Utilizing Advanced Stats to Identify 16 Breakout Receivers

Utilizing Advanced Stats to Identify 16 Breakout Receivers

By John Paulsen (Senior Editor) on Jun 3, 2014

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John was named the Most Accurate Fantasy Football Expert by FantasyPros for the 2010 and 2014 seasons, finished as runner-up in 2011 and 4th in both 2012 and 2015 for a total of five Top 5 seasons in the last six years. Cumulatively, John was the most accurate expert from 2010-15 while also winning the 2011 Fantasy Sports Trade Association award for the most accurate draft rankings. 

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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, provided he maintains a healthy FP/T. Dez Bryant is a great example. In 2011, he was #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 receivers. 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.

Also in 2012, 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.

One of the breakout candidates I identified in the 2013 edition of this article was Alshon Jeffery. He posted a solid 1.14 FP/T (#37 in the league) on 48 targets during his injury-plagued rookie season. Last year, he posted 1.24 FP/T on 149 targets, resulting in a #9 finish at his position.

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 towards the mean (which was 1.05 FP/T in 2013) but the increase in targets oftentimes offsets that drop in efficiency.

Note: For those wondering if there is a correlation between FP/T year over year the answer is yes, there is a positive correlation. It’s not strong, but very little in fantasy football is.


Breakout Candidates (FP/T)

Click here for a table with the 115 wide receivers who saw at least 30 targets in 2013 along with their corresponding FP/T. (Here is the same table for PPR scoring.) Below are a few notables to consider targeting in fantasy drafts this summer:

Kenny Stills, Saints
In early May, I issued a Sleeper Alert for Stills, who owned the highest FP/T in 2013 (1.88) by a pretty wide margin. (Eddie Royal was second at 1.66 FP/T.) For more detail, hit the link, but suffice it to say, Stills figures to see a jump in targets after the Saints lost both Lance Moore and Darren Sproles, who saw a combined 143 targets last year. Stills should get at minimum the 5.5 T/G that Moore saw in the past three seasons, making him an intriguing WR3 with upside. The arrival of rookie Brandin Cooks does take some of the wind out Stills’ sails, but that should only serve to keep his ADP at a reasonable level.

Marvin Jones, Bengals
Technically, Jones may have already broken out. He finished as the #21 WR in 2013, racking up 51 catches for 712 yards and 10 touchdowns on 80 targets. That resulted in the #3 FP/T (1.64). What gives Jones upside is the fact that he played just 48% of the snaps, sharing time with the far-less-effective Mohamed Sanu. All indications are that Jones is going to start opposite A.J. Green, and even though new OC Hue Jackson likes to run it more than Jay Gruden did, Jones’ new role should ensure that he has plenty of opportunity to make plays in his third year.

Terrance Williams, Cowboys
With Miles Austin basically sidelined from Week 4 to Week 10, Williams was the #12 WR in fantasy, racking up 24 catches for 438 yards and five TDs in that seven-game span. In four games where he played at least 80 percent of his teams snaps, he averaged 11.0 FP (#15 WR numbers). In eight games where he played at least 70 percent of the snaps, he averaged 9.0 FP (#22 WR numbers). This resulted in the #20 FP/T (1.40). He faded upon Austin’s return to starter’s snaps, but showed enough in his rookie season to make him an intriguing middle-round pick in 2014. With Austin gone, the path is clear for a breakout season from Williams.

Golden Tate, Lions
I went into great detail here trying to predict Tate’s production as the WR2 in Detroit. Tate had the #29 FP/T (1.21) in 2013, which was right on his three-year average. Tate saw 99 targets last year, which was a career high. He has back-to-back top 35 seasons to his credit, and he did that with just 5.4 T/G. He’s likely to see around 7.0 T/G in a pass-happy offense. (The Lions threw it 51% more than the Seahawks did in 2013.) And he’ll get to play opposite Calvin Johnson, ensuring that he’ll be seeing single coverage on virtually every play. He’s a fantasy WR3 with upside, assuming he and Matthew Stafford develop a good rapport.

Doug Baldwin, Seahawks
Once Sidney Rice went down, Baldwin emerged as a productive starter, averaging 3.6 catches for 55 yards and 0.45 TD in his final 11 games (including three postseason games where he caught 13 passes for 202 yards and a TD). Those are solid fantasy WR3 numbers, driven by his #11 FP/T (1.48). The Seahawks recently locked him up to a lucrative long-term contract, which indicates that they view him as a starter. If that’s the case, he should continue to post WR3 numbers in that role, and he has considerable upside playing with the injury-prone Percy Harvin. Baldwin only played 74% of his team’s snaps in 2013.

Jarrett Boykin, Packers
After Randall Cobb went down, Boykin stepped in and served as the Packers de facto WR3, catching 49 passes for 681 yards and three scores. In games where he played at least 59% of the snaps, he averaged 4.3-61-.27, which equates to 124 fantasy points over a full season. That’s about what Marques Colston scored as the #27 WR in 2013. Cobb is back, but James Jones is gone, and I believe Boykin will play a lot in the Packers’ patented three-wide attack, which should be more productive with Aaron Rodgers under center. Rookie Davante Adams is the wild card, but at this point I have to believe that Boykin will hold him off. Randall Cobb only played 27% snaps as a rookie and I envision a similar role for Adams.

Aaron Dobson, Patriots
As a rookie, Dobson caught a respectable 37 passes for 519 yards and four touchdowns, but he flashed some big play ability in his 5-130-2 outing against the Steelers in early November. His FP/T (1.05) was average, but if he can beat out Brandon LaFell and Kenbrell Thompkins for a starting job, he should produce with Tom Brady throwing the ball. He only played 63% of the snaps as a rookie.


Breakout Candidates (FP/Snap)

Another metric I’m using this offseason to identify breakout candidates is FP/snap. Using 4for4’s Player Snap App, I sorted by STD/snap (fantasy points per snap in a standard scoring system), and filtered out those players who didn’t play at least 15% of their team’s snaps (to remove some of the noise). Notice a few names from above in the top 50 – Marvin JonesGolden Tate and Terrance Williams – but a few more players jump out as breakout candidates based on a probable increase in playing time.

Cordarrelle Patterson, Vikings
Patterson posted the 5th-best FP/snap (0.24) among wideouts who played at least 20% of their team’s snaps. Patterson was the #10 WR from Week 10 to Week 17 – as a rookie. He scored seven touchdowns in that span (three rush, four receiving) while racking up 29 catches for 323 yards to go along with 10 carries for 156 rushing yards. With Josh Gordon coming off of a breakout season under new Vikings OC Norv Turner, Patterson should be a fantasy starter sooner rather than later. His TD rate will be difficult to maintain, but he should see a jump in touches in 2014. Patterson is very raw as a route runner and needs to develop quickly in that facet of the game.

Tavon Austin, Rams
Austin had a disappointing year by most accounts, but it wasn’t necessarily his fault. He had trouble staying on the field, playing just 50% of his team’s snaps. His FP/T (0.95) was respectable for a rookie, though it seemed like OC Brian Shottenheimer wasn’t sure how to utilize Austin’s skill set. HC Jeff Fisher said that he expects that the team will do a better job of that in 2014. In the end, Austin did lead the Rams’ WRs in catches (40).

Justin Hunter & Kendall Wright, Titans
As a rookie, Hunter checked in with the #18 FP/T (1.41), which is encouraging, especially if he’s able to beat out Nate Washington and get on the field as more than a just a passing-down specialist. He only played 36% of the team’s snaps, while Washington played 82%. The good news is that under then-OC Ken Whisenhunt, Keenan Allen, Vincent Brown and Eddie Royal all played at least 67% of the Chargers’ snaps. So with Whiz calling the plays in Tennessee, there may be room for both Washington and Hunter in the lineup. As for Wright, he posted a respectable 0.15 FP/snap, but played just 75% of his team’s snaps. If that number climbs to the mid-80s and Wright is utilized on the quick WR screens (a la Eddie Royal) in the red zone, he should improve upon his #30 finish in 2013.

Andrew Hawkins, Browns
Hawkins posted a solid 0.17 FP/snap for the Bengals, but he only played 20% of his team’s snaps in 2013. (He also posted a solid 1.11 FP/T on just 18 targets in 2013.) Now he joins a Browns team that will likely be without Josh Gordon, who is reportedly facing an 8-16 game suspension. Without Gordon in the lineup, Hawkins’ main competition for targets may be Miles Austin, Nate Burleson and Jordan Cameron. He could make a living in the slot and become a fantasy factor, especially in PPR formats.


The Impact of the QB (aFP/T)

One thing that jumps out about the top 30 or so players in the FP/T 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, to a certain degree a quarterback is only as good as his receiving corps.

In 2012, Larry Fitzgerald (0.67, #107) and Michael Floyd (0.79, #96) really struggled in the FP/T department thanks to the three-headed monster of Kevin Kolb, John Skelton and Ryan Lindley that they had to endure at quarterback. Enter the at-least-he’s-mediocre Carson Palmer, and Fitzgerald and Floyd finished #16 and #23, respectively.

Last summer, I created a new metric -- aFP/T – that adjusts each receiver’s FP/T for the quality of his QB play. The normalized aFP/T table is available here. (The same table for PPR scoring systems is available here.)

Michael Floyd, Josh Gordon and T.Y. Hilton were among those that stood out as breakout candidates heading into the 2013 season since it looked like they were going to enjoy better quarterback play. Who stands out this year?

Rueben Randle*, Giants
Randle had the #8 FP/T in 2012 and followed that up with a #24 finish in 2013, though with just 78 targets to work with, he was only able to finish as the #45 fantasy receiver. Still, that’s progress, and with Hakeem Nicks gone, and the team moving to more three-wide sets (thanks to new OC Ben McAdoo, who came over from Green Bay), Randle’s workload should increase. But this section is about QB play, and the Giants were a pretty brutal 24th in FP/Att, which helped Randle to the #9 aFP/T for the year. If Eli Manning can bounce back in 2014, Randle should turn into a starting-caliber fantasy receiver.

DeAndre Hopkins*, Texans
As a rookie, Hopkins posted a rather pedestrian FP/T of 1.01, but when it’s adjusted for QB play, he jumps 24 spots in the rankings to #33. Matt Schaub was brutal in 2013, and anyone (Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum, Tom Savage?) should fare better this year. (Though given that list of names, there's no guarantee.) Hopkins could also see a promotion if Andre Johnson follows through with his apparent holdout.

Rod Streater*, Raiders
For an undrafted wideout, Streater’s career is moving along swimmingly. After a 39-584-3 rookie season, Streater posted a solid 60-888-4 in his second year, finishing as the #33 WR in fantasy. Among undrafted receivers, he has the 4th most yards (since 1980) in his first two seasons. (Even more impressive, he plays for the Raiders.) Streater could continue to progress provided he still sees starter’s snaps – the arrival of James Jones may be a roadblock – and Matt Schaub returns to the efficient form we’re used to seeing. There are a couple of conditions there, but Streater’s value is in the tank right now, so there is very little risk to picking him up as a WR5/WR6 if he continues to sit atop the Oakland depth chart.

Tiquan Underwood*, Panthers
I realize that this guy is a serious long shot, as he’s never finished better than 66th at his position. But he posted the #10 FP/T in a limited workload as the Buccaneers de facto WR2 after Mike Williams went down. Now he joins the Panthers, who are desperate for WR help. He has world class 4.31 speed and should fill Ted Ginn’s role in the Panthers’ offense. Plus, he’s getting a major QB upgrade from Mike Glennon to Cam Newton – his QB situation gave him the #2 aFP/T in 2013.

* An asterisk indicates the player could have been listed in the “Breakout Candidates” section as well based on their FP/T and FP/snap scores.

Filed Under: Preseason, 2014

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