Is the Denver Broncos WR body better or worse than Russell Wilson?
Trying to compare one receiver to another regardless of quarterback gets tricky, but things like YAC (yards after catch), average cushion, average separation, and catch rate make that task achievable. All of these stats can be found at NFL NextGen Stats with explanations if any of them confuse you. I’m going to assume you understand what the four mean and use those four stats to compare who Russell Wilson has pitched to recently and who he will be pitching to this season.
The minimum number of targets to display this list is 2.6 per regular season game – this means that in 2021 players needed 45 targets to appear here (43 for 2018-20). Most teams have three or four guys who hit that threshold every year.
Looking at Seahawk receivers over the past four seasons, we see that they’ve generally received bigger cushions than we’re used to seeing Denver Broncos receivers over the past four seasons (see the table below). I removed Bronco receivers that are no longer on the team from the list, which is why you only see Courtland Sutton as of 2018. DaeSean Hamilton, Emmanuel Sanders and Jeff Heuerman are no longer on the Broncos (and only Sanders is still in the NFL).
Over the past four seasons, Wilson’s leading receivers averaged 6.0 yards with Tyler Lockett in 2021 averaging an impressive 7.0 yards, which was near the top among qualifiers. The Cardinals’ Rondale Moore averaged an 8.0-yard cushion in 2021 to lead the league (he also led the league in separation with a 5.7-yard fool). Wilson receivers have averaged 3.1 yards of separation on their targets over the past four seasons, with David Moore (2020) and Gerald Everett (2021) both averaging 4.1 yards of separation on their targets. 4.1 yards of separation would have led the league in 2019, but it was still pretty good in 2020 and 2021. See the maximum cushion and separation values for the league below (among qualified receivers). In 2021, there were five players tied for 6th (or second depending on how you look at it) 4.1 meters apart on average on their targets (Mecole Hardman, Gerald Everett, Braxton Berrios, Noah Fant and Byron Pringle ).
Compare that to the current Bronco WRs (no TEs currently on the roster had enough goals to qualify in previous seasons) and we find that Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, KJ Hamler and Tim Patrick only received cushions averaged 5.5 yards over the past four seasons. While a half-hard might not seem like a lot, for an accurate quarterback, 1.5 feet can make all the difference. Jeudy in 2021 had the highest cushion of the Bronco’s recent receivers who are currently still on the roster with 6.4 yards of cushion averaging on plays where he was targeted.
Similarly, the Bronco WRs, who are still Broncos, weren’t as good at getting a split as Wilson’s receivers were in Seattle. The Bronco WRs averaged 2.8 meters of separation on their targets. For many years, Jeudy’s 3.6m separation in 2021 would have been near the top of the league, but in 2021 he was tied for 14th (or 19th depending on your perspective) with Deonte Harris, Laviska Shanault , Cooper Kupp, Tyreek Hill and Dallas Goedert.
It would seem, just based on the split, that Russell Wilson has a lesser receiver roster in Denver in 2022 than he’s had recently in Seattle, but let’s pump the breaks on that a bit. While average separation on targets is helpful, don’t get too caught up in it. The attacking pattern and the relative quality of the pass defenses faced also play a big part in this number. Far too often over the past four seasons, Bronco QBs have overlooked or chosen not to throw Bronco receivers who had a lot of separation. This could therefore have lowered their values.
An offense that plans receivers open (like Andy Reid in KC) will inevitably result in a high number of cutups. If you combine that with fast receivers like KC had in Hill, Hardman and Travis Kelce, you have a recipe for great middle separation. The Bronco offenses over the past four seasons haven’t been very good at intrigue open guys and that’s reflected in the numbers as well.
The other reason not to get too invested in split numbers is that there are some really good receivers who don’t need a split to make catches. Guys like Julio Jones (2.4 in 2021), Chase Claypool (2.4 in 2021) and Ja’Marr Chase (2.3 in 2021) are so good on contested balls that their split numbers will always have the rather pedestrian looking. Sutton is similar, as is Patrick (and Jeudy – mainly).
So let’s move on to YAC and catch rate. Wilson’s top receivers over the past four years have an average catch rate of 67.4 percent and they’re averaging 4.5 yards after catch per reception (YAC/R). Compare that to the Bronco receivers still on the team and you’ll find they average a 57.7% catch rate and 4.5 YAC/R. The Bronco receivers were still getting their YAC, but the bad QB play 2018-21 in Denver was largely responsible for the big catch rate difference.
So let’s take a look at Wilson’s two main receivers from his final years in Seattle – Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf. Lockett went from being primarily the deep threat who is/was an elite returning guy to being the Seahawks WR1 who was too valuable to use on returns. Physically, he’s quite similar to KJ Hamler – both are short (5-9 or 5-10), small (180 lbs) and very fast (4.3 40 speed). I doubt Hamler in 2022 will be to Wilson what Lockett was in 2019-21, but it’s possible Hamler in 2022 will be what Lockett was in 2015-18 – the deep threat that keeps the safeties honest.
Unfortunately, the Broncos don’t have a WR that matches Metcalf’s combination of size and speed (few guys in NFL history do). Metcalf if listed at 6-4, 235 pounds and he ran a 4.33 40 at the combine. This is Megatron’s size/speed combo levels. Jerry Jeudy might get close to that speed in the pads, but he weighs 195 pounds. Tim Patrick and Courtland Sutton are both equally tall, but neither is as tall or as fast.
Greg Dulcich has the potential to be Gerald Everett/Jimmy Graham level as a receiving TE, but right now it’s just potential. Everett had 107 catches in college for nearly 1,600 yards and 13 touchdowns, despite playing in a really weak BCS conference (Sunbelt). Dulcich finished his career at UCLA with 77 catches for 1,353 yards and 11 touchdowns, but he played against tougher competition in the PAC-39 (or however many teams are currently in this disbanding conference). . Dulcich is all potential right now and usually tight ends don’t contribute to big receiving years as rookies. Everett had 16 catches on 32 targets for 244 yards and 2 touchdowns as a rookie. Jimmy Graham had 31 catches on 44 targets for 356 yards and 5 touchdowns. Noah Fant had a pretty big year as a rookie (40 catches, 66 targets, 562 yards, 3 TDs), but he’s more the exception than the rule.
I also don’t know how many targets Dulchich will have left for any other Bronco TEs in 2022. With Sutton, Jeudy, Patrick and Hamler, WRs should be open enough for RW to find (even with less separation than he has used to seeing) and that’s not counting the targets that are going to be used on Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams.