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In Fantasy Football, the Stickiest Stats Are the Ones That Count

There’s a deluge of data and analysis that makes it difficult to get a leg up on your leaguemates. But some fantasy experts are cracking the code to help you better project player performance and win your league. Here are the numbers they’re focused on.

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With the ever-increasing breadth of fantasy football data and analysis, trying to figure out your draft strategy can be overwhelming. It’s important to know what stats and metrics really matter when it comes to choosing between, say, Tyler Boyd and D.J. Moore or Tarik Cohen and Kenyan Drake; do last year’s total rush attempts carry the most weight, or should I be looking at broken tackles? Does a player’s touchdown total translate year over year, or are targets a more stable indicator of future production? Basically, what are the most actionable, meaningful, or predictive—a.k.a. stickiest—stats when it comes to fantasy football?

To answer that question, I sought help from a few of the sharpest fantasy football minds in the industry. When it comes to quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, and tight ends, these are the stats and metrics that top fantasy analysts look to when building their squads.

Volume is king.

It’s not exactly breaking new ground to point this out, but it’s an essential starting point: Every player’s fantasy upside is inextricably linked to the number of looks he gets. For receivers, the metrics that correlate strongest with PPR fantasy points are pretty intuitive. In order: receiving yards, receptions, targets, yards after the catch (which is basically a subset of total yards), and touchdowns. For running backs, total yards correlate most strongly to fantasy scoring, followed by—perhaps surprisingly—snaps, then touches, total touchdowns, and rushing yards.

The takeaway from all that is obvious: In the early rounds, you want to target receivers who will be the obvious focal points of their passing offenses while grabbing running backs with clear three-down potential—the last few remaining “bell cows” in the league. The more basic counting stats players can rack up the better, and the top 30 players or so on consensus ADP lists are basically all locks (assuming health) for major volume in 2019—Saquon Barkley, Christian McCaffrey, Julio Jones, and so on.

But after the first few rounds have come and gone, it’s never as evident who will see that league-winning type of volume. That’s where identifying players poised for major boosts in crucial stats like yards, receptions, targets, snaps, and touchdowns becomes so important. As numberFire and FanDuel editor-in-chief JJ Zachariason told me, there’s a method behind spotting these breakout fantasy stars. “For receivers, the guys who far exceed their ADP generally have had some sort of production in the past,” he said, adding that he’s always looking at players battling for a starting role on good offenses.

“A really interesting example is the battle between James Washington and Donte Moncrief in Pittsburgh,” he said. “Washington doesn’t have the pedigree, or any production, but Moncrief does. He’s done something fantasy relevant in the past.” Yet Washington’s still being drafted earlier—he’s currently the WR47 with an ADP of 117 overall—while Moncrief sits at WR50 and 128th overall. Based on Zachariason’s research, receivers with at least some experience are better bets for that all-too-elusive breakout year.

At running back, identifying players in ambiguous depth-chart situations is also a great way to find a player who may inherit more volume than expected, said Zachariason, and again, target guys who will be playing in good offenses. But that brings up a good question: How do you identify which offenses will, uh, be good? “What’s sticky within an offense year over year is passing efficiency,” he said. “Quarterbacks control the football game more than any other player, and generally speaking, the same quarterbacks, apart from those at the bottom half of the league, are good year after year. That’s why with someone like Dolphins running back Kenyan Drake [RB28; 66th overall]—even though he looks very talented—it’s still hard to see a true top-10 ceiling just given the offense he’s in with Ryan Fitzpatrick or Josh Rosen at quarterback.”

On the other hand, Eagles running back Miles Sanders fits that breakout-potential criterion. The rookie out of Penn State is being drafted as just the RB32 (82nd overall) right now out of fear the team will employ a committee approach at the position. But in my opinion (and that of more than a few beat writers), he’s easily the most talented runner in that backfield and should be part of a strong offense under Carson Wentz in 2019. If he earns that starting job, Sanders has major volume potential and RB1 upside—exactly the type of player I like to gamble on in the sixth round.

Unlike at running back, projecting total snap counts isn’t always a smart strategy when it comes to identifying volume for sleeper fantasy tight ends. It’s total routes that matters more. As Sharp Football Analysis analyst Rich Hribar told me: “Snaps have a really low correlation to both standard and PPR points for the position. We only get points for what they do in the passing game; running backs can have a snap where they do either, getting involved in the running game or they can run a route and get a catch, but in the running game, the tight ends are just blocking. You get a guy like Colts tight end Jack Doyle, who is playing all these snaps over Eric Ebron,” he explained. “But when you look at how Ebron’s used, he’s just running pass routes. So his snaps are way lower, and that’s a turnoff initially for people. But when he’s in the game, Ebron’s doing literally one thing: running routes.”

That leads to situations like the one in Pittsburgh, where tight end Jesse James is on the field plenty, but doesn’t move the needle in fantasy. Instead, James’s teammate from last year, Vance McDonald, looks like a guy to target. He ran a route on 405 of his 564 snaps, per PFF, or 71 percent of his plays (James ran just 285 routes on 563 snaps). And with both James and Antonio Brown gone from that offense, McDonald could end up running routes on an even higher percentage this year. He’s easily my favorite mid-round tight end target.

Another example? Look to the Rams’ tight end group. “Tyler Higbee plays a ton of snaps, but runs no routes, like at all,” said Hribar. “But when Gerald Everett’s in the game, he’s just running routes. He runs routes on 65 percent of snaps. Higbee runs a route on 29.6 percent of snaps.” That could matter this season, considering there’s buzz that the Rams will be looking to run far more two-tight-end sets than they did last year. Everett, a super-athletic pass catcher with good hands and plenty of moves in the open field, is one of my favorite sleepers at the position.

It’s important to remember, too, that for players at every skill position, while total volume is certainly important, dialing into the per-game averages can be a way to identify undervalued players per ADP. “Targets per game are sticky for wide receivers,” said Hribar. “The best way to find value is to look at the guys who missed games last year; for example, Julian Edelman was 11th in targets per game last year, and then was subsequently 10th in catches per game and 12th in PPR points per game—but he’s going at like WR15 because his overall stats suffered.” Edelman’s target share could increase in 2019, too, considering Rob Gronkowsi retired and the team let Chris Hogan walk in free agency.

When you hear fantasy analysts say that volume is king, they’re not just talking about individual players. “Focusing on a team’s overall play volume can provide an edge,” Establish the Run’s Pat Thorman told me. “Routes run and snaps correlate super highly year over year for PPR production for receivers and running backs,” he said. “And simply put, if you’re on the field more, you’re going to have more opportunity. It’s like the most elemental level of building a projection.”

The Cardinals look like one team to target for fantasy this year because, if nothing else, they’re going to run a hell of a lot of plays. That offers the potential for a major boost in yards, receptions, and snaps for receivers like Christian Kirk and Larry Fitzgerald and running back David Johnson. Kirk in particular looks like a screaming value with an ADP of WR35 and 77th overall. As a rookie, he grabbed a 14 percent target share in Arizona’s anemic offense, which finished second to last in total plays in 2018 and attempted just 495 passes, 29th in the NFL. Extrapolate that target share onto a team that throws the ball upward of 200 more times over a full season, and Kirk’s production could explode.

But not all volume is created equal.

OK, you get it, in fantasy, volume is almost always a good thing. But by dialing in even deeper and identifying the right kind of volume—and then drafting based on that—you can find an even bigger edge on your competition.

It’s with that in mind that CBS Sports’ Ben Gretch developed TRAP—which stands for trivial rush attempt percentage—to help identify running backs whose total volume might be deceiving. Deep red zone carries—those inside the opponent’s 10-yard line, along with all receptions—he notes, carry far more value than carries everywhere else on the field. “Just over 75 percent of running back touches over the past five years were low-value rush attempts from the 10-yard line and out,” said Gretch. “They only counted for 42 percent of all fantasy points. The other 25 percent of touches—these high-value touches—account for the other 58 percent of fantasy scoring.” Those are the touches that fantasy drafters should be chasing. Or, perhaps more accurately, drafters should be avoiding the guys who specialize in low-value touches.

“Derrick Henry is a good example of a TRAP running back; he’ll get a big workload, but his workload won’t be particularly valuable,” said Gretch. “He’s not in a great offense, he doesn’t catch many passes; everyone loves him for this massive rushing upside, and we saw it for a brief flash at the end of 2018, but it’s not something that he’s going to be able to sustain over 16 games.”

Last year, the leaders in high-value touches were the usual suspects: Christian McCaffrey (136), Barkley (121), and Alvin Kamara (115). But it might surprise you to see James White (102), Tarik Cohen (75), and Nyheim Hines (69) each inside the top 10. Receptions are far more valuable than rushing attempts in both PPR and standard leagues, and that trio’s respective roles as the primary pass-catching backs in their offense might make them better values relative to their ADP than other early-down runners in the same range.

“When I think about how to apply this,” said Gretch, “it seems pretty obvious that in the fantasy industry we should not just report raw touch numbers, but add in that context of how many were high-value touches, much like air yards add valuable context to raw target numbers.”

Speaking of air yards, not every target has equal value when it comes to fantasy scoring. As AirYards.com and FiveThirtyEight’s Josh Hermsmeyer spelled out, “The reason air yards are important for fantasy is that a pass thrown deeper is worth more expected fantasy points than one thrown shorter.

“Air yards are basically a reflection of a receiver’s skill set,” said Hermsmeyer. A receiver’s air yards total can tell you more about the role that pass catcher plays than his simple target total would. Is he a deep threat with big-play potential or simply a dump-off option? Hermsmeyer takes that context and adds another layer to come up with his weighted opportunity rating (WOPR), combining a player’s air-yards share (their percentage of air yards over the team’s total air yards) with their target share, giving targets twice as much weight as air yards. The result, as Hermsmeyer notes, “is one of the best predictors of next-season fantasy points there is.”

The WOPR leaderboard for receivers is littered with the types of heavy hitters you’d expect to see: DeAndre Hopkins, Julio Jones, Odell Beckham Jr., and Davante Adams. But a handful of other, more surprising, names stands out. Tennessee pass catcher Corey Davis ranked eighth in WOPR in 2018, and while the team added Adam Humphries and A.J. Brown this offseason, he remains a scintillating breakout candidate this year—particularly if Marcus Mariota can stay healthy and have a bounceback season. Detroit’s Kenny Golladay, who ranks 11th on that list, is a similarly talented no. 1 wideout who left way too much meat on the bone last year. Golladay registered an abysmal catch rate in 2018 (just 58.8 percent), but that could change dramatically this season as the team transitions to Darrell Bevell’s play-action-heavy passing attack—a concept the speedy Golladay is perfectly suited for. Matthew Stafford utilized a play-action fake on just 18.9 percent of his pass attempts, good for 33rd out of 37 qualifying quarterbacks, but this year that number could skyrocket. Golladay, who finished ninth last year in total air yards (1,530), certainly got the right kind of opportunities in 2018. Now he has a chance to turn those opportunities into real production.

Pro Football Focus’s expected fantasy points metric, meanwhile, incorporates those ever-crucial red zone and air yards numbers and wraps them into a powerful tool that can help fantasy drafters identify not only which players got the most fantasy-relevant opportunities last year, but which ones were the most—or least—efficient with all those opportunities. As PFF’s Scott Barrett explains, they take carries, red zone attempts, goal-line looks, targets, air yards, and more to calculate “how many fantasy points a perfectly average running back would’ve scored with an identical workload.”

“It’s the most predictive stat I’ve ever seen,” says Barrett, who notes that it’s useful for projecting a player’s opportunity and then adjusting it based on that player’s historical levels of efficiency. Perusing the leaderboards for expected fantasy points provides a pretty good idea of which players should be safest to draft in the early rounds (you guessed it: Barkley, Adams, Hopkins, Jones, et al.) along with a few who might be risky. One nugget that jumped out to me was just how wildly Chargers running back Melvin Gordon outplayed historical baselines in 2018, averaging 22.6 fantasy points per game—a full 7.0 points per game more than what would be expected from an average back. Is Gordon that much better than average? Well, he’s definitely good, but I’d be wary of drafting him based on expecting a repeat performance: Gordon scored 7.5 touchdowns more than expected, per PFF, the third-largest positive differential by any running back this past decade. Gordon found pay dirt on all but three of his touches inside the 10-yard line, an incredible rate that likely isn’t sustainable. And that’s before factoring in a possible holdout. Gordon’s still got RB1 potential, but a regression from last year’s numbers may be coming.

Beware of touchdown totals.

Gordon’s red zone efficiency last year highlights an important point: As Zachariason told me, “Anything touchdown related, you can generally look at it and say, ‘This is going to regress.’”

Important: Regression goes both ways. It sounds like a negative, but some players regress positively from poor performances. If you’re looking for players who should score either more or fewer touchdowns this year than they did in 2018, Pro Football Focus’s expected touchdowns metric is a great place to start. “Expected touchdowns is both far stickier and more predictive at predicting touchdowns than actual touchdowns,” said Barrett. “Here’s an example: Last season, Calvin Ridley scored 10 touchdowns; based on his usage—again, measuring what a perfectly average player would’ve done in the exact same scenarios—he should’ve only scored five times. This is a historically significant number, it’s like top-15 in the past decade in positive differential.” Of course, it’s up to each fantasy drafter to decide what to do with that information. Is Ridley just that good? Barrett’s not buying that. “I’d put money on him scoring closer to five than 10 touchdowns next year even though I think he’s going to see more volume.”

Seahawks receiver Tyler Lockett is another prime regression candidate, after a 2018 in which he scored 10 touchdowns on 70 targets. “That’s not a sustainable way of producing fantasy points,” Zachariason said. Though, as he points out, Lockett should see more volume following Doug Baldwin’s retirement. On the other hand, Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster has positive regression potential in 2019. “Last season, he only scored seven times despite having 1,426 yards,” Zachariason noted. “Based on that yardage total alone, what we’ve seen over the past eight years, is that he should’ve had 8.65 touchdowns.” PFF’s expected touchdown metric is even more bullish, putting Smith-Schuster’s expected 2018 touchdowns at 9.6. Add in the fact that Antonio Brown is now a Raider, and Smith-Schuster has the upside to produce double-digit scores in 2019 and finish as the overall WR1.

You can’t completely ignore efficiency.

Volume matters most; if you’ve made it this far, I’m hoping that’s been hammered home. But sometimes projecting volume gets murky, whether that’s because of coaching shake-ups, depth chart uncertainty, or because a player has changed teams. In cases like that, efficiency stats can help predict fantasy production—and yards per route run (YPRR) is a good place to start. “It is a shockingly predictive efficiency stat,” said Barrett, “and it’s stickiest with receivers.”

If you’re judging a stat by how much it lines up with the eye test, YPRR might take the cake. The leaderboard at receiver is, well, basically all the best receivers (Hopkins, Michael Thomas, T.Y. Hilton, you get the idea) … and zero bad ones. Julio Jones, as Barrett notes, is “the unrivaled king of yards per route run. Over the past six seasons, he’s ranked first, first, first, first, fifth, and first.” There’s plenty of logic for why that’s the case. A player at or near the top of this list, as Barrett says, is “better than the other receivers on the team; adept at getting open; or trusted by his quarterback.” That can be useful in predicting an uptick in usage and fantasy production.

A few players stand out to me based on last year’s YPRR metric. Browns receiver Rashard Higgins finished ranked 30th among receivers (1.80) on the year, racking up 39 catches for 572 yards on just 318 routes. Higgins was especially impressive late in the year, when he averaged 2.18 yards per route run over the final five games (grabbing 18 passes for 257 yards on 118 routes run)—good for 13th among all pass catchers with at least 15 targets. Higgins showed chemistry with Baker Mayfield down the stretch and has an excellent opportunity to grab hold of the no. 3 receiver job in Cleveland this year while Antonio Callaway serves a four-game suspension.

San Francisco receiver Dante Pettis is another headliner. From Week 12 on—after he’d returned to the lineup from an MCL injury—Pettis ranked 10th among receivers in YPRR (2.26), grabbing 20 catches for 359 yards on 159 routes. Pettis nabbed four touchdowns in that stretch, too. He’s battling for a starting job in San Francisco camp, but showed the ability to separate late last year.

When looking for potential breakout stars at the running back position, yards after contact per carry can be instructive. As Hermsmeyer told me, he starts every fantasy season by plotting running back opportunities (carries and targets) against broken tackles to see who stands out. “Those are the guys I usually target,” he said, “especially if they’re looking like they’re in store for more volume.”

Based on the plot above, both the Browns’ Nick Chubb and Vikings’ Dalvin Cook excel in creating yards by themselves. Both are in line for major upticks in volume this year, too. On the other side of the coin, Jordan Howard and Marlon Mack stand out as not particularly dynamic. Neither does David Johnson, but he might have an excuse.

For rookies, I like to look at NFL.com’s Graham Barfield’s yards created notebook, a resource that breaks down just how elusive the backs in this year’s class were in college. Oakland’s Josh Jacobs was the clear standout in that metric—and all indications are he’s in line for major volume.

With quarterbacks, a few efficiency stats are actually more sticky than total pass attempts. Barrett notes, “Since 2007, among all quarterbacks who play in all 16 games, raw pass attempts had a 0.41 correlation to fantasy points [closer to 1.0 indicates a strong correlation, while closer to 0.0 shows a very weak correlation]. The correlation of fantasy points to passer rating was 0.73; the correlation to yards per attempt, 0.63. What’s that tell us? Efficiency is way more important than pass attempt volume for fantasy quarterbacks.”

That comes with a caveat, though, and it’s specific to the stubbornly run-heavy Seahawks. “In the past seven seasons, Russell Wilson has ranked top-4 in fantasy points per dropback six times,” said Barrett. “And he ranks best in fantasy points per dropback since entering the league. But Wilson ranked 32nd in dropbacks per game last season, causing him to fall to 13th in fantasy points per game.” Could this year be different, though? Wilson’s Seahawks, who lost Earl Thomas and Frank Clark over the offseason, face a murderers’ row of quarterbacks in the first half of the season, with matchups against the Steelers, Saints, Rams, Falcons, and Buccaneers—along with a couple of wild cards in the Cardinals and Ravens. Seattle may have no choice but to let Wilson loose in 2019.

Touchdown rate is another efficiency stat that tends to gravitate toward a quarterback’s career average. “We generally see touchdown rate fluctuation year to year,” said Zachariason, “Someone entering this year who had a far-lower-than-career-average touchdown rate last season is Aaron Rodgers. He still wasn’t horrible from a fantasy perspective in 2018, but I’d put money on it that Rodgers is going to be better from an efficiency standpoint at scoring touchdowns this year compared to last year.”

The Konami Code

When it comes to fantasy quarterbacks, the ability to run the football is becoming a cheat code of sorts. Hribar, who originally dubbed this strategy the Konami Code, is a big proponent of targeting passers with run-game upside. “Fifteen percent of all quarterback scoring last year was off rushing, the highest in NFL history,” he told me. “The guys who tack on high passing volume but can also rush for like three to five points a game, their floors are just too good, man. Even Patrick Mahomes, people forget—he added 45 rushing points last year.”

Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson is about as interesting a quarterback as we’ve ever seen in this category. Baltimore has built its entire offense around his legs, and Jackson led all quarterbacks in fantasy points per dropback over the final seven weeks of the season. “Jackson is still easily the best value in drafts, maybe in all positions,” said Barrett. “For quarterbacks, rushing yards are worth 2.5 times as much as passing yards; rushing TDs are worth 1.5 times as much as passing touchdowns.

“Since 2000,” he explained, “quarterbacks starting in at least 12 games and averaging at least 5.5 rush attempts per game averaged 18.7 fantasy points per game.” And while people are worried about Jackson’s upside as a passer, his rushing floor will give him starting potential week in and week out … and maybe more. “There’s been eight instances since 2000 of QBs running the ball for 700 or more yards,” noted Zachariason, “and of those eight instances, seven of those quarterbacks finished in the top five of fantasy scoring that year.”

Rushing gives Jackson a high floor. If he breaks out as a high-volume passer, too, he offers the type of league-winning potential we saw from Cam Newton in his MVP season in 2015.

Projecting Bills quarterback Josh Allen, meanwhile, is a little different. Allen, as Barrett noted “averaged 9.3 rushing fantasy points per game last year, the third most since 2000,” but unlike Jackson, Allen got most of his rushing volume on scrambles—not designed runs. The challenge for fantasy drafters is to decide whether Allen can keep that rate of scrambling up. “That’s the toughest thing with Allen,” said Hribar. “Midway through the season they just went to four-wide looks and said, like, ‘Listen dude, make your one read, and if not, everyone’s got their back to you, so fuck it. Go ahead, man.’ He had the highest scramble rate since 2010 Michael Vick, and he had the most scramble yards per game since 2010 Michael Vick. It’s pretty wild; he’s a really tough dude to project.”

“If there is no regression with Allen’s scrambling,” said Barrett, “you should be drafting him as a top-3, top-5 fantasy quarterback. He led all QBs in fantasy points per game over the last six weeks of the season. That’s his upside. It’s real. It’s drool inducing … I also don’t think it’s going to happen.”

Oh, and remember Russell Wilson’s passing volume problem? “By the way,” Barrett added, “Kyler Murray might just be the next Wilson … but with insane volume. He’s one of the best passers PFF’s ever graded in college ... while also being one of the best running quarterbacks we’ve ever graded in college.”

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