On Target: Year of the Small Receiver
By Davis Mattek
Last Friday, I was a guest on RotoWire boss man Chris Liss’ SiriusXM radio show, and he posited me a simple question: “Is this the year of the small WR?” By now most of you are probably familiar with the thesis. There exists a simple correlation between receiver size and ability to convert targets into touchdowns. Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, Demaryius Thomas, Brandon Marshall and other giants score touchdowns at a rate above league average. However, in 2014, so have players like Antonio Brown, Steve Smith and Randall Cobb. I place the most importance on red-zone touchdowns because those have a tendency to be predictable. Past red-zone targets seem to be a good indicator of future red-zone targets via the market share methodology, so it makes sense that to find out if the year of the small wide receiver is truly upon us, we should see how some of these smaller players are faring in the red zone. This should give us a good idea if we’re simply seeing random variance in a game that deals with an oblong leather ball doing funny things or if this a new reality.
The table below compares the TD/target red-zone conversion rates of every player with at least two red-zone touchdowns. For our purposes, it is worth noting that a pass in the red zone this season has scored a touchdown about 26 percent of the time, and most on this list will be above that average due to that fact that I chose touchdowns for the baseline and not targets.
|PLAYER||RZ TRG||RZ REC||RZ TD||TD/TRG%|
The first names that will draw people’s eye is Jordy Nelson, Demaryius Thomas and Kelvin Benjamin all the way at the bottom. These are huge dudes and players who have scored their fair share of touchdowns this season and in their careers (college and pro). This could partially explain some of why we are thinking of 2014 as the season of the little guy; namely, the big guys aren’t producing touchdowns at even a league-average rate, and with a little bit of positive regression, these players could see themselves with a higher number of red-zone scores.
Toward the bottom of the list is Antonio Brown, who has had a pitiful red-zone record his entire career. Obviously, AB is a great player (though he is a player of whom I own tragically few redraft shares). Part of my problem with investing in him in dynasty, redraft and daily fantasy is that he struggles in the red zone while his teammate Martavis Bryant has scored on every red-zone look he’s had this season. Due to the routes that Brown runs and the strengths of his game, he’ll probably never be wildly effective in the red zone, but it doesn’t matter much to his fantasy value because he has 14 more targets than any player in the NFL. As it relates to the general thesis that big guys equal a better chance at more touchdowns, however, Brown doesn’t really disprove it.
Rob Gronkowski and Julius Thomas toward the top of this list provides us more support for the idea that size really matters. Gronk and Orange Julius are massive humans, playing with elite NFL quarterbacks. There really wasn’t a choice for me, personally, in redraft leagues this summer. Gronkowski was a must-own player at his wildly depressed ADP, and he continues to provide dividends in daily fantasy each and every week. Julius is a different case, because all he does is score touchdowns. Thomas has only 32 receptions this year but has 10 touchdowns; almost of a third of his catches are going for scores! Martellus Bennett, Mychal Rivera, Greg Olsen and Gavin Escobar are other big tight ends who are scoring at well above league-average rates. This research would seem to suggest that there is a real market inefficiency to tight end scoring. Playing two tight ends in leagues where you can flex one, or in daily fantasy, is generally frowned upon if you don’t have the holy coupling of Gronk and Graham, but these other high-scoring tight ends are perhaps showing us that tight ends have a higher week-to-week probability of finding paydirt than the average wide receiver.
Finally, I want to examine Emmanuel Sanders and Eric Decker. Perhaps no player has received more unearned praise than Sanders, and I firmly believe that Decker is the most underrated player in professional football. Sanders has scored four touchdowns this season, as has Decker. Sanders has plenty of more yards and receptions and likely will far exceed his draft-day cost, but mostly due to his quarterback. Sanders has 16 touchdowns in his entire career; Decker owns a 14-touchdown season. Both have converted red-zone targets into a touchdown 33 percent of the time this season, and that similarity, ironically enough, illustrates their differences. Decker has gotten it done with Mike Vick and Geno Smith as his quarterbacks. In the middle of that putrid offense, he is still capable of solid fantasy outtings and this, my friends, finally gets me to my point.
It very much is not that small wide receivers can’t be good fantasy assests. They most certainly can. In some cases, extreme target volume can make them valuable in a fantasy context (cut to Danny Amendola nodding solemnly), but that’s the point. Most of the time, the value of the Antonio Browns, Randall Cobbs, Victor Cruzs and Steve Smiths is going to be context dependent. Without elite or at least above average (you aren’t roping me into a Joe Flacco elite debate that easy, fellas) the week-to-week results of players who aren’t capable of creating touchdowns on their own will inherently be more volatile. On the other hand, players in poor situations such as Kelvin Benjamin with the worst offensive line in the league protecting Cam Newton, or DeAndre Hopkins with incredibly subpar quarterback, will still remain awesome fantasy options due to their ability to essentially always be open. The value to be mined from the wide receiver size debate is not to nitpick and declare winners or losers, but to approach it holistically. Big guys don’t need as much help to be good for your fantasy teams, and it’s really that simple.