Which Elite Wide Receivers Are Matchup Proof?
May 5, 2015 | C.D. Carter
You need not a crystal ball, but rather than ability to search the archives of fantasy football sites, to know that untold digital ink will be spilled this summer dissecting which of the game’s top receivers deserve your investment.
The not-shocking rise of an approach that devalues quarterbacks, tight ends, and even running backs — the Zero RB truther movement — leaves many fantasy freaks and geeks focused on acquiring the NFL’s best, most productive wide receivers in the early rounds. Hardly anything separates these pass-catching fake football marvels from year to year: Jordy Nelson averaged 0.8 fantasy points per game more than Dez Bryant in 2014. Julio Jones notched 1.2 points per game more than Randall Cobb. And so on and so forth.
There are myriad factors we could — and should — examine in determining which of the game’s best receivers should go in the first couple rounds of our various drafts. I think one overlooked factor is a measure of consistency: how do these guys perform against the NFL’s best and worst pass defenses? Do they shred flimsy secondaries and shrink against stiff competition?
It’s a question worth asking, even if the answer doesn’t definitively point us in one direction or another. No one should make their judgments based entirely on the numbers below, but if said numbers help improve our process even a smidgen, the exercise is worthwhile.
I evaluated running backs using this method last year and found a few startling splits among guys who were being drafted well inside the top half of fantasy drafts.
Below are the top-10 wide receivers being drafted at this early date, according to MyFantasyLeague data. The splits — a look at how each receiver fared against top-half and bottom-half secondaries — come courtesy of the always-useful Rotoviz Game Split App.
|Player||Fantasy points in split||Fantasy points out of split||Difference|
|Odell Beckham, Jr.||22.4||18.2||18.7%|
* Let’s begin with the most glaring number above: Demaryius Thomas, fantasy’s No. 2 receiver in back-to-back years, scores a whole bunch more points against bottom-half pass defenses. His 14.4-point average against the league’s top-half secondaries is hardly awful — it’s almost the same as Alshon’s average against bad pass defenses — but DT’s splits could be called mildly disturbing. One of the central differences is Thomas’ touchdown production in and out of these splits. With Peyton Manning at the helm, Thomas notches 0.91 touchdowns per contest against bottom-half secondaries, and 0.59 against better secondaries. He also averages 23 more yards against bottom-half units while he sees almost identical targets in and out of this split. I crosschecked these numbers with DT’s performance against run defenses of varying caliber, and those stats seemed to check out: Thomas notches 2.8 more fantasy points when Denver plays the league’s best run defenses. His targets, yards, receptions and touchdowns all drop when the Broncos take on bottom-half run defenses.
* Dez Bryant‘s splits are the opposite of alarming. A slightly more zoomed-in look at Dez over the past couple seasons paints a slightly less optimistic story, and anyone who has watched a Cowboys game since 2013 knows why. Or they think they do. Bryant sported a 24.7 percent split difference in 2013-14 as Dallas ran the ball relentlessly against all comers, especially weak run defenses. Here’s the thing: Bryant averaged the same number of targets against good and bad run defenses. His opportunity remained steady and his yardage, receptions, and touchdowns dropped in those matchups. Dez did, of course, manage 0.83 touchdowns per game against less-than-great run defenses, meaning he got his even when Dallas was committed to pounding and grounding and all that good coachspeak stuff. Bryant remains wildly efficient, averaging a silly 3.6 fantasy points per reception in 2014. He did more with less than any other elite receiver in 2014, and remains an absurdly safe early-round investment.
* A.J. Green, like the red-headed man throwing him footballs on Sundays, has a split that might make you squirm. Andy Dalton, for your edification, sees his interceptions spike and his touchdowns plummet against the NFL’s top-half pass defenses. Green’s touchdown production is most concerning here: He notches .85 touchdowns in the split, and a meager .35 touchdowns out of the split, against better pass defenses. That’s despite seeing 1.8 more targets out of the split. There’s also the somewhat concerning adjusted yards per attempt in the Dalton-Green connection. Dalton averages 7.4 AYA when tossing it to Green, a far cry from 10.1 AYA Tony Romo has when throwing to Bryant, or the red-hot 11.2 AYA Eli Manning posted last season when throwing to Beckham, Jr. Aaron Rodgers posts a 12.4 AYA when throwing Jordy Nelson’s way. Probably Dalton is really bad, and that impacts Green against secondaries that don’t suck. I would happily take Nelson, Alshon Jeffery and Megatron over Green.
* Mike Evans going before Calvin Johnson can’t last forever, right? This seems like a case of fantasy owners reaching for the shiny new toy on the shelf after doing some sort of elicit drug for at least 48 consecutive hours. Megatron is the very definition of matchup proof, as seen above, and he’s been a model of consistency despite having terrible quarterback play (Matthew Stafford is terrible, in case you missed it). His yardage and receptions are almost identical in and out of this split, and his touchdowns actually jump against the league’s top-half pass defenses. No one else listed above can say the same. I suppose Mega’s injury-plagued 2014 campaign will be held against him in the run-up to the 2015 season, but he could be the rare value if current ADP holds. Big receivers don’t age well, and Calvin turns 30 in September. We shouldn’t forget that matchups don’t matter with Megatron. There are only a handful of guys in all of fantasy football about which we can say the same.