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The Dark Zone: Mining for Touchdown Potential Inside the 10

Examining 2015 wide receiver performance from inside the 10-yard line... and looking for 2016 conclusions to draw

We all keep an eye on the red zone when setting fantasy football expectations, and for good reason. As common sense dictates, touchdowns come more abundantly and predictably from in close. But frankly, the red zone doesn’t do it for me – that’s to say, I don’t think it predicts enough for us. The 11- to 20-yard range is close to the goal line, for sure, but not quite close enough to affect the defense enough to draw major conclusions.

The red zone is a fine starting point for touchdown analysis. After all, since 2000, 66.4% of passing touchdowns have come from inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Once a team lands inside the 10, however, things start to tell a more comprehensive tale: 66.7% of those red zone TDs come from there. All told, that’s 44% of a typical player’s touchdowns – a much higher share than any other 10-yard area of the field. So, to draw the true meat of my touchdown expectations (and therefore my fantasy expectations in general), I look primarily inside the 10-yard line – what I call the dark zone.

Most importantly, the dark zone gives us a tighter and more predictable view of a receiver’s scoring potential. Since most touchdowns spring from within the dark zone, the vast majority of a guy’s TD potential is built from his dark zone outlook. If 44% of an average player’s touchdowns come from there, then it stands as the most stable, reliable base of projection data in his formula. So it makes sense to examine the dark zone closely as we look for tomorrow’s TD kings. And here’s how 2015’s wide receivers fared:

* Minimum 5 dark zone targets. Thanks, as always, to Pro Football Reference for use of their compiled data.

A quick breakdown of the stat categories:

Gm Games played

Tg Targets

TmDZAt Team's pass attempts from within the deep zone

TmDZTg% Player's percentage of his team's deep zone targets - how many of his team's short-yardage passes were aimed at him?

DZTg% Percentage of the player's own targets that came from within the deep zone - how much of his workload came in short yardage?

DZTD% Percentage of the player's deep zone targets that went for touchdowns - how often did he turn short-yardage targets into touchdowns?

DZSc Deep zone "scoreability" - how often did he turn short-yardage receptions into touchdowns? (i.e., was this guy a deep zone dynamo who was thrown to in the end zone a lot and/or capable of turning short passes into scores?)

Observations

Depending on just how much weight we put into the dark zone, we may take some pause with the consensus top-three guys. Not a ton – they’re still my clear 1-2-3 players off the board – but enough that a major drop-off from one or more wouldn’t shock me. Antonio Brown looks least likely to slip. He’s not an overwhelming touchdown scorer, as the Steelers have struggled in the red zone for years. But with Martavis Bryant missing the season and Le’Veon Bell joining him for four games, Brown actually carries TD upside this year. Odell Beckham Jr.’s dark zone work was disappointing in 2015 – he drew a solid 20 targets (over 15 games) from the red zone, but only seven came from inside the 10. But I’m not overly worried. Beckham’s main competition, Rueben Randle, is gone and replaced with rookie Sterling Shepard. He’s a slot type who brings promise as a technician, but doesn’t profile as a major TD threat. Julio Jones carries real concern; his ho-hum usage and production from the dark zone is a multi-year trend. He’s drawn just 23.3% of those targets over his last 47 games, and his 29.6% dark zone TD rate is subpar. With such a rough touchdown outlook, Jones needs the ridiculous volume he saw in 2015 to remain in the top tier.

Allen Robinson tied for the league lead in dark zone targets (and converted them exceptionally well), which makes for a fine fantasy outlook. The fact that he also led the league in receptions of 20+ yards means there’s no reason he shouldn’t be the WR6 or WR7 off the board. With those absurd efficiency numbers, he could easily weather a modest Jacksonville passing dip and remain a first-round value. As an exercise: if we were to scale his dark zone rates and the team’s attempts from there back to good-not-great levels, Robinson would still project to a majorly touchdown-rich season. If we adjust his and the Jaguars’ dark zone numbers down the 75th percentile, he’d still post eight DZ touchdowns – tied for first on the 2015 list.

I’d call Dez Bryant his only real competitor for that WR6 spot. Simply put, Bryant has been the league’s premier touchdown-maker over the last half-decade. Since 2010, Calvin Johnson is the only wideout to exceed his 59 touchdowns, and no one tops his 14.3% TD rate. And most of that excellence is rooted in Bryant’s dark zone chops. It’s encouraging that his 2015, shortened by injury and spent catching most of his balls from Matt Cassel and Brandon Weeden, still resulted in solid dark zone numbers. All of them landed in the top 60ish percentile among this group, and the lowest – his TD conversion rate – was far, far below his elite career mark (54.8%). There’s plenty of risk in Bryant – enough that I’d almost certainly opt for Robinson of the two – but clear top-four upside from the end of Round 1.

I’m not reading much into the Colts’ numbers. Both played with subpar-to-awful quarterbacking for most of the year, and their prime competition for red zone looks – Andre Johnson and Coby Fleener – has bolted town and left little talent in the wake. (It’s worth noting that Moncrief managed to turn his dark zone lemons into lemonade, scoring on 60% of his targets.) Going forward, I’m expecting similar efficiency with stronger volume – both should top seven TDs, and the big, explosive Moncrief carries a ceiling well beyond that.

The outlook for the Panthers’ twin towers, on the other hand, isn’t as great. Strikingly similar youngsters Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess boast massive size, but the team’s low dark zone volume limits their ceilings, and their historical inefficiency points to a rough floor. Benjamin was horrid near the goal line in 2014, turning a pathetic 3 of his 17 dark zone targets into touchdowns as a rookie; he’ll need massive all-around volume to return value as a weekly WR2. Funchess’ rookie sample size was small and doesn’t tell us much, but the crowded table in Carolina suggests he’ll again fight for notable short-yardage use.

It looks like, from a value standpoint, Michael Crabtree might be the Oakland receiver to target. He’s usually available 3-4 rounds later than teammate Amari Cooper, but boasts stronger reception and touchdown outlooks. Crabtree drew the fourth-highest dark zone share in the league – his 8 targets weren’t overwhelming, but it’s telling that Cooper didn’t draw a single look from inside the 10.

Jordan Matthews has his warts, but the red and dark zones aren’t among them. Over his two seasons, he’s drawn 18 of the Eagles’ 74 targets (24.3%) from inside the 10, converting 11 (61.1%) into touchdowns. This doesn’t look fluky, either – Matthews is well-built and was a red zone dynamo at Vanderbilt. Whatever you think of his all-around outlook, keep his ranking reasonable considering the real potential for 8-10 TDs.

Including the playoffs, Doug Baldwin exploded for 15 touchdowns last year – with 12 over the revamped offense’s final eight games – but that should scale back noticeably in 2016. Only 3 of those 15 scores (20%) came from the dark zone, which is way out of whack from Baldwin’s career rate (47%). Baldwin is a fine receiver, but his downfield prowess isn’t as strong as 2015 suggested, so he’ll likely need high dark zone production to again approach double digits. And he’s just not a huge part of the team’s short-yardage plans, drawing just 5.6% of dark zone looks over his five seasons. As Tyler Lockett continues to emerge and Jimmy Graham works toward a return, Baldwin’s share in the offense is almost certain to downtrend. He’s a likely bet for 8+ scores, but projecting far beyond that looks dicey.

Fantasy owners looking for a late-round PPR steal are hoping Rashad Greene beats out Marqise Lee for Jacksonville’s No. 3 role. Lee has been an injury-prone, inefficient mess as a pro, “boasting” an anemic 6.1 yards per target and just two touchdowns in two years. Greene is no gamebreaker – he’s small, slow, and produces even less yardage than Lee – but he’s at least been trusted and reliable from the slot. And he took on something of a red zone specialist role as a rookie, with 5 of his 35 targets coming in the dark zone. (He converted two into touchdowns.) This may be the saddest fantasy recommendation I’ve ever made, but Greene could easily turn in a line around 70 catches and 5-8 touchdowns – from the very last round of most drafts.

Speaking of crappy, injury-riddled slot men who often flail into fantasy value: Eddie Royal saw 9 of his 50 targets from inside the 10, over just nine games. That was good for 41% of the Bears’ dark zone pie. With Martellus Bennett gone and few intermediate options on board, Royal could bounce back to the TD-heavy lines he posted in San Diego. A season of 60 catches and 6 touchdowns would be huge value at the tail end of drafts.