Catching On
By Jeff Pasquino
August 9th, 2010

Fantasy football has changed over the years, thanks in part to the Internet and league hosting services. Long gone are the days of scouring over newspapers or Late Night TV highlight shows to try and figure out fantasy scores on our own - it is all done for us now electronically. Other advancements have been more controversial, mostly relating to scoring rules for fantasy football itself. The points per reception rule, or "PPR", really kicked in over the last 10 years or so and forced a change in the way of thinking about receivers and tight ends. Whether you like the rule or not, it does seem to be here to stay and that makes knowing all you can about reception totals to be a key piece of information.

In PPR leagues there are two types of players to target during a draft after the studs are have been picked over during the first few rounds. Either you can select a player who seems to get a ton of receptions every year, or you can try and go with someone who is more of a Red Zone threat to score a half dozen or more touchdowns for the coming year. There are arguments in either direction, but often the feeling about the player that gets "several catches a game" is more of a gut feeling than based on any particular study. That's where this article comes in.

What I did here was to look at the 2009 season for all players who caught passes last year - not just the top players, but all of them. Why so many? Well, at some point of the season you are going to be looking for someone on the waiver wire who can either cover a bye week or replace an injured player. You might even feel that a free agent would be an upgrade over someone you already have on your team. That is why it is important to take a look at all the players from 2009 and see how the numbers turn out. Reviewing the entire wide receiver, running back and tight end population can give us a good feel for how often we can "strike gold" via free agency.

Before we look at the data, let me share with you some questions that I wanted to try and answer from the numbers. I asked myself these questions before I saw the results so as to not form a personal bias:

  1. How often does a "fantasy stud" post a "fantasy dud" performance?
  2. How often does a "fantasy bench player" post a viable starting lineup score thanks to PPR?
  3. What are the odds of someone finding a good PPR player off of the free agent list?

To answer the first question, I first had to try and figure out what a "fantasy dud" performance would be. In my mind, any player who does not find the end zone had better get at least four catches for him to be a viable PPR player (from a WR or TE position - obviously RBs can contribute with rushing yardage as well). So that's the first question: How often does a Top WR or TE fail to catch four balls in a game? Table 1 shows the results for WRs that finished 2009 with 50 or more catches, 45 or more, and all WRs who saw game action:

WR Catches Per Game
Top 47 WRs / 50+ Catches
Top 60 WRs / 45+ Catches
All 146 WRs
3+
79%
76%
49%
4+
62%
58%
35%
5+
44%
39%
22%
6+
33%
28%
15%
7+
20%
16%
9%
8+
11%
9%
5%

Table 1: Catches Per Game - 2009 WRs

What I can gather from Table 1 is that, on average, the Top 47-60 wide receivers will catch four or more passes about 60% of the time, but then it really starts to taper off. Only one-third of the time can I expect to get six or more catches in a particular week. That tells me that the high-volume receivers are rather rare (maybe 30-36 each NFL week) so relying on a player to get 6-7 receptions each time out is a bit unreasonable barring true stud status.

Now let us take a quick look at similar results for both TE and RB in Tables 2 and 3:

TE Catches Per Game
Top 20 TEs / 40+ Catches
Top 40 TEs / 20+ Catches
All 112 TEs
3+
76%
54%
26%
4+
59%
37%
17%
5+
43%
25%
11%
6+
25%
15%
6%
7+
17%
10%
4%

Table 2: Catches Per Game - 2009 TEs

RB Catches Per Game
Top 18 RBs / 40+ Catches
Top 45 RBs / 20+ Catches
All 175 RBs
3+
60%
43%
18%
4+
40%
24%
9%
5+
26%
15%
5%

Table 3: Catches Per Game - 2009 RBs

Tables 2 and 3 give similar results but scaled down accordingly due to fewer targets to tight ends and running backs. All three tables have similar results highlighted as to were the top receivers start to hit the 60% mark for catches (3+ for RB, 4+ for TE and 5+ for WR) and then the falloff down to 33-43% for the top options happens for just one more catch per game.

With these three charts I can now answer the first question: How often does a "fantasy stud" post a "fantasy dud" performance? The answer is based upon the first column of each table. Anything less than 3+ catches for a RB, 4+ for a TE and 4+ for a wide receiver is a dud performance, so even the best receivers are going to have a subpar day about 40% of the time.

Table 4 consolidates the first three groups of data into a handy single table format:

Cat/Gm
Top 47 WRs
Top 60 WRs
All WRs
Top 20 TEs
Top 40 TEs
All TEs
Top 18 RBs
Top 45 RBs
All RBs
3+
79%
76%
49%
76%
54%
26%
60%
43%
18%
4+
62%
58%
35%
59%
37%
17%
40%
24%
9%
5+
44%
39%
22%
43%
25%
11%
26%
15%
5%
6+
33%
28%
15%
25%
15%
6%
7+
20%
16%
9%
17%
10%
4%
8+
11%
9%
5%

Table 4: 2009 Catches Per Game - All Positions

The next two questions we need to answer will require more than just percentages. Those numbers are just fine but what we really need are the raw numbers. There are just so many RBs, WRs and TEs that are in this study that we need to know how rare (or frequent) a big performance is from a player likely to be available on the waiver wire.

Table 5 takes the raw data for each position and gives us the frequency of each performance from last year (e.g. how many times did a WR have 6 catches in a game in 2009):

Cat/Gm
Top 47 WRs
Top 60 WRs
All WRs
Top 20 TEs
Top 40 TEs
All TEs
Top 18 RBs
Top 45 RBs
All RBs
# Gms
# Gms
# Gms
# Gms
# Gms
# Gms
# Gms
# Gms
# Gms
0
18
27
366
9
63
617
21
115
967
1
52
82
340
30
114
270
37
128
446
2
79
114
298
34
95
156
52
136
257
3
124
161
260
50
100
123
55
123
178
4
133
170
258
51
76
84
38
63
81
5
82
104
148
52
59
65
36
48
55
6
94
107
120
25
29
3
13
22
23
7
58
62
73
28
32
32
11
14
14
8
38
39
45
13
15
15
4
5
5
9
15
17
17
8
8
8
3
5
5
10+
30
30
33
3
3
3
3
3
3

Table 5: 2009 Catches Per Game Frequency - All Positions

So based on Table 5 we can draw several conclusions:

Studs rarely get shut out. Only 18 WRs, nine TEs and 21 RBs that had big seasons put up a goose egg in the receptions category last year.

It takes a stud player to put up a stud game. Only three WRs outside of the Top 60 caught 10 or more passes last year. No TEs accomplished this feat outside of the Top 20 while only two RBs outside of the Top 18 (and zero outside the Top 45) had nine or more catches last year.

Finding a viable WR option from the waiver wire is not so easy. Fantasy free agents (beyond the Top 60) only had 66 games with five or more receptions last season. That is just four per week.

It is not much easier to find a free agent RB that racks up the catches. Fantasy free agents (beyond the Top 45) only had 43 games with five or more receptions last season. That is just over two per week.

Things get even worse at TE. Fantasy free agents (beyond the Top 40) only had 13 games with five or more receptions last season. That is fewer than one per week.

Conclusions

Understanding what to expect from NFL players in a given week helps with roster decisions, especially in PPR leagues. Hoping for a big number of catches in a particular matchup is a tall order, even for the best of fantasy players. Free agents that can post viable numbers are almost just as hard to find off of the waiver wire. I hope that many of you take this data under advisement when trying to find viable free agents for your fantasy roster this season.

As always, questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to pasquino@footballguys.com.

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