News & Analysis

Metrics that Matter: 7 stats inspired by the free agency flurry

CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 18: Jordy Nelson #87 of the Green Bay Packers completes the pass for 60 yds, ahead of Cre'von LeBlanc #22 of the Chicago Bears, in the fourth quarter at Soldier Field on December 18, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The Green Bay Packers defeated the Chicago Bears 30-27. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

(Metrics that Matter is a regular offseason feature that examines some aspect of fantasy through a microscope to dive into the finer details.)

In honor of free agency, I wanted to highlight seven different metrics that matter – rather than just one – with a focus on some of the players who have been most-impacted by this year’s free agency period.

1. In only two of the past five seasons has Sam Bradford played in at least half of his team’s games. If Bradford (now on the Cardinals) can stay healthy, it could mean even more targets for Larry Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald ranked fourth in targets (153) while working primarily out of the slot (60 percent of his routes) last season. Since entering the league, in 2010, Bradford has targeted slot wide receivers on 24.8 percent of his aimed throws, which ranks behind only Ryan Fitzpatrick, Aaron Rodgers, and Russell Wilson over this stretch. For perspective, over the same span, Carson Palmer ranked 12th at 20.3 percent.

2. Speaking of slot wide receivers, the Oakland Raiders might have three wide receivers all better suited to play in the slot than out wide. Last season, Seth Roberts was the team’s starting slot wide receiver, running 395 routes from the slot (83 percent of his total routes), while no other wide receiver hit triple digits. (He was also our sixth-worst-graded wide receiver of 116 qualifying.) Over the past two seasons, Jordy Nelson has run 28 percent of his routes from the slot, with that number sitting at 18 percent for Amari Cooper. Although neither were heavily used in the slot, perhaps they should have been. On slot routes, among 97 qualifying wide receivers over the past two seasons, Cooper ranks second-best in yards per route run (2.73), while Nelson ranks 16th (1.94). On outside routes, among 83 qualifying wide receivers over the past two seasons, Cooper ranks 44th-best in yards per route run (1.56), while Nelson ranks 58th (1.29). If head coach Jon Gruden promises more work in the slot for either Cooper or Nelson, I’d gladly move them up my rankings.

3. Among all 116 wide receivers to see at least 100 targets over the past three seasons, Jordy Nelson, Donte Moncrief, Sammy Watkins, Allen Robinson, and Michael Crabtree all rank top-eight in touchdown dependency (percentage of PPR fantasy points coming from touchdowns). Curiously, all of these six wide receivers have since changed teams. Perhaps this is just a coincidence, but with these receivers and their skillsets, I’m especially worried for the receivers moving from a team that ranked highly in offensive points scored, to a team ranking toward the bottom of the league. Robinson, for instance, goes from a Jacksonville offense ranking 13th in passing touchdowns over the past three seasons to a Chicago Bears offense whose quarterbacks accounted for a league-low 11 touchdown passes last season. Crabtree is also worrisome for especially poor efficiency numbers everywhere but in the end zone. Among all wide receivers to see at least 100 targets in each of the past three seasons, Crabtree has ranked worst, ninth-worst, and worst over the past three seasons in yards per target.

4. In 2015, Robinson joined Randy Moss, Jerry Rice, and Lance Alworth as the only receivers to ever post at least 1,400 receiving yards and 14 receiving touchdowns in a single season before the age of 26. All three of those receivers are in the Hall of Fame. In 2016, Robinson became one of only three players (since targets became a stat in 1992) to see at least 150 targets and get held to under 900 receiving yards. In 2017, he ran just one route before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Which version of Robinson will we get this year? I’m not sure. Chicago’s passing attack in 2017 was the least beneficial for fantasy production, but the Bears brought in a new offensive-minded head coach for 2018. However, they did not bring in very much competition for Robinson, implying heavy target potential. I currently have him penciled in as a high-end WR2 this year, but he’s one of this year’s biggest enigmas for me.

5. Over the past three seasons, Doug Baldwin leads all wide receivers in fantasy points per target. To better explain the significance of this, he ranks sixth among wide receivers in fantasy points, despite all wide receivers above him seeing at least 100 more targets over this stretch. Seattle’s defense has taken a major hit in top-graded starters lost, while also losing starters Jimmy Graham and Paul Richardson on offense. On top of that, the NFC West’s secondaries just got a lot better, with Richard Sherman, Marcus Peters, and Aqib Talib all changing teams. Luckily, none of these top-graded cornerbacks plays in the slot, which is where Baldwin ran 73 percent of his routes last season. Perhaps this is the year he finally sees the target share he deserves.

6. After playing with Drew Brees and Russell Wilson, Jimmy Graham may now be playing with his best quarterback yet – Aaron Rodgers. Many want to project an increase in production just based on that (and the release of Jordy Nelson), but I’m more skeptical. Graham saw 14 targets inside the 5-yard line last season, which is the most by any player this past decade. Obviously, it’s unlikely that number repeats. Graham did score 10 touchdowns last season, but he also posted the fifth-worst yards-per-target average (5.42) by a tight end this past decade. Graham also pass-blocked on only 5.7 percent of his offensive plays last season, which was far less than what Green Bay asked from Martellus Bennett (11.0 percent). Finally, only twice of the past 11 seasons has a Green Bay tight end posted top-10 numbers at the position.

7. In 10 years as an offensive play-caller, Kyle Shanahan has coached a running back to RB1 numbers (in fantasy points per game) six times: Steve Slaton (twice), Alfred Morris, Devonta Freeman (twice), and Carlos Hyde. Throughout the rest of their careers, these running backs combine for just one other RB1 season. Jerick McKinnon has never finished as an RB1, but did rank 14th in fantasy points per game last year after Dalvin Cook’s injury in Week 4. I’ll need to see if San Francisco spends significant draft capital on another running back in April, but if not, I don’t think it’s unrealistic to expect RB1 numbers from McKinnon in 2018.

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