Free Agency Fallout: Catchable Target Shifts
One of the many data points produced by the game-charting mavens at PFF is Drop Rate. It can be found, alongside a mountain of uber-descriptive metrics, under the Signature Stats heading for Premium subscribers. Drop Rate is the percentage of drops a receiver makes relative to the number of catchable balls thrown their way.
While a player’s Drop Rate often fluctuates wildly from season to season, and in many cases has dubious predictive value, it’s instructive to examine those that are receiving (and throwing) the most catchable passes. Keep in mind that quarterback accuracy isn’t the only element that makes up a catchable ball, and receivers who are regularly in the correct position tend to see more catchable targets.
How can this help us value players for fantasy? It helps us differentiate between raw opportunity, which is obviously crucial, and high-quality opportunities. It’s just another spoke in the wheel, but one well worth exploring.
A well-known example of a player whose production spiked during the 2014 season is Rob Gronkowski. Clearly, there were several factors involved—including seeing more targets per game as his health improved—but the data below shows another reason for his progress.
|Gronk 2014||PPR Pts/Gm||FF TE Rank||Drop Rate||Catchable Tgt%||Catchable Tgt% Rank|
|Weeks 1-4||11.4||10th||7.1%||58.3%||32nd of 34 TE|
|Weeks 5-17||20.1||1st||8.0%||75.0%||16th of 37 TE|
Despite similar drop (above) and touchdown rates (0.75 per game versus 0.82), Gronkowski’s fantasy point production jumped dramatically. His targets per game rose 50 percent, from six to nine. Clearly that helped, but it doesn’t entirely account for the 76 percent rise in fantasy points. The quality of those targets played a supporting role, however, as Tom Brady shook off a sluggish start.
Below, we’ll take a look at some recently relocated wideouts and tight ends through a catchable-targets lens.
Andre Johnson (Houston Texans to Indianapolis Colts)
Johnson’s positive press revolves chiefly around escaping Houston’s quarterback hellscape and landing with Andrew Luck. Undoubtedly, that helps, but what stands out more is he moves from an offense that attempted the 30th-most passes (485) to one that threw more than anyone (661).
Of course, target volume was not Johnson’s problem. In 2014, he turned the sixth-most looks (141) into the 28th-most PPR points, one year after leading the league in targets (176) and finishing 10th in wide receiver scoring. Luckily, his new quarterback will prop up the aging receiver with better passes. Right?
|Wideout||Targets||Catchable||Catchable Target %||aDOT|
|Johnson 2-yr Total||317||213||67.2%||10.9|
|Wayne 2-yr Total||167||115||68.9%||10.3|
|Hilton 2-yr Total||257||175||68.1%||13.3|
Other than T.Y. Hilton’s impressive catchable target percentage, relative to last season’s hefty average depth of target (aDOT), the most notable item is that Johnson’s target quality might not spike from his time in Houston. He’s set to take over Reggie Wayne’s possession role, which fits his aDOT from the last two seasons. However, Wayne ran nearly two-thirds of his routes out of the slot during that stretch (64.8 percent), while Johnson was a slot man just 21.5 percent of the time and will predominantly line up outside in the Colts’ 12-personnel-heavy offense.
In the unlikely event that Johnson’s target volume does not decline now that he’s part of a receiver-rich offense that’s also itching to ride Frank Gore, there’s no guarantee that the quality of his looks will improve significantly. The red zone-challenged Johnson’s new team will score more often, although it’s shown a propensity for targeting tight ends and running backs near the goal line.
The Johnson hype is building to a point where there’s little upside to be found in his ADP.
Mike Wallace (Miami Dolphins to Minnesota Vikings)
Wallace and Ryan Tannehill have connected over the last two years about as well as Jay Gruden and RGIII. Tannehill has a reputation for shaky downfield accuracy, and Wallace simply has a shaky reputation. Here’s a snapshot of Wallace’s time in Miami:
|Wallace||Targets||Catchable Tgt %||Deep Targets||Catchable Deep Tgt %|
Considering that Tannehill’s catchable deep target percentage over the last two seasons when he’s not throwing to Wallace is still just 34.1 percent, it’s not like he can put the blame squarely on his former teammate’s shoulders. For his part, Wallace probably can’t help but feel he’s headed to a better situation in Minnesota, as quarterback Teddy Bridgewater just posted an impressive rookie season.
|Bridgewater||WR Targets||Catchable Tgt %||WR Deep Targets||Catchable Deep Tgt %|
Bridgewater, who earned PFF’s second-best passing game grade over the last six weeks of 2014 (+9.1), was especially accurate when targeting his wideouts during that final stretch. They enjoyed catchable targets 74.5 percent of the time, including on nine of 14 deep attempts (64.3 percent). Compare that to what Wallace and Tannehill were cooking, and it doesn’t really matter which chef you blame. The mercurial wideout will be in a tastier situation.
Last season’s mid-range WR2 finish, which was buoyed by a likely-unrepeatable 10 touchdowns, feels destined to become Wallace’s post-Pittsburgh high-water mark. His new role as a field stretcher in a lower-volume passing offense lends itself to fewer targets and inconsistent output. However his MFL10 ADP has been diving toward WR4 territory during the last week, where he makes for an increasingly interesting option in the Best Ball format.
Kenny Stills (New Orleans Saints to Miami Dolphins)
Taking over the Wallace role with the Dolphins will be Kenny Stills. How tightly he’s fit into that mold will depend on how successful Miami is in their ongoing receiver recruitment. Stills is capable of acting as more than just a deep threat, but if he does become a one-tricky pony, he’s in for a rude awakening compared to his time in New Orleans.
|2014||Targets||Catchable Tgt %||Deep Targets||Catchable Deep Tgt %|
As we already saw with Wallace, things don’t often click downfield for the Dolphins. Until we have a clear indication that Stills will also operate in the short-to-intermediate parts of the field, it will be hard to consider him as anything more than a boom-or-bust weekly WR4. However, if he will avail himself of Tannehill’s markedly more accurate shorter targets (more on that later), Stills would easily vault into the WR3 discussion.
Dwayne Bowe (Kansas City Chiefs to Cleveland Browns)
Since 2008, Bowe’s average Drop Rate ranking is 65th-best (out of 89), and he hasn’t finished higher than 43rd. He’s one pass catcher who hasn’t seen wild fluctuation in how often he muffs passes. Last season, he managed to drop more than one out of every 10 catchable targets (10.6 percent). That’s an issue, because he’s essentially a lock to see fewer catchable balls with his new team.
|2014||WR Targets||Catchable Targets||Catchable Tgt %|
Bowe had a 74.4 percent catchable target rate last year, which was owed in part to a modest 9.4-yard aDOT and Alex Smith’s accurate, if risk-averse tendencies. He scored zero touchdowns and was an unstartable fantasy “asset.” He’ll be asked to stretch the field more often in Cleveland while trying to corral McCown balls, or, even worse, whatever gets hoisted up by Johnny Manziel (56.3 Accuracy Percentage; 73rd-best). Bowe’s MFL10 ADP has risen roughly two rounds into the 15th since early March. Yes, he’s a starting NFL wideout, but even if Bowe “hits” how useful will he be? You’re better off picking your first defense.
Tight End Transitions
It almost feels like piling on at this point, but at least Julius Thomas has a pile of cash to get him over his vanishing fantasy value. He caught more touchdowns in an injury-shortened season than his new quarterback threw all year, and generally speaking, Blake Bortles was as scattershot as they came in 2014. He ranked 29th in Accuracy Percentage out of 39 qualifying passers and dead last in PFF Quarterback Rating.
|—||Targets||Catchable Targets||Catchable Tgt %|
|Bortles to TE||56||41||73.2%|
Thomas will deal with more two-tight end sets that involve Marcedes Lewis, several young receivers that require feeding, and a lower play volume and scoring offense than he thrived in as a Bronco. He’s still being drafted sixth at his position in MFL10s over the last week over several tight ends he’ll struggle to outproduce.
One of them is Jordan Cameron, who’s been drafted about a round after Thomas of late. Cameron blew up in 2013, finishing as the No. 6 TE. He was just 0.7 points out of the No. 4 TE spot and trailed Thomas for No. 3 TE honors by 17.6 points. Injuries and an apocalyptic quarterback situation derailed him last season, but a bounce back appears on the horizon.
|—||Targets||Catchable Targets||Catchable Tgt %|
|Dolphins TEs (’13-’14)||237||180||75.9%|
|Patriots TEs (’13-’14)||249||176||70.9%|
As a frame of reference, I added New England’s tight end targets, since their offense is known for making good use of the short passing game. In fact, Miami’s catchable target rate on throws to running backs trumps the Patriots’ as well, 88.2 percent to 77.6 percent. For all of the grief that Tannehill gets for his downfield inaccuracy, he’s sharp in the short-to-intermediate range. That’s where Cameron will do his work. Even taking into account the usual injury disclaimer, Cameron clearly has top-five tight end upside.
Finally, another tight end who stood out is Tyler Eifert. While he’s not changing teams, his situation has transitioned. He’ll be vying with Mohamed Sanu and an again-healthy Marvin Jones for second on the target totem pole behind A.J. Green. Yet, at the moment he’s essentially alone on the tight end depth chart. If things remain that way, Eifert will enjoy an impressive catchable ball rate. Over the last two seasons, Bengals’ tight ends have a ginger-hot 79.2 catchable ball percentage. If Cincinnati doesn’t bring back Jermaine Gresham, Eifert presents a solid, if less-than-sexy TE2 with TE1 upside.
*ADP data courtesy of the RotoViz Best Ball App
Pat Thorman is a Lead Writer for PFF Fantasy and was named 2013 Newcomer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. You can follow him on Twitter at @Pat_Thorman