A Closer Look at WRs, Part II: Depth, Downs, and Dimensions

| July 6th, 2023

In Part I, we saw that DJ Moore is a legitimate WR1 who should excel with better QB play, Darnell Mooney is a quality WR2 who is pretty well-rounded, and Chase Claypool can be a solid starter if he rebounds from a disastrous 2022 season. Today, we’re going to look at their involvement in the passing game through a number of other lenses.

Targets by Depth

Let’s start by looking at how frequently and effectively Chicago’s WRs were targeted at various depths of the field. The table below shows their stats compared to 80 NFL WRs with 50+ targets in 2022. Areas where they ranked in the top 25% are highlighted in green, while areas in the bottom 25% are highlighted in red. All data is from Pro Football Focus (PFF). 

(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 that stands out is that all three WRs saw a high percent of their targets deep down the field. This fully matches with where Justin Fields likes to throw, and should make for some fun football in 2023 as the Bears live out every Madden player’s fantasy and go bombs away.
      • Of course, the efficiency each WR posted on those downfield passes was not as stellar as the volume.
        • Moore was generally above average in the 20+ yard range after being around average in volume and effectiveness in 2020-21. It’s worth noting, however, that More has spent his last three years in Carolina catching passes from a poo-poo platter of QBs, and his overall deep efficiency has been much better than anybody else on the Panthers. It is reasonable to expect that he will be better on deep balls in 2023 catching passes from a better deep ball passer.
        • Mooney was generally below average on deep balls in 2022, which was disappointing considering how well Fields did overall throwing to that area. Mooney was much better on deep passes from Fields in 2021, which gives hope that he can rebound now that he is no longer the WR1 drawing the bulk of defensive attention.
        • Claypool really struggled on deep balls (and pretty much everything else) in 2022, but he was much better in 2020-21, when he saw an even higher 25% of his targets 20+ yards down the field and posted respectable catch rates (35%) and yards/target marks (12.6).
      • On the flip side, Moore and Mooney saw a very low rate of their targets on short passes 0-9 yards downfield, which is an area where Fields has really struggled so far in his career. All three players also struggled when they were targeted short. That may not mesh well with helping Fields grow and improve.
        • It is worth noting that the short game was a big change for Moore in 2022. In 2020-21, he saw 40% of his targets in this range, and posted a highly respectable 72% catch rate and 7.7 yards/target. This gives hope that Moore’s short struggles in 2022 were more due to the offense and QB play than any deficiency on Moore’s part.
        • Likewise, Claypool saw much different short target usage prior to 2022, seeing far fewer targets in this range (39%) but being much more effective with them (78% catch rate, 7.4 yards/target).
      • For the 2nd year in a row, Mooney saw a high rate of targets behind the line of scrimmage but posted poor efficiency on those targets. I’m sure coaches are thinking that getting him the ball on screens gives him a chance to use his blazing speed to pick up easy yards, but it doesn’t seem to be working well, so hopefully we see less of that in 2023.

Explosive Plays

Let’s look now at how effectively each player produced explosive plays in 2022, since those have a strong relationship with scoring points. All data here comes from Pro Football Reference’s Game Play Finder, and once again ranks are compared to the 80 NFL WRs with 50+ targets in 2022, with areas in green and red indicating the player ranked in the top or bottom 25%, respectively.

A few thoughts:

  • DJ Moore is one of the most explosive playmakers in the NFL, a trend that was not new in 2022. From 2020-21, he posted an explosive reception every 8.0 targets and 4.5 catches, both of which are still appreciably better than the NFL average. He should certainly be expected to produce plenty of big plays in Chicago.
  • Chase Claypool was slightly below average here in 2022, but was a big play machine prior to that, producing an explosive catch at comparable rates to DJ Moore in 2020-21 (once per 7.9 targets and 4.5 receptions). If he can return to his prior form and prove that 2022 was a fluke, he will be a legitimate big-play weapon in his own right.
  • Darnell Mooney was around average at producing explosive plays in 2022 but produced them every 6.5 targets when catching passes from Fields in 2021 as the WR2. Again, we see that 2022 was not necessarily bad, but there is hope for an improved efficiency as defenses pay less attention to him in 2023.

Third and Fourth Down

Next let’s look at 3rd and 4th down, when stakes are high and players need to produce a first down to move the chains and avoid a punt. The table below shows how frequently and effectively Moore, Mooney, and Claypool were targeted in these high-leverage positions in 2022. Once again, data is from Game Play Finder, ranks are compared to the 80 NFL WRs with 50 or more targets, and ranks in the top 25% are highlighted in green, while those in the bottom 25% are highlighted in red.

A few thoughts:

  • Nobody really stands out all that much here; all three players were fine on 3rd/4th down, but none of them were particularly great.
  • Perhaps the most noteworthy thing is that Chase Claypool actually wasn’t bad on 3rd down in 2022. That’s the first area we’ve looked at where he was decent last year, and in fact was slightly above average in both target rate and efficiency. It’s also worth mentioning that Chase Claypool saw 35% of his targets on 3rd/4th down in 2020-21, so he has a fairly strong track record of above-average target rates on these downs. He’s also produced fairly well in those years, turning 49% of his targets and 80% of his catches into 1st downs.
  • My main takeaway here is that it will be nice having three viable WR targets for Fields on 3rd and 4th down in 2023. That is a notable difference from 2022, when Dante Pettis led the team with 21 3rd down targets and produced a whopping 2 1st downs.

Red Zone

Finally, let’s take a look at Chicago’s WR trio in the red zone in 2022. Once again, data is from the Game Play Finder, ranks are compared to the 80 NFL WRs with 50 or more targets, and ranks in the top 25% are highlighted in green, while those in the bottom 25% are highlighted in red.

A few thoughts:

  • The first thing that stands out is that all three WRs saw below-average target rates in the red zone. That stat is a bit misleading, however, since all three played on bad offenses that didn’t make it to the red zone much and/or didn’t throw it much when they did. NFL teams averaged 86 red zone attempts last season, but the Bears, Panthers, and Steelers averaged only 61.
    • If you look at % of team targets a player earned, the rates for Chicago’s trio are not much different in and out of the red zone. Moore saw 25.8% of Carolina’s total targets and 24.4% in the red zone; Mooney was at 16.2% for both, and Claypool was at 15.4% and 14.3%, respectively.
    • Thus my takeaway here is that none of Chicago’s WRs are a notable red zone threat, but none of them are incapable of producing in the red zone either.
      • Moore and Mooney in particular were above average in efficiency when targeted.
      • Claypool was ineffective in the red zone in 2022, but – stop me if you’ve heard this before – his 2020-21 seasons painted a much different picture. In those seasons, he was around average in both volume (12% of targets) and efficiency (50% catch rate, 35% of targets and a very nice 69% of catches went for a 1st or TD).
    • Once again, we see that Chicago will have no shortage of options in the red zone in 2023. The depth of viable targets will be a very welcome change of pace from 2022.

Lessons Learned

Now that we’re 1400 words in on this article, and 2800 on the series overall, let’s look at what we’ve learned about each wide receiver:

  • DJ Moore is a bona-fide WR1 who can do a little bit of everything but specializes in getting the ball downfield and producing big plays. There is hope that his efficiency can improve in 2023 due to an upgrade in QB play from the Panthers’ revolving door of bad QBs over the last few years.
  • Darnell Mooney is a well-rounded WR2 who can also do a little bit of everything but isn’t particularly great at anything. There is hope that his efficiency will improve in 2023 as he shifts into his more natural WR2 role and sees less defensive attention.
  • Chase Claypool is the wild card. He was really bad at pretty much everything in 2022, but a solid starting WR who specializes in deep passes and big plays prior to that. If 2022 is the new normal, then the Bears don’t really have a valid WR3, but if Claypool reverts to prior form and proves that 2022 was due to a combination of injury, new offenses, and a revolving door of QBs, then the Bears have another WR2 on their hands.

When looking at Chicago’s WRs and TEs together, the Bears have three players who are for sure average or better pass catchers compared to other starters around the NFL (Moore, Mooney, Kmet), and two more who might be if they can rediscover their prior form after dismal 2022 seasons (Claypool, Tonyan). That is a vast improvement from last year, and hopefully brings an improved passing game to a Chicago team that desperately needs it.

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