Air yards data is still frequently overlooked in Fantasy Football research, and perhaps because it's not a very well-understood stat. But it shouldn't have to be complicated — when we talk about air yards, we are essentially talking about potential receiving yards. In other words, air yards are to receiving yards as targets are to receptions.
Air yards don't measure the actual distance a pass travels in the air; rather they measure how far downfield from the line of scrimmage the pass traveled in yardage. A pass to the sticks on first-and-10 travels 10 air yards, whether that pass reaches the receiver in the middle of the field or along the sideline. In this way, it's a measure of how many potential receiving yards are there for the player on the play if the pass is caught. Any pass that travels 10 air yards, if caught, will be 10 receiving yards (plus any additional yardage the receiver might gain after the catch).
There are a ton of ways we can incorporate air yards into our research. For starters, cumulative air yards — that is to say the total number of potential yards on all targets a player has seen — can tell us a lot about the value of a player's role. One big push back I often see is that air yards aren't as good as targets, and that is true. But using targets and air yards in conjunction is better than just using targets alone. Air yards allow us to differentiate between two 80-target receivers, one a slot guy without much upside and another a downfield threat who has the potential to regularly make splash plays. That's valuable information!
Average depth of target (aDOT) measures air yards divided by targets — how far downfield, on average, a player's targets are. And one of the unique findings from the man who popularized air yards in the Fantasy world, Josh Hermsmeyer of FiveThirtyEight and Establish the Run, is that wide receivers tend to control their own aDOTs. In other words, even in the case of a quarterback change, a deep threat will tend to remain a deep threat, and so on. Quarterbacks have less of an effect on where a receiver sees their targets than that receiver's own skill set.
Armed with that information, we can identify some undervalued pass-catching options who are in good positions to see plenty of volume in 2020. Think of this like the equivalent of any discussion along the lines of available targets, but simply with more nuance as we try to identify players whose targets looks more secure at the depths where they typically see them.
The curious case of Mike Evans
Chris Godwin was incredible in a breakout 2019, and now he tends to go sometimes as much as a round before Mike Evans. A lot of this is due to the quarterback change, and Tom Brady's arm strength has been frequently discussed. But Evans is one of the few consistently high-target players who has also maintained a high aDOT throughout his career. In 2019, he was so far and away the league's air yards leader, that despite an injury costing him three games and leaving him at 118 targets for the season, only Julio Jones caught up and passed him.
In fact, dating back to Evans' second season, he's finished in the top five of total air yards every year. Even as a rookie, with Josh McCown and Mike Glennon under center, he finished eighth in total air yards. This is a huge reason he's posted at least 1,000 receiving yards every season, and at age 27, he's right in his prime.
Godwin, meanwhile, for as good as he is, operates at much lower aDOT. In Godwin's hyper-efficient 2019, his 10.8 aDOT was just slightly below league average for a wide receiver. Evans saw targets, on average 15.3 yards downfield. That difference is important as we consider the impact of Breshad Perriman (16.3 aDOT) leaving and Rob Gronkowski (career 10.8 aDOT) coming to town. Gronkowski operates at depths that overlap with Godwin's targets more than those of Evans. In fact, Evans has almost no competition for downfield looks.
As to whether Brady still has the arm strength, camp reports suggest he's developing a rapport with Evans and enjoying throwing downfield to him. And it's notable that Brady hasn't had a player like Evans in some time. Brady's average throw depths over the past five years, working backward, have been: 7.6, 7.8, 9.2, 8.0, and 7.8. Notice the outlier? That 9.2 year was 2017, the one year Brandin Cooks played on the Patriots and led the team in targets. With Julian Edelman missing the season, Brady was a more vertical passer — as his receiving corps dictated — and led the NFL in passing yardage that year.
I'm not saying concerns about Brady's arm strength are entirely unfounded, but at least with respect to the Average Draft Position gap between Godwin and Evans those concerns seem overblown. If last year is any indication, Godwin and Evans should have similar target numbers this season, and they are very clearly complementary receivers who operate at different depths on the field so both can be successful. But even if Godwin does edge Evans out for targets, Evans is a virtual lock to have more air yards. If you think Brady is so washed he can't get the ball down the field, you should also be fading Godwin in the second round because it's hard to imagine he's a hyper-efficient slot guy with that type of quarterback, and part of the reason to like Godwin is a belief he can maintain some of that efficiency.
But if you think Brady will inject some life into this offense, there's little justification to be so low on Evans that he falls to the back half of the third round and sometimes into the fourth. All indications are Brady will throw downfield more this year, and a healthy Evans will notch his record-breaking seventh-straight 1,000-yard season to begin his career.
D.J. Moore and Teddy Bridgewater are a perfect pair
Going at the 3/4 turn in drafts, D.J. Moore is pretty clearly underrated at this point in his career. A former first-round pick whose role progressively grew in his first year en route to a 960-yard rookie season as a 21-year-old, Moore was on his way to an incredible second season before a calf injury sidelined him six snaps into Week 16 and cost him essentially the final two games. His final line was 87 catches for 1,175 yards and only four touchdowns, and the touchdowns do seem to be a sticking point for many drafters.
But it's my contention that if he would have played those final two games — his 16-game pace through 14 games was 152 targets, 98 receptions, 1,342 receiving yards and five touchdowns, and would have made him WR5 in PPR leagues — he would be going about a round higher in drafts. Keep in mind, Moore was 22 and played with Kyle Allen for most of the year; in Michael Thomas's second season as a 24-year-old with Drew Brees, he turned 149 targets into 104 catches, 1,245 yards and five scores.
Now Moore welcomes Teddy Bridgewater, a quarterback who has been comfortable throwing underneath and has been particularly accurate in recent seasons at shallower depths. The below chart shows his completion percentage by depth across 2018 and 2019 in the green line, with league average in orange.
Bridgewater has struggled somewhat in the intermediate depths, though it's not out of the question he could improve. But he's been accurate at the shallower depths working with Thomas and Alvin Kamara with the Saints.
For a high volume No. 1 receiver, Moore's 11.1 aDOT wasn't particularly high last year, and he should see plenty of volume in the short areas where Bridgewater thrives. It could mean a massive third season for Moore.
The one thing that might stand in his way? If this new offense gives him too much target competition at those depths. We know Christian McCaffrey will see plenty of short area targets, but talk that Curtis Samuel could play closer to the line of scrimmage after being a primary deep threat in 2019 could impact Moore's target share. The Panthers of course brought in Robby Anderson, who makes sense as a replacement for Samuel in the downfield role, and presumably frees up Samuel for more versatility like we saw from him at Ohio State. If that comes to fruition, it may also be Samuel who benefits from Bridgewater's short-area accuracy.
How does Stefon Diggs fit in Buffalo?
Diggs is a player who, like Samuel, felt pigeon holed into a downfield role last year in Minnesota. Remember the notes about how a receiver tends to dictate the depth of the targets they see? That hasn't been true of Diggs, a pretty clear indication his offense was asking specific things of him.
In 2018, Diggs had an aDOT of 8.6, well below league average. He racked up 149 targets and caught over 100 balls as an underneath weapon. In 2019, Diggs' aDOT jumped to 15.1(!), an extremely high number and easily the largest gap between two seasons for the same high-volume receiver I can remember. Did Diggs acquit well to this downfield role? He saw just 94 targets, but posted an incredibly efficient 12.0 yards per target and actually finished with more yards than he had in 2018.
The net result is that over the past two years, Diggs has been productive at various depths, but he's never really been treated as a legitimate No. 1. Over the course of his career, he's proven to be well above average at virtually any depth — here's his catch rate compared to the league average, and it looks very much like what you would expect from an elite No. 1.
There are concerns for Diggs heading into 2020. He's joining another low-volume pass offense, and his new quarterback has tended to be less accurate than his previous one. There are always concerns about receivers changing teams, and we often see them disappoint in their first seasons in a new uniform.
But there's also something to be said about whether the Vikings' usage of Diggs has left a ton of potential production on the field. Typically, when a high-profile receiver changes team, we're asking a question of whether he can match lofty numbers he previously put up. In Diggs' case, it may be that we should have been expecting more for a long time.
The Bills have tried to acquire a legitimate No. 1 for Josh Allen since an attempt to trade for Antonio Brown last offseason, and this offseason they gave up not just a first-round pick, but also a fourth, a fifth, and a late-round pick swap that favored Minnesota to get Diggs. That's elite draft capital for a player they've spent the offseason telling reporters they know wants the ball and they want to get it to him. John Brown was a very useful deep threat for Buffalo last season, and Cole Beasley was surprisingly effective in his first career 100-target season. But both are now on the wrong side of 30, while Diggs is 26 until late November. I expect Diggs to take a bunch of Beasley's short-area targets, but also dominate the intermediate range and contribute deep along with Brown.
For maybe the first time in his career, it looks like Diggs will be treated like a legitimate No. 1 worthy of targets at all depths of the field. Sure this isn't the best offense for big production, but last year Allen Robinson rode a similar situation with Mitchell Trubisky at quarterback to a WR7 finish in PPR leagues. Diggs might not have quite that ceiling because Robinson saw 154 targets, but if Diggs is a legit No. 1 who commands a big target share at all depths like I've suggested, he has a clear path to beating his WR28 ADP by a healthy margin.
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