One of the common narratives that we learn over the years about the game of football is that the tight end is the quarterback’s best friend. Generally speaking, the tight end represents a reliable set of hands that the quarterback can turn to as a release valve when he is under pressure.
While the tight end position’s role in the passing game has begun to evolve over the years, melding more into a traditional wide receiver—provided that the specific player is athletic enough, of course—the general sentiment remains true even this era of the game. But it is important to note why that is.
Tight ends frequently have the highest catch rates in the league based on their targets. There is a good reason for this, specifically in comparison to tight ends: they face a significantly higher percentage of catchable targets.
This is no doubt an idea that has been intuitively understood by most fans of the game for years, but it’s always good to actually be able to put numbers to it, even if they are informal. Pro Football Focus provided us with some numbers to work with recently, so I wanted to bring it to the attention of the community.
Quantifying a ‘security blanket’ pic.twitter.com/XPtJxoygqT
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) July 19, 2017
Based on last season’s numbers, the average target to a wide receiver would result in a catchable pass on only 68.3 percent of occasions. A catchable pass is essentially a combination of the total number of receptions plus dropped passes, since passes that are deemed dropped are obviously passes that are catchable.
For comparison, the average target to a tight end was deemed a catchable pass on 76 percent of occasions, which is nearly eight percent higher than the number for wide receivers. That is a 10.1 percent increase in comparison to the targets that wide receivers have to face.
So if wide receivers are statistically significantly less likely to face a catchable pass when they are targeted, it is obvious that they are not going to catch a higher volume of passes than their tight end counterparts. And I’m sure it is obvious way tight ends face a higher percentage of catchable passes.
Of course, tight ends run different route trees than wide receivers, and at different depths. Tight ends don’t often delve too far beyond 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, and usually work within the numbers.
A wide receiver, on the other hand, depending on his role, could see the majority of his targets on passes thrown 20 yards down the field and outside the numbers. The further a pass has to be thrown, the less likely it is going to get to where it needs to go.
When it comes to the Pittsburgh Steelers, this is why continued growth from Jesse James and the tight end position as a whole is so important. By percentage, all of them ranked poorly in terms of their catch rate. James in particular had very poor yards per reception figures. The offense needs him to be that typical quarterback’s best friend.