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How to build an Aaron Rodgers out of YAC and mediocre quarterbacks

If you draft enough YAC, does it really matter who your quarterback is? The 49ers offense is a case study that suggests QB play really can be minimized with the right weapons.

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This is a post about Amari Rodgers and Aaron Rodgers and the general idea of a “quarterback friendly system,” but we have to begin this story out in San Francisco where so many stories about the current Green Bay Packers offense begin. Given all of the drama surrounding the Packers, Aaron Rodgers, Jordan Love, and yet another odd draft featuring just a single wide receiver, you’ll probably want to read this.

Kyle Shanahan’s system is often described as “quarterback friendly” but until a few days ago I never really stopped to consider exactly what that meant. My assumption was simply that the system was extremely creative and provided quarterbacks with easy reads and throws based on the scheme alone. That’s certainly part of it, and Shanahan’s on-field acumen is not in doubt, but I now think that his preferred personnel may be even more important than scheme. Yes, Shanahan has succeeded with good quarterbacks like Matt Ryan in Atlanta. However, the full-power Shanahan offense, the one that earned the “QB friendly” reputation, is built from the ground up at the other skill positions by using extremely non-standard pass-catchers with the quarterback as an afterthought. It requires unusual players compared to what the rest of the league uses, and has one very specific goal in mind. We’ll get to that in just a second.

Jimmy G: Meh

In 2019, the 49ers made the Super Bowl behind a pedestrian season from Jimmy Garoppolo, who finished 11th in DVOA (something to keep in mind for later: Rodgers finished 13th), and 11th in EPA+CPOE (Rodgers was 13th). The 49ers relied on a balanced offense and an extremely good defense which peaked at just the right time, and the formula worked. San Francisco was so good on offense, despite their quarterback, that they were second in the NFL in points during the regular season, even besting the eventual champion Chiefs, 479-451. The defense managed to contribute three touchdowns (thanks largely to Jameis Winston) and reliably good field position, but that 49ers offense always seemed oddly better than the sum of its parts.

For instance, no qualifying 49er receiver finished above 23rd in DVOA, and that was Emmanuel Sanders, who only joined the team halfway through the season. Deebo Samuel finished 28th. Slot receiver Kendrick Bourne would have finished 5th with more targets, but he didn’t qualify. Even George Kittle, correctly regarded as the best tight end in football, was just 9th in DVOA and 4th in DYAR. Raheem Mostert was the most valuable back in the league by DVOA, but he split time with the much less efficient Tevin Coleman, and as a unit, the 49ers weren’t any better than the Packers running the ball.

So how did this work exactly? It’s not as if the underlying 49ers’ numbers are bad, but scoring the second most points in the league is huge considering their quarterback was something like the 11th most efficient passer and there wasn’t a Davante Adams in the receiving corps, or any really great outside receiving threat, to stretch defenses. What was their secret? How did they do this with Jimmy G?

Math, George, and Deebo

(Note: All ADOT, Air Yards, and YAC numbers courtesy of Pro Football Focus and Next Gen Stats.)

Last season, Aaron Rodgers was amazing. En route to a well-deserved MVP award, he completed a league leading 70.7% of his passes, averaging 11.6 yards per completion. Rodgers accomplished this feat through a deadly combination of short, accurate throws and mixing in the occasional bomb. His 8.1 Average Intended Air Yards were middle of the pack and accurately captured the Packers’ passing style. That’s actually down a bit from 2019, when Aaron averaged 8.9, and the more frequent shorter throws proved invaluable to boosting his completion percentage.

Way down at the bottom of the 2019 Intended Air Yards chart you will find Jimmy Garoppolo with 6.5. The only quarterbacks who checked down more often than Garoppolo in 2019 were Derek Carr and Teddy Bridgewater. Garoppolo’s 2019 season is insane. Checkdown artists often have high completion percentages, and 2019 Jimmy G is no exception. His 69.12 was 5th in the NFL, and right in the same general tier with fellow checkdown artists Drew Brees (74.34%), Carr (70.37%), and Bridgewater (67.86%, in limited work). There are two things that separate Garoppolo from his cautious brethren.

The first and obvious factor is that Garoppolo can hardly be considered cautious at all. His 12 interceptions are almost unfathomable for someone who hardly ever challenges corners down the field. Picks have been a consistent problem for Jimmy throughout his career, and no matter how short his throws, he just can’t help himself.

The second, and for our purposes, the more important factor, is Jimmy’s Yards per Catch. Ryan Tannehill led the NFL in Y/C in 2019 with 13.64, and he was third in Intended Air Yards with 9.6. Jameis Winston was 2nd in Y/C, and 2nd in IAY. Matthew Stafford, never afraid to air it out, was 3rd in Y/C, and 1st in IAY. Patrick Mahomes was 4th in Y/C, and 13th in IAY (though his 8.6 is still pretty aggressive). Dak Prescott was 5th in Y/C, and 6th in IAY. And then, we get to Jimmy, who finished 6th in Y/C (12.09) while also finishing 37th in IAY (6.5). 37th!

Almost all professional quarterbacks will have an easier time completing shorter passes versus longer passes, as it’s simply easier to hit a closer target more often. The downside to throwing short is that while it limits risk, it also generally offers little reward. Checkdown artists often run offenses that wind up punting or getting themselves into uncomfortable situations where they have to attack downfield, leading to picks.

But what if the risk/reward analysis wasn’t so stark? What if there was a way to get the benefit of attacking downfield without the risk? This is what the 49ers have figured out, and as a result they have almost entirely eschewed conventional outside receivers for a new blend of YAC (yards after the catch) monster, exemplified by the truly outstanding Deebo Samuel. Samuel is short, but big, shaped more like a RB than a conventional receiver. His RAS won’t blow anyone away:

But it’s impacted severely by his height, which is almost certainly a feature more than a bug for the 49ers. Samuel is unquestionably the league’s premier creator of YAC, averaging 8.5 YAC per reception in 2019 and an insane 12.2 in 2020. The numbers are staggering, but more so when you consider how he creates yards after catch compared to his true peers.

You see, there are two categories of YAC, and they are so different as to almost warrant separate stats. The first we’ll call “Bomb YAC,” which is simply the yards you run after you catch a bomb or some other pass behind defenders, and outsprint them. Indeed, receivers Mecole Hardman and A.J. Brown both averaged more YAC than Deebo in 2019, but their average depth of target shows that this was mostly “Bomb YAC” (though Brown is more than capable of producing all kinds of YAC.)

The second we’ll call “Power YAC.” This is the YAC you generate when you make opponents in front of you miss through speed, agility, and the occasional stiff-arm. This is where Samuel excels. With an average depth of target (ADOT) of just 7.6 yards in 2019, he still ranked 3rd in YAC (8.5), even among the bomb-catchers. The only actual wide receiver even remotely close to him in the top of the YAC standings was Buffalo’s Isaiah McKenzie, who averaged 7.8 YAC with an ADOT of just 4.6. There is really and truly no one like Deebo Samuel.

The best way to conceptualize Samuel’s contribution is to compare his production to that of someone like DK Metcalf, the incredible Seattle deep threat who frequently draws comparisons to Calvin Johnson. In 2019, Metcalf’s average depth of target was 13.7 yards, and his average YAC was 4.8, meaning that if he caught the ball he was likely to gain about 18.5 yards (13.7 through the air, and 4.8 on the ground). Since Metcalf was was making harder catches further down the field, his catch percentage was comparatively lower at 59.8%. Also, do keep in mind it was Russell Wilson, and not Jimmy G throwing him the ball.

Samuel, on the other hand, averaged 7.6 ADOT, and 8.5 YAC, meaning that when he caught the ball, he was likely to gain 16.1 yards per catch. However it’s far easier to complete a 7.6 yard pass, and his 74% catch percentage shows it. Basically, Samuel provides Metcalfian levels of production to even Garoppolian levels of quarterbacking. Put even more simply, every time Garoppolo targets Samuel, Samuel’s efforts turn him into Russell Wilson. And on the 49ers, Deebo is not alone.

While he’s not quite as incredible as Samuel, George Kittle is cut from the same cloth. Among WRs and TEs in 2019, he was 7th in YAC per reception (7.3) with just a 6.1 ADOT. Kittle didn’t quite give you Deebo’s post-catch production, but it was even easier to complete passes to him, as he posted a gaudy 80.2% catch percentage. Remember Aaron Rodgers’ MVP stats we mentioned earlier (70.7 completion percentage, 11.6 Y/C)? In 2019, when targeting his top 4 wide receivers or tight ends (Samuel, Kittle, Emmanuel Sanders, and Kendrick Bourne), Garoppolo completed 73% of his passes, averaging 13 yards per completion, for 2715 total yards. 1469 of those yards, or 54%, were YAC.

You may complain that this isn’t an apples to apples comparison. What if we compare just the 49ers top 4 targets to Aaron’s top 4 targets to make it even? Doing the same analysis for the 2020 Packers by using Davante Adams, MVS, Allen Lazard, and Robert Tonyan, Rodgers completed 73.5% of his passes for 3101 yards, or 13.3 yards per reception. Of those yards, 1236, or 40%, were YAC. The 49ers only had one receiver with an ADOT over 8.7 while the Packers only had one receiver with an ADOT under 9.4. The 49er system was basically as good as MVP Aaron Rodgers, all because of their ability to generate YAC on shorter, easier throws.

2020 Packers v 2019 49ers

Player Age Pos Tgts Rec Yds Y/R TD Lng R/G Y/G Ctch% Y/Tgt Touch Y/Tch YScm YAC YAC% aDOT
Player Age Pos Tgts Rec Yds Y/R TD Lng R/G Y/G Ctch% Y/Tgt Touch Y/Tch YScm YAC YAC% aDOT
George Kittle*+ 26 TE 107 85 1053 12.4 5 61 6.1 75 79.4% 9.8 90 12.0 1075 621 57.8% 6.1
Deebo Samuel 23 WR 81 57 802 14.1 3 42 3.8 54 70.4% 9.9 71 14.0 961 484 50.4% 7.6
Emmanuel Sanders 32 WR 53 36 502 13.9 3 75 3.6 50 67.9% 9.5 36 14.0 502 240 47.8% 11.1
Kendrick Bourne 24 WR 44 30 358 11.9 5 30 1.9 22 68.2% 8.1 30 12.0 358 124 34.6% 8.7
2019 49ers Totals 285 208 2715 13.1 16 73.0% 1469 54.1%
Davante Adams*+ 28 WR 149 115 1374 11.9 18 56 8.2 98.1 77.2% 9.2 115 11.9 1374 584 42.5% 9.4
Marquez Valdes-Scantling 26 WR 63 33 690 20.9 6 78 2.1 43.1 52.4% 11.0 37 19.0 703 242 34.4% 18.2
Allen Lazard 25 WR 46 33 451 13.7 3 72 3.3 45.1 71.7% 9.8 35 13.4 468 195 41.7% 10.5
Robert Tonyan 26 TE 59 52 586 11.3 11 45 3.3 36.6 88.1% 9.9 52 11.3 586 215 36.7% 8.4
2020 Packers Totals 317 233 3101 13.3 38 73.5% 1236 39.9%

2020 happened, but how bad was it really?

The 49ers took a tumble in 2020, which is largely blamed on Garoppolo missing 10 games. Certainly, it’s not good to lose your starting QB. That said, quarterback was hardly the only problem, and after reading the data above, you may not be too surprised that injuries to Samuel, Kittle, and rookie Brandon Aiyuk may have been even more important.

First, note that the 49ers weren’t even that bad for what was easily the most injured team in all of football per Football Outsiders’ AGL metric. Their offense finished 20th by DVOA and 21st in points scored, which is pretty great given the circumstances.

Second, if we perform the same exercise as as before, it’s pretty clear that the biggest issue with the offense wasn’t so much Garoppolo but the lack of targets going to Kittle and Samuel. Kittle played almost as many games with Nick Mullens and CJ Beathard as he did with Garoppolo, and he was essentially the same player as always with an ADOT of 7.9 and an average YAC of 6.2. His catch percentage and YAC took a small hit, but you’re still getting 14 yards per reception at a 76% clip. Samuel though, was insane in 2020. His ADOT crashed to just 2.2 yards, which is a big ding compared to his previous performance, but he was ridiculous with the ball in his hands, leading the league with 12.2 YAC per reception. That’s 4 yards better than 2nd place Cam Sims, and almost 5 yards better than MVS!

The major problem for the 49ers is that Samuel missed 9 games, Kittle missed 8 games, and Brandon Aiyuk missed 4. Richie James and Kendrick Bourne missed time as well, as did Raheem Mostert, one of the best providers of easy yards there is from the RB position. In fact, receiving production from running backs fell off a cliff for the 49ers as Jeff Wilson somehow caught less than half of his targets, and Jamycal Hasty averaged only 4.7 yards per reception. Jerick McKinnon wasn’t a total disaster, but still wasn’t within 2 yards-per-reception of what Mostert provides.

When their starters played and were targeted, regardless of the quarterback, this offense still produced. They didn’t quite produce at the level of the 2019 49ers, but when targeting Aiyuk, Samuel, Kittle, Bourne, or the surprisingly efficient Richie James, 49ers QBs completed 68.3% of their passes for 13.3 yards per reception. Just like 2019, only one of these players (James) exceeded an ADOT of 10, and just like in 2019, they were highly reliant on YAC, with 1300 of their 2834 yards coming after the catch (46%). That’s not quite as much as in 2019 when it was 54%, but the difference is almost entirely attributable to the availability of Kittle and Samuel. Had they played closer to a full slate, that number would be roughly in line with 2019. Aiyuk was also not quite the YAC monster that Emmanuel Sanders was the year before, and while he was impressive for a rookie, he had the lowest catch percentage of the starters and wasn’t as dynamic after the catch.

That 46% YAC number is still excellent by the way. Just for the sake of comparison, the 2020 Packers and Chiefs were at 40%, the Denver Broncos, who feature a receiver group that should excel in YAC, only hit 37%, and the Super Bowl champion Bucs only hit 34%. These teams generally relied on the deep ball to an absurd (and highly efficient) extent.

2020 YAC and ADOT

Player Pos G GS Tgts Rec Yds Y/R TD R/G Y/G Ctch% Y/Tgt YAC YAC% aDOT
Player Pos G GS Tgts Rec Yds Y/R TD R/G Y/G Ctch% Y/Tgt YAC YAC% aDOT
Brandon Aiyuk WR 12 11 96 60 748 12.5 5 5 62.3 62.5% 7.8 186 24.9% 9.9
George Kittle TE 8 8 63 48 634 13.2 2 6 79.3 76.2% 10.1 299 47.2% 7.9
Deebo Samuel WR 7 5 44 33 391 11.8 1 4.7 55.9 75.0% 8.9 401 102.6% 2.2
Richie James WR 11 7 35 23 394 17.1 1 2.1 35.8 65.7% 11.3 196 49.7% 10.5
Kendrick Bourne WR 15 5 74 49 667 13.6 2 3.3 44.5 66.2% 9.0 218 32.7% 10.0
49ERS TOTALS 312 213 2834 13.3 68.3% 1300 45.9%
Davante Adams*+ WR 14 14 149 115 1374 11.9 18 8.2 98.1 77.2% 9.2 584 42.5% 9.4
Marquez Valdes-Scantling WR 16 12 63 33 690 20.9 6 2.1 43.1 52.4% 11.0 242 35.1% 18.2
Allen Lazard WR 10 9 46 33 451 13.7 3 3.3 45.1 71.7% 9.8 195 43.2% 10.5
Robert Tonyan TE 16 8 59 52 586 11.3 11 3.3 36.6 88.1% 9.9 215 36.7% 8.4
PACKERS TOTALS 317 233 3101 13.3 73.5% 1236 39.9%
Jerry Jeudy WR 16 14 113 52 856 16.5 3 3.3 53.5 46.0% 7.6 260 30.4% 14.6
Noah Fant TE 15 14 93 62 673 10.9 3 4.1 44.9 66.7% 7.2 372 55.3% 7.1
Tim Patrick WR 15 15 79 51 742 14.5 6 3.4 49.5 64.6% 9.4 239 32.2% 13.1
KJ Hamler WR 13 4 56 30 381 12.7 3 2.3 29.3 53.6% 6.8 123 32.3% 10.9
BRONCOS TOTALS 341 195 2652 13.6 57.2% 994 37.5%
Darren Waller* TE 16 15 145 107 1196 11.2 9 6.7 74.8 73.8% 8.2 594 49.7% 8.1
Nelson Agholor WR 16 13 82 48 896 18.7 8 3 56 58.5% 10.9 242 27.0% 15.7
Hunter Renfrow WR 16 6 77 56 656 11.7 2 3.5 41 72.7% 8.5 348 53.0% 6.6
Henry Ruggs III WR 13 12 43 26 452 17.4 2 2 34.8 60.5% 10.5 148 32.7% 17.3
RAIDERS TOTALS 347 237 3200 13.5 68.3% 1332 41.6%
DeAndre Hopkins* WR 16 16 160 115 1407 12.2 6 7.2 87.9 71.9% 8.8 521 37.0% 9.0
Christian Kirk WR 14 10 79 48 621 12.9 6 3.4 44.4 60.8% 7.9 181 29.1% 13.2
Larry Fitzgerald WR 13 13 72 54 409 7.6 1 4.2 31.5 75.0% 5.7 182 44.5% 6.2
Dan Arnold TE 16 5 45 31 438 14.1 4 1.9 27.4 68.9% 9.7 177 40.4% 12.6
CARDINALS TOTALS 356 248 2875 11.6 69.7% 1061 36.9%
Travis Kelce TE 15 15 145 105 1416 13.5 11 7 94.4 72.4% 9.8 590 41.7% 9.3
Tyreek Hill WR 15 15 135 87 1276 14.7 15 5.8 85.1 64.4% 9.5 428 33.5% 13.4
Mecole Hardman wr 16 8 62 41 560 13.7 4 2.6 35 66.1% 9.0 293 52.3% 10.9
Demarcus Robinson WR 16 9 59 45 466 10.4 3 2.8 29.1 76.3% 7.9 178 38.2% 9.6
Sammy Watkins WR 10 9 55 37 421 11.4 2 3.7 42.1 67.3% 7.7 162 38.5% 8.1
CHIEFS TOTALS 456 315 4139 13.1 69.1% 1651 39.9%
Mike Evans WR 16 16 109 70 1006 14.4 13 4.4 62.9 64.2% 9.2 262 26.0% 13.0
Chris Godwin WR 12 12 84 65 840 12.9 7 5.4 70 77.4% 10.0 299 35.6% 10.1
Rob Gronkowski TE 16 16 77 45 623 13.8 7 2.8 38.9 58.4% 8.1 245 39.3% 11.9
Antonio Brown WR 8 4 62 45 483 10.7 4 5.6 60.4 72.6% 7.8 254 52.6% 9.2
Scott Miller WR 16 5 53 33 501 15.2 3 2.1 31.3 62.3% 9.5 108 21.6% 16.4
BUCCANEERS TOTALS 385 258 3453 13.4 67.0% 1168 33.8%

Completing 68.3% of their passes in 2020 would have ranked San Francisco as a unit 9th compared to individual QBs with at least 100 attempts, just ahead of Philip Rivers and Kirk Cousins, but with a higher Yards per Reception than any quarterback ranked above them.

So, this is really what “quarterback friendly” means. The skill position players of the 49ers, when healthy, create enough on their own to get top-10 quarterback play from pretty much anyone. That’s not to say it’s a fool-proof system, or even necessarily a good idea. After all, George Kittles and Deebo Samuels don’t exactly grow on trees, and we’ve seen what happens when injuries take them out. Which is as good a segue as any to the Packers.

The Packers and weird pass catchers

Matt LaFleur is a Kyle Shanahan disciple, and since he took over in January 2019, all the Packers have done when it comes to offensive skill position players is draft player types that mimic the 49ers. LaFleur is not the GM of course, as that title belongs to Brian Gutekunst, but it seems clear that LaFleur has a strong influence on the Packer draft board. In 2019, they took Jace Sternberger in an attempt to get their tight end. In 2020 they took Josiah Deguara in an attempt to get their own Kyle Juzcczyk. A few weeks ago they drafted Amari Rodgers, seemingly in an attempt to get their own Deebo Samuel. Neither Sternberger nor Deguara has panned out so far, though Deguara hasn’t had a fair shake yet due to injuries. However, it’s really not easy to find a Deebo Samuel, and I’m not sure that’s quite what Amari is.

The Packers have tried to create something like Samuel’s production with Tyler Ervin and others (Darrius Shepherd, yeesh), and they are unquestionably better with Ervin in the game. The problem is that Amari Rodgers doesn’t seem that Deebo-ish.

They’re similar sizes and fit the “short but powerful” prototype, but Samuel was a much better raw athlete. Rodgers is big like Deebo, but his explosion and agility RAS scores are much worse, and in terms of athleticism, he’s much closer to Randall Cobb in terms of straight-line speed and upper body strength being his standout traits.

Watching film, he also plays more like Cobb in my opinion, doing a lot of his significant damage in college by shooting deep past unsuspecting defenders.

This isn’t a bad thing! Randall Cobb is a great comparison for a would-be slot receiver, and slot receivers are among the most likely positions to succeed in spite of poor athletic testing. Still, I do wonder how much easy yardage Rodgers will provide at the next level given his skillset. Most scouts love Rodgers with the ball in his hands, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s more of a vertical/gimmick threat (much like Robert Tonyan) versus an “easy yardage” Samuel-like receiver. If I’m right, that actually makes him a better fit for what Aaron Rodgers likes to do, which leads me to my last point.

Aaron Rodgers has, purportedly, been asking for help at outside receiver for some time, and is, purportedly, mad about it. Instead, the team keeps drafting inside receivers and tight ends. In addition to adding Jordan Love, the team also seems to be drafting other positions for a quarterback other than Rodgers. They’re not buying cool new gear for their ace fighter pilot, they’re buying safety nets for some future player, and Rodgers is almost certainly smart enough to figure this out.

Aaron Rodgers set a career high in completion percentage last season, and a big part of that was his intended air yards coming down from 8.9 in 2019 to 8.1 in 2020. While the YAC level for receivers is about the same as it was in 2019 (40%), that number is already pretty high compared to most of the rest of the league. I suspect it continues to increase with Amari Rodgers joining the team, and maybe this is the smart thing to do. Maybe they’re doing a nice job prepping Love. I just wonder what Aaron thinks when he sees Tom Brady and the Bucs gunning it downfield while he’s throwing yet another bubble screen to Davante Adams.

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