Fantasy: Possession Receiver Sustainability

| 5 years ago

Fantasy: Possession Receiver Sustainability

A couple of weeks ago I put together this year’s Possession Receiver Breakout report. The sobering conclusion was that 2012 is a very poor year for potential breakouts. Greg Salas barely fit the criteria and becomes a worthy flyer in deep leagues. (Since that column, Salas has gotten off to a great start at training camp and now looks like a good bet to win a starting job with Danny Amendola returning to his old position in the slot.)

On a more positive note, PFF’s treasure trove of information appears to give us a sizable advantage in projecting this and other types of breakout. I recently made a second pass through the data using Mike Clay’s groundbreaking aDOT statistic. While employing average depth of target instead of the less accurate and more unwieldy ‘percentage of routes within 10 yards’ didn’t add any historical breakout candidates,* it did shine a light on two of the high profile possession receivers in the NFL currently. Specifically, it pointed to the rookie seasons of both Percy Harvin and Austin Collie.

Harvin recorded 188 fantasy points that season, which meant he’d already broken out by my criteria, but his aDOT of 9.5 put him into the possession group. He responded with 205- and 265-point seasons in the subsequent two years. Collie’s rookie aDOT of 10.3 would have put him just outside of the relatively arbitrary 10-yard barrier, but he met the rest of the criteria and responded with a season where he was averaging 19 points per game before concussions knocked him out for the year.

Randall Cobb’s aDOT of 8.2 also jumps out and moves him into the possession category. Cobb meets all of our criteria for a 2012 breakout except the 12% target percentage (his was 10.7%). The deficiency in this area underlines his biggest obstacle: a lack of opportunity. Even if Cobb quickly dispatches Donald Driver, he could have difficulty finding targets as the fourth option behind Jennings, Nelson, and Finley.

At the end of Breakout column, I sighted former breakout players as possible post-hype candidates. But should we expect possession receivers who’ve previously topped out in the WR3 range to bounce back? Do possession receivers in general sport good risk/reward profiles as potential sleepers?

The purpose of the Possession Receiver Breakout column is to help find the next Wes Welker, but perhaps a player like Welker comes along too rarely to be like anyone but himself. Maybe success in the possession role is usually a fluke of seasonal circumstance, and we should avoid all non-Welker possession receivers instead of seeking them out. In order to provide some feedback on these conjectures, I took a closer look at the statistical profiles of some established possession receivers and several players we’ve covered in previous columns, receivers like Earl Bennett and Mike Thomas who are still trying to make the jump.

Possession Receivers – Historical Snap Splits

Wes Welker
Year aDOT Slot % Snap % TA/SN % Ct
2011 7.5 41.8 88.9 0.17 72.2
2010 5.3 39.9 76.0 0.16 72.9
2009 5.8 44.8 72.8 0.21 80.4
2008 4.6 54.1 75.0 0.16 79.3
Anquan Boldin
Year aDOT Slot % Snap % TA/SN % Ct
2011 12.2 26.6 92.1 0.11 55.9
2010 12.3 29.7 92.3 0.10 62.1
2009 8.5 42.8 79.4 0.15 85.0
2008 6.1 49.6 88.1 0.16 73.0
Percy Harvin
Year aDOT Slot % Snap % TA/SN % Ct
2011 5.9 39.3 58.9 0.19 73.7
2010 9.5 39.0 69.5 0.16 68.3
2009 9.5 57.4 48.9 0.17 69.8
Austin Collie
Year aDOT Slot % Snap % TA/SN % Ct
2011 7.5 67.4 61.0 0.15 58.7
2010 8.6 57.9 64.1 0.17 82.9
2009 10.3 54.9 72.4 0.12 70.6
Lance Moore
Year aDOT Slot % Snap % TA/SN % Ct
2011 10.7 31.7 41.2 0.17 72.2
2010 9.1 21.2 50.6 0.16 71.7
2008 9.9 29.7 63.9 0.16 69.9
Davone Bess
Year aDOT Slot % Snap % TA/SN % Ct
2011 8.0 56.3 53.9 0.14 64.6
2010 7.8 26.7 62.1 0.17 67.8
2009 8.0 26.1 50.7 0.18 71.7
2008 6.6 32.2 39.9 0.19 72.0
Mike Thomas
Year aDOT Slot % Snap % TA/SN % Ct
2011 8.9 39.5 68.8 0.12 51.2
2010 11.7 37.7 73.5 0.12 66.7
2009 5.3 49.9 44.8 0.14 81.4
Earl Bennett
Year aDOT Slot % Snap % TA/SN % Ct
2011 12.8 37.0 63.3 0.09 60.0
2010 8.9 44.4 58.5 0.13 69.7
2009 8.9 38.5 77.4 0.11 54.0
Danny Amendola
Year aDOT Slot % Snap % TA/SN % Ct
2010 4.9 53.8 59.7 0.17 74.6
2009 4.8 62.3 48.2 0.13 70.5


Average Depth of Target

Logically, the aDOT sweet spot would be at the high end of middle. Receivers with extremely high target depths – like Torrey Smith and Denarius Moore – are either going to see their target depths regress or face issues with target rate sustainability and catch rate the following year. Receivers with extremely low target depths would seem to have limited upside. This is where our aDOT results appear to be counter-intuitive when it comes to possession threats. Welker’s aDOT is consistently lower than most of his peers, and Amendola appears to be the most similar player. Moreover, while there was an outcry about the way Percy Harvin was used in 2011 – his aDOT fell from 9.5 to 5.9 – it seems to have actually helped his fantasy production.

Conversely, the demise of Anquan Boldin can be seen clearly in the aDOT data. The Ravens traded for one declining receiver, but, because of their own misuse of Boldin’s talents, they actually got another. In Baltimore’s scheme his average depth of target rose from 8.5 to over 12. This corresponded to a plummeting target rate. For this group of players, both target rate and catch rate seem to be inversely correlated with aDOT. For possession receivers, the closer the target comes to the line of scrimmage the better.

Targets Per Snap

The weekly Advanced Targets column I write during the regular season is predicated on the idea that the raw target numbers only give you a small slice of a very big pie. This can be clearly seen when we look at the cumulative numbers for our possession receivers.

The highest target percentage belonged to Welker during his blistering 2009 season (21%), but Harvin’s 2011 wasn’t far behind (19%). Because players with low target depths need a lot of catches to accrue value, a high target rate is a necessity. 16% appears to be the low end for viable fantasy starters. Davone Bess fell below this threshold in 2011. Earl Bennett and Mike Thomas have never reached it.

Boldin’s target rate plummeted when the Ravens asked him to run deeper routes. His ADP may seem like a value in 10th Round, but the opposite is probably the case.

Slot Percentage

A lot of the short targets seen by possession receivers come out of the slot. Here again, Welker’s numbers might be used as something of a template. If the slot percentage gets too high, it’s usually an indication that the player is coming off the field in 2-WR sets. If the percentage gets too low, the player is losing those all-important possession targets. In three of his four seasons, Welker’s numbers are locked in between 39% and 45%.

Beyond the quarterback situation, Collie lost value in 2011 because he didn’t play in base formations. As the favorite to play opposite Reggie Wayne this season, he’s a solid post-hype candidate. Lance Moore is at the other end of the spectrum. Far from playing the slot exclusively, Moore has been a purely rotational player who sees time all over the field.

Snap Percentage

Still, the biggest difference between Welker and the cadre of pretenders is the amount of time he spends on the field. Unlike true No. 1 receivers who often play on more than 90% of their teams’ offensive snaps, possession receivers tend to live somewhere in the 60s. Welker has been an exception, playing on at least 72% of the snaps every year. In 2011, he played on an astonishing 88% of the Patriots’ snaps. (In fact, that’s more than 12% higher than any of his other three seasons, and a good sign that Welker’s value will fall slightly with the acquisition of Brandon Lloyd.)

The only truly similar player to Welker was Anquan Boldin in his Arizona days. Boldin’s snaps have actually jumped with the Ravens, but that’s because he’s no longer a possession receiver.

Snap percentage is the biggest concern for a trendy Saint. Lance Moore’s snaps have never returned to the rate of his breakout 2008 season, and nothing about 2012 portends a seismic change in usage. Moore is getting a boost from Robert Meachem’s departure, but those snaps are likely to be gobbled up by whoever emerges from the Arrington/Toon/Morgan triumvirate. In early drafting, I’ve consistently seen Moore selected in the single digit rounds of high stakes leagues. It goes without saying that he’s vastly overvalued in that range.

Percy Harvin was a fantasy juggernaut last season despite playing on only 59% of his team’s snaps. Although a part time role for Purple Jesus will no doubt help his cause, Harvin’s target percentage and running game touches are probably unsustainable. In order to take a step forward, he needs to see his snap percentage jump back to the 69% range of 2010.

Danny Amendola hasn’t inspired much buzz in the early going, but, once fantasy players adjust to the fact that he’s healthy and back in the slot, his ADP is sure to rise. Considering that his snap percentage didn’t quite reach 60% in his 2010 breakout season, he shouldn’t be on your roster. Especially with Chris Givens and Steve Smith fighting for scraps, Amendola is unlikely to return that level of value again.


The elite possession receiver is a far rarer commodity than the true No. 1 receiver. In order to be a consistent weekly starter, a possession receiver must sustain a cluster of characteristics each of which border on outlier status in their own right. For that reason, Percy Harvin and Wes Welker remain the only non-flyer possession receivers in fantasy. Both have mild red flags and are fully valued at their current ADPs. If you’re a believer in Andrew Luck and Bruce Arians, then Austin Collie becomes an intriguing mid-round selection. His profile at the end of 2012 could look very similar to that of Welker and Harvin.

Lance Moore and Davone Bess are being overvalued by seasoned fantasy players in the early going. Although I’m a big fan of what possession receivers bring to their squads in reality, I recommend emphasizing size and speed as you look for sleepers in your fantasy drafts.


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