Fantasy Football: Using High-Leverage Targets to Find Regression Candidates

Not all targets are created equal. By focusing on high-leverage targets, we can learn a lot about which receivers may improve or regress this season.

When evaluating wide receivers for fantasy football, the two of the stats we discuss most often are target share and red zone targets. Those two factors are undeniably important in determining a receiver's scoring potential. If you're focusing solely on those two factors, however, you're missing out on other valuable pieces of information that can influence a player's scoring.

Overall target share is important, but not all targets are created equal. This is why we often look at red zone targets, which are obviously more likely to produce touchdowns. But we should also be giving weight to downfield targets, which produce almost the same rate of scoring as targets in the red zone.

Using data from Sports Info Solutions, we can break down the different types of targets to determine how many fantasy points they produce. Here's a look at the scoring output for three types of targets in 2018.

Target Type PPR Points Per Target
Red Zone 2.60
21+ Yards Downfield 2.24
All Other Targets 1.51

As expected, red zone targets are the most valuable, but the deep ball targets aren't far behind. So we should be giving these types of targets almost as much attention as we do targets in the red zone.

To simplify things, I'm going to group these two types of targets together and refer to them as high-yield targets (HYT). High-yield targets generated 2.4 PPR points per target last year, compared to 1.5 for all other targets. (All of the following data on high-yield targets comes from Sports Info Solutions.)

I previously referenced high-yield targets in a piece on Los Angeles Chargers receiver Keenan Allen, so you may be familiar with the concept, but there's far more to be learned about receivers around the league by digging into these numbers. So let's take a closer look at the data to see if any trends may help us set our expectations for other receivers.

The Elite Dual-Threat Receivers

Only three players in the league were on the receiving end of at least 20 red zone targets and 20 deep ball targets in 2018 -- Antonio Brown, Davante Adams and DeAndre Hopkins. Since Brown is in a new, probably less-explosive offense with the Oakland Raiders, his fantasy value is a little murky entering 2019. But based on this data, a strong case can be made for Adams and Hopkins as the two receivers with the highest fantasy ceiling this year.

By seeing a high volume of both types of high-yield targets, Adams and Hopkins should continue to consistently put up big fantasy numbers. It's also worth noting that Hopkins and Adams finished with the two top HYT shares in the league last year.

Receiver HYT Share
DeAndre Hopkins 38.4%
Davante Adams 36.6%
Julio Jones 36.2%
Tyreek Hill 33.3%

Tyreek Hill
and Julio Jones are slightly less well-rounded in their usage -- both see significantly more deep balls than red zone targets -- but by seeing at least one-third of their team's high-yield targets, they also remain elite fantasy weapons.

Candidates for Negative Regression

Since we know how many fantasy points per target the league averaged on each type of throw, we can calculate the expected fantasy point total for each receiver. Since these values are based off league averages, we should expect the more talented receivers to outperform these numbers to a degree. But if anyone exceeded their expected value by an extreme amount, it would make them a candidate for negative regression.

Here's a look at the receivers who had the largest positive gap between their actual fantasy output on high-yield targets and their expected value.

Receiver Actual Points Expected Points Difference
Tyler Lockett 126.0 51.4 74.6
Calvin Ridley 97.7 50.3 47.4
Tyreek Hill 170.5 135.7 34.8
Tyler Boyd 76.9 48.4 28.5
Michael Thomas 114.9 86.6 28.3

Predictably, these are all talented receivers, and it's perfectly reasonable to expect them to outperform their expected numbers again in 2019. However, one name here stands out as a strong regression candidate. Tyler Lockett's actual fantasy output on high-yield targets was more than double his expected output -- an obviously unsustainable performance.

There are other reasons to like Lockett as a fantasy target this year -- an increased workload due to the loss of Doug Baldwin, for example -- but we have to assume he won't replicate this incredible level of efficiency.

Calvin Ridley also nearly doubled his expected output last year, which makes him another candidate for regression, but it's less obvious than Lockett. A rookie outperforming expectations to such a high degree seems unlikely. But did he benefit from some luck, or is he just better than we anticipated? The numbers can't definitively answer for that for us, but it's a question you should ponder before investing in him.

Candidates for Improvement

Using the same logic, we can also look at the receivers who might be candidates to improve their fantasy value in 2019 via positive regression. Here are the receivers who had the biggest negative difference between their fantasy output and expected performance on high-yield targets.

Receiver Actual Points Expected Points Difference
Josh Doctson 18.2 58.9 -40.7
Quincy Enunwa 10.8 41.3 -30.5
Kelvin Benjamin 30.8 59.2 -28.4
Jermaine Kearse 14.0 41.3 -27.3
Jarvis Landry 75.6 98.7 -23.1

Some receivers on this list make perfect sense. They're below-average receivers, so they should produce below-average results. But Josh Doctson sticks out as a good candidate for improvement in 2019.

Doctson led Washington with a 28.1 percent high-yield target share, so unless rookies Terry McLaurin and Kelvin Harmon significantly cut into his workload, Doctson should continue to see a strong number of valuable targets. But the real reason reason to believe in Doctson is the expected upgrade at quarterback.

According to Sports Info Solutions, only 32 percent of Doctson's high-yield targets were catchable in 2018, the worst rate in the league among receivers who saw at least 50 total targets. Among that group of receivers, the average catchable high-yield target rate was 61 percent. So Doctson should get more catchable opportunities this season, especially if Dwayne Haskins -- who had a 71.5 percent on-target rate on high-yield targets in college -- wins the job in Washington.

Quick Notes on Other Interesting Players

DeSean Jackson is getting up there in age but remains a dangerous deep threat. He saw 27 high-yield targets last year, 22 of them on the deep ball. But Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick gave him catchable targets on only 40 percent of his high-yield targets, the fifth-lowest rate in the league. Perhaps Carson Wentz can give him more catchable balls to cash in on those opportunities with the Philadelphia Eagles this year.

Among receivers with at least 50 total targets, no one saw a higher rate of high-yield targets than Seattle Seahawks' receiver David Moore. A whopping 26 of his 52 targets (50 percent) were high-yield targets. Lockett appears to be the top wideout in Seattle, but after him, we're not really sure how the targets will be divvied up. If Moore earns a bigger role this season, this type of usage could make him a breakout candidate.

Only 17.9 percent of the Jacksonville Jaguars' pass attempts were high-yield targets last year, the lowest rate in the league. Could that change if they trust Nick Foles more than they did Blake Bortles? Possibly. If so, expect Dede Westbrook to experience a boost to his fantasy stock. Westbrook saw 25 high-yield targets a season ago, just behind Donte Moncrief, who led the team with 26. With Moncrief now in Pittsburgh, Westbrook could see an even bigger share of those targets.