Every single fan of the NFL loves big plays. In a world where most fans play fantasy football, game highlights and player highlights are always shown, explosive plays are viewed more than ever. Let’s be honest, most of our favorite plays are normally big plays. I can appreciate watching Jason Kelce explode off the line of scrimmage to reach a second level defender and execute a perfect block to cut-off a backside linebacker... but is it is fun as watching DeSean Jackson take an out route 91 yards against the Cowboys for a touchdown? No. One of my favorite plays from last year was Miles Sanders 65 yard yard touchdown run against the Buffalo Bills. DeSean Jackson’s two long touchdowns in week 1 against Washington also stand out.
Every single fan of the Eagles knows that after DeSean Jackson went down last year, the Eagles offense struggled to create any big plays. But what impact does this have overall? How important are explosive plays in the NFL? And how do the Eagles solve this problem? This is something I wanted to focus on and research further, hence this article!
Let’s start with explosive plays... how much do they really matter?
This is from Sharp Football Stats and it looks at ‘explosive plays’. An explosive run play is anything over 10 yards and an explosive pass play is anything over 15 yards. The Eagles rank 23rd out of 32 teams. Not great. Look below the Eagles too. None of those teams made the playoffs and none of them were very good last year. So how much do explosive plays matter?
There is the top 5 and bottom 5 teams in terms of explosive plays. No-one in the bottom 5 had a winning record and no team scored more than 400 points with the Falcons coming the closest. The Bears had the best record but that was down to their defense as they only scored a terrible 280 points. The Bills were the only team in the top 5 who didn’t score 400+ points and the Cowboys were the only team in the top 5 to not have a winning record. The two best regular season teams, the Ravens and 49ers, also happen to have the best % of explosive plays out of any team. Coincidence? You decide.
In very basic terms - if you have explosive plays you will score a lot of points and probably have a winning record.
Another way of looking at explosive pass plays is by measuring a quarterbacks yards per attempt (YPA). It’s a pretty simple stat, how many yards did a quarterback throw for with each attempt. Those who throw a lot of deep balls and have big plays will usually have a higher YPA.
So out of the 8 best quarterbacks in terms of YPA, 5 of them went to the playoffs and only 2 of them had a losing record. The two Super Bowl teams are also in the top 5. Carson Wentz is all the way down at 25. This is where stats only tell you so much - is it Wentz’ fault that he is here or the skill players around him? After watching every single throw Wentz has ever made in the NFL, I feel very confident in saying that he is ranked at 25 because of his skill players and not his own ability. Go back and watch week 1 from last year if you are not sure, Wentz can throw a beautiful deep ball when his guys are open.
Once again, in very basic terms, if your quarterback has a good YPA your team is probably going to be good.
So now that we have looked at why explosive plays matter... Who were the most explosive players in the NFL last year?
Let’s start by simply looking at yards per reception (YPR).
There are the top 16 skill players in the NFL in terms of yards per reception.
Now there is one obvious outlier on that list... Jared Cook. He is the only non-WR on the list and he is the only player on the list above the age of 27. What can we takeaway from these stats?
Firstly, the smaller shiftier receivers do not actually produce the most big plays. Most of the guys on the list are big. Only one of the receivers on the list (Hardman) is smaller than 6 foot. Most of the guys on that list are tough, physical and big receivers.
Secondly, everyone except Cook is young. Only 3 names on the entire list are above 26. So if you want to get more explosive, look towards the NFL draft and not free agency.
Lastly, explosive players also score touchdowns. Only James Washington and Mike Williams scored less than 5 touchdowns on that list. I would expect Williams in particular to score a lot more next season.
If you are wondering where Tyreek Hill is, he is just below these guys with 14.8 yards per reception. So he was still pretty explosive!
However, YPR is not the only way of looking at explosive plays. We can also look at 40+ receptions from last year.
These are the only 9 players with 6 or more 40+ yard plays last year. 6 out of the 9 on the list were also in the top 16 for yards per reception. The 3 that were not (Hill, Sutton and Cooper) were extremely close behind. Hill averaged 14.8 YPR, Sutton 15.4 and Cooper 15.1).
If you want to be high up the list of YPR, you will probably need to have quite a few big plays throughout the season.
How do the Eagles skill position players compare? WARNING: Look away now if you don’t want to get annoyed/upset...
The good news - JJAW and DeSean Jackson have a healthy YPR above 15! The bad news - they have a combined 19 receptions so the numbers are pretty meaningless.
The Eagles most explosive skill player (who caught more than 10 balls) was... Alshon Jeffery. Alshon averaged 11.4 YRR. To put into context just how bad that is, Alshon’s YPR was lower than Cole Beasley, Jordan Akins, Demaryius Thomas and Greg Olsen. GREG OLSEN! The guy is 35 years old!
Entering last season, Nelson Agholor was supposed to be an explosive play-maker who could create big plays. He ended up with a YPR of 9.3. Just for fun (you have to laugh, right?) this number was lower than Ryan Griffin, Kyle Rudolph, Jack Doyle and Nick Boyle. Yes, all of those players are tight ends.
You really don’t need stats to tell you that the Eagles lacked a vertical explosive element last year without DeSean. I knew that without looking at the numbers. Even so, the numbers genuinely shocked me. It is pretty incredible just how much the Eagles lack explosive play-makers on offense.
What can the Eagles do about this?
This brings me to the final part of this article. How can the Eagles solve this problem? Before addressing this question, I wanted to study something that I didn’t know much about. If you are explosive in the NFL... were you explosive in college? This may seem an obvious answer - yes. But a look of people will argue that receivers get open downfield because of scheme and the play of their quarterback so I thought I would go back and look at all of the YPR leaders in the NFL last season and what they did in college.
*Mike Williams was injured his second to last year so these numbers are from his third to last season.
I appreciate there is a lot to look at here but the results are absolutely fascinating to me.
Overall, there is not a single player on that list who did not have at least 1 season with a YPR of above 15. That is pretty incredible. Even Jared Cook was explosive in college, averaging 15.5 YPR. In very simple terms - if you are explosive in the NFL then you would have been explosive in college. Obviously this is just 1 years worth of data to look it but it is pretty convincing.
This may sound like an obvious statement but if you want to draft someone because you believe they will be an explosive play-maker in the NFL. Go and check their YPR carefully. If they have always had a low YPR in college, don’t expect this to suddenly change when they get to the NFL.
Secondly, it is really interesting to look at where these guys are drafted. Only 4/16 were 1st round picks. 4/16 were 2nd round picks. 6/16 were 3rd round picks. If you want an explosive player-maker in the NFL, you almost certainly need to draft them in the first few rounds which isn’t surprising. The only outliers on the list are Diggs and Tyrell Williams. If you want an explosive receiver - you need to draft them early! I hope you are reading Howie, don’t want until the 4th or 5th round to get the deep threats we need.
That brings us to this years wide receiver class - finally some good news! There are a lot of explosive players entering the NFL this year.
I have only included the YPR of some of the top names in this years class. No surprise who is at the top, CeeDee Lamb and Henry Ruggs are electric talents. Some of you may be surprised to see Tee Higgins at the top there but I was not, I loved his tape. Brandon Aiyuk is another player I would love the Eagles to draft.
These numbers do not tell us everything! Remember this is just data - it is one part of the player evaluation. For example, I think Jalen Reagor is a more explosive player than his 14.2 YPR shows. Why? Go and watch his tape and look at the quarterback who is throwing him the ball. That guy was not good.
Out of the top 10, they are all projected to be 1st or 2nd round picks with the exception of John Hightower. It makes me wonder if Hightower will go earlier than expected, especially when you consider this...
You’ll be pleased to know that is the last table to look at! Here is a list of all the WRs who had 6 or more 40+ yard receptions last season. Once again, CeeDee Lamb stands out above the rest but Brandon Aiyuk also has a pretty good record of creating big plays.
Overall, to summarize everything we have looked at...
- The Eagles lack explosiveness. The only explosive option they have in the passing game is 33 year old DeSean Jackson.
- The best NFL teams create big plays. If you don’t create explosive plays, you probably won’t be a very good football team next year.
- The most explosive players in the NFL last season were all explosive in college too.
- If you want to draft explosive receivers, you should draft them early. The odds are they won’t be there later on in the draft.
- CeeDee Lamb is the most explosive receiver in this years draft. The Eagles probably can’t draft him, but Brandon Aiyuk, Tee Higgins, Henry Ruggs and John Hightower also stand out as explosive players.
Finally, just remember everything I have mentioned is one part of the process. Stats are not everything. Just because a player has a high YPR in college, it doesn’t mean that will translate. That is the beauty of the NFL draft after all - it would be boring if there was an easy answer.