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Want to take your research to the next level as you prepare for your Fantasy Football drafts? Let's talk about advanced stats. 

What's an advanced stat? Well, I suppose there's no one strict definition. You could argue it is anything that isn't traditionally included in box scores and game trackers -- so yards per attempts wouldn't be, obviously, but touchdown rate would be? Or, you could argue it's about going to the level beyond box score stats -- so, touchdown rate is too basic, but something like red-zone touchdowns might count. 

Ultimately, what you're trying to do when introducing advanced stats into your research is to find a better way to analyze players. So much goes into every point a player scores in Fantasy -- from the offensive line play to what the defense looked like to where the ball was spotted at the start of the play -- that isn't necessarily in a player's control. He gets the points for it, and they count, but when you're looking ahead and trying to project what a player is likely to do, you need to know those contextual factors. 

We're trying to figure out how much of a player's likely production comes from their talent and skills, how much comes from the team context and how much comes from every one of the other nearly infinite factors at play in football. Doing so perfectly is impossible, but looking beyond the box score is one sure way to get an advantage on your opponents.

In today's newsletter, I'll introduce you to some of the advanced stats I use most in my research, how to apply them in practice, and a few players who represent something you can learn from those numbers. The best Fantasy analysts and players out there are already taking this stuff into account, so it's time to catch up if you haven't. We also talked about all of these stats on Tuesday's episode of Fantasy Football Today, which you can check out below: 

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But first, a few news items you need to know about, including one running back injury that may seem minor now but could have significant repercussions for the season. Plus, for those of you playing in Dynasty leagues, make sure you check out Heath Cummings' latest mailbag column, and for those of you interested in playing some BestBall Fantasy, Heath has a breakdown of early May ADP here

News and notes

Jeff Wilson had knee surgery

Wilson suffered a torn meniscus and had surgery to repair it, a procedure that carries with it a 4-6 month recovery timetable. That puts his availability for the start of the season very much in doubt -- four months from today lines up with Week 3 of the season while six months would be more like Week 10 or 11 -- and opens up a potentially significant role in the offense for someone like rookie Trey Sermon to surge through. 

Wilson had a really solid 2020, rushing for 600 yards on 126 carries (4.8 YPC) with seven touchdowns, and he figured to be in line again for a shot at a pretty sizable role in the run-first 49ers offense. Raheem Mostert is still expected to be the lead back, but he's had trouble staying healthy himself and the 49ers have typically used multiple backs no matter what. Sermon isn't necessarily next up on the depth chart right now -- veteran Wayne Gallman, who started 11 games for the Giants last season is also here, as is JaMycal Hasty and fellow rookie Elijah Mitchell -- but this news certainly makes it more likely the third-round pick can make an impact early on. 

Sermon stands out from the backs the 49ers have typically leaned on in the Kyle Shanahan era in that he's a bit bigger and a bit slower, but he's a terrific athlete who shined as Ohio State's lead back as a senior. And this is an offense that has consistently created a ton of production from the running back position -- their top four backs in 2020 rushed for 1,588 yards on 4.5 yards per carry with 15 touchdowns last season. And that was a down year.

The expectation going into training camp should be that Sermon is battling for the No. 2 spot behind Mostert, and there's no guarantee he takes that role right away. Nor is there any guarantee he makes a significant impact even if he does -- among running backs drafted between 80th and 100th over the past decade, Kareem Hunt and Terrance West are the only ones to have more than 150 carries as a rookie and only seven out of 14 even had 100 carries. But Sermon has the potential to be one of the outliers in this offense if he can earn the opportunity. If I can get him in the 80-100 range in my drafts this season, I'll be pretty happy with it, and Gallman is an interesting last-round sleeper kind of pick, too. 

Here's some other news from the last few days you should know about:

  • Jalen Reagor will play out of the slot in 2021 -- Reagor played out of the slot some as a rookie, with 20.7% of his routes run coming lined up there, but it sounds like that could be a bigger part of his game. He wasn't particularly effective working out of the slot, but Reagor wasn't particularly effective in any role as a rookie, so you probably can't take much out of that. He averaged just 7.3 yards per target with a 57% catch rate, and his rookie struggles along with the addition of DeVonta Smith in the draft have made him an overlooked player for 2021 drafts. However, his training camp came to an early end with a shoulder injury, and then he suffered a thumb injury that landed him on IR after just two games, so that could help explain why it was such a difficult transition. He's a nice post-hype sleeper if you can get him with your final pick in drafts this season. 
  • Dak Prescott (ankle) is participating in team workouts -- Prescott practiced Tuesday in front of reporters for the first time since the compound fracture and dislocation of his ankle that ended his 2020 season, and he was mostly a full participant. He took part in all of the QB drills, including in 7-on-7 drills, and by all accounts looked like his usual self. He told reporters, "I'm pretty much a full-go," and Prescott is fully expected to be ready by the start of training camp. He's probably going to be one of the first eight QBs  drafted in most Fantasy leagues, and he has potential to finish as the No. 1 QB in an aggressive offense loaded with pass-catching weapons. Don't be surprised if he's inside the top five in QB ADP by the end of draft season. 
  • So is Joe Burrow (knee) -- Burrow's surgically reconstructed left knee isn't 100% yet -- he told reporters at OTAs that the knee has tested about "80-85%" compared to the right knee -- but it sure sounds like he'll be fully ready to go by the start of training camp. He took a few reps off here and there per The Athletic, and the coaching staff made a point of keeping the backfield clear when Burrow was throwing, but this still sounds like it was a pretty significant step. Burrow is obviously a big breakout candidate entering Year 2, with the addition of Ja'Marr Chase, his former teammate at LSU, raising expectations that were already pretty high. Burrow is worth taking as a fringe No. 1 QB in drafts, though you'll want to make sure you have another viable option just in case there's some rust early on. 
  • Antonio Brown officially signed his contract -- This wasn't necessarily a fait accompli after the soon-to-be 32-year-old underwent knee surgery recently, but he passed his physical and officially signed his $3.1 million contract, with incentives that could double the value of the deal. Brown played through the injury late in the postseason, but was on a 90-catch, 966-yard, eight-touchdown pace in his eight regular season games. I've got plenty of concerns about the Fantasy viability of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin with a healthy Brown around, and wouldn't target either as my No. 2 WR with an early ADP inside of the top-45 overall picks because they'll need to sustain pretty ridiculous touchdown rates to reach that level. But I don't mind Brown if I can get him around 100th overall. Here are the 16-game pace numbers for Brown, Evans, and Godwin in the 11 total games they played together, including the postseason:
    • Evans: 112 targets, 70 catches, 1,143 yards, 10 TD
    • Godwin: 114 targets, 74 catches, 993 yards, 9 TD
    • Brown: 107 targets, 77 catches, 820 yards, 9 TD

Advanced stats primer

I'm not going to be covering the entire galaxy of advanced stats out there right now, because that would be pretty much impossible. There is so much granular data out there, you'll never be able to digest it all -- and a lot of it is empty calories, so to speak. 

Most of the stats discussed below can be found on Pro-Football-Reference.com's advanced stats pages, but I'll also be referencing some stuff you can find from NFL Next Gen Stats and AirYards.com, among other places. 

My goal here is to introduce you to some of the concepts I use most often in my writing and research and show you how to put them into practice as well. I always want to make sure I'm communicating with my audience in a language everyone can understand, and hopefully this can help you expand your vocabulary a bit more. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me at Chris.Towers@CBSInteractive.com and I'd be happy to help. 

Passing stats

  • Intended air yards: How far down the field a receiver is when the QB targets him. This one is a basis of a lot of the analysis you'll see these days, and for good reason: More aggressive down-field passers often have more upside than those relying on short-area targets. Touchdowns are more common on deeper targets and the QB is less reliant on his receivers making plays once the ball is in their hands. Not every QB is best-suited slinging it down the field constantly, of course, and personnel will dictate this to a large degree, too. But, if you're wondering why 2020 was such a strange season for Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense, Roethlisberger's super-low 6.9 intended air yards per target number played a significant part. He just wasn't taking many shots, especially in the intermediate range, so they had to rely on picking up yards in small chunks to move the ball. 
  • On-target rate: The rate of a quarterback's passes deemed "catchable." Simple enough. In 2020, Kirk Cousins led the NFL at 81.3%, followed by Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Teddy Bridgewater. That makes sense!
  • Expected completion percentage: How likely a pass was to be completed, based on factors like how far the receiver was at the time of the throw from the nearest defender, where the target was located on the field, pressure, and others as tracked by Next Gen Stats. Think of it this way: It's a measure of degree of difficulty. Jimmy Garoppolo had the highest expected completion percentage in the NFL followed by Drew Brees, and they also had the second- and third-lowest intended air yards of all qualifiers. Throws further down the field are harder to complete, generally, so this measure simply tells you a lot more than completion percentage does. 
  • Completion percentage above expectation: This is where you get into how effective the QB (and his receivers) was at completing passes relative to how difficult they were. Deshaun Watson led the NFL, completing 4.8% more passes than expected -- he had a relatively high degree of difficulty on his throws, making that 70.2% completion percentage even more impressive. Carson Wentz was worst among returning starters at -4.1%. His situation was less than ideal, and he had one of the lowest expected completion percentages as a result, but he also just didn't play well, as anyone who watched him could tell. 
  • Pressure rate: How often a passer was pressured on his dropbacks. This tells you a more complete story than sack rate does -- sacks are on the offensive line, but they're also on the QB. Pressure is more on the line. Daniel Jones was pressured on more than 30% of his attempts, while Aaron Rodgers was on just 14.2%. Sometimes, it's about getting the ball out quick, but not always. 
  • Time in pocket: How long the QB had in the pocket before he scrambled or the pocket collapsed, measured in seconds. Rodgers' average time in the pocket was 2.5 seconds, which was the same as Jones. It wasn't just about getting the ball out quickly, though Rodgers was excellent at that in 2020. No QB got rid of the ball quicker than Ben Roethlisberger, whose time in pocket was just 2.1 seconds. 

Rushing stats

  • Yards before contact: How many yards a rusher traveled before being contacted by a defender, on average. Quarterbacks typically lead the league in this category, because they rarely take off without space, but RBs in offense with rushing QBs or with option concepts also tend to do well by this measure; Raheem Mostert, Damien Harris and J.K. Dobbins were the top three in 2020. This is about how good the offensive line is, but also about scheming (and how well running backs can navigate their holes, to a certain extent). Generally speaking, your job as a running back is going to be a lot easier if you can pick up a few yards without being touched; both Zack Moss and Devin Singletary ranked among the bottom 10 by this metric, so their issues weren't necessarily their own. 
  • Yards after contact: What happens after the rusher meets the defense. Ronald Jones has ranked very well by this measure, as has Derrick Henry, obviously. Interestingly, both Gus Edwards and J.K. Dobbins ranked very highly last season as well.
  • Broken/missed tackles tackles: How often a running back forced a missed or broken tackle. Mike Davis actually led the NFL on a per-carry basis last season, followed by Antonio Gibson, David Montgomery, Zack Moss, and Austin Ekeler. Of course, not all broken tackles are made the same; breaking a tackle in the backfield to turn a negative play into a positive is a lot harder and more valuable than doing so in the open field against one defender. All other things being equal, you would prefer a running back who breaks more tackles than one who doesn't, because that creates more opportunities. But I'm not sure you should necessarily hold it against Cam Akers that he only had six broken tackles on 145 carries. Being the lead back in what should be a very good offense is a lot more important because team context is more important for RB production than individual talent. 
  • Rush yards over expected: Based on where the ball was received, where the defense was, and other factors, how many yards a typical running back would be expected to get. You could argue this is the closest thing we have to a measure of how good a back actually is, and the fact that Derrick Henry, Nick Chubb and Dalvin Cook led the NFL in that stat in 2020 helps it pass the sniff test; that all three were among the leaders in 2019 also looks pretty good. Leonard Fournette, Kenyan Drake, and Todd Gurley were some of the worst in this stat in 2020, which also makes some sense.
  • 8+ defenders in the box rate: How often a running back's carries came with a stacked box. Cam Akers had one of the highest rates in the league, and both Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt were among the 10 highest; Devin Singletary, Joe Mixon, and Miles Sanders were among the lowest, all under 10%. This one isn't quite as straightforward as it seems at first glance, because a lot of it is dictated by offensive personnel and role -- players on teams that routinely run lots of three-WR sets will naturally face fewer stacked boxes, but they also have fewer blockers in the center of the field to match up with them. 

Receiving stats

  • Target share: The percentage of a team's total targets that went to a given player when they were active. The best receivers earn the highest target shares, despite the defensive attention they draw -- Davante Adams and DeAndre Hopkins were the only players above 30% in 2020, with Adams racking up a whopping 34% share. 
  • Route share: The percentage of a team's total passing plays a player ran a route on. All other things being equal, you would prefer a player run a route on nearly all of his team's passing plays, but it's not necessarily a guarantee of production -- among the top five last season were Allen Robinson and Amari Cooper, but also Chris Conley, Darnell Mooney and Anthony Miller. Simply being present only matters for so much. 
  • Drop rate: How often a player drops a target thrown his way. Of course, not all drops are on the receiver and not all non-drops are on the QB, so this stat doesn't necessarily tell you all that much. It's also not clear whether drops actually matter; there isn't a ton of year-over-year predictivity in drop rate, and the act of earning a target probably tells you more about the player's quality than whether he dropped 5% of them vs. 11%. Take Diontae Johnson, the NFL's premier drop artist last season: He dropped 9% of his targets last season, and lost playing time during one stretch when he dropped six in a three-game stretch. He earned 47 targets over his next four games, putting up 30 catches for 344 yards and two touchdowns in that stretch. Drops only really matter if the team thinks they do. 
  • Air yards: How far down the field a player was when he was targeted. You'll see sum totals for both games and seasons. Calvin Ridley led the NFL with a frankly ridiculous 2,052 air yards in 2020, nearly 300 more than D.K. Metcalf, and the top five was rounded out by Tyreek Hill, Stefon Diggs and D.J. Moore. Jerry Jeudy was sixth, which is a pretty good sign that he earned a lot of valuable downfield targets. 
  • Average depth of target: Air yards divided by total targets. Deep threats will dominate the leaderboards for this, with Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Scotty Miller, Nelson Agholor, Gabriel Davis and Mike Williams at the top. Depth of target is typically a negatively correlated catch rate, which makes Calvin Ridley's No. 6 ranking in ADoT with a 62.9% catch rate on 143 targets all the more impressive. Another general rule is ADoT and yards after the catch are typically inversely correlated; the further down the field a receiver tends to catch the ball, the less YAC they'll get. What makes a guy like A.J. Brown or D.J. Moore so valuable is their ability to combine deep targets with after-the-catch playmaking, and if you're looking for a reason to be optimistic about Jalen Reagor or Jerry Jeudy, both had an ADoT of at least 14 while averaging 5 YAC per reception. 
  • Air share: The percentage of a team's total air yards targeted at a given receiver. Michael Thomas led the NFL at 44% in 2020 when he was active, and Moore, Ridley and Metcalf were the only other players above 40%. 
  • RACR (receiver air conversion ratio): Receiving yards divided by air yards. A measure of how efficient a player is at turning his opportunities into production. Amazingly, Deebo Samuel had a 3.8 RACR last season -- he averaged 11.8 yards per catch on an ADoT of just 2.1 yards, because he averaged a massive 12.3 yards after the catch per reception. The higher volume receivers tend to have a RACR below 1.0; Justin Jefferson and Hopkins came closest to reaching 1.0 among receivers with at least 1,400 air yards in 2020. 
  • Yards per route run: Yards divided by routes run. Basic. Can be broken down into type of route, spot on the field, etc, but basically defines how productive a player is given their role in the passing game. Among players with at least 32 targets, Adams led the NFL with 2.96 yards per route run, while both A.J. Brown and Corey Davis ranked in the top five in the Titans hyper-efficient, low-volume passing offense. 
  • Targets per route run: How often a player is targeted when they run a route. Davante Adams led the NFL at .315, meaning he was targeted nearly one out of every three routes he ran, a massive rate. Back in 2014, Chase Young wrote about targets per route run and found that it is stickier from one year to the next than either yards per route run or yards per target. Which is to say, a player with a high T/RR will tend to have a high one the next year, at least relative to some other efficiency stats.  
  • WOPR (weighted opportunity rating): "WOPR is a weighted combination of the share of team targets a player receives and the share of team air yards." That's how Hermsmeyer defines it, and it's an attempt to create an all-in-one metric combining much of what we've talked about here. However, it's worth noting that WOPR is weighted to the player's team, and all opportunities aren't created equal; a high WOPR in a low-volume or low-efficiency passing offense isn't necessarily as valuable as a lower WOPR on a better offense. Marquise Brown was 10th in this metric last season, but obviously Tyreek Hill's slightly smaller role on the Chiefs was a lot more valuable.