What are the Most Predictable Year-to-Year Stats for Wide Receivers?
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.
In hopes of keeping this study somewhat controlled, only receivers from 2010 on that saw at least 65 targets and remained on the same team in consecutive years were considered. So many variables change from one year to the next in the NFL, and since a study like this can be inherently sensitive to outliers, eliminating something as drastic as a team change should remove some noise. Sixty-five targets is an arbitrary cutoff, but should be sufficient enough of a sample to gauge a player's performance level in a season, even if it was cut short unexpectedly.
This methodology offers us a sample of 175 instances in which a wide receiver met the volume threshold in consecutive seasons for the same team.
The One Type of Stat with the Strongest Correlation
The following table gives the correlations for 17 statistics that are commonly cited when trying to project a wide receiver's upcoming season:
|Total Rec. Yards||.49|
|% of Team Red Zone Targets||.38|
|Total Red Zone Targets||.38|
|TD Rate (TD/Targets)||.21|
|Red Zone TD Rate||.04|
As has been the case with quarterbacks and running backs, per-game stats have the strongest year-to-year correlations for wide receivers. When you consider that these stats simply represent a player's average performance, this should come as no surprise.
On the other hand, volume stats will fluctuate if a player misses a handful of games (and how many games a player plays has virtually no correlation from one year to the next).
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 have moderate year-to-year correlations, targets have a year-to-year correlation that is on the brink of being considered statistically strong.
Similar to running backs, wide receiver PPR scoring somewhat mitigates the effect of touchdowns on the bottom-line fantasy scoring, so it makes sense that a receiver can have somewhat consistent year-to-year fantasy output despite a moderately weak correlation in touchdowns from one year to the next.
Even with the correlation in per-game production overall from year to year being moderately strong, it isn’t so strong that we can look at the previous season and think that a wide receiver will easily replicate his numbers.
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.
Since catch rate, targets, receptions, and yards all only have moderate year-to-year correlations, it makes sense that there can be a disconnect between yards per reception and yards per target correlations from one year to the next. All of these stats may vary on a yearly basis, but that doesn’t mean they all move in the same direction. In other words, if a receiver has a catch rate of 60 percent one year and 50 percent the next, but maintains his yardage and reception totals, his yards per reception won't change, but his yards per target will see a significant drop-off.
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. (Speaking of touchdowns note that receiving touchdowns have a slightly stronger year-to-year correlation than total touchdowns for running backs.)
Be Wary of the Red Zone
It’s important to pinpoint receivers that have a good chance at scoring, and the moderate correlations that we see in the case of a receiver's red zone targets and red zone target share 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 Larry Fitzgerald, who has seen the second most red zone targets among wide receivers since 2010, and whose touchdown rate during that span (21.2%) is very close to the league average over the same time period (23.3%):
|Year||Red Zone Targets||Red Zone TD||Red Zone TD Rate|
Fitzgerald’s year-to-year touchdown rate highlights how scoring rates can fluctuate, even for the league’s most consistent red zone targets. Although certain players seem to dominate the red zone year in and year out (Eric Decker and Dez Bryant come to mind), 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 regression to the mean should be expected.
The 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 stats for wide receivers. Receptions, yards, and fantasy points are simply results of those targets.
- Not all efficiency metrics are reliable. Variance in catch rate can drive a gap between yards per reception and yards per target. Touchdown rate cannot be derived from last season’s performance.
- Red zone usage is an indicator of opportunity, but not a guarantee for touchdowns.
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1. Looking at the evidence anecdotally, I hypothesized that since rookies often see a huge target jump from their first season to their second season, that if rookies were removed from the study then year-to-year targets would have an even stronger correlation. In fact, removing rookies had virtually no bearing on any year-to-year correlations for wide receivers.