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YAC+ differentiates Packers RBs Aaron Jones & Jamaal Williams as receivers

Although Williams was the more efficient receiver last year, Jones is clearly more explosive and difficult to tackle when he gets the ball in his hands.

Oakland Raiders v Green Bay Packers Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

With the doldrums of the summer often come a deep dive into advanced football statistics. Football Outsiders in particularly likes to analyze a variety of numbers around this time each year to find interesting trends or performances from the prior season.

This week, FO broke down their YAC+ metric, which measures a player’s production after the catch. It’s similar to yards after the catch per reception, or simply YAC, but adjusts that value relative to expected values. Here’s the official description:

YAC+ ... estimates how much YAC a receiver gained compared to what we would have expected from an average receiver catching passes of similar length in similar down-and-distance situations. This is imperfect due to variations in YAC stemming from the routes the receivers run, but it does a fairly good job of telling you if this receiver gets more or less YAC than other receivers with similar usage patterns.

In short, a positive YAC+ means a player gained more yards after the catch than one would expect; a negative one means he gained less. Now, notably, FO tabulated YAC+ numbers for all offensive weapon positions — wide receiver, tight end, and running back — and published the lists of the top and bottom qualifying players at each position.

For the Green Bay Packers, only one wide receiver shows up on either list for 2019. That player is Geronimo Allison, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to guess which side of the equation he was on. Indeed, Allison’s -2.2 YAC+ was the second-worst of any receiver with 50-plus targets last season, better than only Ted Ginn, Jr (who has been notoriously bad in this area for years).

The fact that no other Packers finished in the top or bottom receiver groups implies that none of the rest were particularly good or bad in this area last season. Surprisingly, though, the Packers did get a positive contribution from tight end Jimmy Graham, whose +1.5 YAC+ ranked eighth among 48 qualifying tight ends.

A tale of two running backs

Where things get really interesting for the Packers is at the running back position. Last year, Jamaal Williams ranked eighth among 50 running backs in receiving DVOA, while Aaron Jones ranked just 29th. However, the two show an opposite trend when looking at their YAC+ numbers.

Jones finished 12th with a +1.8, illustrating his better ability to make defenders miss and extend plays a bit more than a normal player would. Williams, on the other hand, sat at -0.3, putting him 38th out of 50.

This discrepancy suggests that it is their usage, rather than their abilities, that likely led to the drastic difference in DVOA. For one thing, Williams caught five touchdowns to Jones’ three, but all were within the red zone and three of those five were from inside the five-yard line. Williams also had a long reception of just 17 yards.

Jones, meanwhile, was more explosive as a receiver, with a 67-yard catch-and-run against the Chiefs being his long on the year. One of his other two scores was a memorable 21-yard reception on a corner route against the Oakland Raiders.

What seems to be the case for Williams is that he was used as a receiver in more high-leverage situations than Jones last year — namely, third downs — and had a higher rate of converting. Despite having an average yards per reception that was three yards lower than his teammate, 16 of Williams’ 45 targets went for first downs, a rate of 35.6%. Meanwhile, Jones moved the chains on 18 of his 68 targets, or about 26.5%. That difference, plus a lower catch rate for Jones and fewer receiving touchdowns, likely explains much of the DVOA advantage for Williams.

What YAC+ illustrates instead is that Jones is the superior player with the ball in his hands —a factor that should be evident to any casual observer or Packers fan. So while Williams may have been a more efficient player in the passing game than Jones was last fall, don’t mistake that to mean that he is necessarily a better receiver out of the backfield.

Other odds and ends

Here are a few bonus Packers-related observations from the YAC+ analysis:

  • Early-career Greg Jennings was a YAC monster. Until A.J. Brown in 2019, Jennings was the only player since 2006 to have at least a +3.0 YAC+ on 75 or more targets, doing so in each of his first two seasons: 2006 and 2007. His 2007 was a particularly impressive year, as he racked up 17.4 yards per reception overall with 12 touchdowns.
  • Randall Cobb, predictably, was good in this measure as well. His 2014 season, easily his best as a pro, saw a YAC+ of over +2.0 on more than 100 targets, something nobody else had done until Chris Godwin in 2019. Cobb is still up to his old tricks as well, recording a +1.5 last season.
  • Overall, the Packers’ YAC as a team was very close to expectation. That’s taken from the team’s YAC+ on all passes thrown by Aaron Rodgers, which was +0.2. By comparison, the Titans’ YAC+ with Ryan Tannehill led the way at +1.3, while the Bears’ with Mitchell Trubisky was last at -1.3.