Which NFL Pass-Catchers Are on the Verge of a Second-Half Breakout?

Examining the percentage of a team's passing attempts that go toward a certain player can help us discover undervalued fantasy receivers.

A number of incredible, instantly classic movies have come out in the past 30 years about the seductive, sometimes destructive power of American business. Wall Street showed what ruthless ambition can do to unravel a person. Glengarry Glen Ross informed us that the bottom line is the only thing that matters: “A: always. B: be. C: closing. Always Be Closing.” The Wolf of Wall Street showed us the glamorous rock-n-roll highs and the crushing, dark lows of life in the fast lane.

Investment is always a risk, they say.

I’m here to pitch to you a different kind of opportunity, however. No, it’s not a bunch of penny stocks, and it’s not a timeshare in the Everglades. I’m here to sell you the idea that a football player’s yardage total doesn’t necessarily matter to their fantasy value. I am also here to sell you the idea that receptions are not a true indicator of worth in the fantasy football world.

Total targets themselves don’t even necessarily matter. What I want to pitch to you is the value of the idea of Target Market Share (TMS): the percentage of targets in an entire offense that one player receives. This measure of opportunity is key to finding value and exploiting it. Soon you’ll go from an equity imbecile to a fantasy football stock market savant.

Why is this important for fantasy football players? Allow me to explain.

Attention, Interest, Decision, Action

Remember, we are not only concerned with box score success; part of what we want to discuss today is players that other fantasy owners in your league are undervaluing. Swoop in and buy up these assets while they’re cheap, and you have made your nest egg.

Let’s try a blind fantasy comparison to show you what I mean: you are comparing two wide receivers on your waiver wire, each with 10 receptions, 100 yards, and 1 touchdown. We know that both of those players will have the same fantasy points scored, whether PPR or not, so they might seem completely identical in your analysis. What if we examine their targets, however? How does that change things?

Player A: 10 receptions, 10 targets, 100 yards, 1 touchdown
Player B: 10 receptions, 25 targets, 100 yards, 1 touchdown

We might say that Player A has been much more efficient than his peer, but Player B seems to be receiving a lot more attention in the passing game. This means he has more opportunities for value that just aren’t coming to fruition yet. Many people know and understand the value of examining targets in regards to fantasy players. What you might not realize is that this doesn’t tell the whole story, though. Let’s look at the exact same blind resumés, but add in one more wrinkle: the Target Market Share (TMS).

Player A: 10 receptions, 10 targets, 50 team passing plays (20.0% TMS), 100 yards, 1 touchdown
Player B: 10 receptions, 25 targets, 200 team passing plays (12.5% TMS), 100 yards, 1 touchdown

This tells us an entirely different tale. Sure, our players are identical in their fantasy lines, and Player B has more total targets, but Player A actually has a higher TMS than his compatriot. Total targets are a measure that can be skewed by every-down players or high-volume offenses, but Target Market Share allows us to view this through one more filter, in order to see exactly which players are getting the most use relatively.

Now, this doesn’t mean that we need to throw out tangible production or that we shouldn’t aim for players in high-volume offenses; Target Market Share simply helps us differentiate even one step further between the good and great, the waiver wire fodder and the impending receiver breakout.

Sell Me This Pen

Let’s cut to the chase, shall we? We want to know which players have the best Target Market Shares at midseason so that we can adjust our values going forward and capitalize on second-half breakouts.

The table below shows the top-20 pass-catchers -- wide receivers and tight ends -- by TMS, as well as their rank in total targets and standard fantasy scoring among wide receivers and tight ends for comparison.

Rank Player Team TMS Target Rank Fantasy Rank
1 Julio Jones ATL 31.19% 2nd 1st
2 Demaryius Thomas DEN 30.94% 4th t-22nd
3 DeAndre Hopkins HOU 29.55% 1st 2nd
4 Brandon Marshall NYJ 29.55% t-6th t-11th
5 Antonio Brown PIT 29.39% 8th 9th
6 A.J. Green CIN 27.92% 17th t-11th
7 Greg Olsen CAR 27.07% t-23rd t-21st
8 Randall Cobb GB 25.69% 30th 35th
9 Larry Fitzgerald ARZ 25.45% t-12th t-3rd
10 Michael Crabtree OAK 25.19% 16th t-33rd
11 Emmanuel Sanders DEN 25.18% t-12th 26th
12 Julian Edelman NE 24.43% t-9th 6th
13 Mike Evans TB 24.11% t-33rd t-57th
14 Odell Beckham NYG 24.04% t-9th t-3rd
15 Keenan Allen SD 23.80% 3rd 8th
16 Allen Robinson JAX 23.79% t-14th 7th
17 T.Y. Hilton IND 23.14% 5th t-18th
18 Jarvis Landry MIA 22.46% 20th t-18th
19 Martellus Bennett CHI 22.31% 28th t-61st
20 Jordan Matthews PHI 21.95% t-21st t-61st

Many of the players one might expect to be on this list are in fact here, so what should we do with this information about the top of the pile? One can see, by comparing TMS rank and other ranks -- most notably, between TMS and fantasy scoring ranks -- and see which players have a somewhat inequitable situation. What’s important to note is that a difference in these totals doesn’t necessarily ensure regression one way or the other; rather, if a team situation changes, or game flow for a team swings more pass-heavy, then that player could expect their fortunes to shift.

Coffee Is for Closers

What we all really want, though, are some candidates for breakouts. Which unknown players are waiting to be discovered in the fantasy sphere?

I subtracted players’ ranks in TMS from their ranking in fantasy points in order to find the discrepancy between the two. Essentially, if the player has fewer fantasy points (ranking closer to 228) and a higher TMS (ranking closer to 1), their Breakout Factor is much higher. Consider that prior to Week 9 action -- which was when these numbers were generated -- Mike Evans had the ninth-highest Breakout Factor among receivers with at least 30 targets. He went off for 152 yards on 8 catches in Week 9 action.

The table below shows the top-25 wide receivers by Breakout Factor, along with their TMS percentages and fantasy scoring through Week 8.

Rank Player Team TMS FPTS Breakout Factor
1 Cole Beasley DAL 12.71% 147th 73
2 Mike Wallace MIN 18.18% 108th 69
3 Eddie Royal CHI 13.85% 133rd 68
4 Golden Tate DET 19.11% 100th 65
5 Jamison Crowder WAS 15.16% 115th 61
6 Robert Woods BUF 14.88% 108th 61
7 Ryan Grant WAS 11.19% t-130th 45
8 Taylor Gabriel CLE 9.97% 141st 45
9 Mike Evans TB 24.11% t-57th 44
10 Percy Harvin BUF 12.40% 121st 44
11 Andrew Hawkins CLE 10.57% 133rd 43
12 Martellus Bennett CHI 22.31% 61st 42
13 Jordan Matthews PHI 21.95% 61st 41
14 Marquess Wilson CHI 12.69% 108th 33
15 Cecil Shorts HOU 11.87% 113th 33
16 Jason Witten DAL 20.76% 57th 32
17 Jared Cook STL 17.50% 77th 31
18 Charles Clay BUF 21.07% 53rd 29
19 Randall Cobb GB 25.69% 35th 27
20 Jermaine Kearse SEA 11.70% 106th 25
21 Brian Hartline CLE 10.57% 115th 25
22 Michael Crabtree OAK 25.19% 33rd 23
23 Marques Colston NO 11.11% 108th 22
24 Leonard Hankerson ATL 11.93% 100th 21
25 Demaryius Thomas DEN 30.94% 22nd 20

You’ll notice many slot receivers like Cole Beasley, who posted a dominant game in Week 9, and Cecil Shorts near the top of this list, and this is a natural function of catching a lot of passes (high TMS) for short yardage (low standard fantasy points). A few game-breaking plays from these players can put them on the fantasy map, but they will tend to have high Breakout Factors regardless.

Some players on this list are particular ones to take note of. Golden Tate is playing with a dysfunctional Detroit Lions’ passing offense but is actually the target of nearly one-fifth of all of Matthew Stafford's drop backs. That amount is just 2.5% less than target hog Calvin Johnson, so if they get more in sync, Tate could finish the second half strong.

Marquess Wilson, among others, has simply needed to see consistent snaps to provide value. If he continues to do so, his outstanding talent will buoy his fantasy success. Players like Pierre Garcon or Anquan Boldin, who see around a 20.0% TMS but still have mediocre total targets, are just in less prolific offenses and can see value increases based on game flow.

Now, these are not guarantees that a player will increase their fantasy value. The Breakout Factor is simply an indicator of players who are receiving a lot of attention in the passing game that isn’t translating to the box score -- which means there is potential to produce better. This is a simple guideline to use that will help you sift through your wire or trade offers and find the players who are truly waiting for a breakout. Try this, and you can gain an edge in your fantasy league’s stock market.

Remember: points never sleep.