Super Bowl 49 features many wonderful players and personalities. Odds are, a wide receiver isn't one of the first, say, 10 names you would think of off the top off your head. You might start with the quarterbacks, Tom Brady and Russell Wilson, then work your way down through others -- Marshawn Lynch, Rob Gronkowski, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Vince Wilfork, Darrelle Revis, Kam Chancellor -- and then maybe you finally get down to Doug Baldwin or Julian Edelman.
That feels odd, especially heading into a game that, in the last decade, has featured some of the most notable wide receiver play in Super Bowl history. A receiver has been named Super Bowl MVP seven times, and three earned the honor in the last decade alone, all within the five-year stretch from 2004 to 2009. Since then, there have been several stand out non-MVP performers, like Jordy Nelson (nine catches, 140 yards, one touchdown), or Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham on the Giants (combined 15 catches for 182 yards, Manningham with one particularly incredible grab).
Neither the New England Patriots nor the Seattle Seahawks feature a wideout who had at least 1,000 yards receiving during the regular season, nor have they invested much in the position. Brandon LaFell has the best pedigree of any receiver in Super Bowl 49 as a third-round pick. Edelman is the next best as a seventh-rounder. Four of the top six receivers in the game, by yardage, went undrafted. Only one player, Danny Amendola, is among the NFL's top 25 highest annual salaries at the position (24th). Baldwin and Edelman check in 33rd and 34th, respectively.
The Seahawks and Patriots are among the best NFL franchises of the last several years, and neither has shown any attachment to star wideouts -- Seattle traded Percy Harvin and let Golden Tate walk, New England let Wes Welker go to Denver. Their coldness hasn't hurt the offenses much -- Seattle and New England rank fifth and sixth, respectively, by DVOA. So how have they gotten by?
Having great tight ends helps ...
There's no point doting on Gronkowski. He's on his way to being one of the best ever to play the position, and he enters the Super Bowl as the only player with more than 1,000 yards receiving during the regular season. Though Timothy Wright has seen just eight snaps in the playoffs, he was a significant contributor during the regular season as well with 26 catches, 259 yards and six touchdowns.
Luke Willson isn't Gronkowski, but no one expected him to contribute as well as he has. A fifth-round pick in 2013, Willson had just nine receptions during his final season at Rice. He caught the attention of scouts when he ran a 4.5 in the 40-yard dash before the draft, however. By Week 3 of 2014, the Seahawks had lost their top two tight ends, Zach Miller and Anthony McCoy, for the season, leaving only Willson. No problem. As Danny Kelly pointed out, Willson has been one of the Seahawks' best players over their last eight games, leading the team with three touchdown receptions off a second-best 17 receptions.
... but it's not like investing in wideouts is that great an investment
At least, spending a first-round pick on a wideout doesn't necessarily lead to a big payoff. There are 28 first-round wideouts playing in the NFL on 20 different teams. Nineteen of those wideouts are in the 24-31 age range when receivers are supposed to be in their prime. Yet offenses aren't thriving with what should be stud wideouts. The 16 teams representing those 19 receivers have an average offensive rank of 14.1 by DVOA. Reduce the sample to the 12 players who have only ever played for the team that drafted them (eliminating busts who have already signed cheaper contract elsewhere) and the average offensive rank drops to a more middling 14.8.
Having a great receiver helps, you just don't need to dip into the first round
Having a stud wide receiver -- in this case, a top 10 wideout by DYAR -- is correlated with offensive and postseason success, however. Here's how those teams and players have fared.
|DYAR rank||Name||Team||Draft round||Offensive rank||Postseason result|
|1.||Antonio Brown||Pittsburgh||6th||2nd||Lost Wild Card|
|2.||Jordy Nelson||Green Bay||2nd||1st||Lost NFC Champ.|
|3.||Emmanuel Sanders||Denver||3rd||3rd||Lost Divisional|
|4.||Randall Cobb||Green Bay||2nd||1st||Lost NFC Champ.|
|5.||Dez Bryant||Dallas||1st||4th||Lost Divisional|
|6.||Odell Beckham Jr.||NY Giants||1st||15th||:(|
|8.||Demaryius Thomas||Denver||1st||3rd||Lost Divisional|
|10.||Torrey Smith||Baltimore||2nd||9th||Lost Divisional|
Now, a pretty obvious caveat: Almost all of those players had darn good quarterbacks. DYAR -- Defense-adjusted Yard Above Replacement -- is an attempt to measure the total value of a wide receiver above the average player developed by Football Outsiders. Receivers are inextricably tied to their passers, however, and only one of the above players had a quarterback who finished out of the top half of the league in passer rating (guess who). The Giants' Eli Manning and Baltimore's Joe Flacco were relatively pedestrian at 15th and 16th in passer rating, respectively, but in the grand scheme they weren't awful. Both had TD:INT ratios better than 2:1.
Wilson and Brady are proof that you don't need great receivers to be a great quarterback, however, ranking 10th and fifth during the regular season in passer rating, respectively, despite the highest rated receiver, LaFell, coming in at No. 27 in DYAR (Edelman was No. 32, Baldwin was No. 33).
So what are Super Bowl 49 wideouts good at?
Great question. They aren't good at making big plays. Seattle's Ricardo Lockette averaged an awesome 17.73 yards per catch during the regular season, but that came off just 11 receptions. The rest were pedestrian at best.
Julian Edelman -- 10.57 yards per catch, dead last among players with at least as many receptions (92)
Brandon LaFell -- 12.88 yards yards per catch, 16th out of 22 players with at least as many receptions (74)
Danny Amendola -- 7.41 yards per catch, dead last among 97 players with at least as many receptions (27)
Doug Baldwin -- 12.50 yards per catch, 26th out of 34 players with at least as many receptions (66)
Jermaine Kearse -- 14.43 yards per catch, 25th out of 77 players with at least as many receptions (38)
Pats wideouts were a barren source of big plays. Seahawks wideouts were moderately better, but hardly outstanding. The only thing that Super Bowl 49 receivers were especially good at was holding on to the football.
Super Bowl 49
Patriots, Seahawks prepared for any situation
Few teams play situational football better than the Patriots and Seahawks. It starts with how both teams practice.
Super Bowl 49
Baldwin has had just one dropped pass after Week 6, as Pro Football Focus points out, with a regular season catch rate of 67.3 percent that ranked 21st among players with at least 26 receptions, and eighth among the 34 players who had at least as many receptions as he did. One of the players who beat him was Edelman, whose 68.7 percent catch rate was 18th among those with at least 26 catches and sixth among the nine players with at least 90 receptions.
As teams, the Seahawks and Patriots tied for seventh for the lowest drop percentage, 3.7 percent, in the NFL. The Seahawks were eighth overall with a 66.4 percent team catch rate, while the Patriots were 13th at 65.2 percent.
The standout number may be cap space. For that efficiency, the Seahawks are committing just 3.7 percent of their 2014 salary cap to wide receivers (fifth-lowest in NFL). The Patriots are committing a healthier 9.55 percent of their cap to wideouts, 12th in the NFL, which is due in large part to the deal with Amendola, who admittedly hasn't quite lived up to his contract. Edelman and LaFell are both cheaper and have been well worth the money, however, and the offense doesn't appear any worse by letting Welker sign elsewhere.
Ace receivers have been a boon for other teams, but in this instance, the Seahawks and Patriots appear to have benefited by being shrewd. Money saved means extra capital for splurges elsewhere, like a four-year, $56 million deal for Richard Sherman, or a one-year, $12 million deal on Darrelle Revis. Both teams wisely chose where they wanted their biggest playmakers, and for their efforts they'll be playing for the Lombardi Trophy this Sunday.