Matt Harmon over at NFL.com has recently put out a series featuring some of their NextGen Stats and how players rank based on these. Last week centered around wide receivers and Emmanuel Sanders popped up on his lists a few times.
The first stat they break down is one that measures the receiver’s separation at the time they are targeted. Here’s their brief description:
One of the primary tasks of the wide receiver position is to run clean routes and get open from the defender covering them in order to present a reliable target to the quarterback throwing them the ball. The NFL's Next Gen Stats tracking is able to objectively determine who the best receivers are at getting open in an unparalleled fashion from anything we've never seen before. Next Gen Stats' "separation at target" metric measures how much separation a receiver earned from the defender covering them when their quarterback threw them the ball. Other separation metrics to measure getting open on a per route basis could be coming down the line, but this is the method, for now.
So this is a great metric to tell you what receivers are getting open consistently which is an important perspective aside from just looking at a receiver’s stats.
You can go to the article to check out the full rankings, but no surprise that Antonio Brown is at the top of this list as he is one of the best receivers in the game, and our corners struggled to cover him when the Denver Broncos played the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2015.
A little further down from Brown, among the top ten in the league, is Emmanuel Sanders at #6.
6) Emmanuel Sanders, Denver Broncos (2.63 separation at target)
Out wide separation: 2.55 (74 percent of plays)
Slot separation: 2.95 (24 percent of plays)
Air yards per targets: 14.1 (from Siemian and Lynch)
Emmanuel Sanders did not lose much off of his pace in his first season since 2013 without Peyton Manning. He crossed the 1,000-yard mark and caught more passes in 2016 than he did in 2015, despite playing just one more game. Sanders has had an interesting career in the NFL. He never met expectations in Pittsburgh largely because his precise style didn't fit the backyard-style of football Ben Roethlisberger played at the time. However, his ability to using technique and time in his routes was a perfect fit in Denver with the way Manning approaches the position. Sanders' 2.63 yards of separation at target reflects that skill to perfection. One interesting note that developed during the season was Paxton Lynch's clear preference for Sanders over Demaryius Thomas. The former owned a 45.2 percent share of the rookie's intended air yards to just 27.1 percent for Thomas.
Additionally, Harmon adds this note at the bottom of the article:
“Demaryius Thomas averaged 2.05 yards of separation at target, 0.58 less than his fellow Broncos receiver. He is the bigger name and the player with the higher NFL Draft pedigree. However, there's good reason to assert that Sanders is the superior of the two Broncos receivers.”
I’ll leave that statement to be discussed in the comments!
But there are some interesting notes from the numbers above. Notice Sanders’ separation from the slot. His slot separation is better than Antonio Brown’s and they line up in the slot around the same percentage of snaps.
Another thing to note is that the production drops off significantly after Sanders on the list. Here’s the top seven in yards of separation.
- Antonio Brown - 2.92
- Odell Beckham - 2.77
- Terrelle Pryor - 2.76
- Amari Cooper - 2.71
- Jordy Nelson - 2.68
- Emmanuel Sanders - 2.63
- Michael Thomas - 2.38
So you have a cluster of receivers around the 2.7-2.6 mark after Brown, and then it drops all the way to 2.38 after Sanders. Just an interesting note I thought I’d point out.
Catches in Tight Coverage
In addition to being able to separate at an elite level, Sanders also is known for making catches when coverage is tight.
Another stat they track at NextGen stats is the catch percentage when receivers are targeted with under one yard of separation from the defender.
The league average catch rate for these situations is 40%. Sanders finished the season in the top 15 with a 50% catch rate. Here’s what Harmon had to say:
Emmanuel Sanders (50 percent), Doug Baldwin (50 percent), T.Y. Hilton (48.5 percent) and Antonio Brown (48.1 percent) all had catch rates above the NFL average. All of those players are under six feet tall and weigh less than 200 pounds. Size is not always the best asset at winning in tight coverage.
As we all know, Sanders doesn’t let his size get in the way of making contested, physical catches.
Also important to note, the only receivers in the top ten in separation yards AND over 50% catch rate in tight coverage were Julio Jones, Michael Thomas, and Emmanuel Sanders.
Even with his new deal, Sanders is an exceptional value and on par with some of the top receivers in the game on these important metrics.
Stats can be inflated and deflated based on your offense and play calls, but the ability to get open and make tough catches in coverage are two of the biggest attributes you want from your wide receivers; and Sanders is one of the best there is at both.