In the weekly Fantasy Trends, we leverage the Trends tool to find quarterbacks, wide receivers and running backs with notable data points for the upcoming DFS main slate. For more of our weekly football content, visit our NFL homepage.
Davante Adams has quietly delivered one of the greatest fantasy seasons in modern history. Since 2012, only five receivers have totaled 300 or more PPR points through Week 14: Antonio Brown (2014/2015/2017), Julio Jones (2015), Odell Beckham Jr. (2015), Demaryius Thomas (2014) and Adams (2018).
Even more impressively, Adams has achieved this feat despite facing one of this season’s most difficult schedules among wide receivers. Eight of his 14 games have come against teams that currently rank inside the top 12 of Football Outsiders’ pass defense DVOA.
Reflecting on Adams’ remarkable consistency has generated two key questions I hope to answer in this piece:
- How much does defensive matchup affect wide receiver production, generally?
- Are all kinds of wide receivers affected equally by defensive matchup?
To address our first question, we can use Fantasy Labs’ Trends Tool to analyze historical wide receiver trends based on Opponent Rating. You can find this filter under the “Trends” tab.
Opponent Rating: A percentile rank for how well a defense has defended a particular position in the past; we look at Plus/Minus allowed versus position; from an offensive player’s perspective, a higher number represents a more favorable matchup.
Results: Opponent Rating
Our results confirm that players in more difficult matchups do in fact experience a decline in production and consistency. Interestingly, however, wide receivers with an Opponent Rating of 76 or higher do not boast the highest average actual points, Plus/Minus or consistency results. Those accolades belong to the second tier in our analysis: Players with an Opponent Rating of 51 to 75.
This could suggest that in “smash spots,” the game could be so lopsided that it reduces wide receivers’ target volume. The team with the definitive edge in said matchup would likely be playing with a lead and thereby running the ball more often. However, receivers’ defensive matchup could still be such a mismatch that it increases their efficiency. That would potentially offset a decline in volume and explain our Plus/Minus results.
For contrast, receivers in good-but-not-great matchups (Opponent Rating between 51 and 75) could be subject to more competitive game scripts. That could lead to a better overall combination — for fantasy, at least — of efficiency and volume. This group of wide receivers also has depressed ownership compared to the top quartile, despite out-performing the top group in our analysis.
So, there’s basically no reason to fade players in these defensive matchups.
Mitigating Factors to Fantasy Production
With our Opponent Rating baseline established, we can address the second of our two questions: Are all wide receivers affected equally by matchup?
To answer this question, I analyzed wide receivers based on a number of advanced metrics, including team target share, RACR, WOPR, yards after catch (YAC), air yards, air yards team market share and average depth of target (aDOT). Among those measures of wide receiver opportunity and efficiency, one stood out as a strong mitigating factor for wide receiver production based on defensive matchup: Air yards.
Air yards: Total receiving yards intended, including both complete and incomplete pass targets.
I broke up our wide receiver sample (wide receivers with a minimum of 40 targets through Week 14) into quartiles based on air yards per game. By grouping wide receivers according to their air yards per game percentile rank, we’re effectively separating wide receivers into four kinds of roles.
The below descriptions for each quartile remark on trends regarding each quartile — there are, of course, exceptions to these generalities within each group.
Quartile 1: Elite wide receivers who dominate their team’s air yards, and by extension, target share. Generally, these are wide receivers who we traditionally consider WR1s.
Quartile 2: This group includes a variety of types of receivers: High-volume WR1s with shallower route trees (such as Michael Thomas); Lower-volume field-stretchers (such as John Brown); Secondary receivers in high-volume passing offenses (such as Calvin Ridley); or Primary receivers in low-volume pass offenses (such as Tyler Lockett).
Quartile 3: Secondary or tertiary receiving options with intermittent usage, low volume or shallow depth of target. Often, these players are on teams that spread the ball around more often (such as Rashard Higgins of the Browns).
Quartile 4: Low-volume receivers with a shallow depth of target. These kinds of receivers likely have dedicated roles in the slot or in four-wide packages. Many players in this tier play in low-passing volume offenses (such as Keke Coutee of the Texans).
So, how does each quartile perform based on the strength of their defense matchup? Let’s break each down.
Wide receivers boasting air yards totals in the top 25th-percentile of our sample are generally impervious to any matchup-based decline in production. In fact, they actually perform slightly better in more difficult matchups — and are slightly more expensive, oddly enough.
This finding supports my anecdotal remarks at the top of this piece regarding Adams’ statistical resiliency in difficult games this season.
Elite wide receivers also experience a 1.7% decline in their ownership percentages in more difficult matchups. Sharp DFS players should continue to roster these kinds of wide receivers regardless of their opponent.
- Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons: $8,700 DraftKings
- DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans: $8,600 DraftKings
- Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers: $8,500 DraftKings
- Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers: $8,300 DraftKings
- Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: $6,800 DraftKings
Quartiles 2 & 3
I’ve reported these quartiles together because their results are so uncannily similar.
Both groups report marginally-negative Plus/Minus scores in difficult matchups and Plus/Minus scores exceeding +2.00 in easier ones. They also both report ownership depression around 2.0% when facing better pass defenses.
The big takeaway from these results is that wide receivers in these tiers are extremely matchup-dependent. Moreover, their increase in ownership percentage in good defensive matchups seems justified based on their Plus/Minus splits. When considering players in these tiers, weight matchups more significantly than with wide receivers in Quartile 1.
- Alshon Jeffery, Philadelphia Eagles: $5,300 DraftKings
- Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals: $5,200 DraftKings
- Dede Westbrook, Jacksonville Jaguars: $4,900 DraftKings
- Kenny Stills, Miami Dolphins: $4,100 DraftKings
- John Ross, Cincinnati Bengals: $3,800 DraftKings
- Zay Jones, Buffalo Bills: $3,700 DraftKings
- Sterling Shepard, New York Giants: $4,800 DraftKings
- Curtis Samuel, Carolina Panthers: $4,500 DraftKings
- Chris Godwin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: $4,300 DraftKings
- Devin Funchess, Carolina Panthers: $4,200 DraftKings
Somewhat surprisingly, wide receivers in the lowest quartile actually perform better in difficult matchups.
Their average actual points and consistency are stable across both splits, but their average expected points is markedly lower in poor matchups. This reduction in average expected points reflects lower DraftKings pricing, which creates a Plus/Minus edge if you’re looking for wide receiver value.
Wide receivers in this quartile also boast depressed ownership, which is always ideal when building any DFS lineup.
- D.J. Moore, Carolina Panthers: $5,600 DraftKings
- Adam Humphries, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: $4,700 DraftKings
- Dante Pettis, San Francisco 49ers: $4,300 DraftKings
- Kendrick Bourne, San Francisco 49ers: $3,500 DraftKings
- Ryan Grant, Indianapolis Colts: $3,300 DraftKings
- Chester Rogers, Indianapolis Colts: $3,200 DraftKings
- Jarius Wright, Carolina Panthers: $3,100 DraftKings
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: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
Pictured Above: Davante Adams