The Best and Worst Red Zone Pass-Catchers in 2015

Succeeding in the red zone is a huge part of any successful offense. Who were the best and worst red zone receivers this year?

In the game of football, when a team enters the red zone -- the area between the opponent’s 20-yard line and the goal-line -- the importance of each play becomes magnified. Players who excel in these situations tend to be the difference between wins and losses.

Earlier this week,  JJ Zachariason and Joe Redemann investigated the best red zone quarterbacks and running backs based on our metrics here at numberFire, which you should absolutely check out.

Below, we’ll take a look at the best and worst red zone pass-catchers for the 2015 season based on our main algorithm,  Net Expected Points (NEP). Instead of looking at simple raw statistics, NEP gives us a more in-depth look at how efficient players are with respect to their opportunity.

I’ve narrowed the list of all pass-catchers to those with eight or more red zone targets.

Although most of names in the top 10 shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, there are a few players who performed very well despite possible negative pre-conceived notions.

Let’s take a look.

Player Targets Rec. Rec. TDs Rec. NEP Rec. NEP/Target Rec. Success Rate
Jordan Reed 23 16 10 29.97 1.30 93.75%
Allen Robinson 21 14 12 28.44 1.35 100%
Tyler Eifert 16 12 11 27.78 1.74 91.67%
DeAndre Hopkins 28 15 7 24.87 0.89 93.33%
Gary Barnidge 24 10 8 24.54 1.02 100%
Brandon Marshall 25 14 10 24.00 0.96 78.57%
Danny Woodhead 17 11 6 23.92 1.41 100%
Doug Baldwin 17 10 7 23.10 1.36 100%
Antonio Brown 24 17 8 20.93 0.87 76.47%
Benjamin Watson 18 12 6 20.52 1.14 91.67%

As you can see, I’ve sorted the rankings by total Reception NEP but also included Reception NEP on a per-target basis. This allows us to see who was efficient despite a relatively small target share opportunity.


It makes a lot of sense that bigger pass-catchers would make for better red zone targets than their smaller, slighter counterparts. When space becomes limited and passes are often lofted above player’s eye level, the bigger and stronger athletes should reasonably find success at a higher rate.

In fact, every player in the top-six in terms of red zone Reception NEP is at least 6’1” and 215 pounds --  DeAndre Hopkins is the smallest in both categories.

Allen Robinson realized the potential many scouts saw in him as a draft prospect in 2014, emerging as an impact receiver in a Jaguars offense that attempted the most passes inside the red zone (94) this season.

Considering how they performed in 2015, both in the red zone and outside of it, the combination of Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker was absolutely deadly. Their 54 combined red zone targets and 20 combined red zone touchdowns were both tops among any receiving duo in the league. 

The final three players in the top 10 --  Danny Woodhead, Doug Baldwin and Antonio Brown -- are certainly the flies in the ointment for #TeamBigWR. While it’s still pretty clear that size and red zone efficiency are pretty closely correlated, these players showed that they can be red zone threats without the size advantage.

Woodhead had a remarkable season on a bad San Diego Chargers team, especially with his pass-catching inside the red zone. Baldwin was the main beneficiary of Russell Wilson's late-season historic run of play, catching 11 touchdowns in his final six regular season games. And finally, we have Antonio Brown, who has pretty clearly emerged as the best all-around wide receiver in football.


There were a few players who very clearly underachieved based on expectations for them heading into 2015, as well as their overall physical profiles.

Despite catching seven red zone touchdowns -- a main factor in determining NEP metrics --  Rob Gronkowski ranked 52nd in Reception NEP among the 116 qualifying players. This is a mind-binding result for one of the most prolific touchdown-scorers in modern football history.

Mike Evans was another example of a player with an extremely impressive physical profile who simply did not perform as well as we would like inside the red zone. His 0.56 Reception NEP per target mark ranked 78th, just slightly below a similar-usage player, Golden Tate.

And just in case you were looking for another reason to be disappointed in what Davante Adams did (or failed to do) this season, he ranked 105th among 118 players in Reception NEP per target inside the red zone.


One of the more interesting takeaways from these results for me is that four of the 10 best red zone performers in terms of Reception NEP were tight ends.

Both Tyler Eifert and Jordan Reed also ranked in the top 10 on a per-target basis as well. Simply put, Eifert and Reed were major reasons why their respective teams ended up as division champions.

It further advances the idea of tall, big pass-catchers being at a natural advantage in terms of red zone efficiency. It also points to the usage of athletic tight ends in the red zone as a smart move for NFL teams in the future.

It’s also interesting that two of the best wide receivers in football --  Odell Beckham and Julio Jones -- barely cracked the top 20 in red zone Reception NEP.

NEP results from just one season certainly do not indicate how either player will perform in coming seasons, nor should it make us shy away from drafting them (very, very) early in 2016 fantasy football drafts.

But it’s nonetheless very interesting that players such as Pierre Garcon and Anquan Boldin were nearly as efficient inside the red zone as Beckham and Jones in 2015.