Contested-catch success is one of the most important traits for wide receivers
Last night, the New York Jets signed WR/TE Izaiah Gathings to a contract following a successful tryout at their rookie minicamp. As I was researching Izaiah, I noticed one very impressive number.
Over the course of his final college season at Middle Tennessee in 2022, Izaiah caught 10-of-13 contested targets, which equals an absurd 76.9% success rate. That was the highest mark of any receiver to have at least 10 chances in the entire FBS.
I don’t expect him to continue that at the next level considering his career mark was 46.2%, but it got me thinking about contested catches in general.
I wanted to take a look at the Jets’ contested-catch success rate during the 2022 season and then project their success rate in 2023 based on the players they added. However, without context, the numbers meant very little.
So, I decided to take a look at the entire league, work out the averages for each team, and then see how the Jets compared to the rest of the league. Unfortunately, those team-wide numbers aren’t readily available, so I had to get my Excel on with the player data available through PFF, and here’s what I found.
Over the course of the 2022 season, there were 2,783 contested catch opportunities in the NFL. Of those opportunities, 1,276 were completed for a league-wide success rate of 45.85%. This means the average per team is around 87 opportunities and 40 successful completions.
The Jets were just below that average of 45.85%, catching 47 of 106 opportunities for a success rate of 44.34%. The Jets were also only one of seven teams to have over 100 contested catch opportunities.
A higher number of contested catch opportunities can mean a number of things. One possibility is poor QB play. With bad timing or accuracy on throws, defenders can be given more chances to recover and make a play on the ball. Other possibilities include having a high amount of faith in the receivers to make those contested catches, lack of separation by the receivers, being behind on the scoreboard and needing to take chances, and a lot more.
Interestingly, the other six teams to have 100+ contested catch opportunities included the Bengals with Joe Burrow, the Cowboys with Dak Prescott, the Bucs with Tom Brady, the Vikings with Kirk Cousins, the Colts with Matt Ryan, and the Cardinals, with whoever was playing QB for them in the end.
I’d always considered 50% to be the benchmark for contested catches. As long as you win more than you lose as a team, you’re doing a good job. You’d expect higher success rates for bigger receivers who have more of a physical advantage, and who are targeted more often in jump-ball situations.
But the truth is, to be an average NFL contested catch team, you don’t even need to hit 50%.
That’s not to say some teams didn’t achieve that mark in 2022. There were four teams in the NFL who hit 50% or higher – four teams where the QB probably needs to buy his receivers a beer or two. The Texans led the way at 56.47%, followed by the Commanders (53.26%), Bengals (51.79%), Browns (50%), and Titans (50%).
The five worst teams in the league last year? Those would be the Carolina Panthers (40.32%), Atlanta Falcons (40.30%), Buffalo Bills (39.77%), Miami Dolphins (36.14%), and the Denver Broncos (33.78%).
So can the Jets make the leap over that league average mark, and could they even catapult into the top 5?
Losing Elijah Moore may help considering he caught just 1-of-6 contested catches for a success rate of 16.7%. He was replaced by Mecole Hardman who caught 2-of-3 for a success rate of 66.7%. However, Hardman’s career rate is 40%.
Allen Lazard only caught 9-of-23 last season, which gives him a success rate of 39.1%, but his career rate of 46.0% is right around the league average. Randall Cobb went 2-of-8 for a 25% rate in 2022 although his career rate is 48.3%. Back in 2021, Cobb caught 7-of-13 contested targets (53.8%).
Looking at some of the returning Jets receivers, Corey Davis caught 9-of-19 for a success rate of 47.4%, just above the league average. His career rate is a solid 48.9%. Garrett Wilson led the Jets with 39 contested targets but he only caught 14 of them for a success rate of 35.9%.
Not all contested catch opportunities are created equal, though. Many of Wilson’s contested targets were poorly placed (examples can be seen here). Upgrading to Aaron Rodgers at QB will surely help, as the ball placement on contested throws will be much more ideal. Green Bay was among the best teams in the league last year with a mark of 49.30%, so maybe when we look at this next year, we’ll be talking about the Jets like we talk about the Bengals today.