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Advanced WR Metrics: The Predictive Ability of Air Yards

Written by Eric Moody
July 29, 2019

Deeper Look at Air Yards

FantasyData's Advanced Wide Receiver Metrics can answer a lot of questions for you as you look to gain an edge in your redraft, keeper, and dynasty fantasy football leagues this season. One of the things you can focus on is how many targets did a particular WR average per game, the target breakdown, the receiver's Hog Rate along with the WR's Air yards. For those who are not familiar, Air Yards are the total completed receiving yards from the line of scrimmage to the catch point. Air yards and targets are very useful in answering two questions; Which WR does the offensive coordinator and quarterback want to throw the football to? And what types of routes are certain WRs running? This article will divide WRs into tiers based on their season-long total of Air yards from last season.

Deep Dive Analysis

Player Name Targets Per Game Air Yards AY Per Game AY Per Target AY Per Reception
Mike Evans 8.7 1256 78.5 14.6 9
Julio Jones 10.6 1227 76.7 11 7.2
DeAndre Hopkins 10.2 1217 76.1 10.6 7.5
Adam Thielen 9.7 1002 62.6 9 6.5

Mike Evans (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) finished last season as the WR9 in PPR formats. He's averaged 16.2 PPR fantasy points per game since entering the NFL in 2014. Were you aware that Evans has finished within the top-10 in air yards for five consecutive seasons? This includes a No. 1 finish in 2016 and 2018. Evans has averaged an impressive 8.3 air yards per target and 1,222 receiving yards per season in his NFL career. The Buccaneers have 234 targets and 33.6% air yards available heading into this season. Wide receiver Chris Godwin and tight end O.J. Howard will have a role in new head coach Bruce Arians' aggressive, down-field aerial attack, but that doesn't mean Evans won't continue to be the focal point of the team's offense. He is an excellent draft target in the early second round of 12-team drafts. Two areas that continue to be an opportunity for Evans is yards after the catch and uncatchable targets (ranked 8th with 34). He ranked outside of the top-30 WRs last season. We have Evans projected to finish the 2019 season as the WR8 in PPR formats. 

Targets Receptions Receiving Yards TDs PPR Finish
126 84 1,354 8 8

Evans will have a very good chance to exceed this projection and see a high percentage of air yards in Arians' offense that encourages the quarterback to take shots downfield. Quarterback Jameis Winston performed well under pressure with 8.41 yards per attempt. The mental toughness to stand in the pocket is important considering the deep posts down the field and double-moves Evans will be running. 

My mind continues to be blown that Julio Jones (Atlanta Falcons) can be selected in the second round of fantasy drafts after leading the NFL in receiving yards in 2018 with 1,677. He has had five consecutive seasons with 1,400 or more receiving yards. Jones has averaged 19 PPR fantasy points per game in his career and has finished in the top-six in air yards over the last five seasons. Is positive touchdown regression coming in 2019 with offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter? His Buccaneers offense ranked second in the NFL with 71 plays of 20 or more yards. Koetter was the Falcons offensive coordinator from 2012 to 2014. The team averaged nearly 40 passing attempts per game during that span of time. Quarterback Matt Ryan has always had a great rapport with Jones. Were you aware that he has thrown for 4,500 or more yards in six of the last seven seasons? Jones is in line to be given a healthy number of targets and air yards per game. You may be wondering if second-year WR Calvin Ridley will negatively affect Jones. His presence will most likely impact veteran Mohamed Sanu. The Falcons have also made improvements to its offensive line in the NFL Draft. This will provide Ryan additional protection and more time to throw downfield to Jones after having186 pressured dropbacks in 2018. We have Jones projected to finish the 2019 season as the WR1 in PPR formats. 

Targets Receptions Receiving Yards TDs PPR Finish
149.7 104 1,518 9 1

Since 2013, DeAndre Hopkins (Houston Texans) has averaged 9.5 targets, 5.6 receptions, 78 receiving yards, and 0.5 touchdowns per game. He had his statistical season to date with QB Deshaun Watson under center in 2018. Hopkins has proven to be a fantasy WR1 regardless of who was throwing the football. He led all WRs in 2018 with a 34 percent target share and according to Sharp Football Analysis had a 60 percent success rate when targeted. Were you aware the Texans offense ranked fourth in rushing attempts and 22nd in passing attempts last season? Hopkins has ranked in the top-three in air yards in each of the last two seasons. Watson played in 23 games over that time frame. Hopkins averaged 957 air yards per season from 2014 to 2016. Are you concerned about Will Fuller taking targets and air yards away? You shouldn't be. Hopkins accumulated 27 targets, 17 receptions, 264 receiving yards and two touchdowns in three games with Fuller last season. He may not have the marginally higher ceiling of Jones, but no other receiver has a safer play than Hopkins in fantasy football drafts this summer. We have him projected to finish the 2019 season as the WR3 in PPR formats. 

Targets Receptions Receiving Yards TDs PPR Finish
165 98 1,372 10 3

Adam Thielen (Minnesota Vikings) has averaged 930 air yards per season over the last two. He joined Evans, Jones, and Hopkins as the only WRs to accumulate 1,000 or more air yards last season. Thielen averaged nearly 10 targets, seven receptions, 86 receiving yards, and 0.6 touchdowns per game last season. He finished the 2018 season ranked top-six in targets and top-10 in target share. Thielen has numerous threats you should be aware of this upcoming season. Kevin Stefanski took over as the Vikings offensive coordinator after John DeFilippo was fired due to philosophical differences around the running game with three games remaining. The team averaged 21 rushing attempts per game with DeFilippo, but 28 rushing attempts per game with Stefanski. WR Stefon Diggs and tight end Kyle Rudolph also out targeted Thielen during the last three games of the season. The Vikings strengthened its offensive line in the offseason and brought in zone-blocking guru Gary Kubiak as the assistant head coach and offensive advisor. Thielen's age also suggests he'll take a step back in 2019. 

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The number of WRs finishing with a peak season (258 or more PPR fantasy points) trends down after a player's age 26 season. Will Thielen be an outlier entering his age 20 season? This upcoming season will be Diggs age-25 season. He's my preferred target in fantasy drafts, but if Thielen is somehow available don't allow him to stay on the board. We have him projected to finish as the WR11. 

Targets Receptions Receiving Yards TDs PPR Finish
117.9 88 1,136 7 11

We have Diggs projected to see 151 targets to this season. He'll have the best opportunity, in my opinion, given the projected target volume to finish as a top-10 fantasy wide receiver in 2019. 

Player Name Targets Per Game Air Yards AY Per Game AY Per Target AY Per Reception
Tyreek Hill 8.6 957 59 7 11
Davante Adams 11.3 929 62 5.5 8.4
Michael Thomas 9.2 928 58 6.3 7.4

Tyreek Hill (Kansas City Chiefs) averaged 8.6 targets, 5.4 receptions, 92.4 receiving yards, and 0.8 touchdowns per game last season. It was announced recently that Hill will not be disciplined under the NFL's personal conduct policy following an investigation into allegations of child abuse. As a result, his average draft position is about to explode. Hill finished 14th in air yards back in 2017 with QB Alex Smith, but had a career season with Patrick Mahomes under center. Many fantasy football analysts believe the Chiefs offense will regress in 2019. I respectfully disagree. Hill is unlikely to sustain his touchdown rate. The statistics that are most predictive from one season to the next for a WR at targets, receiving yards, and air yards. Hill can be viewed as a top-eight fantasy WR. We have him projected to finish the 2019 season as the WR7 in PPR formats. 

Targets Receptions Receiving Yards TDs PPR Finish
113 80 1,248 9 7

Continue Reading... The Predictive Ability of Air Yards by Eric Moody

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Eric Moody

Eric Moody is a member of the FSWA (Fantasy Sports Writers Association). His writing has been featured at FantasyPros, Gridiron Experts, RotoViz, and TwoQBs. He has a lifelong passion for the game and even played at the collegiate level as an offensive lineman. Eric also participated in Dan Hatman's Scouting Academy in order to learn the process of player evaluation at an NFL level. When Eric provides advice, he uses game film, analytics, and statistics to help you understand his perspective. He enjoys time with his family, Netflix, music, bass guitar, and coffee