I’ll be using this space to explain why size is, in fact, significant and why it should almost never be ignored.
Understanding the Debate
More often than not, this discussion centers on incoming rookies. Is ‘6-4/215 third-round rookie X’ a better pick than similarly-skilled ‘5-10/195 third-round rookie Y’? Skeptics of the ‘size matters’ campaign will tell you that size alone should be a non-factor in this scenario. “Take the player with more talent,” they tweet.
But is it really that cut and dry?
For starters, there are many, many great football talent evaluators on this planet, but none are in the vicinity of perfect. There is always going to be a margin of error when it comes to player evaluation. The handful of people playing fantasy football who study each incoming rookie rigorously feel like they have a precise handle on how that player’s career will play out. This crowd won’t care about the size of two rookies with a similar average draft position because they already have their mind up on each player. Of course, this crowd is also aware – or so they should be – that they’re not always going to be right. It’s that margin of error that has stat nerds like myself correlating known categories like height and weight with on-field production.
Today, I’m going to evaluate the relationship between size (height and weight) and touchdown production. Before I do – and this is important – I need to note that there is a difference between efficiency and opportunity. In a nutshell, let’s assume Player X catches 10 touchdowns on 20 end zone targets and Player Y catches seven touchdowns on 12 end zone targets. Player Y is more efficient, but that doesn’t make him a better fantasy asset. The value of opportunity cannot be overlooked. Sometimes this discussion becomes convoluted because it’s not clear which of efficiency/opportunity is under debate. This why you often see people arguing on Twitter who actually agree with each other. I’ll do my best to differentiate between the two throughout this exercise.
The problem with red zone data
Look up other articles on this topic and you’re sure to see a common theme: red zone efficiency stats. The verdict will be that taller and heavier receivers are better touchdown scorers because they own a higher touchdown rate on red zone targets. This is the part where I’ll admit I’m spoiled. “Depth of target” is not a mainstream stat (for some reason), but it’s something I have access to thanks to our fine team of game analysts at PFF. This means I don’t have to throw every play within 20 yards of the end zone into a bucket, thus counting them evenly (Should a screen pass at the 15-yard line really be counted the same as a slant at the goal line? Of course not).
In this first chart, you’ll see significantly higher touchdown rates for taller and heavier wide receivers. You’ll also see a much higher average depth of target (aDOT). This is clear evidence that bigger receivers score on a higher rate of targets because their looks come much closer to the goal line.
The chart shows some very clear trends. As players get taller and wider, they are targeted deeper down field, catch a fewer percentage of their targets as a result and score on both a higher percentage of their targets and receptions.
In our second chart, I’m still looking at redzone data, but I included some new columns.
I’ll be referring to OTD (or opportunity-adjusted touchdowns) throughout this piece. In a nutshell, OTD weighs each target in terms of the probability it will result in a score and converts the total into one number that indicates what a player’s touchdown total should look like. You can read more about OTD by scanning my archives. “+/-“ is simply the difference between the player’s actual TD total and his OTD (or expected TD total).
The purpose of using OTD is here is that it actually eliminates the aforementioned ‘all redzone targets are not created equal’ issue. OTD weighs every targets based on location.
This chart shows us that there is reason to believe taller and heavier wide receivers are slightly more efficient in the red zone. There are some inconsistencies, but there is somewhat of a linear relationship in the ‘+/-‘ column of both halves of the chart.
Of course, with OTD, we don’t need to limit this study to an arbitrary yard line (in this case, the 20).
All Things Equal
Now that we’ve found an alternative to red zone data, we can study the opportunity presented and effectiveness of all wide receivers in the touchdown department.
Kicking off with height, we again see a strong relationship between size and touchdown opportunity. “OTD/Targ” is a key column here, so let me explain. It takes each player and divides the percentage of his team’s OTD that he is responsible for by the percentage of the team’s targets that he handles. It’s a simple way to nail down scoring opportunity.
The chart shows that taller players’ targets are of higher value in terms of touchdown potential. For example, a 6’4” receiver seeing 20 percent of his team’s targets will, on average, handle 24.4 percent of the team’s receiving OTD. A 5’10” receiver seeing 20 percent of his team’s targets will, on average, handle 17.8 percent of the OTD.
In order to prove that the difference between 17.8 percent and 24.4 percent is significant, I added the ‘TD20/35’ column. What I’m doing here is placing a player with each height in an offense that scored 35 passing touchdowns and giving the player 20 percent of the team’s targets. In this scenario, you can see that a league-average 5’10” player will score six touchdowns, while a league-average 6’4” player will score nine. That’s 18 fantasy points, or the difference between WR31 and WR46 last season.
This is the same as our previous chart, except we’re now looking at weight instead of height. We see similar trends to the ones in the height chart. Bigger is better in the opportunity department. The sample of players in the 231-240 range isn’t as massive as others, but we do see a huge boost in terms of opportunity. The likes of Mike Evans, Calvin Johnson, Plaxico Burress and Kelvin Benjamin demand targets near the goal line.
If you were monitoring the ‘+/-‘ column of our previous two charts, you probably noticed some severe inconsistency. This suggests that taller and heavier wide receivers are not better than their shorter and lighter counterparts at converting targets into touchdowns. This is further evidence that scoring touchdowns is more opportunity-based than it is skill-driven.
If you’ve made it this far, you’re unlikely to have a way around the fact that bigger wide receivers are presented with a better scoring opportunity than smaller players. But the obvious question remains: What about the exceptions? First of all, they’re called “exceptions” for a reason. Since 2007, there have been 43 occurrences of a player scoring 11 or more touchdowns in one regular season. Only nine of those players were both shorter than 6’2 and lighter than 210 pounds. Digging deeper, of 15 occurrences of 13-plus touchdowns, two were shorter than 6’2 and lighter than 210 pounds (James Jones – 2012, Antonio Brown – 2014).
But the point remains, exceptions exist and finding them can be the difference between winning and losing. A clear trend actually does pop up when we examine the aforementioned nine exceptions. The quarterbacks who threw the touchdowns were Aaron Rodgers (Jones, Randall Cobb, Greg Jennings), Ben Roethlisberger (Brown), Eli Manning (Odell Beckham Jr., Hakeem Nicks), Brett Favre (Jennings), Kyle Orton (Brandon Lloyd) and Joe Flacco (Torrey Smith). Four probable Hall of Famers and a Super Bowl champ are responsible for eight of the nine. The sample is small, but it’s an unlikely coincidence.
When Size Doesn’t Matter
Aggressive critics of the “size matters” campaign usually have some variation of this link handy at all times. The link shows the overall touchdown leaders among wide receivers since 2007. There are a significant number of big receivers near the top of the list, but there are enough “exceptions” that we really can’t call categorize them as such any longer. Greg Jennings (fifth), Roddy White (sixth), Wes Welker (11th), Mike Wallace (14th), Reggie Wayne (15th), Jones (17th), Steve Smith (18th) and Lance Moore (20th) are all under 6-2/210 and among the Top 20 (albeit, again, primarily with quality quarterback help). If we go deeper, DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Nate Washington, Santonio Holmes, Santana Moss, Torrey Smith, Antonio Brown and Hines Ward are each inside the Top 40. In both cases, 40 percent of the sample is “undersized.”
Does this mean everything we just learned is invalid? Absolutely not. The purpose of this article wasn’t to tell you to solely target tall/heavy players. Size should be limited to a factor in your decision-making, not make the call for you. It can’t be ignored that short/light wide receivers, whether it’s because they have a ton of ability and/or because they landed in a great offense, can provide significant long-term fantasy value. Over their career, these players will accrue a target volume large enough that it will inevitably lead to a significant number of touchdowns. On a game-by-game basis, however, they’re clearly playing at a disadvantage.
The facts cannot be ignored. When the goal line is near, coaches/offensive coordinators/quarterbacks (blame whomever you want) prefer to target bigger wide receivers. We’ve shown today that bigger wideouts aren’t necessarily more effective in the area – so it’s possible this trend changes down the road – but that’s clearly not the case in the current NFL.
Whether you’re on the clock in your draft, considering a possible trade or combing through waivers for an injury or bye week replacement, it’s important that you do not overlook size. Opportunity – not skill – is what matters when it comes to scoring touchdowns and it’s clear that bigger wide receivers get those opportunities.
Follow Mike Clay on Twitter: @MikeClayNFL