Upgrade Your Fantasy Football Approach: 10 Stats to Predict WR Success

Any average Joe on the street can pull up some quick stats about receptions, receiving yards or receiving touchdowns and think he’s a fantasy football expert. But while those stats may tell him what has happened in the past, they won’t necessarily tell him what will happen in the future.

None of us have a crystal ball to predict with 100 percent certainty how productive a wide receiver can be, but there are deeper stats and carefully curated systems of analysis that can more accurately project a receiver’s future impact on a game and a season. 

Here, I’ve collected 10 stats to help you play the role of soothsayer and predict just how valuable a wide receiver will be for you in fantasy football.   

Targets

Targets are the most obvious stat to focus on beyond receptions, touchdowns and yards. Targets don’t have an actual impact for fantasy owners, but they are an excellent way to determine whether a player’s current level of production is sustainable over the long haul (or if his production is likely to increase).

For example, look at James Jones. He was targeted 98 times, catching 64 passes for 784 yards and an NFL-leading 14-touchdown receptions in 2012. That’s a touchdown for every seven targets. To put that into perspective, Eric Decker, who was second in the NFL with 13 touchdown receptions, had one for every 9.5 targets. 

The point is, Jones’ usage in the Packers offense makes it really unlikely he’ll come anywhere close to catching 14 touchdown passes again this year. 

Here’s another way of looking at it. In Week 1, Pierre Garcon had seven catches for 64 yards, not exactly a huge day for fantasy owners. But he did have 11 targets, a potential signal of big things to come. So what happened?

Sure enough, in Week 2, he had eight receptions for 143 yards and a touchdown. He only had two more targets, but his production skyrocketed.

Again, targets are generally a pretty good indicator of what is to come, or what production may not be sustainable. Touchdowns and yards can be fickle for receivers, but if a quarterback is consistently looking their way, you can bet the numbers will eventually follow. 

Percentage of Targets

We all know that game plans change from week to week, meaning a player could have 15 targets one week and five the next. One way to determine just how consistently your player will be utilized in the game plan is by tracking that player’s percentage of targets on his team. 

For example, thus far in 2013, Cecil Shorts (36.4 percent), DeSean Jackson (34.1 percent) and A.J. Green (33.3 percent) lead the NFL in percentage of targets, according to Advanced NFL Stats.

It’s a safe bet these players—even in weeks when their teams struggle to throw the ball or face tough pass defenses—will still be a big part of the game plan and thus are more likely to produce than players who receive a smaller percentage of targets on their team.

Red-Zone Targets

Targets are great, but nothing is more comforting for fantasy owners than knowing a player is a threat in the red zone. If a team’s quarterback consistently targets a receiver inside the 20-yard line, there’s a good chance that player will continue to score touchdowns. 

And given how fickle touchdown production is for wide receivers, a player who consistently gets red-zone targets obviously has a far greater likelihood of scoring than one who doesn’t.

Duh. 

Put another way, there are running backs in the NFL who have made a fantasy living in the past as red-zone vultures. People own them simply because they know they’ll be given more opportunities to score than other players.

Why treat fantasy wide receivers any differently?

Average Depth of Target

We take it one last step with targets, with a stat created by Pro Football Focus called Average Depth of Target, or aDOT for short. 

Essentially, this stat will show you how many yards down the field a wide receiver is targeted on average. For instance, in 2012, Torrey Smith had an aDOT of 18.6, second in the NFL. He was obviously a deep threat for Joe Flacco. 

Contrast that to Wes Welker, who had an aDOT of 7.6. Hardly surprising, because he is a slot receiver who runs plenty of crossing routes and quick hits over the middle. 

So what does this tell us? Well, in general it gives us a fairly precise idea of whether he’s running short, intermediate or deep routes. It’s more specific than yards per reception, which also includes all of the work a wide receiver does after the catch. 

Look at Welker, who had 1,354 yards last season and 11.5 yards per catch. But 702 of those yards actually came after the catch. His 11.5 yards per reception is a bit deceiving. With aDOT, we get a deeper understanding of what type of receiver we’re looking at, and what his role is within the offense.

Yards Per Catch

Even with the introduction of aDOT, yards per catch is still a useful tool for fantasy owners. Whereas aDOT shows us more precisely where a receiver is being targeted, yards per catch shows us what they did with their opportunities when the pass was completed. 

Look at Vincent Jackson. He finished the season atop the NFL with 19.2 yards per catch in 2012. He was a major downfield threat (this is backed up by his aDOT, which was 16.9, fourth in the NFL). Combining the two stats—along with the fact that we know he caught 72 passes for 1,384 yards and eight touchdowns—we not only know that Jackson was regularly targeted down the field, but also that he made the most of those opportunities. 

In other words, his production seems sustainable because of his role on the team and his ability to turn his opportunities into big plays. As you’ll see, all of these stats build upon one another. 

Yards After the Catch

Simply put, yards after the catch—YAC, for short—gives us a good idea of what a player does once he has the ball in his hands. Players with a high YAC are dangerous weapons and certainly worth owning. Here are last year’s top 10 performers in that regard (note that four running backs are included).

RANK PLAYER TEAM REC TAR YDS AVG TD LONG 20+ YDS/G   YAC 1DN
1 Wes Welker, WR NE 118 174 1,354 11.5 6 59 13 84.6   702 72
2 Darren Sproles, RB NO 75 104 667 8.9 7 44 7 51.3   673 29
3 Andre Johnson, WR HOU 112 164 1,598 14.3 4 60 23 99.9   552 79
4 Demaryius Thomas, WR DEN 94 141 1,434 15.3 10 71 29 89.6   538 60
5 Michael Crabtree, WR SF 85 126 1,105 13.0 9 49 15 69.1   536 57
6 Calvin Johnson, WR DET 122 205 1,964 16.1 5 53 40 122.8   525 92
7 C.J. Spiller, RB BUF 43 56 459 10.7 2 66 9 28.7   521 19
8 Percy Harvin, WR MIN 62 85 677 10.9 3 45 8 75.2   509 36
9 Ray Rice, RB BAL 61 84 478 7.8 1 43 6 29.9   507 22
10 LeSean McCoy, RB PHI 54 67 373 6.9 3 36 4 31.1   489 19

No surprises there, right? These players are dangerous even if they don’t get a ton of targets. Look at Spiller, for example.

YAC is one of the best ways to determine if a player on a poor offense is worth adding or ignoring for your fantasy team. If he can make plays on his own, he’s likely to overcome a bad quarterback or paltry amount of targets for fantasy purposes. 

Points Per Opportunity

We turn to Pro Football Focus for another stat: Points Per Opportunity (PPO for short). They define it simply as follows:

Total Fantasy Points / (Carries + Pass Routes Run) = PPO

Simply put, this is a great way to evaluate players who perhaps struggled with injuries in the previous season—or perhaps weren’t promoted to a starting gig until later in the season—to determine what kind of value they had while they were actually on the field. 

Based on his PPO last year, for instance, Pierre Garcon could have a huge year if he stays on the field in 2013. He led the NFL with a PPO of 0.40 in 2012. Thus far in 2013, Eddie Royal leads all wide receivers who have played at least 25 percent of their snaps with a PPO of 0.56.

Consider this stat a great way of determining which players make the most of their opportunities on the field, at least in fantasy terms. As the season goes on, look at the PPO of rookies or role players—the higher it is, the more likely they are to have a major fantasy breakthrough at some point. 

Catch Rate

This is pretty simple: Take a player’s receptions, divide them by his targets, multiply by 100 and you get a player’s catch rate. 

This won’t necessarily tell you how good a player’s hands are, because it doesn’t account for dropped passes, but it will tell you how often a player actually catches a pass heading in his general direction. The best way to use this stat is actually to evaluate the quarterback throwing to your wide receiver and project whether a new quarterback might have better results. 

For instance, last year Larry Fitzgerald had a catch rate of 48 percent. Seeing as he had just five drops, it was clearly due to the Arizona Cardinals’ terrible quarterback play. This year, with a new quarterback in Carson Palmer, he was justifiably drafted higher than a player who finished 42nd in fantasy points in standard-scoring leagues normally would be. 

Catch rate is a great way to project if a player could see a bump in value once he changes quarterbacks. 

Defensive Points Against

Always—and I mean always—check how many fantasy points a defense is allowing to opposing wide receivers per week. ALWAYS. The amount of total passing yards or total passing touchdowns allowed is largely irrelevant, because running backs and tight ends contribute to those numbers. 

But knowing specifically how much damage wide receivers do to every defense in the NFL is vital. ESPN offers this stat, and it’s a great way to determine how much value your wide receiver has on a week-to-week basis. 

If a defense is regularly getting carved up by opposing wide receivers, you want to start a player facing that defense rather than a similar player going against a tougher defense. It really is that simple.

Use this stat for all positions, I implore you.

Know Your Wide Receiver’s Quarterback

Wide receivers are completely reliant upon their quarterbacks to get them the ball, so make sure you know everything possible about the quarterback feeding your wide receiver. 

What is his completion percentage? Does he have a habit of getting sacked because he takes too long in the pocket? How often does he turn the ball over? Does he have a better deep arm (Joe Flacco, for instance), or is he a dink-and-dunk game manager (Alex Smith)? How likely is he to get injured, and who is the backup?

This isn’t a precise stat, but rather a collection of stats and analysis you should be focused on. Nothing can sink a good fantasy receiver faster than a terrible quarterback. Just ask Larry Fitzgerald in 2012, or Dwayne Bowe thus far in 2013 (14 fantasy points in standard-scoring leagues in three games), who is stuck with game-managing Smith.

Always, and I repeat ALWAYS, know everything there is to know about a receiver’s quarterback.

Hit me up on Twitter—I’ll answer your fantasy lineup questions, make ill-fated NFL predictions and tweet cheesy jokes. It’s fun stuff, people.

Follow TRappaRT on Twitter

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