Why Calvin Johnson Could Be 2015's Biggest Fantasy Football Steal
For the past few seasons, Calvin Johnson has been one of fantasy football's most coveted assets.
Securing him, understandably, cost you your first-round pick, but now, Megatron is being drafted in the second round of best-ball leagues as, roughly, the 16th pick. He's the sixth receiver being drafted.
Yeah, he struggled with injury last year and missed three games. And, yes, he will turn 30 in September. So with plenty of younger up-and-comers to pick from, is investing in the aging superstar really worth it?
Yes. Yes it is.
Down But Not Out
Yards are great, and touchdowns are better. Fantasy points are even nicer because that's really all that matters, right?
But sometimes yards and touchdowns are a bit fluky, and sometimes garbage production skews year-end results. Sure, they still count and all, but they might not accurately reflect how a player performed.
Our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric corrects for that by assigning context to yards and touchdowns. For example, if Johnson hauls in a 10-yard pass on 3rd-and-5 to get the Lions into the red zone, that's fantastic. If that 10-yard reception happens on 3rd-and-20 and leads to a punt, that's not quite as great.
They count the same for fantasy football, but one helps the Lions score more points -- hypothetically -- and also indicates whether a player is being utilized in ways that lead to points and touchdowns for that player and his team.
So, yes, Johnson's 82.8 yards per game tally -- down from 122.8 and 106.6 in 2012 and 2013, respectively -- isn't a great sign. And his yards per reception dipped from 17.8 to 15.2.
Further, Johnson's Reception NEP (105.04) was the lowest score in his past five seasons and only his 2009 season (80.59) was worse. His per-target Reception NEP (0.82) ranked right in the middle of his seven seasons with at least 100 targets.
So, why the optimism?
Well, we're stacking those seasons up against his own, which are some of the best seasons since the turn of the century via Reception NEP.
But among the 40 receivers who saw at least 100 targets last year, Johnson's Reception NEP ranked 12th. His per-target Reception NEP ranked ninth.
His Catch Rate (the percentage of targets he caught) of 55.47% ranked just 34th, but that's understandable given the fact that only he and Mike Evans both saw at least 100 targets and had an average depth of target of at least 15.5 yards (they both posted a mark of 16.3 yards).
And so, if we look solely at Johnson's catches, his efficiency was off the charts. Okay, it was chartable, but his Reception Success Rate (the percentage of his targets that added positively to his team's expected point outcome) of 98.59% was best among the 40-receiver subset.
Vincent Jackson (92.86%) was second. We can't exactly measure things this way, but just know that those six percentage points were about the same distance between Jackson in second and DeAndre Hopkins (86.84%) and Antonio Brown (86.82%), who ranked 19th and 20th, respectively.
Red Zone Monster
Megatron was limited to "only" eight touchdowns last year and scored in just five of his 13 contests (three of which were two-touchdown affairs), but there are plenty of reasons to expect him to hit double-digits this year.
He saw only 15 red zone targets last year, which ranked 20th among receivers. (But still tied with big-bodied, touchdown-makers Mike Evans and Dez Bryant. It was also one more than teammate Golden Tate, who played all 16 games.)
So, no, those totals aren't as enticing as his league-leading 26 red zone targets in 2013 (and 7 targets inside the five ranked tied for second that year), but the Lions still threw the ball on 52.7% of their red zone plays in 2014, eighth-highest in the NFL.
Joique Bell did see 42 red zone carries (ninth in the league last year) and scored 7 touchdowns (tied for seventh), but he will be pressed for carries by Ameer Abdullah, who scored 14 red zone touchdowns in college last year.
Still, given the opportunity and the lack of a red zone receiving threat opposite of him, Johnson should have plenty of opportunities, and our algorithms project him for 10 touchdowns this year.
A Safe Bet for Upside
The injury risk is a bit of an issue -- he's only played 16 games in three of his eight seasons -- but provided that Johnson plays his typical allotment of games (14.9 games per season since entering the league), then there's plenty of reason to expect him to provide some serious upside with the typical year-long safety that he always has provided.
He was one of the more volatile receivers in the league last year -- because of his injury-shortened games -- but Megatron is expected to be the fourth-best receiver in the league this year, according to our projections, and he's getting drafted as a second-rounder.
If you've always been a bit wary of spending a first-round pick on a wide receiver, then this might be the year you can finally get one of fantasy football's most lethal weapons.