A Closer Look at WRs, Part I: Total Usage, Man vs. Zone

| July 5th, 2023

All of a sudden, the Bears’ WR room looks fairly solid, as they return Darnell Mooney, their leading receiver over the last two years, added Chase Claypool in a midseason 2022 trade, and traded for DJ Moore from Carolina this offseason. As you can see in the table below, this gives Chicago three WRs who put up starting-caliber (top 96, or 3 per team) production in 2022.

Of course, volume isn’t everything.

It is also worth exploring how efficient a player was with the targets they received. The table below shows some basic efficiency stats for Moore, Mooney, and Claypool in 2022, as well as ranks relative to the 80 NFL WRs who saw at least 50 targets. The spread of outcomes for those 80 players is also shown to give more context overall. Any areas where a player ranked in the top 25% are highlighted in green, while the bottom 25% are highlighted in red.

A few thoughts:

  • At first glance, the efficiency for all three players looks pretty poor. Mooney was around average in all three metrics, while Moore had a low catch percentage but was otherwise fine and Claypool was bad across the board. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that all three were in bad passing offenses last year, largely due to poor quarterback play.
    • Moore spent his season catching passes from Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, and PJ Walker. As a team, the Panthers finished 31st in completion percentage, 15th in yards/attempt, and 27th in passer rating.
    • Mooney spent 2022 in Chicago catching passes from Justin Fields, Trevor Siemian, Nathan Peterman, and Tim Boyle. The Bears were 30th in completion percentage, 21st in yards/attempt, and 26th in passer rating, so within that context producing average efficiency overall is a big win for Mooney. As we saw during Fields in Focus, Mooney was one of only two competent targets the Bears had last year, and there was definitely a clear split in efficiency throwing to Mooney/Kmet and everybody else.
    • Claypool split his season between Chicago and Pittsburgh, where he caught passes from Mitchell Trubisky and Kenny Pickett. The Steelers finished 19th in completion percentage, 28th in yards/attempt, and 30th in passer rating.

  • All three players also have been starters for at least three years, so we can look back before 2022 to see what their larger track record looks like.
    • Mooney saw his efficiency rise compared to past years in completion % (60% prior to 2022) and yards/target (previously 7.1), which likely speaks both to his growth as a receiver and his growing rapport with Justin Fields. There is every reason to think that growth should continue into 2024 as Mooney enters year three with Fields, especially now that defenses will not be able to focus on him as much due to the addition of DJ Moore.
    • Moore saw his efficiency drop in both completion % (previously 57%) and yards/target (previously 8.4). This could be attributed to poor QB play, though he’s had that for most of his career in Carolina. His best season as a pro, when he averaged over 10 yards/target, came in 2020 with Teddy Bridgewater, who is likely the best QB he’s played with in his career. Fields is a better QB than that, so it’s reasonable to expect that Moore should see his efficiency increase, though it is worth noting that his completion percentage has been consistently low for years, so that trend may continue in Chicago.
    • Claypool, on the other hand, was just plain bad in 2022, and it’s hard to blame it on the QB since he was the least efficient WR on both teams he played for. The hope for him is that he can get back to 2020-21 form, when he posted a 57% catch percentage and 8.1 yards/target. Like DJ Moore, this is a low catch % but a solid yards/target mark, and it came while catching passes from the corpse of Ben Roethlisberger, who was not exactly an efficient passer with a 6.2 yards/attempt mark over those 2 seasons.
      • We’ll see throughout this series that Claypool was really bad in 2022, but generally solid prior to that. There are a variety of reasons that could account for Claypool’s struggles, from him not working hard enough, battling through injury, getting used to a mix of new QBs throwing him the ball, or learning a new offense midseason. Likely it was some combination of all of the above, but hopefully Claypool in a contract year playing with a familiar offense and QB can rebound to his pre-2022 form, because that is a solid complementary starting WR.

These basic stats give us a general picture of Moore, Mooney, and Claypool’s performance in 2022, but we have access to far more detail thanks to Pro Football Focus (PFF) and Pro Football Reference’s Game Play Finder, and the rest of this series will look in more depth to see what we can learn about Chicago’s new WR trio.

Man vs. Zone

Let’s start with an examination of how Chicago’s WRs performed against man and zone coverage in 2022, with data coming from PFF. Once again, both players are compared to the 80 NFL WRs who saw at least 50 targets last year, and ranks in the top 25% are highlighted in green, while those in the bottom 25% are highlighted in red.

(Side note: sorry if the formatting is poor for the graph. You can click on it to see it in a new window in full if it’s not showing up right for you.)

A few thoughts:

  • The first thing I note is that DJ Moore was heavily targeted against man coverage and performed pretty well in those situations. As I noted earlier this offseason, Justin Fields struggled mightily when throwing to WRs in man coverage last year, largely due to how bad the WR group was. Adding Moore should be a huge help in this regard.
    • On the flip side, Moore was not targeted nearly as frequently against zone, and struggled when he was targeted. This is a change from his past work as he saw one target every 4.4 routes against zone in 2020-21 and caught 62% of his targets for 9.1 yards/target in those seasons. Hopefully a return to pre-2022 norms is in the cards here.
    • In general, Moore sees low catch percentages but high yards per catch and air yards per target/catch, indicating that he sees a significant portion of his targets downfield. This was highlighted in Fields in Focus as a way in which he fits well with Justin Fields, who likes to throw the ball downfield.
  • Darnell Mooney was very effective against man coverage as well, which is a nice improvement from his 2021 results and shows the growing relationship he has with Justin Fields. He also saw solid effectiveness against zone, slightly improved from 2021 and showing that Mooney should continue serving as a quality WR2 in 2023.
  • Chase Claypool was bad across the board, but his usage and effectiveness were quite different in 2020-21.
    • Prior to 2022, Claypool was used as something of a man-beating specialist, seeing a target every 3.2 routes against man and 5.2 routes against zone. He was also much better against man, posting 7.9 yards/target, which is around average efficiency. Like Moore, this came with a low catch rate (52%) but high yards/catch (15.1), indicating he sees a lot of deep targets.
    • Claypool was also significantly better against zone coverage prior to 2022. His catch percentage didn’t change much, but his yards/target was at a very solid 9.0, once again because he was getting the ball deeper down the field.

Lessons Learned

We’re now 1300 words in, so we’ll call it a day. Stay tuned for part two tomorrow, when we’ll look at Chicago’s WRs by target depth, producing explosive plays, and involvement in key situations (3rd/4th down, red/zone). In the meantime, here are the main takeaways from today:

  • DJ Moore is a legitimate WR1, capable of producing acceptable production at a high volume. He generally posts a low catch percentage but high yards per catch, leading to solid production overall, and can produce vs. man and zone.
    • His past efficiency has fluctuated somewhat with the caliber of QB throwing him the ball, so there is reason to believe he can have the best season of his career this year when he plays with the best QB of his career in Justin Fields.
  • Darnell Mooney continues to get better as he improves and builds on his connection with Justin Fields, and he should be a really solid and well-rounded WR2 for Chicago.
  • Chase Claypool is something of a wild card. He was really bad in 2022 for a host of reasons, but could serve as a solid WR3 deep-ball specialist if he returns to pre-2022 form.

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