Brandon LaFell offered no excuses. In his 2015 debut for the New England Patriots on Sunday, LaFell was targeted on eight passes and dropped three of them -- the most by a player in a single game this season, per ESPN Stats & Information.
"If I had to give myself a grade," LaFell told reporters, "it would be 'F.'"
The jarring performance, which comprised half of the Patriots' six drops during a pass-heavy 30-23 victory over the New York Jets, sparked a question: Who has demonstrated the best and worst hands in the NFL this season?
With help from ESPN researcher Mackenzie Kraemer, I divided the query into a few subcategories to reflect position and context. As it turned out, the issue was topical: 5 percent of passes were dropped league-wide in Week 7, the highest rate in any week this season.
Drops by RBs, WRs and TEs
ESPN tracks drops with a strict interpretation that usually puts its numbers on the low end. A drop is defined as a ball that should have been caught by ordinary effort, but only when the receiver is viewed to be 100 percent responsible for the incompletion and no one else -- a shielding defender, for example -- can be blamed.
Given that context, the two NFL players with the most drops are the Patriots' Julian Edelman (six in 65 targets) and the Atlanta Falcons' Leonard Hankerson (five in 39 targets). The more preferable way to view drops, however, is to scale them by opportunities via drop percentage.
The chart shows the five highest drop percentages in the NFL through Week 5, led by Rams running back Benny Cunningham and New York Giants receiver Dwayne Harris. Edelman's drop percentage of 9.2 percent is the league's ninth highest.
How to judge the best hands based on these metrics?
There are 46 qualified pass-catchers who haven't been assigned a drop this season. Of that group, the player with the most opportunities via targets is Cleveland Browns receiver Travis Benjamin, who has caught 35 of 56 targets without a drop. Close behind is Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (34 receptions in 54 targets) and Jacksonville Jaguars receiver Allen Hurns (31 receptions in 49 targets).
Those with three include: Jets receiver Brandon Marshall (on 41 touches), Detroit Lions tailback Ameer Abdullah (75) and Minnesota Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson (133). Abdullah also has fumbled a kick return, which we will get to in a bit.
On the other hand, there are 38 qualified skill-position players without a fumble. Based on opportunities via touches, we can say that Yeldon -- yes, the same T.J. Yeldon who has dropped three passes -- has navigated the most opportunities to fumble without doing so. Yeldon and his contemporaries are in the chart.
Which quarterbacks can be trusted to hold onto the ball against a pass rush, and who is most likely to have it knocked out of their hands? Thanks for asking.
We looked at fumbles, ignored whether they were lost and found the Browns' Josh McCown atop the list. Here's how it went:
McCown: six fumbles in 366 snaps
The chart lists the six quarterbacks with no more than one fumble. Based on opportunities, the most reliable has been Peyton Manning, an especially notable accomplishment given the 16 sacks he has taken.
There is nothing worse than immediately returning the ball to an opponent via a special-teams fumble. Most such plays occur on punts. There have been only five fumbles on 1,073 kickoff returns this season and no player has more than one.
So far, the least sure-handed punt returner in the NFL has been the 49ers' Jarryd Hayne, the former Australian rugby star. Hayne fumbled three times in 13 opportunities (returns and fair catches) over the first six weeks before he was deactivated in the 49ers' Week 7 loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
Six other players have fumbled twice on punt returns. Details are in the chart, sorted by opportunities.