Feed at the Trough of Targets: Part 1
May 10, 2017 | C.D. Carter
The key to long-term fantasy football success, like happiness, is probably mundane.
The online beast that is the fantasy football industry dissects every NFL season, every game, every snap, every throw and run and catch and drop and touch and route. But what matters? Isn’t that what we’re chasing?
Route running, success against man coverage and zone coverage, receptions on contested passes: it all matters on some level, I’m sure. Player evaluation isn’t totally without value. Does it matter as much as opportunity? No, it does not. Does anything matter as much as opportunity? No, because opportunity is king. It rules alongside its queen, efficiency (which, by itself, isn’t a predictor of fantasy production). Opportunity has a ruthless army that has conquered all other predictors of fantasy success. This king is brutal, unfeeling.
Here’s the thing: that’s not new.
My Living The Stream co-host and all-around-not-terrible guy, JJ Zachariason, showed last month that over the past five years, nothing correlates with wide receiver fantasy points like opportunity, or targets. The next closest correlation (that isn’t receptions) is market share, which is tied directly to how many footballs are thrown one’s way. JJ wrote…
The reason these rate stats (yards per target, yards per reception, etc.) don’t correlate all that well from one year to the next is due to a compounding number of variables. A wide receiver can be used differently in Year N to Year N+1, a quarterback may play better or worse, and so on. That will change the quality of targets, which will change the denominator in the fraction. Thus, altering the stickiness of the metric.
What follows is hardly a game changer, as the bespectacled TED talkers are wont to say, but a look at the wide receiver opportunity landscape from 10,000 miles in the sky. Think of it as Major Tom’s view of receiver opportunity after 40 years of floating in his tin can, wondering if his wife has left him.
One hundred targets is an arbitrary cutoff, I know. Any and every cutoff is arbitrary, and numbers aren’t real except for in the mind of a human programmed by the vast simulation in which we exist. Makes you think. Back to the point: I looked at how many wide receivers saw 100 or more targets (a decent measurement for bankable wideout opportunity) from 2006-2016, and while the increase wasn’t perfectly steady, the trend is clear.
If you’re able to look beyond 2015’s bigly drop in 100-target receivers — a dip that doesn’t look so dramatic when you consider there were four receivers with 99 targets — we see that opportunity in the order of six or so targets per game over 16 games is on the rise. A glance at the high-end target getters shows a noteworthy gap over the past decade, as just seven receivers saw more than 140 targets in 2006, while 11 did in 2016. That number of 140-target wideouts has stayed steady for the past half decade.
This is right in line with a steady uptick in the number of passes thrown by NFL quarterbacks over the past ten years. That, you might say while pushing your glasses up the bridge of your nose, makes sense. The below chart documents the overall average of passes thrown per game by all NFL teams since 2006.
Running plays have stayed steady over the past quarter century, so this passing uptick is the result of more offensive snaps being run in NFL contests. This rise is clearly steadier than the increase in high-target volume wide receivers. Should you scoff at the above chart, consider this: four more passes per game is 128 more passes per week across the NFL. That increase accounts for 2,048 passes over a full season.
Then there’s the jump in NFL offenses throwing the ball at least 35 times a game. It’s another arbitrary cutoff, I understand. If that makes you upset online, please consult my aforementioned note about the immutably arbitrary nature of numbers.
The dearth of teams that attempted more than 35 passes per contest in the mid-2000s is fairly remarkable when compared to the abundance of what we might call high-volume passing teams in 2015 and 2016. Probably it won’t cause anyone a medical emergency to see this rise after looking at the overall increase in NFL passes per game. I think this serves as a good box to check in acknowledging that there is more potential wide receiver opportunity today than ever before.
Jeremy Kerley saw more than 100 targets last season. So did Marquis Lee and Tavon Austin. Brandon LaFell and Kenny Britt too. All of those guys were available (very) late in 2016 fantasy drafts, or floundering on your local waiver wire well into the fall (some for good reason). Austin, for example, had one of the worst 100-target campaigns in league history.
Volume doesn’t guarantee fantasy goodness. I’m sorry if that made you fall of your chair. When you’re upright again, consider this: 75.1 percent of wide receivers who have seen more than 100 targets since 2006 have finished the season as a top-24 wideout. For some drafted in the opening rounds, a finish just inside WR2 range is nothing short of a total value disaster. I acknowledge that average draft position context is missing. But it’s good to know that three in four guys getting 100 looks in a season finish inside WR2 range.
I’ll return next month with how we might exploit fantasy ADPs to stockpile fistfuls of targets on the cheap. Until then, rise and do stuff and grind.