News & Analysis

The league's top third-down receivers and what it means for fantasy

Nov 19, 2017; Carson, CA, USA; Los Angeles Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen (13) reacts after scoring a second quarter touchdown aBuffalo Bills at StubHub Center. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Third down is the most glorified of all the downs in football, and for good reason. It creates the type of do-or-die scenario every few plays that keeps fans watching.

Given the importance of third down, you can’t go a Sunday without hearing the cliché of: “He’s one of the best third-down receivers in the league.”

But who really were the best third-down receivers in the league?

The receivers most often targeted on third down

Below is the full list of wide receivers who saw at least 20 percent of their team’s total third-down targets last year. (For example, if a team attempted 100 passes on third down last year, an individual receiver would have needed to be the target on 20 of those passes to make this list.)

2017 Team Player % of team's 3rd-down targets 2017 Team Player % of team's 3rd-down targets
LAC Keenan Allen 33% WAS Jamison Crowder 24%
HST DeAndre Hopkins 32% CIN A.J. Green 24%
MIN Adam Thielen 32% ARZ Larry Fitzgerald 24%
IND T.Y. Hilton 29% PIT Antonio Brown 24%
NO Michael Thomas 29% TB Mike Evans 23%
PHI Alshon Jeffery 26% LAR Cooper Kupp 23%
ATL Julio Jones 26% ATL Mohamed Sanu 23%
CAR Devin Funchess 25% DAL Dez Bryant 23%
DET Golden Tate 25% TEN Rishard Matthews 22%
MIA Jarvis Landry 25% SF Trent Taylor 22%
DEN Demaryius Thomas 24% SEA Doug Baldwin 20%
JAX Marqise Lee 24% CHI Kendall Wright 20%

Keenan Allen and DeAndre Hopkins were the targets on about one-third of their team’s third-down pass attempts last year, which was way more than (almost) all other receivers in the league. I was a bit surprised to see Adam Thielen hanging up there with them, as he was targeted on 32 percent of Minnesota’s third-down passes last year.

I think it’s safe to expect more of the same from Thielen in 2018. Kirk Cousins was not afraid to heavily target one specific player on third down last year (Jamison Crowder checked in at 24 percent of Washington’s third-down targets in 2017).

At 29 percent, T.Y. Hilton was higher than expected. People think of him as purely a deep threat, but he’s clearly utilized as a “possession” receiver as well. This is huge for fantasy purposes, and it’s one reason why Hilton continues to fly under the fantasy radar.

Michael Thomas’ massive 29 percent third-down target rate (among Saints pass-catchers) also helps buoy his stock and makes him a legitimate option in the early portions of the second round of fantasy drafts.

Jarvis Landry leaves a big hole in Miami, as he was targeted on 25 percent of their third-down pass attempts. Kenny Stills (18 percent) was the second-most targeted wideout on third down in Miami last year, and he stands to benefit the most from Landry’s departure.

Landry’s new team, the Cleveland Browns, really didn’t have a third-down option last year because of Josh Gordon’s absence. Rashard Higgins led the team’s wideouts with 9 percent of their third-down targets. (Gordon only played five games, although in those five games, he was on pace to see 27 percent of Cleveland’s third-down targets.) It will be interesting to see how Cleveland distributes their third-down looks in 2018 between Gordon and Landry. It could have a massive impact on their fantasy values.

Speaking of teams with multiple third-down wideout weapons, the Atlanta Falcons are the only team that had two receivers see at least 20 percent of a team’s third-down targets in Julio Jones (26 percent) and Mohamed Sanu (23 percent). Why Atlanta felt the need to go to Sanu so often on third down makes little sense.

Jones (third-down average depth of target of 12.7 yards) and Sanu (third-down aDOT of 7.9) play very different roles, but the outcome was unequivocally better when Jones was the target. Despite the (much) larger average depth of target, Jones caught a higher percent of his third-down passes (61.1 percent vs. 59.3 percent) while gaining an additional 3.0 extra yards per target. Adding 2018 first-round wideout selection Calvin Ridley to the mix only complicates matters, but here’s to hoping the Falcons use Jones the way they should this year.

Another interesting name on the list is Dez Bryant. Despite being cut by the Cowboys, leaving them with — checks depth chartMichael Gallup, Terrance Williams, Allen Hurns, Cole Beasley, and Tavon Austin (!) at wideout, the Cowboys clearly leaned on Bryant in big situations last year, which means they did still view him as their biggest playmaker, despite the noise suggesting otherwise.

In a vacuum, third down actually produces the least amount of stats for WRs…

Interestingly, despite all the fanfare, in terms of raw statistical output, third down is the least fruitful. Obviously, third-down plays don’t happen in a vacuum, but the actual third-down play itself isn’t as important (in and of itself) than first and second down.

The title of “most important individual down” belongs to first down, on which 37.3 percent of all receivers’ fantasy points (PPR leagues) were scored last year. Second down took 31.5 percent of the pie, while third down was at 29.8 percent. (The final 1.4 percent happened on fourth down.)

…but it is true that certain receivers do most of their damage on third down

The adage that there are special “third-down” receivers is actually true.

Of all wideout targets, 30.7 percent occurred on third down. Only one receiver (minimum 50 total targets) saw over 50 percent of his targets on third down. That was Trent Taylor, who saw an absurd 63 percent of his targets last year on third down alone.

Cole Beasley was next-closest, with 47 percent of his targets on third down, followed by Marqise Lee (44 percent), T.Y. Hilton (43 percent), Rishard Matthews (40 percent), Tyler Lockett (40 percent), and Jamison Crowder (40 percent).

Some other relevant fantasy names saw the majority of their work on third down — e.g. well above league average — including Adam Thielen (39 percent), Cooper Kupp (39 percent), Keenan Allen (37 percent), Kelvin Benjamin (36 percent), Devin Funchess (36 percent), Alshon Jeffery (35 percent), and JuJu Smith-Schuster (35 percent).

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