Mike Tanier

Going Deep

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The secret art of WR screens

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


Wide receiver screens are the fantasy equivalent of money found at the bottom of the dryer. Receivers get a catch and some easy yardage, all for what amounts to a long handoff. In point-per-reception leagues, receiver screens make great investment protection: in a pinch, you know Julian Edelman is going to do something if you have to throw him out there.

At Football Outsiders, we keep track of receiver screens: which teams throw a lot of them, which teams don't, and which receivers get the most gimmies. A quick look through the 2009 data should help us predict who'll benefit from some easy catches and yards this year.

First, here are the 10 teams that threw the most receiver screens last year:

Team - Screens
Patriots - 45
Broncos - 36
Bears - 33
Colts - 33
Seahawks - 32
Niners - 31
Rams - 31
Texans - 27
Cardinals - 25
Jaguars - 25

When you think of receiver screens, you think of Wes Welker, who caught 23 of the 25 thrown to him last year for 185 yards. If Welker is limited at the start of the season, you can count on Edelman to pick up some of the slack: Edelman caught 12 screens for 92 yards in Welker's absence.

Josh McDaniel brought the screens with him from New England to Denver, using them to get the ball into Brandon Marshall's impatient hands. Marshall caught 17 of the 20 screens thrown to him, dropping two. Marshall gained 125 yards on the screens, though 49 of them came on one play. Four of the screens came against the Colts, when Marshall caught 21 passes; two came in the fourth quarter, when he was gunning for a record. Marshall is gone, but McDaniels' love of screens should continue: Eddie Royal is dangerous with the ball in his hands, and rookie Demaryius Thomas has both the speed to turn a screen into a touchdown and the blocking ability to spring Royal.

Colts screens are usually the result of Peyton Manning audibles; if he sees a defender playing off, he'll toss a quick one to pick up some easy yards. As a result, the screens were spread about evenly among Reggie Wayne, Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon. Bears screens were often direct attempts to make Devin Hester or Earl Bennett do something fun. Hester caught 11 of 12 screens thrown to him, but except for one 33-yard run against the Browns, he didn't do much with them. Bennett, meanwhile, caught 12 of the 13 screens thrown to him for 129 yards, including 23, 29 and 30 yard runs. Rest assured that with Mike Martz coaching the Bears offense, all receivers will get ample opportunities.

The Niners used receiver screens the way other teams use draw plays: as 3rd-and-long surrender flags. Michael Crabtree was a 11-of-12 on screens for a whopping 28 yards; many of the screens came on 3rd-and-16 plays just after he joined the team, so they should be filed in the "let's get the rookie a touch" category. Josh Morgan was 10-of-12 on receiver screens for 64 yards. The Niners may want to rethink how they use this particular tactic.

Many of the teams near the bottom of the list used screens in an attempt to jump-start their passing games or protect their quarterbacks; the Rams, in particular, called a lot of screens because nothing else worked. The Cardinals, like the Colts, threw screens to keep defenders honest. The Texans, of course, threw a lot of screens to Andre Johnson (he was 13 of 15, with 25 and 59 yard completions), but they also liked to hide running back Steve Slaton as a wideout in trips packages and toss screens to him; Slaton caught 5-of-6 screens thrown to him as a wideout, amassing 83 yards. Chances are, the Texans will keep plays like these in the gameplans, whether Slaton or some other back benefits.

For a complete list of WR rankings, check out Rotoworld's Draft Guide by clicking here.

On the other side of the spectrum are the teams that rarely use receiver screens:

Team - Screens
Raiders - 1
Titans - 3
Packers - 4
Bills - 6
Panthers - 6

Screens aren't vertical, of course, so Al Davis probably forbids them. It's surprising to see the Packers on this list, and the Bills will probably bring back the screens with Chan Gailey running the show, but the lack of screens is a reason to lay off Titans receivers and Panthers receivers not named Steve Smith when filling out the bottom of a roster. Kenny Britt looks like a good player, but I would like him a lot better if I thought he'd get another 10-12 catches and 90-100 yards purely because of the scheme.

Create your own fantasy team

At Football Outsiders, we also keep track of tight end screens; that is, screens thrown to a player who is actually lined up at tight end, not Dallas Clark in the slot. The Redskins led the league with 11 tight end screens, seven of them to Fred Davis, four to Chris Cooley. The Broncos were second with 10 screen passes, nine to Daniel Graham. Long story short: if you are looking for some cheap PPR screen production, look no further than Denver.



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