News & Analysis

The fantasy fallout of QBs locking on to their top targets

By Daniel Kelley
Mar 15, 2018

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SEATTLE, WA - OCTOBER 01: Jacoby Brissett #7 of the Indianapolis Colts points as he rushes for 25 yards in the second quarter of the game against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field on October 1, 2017 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Obviously, some quarterbacks lock on to their top target more than others. And that effect is only exacerbated when a quarterback isn’t great and/or a team has one dominant pass-catcher. It’s no surprise Larry Fitzgerald or Andre Johnson dominated the looks for their respective teams back in the day.

Via gameplans or strategy or whatever else, though, some quarterbacks change their favorite target from one game to another. So for curiosity, I looked at which teams had the biggest gap between their top receiver and No. 2 receiver from game-to-game — i.e., the identity of the receiver in question might change, but the leading yard-getter in each game vs. the No. 2. I was mostly curious to see which team looked to a single guy the most often — there was no grand point to this beyond idle curiosity.

Well, that’s not true. It has fantasy relevance. A team that focuses all its attentions on one receiver doesn’t offer much in the way of fantasy intrigue beyond the No. 1. You don’t want an offense that looks to the No. 1 at the expense of its other options unless the offense is so prolific that even the scraps are valuable.

Here’s the chart of each team’s top two pass-catchers, along with the percentage of the top receiver’s yardage the No. 2 guy put up:

Team #1 receiver #2 receiver #2/#1 Pct Team #1 receiver #2 receiver #2/#1 Pct
1 Tampa Bay 81.4 63.4 77.8 17 New England 100.3 65.8 65.6
2 Detroit 87.0 64.4 74.1 18 Chicago 63.8 40.0 62.7
3 Tennessee 71.3 52.2 73.2 19 Buffalo 63.4 39.6 62.5
4 Cleveland 70.5 51.0 72.3 20 LA Rams 94.9 58.4 61.6
5 New Orleans 90.4 65.1 72.1 21 Minnesota 96.6 57.8 59.8
6 Miami 85.6 61.2 71.5 22 Oakland 84.4 50.5 59.8
7 NY Jets 73.5 52.4 71.3 23 Cincinnati 82.6 49.3 59.7
8 Green Bay 73.9 52.3 70.7 24 Arizona 89.2 52.6 59.0
9 Washington 82.6 58.4 70.7 25 NY Giants 80.2 46.6 58.1
10 Jacksonville 78.7 54.9 69.8 26 Baltimore 67.8 38.8 57.3
11 Seattle 76.1 52.8 69.4 27 Atlanta 98.8 55.6 56.3
12 Philadelphia 81.4 55.1 67.7 28 Carolina 83.6 46.9 56.1
13 Dallas 73.0 49.3 67.5 29 Houston 92.9 50.8 54.7
14 LA Chargers 101.4 67.6 66.7 30 Kansas City 106.0 57.8 54.5
15 San Francisco 83.9 55.4 66.0 31 Indianapolis 85.2 42.1 49.4
16 Denver 76.1 50.1 65.8 32 Pittsburgh 128.9 61.3 47.6

And some interesting takeaways:

  • The Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger produced 12 hundred-yard receiving games in 2017, three more than any other team, and blew away the field in leading receiver per game, at 128.9 yards (the Chiefs’ 106.0 yards was next-best). Yes, Antonio Brown gets a lot of credit for that, but JuJu Smith-Schuster led the team in receiving five times, Martavis Bryant twice, and Le’Veon Bell once. At 47.6 percent of the No. 1 receiver’s total, no team depended on that game’s top receiver more than the Patriots.
  • Average 62.5 yards per game, and you get 1,000 yards for the season. The Bills (63.4 yards) and Bears (63.8) could have cherry-picked their top receiver from each game all year long and still barely have reached a thousand for the season. Put another way, the Bills’ and Bears’ top receivers combined for 127.2 yards per game. Remember, the Steelers put up 128.9.
  • Tom Brady and Philip Rivers finished 1-2 in the league in passing yardage, so it’s no surprise that (a) the Chargers and Patriots were two of four teams with a No. 1 receiver averaging 100-plus yards, and (b) their No. 2 receivers had the most yardage (67.6 for the Chargers, 65.8 for the Patriots). Rob Gronkowski and Keenan Allen might have been the No. 1s, respectively, but Brady and Rivers weren’t picky about who they looked toward.

Now, the guy who really inspired this. Jacoby Brissett took over the Colts’ starting job in Week 1 and kept the gig all year. He (combined with Scott Tolzien’s meager contribution) ended up with 3,226 passing yards on the season. The only team with a lower combined total was the Bills, at 3,086. And yet Colts’ pass-catchers had six different hundred-yard games on the season.

Only 10 teams had that many. The Texans, at 3,644 passing yards, had the lowest total other than the Colts, and Houston’s Deshaun Watson-to-Tom Savage switch explains a big chunk of that low total. Beyond those two AFC South teams, the Vikings (3,929 passing yards) had the lowest total for any team with at least six hundred-yard receiving games.

Brissett loved his No. 1 receiver, totaling 85.2 yards per game to his top guy. Colts’ No. 2 receivers averaged 42.1 yards per game, 49.4 percent as much as the No. 1. And while the Steelers had a lower percentage, it’s more meaningful (to me, at least) to struggle to 49.4 percent of 85.2 yards instead of putting up 47.6 percent of 128.9 yards.

Brissett targeted his No. 1 receiver 8.1 times a game; he targeted his No. 2 5.7. Maybe that’s explained away by the presence of T.Y. Hilton (though Jack Doyle actually tied Hilton in total targets for the season, and Doyle and Chester Rogers also had a hundred-yard game), and maybe it’s explained by the fact that the Colts didn’t acquire Brissett until just before the season started, so he didn’t have the chance to learn all the plays and evaluate all the reads. But either way, Brissett had eyes for each game’s No. 1, no matter if it was Hilton, Doyle, or whatever the situation called for — seven different players led the Colts in receiving in a given game. The fact that so many guys led the way in different games tells me it was possibly schematic, making things as easy as possible for Brissett in his first year in Indianapolis.

Brissett was intended as at most a placeholder until Andrew Luck returned, but his 75.2 grade showed at least enough potential that he could interest in the right situation. That said, you could argue no quarterback in the league locked on to his No. 1 receiving option more than Brissett a year ago, and that is bad for him, and it’s bad for fantasy owners who want to invest in a versatile offense.

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