The Bears search for a franchise receiver, a true number one “alpha dog,” has taken twists and turns over the last half century. I think the Bears have their guy in Allen Robinson and I’m excited to show you why.
Allen Robinson was really good in 2019
I’m going to work through a series of charts that I put together to try and tease out what we should think of Allen Robinson and his 2019 season. Robinson’s 2018, while solid, was not necessarily a dominant one, popularly contributed to the recovery from his 2017 ACL injury, but in 2019, he popped off the screen. I’m going to focus on 1,000 yard receivers as that’s the standard round number that has been the shorthand of what a “good” season looks like for receivers. No exceptions, you need 1,000 yards to get into the club.
Below is a bubble plot with the 25 NFL Wide Receivers (and only WRs) who gained 1,000 yards in 2019. Each circle, or bubble, represents a player plotted with the number of catches on the horizontal axis, number of yards on the vertical axis, and the size of the bubble representing how many TDs that person scored. I have colored Robinson’s circle orange for ease of discovery. (click to enlarge)
As we can see, wait, good grief, Michael Thomas! That’s what we call an outlier folks. Hold on, let’s zoom in a bit.
Let’s try this again, keeping in mind that Michael Thomas is up and to the right, looking down on all the mere mortals. After zooming in, it seems fair to highlight Julio Jones and Chris Godwin (labeled) as they perch above much of the rest of the population. When I look at this chart, Robinson’s 2019 season seems to cluster with that big bubble immediate to his left and those bubbles on the right, highlighted with the navy colored ring.
Let’s take a look at those players, listed based on bubble position left to right, with some additional stats.
Surprised? Any name stick out to you that you didn’t expect? I think you can be forgiven if you were surprised to see DeAndre Hopkins here and taking into account he is the only player in this cluster that played 15 games and not 16, he might’ve finished a 16 game season a little higher. However, I’m not sure he would’ve escaped the cluster so we’re keeping him in here. His yards per reception are consistent with this cluster and he didn’t wow anyone with huge TD numbers this season. His 68 first downs do lead the group, with Robinson and Allen following in second place.
When I set this up, I fully expected Robinson’s stats to align with a personal favorite, Keenan Allen, but upon reflection, this entire grouping makes a lot of sense. Allen, Hopkins, and Robinson are all high volume target players who move the chains in the intermediate passing game with contested catches and precision route running. I would say Edelman and Kupp are similar but they play more out of the slot and are schemed open underneath more frequently. Kupp, in particularly, racked up a lot of his 2019 yardage after the catch, as illustrated below. Robinson is highlighted in navy and orange, Kupp is two bars to Robinson’s left. The darker color represents yards gained at the point of the catch with the lighter number up top representing Yards After Catch or YAC.
Robinson finished with the fewest YAC of anyone in that cluster. In fact, the only players that had noticeably fewer YAC were the deep threats that make their hay on long balls down the field that usually end with them getting tackled immediately after. That can certainly be attributed to a few things: a lack of broken tackles, an inaccurate ball delivered off schedule that doesn’t provide space to run, and/or a focus on possession routes over game breakers. I think all of those contribute to this result, but that should excite Bears fans as a YAC more in line with expectations based on this population would land Robinson comfortably over 1,200 yards, closer to the top of the leaderboard, non-Michael Thomas Division. (For what it’s worth, Michael Thomas finished with essentially the same Yards per Reception average as Robinson at 11.6).
I’ll say it here to save people the trouble in the comments. The QB struggled in 2019 and occasionally forced the ball into Robinson. Part of that explains the big target number but I’d also posit that Robinson is capable of a better catch percentage number, near the rest of the cluster. Marginal increases in both catch percentage and YAC, both at least in part related to quarterback play, could put Robinson up into more rarified air.
If we create a population of every receiver (again, only receivers) that have recorded a 1,000 yard campaign in the last 20 years, we find 396 such seasons. Shown below on the scatter plot in the same format – yards on the vertical, receptions on the horizontal – but without the TDs, we see a general grouping of dots moving up and to the right (more catches = more yards), fading out to the truly remarkable seasons, all labeled with the Player, Year, Catches, and Yards. I have also labeled Robinson’s 2019 season along with his 2015 Jaguars campaign.
This plot is interesting, but really, without some statistics, it is tough to know how to treat Robinson’s 2019 season. The chart looks a little goofy since I drew the line at 1,000 yards to get into the club, but let’s see if we can add some bumpers.
WARNING: MATH STUFF
Feel free to skip ahead but for those of you who are gluttons for punishment or interested in what I’m trying to do here, read on. I calculated the mean season for a 1,000-yard receiver between 2000 and 2019. That average 1,000-yard receiver caught 86 balls for 1,223 yards, indicated by the red ring around the red dot. I then calculated the standard deviation for catches and yards and plotted one below (down and to the left) and four standard deviations above (up and to the right), connecting them with the long dashed red line. I also colored in Bears seasons in navy in this period (Brandon Marshall 2, Alshon Jeffery 2, Marty Booker 2) and labeled Robinson’s 2019 for the Bears and 2015 when he played for the Jaguars.
This red line represents something interesting. Seasons on this line get progressively better as you move up and to the right. The slope of the line indicates that as you hit more volume, the yards per catch drifts down, reflecting some of these target monster seasons at the higher end. I think this line serves as a good ridge point for categorizing what type of season a receiver had depending on how far away he is from the red line. Any seasons to the left or above the red line are relatively more explosive whereas seasons to the right or below the red line are relatively more possession-based.
As an aside, I do believe it’s possible to find an isometric line that connects different catch and yardage totals to say that the seasons were equivalent. I went down a deep rabbit hole trying to find that line and realized quickly that I was trying to answer a question I didn’t necessarily need to answer to talk about Robinson, but I do think it would be interesting to dive into at another point in time.
Additionally, we can draw a line straight up or down from a circle to find what the “expected” yards would be for a typical season for the many receptions. For Robinson’s 2019, it is clear he recorded more catches than the average and gained fewer yards than the average. If we draw a line up to the red line and over to the yardage marker, we see the expected total is about 1,360 yards, a little over 200 yards above Robinson’s final tally.
So where are those extra 200 yards? I think about half could be contributed to the lower YAC total. We already discussed the reasons behind that. The other half I think can be simply contributed to the number of explosive plays. Robinson is credited with 15 catches of 20 yards or more in 2019, consistent with the cluster we identified earlier (Hopkins 16, Allen 15, Edelman 13) with the exception of Kupp with 21. If his portfolio can increase from 15 to 20 explosive plays, his season morphs into the Julio Jones season. It bears repeating – DeAndre Hopkins, Keenan Allen, and Michael Thomas have essentially the same YPC – and all of those players are capable of turning their opportunities into explosive plays but they’re also relied on as target monsters to move the sticks. Either way, it was a really good season on the verge of being a great one.
History of Bears 1,000-Yard Receivers
Harlon Hill in the 1950s was the first Bears receiver to record a 1,000-yard season, putting up statistics that were equivalent to Randy Moss’s early career numbers except more explosive on a per catch basis (I nicknamed him The Harbinger of Thrill in the Championship Belt Series). An Achilles injury knocked his career off track before he could rack up long-lasting career numbers, but his single season marks are legendary (in only 12 games!) including two 1,000-yard years. Mike Ditka’s famous campaign was the first 1,000-yard season for a Tight End in the league and despite a Hall of Fame career, he couldn’t repeat his rookie season.
Johnny Morris had a good run in the 1960s, establishing the still-standing franchise record for career receiving yards with 5,059 with one season topping 1,000. Since Morris, a series of teases have captured the hearts of Bears fans. Dick Gordon flashed onto the scene with a 1,000-yard campaign in 1970, but never recaptured that magic.
After a drought of 25 years without a 1,000-yard receiver, Curtis Conway and Jeff Graham both eclipsed the mark in 1995. Conway made good the next year to join Hill as the second receiver in franchise history with two 1,000-yard seasons. They would be joined by Marty Booker (’01, ’02), Brandon Marshall (’12, ’13), and Alshon Jeffery (’13, ’14) as the five players in franchise history with two such seasons under their belt. If we add in Marcus Robinson’s fun (and random) year in 1999, we will have covered all 15 1,000-yard seasons through the first 99 years of the Bears franchise.
Allen Robinson recorded the 16th 1,000-yard campaign in Bears history in 2019. So where does it rank in terms of “best seasons” by a Wide Receiver? Let’s bring back that bubble chart with receptions on the horizontal axis, yards on the vertical axis, and the size of the bubble representing the number of TDs.
From this chart, I think you’d say Robinson’s season ranked about 8th in franchise history in pure numbers. That’s a great result but something doesn’t sit quite right about comparing 16 game seasons to the 14 and 12 game schedules of the past. For purposes of this article, I went back and dredged up some additional seasons that would be the equivalent of 1,000 yards in a 16 game season (875 for 14 games, 750 for 12 games) and found an additional 9 years to add into the mix. I then extrapolated the statistics from all of the older seasons to the 16 game schedule.
Is it fair to assume those players would keep that level of production for the remaining two or four games? Of course not but they might’ve also gone above it as well. The point is we’re working through a hypothetical here to see where Allen Robinson’s season ranked and we don’t really want to short the players from the early days just because the schedule length was different. What I can’t do is account for era differences, so we’ll just have to live with what we’ve got.
The biggest differences you should note are the Harlon Hill seasons that pop up to the top of the board when extrapolated out. I’d also like to draw your attention to the career TD reception record-holder Ken Kavanaugh who in 1943 had 818 yards and 13 scores, which extrapolated out to 1,091 yards and 17 TDs!
With our hypothetical chart, I think it’s fair to rank Robinson’s 2019 season more like the 10th or 11th best season. Still, in 100 years of football, 80 of which the forward pass was a legit option, that’s a great mark.
Records are Made to be Broken
Recently, Robinson said he’d like to stay in Chicago and break franchise records:
“I would love to be the Bears’ all-time leading receiver,” Robinson said. “With the longevity of the organization and players who have come before here, goals like that are big. Being the all-time leading receiver for a franchise like the Chicago Bears is special.”
The all-time receptions and yardage record are within reach with three healthy, productive seasons. However, we’ve said this before with a handful of players. Conway left the Bears after a string of disappointing and injury-filled years following his two big seasons. Booker was traded to the Dolphins for Adawale Ogunleye, Marshall was traded to the Jets for a 5th rounder, and Jeffery, well, left in a huff to go win a ring in Philadelphia. Each time a player seemed destined to rewrite the record books something happened that saw that player wearing new colors.
The Bears are long overdue for a modern receiver to rewrite the record books, but it may take longer than you think for some of them. I have scraped through to find single game, single season, and career franchise records and where Robinson ranks on those marks. I plan to track as many of these as possible as we follow his path to franchise immortality.
The single game stuff is impossible to predict. I doubt he approaches Jeffery’s single game yardage mark or the four TD game, but 13 catches is possible. The single game target record of 22 by Chris Penn is ridiculous and completely unexpected. Want to know more? He caught only seven of those targets…
As far as single season marks, I think Robinson can make a run at a few of them over the next couple years. Nagy’s offense could spread the ball around enough that he won’t attract the number of targets required to break some of these records, but I think the catches (118) and 100 yard games (7) isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
The career marks are far more likely for Robinson to take over. With three healthy, productive seasons, Robinson should surpass Johnny Morris for career yards, Forte's career targets record, and the quintet of players tied with the career 1,000-yard seasons mark. If he’s peppered with enough targets, he could make a run at 100+ catches and match or exceed Marshall, but there’s a lot that has to happen to eclipse 100 grabs a year. Career 100-yard games may take a little longer and the career TD mark, well, I think he’ll need five or more additional seasons in navy and orange.
Robinson’s 2019 should be a sign of things to come. Ryan Pace would be wise to lock him down to a contract extension and give him the runway to make a charge at these records. It will be fascinating to watch what happens at the quarterback position this offseason and what that could mean for his production in 2020 and beyond.
Bears fans have seen candidates in the past that looked poised to break the career marks. Robinson’s combination of precision route running, contested catch ability, and on-field leadership truly establishes him as an alpha dog that can carry the passing game through thick and thin. I’m hopeful Robinson’s name will continue to rise in the record books and we can all enjoy witnessing his greatness.
This article utilized data pulled from a number of sources including ProFootballReference.com, ESPN, Next Gen Stats, and NFL.com. Follow Jeff on Twitter @gridironborn and tune into the Bears Over Beers podcast for more Bears analysis.