How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the (Deep) Bomb
Who doesn’t love witnessing the beauty of a deep pass downfield? The speed displayed by receivers to get downfield, the power and accuracy exhibited by the quarterback to get the ball just where it needs to be, the grace with which the ball is secured, it is truly a magnificent sight to behold.
Unless you are a defender or fan of that team.
Joking aside, there are few plays in all of sports that capture so much excitement in the span of less than 30 seconds. I dare say we all collectively hold our breath anytime such a play is executed, even if we don’t have a stake in the game. The play does not even have to result in a score, although it does make it a bit more exciting, just the act of throwing downfield give such a play the feeling that it is anyone’s ball. It is also one of the few plays in the sports world where all plays on the field at that time have an active stake in the success, or failure, of that play for their respective teams.
So then, it likely will not come as much of a surprise to many of you that the NFL has consistently been shifting towards being more and more of a passing league. A full 57 percent of all plays in the NFL last season were pass plays, versus 43 percent of plays being rushes. That split has remained relatively static over the last decade, moving up or down a percentage point or two over any given season. As you might expect, defenses tend to become a bit wise and an offense gets significantly easier to read if they deviate too far from the league average in their play calling. The NFL, as a whole, appears to be quite comfortable operating within this play-calling status quo they have collectively established.
How then, you may ask, can the NFL continue to be seen as advancing itself as a passing league? Sure, they pass more than they run, but that seems to be expected at this point. The answer is likely simpler than you may guess. As it turns out, not all passes are created equal.
Intuitively, we know that this is not a ground-breaking statement. What is interesting though is that we are already several seasons into a firmly established trend where NFL offenses are doing more with that relatively unchanged percentage of their passes.
For the past eight seasons, the average longest reception per game for every targeted receiver in the league has continued to move upwards, indicating that receivers, in many instances, but offenses in general, are winning the battle against the league’s defenses. Where, in seasons past, offensive coordinators were ordained as “offensive geniuses” by simply throwing the ball more often than the rest of the league, today’s offensive coordinators are getting more out of their offense and their passing plays than ever before. Take a look at the following chart and table to see what I mean:
|Season||Avg Long Rec Per Game (Yards)|
Since 2012, the average long reception per game for each targeted player in that game has increased by nearly two yards on average. This points not just to teams taking greater risks in an effort to get the ball downfield, it also serves to illustrate that those risks are paying off, all without offenses tipping their hands to defensive units by increasing the frequency with which they choose to pass the ball. To put it more succinctly, offensives have seen increases in their passing games by opting for quality over quantity.
When the 2019 season comes to an end, by using the data we have through 14 weeks, it appears all but certain that the average long reception per game will again eclipse eight yards and could even surpass the current high of 8.59 yards set in 2018. This appears to further confirm this trend and only reinforces the need for us, as dynasty owners, to heed what the data is trying to tell us, but what exactly is that message? Well, that message is much less clear and appears downright contradictory at first glance.
You see, while the average long pass completed for receivers has seen a steady increase since 2012, the average yards gained per completion has seen a steady, but not as pronounced, decline as you can see below:
|Season||Avg Per Rec (Yards)|
See? Confusing right? Well, hold on. Here is how I interpret this data, it appears that deep threat receivers are once again en vogue for fantasy purposes. That is not to say they were ever out of style, however, the development and widespread adoption of Point Per Reception (PPR) leagues in fantasy football served as a way to level the point-scoring playing field, making high volume slot and/or possession receivers more attractive, in many instances, to those wide receivers who might catch two or three passes but also record over 100 receiving yards. However, receiving yards still count for something. Therefore, while the average yards per reception may be slipping, those big-play wide receivers are increasingly becoming the instrument through which many dynasty owners are winning games.
“How?”, you may ask.
Again, the answer is, simply put, through efficiency. While the average yards per reception has declined and the average yards per long reception has climbed, the completion rate for all passes thrown has continued upwards. Last season, the completion rate for all passes thrown was the highest it has been at any point in our tracking period, but also well before that as well. A surprising 64.9 percent of all passes thrown were completed last year.
This appears to indicate that wide receivers are getting better at outmaneuvering defenders both before and after catching the ball, and quarterbacks are getting better at identifying these mismatches and are, collectively, getting more accurate in their placement of the ball. While I believe a compelling case can, and has, been made for these conclusions, the question still remains, how do we, as dynasty owners, capitalize on these findings?
Well, first thing is first, catch rate for receivers, matters, but not as much as you may think. Last season, only two wide receivers (Michael Thomas and Adam Thielen) had a catch rate in the top 50 players and had more than 1,000 receiving yards.
So, catch rate can be important, but it isn’t the sole determining factor in how to choose your wide receiver who takes it to the house. Whereas speed, in regard to a wide receiver’s 40-yard dash time, appears to be a much better barometer for piling up those deep receptions. I know, shocking, right? However, the catch rate for those speedsters tends to be below the completion rate outlined earlier. It also explains, yet another time, why Al Davis’ famed track star wide receiving corps never became a full-fledged dynasty.
Yet a third collection of players also inhabits many of the leaderboard spots for average yards per reception, large, big-bodied wide receivers – players taller than 6’-3” and weighing more than 215 pounds. Players tough to take down after the catch who can pile on yards after the reception. These players, oddly enough, also have below-average catch rates as defenses have steadily learned that these players require double-teaming or a defender with a larger stature than your average cornerback.
Ultimately, the best way to take advantage of the trend towards deeper passes appears to be through developing a mixed basket of these different receiver types. A team too heavily stacked on pure speedsters risks highly-volatile scoring outcomes. So, too, would a team composed primarily of massive wide receivers that would fit in fine in most tight end rooms. Finally, highly-dependable receivers with phenomenal catch rates rarely get a significant amount of targets in today’s game and those targets appear to be yielding less and less yardage year over year.
While your large wide receivers might have a good game one week and your speedsters can not even appear to catch a cold, in the next week your speed demons might post a 200-receiving-yard game while your big men appear to be statues. All the while, your wide receivers with the dependable hands get you your base points every week.
Therefore, while it might not be the sexiest approach to roster construction, an approach I would recommend toward diversification of your wide receiver assets with a clear plan towards maximizing consistency and production, a combination of speed and size appears to be one of the smarter ways to maximize your exposure towards big plays while minimizing your risk. Have fun and prepare accordingly with this knowledge. I’m excited to hear any strategies our readers come up with for exploiting this opportunity.