NFL Data Bowl: Looking at Wide Receivers vs. Cornerbacks

Ryan Young
2 min readFeb 7, 2021

While today is Super Bowl Sunday, last month a few classmates (Ryan Pruss, Isaac Parker and Richard Locarni) and I analyzed NFL data as part of Kaggle’s NFL Data Bowl 2021.

You can view our post which includes a summary of our process and all the coding and modeling that was involved.

We used data that the NFL provided from its 2018 season, using player, game, play and tracking data from the odd-numbered weeks of that season. (We believed this was a large enough and still manageable sample size to analyze.)

Our goal was to understand the important attributes in wide receiver-cornerback matchups. We used whether passes were completed or not as the binary response variable in our models.

We used a lasso regression technique to develop a predictive model for pass completions.

Overall, it appeared that of the variables, the positioning of the cornerback, how far the cornerback is from its corresponding wide receiver (at the snap) and the wide receiver’s height advantage are the most relevant variables. The closer that a CB is to the middle of the field and to the closest WR, the lower the chance of a completed pass. It also appears that if a WR has a height advantage, it may actually hamper the chances of a completed pass. But it appeared problematic to apply these trends to all matchups, so we decided to look at different versions of a logistic regression model based on the WR’s height.

When analyzing the logistic model for receivers under six feet, we saw that the position, height, and weight of the WR were significant in addition to the position of the corner. This result tells us the importance of the corner’s position when playing in the slot against shorter receivers, as the slot will operate on quicker passes in the middle of the field (where the corner needs to react quick and be in good position to stop). Further, the importance of the height of the slot receiver indicates that receivers under six feet need every inch they can get to gain an advantage over a similarly tall corner.

This conclusion contrasts with that of the model for receivers above six feet, where only the weight of the WR and distance between corner and receiver are significant. Receivers at this height already have a stark advantage over the shorter corner, so the more weight they carry the more the receiver can bully the corner for a catch.

Stay tuned tomorrow for some Super Bowl insights, albeit not football-related.