Football is a tough game to predict. We know that. Even when we’re performing sound analyses and correctly identifying signal amongst noise, things can go haywire, quick.
But it’s compounded when we miss the obvious. While it’s important to inform our predictions with what has happened on individual and team levels, league-wide trends have created a value proposition in the current fantasy football landscape, and not properly weighting the impact runs the risk of missing the forest for the trees.
Editor's Note: For updated rankings, projections, player profiles, positional tiers, mock drafts, sleepers and busts, exclusive columns and plenty more, check out our Draft Guide!
Over the last half-decade, the league has changed dramatically. Most are acutely aware of the increase in overall plays, and specifically pass attempts. But it’s not just that the league has gone more pass heavy in recent years. According to Pro Football Focus data, the league-wide average depth of target (aDOT) has fallen for five straight seasons. Correspondingly, league-wide completion percentages have risen. The net effect of more passes and a rising completion percentage due to shorter attempts is significantly more completions overall.
To many, this may look like a booming stock market ready to crash. But consider the exponential rise in teams throwing at least 600 passes, particularly over the last four years.
|Year||Pass Att/Tm||Teams >600 PA||Comp %||Comp/Tm|
The specifics of the league’s evolution probably haven’t become established narrative just yet, and many fail to recognize the path to elite wide receiver production is now paved with a different statistical profile. As seasonal and DFS fantasy analysts prepare for the 2016 season, leagues and weekly tournaments alike can be won and lost based on these trends, particularly for those playing point-per-reception (PPR) formats.
* * * * *
For as long as fantasy football has been around, elite wide receivers have been defined by their big-play and touchdown-scoring abilities. When we think of “upside” at the wide receiver position, we think of how a single 80-yard touchdown can be a week-winner.
Players like Randy Moss, Terrell Owens and Calvin Johnson defined this. Routinely finishing as top-three wide receivers at a time when PPR leagues were only in their infancy, these players thrived off their receiving yardage and touchdowns. To wit, they combined for four total 100-catch seasons in their NFL careers.
While the new era is still being ushered in, the poster boy has already made his presence felt. Antonio Brown has racked up yards and TDs with the best of ‘em, but it’s the unconscionable 375 receptions he’s amassed over the last three seasons that really stand out.
Last season, Brown and Julio Jones tied for the second most receptions in league history, each finishing with 136. But Brown achieved this feat while his starting quarterback missed a quarter of the season, and his 16-game pace in the 12 games he played with Ben Roethlisberger amounted to 159 receptions, a number that would have blown past Marvin Harrison’s DiMaggio-esque NFL record of 143.
Brown posting the second-most receptions in NFL history while playing four games with Michael Vick and Landry Jones under center goes a long way toward explaining why he is being considered as the first overall pick in all formats in 2016, but it also helps establish the upper bound of what is statistically possible in the new NFL.
* * * * *
Pro Football Reference has target data stretching back to 1992. Fourteen of the top 40 target seasons (35 percent) have come over the last four years, dovetailing with the sharp rise in offenses exceeding 600+ pass attempts. Three of the top-10 were from 2015 alone, with DeAndre Hopkins’ 192 joining Brown’s 193 and Jones’ 203.
To make a case for a player to be the WR1 in 2016, you need to be able to realistically project 180 targets, with upside for 200. The problem arises when you consider that 200 amounts to 33 percent of 600 pass attempts. In 2015, only five players saw 30 percent or more of their team’s attempts (counting only the games they were active for).
Receivers Targeted at Least 30% of 2015 Team Passing Attempts
With 15 teams surpassing the 600-attempt threshold in 2016, it becomes imperative to identify the offenses that could employ the type of passing attack which can support a 200-target WR1. It’s no longer enough for a receiver to have elite red zone or yards-per-catch ability, at least in PPR leagues. They need to see an insane amount of target volume to hang with the elite statistical profiles.