Targets En Route: Factoring in WR Routes Run & Finding Hidden Gems for Fantasy Football
We’ve mentioned many times on the Fantasy Footballers podcast how targets are earned. They are a skill.
Recently on a Never Not Working Segment, we discussed Target Breakdowns and how we can think about them differently moving forward.
Targets show us opportunity but also who is getting open, who has trust from their QB. You can’t just luck into 100 targets. But end-of-year totals don’t give us the full story. Target share is definitely a step in the right direction revealing what percentage of that team’s passing pie was gobbled up. But when you compare a 25.5 percent target share for Marquise Brown to 22.9 for Diontae Johnson, we need a bit more context to fill in the gaps of our analysis.
This isn’t a new metric by any means in the fantasy football circles but rather a chance to zero in on the percentage of routes targeted for a wide receiver. In other words, how often did a player get targeted when he was out on the field running a route. How many players were simply there to run ‘wind-sprints’ (ahem Chris Conley) and how many were being utilized in a special manner when they were present?
This can give us a small insight into wide receivers either with partial seasons (injury, etc.) or on teams regularly employing multiple WRs on the field.
Route data and target data are pretty easy to come by so dividing targets by routes gives us a simple percentage to work with.
We looked at every WR with 60+ targets* from 2020. We needed to cut this off at some point and 60 targets gave us a threshold to ignore players who were barely involved or guys who missed the majority of the season.
Here were the leaders from 2020:
Some obvious candidates near the top with target monsters Keenan Allen, Diontae Johnson, and Stefon Diggs. Davante Adams‘ league-leading 31.5 percent is even more impressive when you remember he missed two games. He was the most dominant player on the field and put together arguably the best fantasy WR season of all-time.
But there are some surprising names on this list: Antonio Brown, Jakobi Meyers, Sterling Shepard, and Corey Davis. All of those guys finished outside the top-30 of WRs and Brown played barely half a season. I’ll profile these below and what it could mean for their 2021 prospects.
*While not included in this study due to only 54 total targets in an injury-plagued season, Michael Thomas was targeted on 26.3 percent of his routes, a top-5 number in our data set. Although it is worth noting he never saw an end-zone target.
Anything sub 20 percent is not optimal when you compare it to other WRs. There are lots of factors…
- Competition for targets– Many offenses such as Dallas and Cincinnati have multiple high-end targets. This is why players like Michael Gallup can end up among the league leaders in routes run but rank 67th in target efficiency at 15.5 percent. In other words, other guys were commanding targets (Amari Cooper & Ceedee Lamb) and Gallup’s percentage plummeted. It begs the question if in redraft leagues taking a stab at teams with a trio of WRs is profitable. For more on this WR Trio Conundrum, we highlighted this recently on another Never Not Working Segment.
- Incredible efficiency per target– Players like Marvin Jones Jr. perennially finish below 20 percent but on a per target basis, they produce for fantasy. Efficiency is fun when it’s hitting in your favor every week. But eventually, the lack of targets turn into 2-22 weeks. You see that with a player like Jones who is boom-or-bust.
- Contested catches– Some players just win consistently on 50/50 balls like the aforementioned Marvin Jones Jr. or Kenny Golladay. In 2019, D.J. Chark Jr. made his bones on those types of targets for fantasy. However, things can also bounce in the other direction. Chark’s lackluster year in 2020 was simply regressing from a magical season where the ball bounced the right way for him and for Gardner Minshew.
But Does This Matter for Fantasy?
We asked the same question. There are a lot of different WR metrics out there and this isn’t meant to bash any of them. But at the end of the day, we want to translate statistical findings into actual fantasy football advice. Is there strong correlation looking at percentage of routes targeted?
After looking at the data over the last two years (and planning on back testing the previous five years), there is an encouraging correlation between fantasy finish and a wide receiver’s rank of percentage routes targeted. Reminder: we cut off the targets at 60. Anything below felt like noise.
- In 2019, it was 0.49.
- In 2020, it was even stronger at 0.53.
Neither of these are perfect but in world where we are trying to gain as many edges as possible against our competition, identifying a metric like this gives us another piece of the puzzle. Essentially, if I could spell out this metric in a simple “explain it to me like I’m five years old” Michael Scott way, it shows you “when this guy was on the field, here’s how involved he was”. It also helps us from overcorrecting to narratives about players that are talented but have a change of scenery.
In 2019, we also could see that Stefon Diggs, though his target total was below 100, he still was being targeted on 21.6 percent of his routes and the type of targets he was seeing were different than his compadres. Diggs saw the 3rd most deep targets in the league. But when he went over to Buffalo in the off-season, he was universally written off (including by me) when he joined up with Josh Allen as I recently wrote in Narrowing the Field to Find 2021’s Stefon Diggs.
Want More? For a full breakdown of the discussion, I’ve queued it up for you on YouTube.
Actionable Info for 2021
Let’s turn what we found into actionable information for 2021.
Don’t just look at raw target totals.
As the 2021 season progresses, find routes run data and track who is being targeted per route. We will be :)
Find “gems” getting targeted on 20+ percent of their routes.
Bet on them for a bigger sample size if they stay healthy.
Antonio Brown– It’s not speculative to say Brady favors AB. Off the street, he came right into a higher target and reception share than teammate Chris Godwin. He’s had the offseason in this system with Tom Brady and been talked up recently by Bruce Arians. An actual offseason with the system and Tom Brady is going to help. Mike went so bold to say AB finishes the season at Tampa Bay’s WR1.
Jakobi Meyers– Meyers averaged seven targets a game once he became integrated in the offense after Week 7. That kind of presence matters on an offense begging for dependable options. With Mac Jones named the starter, he’s a viable PPR flex out of the gate.
Sterling Shepard– Does he still play football? For real, it feels like the world has forgotten about Shepard despite the fact he’s always consistently gathered targets when healthy. He was the perfect zig while everyone was zagging against the Giants in BestBall formats. He will have useable weeks in PPR so don’t ignore him.
Corey Davis– 90 targets last year doesn’t tell the whole story.He commanded targets when he ran a route (23.6 %) finishing 14th highest among WRs & slightly behind AJ Brown (24.9%) who was 5th. Not a crazy gap. The Jets are Trying to be the “49ers of the East”. In Kyle Shanahan era, the 49ers avg. 80 more pass attempts than the Tennessee Titans or five more per game. Big difference. Bet on Zach Wilson peppering him with targets as a potential WR2.
Variance will likely hit sub-20 % guys who were super efficient in 2020.
Some potential fades for 2021 if you think they won’t continue the same efficiency levels if any.
Mike Evans (19.3%)- Evans made his hay last year on TDs. We all know that and his presence inside the red-zone likely won’t be going away. But as Antonio Brown began getting more and more integrated with the offense, his target share went down. He almost became the 3rd among this Tampa Bay WR trio. He’s being drafted the highest among the three which screams that he’s the most likely to not return draft value. He’s still too young and too talented to be left alone. But 2021 doesn’t look like a year with a WR1 fantasy finish in his future,
Juju Smith-Schuster (19.5%)- The writing is on the wall for a player that cowered back to Pittsburgh after he did not command near the type of money he thought he would on the open the market. Juju has steadily declined as a target hog since his Antonio Brown days (what a coincidence) and he’s running the type of low aDOT routes that don’t always translate to fantasy gold. Unless he has a sudden spike in TDs, bet on Chase Claypool‘s Sophomore year breakout instead.
Mecole Hardman (18.2 %)- Andy buried Hardman in the Ice & Fire episode. I could go on but the way he laid out the case to forget about Hardman is stunning. I queued it up for you:
Mike Williams (16.7%)- Big Mike is a fun player for fantasy… about twice a year. He is the exact kind of contested catch artist that needs so many things to break right for him in fantasy. He’s a clear avoid in the last season of his contract with the Chargers. You won’t know when to play him and he’s not commanding near enough targets especially with an alpha like Keenan Allen on the field.