Pass-Catching Trends from 2020 & What They Tell Us (Fantasy Football)
Last week we dove into the WR portion of our annual TRUTH series. While sifting through each player’s individual consistency ratings and how they performed for fantasy, my curiosity got the better of me as I wanted to see where the 2020 season ranked alongside the last decade.
Analyzing league-wide trends from a 10,000-foot level view can be helpful on a couple of different ends:
- Is there an overall receiving trend in a certain direction for the league?
- How does WR production affect the other positions in fantasy?
But I do need to offer a bit of caution. Plugging in this information from a specific player evaluation standpoint is NOT at all useful. We analyze each team on a “passing pie” basis as well as a range of outcomes. This is data for data’s sake and the conclusions are up to interpretation.
After sifting through the data, I wanted to offer my three main takeaways from the 2020 season
- 2020 was the summit of WR production.
- RB receiving work took a hit.
- Teams will continue to give targets to ancillary WRs.
WR Scoring Went Through the Roof
Across the league, we saw a major resurgence in WR scoring in 2020 (besides the Patriots) that needs to have some context surrounding it. Here are the combined receptions, yards, TDs, and fantasy points from all WRs each year over the last decade:
|Total Receptions||Total Yards||Total TDs||Total FPts|
Yes, 2020 saw 586 more WR receptions and 55(!) more WR TDs than in 2019. But how did this happen?
In 2020, NFL teams attempted only 171 more total passes league-wide compared to 2019.
Yet we saw 72 more passing TDs and 11 fewer INTs.
— Kyle Borgognoni (@kyle_borg) February 2, 2021
Spread that out among the 32 teams and it’s basically nothing to write home about. But it’s the increasing accuracy and precision which is making this a pass-first league. The increasing efficiency via the air is not surprising given the simple analytics that a pass is a much better +EV play. Interceptions are going down and passing TDs are going up.
|Total Completions||Total Attempts||Comp %||Total Passing Yards||Total Passing TDs||TOTAL INTs|
Let’s zero in on the completion percentage for QBs.
24 different QBs completed over 65 percent of their passes in 2020. Go back to only 2017 and you’d find only six such passers. Heck, in 2012, half of the starting QBs were under 60 percent! While attempts are actually down from where they were five years ago, on a per pass attempt basis, QBs are trending towards 2.1 fantasy points per pass attempt.
|Year||Fantasy Points per Pass Attempt|
If you stuck with me through all that data and charts, you can see that 2020 was a banner year. This isn’t necessarily stating that things will be even better in 2021 but that offenses are in a position where passing the football is prime territory for efficient fantasy production. It’s possible we could definitely see a step back as a year as 2017 showed us.
RB Targets Were Halted in 2020
Another key factor in the ascent of WR production in 2020 was the decline of RB targets across the board.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve made it a focus to decipher how RB targets are factored into a passing game. I stumbled into a narrative to has stayed relatively sticky year-to-year in Vacated Targets & Predicting the Future in Fantasy Football: teams with high vacated target totals end up siphoning a higher percentage of their targets to the RB position. I also published Vacated Targets & the RB Position in Fantasy Football before the 2020 season detailing how these teams could deploy their RB units. While many of the team-specific predictions (HOU, IND, WAS) did see an increased focus on targeting the RB, the league as a whole slowed down.
The continuing regression for rush attempts shouldn’t shock anyone. We’ve really seen a downward trend for the last 20 years.
We can take the data in front of us and offer a couple of different hypotheses about RB involvement but I’m going to save that exercise. You can bet your money that I’ll be writing an annual follow up of RB targets later this offseason. Whether it was defenses beginning to adjust or offenses utilizing backs in a different way, I’ll need some more time to get my head around the RB receiving decline in 2020. For a thread on this topic, J.J. Zachriason noticed the dip in RB production and started a conversation on Twitter with some data to get this out in front of us.
Ancillary WRs Will Continue to Make Noise
Lastly, the increase in WR production league-wide over the last decade can also be linked to the simple fact: we have more WRs out on the field. Teams are using three WRs or more and honestly we’ve been talking about this trend for at least half of this decade. For fantasy purposes, we love it when teams hyper-target our WRs like DeAndre Hopkins or Davante Adams. Give the guy who is going to see 30 percent of the team’s targets and we are cookin’ baby! However, offenses are utilizing the 3rd and 4th option in their offenses at a rate a bit higher than perhaps we’d like. I don’t have time in this space to divulge all the data but don’t worry… I’m writing another follow-up on 11-personnel usage and teams that changed their approach with 3WR sets in 2020.
But maybe an easy way to point out the production from WR3s on NFL teams is to show you how involved they were. Here is a list of WRs who would’ve been categorized as WR3 at best on their own depth charts to start the year and where they finished in terms of receptions.
While injuries certainly play a role, depth charts also can change over time. Regardless, we have nine WRs here who finished in the top-45 in WR receptions. In other words, these presumably 3rd options vaulted their way into WR2-type usage on their own teams. There are meaningful targets regardless of where you think a receiver lands in the pecking order. Here are a few of those WRs further down the depth chart that had some astonishing usage although coming into the year you might’ve written them off as simply ancillary:
- Gabriel Davis, the Bills rookie, played only 73 percent of the snaps this year including seven games under 62 percent. Nevertheless, he accumulated 12 “end-zone” targets. That’s one more than Davante Adams had and by far more than any other rookie WR. As a WR4, it’s wild to see he was focused on as a dominator when Josh Allen and company got in close. He finished at WR56 mostly on the back of his seven TDs.
- Staying with the Bills theme, Cole Beasley led the league in yards from the slot (948) and set career highs in almost every statistical category. He only saw 66 percent of the team’s snaps but it didn’t matter.
- Russell Gage might be a mostly meh option for fantasy but with the nagging injury to Julio Jones, he was necessary for the Atlanta Falcons. Gage had 17 red-zone targets, tied with Keenan Allen for 9th most in the NFL, and one more than Stefon Diggs. His 18.2 percent target share was enough to see 110 for the season.
- Curtis Samuel was an integral part of the Panthers’ game plans as the WR3 on his own offense. With Christian McCaffrey out for the majority of the season, Carolina turned to Samuel as their go-to weapon on 3rd down. He saw the 2nd most 3rd down touches of any WR in football when you combine his receptions and rush attempts.
- Antonio Brown functioned as the Buccaneers WR3 but when he came back in Week 9, he was no afterthought. Brown had a 20.3 percent “hog rate” per FantasyData, the same as Davante Adams. In other words, his target share per actual snaps on the field was among the elite of the elite.
- The same could be said for the Jets’ Braxton Berrios. The dude ranked 4th among WRs at 19.9 percent. At only 30.5 percent of the team’s snaps for the season, you could delete Berrios from your memory but when on the field, Sam Darnold looked his way which ate into other players’ passing pie.
Ancillary WRs aren’t going away any time soon. For fantasy, we might want one or two options on each team with a condensed target share like Tyreek Hill or Travis Kelce. But the reality is the majority of teams are incorporating enough weapons but their offenses can run efficiently enough to keep generating 1st downs whether it is the first read or the fourth on a given play.
All of the data collected is still but a glimpse of WR production over the last decade. We could go into more detail about aDOT and the utilization of WRs downfield. We look at contested-catch rates or the type of routes being run. These trends are a conversation starter and hopefully, you were able to pause and jot down a few notes to consider when projecting for 2021. A 10,000-foot view is nice to get the plane up in the air but eventually, you have to land on a calculated runway.