Don’t Chase Touchdowns, Chase Targets

You know what I hate?

Yards per Carry.

…and Depth of Target.

and Yard-after-contact, Completions-under-pressure, oh… and Touchdowns.

These are bum statistics. I have no use for them.

Of course I am kidding about Touchdowns being pointless, but I would just prefer to think of touchdowns as a bonus than something I need to rely on. Here is the way I like to think of it: Touchdowns can win you a close match-up, but consistent Yardage will give you better fantasy results throughout the year. When you are going to set your line-up or scouting out someone new from the waiver wire, chasing Touchdowns is a terrible vice that will get you in trouble.

If you are any good at Mario Kart, I am sure you truly hate this guy…

Oh the dreaded Blue Shell… You spend the first three laps absolutely killing it at the front of the pack only to have all of your hopes and dreams ruined on the last stretch of Bowser’s Castle. Then cousin Donny, who’s a real turd-bugler that spent the entire race hovering around 8th place, hits a Star and cruises to an easy victory. That kind of shit is infuriating, but that is par for the course.

You can’t fear the Blue Shell. You must accept for what it is, and play the best you can. Last year, someone went up against Ben Roethlisberger in week 8, and it just didn’t matter that Lacy and TY Hilton gave you some good numbers. You were Blue Shelled.

On the reversal, you also don’t want to intentionally hang out in the middle of pack just to happen upon a Mushroom Boost just at the right time. Trust me I have tried. The best way to win at Mario-Kart is to be good at Mario-Kart. You take some loses, but it always comes out better in the wash. The same goes for fantasy football. Relying on those Boom-or-Bust situations, like DeSean Jackson deep catches, will certainly give us some wins, but it also bring you loses.

I want you to think back to the beginning of the 2014 season and see if this name rings any bells… Antone Smith. In 5 of the first 6 games, the Falcon’s 3rd-string rusher got a touchdown, despite only averaging 2.5 touches and 2 targets during that span. Read that again… every 5th time he touched the ball he scored… for 6 damn weeks. We all had our doubts, but by 7th week we thought maybe he was worth considering. Yet, by the time he could be trusted to be a deep flex play, he stopped doing anything of note. It was a fluke. He was waved by the Falcons earlier this month.

My whole point is that TDs are fluky.

When you look at the scoring leaders of the waiver wire, hoping to fill the hole that DeJax or Ellington left in your heart (err… I mean roster), would you consider putting in a flyer for Marcel Reece or Travis Benjamin, who both looked good in their highlight reels?

Let’s say I am thinking about picking up Marcel Reece, who picked up 2 TDs on 4 targets over the first weekend. He has racked up enough points over the first few weeks to rank him 28th among Running Backs. First off, both scores occurred in garbage time. Second, He is a fine rusher with soft hands, but there is no reason to think that the Raiders plan to put the ball more in his hands. Third, check out how many actual runs that he has attempted this year… the number is one. Reece is not a new face in the NFL. Actually he is the Aaron Rodgers of his position of Fullback. I bet that you even didn’t know that he has been a Pro-Bowler for the last 3 years straight. In his 5 years of starting, he averaged 510 yards & 2.4 touchdowns a year, which is kind of amazing considering that he maybe one of 3 Fullbacks of note in the modern game (Image a sitcom called Toby & Tolbert. I know. It’s a great idea!).

Okay, I know I cheated here because I know no one is talking about picking up Reece, but its important to understand why all the experts are avoiding such an gifted athlete.

Okay smart guy, then what do you care about?

Easy, I care about only two stats: Targets & Carries. I like to approach my roster assembly based on each player’s potential to give me some fantasy production constantly throughout the year. I have dug through a ton of stats to find a reliable metric that correlates with reliable fantasy production. Targets and Carries are the only stats I found that you can trust to turn into fantasy production.

Check out this graph… I took every WR from last year and ranked them by targets and concluded that if a player was given enough opportunities to produce on the field, regardless of skill or drop rate, it is very likey that player was a fantasy asset.

Of the 30 WRs who received at least 115 targets last year, only three ended up scoring outside the Top-40 at the position. That would be Andre Johnson (age 33, playing for Texans), Reggie Wayne (just 35 years young), and Keenan Allen, who might just be the statically outlier who had a fluke season. Everyone else who finished with at least 115 targets was great, and the more the better.

There are guys who finish in the Top-40 of scoring but had less than 115 targets, like Kenny Stills & Torrey Smith. However, I am not interested in these guys. These are the players you call “boom-or-bust”, and we are looking for a way to find guys you can rely on every week.

Football is a game of small sample size, which makes it very interesting to predict outcomes. In basketball, you get 82 games to see how players will shake out over the season. It is pretty much impossible to find a player who’s season-long stats look impressive despite being a dud on the court. Steph Curry attempted 1341 shots last year, so you know that when put up numbers for 49% of those, there is no guessing that he is a beast. Compare that to someone like Martavis Bryant who had 8 touchdowns last year, which is normal for a Top-20 WR. However Martavis only raked in 48 targets, which is only 35% of what a Top Dog receives. This suggests that Bryant’s season was a fluke and we cannot rely on him once he returns from his suspension.

I don’t want to bury the lead here…

Top-Tier Wide Receivers should at least average 7 targets a game, and elite Running Backs should have at least 13 touches (carries & targets) a game.

Of course we all like a player who has the tendency to find paydirt, but I like to dilute those expectations by focusing on how often the team calls that player’s number. This is why I would have rather owned Vincent Jackson in 2014, who averaged targeted 9 per game, then Mike Wallace who averaged 6 targets. Wallace outscored V-Jax by 33 points last year, good enough to rank him as WR18, while Jackson touchdowns were remarkably low which finished him as WR39. Hindsight is 20-20, but if you were to look at the WR class on the whole last year, you would see that trusting targets is a much safer bet then betting on deep threats.

Down the rabbit hole.

Join me in the weeds for a minute, while I compare violin players to wide receivers, but not in the way you would think…

Maybe you have heard of Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers. In it, Gladwell theorizes and presents the case that it takes roughly ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. Here is a short excerpt (lightly redacted for length):

Exhibit A in the talent argument is a study done in the early 1990s by [Berlin’s Elite Academy of Music]. With the help of the academy’s professors, they divided the school’s violinists into three groups. In the first group were the stars, the students with the potential to become world-class soloists. In the second were those judged to be merely “good.” In the third were students who were unlikely to ever play professionally and who intended to be music teachers in the public school system. All of the violinists were then asked the same question: over the course of your entire career, ever since you first picked up the violin, how many hours have you practiced?

Everyone from all three groups started playing at roughly the same age, around five years old. In those first few years, everyone practiced roughly the same amount, about two or three hours a week. But when the students were around the age of eight, real differences started to emerge. The students who would end up best in their class began to practice more than everyone else: six hours a week by age nine, eight hours a week by age twelve, sixteen hours a week by age fourteen, and up and up, until by the age of twenty they were practicing” … “well over thirty hours a week. In fact, by the age of twenty, the elite performers had each totaled ten thousand hours of practice. By contrast, the merely good students, had totaled eight thousand hours, and the future music teachers had totaled just over four thousand hours.”

This is the part I really want you to notice…

The striking thing about Ericsson’s study is that he and his colleagues couldn’t find any “naturals,” musicians who floated effortlessly to the top while practicing a fraction of the time their peers did. Nor could they find any “grinds,” people who worked harder than everyone else, yet just didn’t have what it takes to break the top ranks. Their research suggests that once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it. And what’s more, the people at the very top don’t just work harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.”

Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success

(If you are reading this Malcolm, I am claiming fair use on the grounds of education. Big fan; love your work.)

Let’s take that idea and now replace Practice with Targets/Carries and replace Violin Bassassery with Fantasy Production. Basically, if a player gets targets you get points and there are very few exceptions. Here are the tables I came up with to check out my data:

Click Here for 2014’s Top-40 WRs Ranked by Total Number of Targets

Click Here for 2014’s Top-30 RBs Ranked by Total Number of Carries & Targets

Target Numbers for 2014’s Top-40 WRs

Here are some players who are currently our Targets and Carries champs of the year so far…

Targets and Carries Awards – Early Year Edition 

Wide Receivers

The Top Dawg Award: Julio Jones, Atl WR

I am not going to talk about Jolio too much, because if you didn’t draft him, you are not going to get him. If you can get him, get him. I would put up naming rights to my first-born for trade consideration on Julio this year.

Mr. Jones is averaging 15+ targets each game, which puts him on paced to receive 245 targets this year, which by my calculations will give you a Bazillion fantasy points. For context, last year’s target leader was Demaryius Thomas with 184. This will probably regress to a target number that is somewhat human but look out, this year is going to be nuts.

Trade Star Award: Keenan Allen, SD WR

So, here are Keenan’s target numbers for the first three games: 17, 4, 18. Translation: Julio Jones, Scrub, Julio Jones. Yeah, that’s a little scary that be had such as bad day against the Bengals, but his history actually suggests that the 4 target week is the real fluke. Allen averaged 6.5 tpg (*targets per game) in 2013, and 7.5 tpg in 2014. I am not scared at all for Allen, and if you can pry him away from another team for a flex player, like Abdullah, I would do it in a heartbeat. In my opinion, his is stock is at his lowest it will be all year.

“A Little Crazy” Waiver Wire Lottery Ticket: Michael Crabtree, Oak WR

Before you start throwing tomatoes at your computer screen, Crabtree actually has a lot of things going for him. First off, he is currently ranked 12th among WRs at targets. Carr has been splitting targets evenly to Crabtree and Cooper (13th in targets) in the first few games. Whenever Cooper has been seeing double team, Carr has said, “Fine! Then I will send it to that Dude then!”

I don’t think that Crabtree is going to magically turn into a stud, but I have no problem thinking of him as a Vincent Jackson type down the road. So if you are in a deep league, or looking for a PPR Lotto… you could do much worse.

Running Backs

The Top Dawg Award: Matt Forte, Chi RB

If you did not watch the Bears offence last weekend, it went something like this:

Me: “I wonder which direction Forte will run this time…”

Roommate: “They could throw it to him.”

Me: “I guess that’s true.”

[Third down pass dropped by Forte. Punt team comes onto the field. Again.]

Roommate: “This is getting sad, do you want to play Mario Kart instead?”

Trade Star Award: T.J. Yeldon, Jax RB

He may rank 41st in scoring, but its not for a lack of trying. Yeldon has seen 59 touches so far, 7th most among RBs. I know that may not make you feel very good about him going forward but its not exactly like Toby Gerhart is really challenging him for the starting job. I say that he will get into a rhythm at some point this year and give you some solid flex numbers.

If you are really desperate for a runner, I would hit up the TJ owner in your league and see if some bench stash like Stevie Johnson could turn into a very real RB2 with upside.

“A Little Crazy” Waiver Wire Lottery Ticket: Khiry Robinson, NO RB

When was the last time that either CJ Spiller or Mark Ingram played all season long and saw significant touches? If you guessed 2012 for both of them, then you are our winner.

Ingram is looking really good so far this year, and Spiller could jump in the line at any point. However, Robinson has looked really good this year, and if the Glass-Brothers (no one calls them that, I just thought of it) happen to spend any time on the sideline; I think Khiry will be very startable in standard leagues. Plus, he has 2 more touches on the year then this week’s golden boy, Karlos Williams.

Thanks for reading, and remember that everything you know is wrong.

fantasyreaList Writer: P. Christian Swafford

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