Don’t overlook shorter wide receivers in fantasy

The NFL's rule changes have made it easier for the shorter pass-catchers to thrive, and they've flourished in recent years, says Mike Castiglione.

| 6 months ago
(Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

(Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

Don’t overlook shorter wide receivers in fantasy


Size may still matter for some things in life, but that’s hardly the case when it comes to fantasy wide receivers in the present-day NFL. Simply put, fantasy production at the receiver position has become an equal opportunity premise for short and tall receivers alike.

Myriad factors have contributed to the current offensive landscape: passing statistics continue to climb league-wide each year, more and more spread concepts and no-huddle tactics have infiltrated the pro game, and the overall talent at the quarterback position is as deep as it has been in recent memory.

When it comes to the size and relative fantasy production of receivers, you likely have observed that an increasing number of shorter receivers – let’s set the mark at less than six feet tall – have become reliable weekly starters in your fantasy lineups. Last offseason, my colleague Michael Moore debunked the theory that taller receivers are more productive fantasy assets. I want to take it a step further and illustrate the one factor that trumps all else when it comes to this recent trend.

For starters, just look at the top of the wide-receiver rankings this season. The general-consensus top two, or two of the top three (Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham Jr.) are under 6’0 (5’10 and 5’11, respectively). Something like half of the top 30 in rankings have heights that start with “5,” from Brandin Cooks to Doug Baldwin to John Brown to Julian Edelman.  The thing is, I’d argue that even there, a lot of these guys are underrated.

Prior to the 2014 season, the NFL announced that officials were going to make illegal contact and defensive holding a point of emphasis. Call it the Legion of Boom Rule. Call it The Rule That Ruined Football. Call it whatever you prefer. The fact is, the NFL has kept its promise with the enforcement of contact rules, and no position group has benefitted more than receivers – specifically, short ones.

That much became obvious during the 2014 preseason, when illegal contact penalties increased 450 percent and defensive holding penalties were up 350 percent from the previous preseason. Coaches, players and fans alike were up in arms about the subsequent impact on gameplay. Many assumed hoped the whole thing would blow over once the real games started and that teams wouldn’t have to adjust, after all.

2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010
Defensive holding 220 216 171 147 126 100
Illegal contact 59 102 37 65 68 68

That assumption turned out to be quite false. As the table above illustrates, there has been a clear uptick in defensive holding calls since the re-emphasis on contact rules. In the last two seasons, defensive holding calls are up 60 percent over the previous four-year average. And while illegal contact penalties saw a dramatic spike in 2014, that number fell back in line in 2015. Still, the 59 illegal contact penalties – many of which could be deemed incidental contact that did not impede the progress of the receiver or affect the play – represent a nearly 60-percent increase from the 2013 season, when the league determined that a change had to be made.

In terms of fantasy impact, it stands to reason that more of these kinds of penalties leads to more sustained drives, which leads to more fantasy scoring opportunities. Wanting to test this theory and how it relates to shorter receivers, I pulled the top-30 PPR fantasy receivers each year going back to 2010 (minimum 25-percent snap count). For some historical context prior to the PFF era, I went a bit further and also included data from 10 and 15 years ago.

WR Fantasy Rank 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 *2005 *2000
Top-30 40.0% 33.0% 26.7% 16.7% 20.0% 33.3% 26.7% 16.7%
Top-15 33.3% 40.0% 20.0% 6.7% 20.0% 13.3% 26.7% 0.0%

% = percentage of short WRs (under 6-0) that comprise each subset
* = fantasy data from Pro-Football-Reference.com

A clear trend has emerged, and what’s particularly notable is how the short receivers have stacked up among the elite (top-15) since the re-emphasis of the contact rules. These aren’t your flex-play dart throws we’re talking about here. These are bona fide weekly starters, even studs. Let’s take a look at the names along with a couple of PFF’s signature metrics: yards per route run, and WR rating (QB rating when a receiver is targeted).

2012 2013
Player Fantasy Ranking (PPR) YPRR Ranking WR Rating Ranking Player Fantasy Ranking (PPR) YPRR Ranking WR Rating Ranking
Wes Welker 7 14 22 Antonio Brown 5 5 19
Randall Cobb 16 11 11 DeSean Jackson 12 4 3
Steve L. Smith 19 13 46 Julian Edelman 14 23 22
Lance Moore 21 15 15 T.Y. Hilton 19 16 36
T.Y. Hilton 30 32 21 Kendall Wright 20 19 42
Wes Welker 21 30 18
Victor Cruz 28 20 49
Golden Tate 30 18 16

 

2014 2015
Player Fantasy Ranking (PPR) YPRR Ranking WR Rating Ranking Player Fantasy Ranking (PPR) YPRR Ranking WR Rating Ranking
Antonio Brown 1 7 10 Antonio Brown 1 1 30
Emmanuel Sanders 5 9 9 Odell Beckham Jr. 5 6 11
Odell Beckham Jr. 7 4 4 Jarvis Landry 10 21 49
Randall Cobb 8 14 1 Doug Baldwin 11 19 1
T.Y. Hilton 11 11 15 Brandin Cooks 14 32 23
Golden Tate 11 16 22 Emmanuel Sanders 18 16 57
Julian Edelman 17 25 23 T.Y. Hilton 23 32 66
Steve L. Smith 18 15 45 Golden Tate 23 66 28
DeSean Jackson 23 10 13 John Brown 25 24 24
Jarvis Landry 30 33 36 Randall Cobb 26 63 30
Tavon Austin 28 72 40
Travis Benjamin 29 38 56

Last season saw more fantasy production from shorter receivers, but also more variance in the corresponding YPRR and WR Rating metrics. In other words, there was a higher number of starting-caliber fantasy receivers despite not always being particularly efficient with their opportunities (think Andrew Luck repeatedly misfiring to T.Y. Hilton, who posted a career-worst 55.2-percent catch rate yet saw enough volume to be a fantasy factor). For a receiver of Hilton’s stature, that sort of trend was less common under the officiating of yesteryear. But with more freedom for receivers to operate in and out of routes, quarterbacks are taking more shots. Often times, the reward has been a flag that keeps a drive alive and presents additional scoring opportunities.

All of this is to say: don’t overlook the short dudes in your fantasy drafts this summer. Perusing the early ADP consensus rankings over at FantasyPros, give me Golden Tate (WR25) over Eric Decker (WR26), John Brown (WR30) over Jordan Matthews (WR29), or DeSean Jackson (WR33) over DeVante Parker (WR32).

In fantasy these days, the height column just doesn’t carry the weight it used to. Julian Edelman is the Patriots’ No. 1 receiver, with Danny Amendola, Nate Washington and Chris Hogan likely to be the other key guys this season. Washington and Hogan are 6’1, the tallest of the group. Edelman is 5’10, and Amendola is 5’11. Seattle’s duo of Doug Baldwin and Tyler Lockett are both 5’10. Tavon Austin, who had 400-plus yards receiving and rushing for the Rams a year ago, is 5’8.

In short, these guys don’t have to be tall. Don’t overlook them.



Mike is a member of the FSWA and a staff writer for PFF Fantasy who focuses on both redraft and dynasty content, having spent several years covering FBS for a number of publications.

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  • PeteH

    The penalties are ruining the game with all the stoppages.
    Perhaps the players are so big and fast now that the refs can’t keep up with with the game.
    Same with NBA