The unmistakable trend that has emerged in the NFL over the past few seasons is the explosion of the use of tight ends in the passing game. But I think a corollary to the use of tight ends is the explosion of big wide receivers. Wide receivers are coming into the league bigger and faster than ever before. Consider that Michael Irvin was regarded as a big receiver for his era and he was just 207 pounds. Brandon Marshall has about 20 pounds on Michael Irvin. Calvin Johnson and Vincent Jackson both outweigh Irvin by closer to 30 pounds.
A reasonable question to ask is whether the introduction of these big and fast wide receivers to the league matters at all. Today I’ll show that on one count, red zone efficiency, size probably does matter quite a bit. It makes intuitive sense that bigger wide receivers would be more attractive red zone options. When the field shrinks, speed is going to be less helpful because there just isn’t room to separate. So size ends up becoming pretty important because receivers can use their bodies in much the same way that a basketball player would use their body to box out for a rebound.
To start with, I’m going to talk about an idea that I’ve written about quite a bit in the past, which is Fantasy Points Over Par (FPOP). FPOP is basically just the idea that a target from each spots on the field is worth some average expected fantasy point value, and that value goes up as you get closer to the red zone. Here’s a graph that shows Expected Fantasy Points by field position for WRs, TEs, and RBs.
Already we can see our first clue that size is important in the red zone. The value of a tight end target inside the 10 yard line is greater than the value of a WR target in that part of the field. This makes sense as tight ends usually have fairly high touchdown rates when compared to wide receivers.
FPOP is basically just how many points a player scores relative to the expected value from the graph above. So when Wes Welker caught a 99 yard touchdown in Week 1 last year, that was good for almost 15 FPOP. It was about 15 points over the expectation for that target. But when Brandon Marshall dropped multiple passes in the end zone against the Jets last year, that was equal to a sizable amount of negative FPOP. Based on the line of scrimmage, the expectation was high (over 3 points in each case), and yet Marshall dropped those passes which meant he was below the expectation.
To illustrate the idea that size matters in the red zone, I took 90 WRs from the past 10 years who had all been targeted enough to come up with a decent sample of receiving opportunities, and then I looked at whether they were plus or minus FPOP in the red zone. Then I look at how much each receiver weighs. When I do that, I get the following table. On the y axis is Red Zone FPOP, and on the x axis is weight.
You can probably tell that while there is a trend line in the graph, it doesn’t fit particularly well. There are a number of smaller receivers who were efficient in the red zone, and there are a few bigger receivers that weren’t efficient. But if we divide the group right at 205 pounds, which is where the trend crosses zero on the y axis, we do see that as a group, the under 205 group is negative by about the same amount that the over 205 group is positive.
But this doesn’t change the fact that the trend doesn’t fit particularly well, and there are bound to be exceptions. Those exceptions include Greg Jennings, who is extremely efficient in the red zone and under the 205 cutoff. Brandon Marshall is well over the 205 cutoff and has never been an efficient red zone receiver (but then he also hasn’t been a very efficient receiver anywhere on the field).
But let me explain why I think the results are still meaningful in spite of exceptions that might exist. Ideally, when we go through an exercise like the one I’ve done above, we’re trying to learn something about the properties of WRs that we might select in a fantasy draft. But we’re not going to learn everything about a receiver, or the properties of a group of receivers (under 205 pounds for instance). But that is fine I think as football is a complex sport. There are a number of variables that go into whether a receiver might be good in the red zone. It will depend on how good they are at route running. It will also depend on the quality of quarterback that they play with. When we look at WR size and it’s relation to RZ efficiency, our primary hope is that we learn something we didn’t know before.
Part of drafting fantasy WRs is thinking about upside. When you draft a smaller receiver, there is sort of a cap built into their upside because it’s less likely (not impossible) that they will be very efficient in the red zone. That is problematic because it increases the chance that their team goes away from them in the red zone, and also means that their red zone opportunities now have a somewhat lower expectation. To put these thoughts into practice, think about the current WR Average Draft Position from WR 11, which is Mike Wallace, to WR 14. After Wallace the three WRs that fill out that area of the draft go: Hakeem Nicks, Dez Bryant, Jordy Nelson. Mike Wallace is is 180 pounds, while Nicks is 212 pounds, Bryant is about 225 pounds, and Nelson is about 215 pounds. Even though Wallace is an extremely efficient receiver outside of the red zone, he is below average in the red zone over his career. The other three receivers are very good in the red zone. I think that makes the group that includes Nicks, Bryant and Nelson more attractive than Wallace, who is going in front of them. I think Nicks through Nelson have a 12-14 touchdown season in their range of potential outcomes, while I think that would be significantly less likely for Wallace. If I were to hang one more caveat on that statement, if Wallace were to have a 12 touchdown season, he would have to be much better in the red zone than he has been to this point in his career.
Lastly, I would offer that when you put the information I’ve written about into practice, that you think of it as information that is helpful, but not all encompassing. Use it… just don’t go creating your cheatsheets by ordering the WRs from heaviest to lightest… even though the top three receivers in ADP go 239 pounds, 225 pounds, 219 pounds. Those players are Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, and Andre Johnson.
Frank DuPont is the author of Game Plan: A Radical Approach to Decision Making in the NFL, which is on sale for just $0.99 on Amazon.