Sports Outside the Beltway

Jason Witten NFL’s Most Productive Tight End

K.C. Joyner (no relation), who dubs himself “The Football Scientist,” says Dallas’ Jason Witten was the NFL’s most productive tight end in 2005.

Dallas Cowboys TE Jason Witten Photo

Who is the best receiving tight end in the NFL? The prevailing wisdom is that either Antonio Gates or Tony Gonzalez deserves the distinction, but the metrics I compiled from the 2005 season for Scientific Football 2006 (available for preorder at tell a different story.

I use three metrics to measure the pass-catching ability of a tight end (40 receptions to qualify). The first two are TYPCA (total yards per catchable attempt) and success percentage. The third metric is derived by multiplying TYPCA by the success percentage. This last metric combination provides the best overall balance between production and consistency and is the metric I used to identify the best receiving tight end.

For much of the 2005 season, Gates would have been the easy answer to this question. Through the first 11 weeks of the season, Gates averaged 9.3 TYPCA and posted a 74 percent success rate, which translated to a league-leading number.

However, Gates’ numbers took a nosedive after he injured his leg in Week 11 against Buffalo. In the final six weeks of the season, he averaged only 4.5 TYPCA and had a 48.1 percent success rate. The drop in production caused Gates to drop to third in the league in TYPCA, 11th in success percentage and seventh in the combined metric.

Gonzalez was forced to block more often last year because of the Chiefs’ offensive line injuries, but he was still a vertical passing threat. He ranked first among tight ends in medium pass attempts and fourth in deep pass attempts. He also ranked first in defensive penalty yards drawn and had the second-lowest dropped pass percentage among tight ends. Despite all these excellent numbers, Gonzalez still ranked only fifth among tight ends in TYPCA and sixth in the combination metric.

Jeremy Shockey is another name that might come to mind. Shockey did rank third among tight ends in catchable attempts, fourth in successful plays and second in total yards. Unfortunately, he posted a 61 percent success rate, next to last among qualifying tight ends. He does well when he catches a pass, but having inaccurate Eli Manning as your quarterback almost assures your success percentage will be low.

The emerging Chris Cooley frequently is used as an H-back, meaning he lines up in the backfield or as a wingback on the line of scrimmage. This might seem to be a handicap, but the Redskins use this positional flexibility to help get Cooley open, as evidenced by his ranking fourth in success percentage. He wasn’t just a check-down target, either, as his 8.3 TYPCA was the fourth best in the league.

The big surprise in these rankings was Jerramy Stevens. Stevens is Seattle’s very talented, but maddeningly inconsistent tight end. Most analysts, myself included, tend to focus on the many plays Stevens takes off in a game. However, the metrics show Stevens is one of the best tight ends in the NFL.

Stevens ranked first among tight ends with an 8.9 TYPCA. He tied for second in medium pass success percentage and was third in medium pass TYPCA. His overall success percentage was buoyed in part by the fact that he was thrown only two deep passes all year long, but he did catch both. His combined metric number of 6.5 yards was the second best among tight ends.

The best receiving tight end in the NFL in 2005 was Jason Witten. The offensive line injuries in Dallas didn’t stop him from ranking second in the total TYPCA category and fifth in success percentage. He also had the lowest overall dropped pass percentage of any tight end.

Witten didn’t rack up these numbers strictly on short passes. Witten was excellent at medium passes, ranking second in medium TYPCA and second in medium success percentage. He wasn’t the best deep threat, but managed to rank fifth in deep success percentage.

I expect Gates to bounce back from his injuries to reclaim the throne as the best pass-catching tight end in 2006, but until then, he’ll have to take a backseat to Witten.

Here are the top five in each category:

Yards Per Attempt
1. Jerramy Stevens — 8.9
2. Jason Witten — 8.7
3. Antonio Gates — 8.4
4. Chris Cooley — 8.3
5. Tony Gonzalez — 8.2

Success %
1. Jermaine Wiggins — 80.5%
2. Alex Smith — 77.8%
3. Erron Kinney — 77.8%
4. Chris Cooley — 77.2%
5. Jason Witten — 77.0%

Success % x Yards Per Attempt
1. Jason Witten — 6.7
2. Jerramy Stevens — 6.5
3. Chris Cooley — 6.4
4. Todd Heap — 5.9
5. Erron Kinney — 5.8

Most of us thought last year was actually a bit of a down year for Witten. But I’m not going to argue with science.

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