Titans lead three different signature Next Gen Stats categories from 2019

After Ryan Tannehill took over as the Titans’ starting quarterback in 2019, the offense exploded, averaging 30.3 points per game over the remainder of the season (good for 3rd in the NFL). That translated well to the box score, with Tannehill leading the league in passer rating and yards per pass attempt while Derrick Henry won the rushing title.

It also translated well to advanced tracking metrics.

NFL’s Next Gen Stats, which uses sensors placed throughout the stadium along with tracking tags attached to players’ shoulder pads, charts individual movements within inches. They then use that data to analyze the result of every NFL play and determine expected completion percentage, expected rushing yards, and expected yards after catch for any given game situation (depending on many factors, such as proximity of defenders to the quarterback, to the receivers, to the running back, the defenders’ relation to the offensive line, depth of target, etc).

Then, they look at how each NFL player’s actual production compared to their expected output based on this formula. That tells us the Completion Percentage Over Expectation for quarterbacks, Yards After Catch Over Expectation for pass-catchers, and a newly introduced statistic just last week called Rushing Yards Over Expectation for ball-carriers.

The Tennessee Titans boast the leader in each of these metrics for 2019.

Completion Percentage Over Expectation

Ryan Tannehill finished 3rd in the NFL in completion percentage (among qualified passers) in 2019 at 70.3%. However, unlike the two players who finished with a better completion percentage (Drew Brees and Derek Carr), Ryan Tannehill averaged a whopping 9.6 average intended air yards – meaning his average depth of target per throw was 9.6 yards.

Drew Brees and Derek Carr landed at 6.7 and 6.3 average intended air yards, respectively. Only Matthew Stafford (10.7) and Jameis Winston (10.5) put up a higher average intended air yards than Tannehill.

Next Gen Stats

As a result of that and other factors, Tannehill finished the season as the leader in Completion Percentage Over Expectation, meaning the completion percentage that was to be expected based on his average depth of target, proximity of pressure, tightness of coverage, and other Next Gen factors, was 8% lower than his actual completion percentage.

In other words, he completed a lot of tight window throws under pressure. That also means his receivers did a nice job winning contested catches in improbable situations (think Jonnu Smith against the Raiders, or A.J. Brown against the Texans).

Originally tweeted by Tennessee Titans (@Titans) on July 28, 2020.

In 2018, Ryan Tannehill posted a CPOE of -1.1%. He missed the 2017 season, but in 2016, he came in at 6th in the league with a CPOE of +5.4%. +8% CPOE is a career-high for him for as long as the stat has been around.

It remains to be seen if Tannehill can sustain such a high CPOE going forward. The good news is he returns all his pass catchers from last season with presumably a better rapport, so perhaps it is possible to at least maintain a high CPOE even if he can’t repeat as best in the league.

Yards After Catch Over Expectation

Yards After Catch Over Expectation measures a pass catcher’s actual yards gained after each catch on average compared to the average yards they should be expected to gain given the Next Gen metrics.

Next Gen Stats

In addition to leading the NFL in average yards after catch, Titans’ 2nd-round rookie A.J. Brown also led the league in Next Gen Stats’ Yards After Catch Over Expectation.

“The most exciting “rising star” WR in the NFL is ______ ?” “That’s easy for me.” – James Jones
Originally tweeted by NFL Network (@nflnetwork) on July 12, 2020.

Note that Jonnu Smith is right behind (well, not right behind, as A.J. led this category by an entire 2 yards, the same as the gap between #2 and #24) his teammate, and Corey Davis cracks the top 16 also.

This bodes well for the Titans offense going forward more-so to me than Tannehill’s high CPOE, because I believe this statistic is more sustainable and indicative of individual talent, whereas CPOE could potentially be a result of some good luck (especially with a limited 10-game sample size). Having three players in the top-16 of this metric means they can continue to distribute the ball to guys in space and safely rely on them to generate yards.

Rushing Yards Over Expectation

On July 21st, NFL’s Next Gen Stats unveiled a new metric: Rushing Yards Over Expectation. You can read more about how this metric was developed HERE.

They haven’t released the full rankings like with the charts above, but here’s what they had to say about Derrick Henry, who led the league in this particular metric in addition to winning the actual rushing title:

“We shouldn’t be surprised, right? All it takes is viewing one Titans game in which Henry almost single-handedly put the opponent away — rumbling right through feeble tackle attempts for first down after first down and, eventually, a will-breaking score or two — to know he’s doing more than the average back. As you’ll see, Henry, who recently signed a well-deserved four-year, $50 million deal with the Titans, was the only running back in the entire league to post a rushing yards over expectation per attempt of more than 1 yard (1.05) in 2019. Only 10 running backs in the entire league posted a rate of 0.55 yards or better, and only two were even within 0.25 yards on average of Henry’s mark. He was really damn good in 2019, running behind an offensive line that was adequate, but not quite 1,521-rushing-yards-in-a-season good. No, those extra 314 yards between expectation and reality were all Henry’s doing. He’s the rushing king in more ways than one, and his ROYE per attempt of 1.08 in 2018 proves he’s not just a one-hit wonder.”

Nick Shook on NFL.com
Originally tweeted by Tennessee Titans (@Titans) on July 21, 2020.
(Skip to 3:35 for the Derrick Henry part)

Not only did Henry lead the league in this metric in 2019, he did so in 2018 as well, producing more than a yard over what should be expected per carry. His outstanding production, leadership, and work ethic led to his recent contract extension (which you can read a lot more about from Mike Herndon HERE and Zach Lyons HERE).

Henry also led the league in yards after contact according to Pro Football Focus with 1,268 (Nick Chubb was 2nd with 1,122).

It’s no wonder the Titans offense exploded down the stretch. They had players producing at the highest rate above expectation all over the offense.

Looking Ahead

These aren’t just three random Next Gen Stats cherry-picked to make the Titans look good. These are the three Next Gen Stats that measure an actual performance over an expected performance. The Titans triplets – and actually quadruplets if you include Jonnu Smith – led the league in these metrics last season.

Can they do it again in 2020? Broadway’s John Glennon wrote a great piece assessing this very question last week that you should check out if you haven’t already.

Henry’s success (as defined by Next Gen Stats) has already proven to be repeatable, having led the league in both 2018 and 2019 in Rushing Yards Over Expectation. His success is especially apparent when comparing his production to Dion Lewis over the past two seasons, running in the same offense behind the same line.

A.J. Brown, Jonnu Smith, and even Corey Davis’s success as playmakers with the ball should also be reasonably repeatable. Maybe not quite to the extent that Brown did it last season, but I’d still expect him and really all of these guys to be among the league leaders in yards after catch. Breaking tackles and making people miss is not a fluke skill that comes and goes (until it goes for good), so that shouldn’t be a one-year-wonder kind of stat.

Where I get concerned about repeatability is Ryan Tannehill. History tells us he should land somewhere between his forgettable -1.1% CPOE of 2016 (in Miami, with Adam Gase), and his impressive +8.0 CPOE of last year. But even if he regresses a bit in this category, his familiarity with the offense, more snaps for A.J. Brown and a healthy Adam Humphries should offset most of the negative side effects.

The Titans’ offense has a chance to be exciting again in 2020 because it doesn’t depend necessarily on using a scheme to fool a defense, but because the playmakers on the field are among the best in the league at creating yards with the ball in their hands. That is a sustainable way to find success in the NFL.

Let us know what you think about these metrics in the comments below!

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