Which NFL Team Situations Are Best for Backup Receivers?

Davante Adams' fantasy average draft position is rising fast. Should you buy into this inflation, or does his status as a backup reduce his value?

There are few more frustrating things in the world than entering a mock fantasy draft, hoping to hone your selection skills, and then watching as everyone exits after the third round. The vast majority of fantasy players seem to be concerned only with the marquee players that they can draft in the first few rounds, not with actually strategizing on how to garner value into the later rounds.

This is what separates the true believers from the fantasy heretics.

Your big-time players are certainly exciting and interesting, but you can't win a fantasy league in the first three rounds of your draft. Sure, a poor strategy there can lose it for you, but where you really gain an edge on your opposition is by understanding the value of depth. To this point, if you don’t know which players are in good situations for value, you won’t be able to capitalize on undervalued options in the late rounds.

This is what we’re going to look at today: what team situations have been the most prolific for backup receivers in the NFL?

Depth Chart Diving

Fantasy commentators are falling over themselves to figure out whether Kyle Shanahan’s system will benefit Julio Jones enough for him to be the best wide receiver this year, or if A.J. Green is over his injuries and can rise to the top. I’m less interested in those guys, and more concerned with whether or not Falcons’ rookie Justin Hardy can seize the third receiver gig in Atlanta, and if Marvin Jones will be valuable in fantasy this year again.

I want to look at two different facets of value when it comes to these tertiary pass-catchers, opportunity and production. Getting this kind of broad picture of backup receiver positions in the league will allow us to see which teams consistently spread their wealth the most, which will give us cheap receiver options to dog-ear for our fantasy drafts.

We will measure production primarily through our signature metric here at numberFire, Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and assign them contextual value so they relate even closer to the game on the field. By adding down-and-distance value, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary. The specific kind of NEP we’ll use for this is Target NEP, which is the sum of expected point gained or lost on any play in which a specific player is targeted. We’ll look at opportunity through the lens of a more traditional statistic: targets.

Opportunity Knocks

So, which teams afford the most chances to their depth charts? By looking at the third-most prolific receivers on each NFL team over the past five years, we begin to see some patterns emerge. The table below shows the top five teams in the league by average third receiver opportunities since 2010, in terms of targets.

TeamAvg. Targets
Philadelphia Eagles80
Arizona Cardinals79
Denver Broncos77
Indianapolis Colts77
Green Bay Packers73

There’s little surprise in three team names on this list, as the Denver Broncos under Peyton Manning have loved to spread the ball around, whether to Wes Welker, Brandon Stokley, or Emmanuel Sanders. Indianapolis, too, is a highly pass-oriented offense and affords many opportunities outside of the top two receiving options. Green Bay, of course, is a great spot for receivers. Much of this value is due to the quality of their quarterback, but the volume and opportunity in this offense is enough as well that they make the top-five opportunity list.

One team I didn’t expect to see here is the Philadelphia Eagles, who have only had Chip Kelly’s up-tempo offensive unit for two years now. The Eagles rank tops in the league due to the contributions of sure-handed slot receiver Jason Avant, who was the third receiver from 2010 to 2013 for the team, and had a floor of 74 targets. This kind of high floor, plus Riley Cooper’s 94 target 2014 season, booms the Eagles up the ranks.

The other surprise is the Arizona Cardinals, a notoriously bad offense in recent years thanks to poor quarterbacking. How did they manage the two spot? They had a lower floor with Early Doucet’s 59 target 2010 season, but he then received 97 targets in 2011, and Michael Floyd had 86 of his own in 2012. The poor running game in the desert over the last five years forced these teams to throw a lot, which resulted in fantasy goodness for all.

The lowest five teams by average third-receiver targets are Kansas City (32nd), San Francisco (31st), New England (30th), Tampa Bay (29th), and Baltimore (28th). These are teams to avoid the third receiver options for on fantasy draft day.

Quality Over Quantity

It’s all good and well to see which teams throw the most to their second-string options, but another component of this is the quality of the passes. It doesn’t help a receiver to get 80 targets a season if only a third of them are catchable. We also want to know which teams afford the most potential value to their wideout depth chart. To measure this, we’ll examine which teams rank at the top of the charts in average Target NEP for third receivers. The table below depicts this data.

TeamAvg. Target NEP
Green Bay Packers25.40
New Orleans Saints25.34
Pittsburgh Steelers22.84
San Diego Chargers21.71
Indianapolis Colts21.30

This is a lot closer to expectation for me. Among the quarterbacks for teams on this list, we have four first-round picks, and one who was the first pick of the second round -- Drew Brees. There are numerous Super Bowl titles and league MVP awards across the board here as well. It’s no surprise that passers of such quality will also offer the most in receiving value as well. The Packers and Colts are the only two teams that make both of these top-five lists, which is important to note when looking for deeper value on draft day: the third receivers for them -– as of now, Davante Adams and Donte Moncrief, respectively -- can actually be solid fantasy contributors.

The lowest five teams by average Target NEP since 2010 are Kansas City (32nd), New York Jets (31st), Buffalo (30th), Jacksonville (29th), and Cincinnati (28th). The Chiefs are dead last on both lists, in large part due to their lack of wide receiver touchdowns; avoid their third receiver at all costs on fantasy draft day.

Sneaky Upside

We’ve found a nice cross-section of high opportunity low on the depth chart and great quality with that volume in Green Bay and Indianapolis. We’ve also noticed that Kansas City is a wide receiver wasteland. One last thing to take notice of is which teams have been the most effective on a per-target basis. Massive volume will of course boost value, but everyone knows that the Green Bay and Indianapolis offenses are good.

The table below shows the top five teams by average third receiver Reception NEP on a per-target basis. Where can we find a little bit of sneaky value?

TeamAvg. Rec NEP/P
New Orleans Saints0.81
San Diego Chargers0.80
Pittsburgh Steelers0.75
Dallas Cowboys0.72
Seattle Seahawks0.72

Three usual suspects sit in the top spots, but the Cowboys have made money for slot receivers Miles Austin and Cole Beasley in recent years on a per-play basis. Beasley had a solid 0.72 per-target Reception NEP last season, and a decent contract extension indicate his team’s confidence in him; he might be a solid buy-low candidate. The Seahawks are also a surprise appearance on this list, just ahead of the Packers in this metric. Quarterback Russell Wilson’s exceptional accuracy allows him to make each play quality, despite his team’s lower volume of passing.

The lowest teams in average third receiver Reception NEP on a per-target basis are Kansas City (32nd), Jacksonville (31st), New York Jets (30th), Minnesota (29th), and Cincinnati (28th).

If done carefully, you can prospect for draft day gold by scanning the depth charts. Hopefully these situational ranks allow you to find some surprising value and get a deeper edge on your opponents.