Forget Calvin Johnson, This Is Demaryius Thomas' Season

Calvin Johnson's been penciled in as the number one receiver in fantasy for years, but Demaryius Thomas may be the one to target this year.

I'll start this article with a cliche. There are no sure things in football. We've all heard this before, but it's painfully true. We could perform analyses on every piece of football data available, and still not know what will actually happen during the season. This awful truth is what forces us to take a deeper look at not only a player's prior performance, but what other players have done in the past as well.

Historical data may be one of the most powerful tools in the football industry when it comes to predicting future performance. That is exactly what we use here at numberFire. Instead of keeping all of our focus on the future, we value the ability to look back and ask, "What has happened in the past?".

It's through this historical lens that I want to look at Demaryius Thomas. While Thomas has cemented himself as a perennial elite receiver, he isn't always considered to be a candidate to finish the season as the number one receiver. Or, at least, he's not drafted that way thanks to Calvin Johnson.

I propose that we look at a few historical indicators to see if we can find a pattern or a "mold". Once we've created this mold, we can then begin to take a closer look at DT and decide whether or not he fits the mold of a top receiver.

As a quick note, I want to explain that I'm judging receivers in terms of Reception Net Expected Points (NEP), instead of other, raw statistics. This exercise is meant to look at the top receivers, not necessarily the receiver that scored the most fantasy points or the most touchdowns.

Quarterback Contribution

Here's a short table of each year's top receiver and their respective quarterback. The receivers were ranked in terms of Reception NEP, and the quarterbacks were ranked in terms of Passing NEP.

YearTop Receiver (Reception NEP)QuarterbackQB Rank (Passing NEP)
2000Randy MossDaunte Culpepper2
2001Marvin HarrisonPeyton Manning13
2002Marvin HarrisonPeyton Manning6
2003Torry HoltMarc Bulger10
2004Muhsin MuhammadJake Delhomme8
2005Steve Smith (CAR)Jake Delhomme8
2006Reggie WaynePeyton Manning1
2007Randy MossTom Brady1
2008Larry FitzgeraldKurt Warner5
2009Andre JohnsonMatt Schaub5
2010Brandon LloydKyle Orton18
2011Wes WelkerTom Brady3
2012Calvin JohnsonMatthew Stafford15
2013Calvin JohnsonMatthew Stafford12

When I was putting this data together, I figured that we would see a nice correlation between top receivers and their quarterbacks. While I think this table does support that hypothesis, I found it interesting that it's not a given. This speaks to the ability of elite players to perform far above expectation despite quarterbacks that don't.

However, more often than not, where there is a top wide receiver, there's also a top quarterback not far behind. To put this into a measurable quality, I would conjecture that a top receiver needs to play with a quarterback that finishes the season with a top 10 Passing NEP score. That being said, don't forget that this is not an unbreakable rule. Rather, this will greatly improve a receiver's chances of finishing the season with a league best Reception NEP.

Statistical Thresholds

Now that we have looked at how a top receiver's performance is related to their quarterback, it's time to look directly at the receiver and find some statistical thresholds that a player would need to meet in order to be number one. I've put together a table that looks at the key elements of each top receiving season.

YearPlayerReceptionsReception NEPYardsTouchdowns
2000Randy Moss77139.441,43715
2001Marvin Harrison109144.771,52415
2002Marvin Harrison143161.301,72211
2003Torry Holt117168.551,69612
2004Muhsin Muhammad93150.841,40516
2005Steve Smith (CAR)103143.331,56312
2006Reggie Wayne86134.461,3109
2007Randy Moss98156.951,49323
2008Larry Fitzgerald95132.671,43112
2009Andre Johnson101126.571,5699
2010Brandon Lloyd77130.171,44811
2011Wes Welker122146.441,5699
2012Calvin Johnson122162.561,9645
2013Calvin Johnson84143.561,49212

We can see that top receivers typically are able to finish the season with a Reception NEP score above 140 (64% of the top seasons met this threshold). Moreover, we would also need to see (at the very least) 1,400 receiving yards (92.8% met threshold) and double-digit touchdowns (71.4% met threshold). Receptions aren't going to be as significant, for the simple fact that the totals vary. Some players are able to do a lot with minimal targets (Randy Moss and Brandon Lloyd), while others needed a nice peppering of targets to reach their final numbers.

You should begin to see the pieces coming together in our simple profile of top receivers. We've got measurable attributes that we can use to make solid predictions based on historical data.

Does Size Matter?

PlayerHeight (Inches)Weight
Randy Moss76215
Marvin Harrison72195
Torry Holt72190
Muhsin Muhammad74217
Steve Smith (CAR)69185
Reggie Wayne72198
Larry Fitzgerald75225
Andre Johnson75219
Brandon Lloyd72192
Wes Welker69190
Calvin Johnson77239

Height and weight are thrown around a lot in fantasy football circles, especially with regards to receivers. We can see a nice diving line within the table above as each receiver, besides Wes Welker and Steve Smith, is taller than 72 inches. JJ Zachariason wrote an article earlier this year about how height can affect wide receiver success in fantasy football. He found that there are only 10 wide receivers that have recorded elite receiving seasons (by surpassing 100 Reception Net Expected Points) since 2000.

In short, it's statistically rare for a receiver shorter than 6 feet tall to record a Reception NEP score above 100, nonetheless a score above 140 (our threshold in this study). Generally speaking, bigger receivers are going to have an easier time reaching elite numbers, and therefore, will be more likely to finish a season atop the wide receiver rankings.

Does DT Fit the Mold?

Now that we've gone through our historical data and found our thresholds, let's take a focused look at Demaryius Thomas. Thomas has a fantastic physical profile. He comes in at 75 inches tall and weighs 229 pounds. This fits into our mold perfectly.

Demaryius has yet to record a season in which he breaks our threshold of 140 Reception NEP, but his numbers have consistently increased each year. In 2013, he was actually quite close to Calvin Johnson's Reception NEP of 143.56. Thomas came in at just over 130, which is extremely encouraging, given a quick comparison between the two receivers. Thomas had eight more receptions than Johnson, despite being targeted 14 fewer times. Moreover, both receivers recorded an identical (literally) Reception NEP per target score of 0.92. Theoretically, if Thomas had been targeted the extra 14 times, the two receivers would have been tied for the top spot. For Thomas backers, this is awesome news considering the team has thinned their receiving core.

As far as quarterback help (the first piece of the puzzle), it's hard to think that there would be better help than that which comes from Peyton Manning. Manning recorded his best Passing NEP season in 2014 by a huge margin. He's getting older, but if there's one thing that I've learned about Pey Pey, it's that you should never bet against him. Let's be honest, I don't think there's any way that Manning would finish with a Passing NEP score outside of the top 10. I would look for a similarly impressive season from this veteran in 2014, and I wouldn't be shocked if Thomas saw another 10 to 20 targets.

Overall, it seems quite possible, if not likely, for Demaryius Thomas to finish 2014 atop the wide receiver leaderboard. Barring injury and unforeseen circumstances, Thomas could be the best early-round wide receiver value this year.