News & Analysis

The increased fantasy value of red-zone/end-zone targets

By Jeff Ratcliffe
Jan 11, 2018

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Dec 25, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins (10) makes a reception for a touchdown as Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Joe Haden (21) defends during the fourth quarter at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Fantasy football loves touchdowns. You don’t believe me? Consider this: There were 23,278.6 standard fantasy points score among running backs, wide receivers and tight ends in 2017. Touchdowns accounted for 27.2 percent of that total. The number was slightly lower at 18.5 percent in PPR scoring, but the fact remains that touchdowns are incredibly valuable in fantasy football.

The challenge with touchdowns is their unpredictability, at least on the surface. However, to get a better understanding of what’s going on underneath the hood, I took a look at touchdown production during the 2017 offseason. The conclusion from this work is elegantly simple: the closer to the end zone a receiver is targeted, the more likely he is to score.

With that idea in mind, let’s take a look back at the 2017 season. Receivers saw 16,230 targets during the regular season. This target total includes all targets for wide receivers, tight ends, and running backs. Just over 20 percent of these targets were thrown to receivers in the red zone.

A red-zone target can mean different things depending on your source. Many stat sites and football pundits define a red zone target based on the line of scrimmage. If the line of scrimmage is at or inside the opponent’s 20-yard line and a receiver is targeted, then the target is considered a red-zone target. But does the line of scrimmage actually matter?

Let’s say the line of scrimmage is at the 20-yard line and a receiver is targeted at the 10. That’s a red-zone target. Now let’s move that line of scrimmage back one yard. The receiver is again targeted at the 10, but this target is not considered a red-zone target. Is there any significant difference between these two targets? It’s hard to argue that there is, yet one is a red-zone target and the other isn’t.

The solution to this problematic definition is to base red-zone targets not on where the line of scrimmage is located, but rather on where the receiver is on the field when he is targeted. With this approach, both targets in the previous example are considered red-zone targets.

Red-zone targets are important because they give a receiver the highest percentage chance to find the end zone. Last season, running backs, tight ends, and wide receivers combined for 741 touchdowns. A whopping 86 percent of those scores came on targets in the red zone. However, as I said above, receivers a more likely to score they closer they are to the red zone. Receivers targeted inside the 5-yard line accounted for 71 percent of all receiving scores, with 55 percent of all touchdowns scored when the receiver was targeted in the end zone.

Simply put, end-zone targets are fantasy gold. They not only resulted in more than half of all receiving scores last season, but they also had a higher conversion rate. Receivers scored on just over 19 percent of red zone targets last season. That number skyrockets to 36.7 percent of end-zone targets.

For fantasy purposes, it’s important to identify the players who got the most looks in the red zone, especially those who were heavily targeted inside the 5 and in the end zone. Let’s first take a look at the top 20 in red-zone targets last season:

Player Targets RZ Targets %
Mike Evans 132 41 31%
Antonio Brown 155 41 26%
Keenan Allen 147 38 26%
DeAndre Hopkins 164 37 23%
Marvin Jones Jr. 105 35 33%
Alshon Jeffery 113 35 31%
Dez Bryant 126 35 28%
Larry Fitzgerald 153 35 23%
Julio Jones 143 34 24%
Rob Gronkowski 100 32 32%
Jarvis Landry 156 32 21%
Travis Kelce 117 31 26%
Jimmy Graham 92 30 33%
Devin Funchess 109 30 28%
Cooper Kupp 90 30 33%
Brandin Cooks 109 30 28%
Davante Adams 108 29 27%
Demaryius Thomas 136 28 21%
A.J. Green 134 27 20%
Adam Thielen 135 26 19%
Michael Thomas 139 26 19%

There aren’t any major surprise at the top, with Mike Evans continuing to be a red-zone asset for the Bucs and Brown as the league’s premier receiving option. The above chart also highlights the percentage of each player’s targets that came in the red zone. Only six players saw more than 30 percent of their targets in this part of the field. Cooper Kupp and Marvin Jones led the way with a massive 33.3 percent. It’s also worth noting that while Adam Thielen and Michael Thomas were heavily targeted this season, both came in at under 20 percent of their targets in the red zone.

But again, the red-zone data only tells us part of the story, as all red-zone targets aren’t created equally. It’s much more ideal for fantasy purposes to have those targets come closer to the end zone. Here are the top 20 in targets from the 5-yard line in (including end-zone targets):

Player RZ Targets Inside the 5 %
DeAndre Hopkins 37 28 76%
Mike Evans 41 27 66%
Julio Jones 34 25 74%
Jimmy Graham 30 23 77%
Marvin Jones Jr. 35 22 63%
Antonio Brown 41 21 51%
Alshon Jeffery 35 21 60%
Dez Bryant 35 20 57%
Michael Crabtree 25 19 76%
Josh Doctson 25 19 76%
Rob Gronkowski 32 17 53%
Keenan Allen 38 16 42%
Robby Anderson 25 16 64%
Larry Fitzgerald 35 15 43%
Davante Adams 29 15 52%
A.J. Green 27 15 56%
Jarvis Landry 32 14 44%
Devin Funchess 30 14 47%
Cooper Kupp 30 14 47%
Doug Baldwin 21 14 67%
Evan Engram 19 14 74%

A number of players make both lists, but there’s a new name at the top. DeAndre Hopkins saw a huge chunk of his red-zone work inside the 5, so it should come as no surprise that he led the league in touchdowns. Likewise, Jimmy Graham led all receivers in the percentage of his red-zone targets inside the 5. He was one of only three receivers to top double-digit touchdowns this year.

Of course, there are also a few surprises on this list. There was a lot of talk about Atlanta getting Julio Jones more involved in the red zone this year. Well, the Falcons did. But he only managed to convert two of his 34 targets inside the 5 to touchdowns. While some may take the attitude of “see, I told you Julio is overrated,” I’m not sure that’s the right takeaway. On average, receivers converted 33 percent of targets inside the 5 for touchdowns. Jones managed a lowly six percent conversion rate, which would suggest positive regression is coming. With the fantasy sentiment down on Jones, he could prove to be a big-time value next year.

Similarly, Dez Bryant’s heavy usage at or near the end zone and relatively low conversion rate (20 percent) bode well for positive regression. Bryant’s touchdown upside makes him an appealing option as a WR2, which should be more than doable if the current ADP trends hold throughout the offseason.

Perhaps the biggest outlier on the list is Josh Doctson. The second-year man saw just 72 targets on the season, and nearly 35 percent of them came in the red zone. While Doctson didn’t break out in 2017, he’s a sneaky bet to do so next season if the Redskins continue to use him in this way.

The final piece to the red-zone target puzzle is to take a look at how many targets came in the end zone. Last season, receivers converted just under 37 percent of their end zone targets for touchdowns. That’s by far the highest rate for any location on the field. In total, 21 receivers topped double digits in end zone targets during the regular season:

Player Targets EZ Targets %
DeAndre Hopkins 164 27 16%
Mike Evans 132 20 15%
Jimmy Graham 92 20 22%
Dez Bryant 126 18 14%
Michael Crabtree 99 18 18%
Josh Doctson 72 18 25%
Marvin Jones Jr. 105 17 16%
Antonio Brown 155 17 11%
Alshon Jeffery 113 17 15%
Julio Jones 143 16 11%
Robby Anderson 111 15 14%
Rob Gronkowski 100 13 13%
Keenan Allen 147 13 9%
A.J. Green 134 13 10%
Delanie Walker 104 12 12%
Adam Thielen 135 11 8%
Martavis Bryant 81 11 14%
Devin Funchess 109 10 9%
Travis Kelce 117 10 9%
Zach Ertz 102 10 10%
Zay Jones 65 10 15%

Hopkins again tops the list, and was head and shoulders above the pack this season. Doctson’s name sticks out yet again with a jaw dropping 25 percent of his targets coming in the end zone. Another interesting name on the list is Zay Jones. The rookie saw just 65 targets this season, but 10 came in the end zone. That something to keep in mind when constructing your 2018 fantasy draft boards.

Not included in these lists are the players who weren’t heavily used inside the 5. It’s worth noting a few names who stick out. Brandin Cooks was targeted 109 times in the regular season, but only seven came in the end zone. That isn’t a surprising number, but still should be considered when evaluating Cooks’ fantasy value. Cooks’ former teammate Michael Thomas saw just six end-zone targets. Ideally that number will increase going forward, but it’s worth keeping an eye on.

But perhaps the most interesting name here is Golden Tate. The Lions receiver saw 117 targets in the regular season, but only one came in the end zone. In fact, Tate was targeted just three times inside the five and only 14 times in the red zone. This lack of work in the most important part of the field places a major cap on Tate’s fantasy upside.

One other area of note is touchdowns scored on targets outside the red zone. These big-play scores are worth a lot in fantasy because you get yards points along with the touchdown points, but they’re the product of a run after catch. Those sorts of plays aren’t sustainable and can fluctuate wildly from year to year. Tyreek Hill led all receivers with five scores on targets outside the red zone. This isn’t a huge shocker given Hill’s freakish playmaking ability, but it’s still a stat the suggests touchdown regression could be coming. Three other receivers scored three times on targets outside the 20: T.Y. Hilton, Tyrell Williams, and Golden Tate. While Hilton’s value should increase with the return of Andrew Luck, it’s still important to factor in the strong potential for regression. The same is true for Williams and Tate.

There’s still more work to be done on red-zone and end-zone targets, but we also need to consider red-zone and end-zone throws for quarterbacks. That’s the next topic I’ll be attacking, so keep your eyes peeled for an article.

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