Is Volume or Value Better for Fantasy Pass-Catchers?

Should you consider target hogs like Julian Edelman among the best fantasy receiver options?

The waitress comes to your table: what are you ordering? You could get a nice, medium-rare filet mignon, Caesar salad, and a fine wine made in a valley of France that I can’t pronounce. Or, with the same amount of money, you could purchase the equivalent of 40 buffalo wings and a six-pack of PBR tallboys.

Decisions, decisions.

This is your fantasy football draft day dilemma when it comes to the wide receiver and tight end positions: do you splurge on the highest quality ones, who are receiving high quality, efficient yardage from elite quarterbacks, or do you take the budget PPR mavens, who chow down target after target and wash that down with a cool side of targets?

Should we be aiming for upside in systemic value or upside in usage? Which of these qualities makes for a better fantasy pass-catcher?


Value or volume: this is the eternal dilemma for fantasy owners everywhere. Common sense seems to dictate that efficiency is the ideal, that we should aim for receivers with as much per-play upside as possible, and neglect those that catch a ton of passes, but only get a few yards per pass. But is this the smart play? Is there more depth at receiver due to the prolific amount of targets flying around? Can you get good value at tight end by waiting and hoping for a highly used player?

The league has transitioned to one where three-to-five wide receivers sets are the norm, and pass-catcher values in fantasy drafts have dropped as a result. The logic is that the scarcity at other positions is more valuable than the difference between an elite player and a very good one in a wide receiver. Our fearless leader, JJ Zachariason, has looked at the bust rates for fantasy options at this position, finding that among preseason top-12 ranked wideouts, the lowest they are likely to fall is a WR2 (between 13th and 24th at the end of the season). For preseason wide receivers ranked 13th to 24th, they are likely at worst a WR3 (between 25th and 36th). There’s a startling amount of solidity and certainty available in a top-notch wide receiver, even going down to the secondary and tertiary options.

For tight ends, it’s much simpler: either you get Rob Gronkowski, or you don’t. The value one has to pay to draft Jimmy Graham or Travis Kelce is still too high for most people, so they’d rather wait and spend much less on the position for only a marginal downgrade in potential. Brandon Gdula’s exploration of the consistency of tight ends shows us that, due to weekly variability, it’s just not worth it to draft a tight end early if they’re not named “The Gronk”.

All of this makes sense, but can we confirm this in terms of fantasy points? Does volume or value correlate best with pass-catcher success?

Boneless or Traditional?

To figure this out, I compared wide receiver and tight end fantasy scores from the last three seasons (2012-2014) so that I could see what surrounding factors supported these scores. To figure out volume, I’m looking at receptions and targets; raw tonnage through the air.

In terms of value, we will use our own Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, found exclusively here at numberFire. 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 categories we’ll look at for value are Reception NEP and Target NEP.

The table below shows all of these categories and their relationships to fantasy points for wide receivers and tight ends, using a statistical factor called R correlation. This is measured on a scale of 0.00 to 1.00 (either positive or negative). The closer the value is to 1.00, the more direct of a relationship there is; the closer it is to 0.00, the more random the association is. What kind of correlation will we find?

Statistic Correlation Category
Receptions 0.90 Quantity
Reception NEP 0.97 Quality
Targets 0.89 Quantity
Target NEP 0.81 Quality
Per-Play Rec NEP 0.53 Quality
Reception % 0.17 Quality

Interestingly, unlike for both quarterbacks and running backs, there is an extremely high correlation between fantasy points and both quantity and quality categories for pass-catchers. In fact, both the raw quantity and NEP versions for receptions and targets all cross the threshold for “very strong” correlations. As we can see, the two reception categories are the clear highest correlations to fantasy points, however. This preference for completed receptions over targets is highly logical, even without PPR scoring, as a caught pass is what will bring in yards, which are how the bulk of fantasy points are scored – obvious, I know.

What is surprising, however, is that the highest correlation among these is Reception NEP, suggesting that high quality offensive value will lead receivers and ends to the most fantasy success. These results indicate that one cannot fully do away with volume over value, but that playing in a good passing offense may contribute slightly more than pure opportunities.

Fire Sauce

Even when we separate pass-catchers by high volume (100 targets or more) and low volume (less than 100 targets), there is very little difference in results. The table below shows the same correlations, represented between these two categories of pass-catcher.

Statistic High Volume Low Volume
Receptions 0.73 0.79
Reception NEP 0.94 0.93
Targets 0.71 0.78
Target NEP 0.80 0.72
Per-Play Rec NEP 0.75 0.57
Reception % 0.24 0.20

The only thing that separates these two is that low volume pass-catchers have a mild preference for quantity categories: targets and receptions. Those with high volume have a slightly higher disposition for value: Reception NEP and Target NEP, as well as per-play Reception NEP and reception percentage, though the latter is an insignificant correlation.

Our fantasy takeaway from this is that – in standard scoring – there is overall little difference between volume and value in its contribution to your fantasy wide receivers and tight ends. Only when we get into the later round options does quantity matter more than quality. When looking for your sleepers, put a higher priority on playing time. In your premier talent, look for players on the best offenses, not necessarily those with the most receptions.