The Most Predictable Wide Receiver Stats

Jul 20, 2023
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 2022.

More Predictable Stats: QB | RB | TE


In this exercise, I pulled all wide receivers since 2012 that saw at least 40 targets in consecutive seasons, then compared their numbers year over 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 a low year-over-year correlation over the entire sample. (The exception here is red zone targets, which used full-season data 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:

Year-to-Year Correlations for WRs, 2012–2022
Stat Y/Y Correlation
Average Targeted Air Yards (NextGen) 0.68
Targets/Game 0.66
Receptions/Game 0.65
Rec Yards/Game 0.65
Half-PPR Points/Game 0.60
Target Share 0.55
Share of Team Targeted Air Yards (NextGen) 0.53
Catch Rate 0.47
TD/Game 0.38
Red Zone Targets 0.38
Yards/Target 0.22
TD Rate (TDs/Targets) 0.12

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 DK Metcalf, one of four wide receivers with at least 60 red zone targets over the last five seasons, and whose touchdown rate during that span (32%) is well above the league average over the same time period (25%):

DK Metcalf Year-to-Year Red Zone TD Rate
Year Red Zone Targets Red Zone TDs Red Zone TD Rate
2020 17 6 35%
2021 19 9 47%
2022 27 5 18%

Metcalf’s year-to-year touchdown rate has stayed relatively high but even the most efficient scorers are prone to a down year such as DK's 2022. 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 average depth of target (aDOT) aka targeted air yards (TAY). 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.

Bottom Line

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 counting 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.
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