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Next Gen Stats' top 10 pass catchers by CROE of 2022: Surprise at No. 1!

All right, football folks. We've whet your appetite with a couple of top 10 lists that should have been fairly easy to digest and debate.

Now is the time to pull out your steak knives. The third course is a large plate filled with delectable treats that will prove to be divisive. Steak is delicious, but not everyone's favorite. And some of you will undoubtedly take issue with the names I've selected for this list.

We're diving into what feels like the most controversial top-10 ranking of this annual series: pass catchers who most often exceeded expectation. The criteria remains the same as it did a year ago. In order to qualify, a pass catcher (running backs not included) had to reach the following benchmarks in the 2022 NFL season: 50 targets, 50 receptions and 300 routes run.

An explanation is in order: I'm not ranking these pass catchers based solely on pure output. You'll notice some stars are missing from this group, and that's by design. I've explored the Next Gen Stats data to find the pass catchers who most consistently hauled in passes that weren't expected to be completed, not those who stuffed the stat sheet until it was ready to burst.

From there, it was all about separating players via Next Gen Stats' catch rate over expected (CROE) metric, which measures the difficulty of completion using a number of factors, including separation from nearest defender, depth of target and speed. The players who qualify for this list and boast higher CROEs have consistently made difficult, unlikely catches more often than the rest. These are the ones who you can count on to make the tough grabs, which is what we all want in our pass catchers, right?

Leave your All-Pro and Pro Bowl selections at home; they aren't exactly relevant to this discussion. And those players who regularly dominate on Sundays might not end up here, either. Many of the household names that missed this list are likely absent because they saw so many targets, we can assume they were almost guaranteed to see a greater number of easier catches than their peers, thus pulling down their overall CROE. Consider Minnesota's Justin Jefferson, the reigning Offensive Player of the Year. Of his 184 targets, 128 (or 70%) carried a catch probability of 50 percent or better. The top five players on this list, on the other hand, had a catch probability of 50 percent or better on just 51 percent of their combined targets. (Jefferson, by the way, still narrowly missed out of inclusion here, logging a strong CROE of +5.7%.) Judging results by data will lead to outcomes like this.

That shouldn't discount the group below. We're looking at those who consistently exceed expectation, proving their reliability even when surrounding circumstances suggest they won't produce.

We're in for some surprises. My Twitter mentions, as always, are open. I'm prepared for your barrage of angry replies. Here's my top-10 list, based on Next Gen Stats' metrics from the 2022 season:

JUST MISSED: DK Metcalf, Seattle Seahawks; Noah Fant, Seattle Seahawks; Keenan Allen, Los Angeles Chargers; Tyler Lockett, Seattle Seahawks; Donovan Peoples-Jones, Cleveland Browns; Justin Jefferson, Minnesota Vikings.

Terry McLaurin
Washington Commanders · Age 27
  • Catch rate: 64.2%
  • Expected catch rate: 57.4%
  • Catch rate over expected (CROE): +6.8%

McLaurin just might be the most underrated receiver in the NFL.

Last season, he caught passes from a collection of QBs comprised of Carson Wentz, Taylor Heinicke and (in Week 18) Sam Howell -- in other words, McLaurin shouldn't have landed anywhere near this top 10. The fact that he did only reinforces the notion that he succeeds because of his own effort. Regardless of who was throwing to him in 2022, McLaurin was highly effective, catching 77 passes for 1,191 yards and five touchdowns. The changes under center should explain why his catch rate is lower than most on this list -- the same was true of a higher-ranked rookie who saw his quarterbacks swapped twice during the season. Still, McLaurin posted more receiving yards over expected (274) than any other pass catcher on this list, ranking third in the NFL in that category.

Consider also that Washington's QBs combined to post a 103.9 passer rating when targeting McLaurin, 20.2 points higher than they did when targeting other players on the team (83.7). McLaurin is as reliable as the rising and setting of the sun. And if he ever gets a legitimately good quarterback to play with in Washington, we might see that he's only been scratching the surface of his potential. 

Stefon Diggs
Buffalo Bills · Age 29
  • Catch rate: 70.1%
  • xCatch: 63.4%
  • CROE: +6.8%

Diggs' responsibilities have been evident since he first arrived in Buffalo: See a ton of targets from Josh Allen and catch as many as possible. He certainly did that in 2022, hauling in 108 of his 154 targets for 1,429 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Those numbers might leave you wondering why he's not higher on this list. As I mentioned in the intro, when a player logs a significant amount of targets of all difficulty levels, the portion of high-difficulty targets is not likely going to be large enough to produce an eye-popping catch rate over expected. It's a simple numbers game that penalizes heavily targeted players. Similar to Jefferson, 71 percent of Diggs' targets had a completion probability of 50 percent or better.

Still, Diggs' overall CROE (+6.8%) was strong enough to get him placed. And he beat out the likes of Jefferson, DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett because of just how impactful his receptions were. Diggs dominated total expected points added, posting a league-best +71.8 total EPA despite recording just 2.8 yards of separation per target. He also saw nearly 30 percent of Buffalo's total targets, helping Allen post a passer rating of 120.3 when throwing in Diggs' direction.

This connection is rock solid. If the Bills could ever find another option of Diggs' ilk, they might truly take off.

DeVonta Smith
Philadelphia Eagles · Age 24
  • Catch rate: 69.9%
  • xCatch: 63%
  • CROE: +6.9%

You might be shocked to see Smith, not A.J. Brown, in this place for an Eagles offense that featured two pass catchers in the top 10 here. Chalk it up to Smith and the other Philly pass catcher benefiting from less defensive attention thanks to the presence of Brown, if you must.

What Eagles fans know (and the rest of us should learn) is that Philadelphia's passing game was about much more than Brown. Smith surprisingly outpaced Brown in total EPA and finished with a better CROE while also nearly mirroring Brown when it came to helping Eagles' quarterbacks post satisfactory passer ratings.

Give credit to the Eagles, who nearly evenly spread targets between the two star receivers. Philadelphia was very good in 2022, but it was about more than just Jalen Hurts and Brown.

Tee Higgins
Cincinnati Bengals · Age 24
  • Catch rate: 67.9%
  • xCatch: 61%
  • CROE: +6.9%

Higgins is entering a contract year, and he can use his placement on this list as proof that he deserves to get paid. Higgins finished first in these rankings a year ago, outpacing his more notable teammate, Ja'Marr Chase, and he once again outdid Chase when it came to making unexpected catches. Interestingly, Higgins fell short of another Cincinnati teammate on this list because of a slight difference in CROE, as you'll see below. Still, Higgins posted his second straight 1,000-yard season and set a new career high in touchdown catches (seven) in 2022. Higgins also dominated most of the players on this list when it came to total expected points added, finishing with +51.3 EPA -- thanks, in part, to his seven touchdown snags and just one interception thrown when he was targeted as the nearest receiver.

Make no mistake: Higgins is a vital part of this Bengals attack. He finished second in target share, trailing Chase by 4.2 percentage points, and he nearly matched Chase's yardage total despite seeing 25 less targets. Higgins also helped Joe Burrow post a premier passer rating when targeting him (115.6). Add in 225 receiving yards gained over expected -- the third-most among any receiver on this list -- and you have a receiver who is clearly making an impact in a number of crucial departments.

Tyler Boyd
Cincinnati Bengals · Age 28
  • Catch rate: 70.7%
  • xCatch: 63.5%
  • CROE: +7.2%

It's easy to see why Cincinnati is gearing up to shower Joe Burrow in dollars, based on the production of his loaded receiving corps. For a second straight season, two Bengals have made this list, but unlike last year, one isn't Ja'Marr Chase. Instead, Higgins is joined by Boyd, a remarkably consistent yet overlooked third option.

Despite coming in third in target share among his fellow Bengals (Chase led the group with 22.6%), Boyd landed in the top 10 here because of -- surprise! -- an ability to make unlikely catches. Boyd caught 7.2 percent more of his targets than expected, helping Burrow post a 94.7 passer rating when targeting him. Boyd thrived on post routes, which helps explain his 151 receiving yards over expected. He also found success operating out of the slot (where he logged 79 percent of his targets) while sharing the field with Chase, who often occupied defensive attention outside. Thus, Boyd was able to put up strong overall numbers despite seeing a target rate of just 15.4 percent. And he came through in the clutch, catching four of his five end-zone targets on the year, presumably while defenses were again concerning themselves with the threats of Chase and Higgins.

Boyd tied with the next player on this list in CROE but landed behind him because he didn't quite put up the same numbers when it came to touchdowns, yards and passer rating. Aside from determining the order in a summertime ranking, that doesn't matter much, though. Boyd was remarkably effective, even if he often doesn't get the attention he deserves. Perhaps that's a blessing in disguise.

Cooper Kupp
Los Angeles Rams · Age 29
  • Catch rate: 76.5%
  • xCatch: 69.3%
  • CROE: +7.2%

When Kupp went down with an ankle injury in Week 10, he was on pace to finish with 185 targets, about the same target total he logged in 2021 (191), when he placed sixth in my CROE ranking. Instead, his 2022 campaign ended with 98 targets, 75 catches and a CROE of +7.2% -- good enough to jump one spot on this year's version of the list. Despite receiving a ton of defensive attention, the legendary route runner created an average of 3.2 yards of separation. While conventional wisdom would suggest a separation figure like that would tank his CROE, Kupp still landed in the top 10, no doubt because he possesses some of the best hands in football.

We don't need to overly explain Kupp's standing here. He is simply one of the NFL's most reliable and productive receivers.

Dallas Goedert
Philadelphia Eagles · Age 28
  • Catch rate: 80.9%
  • xCatch: 71.8%
  • CROE: +9.1%

This exercise is dominated by receivers, but we typically see one or two tight ends. This time around, the ranking features the top tight end from the reigning NFC champions.

In his first full season in that role, which he initially assumed after the 2021 trade of Zach Ertz to Arizona, Goedert caught 80.9 percent of his 68 targets, helping Eagles QBs post a 124.4 passer rating when going his way. Like the rest of Philly's blossoming offense, he thrived. Still, it's surprising that Goedert ended up on this list, considering all of the options available in the passing game. Typically, we see pass catchers who are the primary targets in undermanned offenses or stars who just play so well that their performance exceeds conventional standards. Goedert was simply a playmaker no matter the circumstances, catching passes at such a consistent rate that he inevitably outperformed expectation.

Goedert led all tight ends in total receptions over expected, accounting for +44.7 expected points added for an offense that already didn't have a problem scoring. He made an impact in nearly every area of the field, too, posting positive CROE on out (+21%), in (+31.7%) and post routes (+36.6%), and even on screens (+12.8%), which produced his highest reception total (14). It seems Philadelphia's unpredictability created the creases Goedert needed to make a difference, especially when defenses were worried about their other weapons. What a time to be an Eagle.

Mike Williams
Los Angeles Chargers · Age 28
  • Catch rate: 67.7%
  • xCatch: 58.2%
  • CROE: +9.5%

Size matters. Williams' 6-foot-4 frame has undoubtedly aided him throughout his career, and it seems to have showed in his 2022 production. Williams posted the highest total EPA (29.9) among all Chargers despite seeing targets in the tightest average window (2.8 yards of separation, 32.3% tight window) of the team's top six pass catchers. Tight windows will increase the level of difficulty, lowering the likelihood a pass will be completed, but because Williams consistently overcame these disadvantages, he ended up near the top of this CROE ranking, a result buoyed by the second-best CROE on tight-window targets (minimum 15 such targets) at +14.7%.

Williams helped Chargers quarterbacks post a 104.0 passer rating when targeting him and racked up +179 yards over expected, all while seeing 13.6 percent of the Chargers' total targets. No surprises here from a receiver who has proven to be a high-quality pass catcher when healthy.

George Pickens
Pittsburgh Steelers · Age 22
  • Catch rate: 61.9%
  • xCatch: 51.4%
  • CROE: +10.6%

Pickens quickly made a name for himself with spectacular highlight-reel grabs as a rookie. They also surely helped his standing among this group of pass catchers, where defying expectation matters most.

Pickens caught 61.9 percent of his 84 targets in 2022, exceeding expectation at a rate of nearly 11 percent. That helped him lead all rookies in receiving yards gained over expected with +183; he ranked 10th in that metric among pass catchers of every experience level (excluding running backs). Pickens also caught passes with the least average separation of any player on this list at 2.4 yards per target, and he posted the best CROE on tight-window throws at +32.9%, more than double the mark of Mike Williams, the next-closest pass catcher, underscoring his ability to consistently make difficult plays.

Much of Pickens' production came while running vertically, which he did more often than any other pass catcher in the NFL -- he was the only receiver to break 200 such routes run in 2022. The approach was incredibly productive: Pickens caught 16 of 28 targets on his 231 go routes, posting a CROE of +23.3%, the best of any pass catcher with at least 20 targets on such routes. Note that the NFL average for CROE on such routes since 2018 is -0.1%. 

Pittsburgh quickly realized Pickens' greatest value was as a field-stretching catch artist, and he completed enough pieces of work to fill a small gallery. The Steelers hope he's only getting started.

Richie James
Kansas City Chiefs · (Giants in '22) · Age 27
  • Catch rate: 81.4%
  • xCatch: 70.4%
  • CROE: +11%

When the infographic detailing these rankings is posted, the internet just might burn to the ground.

In a league filled with superstars at the receiver position, James is likely among the last players anyone would expect to land atop a receiving ranking. His placement here fits the narrative that the Giants built in 2022, when they exceeded expectations by a significant margin. James was among those who benefitted the most, setting career-high marks in receptions (57), receiving yards (569) and receiving touchdowns (four).

Last season was the first in which James reached any of the benchmarks needed to qualify for this list, and it was only the second campaign in which he saw more than 14 targets. So why does James land here? His catch rate over expected was better than that of any other receiver who met the aforementioned criteria. He helped quarterbacks targeting him post a 119.6 passer rating, the third-best mark of any pass catcher on this list. And of his 70 targets, only 13 resulted in incompletions. That's a catch rate befitting a running back snagging swing passes, not a receiver running through a defense.

James is not a household name, but that's the beauty of Next Gen Stats -- they help us see beyond the headliners. And with his performance in 2022, James earned a move to Kansas City, where he'll have a golden opportunity to boost his profile to a greater degree.

Follow Nick Shook on Twitter.

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