Using Advanced Stats to Identify Breakout WRs

Using Advanced Stats to Identify Breakout WRs

By John Paulsen (Director of Forecasting), last update Jul 2, 2013

John Paulsen's picture

John was named the Most Accurate Fantasy Football Expert by FantasyPros for the 2010 and 2014 seasons, and has finished in the Top 6 in seven of the last eight years. Cumulatively, John has been the most accurate expert from 2010-17 while also winning the 2011 Fantasy Sports Trade Association award for the most accurate draft rankings. 

Follow John Paulsen on Twitter: @4for4_John.

One measure I like to use to project a receiver's upside is Fantasy Points / Target (FP/T). If an efficient player produces with limited targets, he is primed for a breakout if his role expands and his targets increase. Dez Bryant is a great example. In 2011, he finished #17 in FP/T (1.41) on 104 targets, finishing as the #16 WR in standard formats. Last year, his targets increased to 138, and he posted an even better FP/T (1.52). As a result, he finished #3 among all wideouts. In this case, Bryant had already had his breakout year, but then he broke out again.

Another example is James Jones. In 2011, on just 54 targets he posted a FP/T of 1.95, which was #2 among WRs with at least 30 targets. He finished as the #38 WR in standard formats that year. In 2012, his targets increased significantly to 98, and while his FP/T (1.66) regressed a bit, he still finished #3 in that category and finished #16 overall among WRs.

The Denver duo of Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker were able to post above average FP/T with Tim Tebow at QB in 2011, so it was no surprise that they were able to improve in that measure with Peyton Manning under center. Throw in an increase in targets for both players and you have the perfect recipe for a pair of breakout seasons, and that's exactly what happened in 2012.

Finally, the perennially underappreciated Lance Moore, who was #18 and #8 in FP/T in 2010 and 2011, saw an increase in snaps played (from 41% to 59%) once Robert Meachem left for San Diego. His targets subsequently jumped from 5.1 per game to 6.9 per game, and he finished as the #21 WR in 2012. (He finished #16 in FP/T last year.) He remains a rock solid value WR3 available in the 8th or 9th round.

So if we can identify a productive player who is going to see an increase in targets, then there's a good chance that a breakout season will follow. There will be situations where a player's FP/T regresses to the mean (which was 1.03 FP/T in 2012) but the increase in targets oftentimes offsets that drop in efficiency.


Breakout Candidates

Click here for a table with the 116 wideouts who saw at least 30 targets in 2012 along with their corresponding FP/T. Here are a few notables to watch heading into 2013:

Danario Alexander, Chargers
One could argue that Alexander already "broke out" with 37 catches, 658 yards and seven TDs he posted in nine games to close the 2012 season. But he's being drafted in the 7th or 8th round, so the fantasy community isn't entirely sold on his upside (or perhaps his knees are the bigger concern). Regardless, he posted the #1 FP/T and has WR1-type upside if he can play a full season and keep up that productivity.

Rueben Randle, Giants
Randle only had 32 targets last season, but he turned that usage into 19 catches for 298 yards and three TDs to post the #8 FP/T among all receivers with at least 30 targets. With Domenik Hixon gone, Randle has a stranglehold on the Giants' WR3 job, and he may move up a notch depending on Hakeem Nicks's shaky knees and/or the contract status of Victor Cruz. (Cruz is now under contract, but if he's disgruntled it may affect his play.) Randle drew praise from OC Kevin Gilbride for his play in minicamp, so he has nice upside considering his 15th-round ADP.

Ryan Broyles, Lions
Like Randle, Broyles was only targeted 32 times, but he caught 22 passes for 301 yards and two TDs en route to a 17th-ranked FP/T. He is ahead of schedule in his recovery from ACL surgery, so he could hold serious fantasy value in 2013 provided he can beat out Nate Burleson. Even if he can't, the Lions throw the ball enough that he should be fantasy-relevant even as a real-world WR3.

Torrey Smith, Ravens
Due to his propensity to catch the deep ball, Smith has finished with a top 30 FP/T in each of the last two seasons. While he did see more targets in 2012 (110), that is still well below the league average for a real-world WR1 (138.2). If he gets that type of usage and can maintain his 1.21 FP/T, he's looking at a top 15 finish. More likely, he's going to see the targets, but his FP/T will drop a bit as he's asked to run shorter routes with more frequency.

Brandon LaFell, Panthers
LaFell is a player that I touted as a sleeper last year, and while he didn't have a traditional breakout season, he did improve his per game production. He missed one game due to a concussion and was out/limited for two more due to turf toe, so in reality he averaged #35 WR numbers when he was reasonably healthy. He's a fourth-year receiver playing with a good QB opposite an aging WR1, so there's some upside here if LaFell can stay healthy. Given his late-round ADP, he's certainly worth a flier as a WR5/WR6.

Alshon Jeffery, Bears
Jeffery missed six games due to knee and hand injuries, but when he played, he posted WR54 numbers. That's not bad for a rookie, and Jeffery should get a bump now that offensive guru Marc Trestman is in town to run the Bears. It's not like Chicago has a plethora of good receiving options at this point.


The Impact of the QB

One thing that jumps out about the top 30 or so players in the table is the fact that the vast majority of them play with very good quarterbacks. Wide receivers are only as productive as the quarterback throwing them the ball and, conversely, a quarterback is only as good as his receiving corps.

Take a look at the Arizona receivers -- specifically, Larry Fitzgerald (#107 in FP/T) and Michael Floyd (#96). They played with the worst QB situation in the league in 2012 so their numbers are obviously depressed due to the collective play of Kevin Kolb, John Skelton and Ryan Lindley. Given the change at QB (to Carson Palmer), is there a way to account for the upgrade in the quality of targets they will see in 2013?

To that end, I created another statistic -- aFP/T -- which simply adjusts a receiver's FP/T for the type of QB play they enjoyed (or, in this case, had to endure). The normalized table is available here.

Here are a few receivers who jump out as possible beneficiaries of improved QB play:

Michael Floyd, Cardinals
Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Roberts and Floyd should all be able to increase their efficiency with Carson Palmer replacing the three-headed monster that played QB in 2012. Floyd figures to see the biggest jump in targets as he's expected to be a full-time starter opposite Fitzgerald. Roberts is no slouch, so it will be interesting to see who becomes the T.Y. Hilton and who is the Donnie Avery in Bruce Arians' offense. Our money is that Floyd finishes with more targets and fantasy points. 

Josh Gordon, Browns
Gordon is already a popular sleeper, and that's supported by his #9 aFP/T. So if Brandon Weeden can progress under new OC Norv Turner, Gordon is primed for a breakout season. Fantasy owners shouldn't let Gordon's two-game suspension scare them off. Greg Little and Travis Benjamin are also players to watch if Weeden starts to make some strides.

Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs
Bowe experienced the second-worst QB play in 2012, so Bowe's lackluster FP/T (0.86) should bounce back to at least 2011 levels (1.03) with the addition of Alex Smith at QB and Andy Reid as HC. Bowe was actually #5 in FP/T in 2010, so he has the talent to be very productive if given quality targets.

Jeremy Kerley, Jets
The Jets' QB situation was the third-worst in terms of fantasy efficiency, but Kerley still managed to post a nearly average 1.00 FP/T. Unfortunately for Kerley, the QB situation doesn't seem to be on the verge of getting significantly better anytime soon. Kerley's short-term upside is dependent on how quickly QB Geno Smith can progress.

T.Y. Hilton, Colts
Believe it or not, Andrew Luck was not in the top half in the league in QB efficiency, so if he improves in that area, Hilton could be a prime beneficiary. On the flip side, the team is moving to a West Coast Offense, so Hilton's #12 FP/T may drop as he's not asked to run as many fly routes.

Cecil Shorts, Jaguars
I don't dispense a lot of dynasty advice, but when I do, it's golden. Golden, I say. Dynasty owners should try to acquire Shorts and pray that he can get an upgrade at QB in the next two seasons. He had the 2nd-highest aFP/T in the league, so if the Jaguars can find a QB, Shorts is likely to explode.

Percy Harvin, Seahawks
The Vikings were -14% in passing efficiency while Russell Wilson and the Seahawks were +24%; that's a net change of +38% for Harvin, who should see higher quality targets now that he's in Seattle. He may not see as much usage with the Seahawks, but the increased quality of his targets should offset most (or all) of that. Fantasy owners should not be worried about Harvin's change of scenery.

Filed Under: