Using uncommon statistics to uncover undervalued wide receivers
For the first time in my fantasy career, I’ve become obsessed with my fantasy rankings. In years past I would just go off of ADP and highlight players I felt were undervalued. This year, I started ranking players shortly after the Super Bowl (yes, I know I have a problem) and have tinkered neurotically every week since. The worst feeling is having multiple players tied for the same rank. This will likely result in hours spent debating against myself. Although I’ll carefully examine every seemingly relevant statistic, when this happens, oftentimes, I’ll rank a player higher based on just one stat alone.
This article will serve as an attempt to highlight some of these statistical trump cards, as well as other unique and interesting measures of evaluating players for fantasy, and as an attempt to argue the case for several currently undervalued wide receivers. Here at PFF, we have access to some really special data that no other fantasy sites are able to use. For a refresher on some of the numbers that I may be using, please refer here.
Notes: All scoring is in PPR. All ADP is from MyFantasyLeague.com and will be listed next to each player’s name in parentheses.
T.Y. Hilton (WR18) – Only 57.6 percent of T.Y. Hilton’s targets were deemed ‘catchable’ by PFF last season, the lowest rate among all receivers (min. 75 targets). In 2014, 70.7 percent of Hilton’s targets were deemed ‘catchable’.
What this means: I expected a significant drop in catchable targets for Hilton, going from Andrew Luck to an injured Andrew Luck and a 40-year-old Matt Hasselbeck in 2015, but I didn’t expect such a drastic change, and it stands out even more when factoring in Hilton’s drop in aDOT from 14.5 in 2014 to 13.5 in 2015.
Last season, Hilton finished as the WR23 and scored 2.94 fantasy points per catchable target. The 125 targets he saw last season, at the 70.7 percent catchable target rate he saw in 2014 would have equated to 88.3 catchable targets. At his 2.94 fantasy points per catchable target rate, that would equate to 259.6 fantasy points, good for WR13 last season.
Hasselbeck also had the second-fewest attempts traveling at least 20 yards or more downfield among all passers with at least 25 percent of their team’s passing attempts, while Luck led the league in that category in 2014. Not only should Hilton see more accurate targets in 2016, but he should also see a significant increase in higher quality targets.
Steve Smith Sr. (WR48) – Last season, Smith ranked second in fantasy points per route run, second in yards per route run, third in missed tackles forced per reception, and fourth in fantasy points per route run.
What this means: Although Smith is turning 37 years old before the start of the 2016 season, while also attempting to make a comeback from a torn achilles, it’s important not to forget how productive he was last season when he played.
If we exclude Week 4, where he left early with an injury, Smith ranked fifth in fantasy points per game. That becomes even more impressive when we remember the corners he was forced to face in three of those six games. In Week 1, the majority of his targets came against Aqib Talib, who gave up the 22nd fewest fantasy points per snap last season.
In Week 7, he was shadowed by Patrick Peterson, our No. 5 graded corner in coverage. In Week 8, he was shadowed by Jason Verrett, our No. 2 graded corner in coverage. Smith is currently being drafted as a team’s WR4 or WR5, but if he were to play at a level similar to last season, he would have a good shot of finishing among the elite players at his position.
DeSean Jackson (WR40) – Jackson ranked first in adjusted yards per target, yards per target, yards per catchable target, fantasy points per target, fantasy points per catchable target, and did not drop a single pass last season.
What this means: Jackson saw limited time last season, dealing with hamstring and knee injuries, but still played similarly to years prior on a per target basis. In 2014, when Jackson ranked 21st in fantasy points per game, he also ranked first in fantasy points per target and yards per target. In 2015, Jackson averaged 2.42 fantasy points per target and 0.12 targets per snap. In 2014, Jackson averaged 2.40 fantasy points per target (best in the league) and 0.12 targets per snap.
It appears fantasy owners are nervous after an injury-riddled 2015 season and the emergence of Jordan Reed as a top receiving threat, but Jackson was essentially the same player when he was on the field. Jackson’s projection seems closer to his WR21 finish in 2014 than his current ADP.
Eric Decker (WR27) – Last season, Decker finished as a WR1 twice, as a WR2 seven times, and as a WR3 six times. In any given week, he never finished lower than a WR3 (the only receiver to do so). Unsurprisingly, among all wide receivers, in terms of week-to-week fantasy points, he had the lowest measure of standard deviation.
What this means: Decker easily offered the safest floor at the position last season. If you played him every week he started, he never really hurt you. This is rare, even among the top players at the position. He’s technically the WR2 on his team, behind Brandon Marshall, but he was targeted and performed as a borderline WR1, ranking 18th in targets per game and finishing as fantasy’s WR13. Although having a high ceiling is important, Decker’s impressive level of consistency should not be overlooked.
Alshon Jeffery (WR9) – Last season, Jeffery ranked first in targets per route run, third in fantasy points per route run, fourth in yards per route run, and sixth in fantasy points per snap.
What this means: Although he struggled to see the field on a consistent basis, dealing with calf and hamstring injuries, when he was on the field, he performed as one of the top players at the position. A healthy Kevin White may take some targets away from Jeffery, but I’m not sure that that will be a serious detriment.
Like Hilton, a low percentage of Jeffery’s targets were deemed catchable last season. His catchable target rate of 60.9 percent ranked third worst among all receivers (min. 75 targets). Perhaps having a dependable second option for Cutler will mean more accurate passes for Jeffery in 2016.
Sammy Watkins (WR12) – Watkins’ target share (percent of team targets) ranked 14th among all receivers (24.1%), while his yardage market share (38.5%) ranked fifth, and his touchdown market share (48.2%) ranked first among all receivers. To put this a different way, he ranked 32nd in targets per game (7.0) and 15th in fantasy points per game (16.8).
What this means: Watkins also ranked second in yards per target, fantasy points per target, and fantasy points per catchable target, third in yards per reception, and adjusted yards per target, and fourth in yards per catchable target. When Buffalo’s quarterbacks targeted Watkins, they recorded a QB Rating of 128.8 (third best among receivers) and a TD:INT ratio of 9:2.
Watkins was such an important and effective part of the offense, it’d be hard to envision him not seeing a bump in targets in 2016, despite Rex Ryan’s affinity to “ground and pound”. In games Watkins recorded at least six receptions last year, the Bills averaged 27.25 points on offense, as opposed to only 22.5 when he did not.
Although he was not targeted as though he was one of the top players in the game, he clearly performed as one. Few (none?) other receivers made a greater impact to their team on fewer targets. If the volume does increase, there’s little stopping Watkins from becoming one of the top players at the position next season.
Julian Edelman (WR19) – Last season, Edelman ranked fifth in fantasy points per snap.
What this means: If we take out Week 10, where he left shortly after the first quarter with an injury, Edelman would have ranked sixth among receivers on a fantasy points per game basis. Although his perceived injury-proneness might be something one should consider when drafting him, in my opinion, it is more than baked into his current ADP.
Allen Robinson (WR5) – Among the 50 wide receivers to see at least 10 red zone targets, Robinson was the only one with a touchdown to red zone target ratio above 50 percent.
What this means: Everyone seems to think Robinson’s 14 touchdowns last season was something of a fluke — that a healthy Julius Thomas and the signing of Chris Ivory means Robinson will be sure to regress in the touchdown department. I’m not so sure of that. Robinson put up elite red zone efficiency numbers last season, and there doesn’t seem to be a good reason to suspect that to regress significantly.
Per Rich Hribar, last season, Yeldon was the least efficient running back at converting first downs or touchdowns with at least two yards or less to go, converting just 26.7 percent. Ivory was the third least efficient running back at the same statistic, converting just 42.9 percent.
Robinson was also really good outside of the red zone as well. He ranked second in the league in yards per reception. From a market share perspective, like Watkins, he produced as an elite wide receiver, despite not ranking highly in target market share. Last season, Robinson ranked 10th in team yardage market share, sixth in touchdown market share, but only 18th in target market share. Despite Allen Hurns seemingly coming into his own last season, there’s a strong case for Robinson to be targeted at an even higher clip than he saw last season.
Doug Baldwin (WR30) – In 2014, Baldwin was our No. 16 ranked wide receiver, despite finishing 43rd in fantasy points and 48th in targets. From Weeks 1 through 10 in 2015, Baldwin was our No. 15-graded wide receiver, despite ranking 33rd in fantasy points and 41st in targets. From Weeks 11 through 16 in 2015, Baldwin ranked second in fantasy points among all receivers.
What this means: Two things: 1) Baldwin is really good and has been really good for a while. 2) Maybe his 2015 wasn’t as much of an outlier as we’ve all been saying. Maybe we should have seen this coming.
The only difference between 2014 and late 2015, was that Baldwin was finally being targeted as a top receiver. Last season, Baldwin ranked first in fantasy points per target. Seattle quarterbacks averaged a 142.8 QB Rating when targeting Baldwin, which ranked first in the league.
On 99 targets, Baldwin caught 78 for 1,069 yards, for 14 touchdowns, with only two of those 99 targets resulting in an interception. Although he ran 79 percent of his routes from the slot, he was also one of the most efficient deep threats in the game. On balls traveling 20 yards or more downfield, he caught all 11 catchable targets for 321 yards and seven touchdowns.
Perhaps he’ll see a reduction in targets in 2016 as some claim, but it would seem unwise, considering the Seahawks averaged 30.4 points per game when Baldwin caught at least five passes, as opposed to 21.3 when he did not.
Torrey Smith (WR57) – Per Pat Thorman of PFF, last season “Chip Kelly’s offense ran 68.9 plays per game in 2015, one year after pumping out 70.4. Smith’s 49ers ran 60.6 last year. Over the course of a season, that totals a difference of more than two targets per game.”
What this means: Smith should see about 32 targets more than he saw last season based solely on the increase in pace that comes from Kelly’s offense. Though, Smith should likely see an increase in targets for reasons that extend beyond pace alone. Looking at his statistics from last season, and given hindsight, it seems foolish of the 49ers not to have used him more.
When targeting Smith, San Francisco quarterbacks averaged a QB Rating of 116.9, as opposed to Anquan Boldin’s 91.2 and Quinton Patton’s 78.7. In games Smith recorded at least two receptions, the 49ers averaged 24 points against and 17.09 points for. In games he failed to record at least two receptions, they averaged 24.6 points against and only 10.6 points for.
Smith ranked second in yards per catchable target, and yards per target, third in yards per adjusted target, fourth in yards after the catch, and eighth in fantasy points per catchable target. I had originally suspected this had much to do with a high aDOT, as he’s always been known as a deep threat specialist, but his aDOT ranked just 25th among all receivers with at least 25 percent of their team’s snaps last season. All of this was while Smith, fresh off a newly signed five year $40 million contract, made more money on a per target basis than A.J. Green (the highest paid wide receiver in the league) and almost twice as much as Julio Jones (the third highest paid receiver).
In Kelly’s three seasons in the NFL, he has produced an overall WR9, WR12, WR16, WR25, and WR31 for fantasy. If the 49ers fail to resign Boldin, there will also be 107 targets missing from this offense. Smith is currently being drafted as a WR5. If we take Smith’s fantasy point per target rate of 2.20 and factor in the 32 target increase Smith should see on pace alone, he would have scored ~193.6 fantasy points last season, good for WR30 — well above where he is currently being drafted.