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The Gut Check No. 400: WR Production Shares, ADP, and Consistency

Matt Waldman examines wide receivers that quarterbacks lean on in the passing game, including the return of his consistency data. 

Pairing statistics with insightful context can uncover fantasy value in pre-draft prep. Delivering the insightful context is the difficult part. Three data points that have potential value for fantasy owners are the percentage of targets, yards, and touchdowns that pass catchers earn from their quarterback during the year.

This week's Gut Check column will examine these three statistical outcomes for wide receivers between 2014-2016. This information will also be paired with ADP, consistency data, and other salient points that will help readers identify some of the safest options in 2017 fantasy drafts.

ABOUT CONSISTENCY DATA

I began publishing Consistency Data in 2004. What differentiates my examination of "fantasy consistency" from many is that I don't use standard deviation as the method because this stat's purpose is to measure the variance of a process. When I was posting a lot of consistency analysis in the early-to-mid 2000s, the few others who were analyzing consistent performance were valuing low standard deviations because it proved to them that the process is under control. When applied to fantasy football, standard deviation doesn't help us see the type of consistency that a fantasy owner desires from a player.

Standard deviation doesn't take into account what we really want to know: How consistently a player reaches at least the desired amount of fantasy points per game. "At least" are the two key words. Strict adherence to standard deviation as the process punishes players who score a lot more than the baseline target—even when they consistency deliver to that baseline.

For example, here's a look at the 2016's top-35 PPR wide receivers with a minimum scoring average of 10 points per game and ranked by lowest to highest standard deviation:

Lowest Standard Deviation Among 2016 PPR Wide Receivers (Minimum of 11 fantasy points per game average)

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Several of the receivers (in red and near the top) with the lowest standard deviation of fantasy points scored (yellow row) are closest to the minimum baseline average that I queried for this list. Many of the highest weekly fantasy scorers (in green and near the bottom) have the largest standard deviation scores. This is why I set tier baselines by generating average values for elite, WR1, WR2, WR3, and subpar categories based on the fantasy years in question. This method doesn't punish consistently high scoring options because their massive game in Week 4 blew their tight little standard deviation figure. 

In other words, why would you punish Julio Jones' consistency because of his 300-yard game? Consistency in our industry's context is about consistently being good—and "better" is always encouraged! 

There's nothing wrong with taking the players in red or at the top of this list at the appropriate round but standard deviation offers are limited scope to the measurement of consistent performance in fantasy football. As mentioned in my article on running backs, I will feature consistency data throughout the summer at Footballguys. 

Wide Receiver Production Shares

Before digging into consistency data, let's examine production shares between 2014-2016, including the top 36 receivers with the highest percentages of targets, yards, and touchdowns in their offenses. These are the columns highlighted in yellow, green, and blue below. 

Receiver Target Shares 2014-2016

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 Insights from this data: 

  • 31 of the 36 leaders in target share (86 percent) were also leaders in yardage share. 
  • 28 of the 36 leaders in target share (78 percent) were also leaders in touchdown share. 
  • Of the 13 receiver seasons that weren't leaders in all three categories:
    • 8 earned extensive time in the slot
    • 3 were paired with quarterbacks with less than 4 years of experience
    • 2 were Julio Jones.
  • Receivers leading in all three share categories are classic primary receivers.
  • Receivers leading in target and yardage shares spent significant time in the slot. 
  • Of the three receivers qualifying in target and touchdown shares only (Larry Fitzgerald, Allen Robinson, and Michael Crabtree), two were big-slot options who can play outside and all three lacked a top tight end.
  • There's a great deal of variety in height and weight when examining the physical make up of these receivers. 
  • The bold brackets around the categories are for receivers that accounted for at least 25 percent share of each offensive category during that year.
    • 8 of the top 10 target share leaders also accounted for at least 25 percent share of yardage and touchdowns in their passing offense. 
    • Of the 15 receivers with at least a 25 percent share in all 3 categories, 11 either have a teammate on this list from the same season or a teammate at receiver or tight end that was a fantasy starter that year.
  • Four players have multiple seasons on all three lists:
  • Several players have multiple seasons on two lists:
  • Curiously, Antonio Brown, Dez Bryant, and A.J. Green do not have multiple seasons during this span due to injury and/or makeup of scheme and surrounding talent. I don't think these circumstances will influence anyone to bypass them in the early rounds of a fantasy draft. 

Similar tables sorted by yardage and touchdown shares are listed below. 

 Receiver Yardage Shares 2014-2016

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 Receiver Touchdown Shares 2014-2016

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Consistency and ADP

This is the same table as the one sorted by target share (because targets had the greatest repeat customers in yardage and touchdown shares) but without the highlights and sorted by specific consistency data in the following order of priority:

  • Elite (Highest to lowest)
  • WR1 (Highest to lowest)
  • WR2 (Highest to lowest)
  • Sub Par (Lowest to highest)

I've included WR3 data in all of these lists because many fantasy owners play in leagues that start three receivers. While I've set the Sub Par Tier to WR3 average values, I could easily adjust it so WR4 or WR5 is that point of no return. This is something that I'll do when I cover consistency in greater detail next month. Regardless, the WR3 consistency data will still be helpful to those who start three pass catchers. 

While the ADP is for 2017 and the other data ranges from 2014-2016, there are few players on the list below who won't be considered for fantasy lineups on a weekly basis. 

WR Target Share And Consistency 2014-2016 And 2017 ADP

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Second-Half Value

Jeremy Maclin was a financial castoff, not a diminishing talent. His 13th-round ADP is based an injury-bitten 2016 and getting cut. However, Maclin offers the Ravens a good route runner with skill from the slot and the perimeter. As bad as Joe Flacco has been to fantasy owners over the years when he's had veteran receivers with a handle on routes, the Ravens quarterback has been a top-12 option. You have to go as far back as the Derrick Mason-Anquan Boldin-Flacco era of 2010 to confirm it, but it's no tall tale.

Maclin performed like a WR1 on a weekly basis over 50 percent of the 2015 season. During his injury-riddled 2016 campaign, he only had one WR1-caliber week, but nearly 42 percent of his starts resulted in WR2 production. With that info in mind, I'll buy on Maclin a the cost of a WR6. 

On The Mark

Rishard Matthews is drafted as a low-end WR4 right now despite earning WR1 production last year thanks to the hype machine on Corey Davis (and even Taywan Taylor is smaller camps of the fantasy community). I love Davis' skills and wouldn't be surprised if he develops quickly.

Where the fantasy community gets it right on Matthews is last year's consistency of WR1 production. Matthews only accounted for WR1 production in 37.5 percent of his games and his two elite games bolstered his total production. This was great value for fantasy owners in 2016 who got him cheap and used him as a WR3 or WR4/flex and he outperformed expectations because he was a WR3 62.5 percent of the year. It's why I agree with a low-end WR4 ADP for a player who earned WR1 production last year.

What people are downplaying is the possibility that Davis' presence elevates Marcus Mariota from a borderline fantasy QB1 to a mid-range QB1 capable of supporting 2-3 viable fantasy starters in the passing game. The addition of Eric Decker (see below) gives Mariota three quality veteran weapons in the passing game capable of playing in the slot or outside, which elevates Mariota's production potential. At the cost of a pick in the middle of the ninth round, I'll add Matthews to my squad to find out if I don't like the value of options at other positions at this spot. 

Randall Cobb performed in the WR1 tier in 75 percent of his 2014 starts, but his output was WR4-like in 69 percent of his 2016 performances. The return of Jordy Nelson and emergence of Davante Adams reduced Cobb's output. He's a well-known name with a proven game, but his role is decidedly the third or fourth option in this Green Bay passing game. He's worth an eighth-round pick because he has early-round upside as a WR4 value. 

Bargain WR3s

Eric Decker only played three games last year, but one of those efforts was an elite performance and the other two were no worse than WR2 material.  Decker, like Maclin, can play inside and outside, although he's much better known as a perimeter guy. Tennessee's one-year rental of Decker makes sense because the receiver is a sturdy, mid-sized sedan that has the size and handling to earn space in heavy traffic and the acceleration find the open road.  

Decker, and Rishard Matthews are capable of rotating between the slot and the perimeter depending on the progress of rookie Corey Davis. Decker's asking price in the late part of the eighth round may seem steep for a player on a new team, but his ability is far higher than WR42. At worst, Decker and Matthews earn their ADP. I'm thinking Decker delivers low-end WR2 production.

Larry Fitzgerald was a WR1 two years ago when he had healthy teammates on the outside. Last year, he was the No. 17 PPR WR despite John Brown and Michael Floyd playing the roles of walking wounded. Somehow that has led to Fitzgerald earning a positional ADP of WR37 available at the end of the fifth round. 

I completely understand how the aging Fitzgerald winds up in the fifth round of fantasy drafts, but it's still a nice discount for a player who will likely account for 25 percent of Arizona's targets, yards, and touchdowns in the passing game. Fitzgerald performed in the WR1 tier for half of his 2016 starts and over two-thirds of his performances were WR2-caliber. Even so, he's leaving drafts as a high-end WR4. 

I suppose those worrying about falling off the edge of their flat earth haven't read that Fitzgerald still has more in the tank that those impressive young athletes who get gassed at his annual summer workouts. It's almost as bad with Brandon Marshall, who still made WR1-caliber plays last year when paired with Ryan Fitzpatrick, but 73 percent of his games were sub-par fantasy efforts. I'll give Marshall the benefit of the doubt that the setting was a bigger issue than his age. 

So have the Giants, who now sport a loaded receiving corps with a tight end/receiver hybrid in Evan Engram who will eventually create enough mismatches that Marshall will earn some easy big-play opportunities down the stretch. Before that happens, Odell Beckham's big-play skills will mean Marshall faces more No. 2 cornerbacks who won't be as skilled at shutting the veteran down on tight-window throws that Eli Manning will deliver.

When the Jets weren't an absolute wreck in 2015, Marshall was an elite fantasy receiver in 50 percent of his games and no worse than a WR2 in 81 percent of his 16 starts. Marshall may not reach those heights in 2017 but when you can get him at the end of the 6th round as a low-end WR3 who will earn targets from a quarterback capable of supporting 3 fantasy starters in the passing game, it's a good deal for a player that I expect to out-perform his WR3 designation. 

Boom-Bust

Kelvin Benjamin accounted for nearly 37 percent of Cam Newton's passing scores last year. It would be better news if Newton threw more than 19 touchdowns. It would also be better news if Benjamin's weight and conditioning weren't issues this summer. It's worth noting that Benjamin accounted for 50 percent of Newton's 18 passing scores in 2014, which means Benjamin is a strong bet as a fantasy starter in three-receiver lineups as long as he's in shape and healthy. Although a No. 2 fantasy receiver last year, I understand why his ADP is WR28 in 2017.

DeAndre Hopkins is going as WR11 in June, which is an expectation that he'll earn a slight rebound after performing as the No. 14 fantasy option in 2016. The only factor that we know contributing to last year's decline was quarterback play and it raises a legitimate question: Will Deshaun Watson and Tom Savage be better than the combination of passers delivering the ball to Hopkins last year?

Most will say the answer is not only "yes" long-term and based on Hopkins' ADP, the answer is also "yes" short-term. At a WR1 price tag this year, I'm hesitant to buy-in. Hopkins was only performing at WR2 standards 44 percent of the 2016 season and at WR3 standards only 50 percent of the time. I'm not as optimistic that the Texans are the plug-and-play situation that the Cowboys offense was last year. Dez Bryant's fantasy point average was within WR1 standards and he was at least a WR1 54 percent of the year, but Dallas' offensive performance is an absolute ceiling scenario for Houston this year and it makes Hopkins risky at WR11 as the 21st pick in fantasy drafts—especially when Aaron Rodgers, Rob Gronkowski, Brandin Cooks, and Doug Baldwin could be had within the same range and Fitzgerald and Marshall offer solid WR3 value with WR2 upside 2-3 rounds later.  

The boom-bust player who I think is worth the risk is Allen Robinson. Despite Blake Bortles' 2016 meltdown, Robinson performed to WR2 standards 50 percent of the time. It's a horrific figure for those who expected Robinson to deliver elite production 50 percent of the time, but now that he's priced as WR14 and available in the third-round, the investment is different. Even so, the last year's figures remain unsettling because you're likely taking Robinson as your WR1 after selecting a running back or you're risk-friendly and believe Robinson rebounds and posts WR1 production as your second WR in your lineup.

I'm in that risk-friendly camp because I buy into the narrative that Blake Bortles is competent when he works during the offseason (2015) and incompetent when he the offseason is his extended spring break (2016). This winter and spring, Bortles buckled down. Despite the desire to grind the ball, it's still a passing league and Robinson remains the top receiver on the depth chart. He accounted for a healthy 26 percent of Bortles' scoring throws last year. As Bortles' player improves, Robinson's production will follow.  

Bargain WR2

Julian Edelman qualifies as a bargain because he was last year's No. 21 fantasy wideout, but he's now available as WR25. The rationale for the slip in ADP must be fantasy owners banking on Rob Gronkowski playing a full season (he's missed 18 games during the past 4 years), the acquisition of Brandin Cooks as a "true WR1" (false, he's a big-play WR2 in role who can earn WR1 production), and the continued emergence of Malcolm Mitchell. Throw in fantasy owner's excitement about players returning from injury or taking the next step, and Edelman's value slips a bit.

The Patriots' slot man, who has a great rapport with Tom Brady pre-snap, earns a lot of targets after Brady moves him around the formation to exploit great defensive matchups. Edelman may not have top-tier upside—elite performances were 12.5 percent of his games last year—but he performed to a WR2 standard for 75 percent of the 2016 season. Only Jordy Nelson and Antonio Brown had a higher percentage in the WR2 tier. 

I think Cooks' presence will do more to alter Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen, and Mitchell than Edelman, who is the most stable component of that passing offense. Go ahead and look at upside but if you want rock-solid, fantasy WR2 production there are only, a handful of options who will give it to you as often as Edelman—and most of them come with a WR1 price tag.

Bargain WR1

Jordy Nelson doesn't seem like a bargain because he's already valued as a WR1, but as the No. 8 option at the position leaving the board at pick 14, it's a great deal. Once again, misnomers about a player's age and surrounding talent are deflating the value of a great option. Aaron Rodgers can support multiple fantasy options in the passing game, and Nelson's fantastic production came off a year of ACL rehab. Nelson was 50 percent rate in the elite tier and 68.8 percent rate in the WR1 tiers were second among all receivers in 2016 and he had the lowest percentage of sub-par games (6.3 percent) despite playing in an offense with another fantasy WR1 in Davante Adams, Randall Cobb, Jared Cook, and Ty Montgomery.  

Everyone is always looking for the hot new thing, but sometimes it means they miss the best thing for them. Nelson looks like that receiver in the first round.