Three New York Jets players stood out with great route-running and separation ability in 2021
One of the most important skills for an NFL receiver is the ability to create separation. Before a player can show off his catching skills and after-the-catch skills, he has to get himself open.
While there are many instances where a player doesn’t have to work hard to get open – whether he is schemed open by his coordinator or the defense simply doesn’t cover him tightly – there are also plenty of times when a player needs to create separation on his own. This is one of the most difficult things for an offensive player to accomplish, thus making it an extremely valuable and impactful skill.
NFL Next Gen Stats tracks two metrics that are useful in helping us to evaluate the route-running and overall separation ability of receivers: “average cushion” and “average separation”.
Using these metrics, we can find some interesting takeaways about key members of the New York Jets offense.
How can we evaluate route-running/separation ability using cushion and separation metrics?
A player’s average cushion tells us the average number of yards there are between him and his nearest defender; this includes only plays in which he is targeted.
A player’s average separation tells us the average number of yards there are between him and his nearest defender at the time the ball arrives. Again, this only accounts for plays in which the player is targeted.
On its own, average separation is not a good metric for evaluating a player’s true separation ability. The reason for this is that the statistic rewards players for catching screen passes, dump-offs, and wide-open passes.
If a receiver catches a bubble screen against a defender who is playing 10 yards off of him, he gets credited with a ton of separation yards for doing nothing. This is why many of the top players in the average separation category are just “gadget guys” and slot receivers who are fed a lot of easy catches behind the line of scrimmage.
But there’s a way we can counteract this phenomenon: by combining average cushion and average separation together.
Naturally, there is a strong correlation between cushion and separation. The more cushion a player gets, the more separation he tends to have at the catch point. Players with high cushion averages are expected to have high separation averages, and vice versa.
By looking at a player’s margin between his cushion and his separation, we can get an approximation of how much separation he created on his own.
If a player receives little cushion but still creates high separation, it’s likely that he created many of those separation yards on his own by defeating tight coverage. If a player receives a lot of cushion but creates low separation, he likely struggled to create his own separation yards.
I used this method to evaluate 98 qualified wide receivers (45+ targets) and 29 qualified tight ends (45+ targets) in the 2021 NFL season. After compiling all of the data, three New York Jets players were revealed to have performed marvelously in this specific category.
- 17th of 98 WR in separation (3.4 yds)
- 62nd of 98 WR in cushion (5.9 yds)
- 10th of 98 WR in cushion/separation differential (-2.5)
Elijah Moore got a handful of screen passes in 2021, but for the most part, he was handling a versatile array of duties as an outside receiver. He ran plenty of different route types on all levels of the field and often faced tight coverage.
Overall, Moore received less cushion than the average wide receiver, placing 62nd out of 98 qualifiers with only 5.9 yards of cushion on his average target.
Despite this, Moore still managed to create separation at a top-20 rate, placing 17th of 98 with an impressive 3.4 yards of separation per target.
The minus-2.5 differential between Moore’s cushion and separation ranked 10th-best out of the 98 qualified wide receivers. It tied him with Tyreek Hill, DeAndre Hopkins, and the next Jets player we’re about to see on this list.
For reference, the average margin for the 98-player group of wide receivers was minus-3.1. They combined to average 3.0 yards of separation with 6.1 yards of cushion.
Moore had more separation at the catch point than the average wide receiver despite getting less room to work with. Most likely, this is a sign that his route-running was top-notch.
The film agrees with the numbers.
Even in a game where he got 156 yards, Elijah Moore still should have had even more.
Beats Xavien Howard's press on the wheel here. He knows he got him, too pic.twitter.com/GZ4VsWhUkn
— Michael Nania (@Michael_Nania) November 27, 2021
- 2nd of 98 WR in separation (4.1 yds)
- 25th of 98 WR in cushion (6.6 yds)
- 10th of 98 WR in cushion/separation differential (-2.5)
Braxton Berrios joined Moore, Hill, and Hopkins in a tie for 10th-best with a margin of minus-2.5.
Berrios tied for second among wide receivers with 4.1 average yards of separation, although that’s largely a product of the many screen passes he was given. Of Berrios’s 65 targets, 16 of them (24.6%) were screens. Berrios also had the second-lowest aDOT (average depth of target) among qualified wide receivers at a measly 4.9 yards.
However, Berrios’s average cushion wasn’t nearly as comfy as you’d expect for a player who ranked so highly in separation and got so many short passes. He only ranked 25th with an average cushion of 6.6 yards. It’s still a high ranking, but Berrios’s separation, screen total, and aDOT all suggest he should have had one of the two or three softest cushions in the NFL.
The disparity between Berrios’s two rankings suggests that Berrios did face tight coverage at a relatively high frequency for a player in his role, and that he was able to defeat it successfully on at least a few occasions.
I would be more cautious about praising Berrios for his performance in this metric than Moore. Berrios’s large diet of designed touches behind the line of scrimmage certainly played a big role in helping him climb the ladder in this category. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking he’s a top-10 route runner (or close to it).
Even so, these numbers are still a fairly good sign that Berrios has a case to at least be considered a “pretty good” separator – which is not something that a lot of teams can say about their WR4.
- 7th of 29 TE in separation (3.5 yds)
- 24th of 29 TE in cushion (5.3 yds)
- 5th of 29 TE in cushion/separation differential (-1.8)
Tyler Conklin‘s smooth route-running is one of the most appealing traits you see on his tape – and the numbers back it up.
Im very early into it. But I really like what im seeing from Conklin. pic.twitter.com/ik61VwVeHV
— Joe Blewett (@Joerb31) March 17, 2022
Conklin often faced tight coverage, ranking 24th out of 29 qualified tight ends with an average cushion of only 5.3 yards. Yet, he placed seventh-best with 3.5 yards of separation.
For reference, the average margin for the 29-player group of tight ends was minus-2.5. They combined to average 3.3 yards of separation with 5.8 yards of cushion.
So, like Moore, Conklin created more separation than the average tight end despite facing tighter coverage.
Slick routes like this one are a fixture of Conklin’s film. His ability to separate in these situations is what vaults him up the leaderboard in cushion/separation differential.
Conklin with a really nice route to establish inside leverage then burst upfield for 19. Spreading five wide creates the space for all that YAC: pic.twitter.com/Bz2DcmDSUa
— Nick Olson (@NickOlsonNFL) December 11, 2021
Look for Moore and Conklin to be the chief separators in the Jets’ offense this season. Additionally, it will be interesting to see where Garrett Wilson ranks in these metrics during his rookie season. He’s got the talent to join Moore and Conklin as the third top-flight route-runner in the New York offense.