Mike Wallace tops Calvin Johnson
It may surprise, but almost any way you look at it, the Pittsburgh WR has been better
Originally Published: October 19, 2011
By KC Joyner | ESPN Insider
Mike Wallace and Calvin Johnson are two of the best wide receivers in the NFL. But who's better?
After six weeks of the 2011 NFL season, there are a lot of questions still unanswered: Which team is the best? Will the Colts or Dolphins win a game? Will Tebowmania equal Beatlemania?
It might take a while for those queries to get clarification, but the one question that seems to have been definitively answered to the satisfaction of many is that Calvin Johnson is the best wide receiver in the NFL.
At some level, Johnson is certainly setting a pace that has not been equaled in a long time. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Megatron's nine touchdowns in the first five games were the most by any player through the first five games of any season dating back to 1940. They note that Johnson is on pace to break Randy Moss' NFL record 23 touchdown receptions set in 2007.
That might be enough to put Johnson in the top spot, but he is assisted by the drop-off of some of the other potential leading contenders, some because of injury (Miles Austin, Andre Johnson, Hakeem Nicks) and others because of reduced production (Larry Fitzgerald, Roddy White).
Before handing that honor to Johnson by acclamation, however, he should have to go through the same type of "challenge system" that Bear Bryant used to settle positional battles on his team. This method allowed any player to call for a one-on-one clash in a variety of areas to see who was the best at executing the key responsibilities of the position (as we did with Austin and Andre Johnson last season to see who was the best wideout in the league at that time). The winner gets to claim the prize as best wideout.
The big question is who should be chosen to challenge Johnson? Even with the aforementioned drop-off of the top contenders, there is one player who has more than enough to play the role of Optimus Prime -- Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace.
Wallace is almost never mentioned as one of the top five wideouts in the league, much less as the best, but look at how his numbers this season stack up against Johnson in a variety of categories. (Note: all attempt and yardage totals include penalty plays such as defensive holding, illegal contact, pass interference, etc.).
Short passes (aerials thrown downfield 10 or fewer yards)
• Johnson has gained 202 yards on 27 short pass attempts, so 7.5 yards per attempt.
• Wallace has 205 yards on 22 short pass attempts, which equates to a 9.3 short pass YPA.
Medium passes (11-19 yards downfield)
• Johnson has racked up 163 yards on 16 medium pass attempts for a 10.2 medium YPA.
• Wallace has 117 yards on 11 medium pass attempts for a 10.6 medium YPA.
Deep passes (20-29 yards downfield)
• Johnson has posted 59 yards on six deep pass attempts for a 9.8 deep YPA.
• Wallace has been targeted on a deep pass only one time this season and it didn't result in a completion or a penalty, so he has zero yards in this category.
Bomb passes (30 or more yards downfield)
• Johnson has tallied 145 yards on six bomb pass attempts for a 24.2 bomb YPA.
• Wallace has 329 yards on nine bomb passes for a 36.6 bomb YPA.
Vertical (all medium, deep and bomb passes)
• Johnson has been targeted for 28 vertical passes and has gained 367 yards on those throws. That gives him a 13.1 vertical YPA.
• Wallace has been targeted for 21 vertical passes and posted 446 yards on those throws, giving him a 21.2 vertical YPA.
Stretch vertical (all deep/bomb passes -- the ones designed to really stretch defensive coverage)
• Johnson has 12 targets on stretch vertical passes and gained 204 yards on those aerials. That equates to a 17 stretch vertical YPA.
• Wallace has 10 targets on stretch vertical passes and posted 329 yards on those aerials. That equates to a 32.9 stretch vertical YPA.
Yards after catch
• Johnson has been credited with 129 yards after catch this season.
• Wallace has 183 yards after catch this season.
• Add all of Johnson's totals up, and he has 569 yards on 55 targets, a 10.3 overall YPA.
• Wallace has 651 yards on 43 targets, or a 15.1 overall YPA.
It's one thing to simply subscribe to the numbers and players must also pass the eye test, but these totals show Wallace as superior thus far in short, medium, bomb, vertical, stretch vertical, yards after catch and overall YPA categories. If he's not dominant in one, he's consistently better in all.
Not only that, Wallace has 82 more total yards than Johnson despite having 12 fewer targets.
That evidence alone would point to Wallace being the better wideout, but there are two potential arguments against this claim.
The first is that Johnson has a 9-4 lead on touchdown receptions. True, but consider this: Johnson has been thrown a pass in the end zone nine times this season and has converted five of those into touchdowns.
By contrast, Wallace has only four end zone targets this season. He has converted three into touchdowns and one into a pass interference penalty that gave the Steelers a first down at the opponent's 1-yard line. What this means is that when Pittsburgh gives Wallace a shot at an end zone pass, so far, he is even better at converting it into a touchdown than Johnson is.
The second argument is that Wallace can't be given this honor after only six games. It takes longer than that to establish someone as the best at his position.
The counter is that Wallace could make a claim as having been the most dominant wideout in the league in 2010 as well. His 13.8 overall YPA was by far the best in the league (it was 1.7 yards better than Kenny Britt's second-place finish in that category). Wallace was the only wideout to post a short pass YPA of higher than 10 yards (10.2). Wallace also ranked tied for third in vertical YPA (16.6) and was fifth in stretch vertical YPA among wide receivers with at least 20 targets at that depth (20.3).
That shows his overall dominance, but for the sake of this discussion, it should be noted that he gained 154 more yards than Johnson last season (1,295 to 1,141) despite being targeted 40 fewer times (134 for Johnson vs. 94 for Wallace). Wallace also had a better touchdown-to-target ratio (once every 9.4 passes vs. once every 11.2 targets for Johnson).
No matter which way you look at, Wallace bests Johnson. At the moment, that makes him the heavyweight champion of NFL wide receivers.
KC Joyner, aka the Football Scientist, is a regular contributor to ESPN Insider. He can be found on Twitter @kcjoynertfs and at his website. He is the author of an annual fantasy football draft guide, which is currently available, and "Blindsided: Why the Left Tackle is Overrated and Other Contrarian Football Thoughts."