The impact of 'green-zone' targets on WR and TE production
Red-zone data is fundamentally flawed. Running backs score at a significantly higher rate insider the 5-yard line than they do anywhere else in the red zone. This area of the field, which I’m calling the “green zone,” is where we want our fantasy running backs to touch the ball. But what about receivers? How does target location impact touchdown productivity?
Last season, receivers saw 17,734 targets, with 3,882 coming in the red zone. To be clear, these are targets based on field location, and not the line of scrimmage. For example, if the line of scrimmage is at the 50-yard line and the receiver is targeted at his opponent’s 19, we’re defining this as a red-zone target. We’ll get into play-calling tendencies when the line of scrimmage is inside the red zone at a later date.
Last year’s target total is actually the highest raw total over the last 10 years, but this is reflective of today’s pass-heavy NFL. Targets have jumped by seven percent from 16,552 in 2007 to last year’s total. However, red-zone targets have remained a fairly consistent percentage of the total over that span. Last season produced a 10-year high, at 21.9 percent, but this figure wasn’t significantly higher than the average of 21.1 percent.
Just like with RB carries inside the 20, all red-zone targets aren’t equal in value. To analyze this point, let’s divide the receiving red zone into five quadrants. Here’s how the target distribution breaks down for the 2016 season:
We see a fairly even distribution between the four zones outside of the end zone, and then a dramatic increase in the end zone with a target rate that is at or near double that of any other zone. It doesn’t take an advanced degree in mathematics to realize that these end-zone targets are more likely to lead to a touchdown than targets in any other area of the red zone, but how much more likely?
Receivers scored 826 touchdowns last season, which equates to a touchdown scored on 4.7 percent of total targets. That number essentially mirrors the 10-year average of 4.6 percent. When we move to red-zone targets, the touchdown conversion rate jumps to 18.7 percent for last season, and 19.1 percent over the last 10 seasons.
Remember, though, that a red-zone target refers to when a receiver is targeted anywhere from the 20-yard line through the end zone. Here’s a look at touchdown rates from last season on targets in each of the five quadrants of the receiving red zone:
It looks like we might be on to something. Receivers targeted between the 20 and 15 scored just 18 touchdowns, and that number only jumps to 33 and 56 for the next two zones. In total, 620 of the 727 red-zone touchdowns were scored on targets inside the green zone. For receiving purposes, that’s inside the 5-yard line through the end zone. That’s a massive 85.3 percent of receiving red-zone touchdowns, and 75 percent of all receiving touchdowns. And this isn’t a one-year fluke. These numbers are nearly identical to the 10-year averages:
We can accurately say that receivers targeted inside the green zone are more likely to score than those targeted anywhere else in the red zone, but so what? Do these targets actually have a correlation to fantasy success? Let’s investigate.
Over the last 10 years, eight players have seen 30-or-more green zone targets: Randy Moss with 38 in 2007, Demaryius Thomas with 35 in 2014, Calvin Johnson with 34 in 2011, Mike Evans with 31 in 2016, Antonio Brown with 31 in 2014, Kelvin Benjamin with 30 in 2014, Calvin Johnson with 30 in 2013, and Braylon Edwards with 30 in 2007. All of them scored double-digit touchdowns, three of them finished as the No. 1 fantasy wide receiver (Moss, Brown, and Johnson in 2011), and Benjamin is the only one to finish outside of the top-five wide receivers in fantasy scoring.
If we look to receivers with at least 25 green-zone targets, the production is even more eye-opening. There have been 40 players to see over 25 green-zone targets since 2007. Only five of them did not score at least 10 times. Of that group, we have 36 wide receivers. Every one of them finished as a WR2 or better, with just two players finishing outside the top 20: Torrey Smith was 23rd in 2012 and Calvin Johnson was 21st in 2010 (though he missed two games). Better yet, seven of the past 10 No. 1 fantasy wideouts have seen at least 25 green-zone targets. The only three who didn’t were Antonio Brown in 2015, Josh Gordon in 2013, and Andre Johnson in 2009.
Tight ends comprise the remaining four players with at least 25 green-zone targets in the last 10 years. Jimmy Graham leads that group with 29 green zone targets in 2011. He also recorded 25 in 2013. The other two players are Rob Gronkowski with 27 in 2011 and Vernon Davis with 27 in 2013. All four finished either No. 1 or 2 among tight ends in fantasy scoring. There were an additional five tight ends with at least 20 green-zone targets since 2007: Jordan Reed (23) and Gary Barnidge (21) in 2015, Rob Gronkowski (23) and Jimmy Graham (20) in 2014, and Tony Gonzalez (20) in 2007. All of these players finished among the top three in fantasy scoring.
Like green-zone carries, targets inside the 5 aren’t the only factor in fantasy production. However, wide receivers who see the most green-zone targets are extremely likely to be among the top fantasy scorers at the position, and tight ends who see the most green-zone targets have proven to be elite fantasy options.
This topic needs to be explored in greater detail, but the above information forms a critical foundation for this research. The next step in the process is to consider catch rates on green-zone targets and how these vary based on the line of scrimmage, in addition to team play-calling tendencies. Syncing this work together will provide more insight into how we can more accurately predict receiving touchdowns.