Fantasy Football Week 3: The Brandon LaFell Question

Is Brandon LaFell everything that he's cracked up to be? Zach Warren takes a closer look.

After yesterday's article about the Top 5 Week 3 Waiver Pickups was posted to our friends over at Reddit, one question come coming up time after time: what about Brandon LaFell? Through two weeks, LaFell has nine catches for 155 yards and a touchdown, with his best game coming against the New Orleans "secondary" (after weeks 1 and 2, in quotes for a reason) last week with 90 yards receiving. With two straight weeks of at least eleven fantasy points and the top QB on our projections this week in Cam Newton throwing to him, he has to be the top guy on my list, right? I just forgot about him, huh?

Wrong answer. Amendola remains my top waiver pickup this week, and I still like Brian Hartline more than LaFell. Before the fantasy football Internet mobs find me and tie me to the stake (and it won't be that hard, Delaware's not a big state), let me first say that I've loved him in the past. In fact, he was one of my two season-long sleeper picks in the numberFire Weekly Roundtable before week 1. It's just that, two weeks into the season, I'm not sold that he should be a weekly starting receiver on your fantasy team. And here's why.

The Panthers Gameplan

Under the impression Cam Newton throws the ball a lot and can sustain three fantasy starters in Carolina? Take a closer look at the stats. Through the first two weeks, against two of the weaker secondaries in Tampa Bay and New Orleans, Newton has only thrown the ball 53 total times. That's good for 29th in the NFL, ahead of only Josh Freeman and Ryan Fitzpatrick among QBs who have started both of their teams' games (i.e. not the Arizona QBs). But that's not out of the ordinary for Newton; he was only 13th in the NFL with 517 pass attempts in 2011. He only surpassed 40 attempts twice on the season last year, and he hasn't done it since week 4 that year against the Chicago Bears. His pass attempts in the last five games he's played in: 23 (2011 week 15 vs. HOU), 17 (week 16 vs. TB), 25 (week 17 vs. NO), 33 (2012 week 1 vs. TB), and 20 (week 2 vs. NO). The Panthers ran the ball more than twice as much as they threw against the Saints (41 rushes vs. 20 passes), and it proved to be a better recipe for success than their 33 passes in week 1. Until the rushing game stops working, I expect to see them continually go back to it.

Target Practice

So now that we've established that Newton doesn't throw the ball as much as people may think, LaFell must be receiving a ton of targets to justify his top-flight status, right? Not exactly. LaFell's 13 targets are currently second on the Panthers behind Steve Smith; he's seen 24.5% of Newton's passes go his way. That's a high percentage, but I'm not sure it's sustainable. In 2011, Carolina running backs saw 17% of the passes from Panther QBs. In 2010, that number was also 17%. In 2009? 18%. But in 2012, the backs haven't yet gotten into the passing game. Mike Tolbert has received 5 targets, with Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams getting one a piece, setting up a total of 13%. If those targets are going to come from anywhere, it's from the #2 receiver LaFell; the second receiver in the Carolina offense has not received even 20% of the targets since Muhsin Muhammad in 2008. Watch out for tight end Greg Olsen as well; he was Newton's second favorite target in 2011 with 18% of his throws, and he was the #2 target of choice in week 1 against Tampa Bay with seven balls thrown his way (LaFell tied for third with Louis Murphy with five targets). And consider this: among all players currently in the top 25 of receiving yards, LaFell has the second-least number of targets (ahead of only Oakland's Brandon Myers).

Hands of... Something

Let me get this straight, then. The offense isn't conducive to multiple high point values, and LaFell's 24.5% of targets is still behind Steve Smith and doesn't look sustainable. It's all about catch rate with LaFell then, right? He has to be connecting on a lot of the targets looking his way? At least this season, that has been the answer. LaFell's nine for 13 catching rate is a 69% average, ahead of Smith's 66% rate but barely behind Olsen's 70% rate. Considering the league average usually hovers around 60% balls caught for receivers throughout the entire NFL season, that's not a bad mark. However, that number may also be fool's gold. LaFell has never shown a great ability catching the ball before; his career catch rate is only 56%. Last season was easily his best catching the ball, improving over his 49% rookie season to a 64% catch rate. However, players who see that type of large growth can't always maintain it; it could be as much an aberration as actual increased pass-catching ability. As of right now, the latter is a better guess, but two weeks and 13 targets is an extremely small sample size to call something a trend.

All of this is to say... you could have worse pick-ups than Brandon LaFell. numberFire projects him to have roughly 43 receptions, 683 yards, and 6.4 TDs the rest of the way for 105 fantasy points. You can do worse. But you can also do better: Amendola is currently projected for 109 FP the rest of the way and Hartline checks out at an even better 132 FP. I'm not going to call LaFell a one-week wonder, as he'll have weeks where he produces well this season. Especially against a battered Giants secondary and Steve Smith dinged up, this week could very well be one of them. But right now, he does not project to be a solid long-term answer at wide receiver.