Former Seattle Seahawks and New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham signed with the notoriously cheap Green Bay Packers this week in what is likely going to be their biggest move on the offensive side of the ball this offseason. In 2016, the big fish free agent tight end was Jared Cook. In 2017, it was Martellus Bennett. Hopefully, Graham can score more than the one combined touchdown reception that Cook and Bennett had in Green Bay.
With receiver Jordy Nelson’s release and the potential of a Randall Cobb release looming, Graham should have plenty of opportunities to make an impact on the 2018 Packers, particularly in the red zone. While Aaron Rodgers has been tabbed as one of the best to ever play the quarterback position, his recent splits inside and outside of the red zone (within 20 yards of the goal line) are stark.
Side tangent: We’re going to be looking at efficiency from an ANY/A perspective. ANY/A is a passing efficiency number that takes into account of dropbacks, instead of just passing attempts, and values touchdowns as an added 20 yards on top of the yardage gained on a given touchdown and values interceptions as a loss of 45 yards. ANY/A is the passing stat that is most correlated with wins. Keep your fantasy junk. The gambling revolution is coming.
Over the last two seasons, the NFL’s overall ANY/A in the red zone is 6.52 yards per play. Rodgers’ ANY/A is 9.35 (the highest for any player with more than 32 attempts.) If you wanted to find out how many yards a quarterback is worth over the league average, you would subtract the league-wide ANY/A (6.52) from a quarterback’s ANY/A (in Rodgers’ case 9.35) and multiply it by the number of attempts he took. If we do that for the entire league over 2016 and 2017, these are the top ten red zone quarterbacks in the NFL:
Rodgers (at +442.3 yards) and Tom Brady (at +438.7 yards) are head and shoulders above the competition over the last two years. For reference, here are the ten worst quarterbacks in the red zone over the last two years:
So, why is this significant? We all know Rodgers is good. This is true, but he now separates himself from the competition because of what he does in the red zone. This wasn’t true around 2011 when he dominated all over the field. Rodgers has thrown for 45 touchdowns and no interceptions in the red zone since 2016, but outside it, he’s currently closer to league average, possibly due to play-calling, than elite.
The league-wide ANY/A for dropbacks outside of the red zone is 5.98, about a half-yard less than in the red zone. Here are the most valuable passers outside of the red zone over the last two years:
Matt Ryan (+2,060.5 yards) leads the pack. Drew Brees (1,736.5 yards) and Brady (+1,724.6 yards) jockey for the second and third slots before a significant dropoff. Derek Carr (+639.9 yards) is the last quarterback on this list. Rodgers’ passes outside of the red zone (+284.8 yards) have been worth about 44.5% of Carr’s over the last two years. Here is what Brady and Rodgers, the two quarterbacks with elite red zone efficiency numbers, look like head-to-head outside of the red zone over the last two years:
Plant a flag in a hypothesis, but the fact of the matter is that the Packers under Rodgers have been an average passing team outside of the red zone and an elite one in the red zone for multiple years. This is significant, considering how Graham was used in Seattle last year.
Graham’s 10 touchdown receptions led all tight ends in 2017. I didn’t realize that until after he was signed, but I did know about Rodgers’ red zone/non-red zone split from work I’ve done over the years and I knew that about half of the NFL’s touchdowns were scored within the nine-yard line. So off I went to search for how much of Graham’s production came from within 20 yards of the goal line.
What I found was pretty amazing. I looked into the 20 tight ends who recorded the most yardage in 2017. If you count a touchdown as 20 extra yards tacked onto a play, like in ANY/A, then 16.99% of the production from those top 20 tight ends came from within the red zone. Graham’s red zone production percentage, 42.78%, was more than 2.5 times that. Using that 16.99% number, we can list an “expected” red zone yardage number that we can compare to a tight end’s actual red zone production to see how much their game leans on, or away from, the red zone.
Under this lens, Graham posted about 186 yards over expectation in the red zone. That number was almost twice as much as any other tight end among the top 20 tight ends.
Here is what the data looks visualized (Graham is the spike on the far left):
So, what to think about this… The “slip” in Aaron Rodgers’ play in recent years has only come from passing efficiency in the middle of the field, which may be due to head coach Mike McCarthy’s play-calling. In the red zone, he’s still a wizard. The Packers, for the third time in three years, signed a significant tight end in free agency. This time, he’s the most red zone-leaning tight end among the top 20 tight ends from last season. Those are the facts.
At least on the surface, this signing of Graham probably means more field goals converting into touchdowns than drives landing in scoring range. The red zone quarterback linking up with the red zone tight end is certainly something to monitor.