News & Analysis

Metrics that Matter: Quarterbacks' target tendencies

By Scott Barrett
May 30, 2018

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Nov 9, 2017; Glendale, AZ, USA; Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) throws to wide receiver Doug Baldwin (89) during the first half against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

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

Creating accurate projections for fantasy football is extremely difficult — there number of variables one can look at is almost unlimited. Typically, the starting place is team tendencies or coaching tendencies. I suspect these might be stronger factors than quarterback tendencies, and I’m sure I’ll get to those other factors at a later date (like I did last year), but I like to leave no stone unturned.

So today, I wanted to see which quarterbacks targeted specific positions the most frequently. Our data goes back to 2007 and our sample includes all potential starters with at least 600 career pass attempts.

I should note that this data is heavily skewed by the surrounding talent throughout a quarterback’s career. If a quarterback had a Hall of Fame tight end throughout the majority of their career but weaker wide receivers, of course that’s going to imply they favor the tight end position more than the average quarterback. I’ll try to separate the signal from the noise in my analysis.

Targeting running backs

Within our sample, here are the five quarterbacks who have targeted running backs the most frequently:

Drew Brees has targeted running backs more frequently than any other quarterback, and that comes as no surprise to me. Over the past six seasons the Saints have ranked first, first, fifth, second, first, first, and first in team running back targets. Over this stretch they’ve also ranked first, first, second, first, second, first, and first in team PPR fantasy points per game. Not only have Brees’ running backs seen tremendous volume in the pass game, but they’ve been hyper-efficient as well. This is a legitimate counterpoint to all of the fantasy analysts (myself included) warning of a looming regression for Alvin Kamara.

Philip Rivers and Joe Flacco were slight surprises, but both have benefited from some terrific pass-catching running backs throughout their respective careers (LaDanian Tomlinson, Darren Sproles, Ray Rice, and they’ve both had Danny Woodhead). Melvin Gordon ranked seventh among running backs in targets last year (76) and should again see heavy target totals this year – and especially now with Hunter Henry out of the picture. Woodhead saw only 37 total targets from Flacco and Rice hasn’t played in the NFL since 2013. Even without a strong stable of pass-catching running backs, Baltimore ranks second in running back targets over the past three years. Although Alex Collins was terrific as a runner last season, he wasn’t extensively used as a pass-catcher. Perhaps the team includes him more in that role next season, or, more likely, Javorius Allen resumes that role next year or cedes more passing snaps to Kenneth Dixon.

Tyrod Taylor’s ranking here bodes well for Duke Johnson Jr. for as long as he’s the starter. Same too for Josh McCown and New York’s running backs.

Targeting slot receivers

Within our sample, here are the five quarterbacks who have targeted slot wide receivers the most frequently:

Sam Bradford’s ranking here, despite mostly mediocre slot talents throughout his career, should bode well for Larry Fitzgerald, who ran 60 percent of his routes from the slot last season. For perspective, Carson Palmer targeted slot wide receivers only 21.1 percent of the time over this stretch.

The other names on this chart are a little more obvious given surrounding talent (Doug Baldwin for Russell Wilson, Randall Cobb for Aaron Rodgers, Wes Welker and Julian Edelman for Tom Brady, and T.Y. Hilton for Andrew Luck). I’ll only note that Indianapolis moved Hilton to outside wide receiver last season (63.2 percent of his routes) and Chester Rogers still isn’t someone to get excited about for fantasy. Also, Cobb is a strong ADP value for reasons outlined in our last article.

Targeting outside receivers

Within our sample, here are the five quarterbacks who have targeted outside wide receivers the most frequently:

Ben Roethlisberger’s ranking here is certainly a factor of surrounding talent, but he did have Hines Ward working out of the slot and Heath Miller at tight end for a significant portion of his career. In 2018, Antonio Brown will likely start outside opposite rookie James Washington with JuJu Smith-Schuster, reprising his role in the slot (in three-receiver sets). Washington totaled 2,318 yards on deep passes in college, the most of any wide receiver in the PFF College era. I suspect he’ll be the team’s primary deep threat next year and could make an immediate fantasy impact. We’ve seen rookie wide receivers immediately step into a productive role in Pittsburgh before (Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant) and Bryant leaves behind a healthy 81 targets in his departure.

Eli Manning’s ranking here is a slight surprise given his second-most-targeted receiver has been Victor Cruz, who operated predominantly out of the slot. There’s been some chatter this offseason that Sterling Shepard will be playing outside more often this year. Maybe this means more targets for him, but a concern for me is Shepard’s inexperience at that position. Since entering the league, 90 percent of his yards and targets have come from the slot. This hasn’t been an issue for some wide receivers, but it certainly was for Nelson Agholor, who ranked as our worst-graded wide receiver in each of his first two seasons before moving back to the slot last year.

The other quarterbacks were far less surprising given the outside wide receiver talent they’ve had throughout their career (Mike Evans, A.J. Green, and Roddy White/Julio Jones), though this may bode well for John Ross in Cincinnati or Calvin Ridley in Atlanta.

Targeting tight ends

Within our sample, here were the five quarterbacks who targeted tight ends the most frequently.

This chart is a little more straightforward. Carson Wentz and Marcus Mariota rank first and second by a good margin. Mariota’s most targeted wide receivers throughout his career have been (in order) Rishard Matthews, Kendall Wright, Eric Decker, Tajae Sharpe, and Harry Douglas. So, of course, it makes sense Delanie Walker led the team in targets in each of the past four years. Corey Davis may supplant him next year, but Walker still feels like a strong fantasy value at TE8, having finished top-seven or better in each of these seasons. Wentz also dealt with an extremely poor wide receiving corps in 2016, though Zach Ertz still led the team in targets per game in 2017 despite better wide receiver play.

Alex Smith, Cam Newton, and Kirk Cousins have all had near-elite tight end options throughout the majority of their careers (Vernon Davis/Travis Kelce, Greg Olsen, and Jordan Reed). I suppose the good news for Reed is, if he stays healthy, we shouldn’t expect a volume falloff from him this year.

The rookies’ tendencies

Just for fun, I also wanted to look at the rookie quarterbacks who might start at some point in 2018. Going back to 2014, here’s how frequently each of this year’s rookie quarterbacks targeted each position:

I wouldn’t read too much into this, but this chart might prove useful at some point for DFS players looking for a potential edge once a rookie is named the starter.

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