It is well-known that scoring touchdowns is very hit-or-miss in the NFL. These big plays decide fantasy matchups every single game. In fact, there is an entire television channel based on teams getting inside the 20-yard-line. I decided to take a look at the trends of what percent of a player’s targets come in the red zone on a year-to-year basis for wide receivers and tight ends.
First, here are the basics of the study:
- 167 receivers and tight ends between 2008 and 2010 that caught 40+ passes.
- The total range of the above group is 1.9% to 26.3%.
- The average red zone percentage of total targets is 12.1%.
After looking at the entire player pool, here are the players with the highest red zone (RZ) rate during the three-year control group:
The group totals 40 players with some very strong regression trends on display. I have tiered the results into three ranges:
Even the lowest group of high RZ rates shows a strong regression trend. The group of 19+ speaks for itself – players with a large share of their targets in the red zone are most at risk for a significant decline. Their 6.6% average drop – around 30% of their previous year’s involvement in the red zone – supplies less opportunities for touchdowns, one of the most variable statistics in fantasy football.
Keeping with the trend of high rate red zone receivers, here is the target list for 2012 regression in this statistic:
The list includes some players that may not be fantasy relevant in 2012 like Burress, Naanee, Gaffney, David Nelson, Deion Branch, and Preston Parker. However, the remaining names are a pretty high-profile group of fantasy performers. Rob Gronkowski already saw a drop from his rookie season’s rate of 26%. Teammate Aaron Hernandez’ 2011 season was one of the very few regression-breaking performances of this study. Statistically, that makes his 2012 season even more likely to fall from his RZ% perch. Roddy White is a name that really sticks out to me. His RZ% was 10-11% in 2008-2010, making his 16% in 2011 look even more out of place for the Atlanta receiver.
Looking for a potential outlier from the above list? Jermichael Finley is a name to remember. His 3-year average prior to 2011 was a hefty 19.8%. Considering teammates Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings both were targeted in the red zone more than their historical rates, Finley could actually benefit from a regression on their parts. Antonio Gates also makes the list in terms of a potential rise in 2012. His 3-year average prior to 2011 was 17.2%, plus Vincent Jackson, another red zone threat has moved on to Tampa Bay this off-season.
Calvin Johnson might seem like a player that would be the obvious exception to the trend above. Not so fast. His 15.9% in 2011 was his highest in the past four seasons. IN fact, his 3-year average prior to 2011 was a normal-sized 11%. Considering that the running back stable is unlikely to be as decimated as they were in 2011, he is a prime candidate for a noticeable decline in this metric. His 24 overall red zone targets were more a product of the team’s gaudy 102 attempts as a team than his high personal rate.
Now, here is the group of players from 2008 to 2010 that were well-below the NFL average in terms of their red zone involvement:
|2009||Zach J. Miller||4.35||12.36||8.01|
This set of data is a regression dream – with sprinkles. Insert dramatic pause here.
Every single one of the 21 players with less than 7.5% of their targets being inside the red zone saw an increased rate the following season.
Digging deeper in the data, 62% of the players saw an increase to over 10% of their targets the following season. To score touchdowns, receivers need quality chances. In most chances, that basically boils down to getting targets in the red zone. Jason Witten is a interesting player to look at on this list. Since his 2008 season of just over 5%, his trend inside the red zone has been straight upwards. Nearly 6% in 2009 jumped to 11% in 2010 and now 12% in 2011, both around the NFL average. Classic regression at work for an established NFL player.
Now, here is the important part. What players are affected by this study for 2012?
While a few players on list may not surpass 40 receptions in 2012 (see: Cribbs, Roberts, Thomas), the rest are an interesting bunch in terms of fantasy. Robert Meachem’s 2011 RZ% is completely out of whack with his career average. His average from 2008-2010 was a healthy 10.5% in a similar role in New Orleans. Now, Meachem moves to San Diego where Malcom Floyd is slated to be the other starting receiver for Philip Rivers. Vincent Jackson is now in Tampa Bay, leaving behind 10+ red zone targets three of the past four seasons. Floyd was a serious factor in the red zone, averaging 17% of his targets prior to 2011. In my view, Floyd stand to benefit the most at the receiver position in San Diego if, a big if, he can stay healthy for any length of time in 2012.
Darrius Heyward-Bey has been consistently below the NFL average in this metric in his 3-year career. Louis Murphy was actually the biggest red zone threat at receiver in recent seasons for Oakland. He has recently been traded to Carolina, leaving an even bigger hole in terms of red zone targets. Michael Bush saw 40 red zone rushing attempts in 2011, so there is a lot of red zone opportunities – and touchdowns – up for grabs on the Oakland offense in 2012. In terms of rushing, Darren McFadden stands to benefit if healthy, as he has been above-average in terms of red zone conversions in his career. Heyward-Bey seems to be the most likely candidate for an uptick with his size compared to Denarius Moore and Jacoby Ford among the veterans. Juron Criner is a wild card for red zone use with his ability to make the tough catch and his DHB-like 6’2″, 220 lb. frame.
Greg Little is another good name on this list. The Browns rarely were inside the red zone in 2011, a main element to such a low figure for the rookie. Little caught 5 of his red zone target, a higher catch rate than his overall metric. Trent Richardson should be a major force at the goal line, but I expect we see a higher red zone output from Little in the next season or two. Little will be the main receiving option in close quarters in my opinion as well as the increased opportunities for the offense.
Jared Cook is definitely a secondary option in Tennessee in the red zone when Kenny Britt is healthy. That is not a lock in 2012 and beyond. Another factor working in his favor is Tennessee’s 65 red zone attempts in 2011 were below the NFL average. I wouldn’t expect Kendall Wright to be a big red zone option, so Cook’s place in the pecking order is dependent on Britt’s healthy and his own development as a consistent, trustworthy receiving option.
While Desean Jackson made this list, I don’t expect a big bump in terms of his red zone use. His 3-year average prior to 2011 was 9.1%. Jeremy Maclin, Brent Celek, and even Jason Avant see far more of their total targets in the red zone in their careers. I wouldn’t expect that to change much in 2012.
Coming up in Part 2: Red Zone conversion rate for receivers, turning those targets into touchdowns.
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