What the NFL’s NextGen stats tell us about the Patriots

Devin McCourty
Devin McCourty. –Winslow Townson/AP Images for Panini

Patriots fans knew Devin McCourty was fast. The 31-year-old captain demonstrated that in Week 6 against the Kansas City Chiefs.

The Patriots were leading, 30-26, in the fourth quarter when rookie Tremon Smith fielded a kick and took off down the right sideline, heading for an apparent touchdown. But McCourty never gave up on the play, and was able to chase down Smith and tackle him from behind just inside the 5-yard line. It was a 97-yard return for Smith.

That speed was evident again in Monday night’s 25-6 win over the Buffalo Bills.

With the Patriots leading, 18-6, in the fourth quarter, the Bills were marching down the field, but McCourty was able to pick off a Derek Anderson pass and take off 84 yards down the left sideline to put the game out of reach for a 25-6 lead.

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McCourty was hauling on that play. Just how fast was he going? We know that McCourty reached a top speed of 22.05 miles per hour, the fastest speed a ball carrier has reached this season.

That information comes from NFL Next Gen Stats, which, according to the website, is the capture of real-time location data, speed, and acceleration for every player, every play on every inch of the field. Sensors throughout the stadium track tags placed on players’ shoulder pads, charting individual movements within inches.

What exactly does that mean with regard to McCourty’s play on Monday night? Fastest Ball Carriers shows the maximum speed, measured in miles per hour, a player achieves on a given play when carrying the ball on offense or special teams (punt or kick returner). This stat highlights many of the fastest players in the league.

It’s no surprise that the next two fastest times belong to Kansas City speedster Tyreek Hill. The Chiefs running back accomplished the feat in Week 1, reaching 21.95 miles per hour on a 58-yard touchdown reception, and 21.78 miles per hour on a 91-yard punt return for a touchdown.

While some of the categories are revealing, others can leave you scratching your head. There is Longest Completed Air Distance (LCAD), which is the amount of yards the ball has traveled on a pass, from the point of release to the point of reception. It measures the actual distance the passer throws the ball. Buffalo rookie Josh Allen is tops with 63.9 yards, which he accomplished in a 31-20 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 2. That’s the only game in which Allen has thrown for more than 200 yards in his pro career.

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For what it’s worth, Tom Brady has the 24th LCAD, with 49.9.

Josh Gordon has only been with the Patriots for a brief time, but he has the best Incredible YAC on the club. Next Gen Stats is able to predict the expected yards after catch an average receiver should gain on each reception by surveying the tracking data the moment the ball reaches the receiver. This takes into account a number of metrics such as receiver speed, separation, defender location, and more.

In Week 7 against the Bears, Gordon caught a pass 18 yards down the field, then ran for another 37 to the Chicago 1-yard line. The expected YAC on the play was 1 yard, giving Gordon an Incredible YAC of 36. In the same game, Cordarrelle Patterson had the club’s longest play of the season at 122.8 yards. Longest Plays shows ball carriers that have traveled the farthest during a given play (measured in yards) regardless of yards gained. Patterson’s longest play came on his 95-yard kick return for a touchdown.

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Only Detroit’s Jamal Agnew, Kansas City’s Hill, the New York Jets’ Marcus Maye, and Miami’s Jakeem Grant have had longer plays this season.

Brady is known for being able to get rid of the ball in a hurry, so it is no surprise that he is one of the league leaders in Time to Throw, which measures the average amount of time elapsed from the time of snap to throw on every pass attempt for a passer (sacks excluded). Brady releases the ball on average in 2.6 seconds, behind Sam Bradford (2.51) Drew Brees (2.55), Marcus Mariota (2.58), and Derek Carr (2.59).

Another category is Improbable Completions. Tracking data is used to determine the probability of a pass being completed, taking into account Next Gen Stats such as Air Distance, Air Yards, and Receiver Separation. It also leverages other previously unrecorded metrics such as receiver distance from sideline, and more. Improbable Completions looks at passes with the lowest Completion Probability each week with a minimum of 10+ air yards, and all scoring plays.

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Brady’s 21-yard touchdown to Rob Gronkowski in Week 1 was given an 18.8 percent completion probablity, with the pass going to Gronkowski’s back shoulder as he ran down the left sideline. Gronkowski made the catch while managing to stay inbounds for the first touchdown of the season.