The Most Predictable Wide Receiver Stats
The goal of this study is to uncover which frequently referenced previous-year stats for wide receivers are reliable indicators of future performance, and which of those stats may be misleading.
This article has been updated to reflect data through 2021.
In this exercise, I pulled all wide receivers since 2011 that saw at least 40 targets in a season, then compared the numbers to the following year, running a correlation for 12 common receiving categories.
The decision to use per-game stats is based on the fact that total games played are extremely unpredictable for all positions—wide receivers with an ADP in the top 200 over the last 10 years saw a year-to-year correlation of -.04 for games played. With the huge variance in games played, year-long volume stats naturally showed low year-over-year correlation over the entire sample. (The exception here is red zone targets since even the players with the most targets in the red zone still see a relatively low number in a given season.)
The table below lists the year-to-year correlations for those 12 wide receiver stats using the methodology described above:
|Average Targeted Air Yards (NextGen)||0.69|
|Share of Team Targeted Air Yards (NextGen)||0.51|
|Red Zone Targets||0.42|
|TD Rate (TDs/Targets)||0.14|
When Projecting Receivers, Target Targets
Wide receiver production, in both real football and fantasy, hinges on targets. Those targets are the number that we can most confidently look to from a receiver’s previous season when trying to project his upcoming year. Although per-game receptions, yards, and fantasy points also have moderately strong year-to-year correlations, targets have the highest year-to-year correlation and are most likely to stick. Scoring and efficiency are nowhere near as reliable as volume.
All Efficiency is not Created Equal
No efficiency metric for wide receivers is notably reliable from one year to the next, but yards per target and touchdown rate can have especially large yearly fluctuations.
Touchdowns are such a rare occurrence relative to targets that even a swing in just a couple of scores per season can have a huge impact on touchdown rate, hence the weak year-to-year correlation.
Be Wary of the Red Zone
It’s important to pinpoint receivers who have a good chance at scoring, and the moderate correlations that we see in the case of a receiver's red zone targets suggest that we can make educated guesses based on previous data as to which receivers will have opportunities near the goal line. Assuming that those opportunities will absolutely turn into scores, though, is a fool’s game.
It’s a matter of sample size. Even the most heavily targeted red zone threats will only see about 25 red zone looks in a season. This is nowhere near enough targets for a player to score as often as we would expect them to in the red zone.
Consider Cooper Kupp, one of three wide receivers with at least 100 red zone targets over the last five seasons, and whose touchdown rate during that span (28.2%) is well above the league average over the same time period (25%):
|Year||Red Zone Targets||Red Zone TDs||Red Zone TD Rate|
Kupp’s year-to-year touchdown rate has stayed relatively high but even the most efficient scorers are prone to a down year such as Kupp's 2020. Although certain players seem to dominate the red zone year in and year out, probably the best way to approach scoring rates is to consider a player’s performance in one year and compare those numbers to the league average, or to his individual average (if the sample is large enough). You can then decide to what extent reversion to the mean should be expected.
Using Air Yards for Fantasy Success
It's been shown that air yards are extremely important when it comes to predicting fantasy football success for wide receivers, specifically looking at aDOT (average depth of target). In short, we want to find out how efficient a player is at their most common depth of target—the year-over-year stickiness of aDOT for wide receivers to consider. As one of the most consistent wide receiver metrics, projecting production through air yards is a viable option for anyone who wants to run their own projections against the public.
When reflecting on a wide receiver’s stats from one season and trying to project his numbers for the following year, there are a few key points to bear in mind:
- Targets are the most predictable year-to-year stats for wide receivers. Receptions, yards, and fantasy points are simply the results of those targets.
- Not all efficiency metrics are reliable. Touchdown rate cannot be directly derived from last season’s performance—consider regression.
- Red zone usage is an indicator of opportunity, but not a guarantee for touchdowns.
- Air yards and target depth have proven to be among the most stable year-to-year metrics and can help predict yardage output for wide receivers.