Using Advanced Stats to Identify Breakout Receivers

Using Advanced Stats to Identify Breakout Receivers

By John Paulsen (Senior Editor), last update Sep 7, 2015

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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. In 2012, 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, and then he broke out again.

Other examples in 2012 were James Jones, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Lance Moore. A year later, I featured Alshon Jeffery in the 2013 edition of this article. He posted a solid 1.14 FP/T (#37 in the league) on 48 targets during his injury-plagued rookie season. In his sophomore campaign he posted 1.24 FP/T on 149 targets, resulting in a #9 finish at his position.

In 2014, Golden Tate was the best example of a productive receiver who turned an increase in targets into a stellar fantasy season. As he joined the Lions, his targets jumped from 99 to 143, while his FP/T stayed relatively steady (1.21 in 2013, 1.10 in 2014). The result was a #13 finish at his position in standard formats.

So if we can identify a productive player who is going to see an increase in targets, then there's a good chance 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 2014), but the increase in targets will typically offset that drop in efficiency. Such was the case with Tate.

Here are the FP/T tables for both standard and PPR formats.

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)

Martavis Bryant, Steelers

Since I started writing this article on a yearly basis, I’m not sure there has been a player who fit the breakout mold better than Bryant. Not only did he finish 1st in FP/T in both standard and PPR formats in 2014, but he did it in dominant fashion. His 2.14 FP/T in standard formats is the highest since Jordy Nelson (2.28) in 2011, and was 27 percent higher than Terrance Williams, who finished 2nd in this metric last season. Bryant was so productive – 26 receptions, 549 yards and eight touchdowns – that he finished the season as the #44 fantasy receiver on just 48 targets. He split time with Markus Wheaton. Unfortunately, the fantasy community is acutely aware of Bryant’s potential since all of his production came in the final 10 games. He was the #15 receiver in that span and capped his season with five catches for 61 yards and a touchdown against the Ravens in the playoffs. There’s still opportunity for Bryant to outperform expectations even as a 5th- or 6th-round pick. If the Steelers give him WR2-type snaps and targets, Bryant should continue to produce at a high level given his superior measurables and Ben Roethlisberger’s quality play at quarterback. A top 15 season is not out of the question.

Jordan Matthews, Eagles
The table is set for Matthews after his solid rookie season. He finished in the top 20 in FP/T (1.31), and his targets should increase from the 103 he saw in 2014 after the Eagles let Jeremy Maclin walk in free agency. The typical WR1 sees 134-138 targets in a given season, and if Matthews maintains his FP/T, he’s looking at a top 12 year. More likely, his FP/T will regress a bit towards the mean as his targets increase, but strong fantasy WR2 numbers are definitely within reach.

Brandin Cooks, Saints

Cooks averaged 5.3 catches for 55 yards and 0.30 TD in his first 10 games before a thumb injury ended his season. He was also a weapon in the running game, rushing seven times for 73 yards and a touchdown. In Jimmy Graham (125 targets) and Kenny Stills (83 targets), the Saints traded away two of its three most targeted players, and Cooks will be asked to pick up much of the slack. His FP/T (1.06) was average, but he should easily soak up 130-plus targets for the Saints. As a likely 100-catch player, he’ll hold more value in PPR formats than in standard leagues.

Charles Johnson, Vikings

Johnson’s 2014 FP/T (1.01) was nothing to write home about, but his production down the stretch indicates that he’s in line for a bigger role in 2015. He caught 25 passes for 415 yards and two touchdowns in the final seven games. Those translate to solid WR3 numbers on 6.7 targets per game, so even if he takes a backseat to Mike Wallace, Charles could still see 100-plus targets if OC Norv Turner gives the up-and-coming Teddy Bridgewater a bit more freedom to throw the ball. I favor Johnson over Wallace since he has a built-in rapport with Bridgewater and an established role in the offense.

Brian Quick, Rams
For the first few weeks of the 2014 season, it looked like Quick was going to be next in a long line of receivers who broke out in their third year. He played starter’s snaps for the first six games, posting 24 catches for 365 yards and three touchdowns on 37 targets (#28 numbers) before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. His upside in his fourth year depends heavily on the health of that shoulder, but it sounds like he should be ready for training camp. He’ll have to build a rapport with a new quarterback (Nick Foles), but should be able to pick up where he left off if he’s completely healthy.

Marvin Jones, Bengals
Jones was one of my favorite sleepers last summer, but his season was derailed by an ankle injury. His 51 catches for 712 yards and 10 touchdowns resulted in the 3rd-highest FP/T in 2013. He’s poised to surprise if he can prove he’s fully healthy and win the starting job opposite A.J. Green. Mohamed Sanu played pretty well last season but he struggled with drops, and Jones was ahead of Sanu when disaster struck. Both players are free agents after the season, so this is one of the more interesting camp battles to monitor this summer.

Chris Matthews, Seahawks
Matthews didn’t register a catch during the regular season, but he came up big for the Seahawks in the postseason. First, he recovered the infamous Brandon Bostick onside kick in the NFC Championship Game. Then, he posted four catches for 109 yards and a touchdown in Super Bowl XLIX. His FP/T in that game was 3.38, but it’s obviously an extremely small sample size of five targets. He has a lot to prove this summer, but if his momentum carries over to training camp, he could emerge as a fantasy relevant threat. He stands 6-5, and is unlike any of the other receivers on the Seattle roster.


Breakout Candidates (FP/Snap)

Another metric I use to identify breakout candidates is FP/Snap. Using 4for4’s Player Snap App, I sorted by PPR/Snap (fantasy points per snap in a PPR scoring system), and filtered out those players who didn’t play at least 25% of their team’s snaps to remove some of the noise. A couple of interesting names jumped out:

Jarvis Landry, Dolphins
Landry finished his rookie season as the #30 receiver in PPR formats and he only played 62% of his team’s snaps. His playing time started to pick up in Week 6, and he averaged 6.0 catches for 54 yards and 0.42 TD over the final 12 weeks. He was the #15 PPR receiver in that span while still only playing 68% of his team’s snaps. His PPR/Snap (0.27) was 21st among receivers that played at least 25% of their team’s snaps. The Dolphins have a lot of new faces at receiver – Kenny Stills, DeVante Parker and Greg Jennings – but Landry should continue to serve as Ryan Tannehill’s safety blanket in the slot.

Cole Beasley, Cowboys
Before the team’s Week 11 bye, Beasley was averaging 2.1 T/G. After the bye, and including the playoffs, Beasley averaged 3.5 catches for 47 yards and 0.40 TD on 4.9 T/G, becoming Tony Romo’s third-favorite target in the passing game after Dez Bryant and Jason Witten. Those are fringe WR3 numbers in PPR formats. Beasley only played 41% of his team’s snaps, so if the Cowboys start utilizing more three-WR sets, Beasley could become a poor man’s Wes Welker.


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 Carson Palmer, and Fitzgerald and Floyd finished #16 and #23, respectively.

So 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.)

Heading into last season, DeAndre Hopkins was among those who stood out as breakout candidates since it looked like he was going to enjoy better quarterback play. (And he did.) Who stands out this year?

Mike Evans & Vincent Jackson, Buccaneers
Via a combination of Josh McCown and Mike Glennon, but mostly McCown, the Buccaneers had the 8th-worst passing efficiency last season, and Evans still managed to finish as the #11 fantasy receiver as a rookie. Imagine if #1 overall pick Jameis Winston can produce even mediocre efficiency in his first year in Tampa. Middling play from the quarterback position should also give Jackson a chance to bounce back from a disappointing season that saw him finish outside the top 15 for the first time in four seasons.

Stevie Johnson, Chargers
Remember Stevie? He had three straight 1,000-yard seasons for the Bills from 2010 to 2012. After a disappointing, injury-plagued 2013 campaign, Buffalo traded him to the 49ers, who barely used him. He still managed to turn 50 targets into 35 catches for 435 yards and three touchdowns, posting the 8th-highest PPR/Snap (0.33). He also had the 9th-highest aFP/T (2.01) in PPR formats since Colin Kaepernick and the 49er passing game wasn’t all that efficient. Now the 28-year-old gets his last and best chance to bounce back in San Diego, and for the first time in his career he’ll have a bona fide passer (Philip Rivers) throwing him the ball. Keenan Allen is the clear WR1 for the Chargers, but Johnson could carve out a role as a real-world WR2/WR3 depending on how Malcom Floyd’s speed holds up at age 34.

The Cardinals Receivers
It was déjà vu all over again for the Arizona receivers in 2014 as they suffered through poor quarterback play once Carson Palmer went down. Palmer played in Week 1 and then returned from Week 6 to Week 10, playing in six total games. In those games, Larry Fitzgerald averaged high-end WR2 numbers, while John Brown posted solid fantasy WR3 production. The only player who fared better without Palmer was Michael Floyd, but it was probably more noise than a trend. Over the past two seasons, Floyd averaged 3.8 catches for 60 yards and 0.32 TD (fantasy WR3 numbers) with Palmer in the lineup. Floyd posted the 14th-highest aFP/T (1.29) in standard formats in 2014.

Allen Robinson, Jaguars
Robinson’s aFP/T (1.64) was solid if unspectacular, but it’s clear that he did not enjoy good quarterback play as a rookie given his 28-spot jump when compared to his unadjusted numbers. From Week 2 to Week 10 – i.e. while he was getting starter’s snaps – Robinson was the #22 WR in PPR formats. If Blake Bortles progresses at all, Robinson should have a great year now that WR1 job is his to lose.

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