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The 2018 NFL season has featured hefty passing offenses, the rise of Patrick Mahomes to NFL stardom and, most recently, Drew Brees claiming the all-time NFL passing-yardage record. In an NFL season when so much focus has been on quarterbacks, I decided to examine how this historic passing volume is being distributed among wide receivers.

A total of 99 wide receivers have received at least 13 targets through Week 5, and that group has posted a +2.34 Plus/Minus over its expected fantasy production. On the surface, this seems to confirm the axiom that a rising tide lifts all ships. But, is that truly the case? Are all wide receivers benefiting from this passing revolution, or does it disproportionately benefit certain kinds of wide receivers?

To examine this, I evaluated wide receivers based on Air Yards per Target, Air Yards Team Market Share Percentage, Yards After Catch per Reception and Yards After Catch per Reception Above Expectation. The definitions for each of these metrics can be found below, courtesy of NFL Next Gen Stats:

Air Yards per Target – The average passing air yards per target for the receiver, by measuring the yards downfield at the time of all passing attempts that the receiver is the target. This stat indicates how far down the field they are being targeted on average.

Air Yards Team Market Share – The sum of the receivers total intended air yards (all attempts) over the sum of his team’s total intended air yards. Represented as a percentage, this statistic represents how much of a team’s deep yards the player accounts for.

Yards After Catch per Reception – The yards gained after catch by a receiver.

Yards After Catch per Reception Above Expectation (Plus/Minus) – A receiver’s YAC compared to his Expected YAC, which is based on numerous factors using tracking data such as how open the receiver is, how fast he is traveling, how many defenders/blockers are in space, etc.

By examining wide receivers based on both Air Yards and Yards After Catch metrics, I was able to isolate statistical improvement based on a receiver’s role on his team. Wide receivers with a higher Air Yards per Target percentile are targeted farther downfield, whereas lower percentile receivers work mostly in the short to intermediate passing game. Wide receivers with a higher Air Yards Team Market Share Percentage dominate targets on their team and are usually “No. 1” receiving options in their offenses. High-percentile YAC wide receivers are either adept at making defenders miss in space or burning coverage, resulting in big plays over the top. And finally, high-percentile YAC Plus/Minus wide receivers are effective at making more out of their opportunities than what would be expected by an average wide receiver.

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Reported below are the percentile ranks for all wide receivers recording at least 13 targets through Week 5:

For my discussion of each of our four metrics, I’ve broken down our sample into quartiles. Quartiles separate a sample population into four equal groups. In our case, those four quartiles are separated based on percentile rank rather than raw number of individuals.

In our forthcoming discussion, it’s important to recognize that the baseline Plus/Minus for all wide receivers in our sample is an impressive +2.34. So, for example, if a quartile reports a Plus/Minus of +2.00, that result is actually low for wide receivers this season. Even if you see a positive Plus/Minus split for a given quartile in our analysis, you should compare that result to a +2.34 standard. Accordingly, I’ve reported control statistics in each statistics table to reinforce that standard for our discussion.

Air Yards Per Target

This particular dataset isn’t too revealing, with most quartiles reporting Plus/Minus scores around +2.34. However, I could make the argument that there is a slight improvement among 50th percentile performers and lower. The 25th percentile reports the highest Plus/Minus (+2.87) of any quartile, and the 50th percentile reports the highest Average Actual Points (13.42). This suggests that so far this season, receivers operating in the short-to-intermediate passing game boast a subtle fantasy edge over field-stretching wide receivers.

Air Yards Team Market Share Percentage

This dataset is particularly illuminating. Wide receivers in the top 75th percentile of Air Yards Team Market Share Percentage boast huge improvements in every statistical category. Most notably, these receivers averaged 17.71 actual fantasy points and a staggering Plus/Minus of +4.28. Also of particular note, no other quartile in our sample achieved a Plus/Minus of +2.34 or higher. The 75th percentile is the only group of wide receivers boasting above-average fantasy performance this season.

From a fantasy perspective, this suggests that targeting No. 1 wide receivers is significantly more cost-effective and productive than attempting to find value with lesser-targeted receivers. Combining this with our previous finding on Air Yards per Target, ideal wide receiver targets operate in the short-to-intermediate passing game but dominate targets for their individual teams. Excellent examples of these kinds of wide receivers include Adam ThielenCorey DavisJarvis LandryKeenan Allen and Emmanuel Sanders.

Yards After Catch per Reception

This metric attempts to highlight wide receivers who perform well after the catch. It’s important to note that this does not specifically refer to players who are agile and make defenders miss tackles. It may also refer to wide receivers with elite speed, such as Tyreek Hill, who burn defenders in coverage for big gains after the catch.

Our statistical analysis reveals that once again, the top quartile of wide receivers has dominated the fantasy sphere in 2018. The 75th percentile boasts the highest Average Actual Points and a huge Plus/Minus of +4.69. Importantly, 25th percentile performers boast a flat +0.00 Plus/Minus, which is egregiously bad when compared to our sample-wide standard of +2.34.

Examples of Players to Target:

  • Albert Wilson
  • Jakeem Grant
  • Quincy Enunwa
  • Dede Westbrook
  • Randall Cobb

Examples of Players to Avoid:

  • Devin Funchess
  • Mike Williams
  • Michael Crabtree
  • Larry Fitzgerald
  • Kelvin Benjamin

Yards After Catch Above Expectation (Plus/Minus)

Our results for this trend mostly reinforce the data from the previous section. Once again, the top quartile of wide receivers accounts for most of our sample’s statistical improvement, boasting the highest Actual Points, Plus/Minus and Consistency. However, since YAC Above Expectation rewards players who create yards based on their athleticism, deep field-stretching wide receivers who earn their Yards After Catch on big plays downfield may take a small hit here.

Players who excel in this category include Jordy NelsonTaywan TaylorMarvin JonesCalvin Ridley and DeSean Jackson.

Players Who Fit Multiple Trends

There are a few wide receivers who excel in multiple trends we’ve examined in this piece. I’ve highlighted some of those elite wide receiver targets below:

  • Tyreek Hill
  • Kenny Golladay
  • Kenny Stills
  • Corey Davis
  • Robert Woods
  • Antonio Brown
  • Adam Thielen

News Updates

After this piece is published, FantasyLabs is likely to provide news updates on a number of players mentioned here. Be sure to stay ahead of your competition with our NFL news feed.

Photo Credit: James Lang-USA TODAY Sports
Pictured Above: Adam Thielen