The Importance Of Targets Over The Middle

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?

Top Performers

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 ChargersKeenan 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 FalconsJulio Jones owned about a third of the middle targets all by himself, followed by Mohammed Sanu.
  • Green Bay PackersDavante 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. 

2018's Target Leaders Over The Middle
Passer Receiver Targets
B.Roethlisberger J.Smith-Schuster 54
P.Mahomes T.Kelce 49
P.Rivers K.Allen 47
M.Ryan J.Jones 45
P.Mahomes T.Hill 42
B.Roethlisberger A.Brown 42
D.Watson D.Hopkins 39
J.Goff R.Woods 39
T.Brady J.Edelman 36
A.Luck E.Ebron 36
K.Cousins A.Thielen 35
J.Goff B.Cooks 34
E.Manning S.Shepard 33
J.Flacco W.Snead IV 33
D.Prescott C.Beasley 32
M.Trubisky T.Burton 32
A.Rodgers D.Adams 32
D.Carr J.Cook 31
C.Wentz Z.Ertz 29
A.Rodgers J.Graham 29
D.Brees M.Thomas 28
M.Stafford K.Golladay 27
J.Flacco M.Crabtree 27
T.Brady R.Gronkowski 27
T.Brady J.White 27
B.Roethlisberger V.McDonald 27
B.Roethlisberger J.Conner 27
J.Rosen L.Fitzgerald 26
B.Mayfield J.Landry 26
J.Winston A.Humphries 26
A.Dalton T.Boyd 25
M.Mariota C.Davis 25
B.Mayfield D.Njoku 25
E.Manning O.Beckham 25
D.Carr J.Richard 25
M.Ryan M.Sanu 25
A.Luck T.Hilton 25
K.Cousins K.Rudolph 24
K.Cousins S.Diggs 24
B.Bortles D.Westbrook 23
A.Smith J.Reed 22
D.Prescott E.Elliott 21
C.Newton C.McCaffrey 21
J.Winston M.Evans 21
M.Stafford G.Tate 21
D.Carr J.Nelson 21
A.Dalton A.Green 20
C.Keenum D.Booker 20
M.Stafford T.Riddick 20
D.Carr S.Roberts 20
P.Rivers M.Williams 20
J.Flacco J.Brown 20
M.Ryan C.Ridley 20
T.Brady J.Gordon 20

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. 

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