Can Keenan Allen See Enough Targets to Be a Fantasy Football Value?
NFL players who miss significant playing time -- either for injury or suspension -- always tend to throw a wrinkle into fantasy football analysis.
If that particular player was a strong fantasy asset prior to the absence, his value can really get strange. People either dismiss the likelihood of a return to fantasy greatness or expect too much too soon.
Just last week, I wrote about how fantasy players are failing to appreciate fully how good Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant’s career has been so far and that they are undervaluing him after he missed 2016.
The opposite situation is happening with Keenan Allen.
Fantasy owners are drafting Allen, who also missed basically all of 2016, based off his 2015 season (during which he played eight games).
But in reality, 2015 presented a unique set of circumstances that led to Allen producing tons of fantasy points thanks to incredible volume. It will be difficult for Allen to enjoy the same fortuitous situation in 2017.
Extreme 2015 Passing Volume
Allen's upside is tied to his quarterback, Philip Rivers, who has only exceeded 582 attempts once in his entire career.
That number came in 2015, when Rivers set his career-high in pass attempts (by a mile) with a whopping 661 attempts. Allen commanded a 25.4% target share in one of the league’s most voluminous passing offenses yet still failed to crack the top five in terms of PPR fantasy points per game.
Allen Needs Volume
In fantasy football, volume is a good thing. However, Allen hasn’t exactly been efficient with his targets.
Allen’s declining yards after the catch per catch is a concerning trend. The fact that his air yards per catch and yards after the catch per catch are both trending significantly lower than his rookie season demonstrate that he has not been efficient and has actually relied on volume.
Allen’s mediocre 0.95 Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) per catch -- which you can read more about NEP in our glossary -- score in 2015 backs this up.
The NFL average mark for a receiver in 2015 was 1.13, and Allen ranked 38th among 48 receivers with at least 50 catches in 2015.
Rivers' Declining Volume in 2017
As shown above, Allen needs volume in order to have success.
The perfect storm in 2015 of Rivers' career-high attempts combined with little competition for targets is highly unlikely to be the case in 2017. In fact, with the Los Angeles Chargers' plethora of receivers, Allen could face a significant target crunch.
The primary reason for Rivers' elevated volume in 2015 was the Chargers' poor defense, which forced the team to face significant negative game flow.
In 2015, the Chargers ranked bottom-five in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play. In 2016, they were actually above average, ranking 12th-best. This was with Joey Bosa missing the first four games of the year and stud cornerback Jason Verrett playing only four games due to a torn ACL.
If that wasn’t enough, the Chargers actually ranked fourth in average scoring margin at the start of a drive in 2016. The Chargers should face significantly more positive game script in 2017.
One other factor to consider is the offensive coordinator change. We already know that over the past three years, teams that change their head coach and offensive coordinator average 40 fewer passing attempts the following year. If that wasn’t enough, the new head coach the Chargers brought in, Anthony Lynn, is notorious for his ground and pound approach.
After all, he was the interim offensive coordinator for the Buffalo Bills last year, and they led the league in rushing yards and touchdowns and were second in rushing attempts.
So even though Rivers dished out roughly 80 fewer targets in 2016 as compared to 2015, we should expect even more of a decline in passing volume going forward.
Competition for Targets
In 2015, Allen's competition for targets was quite a unique situation: the most targeted option in the passing game that year wasn't even a receiver. It was running back Danny Woodhead with 106 targets (Allen was second on the team with 89 targets in only eight games).
The most targeted wide receiver aside from Allen was Malcom Floyd, who saw only 68 targets. Considering Rivers' enormous passing volume that year and the fact that Allen was hurt half the season, this is a remarkable feat.
After posting a 1,000-yard season in 2016 as he gained chemistry with Rivers, Tyrell Williams will surely draw targets. Travis Benjamin battled knee injuries all year but was actually averaging more than seven targets per game in the first six weeks of 2016 before the knee flared up.
While no one is suggesting that the Chargers will feature Inman or Benjamin at the expense of Allen, they are certainly capable options. And, considering Allen’s aforementioned efficiency concerns, it follows that the Chargers will spread the ball around.
If that was the end of it, then maybe we wouldn't need to worry at all about Allen's volume.
Hunter Henry, however, posted an incredibly efficient season as a rookie tight end, as he had the third-highest Reception NEP per target mark of all receivers with at least 30 receptions. This includes all receivers, not just tight ends.
As Pro Football Focus has shown, players at the extreme positive ends of efficiency in one year tend to see an increase in targets the following year. However, Antonio Gates is still on the roster, and his connection with Rivers will allow him to also see a slice of the passing volume, especially in the valuable red zone.
To complicate matters further, Melvin Gordon proved himself able as a pass-catcher in 2016, hauling in 41 receptions in 13 games. The Chargers also welcome back capable receiving back Branden Oliver from injury.
Almost every factor points toward a significant target crunch for Allen in 2017. And that's not even to mention the injury risk with drafting Allen in the third round.
He can overcome a downtick in volume if his efficiency improves, but for a receiver who relies on volume to compensate for his mediocre efficiency, this is a serious concern.
Don’t draft Allen at his current draft cost or expect him to repeat his 2015 volume.
Our algorithms project Allen for just shy of 120 targets and a WR24 finish in non-PPR leagues.