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Separation is not the metric of success for Kenny Golladay

Contested catch rate matters more for some receivers

NFL: Denver Broncos at New York Giants
Kenny Golladay making a contested catch against the Denver Broncos in 2021
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

New York Giant wide receiver Kenny Golladay had a difficult first season after signing as a free agent, and all eyes are on him to see if he can turn it around in 2021. NBC's Peter King was at the Giants' training camp on Friday, and he had this to say about Golladay, according to NBC Sports Pro Football Talk:

"The Giants are waiting to see more from their $18-million-a-year 2021 free agent, Kenny Golladay, who’s not separating from DBs well early in camp. That signing looks like a disaster."

Does Golladay really get less separation than other wide receivers? Is separation necessary for a wide receiver to be successful?

No need for separation anxiety

Here are the worst receivers in separation distance (SEP, fourth column) in yards for the 2021 season from NFL Next Gen Stats:

Courtesy NFL Next Gen Stats

Yikes! Everyone agrees that Golladay's inaugural season as a Giant was poor, and indeed he was tied for the worst receiver in the NFL in separation at an average of 1.7 yards. The chart shows that all five of the worst-separation receivers had poor seasons, with fewer than 600 receiving yards and no more than 3 TDs. To put that into context, Rondale Moore of the Cardinals led the NFL in average separation at an amazing 5.7 yards.

But here are the next five worst receivers in separation:

Courtesy NFL Next Gen Stats

We don't hear too many complaints about the poor separation that Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Kyle Pitts, and DeVonta Smith had last season. Maybe, you say, it works for them, they are productive with little separation, but apparently it doesn't work for Golladay. Let's look at the 10 worst receivers in separation from the 2019 season:

Courtesy NFL Next Gen Stats

Once again, Golladay was worst in the NFL at getting separation, just as in 2021. One little difference, though: In 2019 Golladay had 1,190 receiving yards, seventh-highest in the NFL, and 11 TDs, which led the NFL. That was the season that probably convinced Dave Gettleman to sign him in free agency. Two of Golladay's TDs came against the Giants. Here they are (screen shots from YouTube/Fox NFL/Detroit Lions):

Courtesy YouTube/Fox NFL/Detroit Lions
Courtesy YouTube/Fox NFL/Detroit Lions

The first TD is a contested catch with virtually no separation, and on the second he has perhaps 2 yards separation.

Golladay is not alone. Julio Jones had a monster 2019 season with 1,394 receiving yards and six TDs but only 2.2 yards average separation, eighth-worst in the NFL. DeVante Parker of the Dolphins had 1,202 yards and nine TDs but only 2.1 yards of separation. The Giants' Darius Slayton, in what everyone considered a highly promising rookie season, had 740 yards and eight TDs but only 2.2 yards of separation on average.

Contested catch winners in today’s NFL

What "separates" these successful low-separation receivers from their counterparts? Answer: They're usually big, 6-foot or taller, and can win contested catches. In 2019, Golladay was sixth in the NFL among wide receivers with at least 50 targets with a contested catch rate of 63.4 percent, according to Pro Football Focus. (The league leader, 6-3 Michael Thomas, had a contested catch rate of 67.6 percent.) In 2021, though, Golladay's contested catch rate dropped to 48.4 percent. That, in addition to or as a result of his injuries, seems to be the primary reason Golladay's 2021 season was unsuccessful.

Contested catch rate isn’t the complete answer either. Ja’Marr Chase only had a contested catch rate of 38.9 percent in his outstanding rookie season despite his low average separation. That may say something about the accuracy of the passes being thrown his way. Joe Burrow led the NFL in on-target passes at 82.8 percent in 2021, while Daniel Jones was 18th at 76.1 percent, according to Pro Football Reference. Not to mention the games played by Mike Glennon and Jake Fromm.

There is another consideration to factor in as well. Golladay wasn't the only Giant losing those contests last season. Slayton, who had a 48.0 percent contested catch rate in his rookie year, dropped to 31.8 percent in 2020 and then to an abysmal 12.5 percent in 2021. This is yet another Giants offensive statistic that declined from Pat Shurmur's final year as Giants coach to the two years of the Joe Judge/Jason Garrett regimes.

Does that suggest that the type of offense a team runs (e.g., route designs, play calling sequences) affects certain receivers' ability to perform? Perhaps. Consider Sterling Shepard. His contested catch rate went from 39.1 percent and 42.1 percent in 2018 and 2019 under Shurmur, to 53.8 percent and an amazing 72.7 percent in 2020 and 2021 under Judge/Garrett. Kadarius Toney, in his only season to date, had a fairly good 55.6 percent contested catch rate.

Golladay's average depth of target (ADOT) decreased from 16.1 to 14.2 yards between 2019 and 2021. Slayton's ADOT dropped from 14.4 to 13.4 yards. Shepard's ADOT went from 10.2 to 7.9 yards. Those differences do not seem like very much, but Golladay's 2019 ADOT was 10th-highest in the NFL while his 2021 ADOT would have been 21st in 2019. Perhaps Shepard's quickness is best exploited on short routes while Golladay's and Slayton's skills are more suited to longer routes. If so then it will be interesting to see how the change to yet another offensive philosophy in 2022 changes these numbers, and the success of the individual receivers.

A response to the two-high safety trend?

The decrease in ADOT from the Shurmur to the Judge/Garrett years might also be a response to the league-wide trend toward two-high safety looks (Cover-2, Cover-2 Man, Cover-4, Cover-6) as NFL defensive coordinators try to limit explosive passing plays. For example, no team saw two-high coverage more than 42 percent of the time in 2018, but midway through the 2021 season, only five teams had faced two-high less than 40 percent of the time, according to TWSN.

If so, then route concepts such as “smash” or “flood” that try to put safeties in conflict with high-low or high-middle-low route combinations can get receivers wide open on intermediate or deep routes depending on how the safety reacts, as discussed by Mark Schofield on the BBV pages and elsewhere. Such combinations are expected to be a staple of the Giants offense under Mike Kafka and Brian Daboll.

Who knows, maybe Golladay can become a league leader in separation in 2022?