When drafting receivers, follow the yards, not the touchdown catches
Touchdowns get all the glory.
It makes sense. You're not going to win many games without scoring any touchdowns. Half the players on the field do all they can on every play to help their team score a touchdown while the other half do all they can to prevent one.
Touchdowns are triumphant. Two arms extended into the air. Six points. One dance (no props allowed). Kids dream of scoring game-winning touchdowns. They cross the sidewalk, get two feet down in the neighbor's yard with control, dive past the tree, spike the ball.
We remember touchdowns. Franco Harris. Dwight Clark. John Elway. Plaxico Burress. I bet you're thinking of the same touchdowns each of those four players scored that I am. We even remember touchdowns that aren't scored. Jackie Smith. Kevin Dyson. You remember their heartbreak as much as you do the champions' joy.
It is this very fog of touchdowns that we must cut through when evaluating wide receivers. You see, there's a little secret about receiving touchdowns that years of empirical evidence prove true: they're basically random. Sure, elite receivers are likely to find the end zone more likely than others. The same skills that make them elite also make them more proficient scorers. But there is no way to project touchdowns as accurately as we can yards or receptions.
There are plenty of reasons for the up-and-down nature of receiving touchdowns. Receivers, of course, are dependent on their quarterbacks and the guys keeping the quarterbacks upright. If they falter, it doesn't matter how talented a receiver is. Just ask Larry Fitzgerald or Steve Smith. A guy could break a few deep ones that just aren't there the next year. Maybe he broke out the year before or lost an important counterpart on the other side of the field and now faces more double-teams. He could see fewer looks in the red zone, or his team could get to the red zone less often. His quarterback could get hurt. Or it could be as simple as dumb luck. Whatever the reason, receivers simply don't pile up touchdowns with the regularity that running backs do.
But we're not just about abstractions here at SI.com. We bring proof for our arguments. Below are all the players in the last five years who had 10 or more receiving touchdowns, more or less the cut line for the top 10. Pay attention to how often the names change:
Dwayne Bowe -- 15
Randy Moss, Larry Fitzgerald, Vernon Davis -- 13
Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson -- 12
Randy Moss -- 23
Terrell Owens -- 13
Moss, Owens and Fitzgerald make the list three times; Calvin Johnson, White, Wayne, Jennings, Clark and Burress twice. That's it. In the last five years, 10 guys have caught at least 10 touchdowns more than once, and eight of them have done it exactly twice.
Some players are equally as conspicuous in their absence. Andre Johnson is the most obvious, but Carolina's Steve Smith and Chad Ochocinco join Johnson in making zero appearances on the list. Marques Colston, Brandon Marshall and Anquan Boldin each made it happen one time.
Here's perhaps the best illustration of the volatility of receiving touchdowns. In 2006, former Ram Torry Holt started all 16 games and caught 93 passes for 1,188 yards and 10 touchdowns. The next season, Holt started all 16 games and caught 93 passes for 1,189 yards and seven touchdowns. Receptions? Identical. Yards? Shockingly identical. Touchdowns? A 30 percent dip from the previous year. That's volatility the Dow would be proud of.
So how do we best evaluate receivers? Here are the top 10 receivers in terms of yards for the same five-year time frame.
1. Brandon Lloyd -- 1,448
1. Andre Johnson -- 1,569
1. Andre Johnson -- 1,575
1. Reggie Wayne -- 1,510
1. Chad Ochocinco -- 1,369
Thirteen receivers (Wayne, White, A. Johnson, Fitzgerald, C. Johnson, Moss, Steve Smith, Welker, Jennings, Marshall, Ochocinco, Owens, Holt) made the list multiple times. White, Fitzgerald and Andre Johnson did it three times, while Wayne has been in the top 10 each of the last five years. Thirteen compared with nine (Dallas Clark was one of the 10 who caught at least 10 touchdowns twice) may not seem like a huge difference, but it's nearly 50 percent more. On top of that, all nine receivers who caught at least 10 touchdowns twice made the top 10 receiving yards list at least twice, as well. Welker, Ochocinco, Holt and Steve Smith, who combined for eight appearances in the top 10 in yards, combined for just one double-digit touchdown season.
The point of all this historical study: Yards are predictable. Touchdowns are not. And odds are if you pick receivers based on yardage totals, the touchdowns will follow.
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