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NFL Lookahead, Part II: Using Data to Pinpoint Which Wide Receivers are Poised for Big Seasons

By: Kyle Cunningham-Rhoads

Stats Perform collects data on every position group in an effort to create a more complete picture of how teams are constructed. Over 30,000 data points are gathered each NFL game and through those hundreds of thousands of points, we can begin to discern how players are performing relative to what is being asked of them.

As we continue our lookahead to the highly anticipated 2020 NFL season, we’re using data to break down some of the players who should enjoy productive seasons for both their respective teams and, potentially, your fantasy football team.

In the opener, we took a closer look at the running back spot. Now, let’s dissect which wide receivers could make a difference — in some cases a surprising one — this season.   

How do we come to choose these players? Well, it certainly isn’t based on Joe Fantasy Expert’s opinion. In this case, it all has to do with the analytics and factors that make a productive receiver.

1. GETTING OPEN

Open receivers are good targets. It allows the QB a little wiggle room with his throws and separation allows for plenty of after-the-catch yardage. While receivers can be schemed open, on most plays they are responsible for winning a matchup with a defender. Thanks to the All-22 film, we can observe this for every receiver on all plays, rather than only on plays where the receiver is targeted. Some averages to keep in mind:

Outside Wide Receiver: Open 32.6% of the time

Slot Wide Receiver: Open 33.6% the time

Tight End Split Out: Open 26% of the time

Tight End In Line: Open 23% of the time

2. OPPORTUNITY

The NFL has always been diverse from a scheme standpoint, and today’s NFL is no different. Each offense, and each quarterback, offers a different set of opportunities for skill players, and understanding those opportunities is important for fantasy production. There are receivers who are excellent and if you only looked at their win percentage, you’d think they had some of the best counting stats in the game. Take Julian Edelman for example. Last year, he won one-on-one matchups 55% of the time — highest in the NFL. However, he was double-teamed on almost one-third of his routes, and he played for a team that was often nursing a lead.

3. ABILITY TO GENERATE YARDS AFTER THE CATCH

Once the catch is made, there are more yards to be had. As we alluded to previously, there’s a correlation between getting yourself open and yards after the catch, but most yards after the catch come on deep throws and short throws. Julio Jones, DeAndre Hopkins and Amari Cooper get minimal yards after the catch, because they’re running routes between the levels of the defense rather than on one side of the defense or the other. 

Overall, the most consistent production comes from players who get themselves open. Here are a few examples: 

Calvin Ridley should continue his touchdown production this season.

CALVIN RIDLEY, ATLANTA FALCONS (ADP 43)

Ridley averaged 66 yards and more than half a touchdown per game in 2019 before his season ended in Week 14. If we only look at his stats after Mohamed Sanu was dealt to the Patriots, he averaged 82 yards and 0.5 touchdowns. 

Our data explains why that was no fluke. In one-on-one matchups, Ridley won 52.6% of the time, just behind Davante Adams (52.7%). He’s a craftsman route runner and specializes in beating press coverage, a key for outside receivers. The Falcons love to throw it around, and with Julio Jones attracting a lot of attention on the other side of the field, Ridley should continue his touchdown production.

Matched up against Carolina’s best corner, Ridley evades a jam at the line of scrimmage and gets James Bradberry in a trail position. He sells an in-breaking route, which gives him plenty of separation for a big gain outside the numbers.

Ridley puts himself in a great position right off the line of scrimmage and then finishes the job downfield.

DIONTAE JOHNSON, PITTSBURGH STEELERS (ADP 106)

Johnson had an impressive rookie campaign where he amassed 59 receptions for 680 yards with the likes of Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges throwing the ball for the Steelers. With Big Ben back in the fold, 2020 could be a breakout year for Johnson. 

Johnson, who also handles some return duties, is adept at creating his own space and being slippery after the catch. He averaged 5.2 yards after the catch in 2019, right next to the likes of Jarvis Landry, Davante Adams and Stefon Diggs while winning matchups an astounding 52.8% of the time.

(Video 1) Matched up against Patrick Peterson, Johnson dances Peterson into a circle, and only loses the rep when he slips on the turf. He gets another chance on the next play.

(Video 2) He beats two-trail coverage — essentially a double team, by selling an in-breaking route and creating a ton of space from the two defenders covering him.

STERLING SHEPARD, NEW YORK GIANTS (ADP 130)

If only he could stay healthy. Shepard drops some of the nastiest routes in the game, and we’re hoping Daniel Jones develops enough to take advantage of them. 

He wins his matchups just over 50% of the time, while splitting time almost equally between the slot and outside. He’s a player who the Giants like to find matchups for, and with a field-stretcher like Darius Slayton attracting safety attention, Shepard should have ample opportunity to make use of the intermediate. 

It’s a simple out route with some sort of pre-snap read by the QB, but Shepard makes it an easy throw and catch. He gets the corner off balance with a jab step and then uses his imbalance to generate more space to the sideline.

Later in the game (Video 2), he catches the defender flat-footed and uses his speed to get three or four yards of separation for what should be an easy touchdown.

Unfortunately, the ball is underthrown and Shepard’s route running is wasted.

ALLEN LAZARD, GREEN BAY PACKERS (ADP 194)

Lazard may be the reason the Packers elected not to go wide receiver in the first round of the draft. He’s an enormous receiver and uses subtleties to generate the amount of space he needs to use his wingspan, which isn’t a lot of necessary space. He also understands his height advantage and uses the threat of it to win on shorter routes. 

Lazard started to get significant snaps in Week 12, and by Week 15 he was on the field for more than 75% of passing snaps in each game. During those games, he won his matchups 50% of the time. Perhaps his most dominant performance came in Week 17 against the Detroit Lions where he beat Rashaan Melvin eight out of 12 times.

Matched up against Darius Slay, Lazard gets Slay turned around by threatening an outside route before swimming back into a slant and ends up with two or three yards of separation on a short route.

STEVEN SIMS JR., WASHINGTON FOOTBALL TEAM (ADP 314)

Sims didn’t see much action on offense until Week 14 last year. He then averaged nine targets, 57.5 receiving yards and a touchdown per game.

Over that span, he won his matchups 45% of the time. He’ll man the slot for the Washington Football Team in 2020, and could see a little more time on the outside if Kelvin Harmon doesn’t improve. If Haskins can be even Josh Allen, Sims could put up similar numbers to what we saw from Cole Beasley in 2019.

Lined up just outside the hashes on the right side, Sims sells a short crossing route before taking a hard step upfield and leaving his defender in a heap on the ground. The free safety comes over to help and gets lucky that Haskins doesn’t see Sims until it’s too late.

If Sims gets the ball at the top of his route, it’s a 60-yard touchdown.

 

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