Historic Drop Rate: Former Rookie Colts WRs

Last week, I took a look at the Colts' drop rate over the last five years, noting that this year's drop rate was abnormally bad for an uptempo Colts team. A big part of that was the young skill players, notably Donnie Avery and T.Y. Hilton. 

One of the things that a reader brought up was the possibility that part of the issue could simply be that with rookie and young wide receivers learning a new system, some improvement could be anticipated in 2013 and beyond. The same reader (thellamajockey) asked about Peyton Manning's rookie receivers through his tenure in Indianapolis, and whether they showed significant improvement in drops in their first 2-3 years in Indianapolis. 

So, I decided to tackle the problem. The only issue is that Pro Football Focus, who I used for the initial piece, only has tracked dropped balls since 2008. Fortunately, STATS LLC. has tracked drops since 1992, all available on SportingCharts.com (the only place where the complete lists can be found). 

The bad news is that STATS LLC and PFF tend to differ in their interpretation of drops. Usually STATS LLC is a bit more lenient on receivers, and generally has a lower drop count (although not always). I tend to line up with PFF's interpretation more often, but they don't go back as far and we need uniformity for this study.

So, before we go into the case study, let's review the STATS LLC numbers from this year (and we'll include TEs for this study as well, as they were a big part of the reasoning). 

Note: The drop rate formula is simply drops divided by catchable balls (Receptions plus drops). Many websites include drop rate to be drops divided by targets, but I completely agree with PFF on this one, it makes much more sense to track it by catchable balls than be targets. A receiver can't do anything about an over thrown ball. 

2012 Rookie/New Receiver Numbers

Name Position Catches Drops Drop Rate
Donnie Avery WR 60 7 10.45%
T.Y. Hilton WR 50 6 10.71%
LaVon Brazill WR 11 2 15.38%
Coby Fleener TE 26 3 10.34%
Dwayne Allen TE 45 2 4.26%

If you read the piece from last week, you'll notice that there's a big difference in Hilton and Avery's rates, but because STATS LLC is pretty consistent with it, it still results in them having two of the worst rates in the league (in the 130s out of 161 total players with at least 40 targets). 

Of course, that seems to be a theme with this young group. Only Allen had solid numbers in drop rate, 35th among all players, 11th via PFF's ranks for tight ends (out of 37). 

But what we're really interested in for this particular study is their potential for improvement. How much of this can be attributed to simple unfamiliarity, not only with the offense and scheme but with the league in general? How much can be improved, and how much is a natural tendency? 

Peyton Manning's Rookie Receivers and Tight Ends

For this study, I'm mainly looking at rookie wide receivers and tight ends, but it's not limited to that. For example, I also include Marvin Harrison (along with Dilger and Pollard), because he was a young wide receiver when Manning and Tom Moore came to town in 1998, and he had to learn the system and grow with timing with Manning just like anybody else. 

Note: The year included is the year that that particular player was integrated into the offense on a serious level for the first time, which my baseline was 20+ catches in that first year. Garcon and Tamme, for example, were on the team prior to those years, but didn't begin to get reps with the first team and whatnot until those years. 

Name Year Entered True Rookie 1st yr. drop rate 2nd yr. drop rate 3rd yr. drop rate Improvement 1st-2nd Improvement 2nd-3rd Overall Improvement
Marvin Harrison 1998 No 6.35% 7.26% 8.11% -.91% -.85% -1.76%
Jerome Pathon 1998 Yes 18.03% 17.65% 9.09% .39% 8.56% 8.94%
Marcus Pollard 1998 No 4.00% 12.82% 6.25% -8.82% 6.57% -2.25%
Ken Dilger 1998 No 3.13% 9.09% 16.07% -5.97% -6.98% -12.95%
Reggie Wayne 2001 Yes 12.90% 7.55% 4.23% 5.36% 3.32% 8.68%
Brandon Stokley 2003 No 4.35% 5.56% 2.38% -1.21% 3.17% 1.97%
Dallas Clark 2003 Yes 6.45% 7.41% 9.76% -.96% -2.35% -3.30%
Anthony Gonzalez 2007 Yes 15.91% 10.94% 4.97% 4.97%
Pierre Garcon 2009 Semi 9.62% 11.84% 5.41% -2.23% 6.44% 4.21%
Jacob Tamme 2010 Semi 4.29% 5.00% 5.45% -.71% -.45% -1.17%
Austin Collie 2009 Yes 7.69% 6.45% 1.82% 1.24% 4.63% 5.87%
Total 8.85% 8.70% 6.93% .16% 1.77% 1.93%

With a sample size this small, the amount that we can get out of it is small, and should be taken with a grain of salt, but a few things are interesting. 

  • Overall, there was a decrease in drop rate over the three-year sample, but the biggest drops came in year three for just about everybody. For every player but Ken Dilger and Dallas Clark (and Anthony Gonzalez, whose third year was taken by injury), the difference between their second and third year was better than the difference between their first and second. Resulting in the majority of the overall improvement coming in the third year. 
  • While a few players bucked the "trend," it seems that in general, players who were true rookies in these systems had a better chance of improving than the young veterans did. Pollard, Dilger, and Harrison all actually saw their drop rate get worse through the first three years of the new quarterback and offense, while Brandon Stokley just slightly improved over the three year span. On the other hand, rookies who came into Manning/Moore's system had a chance to get better, such as Wayne, Pathon, and Gonzalez and Collie (and to a lesser extent, Garcon). 
  • For a guy like Tamme, there's not much that's statistically significant, simply because his drop rate is so low all three years. Yes, the numbers say it got worse, but getting 1% worse in drop rate isn't notable when it's only four and five percent. 

So, what does this mean for the young wide receivers on the Colts roster? 

Well, the hypothesis would need more testing among other NFL rookie receivers before we could take it as solid, but because this matches up with my initial thoughts, I'm going to go ahead and say it. 

While Donnie Avery, a now four-year veteran, doesn't have much of a chance at improving his drop rate (it's been high throughout his whole career), guys like T.Y. Hilton, LaVon Brazill, and Coby Fleener have an opportunity to dramatically improve their drop rate over the next couple of years. 

In addition, it's very possible that we might not see a huge change this year, but in year three instead. 

This makes sense to my mind. Receivers like Reggie Wayne didn't have a great drop rate in his rookie year, but he's become one of the most sure-handed receivers in the league. Consistent hands are one thing that receivers CAN improve upon. Wayne didn't spend all those hours in the JUGS machine for nothing. 

Hopefully that's rubbing off on these younger receivers. 

Kyle J. Rodriguez

About Kyle J. Rodriguez

A film and numbers guru, Kyle writes about the NFL and the Indianapolis Colts for Bleacher Report, Draft Mecca and The Football Educator, and is a co-founder and associate editor of Colts Authority. Kyle also is a high school sports reporter for the MLive Media Group in Michigan, covering high school sports across the state.