The Importance Of Targets Over The Middle
In recent years, NFL teams have been using the middle of the field in the passing game more and more. From the emergence in popularity of slot receivers and receiving tight ends, to now the “big slot” prototype, teams have been continuously taking advantage of this area of the field. But why? Generally speaking, the middle of the field is where mismatches are made. You can’t put a linebacker on a quick slot guy like Julian Edelman since the linebacker wouldn’t be able to keep up. You also couldn’t put a smaller corner on a big tight end like Gronk or he would just get muscled all over the place. Using the middle of the field also gives teams more space to work with, to construct more creative plays.
By using expected points added (EPA), this tells us how many points are expected to be added to the possession team after each play. In other words, it tells us how effective a play is. Below shows the distribution of EPA over the past four years for each pass location. The main thing we are looking for in this scenario is which pass location has the highest chance of getting a positive EPA. Therefore, since the green line is on top of the positive portion of the x-axis, this means that the middle of the field creates the most productive plays. It is also clear that the middle is the best pass location year after year. But how does this relate to fantasy?
Passing over the middle gives players and teams the best chance for producing yards which then produce fantasy points. First, let’s look at the teams who are best at utilizing the middle of the field. Here are 2018’s best teams at utilizing the middle of the field, sorting by total EPA.
- Los Angeles Rams – No surprise here as this offense is like a Swiss army knife—every player can do anything. Robert Woods led the team in targets over the middle, encompassing that “big slot” prototype.
- Kansas City Chiefs – Dominated by the two-headed monster of Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, each player had 40+ targets over the middle. No other player had more than 10.
- Los Angeles Chargers – Keenan Allen dominated this role for the Chargers, claiming 34% of the middle targets. However, I would hypothesize that this figure goes down as Hunter Henry comes back.
- Atlanta Falcons – Julio Jones owned about a third of the middle targets all by himself, followed by Mohammed Sanu.
- Green Bay Packers – Davante Adams and Jimmy Graham were the relevant middle receivers here, combining for about 57% of the target share over the middle.
The above five teams were the most productive at passing over the middle last season. It just so happens that each offense was strong in 2018. Many teams don’t even allocate a third of their passes over the field, missing out on a clear path of production.
Now that we’ve looked at teams, let’s look at players. Below is a table showing the target leaders for passes over the middle, and the quarterback those passes were from. This table shows a lot of top performers from 2018. This table is especially useful for players that are used primarily over the middle who should see an increased workload in the upcoming season, such as Sterling Shephard. Shephard was already relevant on middle targets—an increase would only lead to even more fantasy success in 2019.
Putting It All Together
It is important to keep in mind the power of receptions over the middle of the field. These passes have shown to be the most efficient in terms segment of location year after year. Therefore, receivers who see a large volume over the middle have an easier chance at producing than those on the outside. By analyzing receivers' targets over the middle, you can see that the most targeted players generally performed well in fantasy, as well. If you are anticipating a target increase over the middle for a player in 2019, this would have a great impact on their fantasy performance. All in all, the middle of the field is the most important section as it best leads to positive plays.