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By the Numbers: Packers Wide Receivers Successful at Converting First Downs

Pro Football Focus' first down statistics shed some light on how the Packers used their wide receivers to move the chains in 2012.

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Doug Pensinger

The Green Bay Packers are widely acknowledged as having one of the best passing offenses in the NFL over the past few years. In order to have that distinction, a team must convert first downs consistently and throw the ball into the end zone with regularity. The Packers do both of those things well, recording the seventh-most first downs through the air in the NFL last year and finishing second in touchdown passes. This certainly reflects well on Aaron Rodgers as the distributor of the ball, but how do the individual receivers contribute to that success?

Pro Football Focus recently released a series of posts that look at each receiver's contributions to moving the chains by looking at total first downs converted, percentage of targets resulting in a first down, and percentage of routes run that result in a first down reception. Note that touchdowns are recorded as also being first downs in the NFL's statistics, so they are included here as well. We break down the Packer receiver's numbers below.

Player 1st Downs (NFL Rank) Targets 1D/Target (Rank) Routes Run 1D/Route (Rank)
Randall Cobb 45 (T-23) 102 44.1% (25) 422 10.7% (15)
James Jones 45 (T-23) 93 48.4% (11) 610 7.4% (52)
Jordy Nelson 36 (T-42) 71 50.7% (8) 400 9.0% (29)
Greg Jennings 22 (NR) 58 37.9% (52) 285 7.7% (47)

Here we see an interesting trend. Because the Packers spread the ball around to many different receivers, no single player is ranked highly in terms of total first downs. When you look at the top producers in terms of raw first down numbers, they tend to be premier wideouts on teams that have few other reliable receiving options; Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson, and Brandon Marshall are the top three.

The Packers start to show up better in the rankings when you adjust for the number of times each receiver is thrown the ball. Nelson cracks the top ten, with Jones not far behind. This suggests two things to me: one, that these receivers are targeted fewer times and tend to be used on deeper routes and two: that they have a high catch rate on those deeper patterns. Of the top ten receivers in this stat, six were targeted fewer than 85 times on the season, suggesting that they were looked at with frequency on deep balls and not used as much near the line of scrimmage. This may be why Cobb doesn't crack the top 20; a lot of his targets were short passes and relied on yards after the catch to pick up the necessary yardage for a first down.

Finally, we look at the numbers on a per-route basis and find that Cobb is the best on the team in this metric. Extending this out, we see that Cobb was Rodgers' favorite receiver when he was on the field; he was targeted on nearly 1/4 of his routes, while other receivers were targeted far less. Jones was targeted 15% of the time, Nelson 18%, and Jennings 20%. This stat is useful both to see how effective a receiver is in moving the chains when he's on the field, but in how often his quarterback will trust him to convert a first down. All in all, the top producers in this number are the receivers who again see a large proportion of their teams targets like Andre and Calvin Johnson, Percy Harvin, or Brandon Marshall.

What does this mean moving forward? It seems likely that with a small number of targets and an unimpressive showing in per target and per route numbers, Greg Jennings may not be missed all that much after all. Certainly his injury had something to do with his lackluster performance, but perhaps the Packers won't be missing much after all. I see Cobb continuing to be used closer to the line of scrimmage while Nelson and Jones see a much greater fraction of their targets in downfield routes.