.1 YAC per reception in his career, No. 1 among WR since 2019, (min. 50 receptions). It has become the expectation, too, with Samuel ranking first in the entire NFL in Expected YAC per reception entering Week 7 with 7.6.
All of this information helps explain Samuel's 215 YAC, which is not a product of Samuel catching deep passes and racing downfield for additional yards, but hauling in the shorter completions in space and working his magic from there. When combined with the AY/T numbers listed above, San Francisco has quietly devised a well-balanced, multi-level attack through the air -- even if it seems a bit unorthodox.
Pittsburgh Steelers · WR
Yards after catch (YAC): 150 in 6 games
Yards after catch over expectation (YACOE): +62
YACOE per reception: +3.4
Claypool's method is the opposite of Samuel's, and the product of a recent revelation on the part of offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner.
While we're used to seeing Claypool catch passes in the short-to-intermediate range and then take off, or receive handoffs on end-arounds/jet sweeps, Pittsburgh has decided to turn to the traditional go route in the last few weeks. Entering Week 6, Claypool was targeted at the third-highest rate among WR on go routes: six receptions on 20 targets, or a 30 percent hit rate. That percentage has since dropped to 18.4 percent, due to an increase in go routes run (18 over last two weeks), meaning Pittsburgh has been sending Claypool deep a whole bunch. Even if they're not throwing to him, they're still taking the top off the defense.
The Steelers are typically finding success on passes of 10-plus air yards when aiming in Claypool's direction, explaining the shift in recent weeks. Ben Roethlisberger owns a completion percentage of 50 and a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 3:0 when targeting Claypool on passes of 10-plus air yards, gaining 19.2 yards per attempt and posting a passer rating of 135.4. For comparison, those numbers drop off significantly -- 42.6 percent, 7.4 yards per attempt, 5:3 TD-to-INT and 77.3 passer rating -- when targeting anyone other than Claypool. It's clear who Pittsburgh's new deep threat is.