Last season, I kicked around the idea that we should target wide receivers based on their target value. That piece had a number of hits during the season (and some misses of course), but largely was successful in creating a target index for gamers to reference for players when drafting at the position.
Opportunities are the name of the game for fantasy football. It is no secret that we want players getting the ball because you cannot score fantasy points without the ball. But not all opportunities are created equal for fantasy football. I touched on this a bit in just one area of the field recently when we talked about which players exceeded their fantasy expectations in the red zone among the wide receiver and tight end positions.
We, of course, want our pass catchers to get a ton of target volume in general, but which ones are getting the highest rates of deep ball, red zone, inside of the 10-yard line and end zone targets that really churn out fantasy production? Those are the targets that are the high-cholesterol fantasy targets we are looking for. Even if a player is lower volume, but high in those areas, an unprojected target spike could mean a breakout fantasy season or those pass catchers are just underpriced in general due to being marked at their projected target volume.
If you are wondering why those are the types of targets that carry the most fantasy weight, here is the breakdown in points per target for PPR scoring on those throws over the past decade.
|Value of Targets||Pts/Tgt|
|Red Zone Target||2.46|
|Inside 10 Target||3.06|
|End Zone Target||3.74|
|None of the above||1.42|
*Deep Target = Throws Over 15 yards downfield
If you reference this table from last season, our high value targets all rose with the addition of the 2020 season while the targets that did not fit any category slightly declined — the average production on any targets not in the red zone, inside of the 10-yard line, in the end zone, or downfield is worth 1.42 points.
The average target over 15 yards downfield is worth roughly 1.4 times a non-vertical throw, while we then progressively climb in weight of targets coming closer to the end zone and the holy grail of targets, actual targets in the end zone.
One thing I did not do last season was look at the stickiness of said target distribution of our high-value targets, so let’s rectify that.
Year-Over-Year Target Correlation
|Inside 10-Yard Line||0.1059|
Deep targets and end zone targets carry a moderately strong correlation (from a football statistic stance). Interestingly enough, end zone targets are much stronger than red zone and inside of the 10-yard line targets. My half-cooked hypothesis is that the latter two are contingent on the actual team reaching that area of the field while when teams take end zone shots from outside of the red zone, they are dialed up for specific players, which is also explained in the correlation to downfield targets carrying some water year-over-year. Half-cooked, but we press on.
With all of this in place, I am displaying things here in a different (and hopefully more digestible way) than last year. Here is a target index for the top wide receivers and tight ends in fantasy drafts this summer (if you want a player added that is not here, just ask me and I will), as well as their point production per type of target for their careers. You can sort each category and change between wideouts and tight ends as you see fit.
Could I interest you in everything all of the time? When sorting from an overall target perspective firsthand, the top-20 wideouts here that also rank in the top-20 in multiple categories of percentage of those targets being high-value targets are Mike Evans, Calvin Ridley, Julio Jones, Michael Thomas, Davante Adams, and Allen Robinson. Those guys are good and we all collectively know it.
I did a deep dive on Evans earlier this summer, who once again maxed out the quality of his targets in 2020. Evans has been a wideout that has consistently had holes poked in his game and for fantasy, but he is able to consistently keep getting over because he sees tangible target volume and those are filled with the high-leverage variety. Evans ranked fourth among the wideouts here in deep target rate (35.4%) and sixth in rate of targets to come in the end zone (12.1%).
When looking at some players that rank highly in the rate of high-value targets, but still have been limited in overall target volume, we have a few standouts.
There has been a steady drumbeat for Mike Williams this summer. I have looked at his undervalued target opportunity and his hopeful red zone regression to the mean as well to do my part. But here is why you can see that Big Mike is worth leaving the lights on for. Among wide receivers, he ranks third in rate of deep targets (37.5%), first in rate of red zone targets (17.4%), third in rate of targets inside of the 10 (7.9%), and third in rate of targets inside of the end zone (13.6%). The downside is that he ranks 55th on the receiver list above in target opportunity. We collectively finally got Will Fuller over the hump last season, but he was in a leading role after DeAndre Hopkins was traded while Big Mike still has a target-hog in Keenan Allen in his way.
Another player here that has been limited by overall volume, but does get quality targets is Marquise Brown. Brown was a popular breakout candidate last season, but the overall volume of the Baltimore passing attack stifled his true output. Brown’s target share (25.8%) was seventh in the league while his share of air yards (38.1%) was third, but Brown was neutered by the overall nature of the Baltimore passing game. His 6.3 targets per game ranked 49th at the position. Brown is 20th among wideouts in deep target rate (29.8%) and fourth in end zone target rate (12.9%) among wideouts above. Brown has added target competition on the roster with the selection of Rashod Bateman, but Brown also gives out early-career Tyler Lockett vibes. With everyone projecting the Ravens to throw more in 2021, Brown still cannot be ruled out as a potential value in year three.
Speaking of Tyler Lockett, he and D.K. Metcalf come in as the only set of teammates here that are top-12 in rate of targets to come in the end zone. Attached to Russell Wilson, Wilson has ranked first or second in end zone passes in each of the past four seasons.
I do not want to solely rehash players that we highlighted last year, but both Kenny Golladay and Courtland Sutton are players that are suppressed this offseason for reasonable explanations. Sutton is coming off an ACL injury and still has question marks in quarterback play, but when Sutton is being targeted, those targets have carried weight. He is fifth in end zone target rate (12.2%) with over 30% of his targets coming downfield. His red zone presence could be a major thorn in the projected breakout for Jerry Jeudy, who did not even record any fantasy points as a rookie on red zone or end zone targets.
Golladay takes on a quarterback downgrade going from Matthew Stafford to Daniel Jones, but his current FFPC Main Event ADP of WR27 is drastically below the marks of where he collects his targets. Golladay may be a faux-alpha WR1, but he is being priced as such. He showed up earlier as a player to place blind faith in as a discounted lead wideout on his team and ranks in the top-20 in every category above among wide receivers.
I will not get fully into the weeds from an efficiency stance, but there are two efficiency monsters that stand out here in Calvin Ridley and A.J. Brown. Ridley finally received feature receiver targets last season while he has gone from the WR28 to WR19 to WR4 in points per game over the start of his career. Among wideouts, Ridley ranks above league average in points generated per every type of target.
Brown has steadily been known as a hyper-efficient receiver. He is sitting 36th in targets per game among wideouts above, but ranks 10th in points per downfield target, first in points per red zone target, and fourth in points per target inside of the 10-yard line at his position. On low-leverage targets, Brown also ranks second in points per target.
Let’s flip things around to some wideouts who have not stacked a ton of high-value looks.
To start the offseason, I was someone who had Deebo Samuel over Brandon Aiyuk as the best value among the San Francisco wide receivers. My logic was that Samuel’s role in the offense was quarterback-proof for a team that could play multiple passers in 2021. But after Aiyuk showed up in the discounted WR1 (per ADP) study we did in June paired with the clear discrepancy in types of targets each player receivers, there is just too much objective evidence in Aiyuk’s favor to hang onto to those prior convictions. Samuel ranks third from the bottom among wideouts above in percentage of targets to come downfield (12.0%) and dead last in rate of career targets to come inside the end zone (1.6%). Both young wideouts here have small samples on their resume, but Aiyuk had seven end zone targets as a rookie while Samuel has just two over his first two seasons in the league. Aiyuk was not good on a per target basis with the deep looks he had as a rookie, but his 20 downfield targets are five more than Samuel has in his 22 games played. The positive end for Samuel is that he is third among wideouts in points per target on the low-leverage targets that he stacks.
I will always defend overall target volume as the ultimate spade here, but looking above you can see why Tyler Boyd has been a player that has consistently underperformed expected points models often in his career despite being a player that regularly out-produces his ADP. Boyd has just simply stacked a ton of low-leverage targets to carry his lines, ranking 55th among wideouts above in deep target rate, 52nd in red zone target rate, and 63rd in rate of targets to come in the end zone.
I really do not have any quibble with Boyd’s draft cost, but this is also the path Diontae Johnson is trending towards, although his ADP is significantly higher than Boyd’s. Johnson was fifth at the position in targets per game (9.6) and 11th in receptions per game (5.9), so that is all that matters as a lead point. But if his target volume were to dip in 2021 via added targets for Chase Claypool, the Steelers using rookie additions in Najee Harris and Pat Freiermuth, or just the team down throttling their overall passing volume, Johnson is a player that so far has not received many high-leverage targets and has not been particularly that good on his low-leverage targets. Johnson is 52nd in rate of downfield targets, 62nd in red zone target rate, and 56th in end zone target rate. For stacking so many low-leverage targets, Johnson also has the third-lowest rate of production per target on those non-leverage targets above at his position, ahead of only a one-year sample from Jerry Jeudy and Keelan Cole.
The positive news for both Boyd and Johnson, however, is that although neither have accrued much action near the end zone, they are the top two wideouts above in points per target on the end zone targets they have received.
A couple of small sample rookie wide receiver nuggets…
Gabriel Davis led all players in rate of targets to come in the end zone (17.7%) last season.
Tee Higgins led all rookies in points per red zone and target inside of the 10-yard line.
It is a testament to Justin Jefferson having as massive of a season as he did as a rookie for fantasy (and reality) despite not being an outlier above in terms of carrying weighted targets in any high-leverage department. In fact, Jefferson was underused as a rookie near the end zone, something I do believe will tighten up moving forward.
It is still borderline criminal that the Raiders selected Henry Ruggs as the first wide receiver off the board last season then proceeded to only use him as a one-trick pony. Ruggs led all rookies with 41.9% of his targets coming on downfield looks while having just two red zone and two end zone targets all season.
We have mentioned that Jerry Jeudy also did not record a red zone or end zone catch as a rookie while that was with Courtland Sutton off the field. Jeudy only has the one-year sample under his belt, but that one year paints him more as a D.J. Moore-type than a true WR1 alpha. There is nothing wrong with that at his current cost and Moore is a player I believe the market has overcorrected themselves on based on 2020 expectations, but Jeudy will need to garner more high-cholesterol targets in year two to have a true breakout and elevate his dynasty stock to WR1 status.
Laviska Shenault only has one season, but that lone season did give off major Deebo Samuel vibes. Shenault was lowest-ranked rookie wideout in rate of downfield targets (10.1%) with just five end zone targets, but Shenault was effective when targeted downfield, leading all rookies in points per target on those downfield throws.
One player that has had a contingency in his corner this offseason is Michael Pittman. Pittman was at the bottom of rookie wideouts in nearly every category, ranking second-to-last among the rookies in deep target rate, fifth from the bottom in rate of targets inside of the 10, and last in target rate in the end zone. Pittman did lead all rookie wideouts in points per target on low-leverage targets and does not have a ton of target competition and low ADP as his main attraction points, but we would like to see his usage become much more versatile in year two while asking Carson Wentz to match the play of Philip Rivers from a year ago is not a guarantee.
I have not touched heavily on the tight ends although I included their date in the table for anyone to sort through because the position inherently does not carry a ton of draft movement over the summer. We have our top tier of guys and then everyone’s favorite dart throws. But with that, there are still some notes…
Dan “Air Yards” Arnold has relatively no tangible target volume so far through four NFL seasons, but when teams have thrown it his way, it has come downfield. 38.5% of Arnold’s career 78 targets have come on downfield targets, the highest rate of all tight ends.
We touched on Irv Smith’s red zone usage and prowess a few weeks ago and he leads all tight ends with 22.2% of his early-career targets coming inside of the red zone.
In that same article, we highlighted how Evan Engram has been the most red zone-dependent touchdown scorer among tight ends, which has been a problem for his depressed touchdown production since he ranks last on the list above at his position in rate of targets to actually come inside of the red zone.
We have also been beating down the fact that George Kittle has marginal usage and effectiveness in the end zone so far to start his career. Kittle is ahead of only Engram and Anthony Firkser in rate of career targets to come in the end zone and unfortunately, Kittle is last in points produced per target on those looks.
One tight end seemingly being left for dead this summer is Mike Gesicki. Miami drafted Hunter Long with Gesicki in the final year of his contract while adding Jaylen Waddle and Will Fuller to the fold, so it easy to see how he could be squeezed out this upcoming season, but at a position with limited upside options, Gesicki still does get quality targets, even if he has not been overly effective with them. Gesicki is fourth among all tight ends in rate of downfield targets (24.8%) and fifth in rate of targets to come in the end zone (11.2%).