Creating composites, or collective creations of player stats gone by, can be a useful exercise in fantasy football. Composites offer a veritable bird’s eye view of fantasy success and failure. Composites might serve as good fuel for the occasional gut decision, though I sometimes cringe at the prospect.
We know that a high-end fantasy defense is favored by Vegas and playing at home. We know that solid streaming quarterback options have efficiency — not necessarily volume — on their side, face off against a defense allowing a high completion percentage and play for the team favored to win the ballgame.
On a slightly more macro level, we know that tight end streaming has become far more viable in recent years as tight ends run more pass routes, see more targets, catch more passes and score more touchdowns. Professors, adjuncts, boosters and students at Gronk University might have a thing or three to add here.
We already know what a top-end receiver looks like: he’s 6’2″ and 210 pounds and until 2014, he was growing all the time. That could change drastically in 2015, and in any case, 2014’s rise of the small, light wide receiver will further define those card-carrying member of Team Big Wide Receiver and skeptics of height and weight having anything whatsoever to do with fantasy success.
I wanted to wrap my partisan brain around the concept of a high-end wide receiver who happens to be short and a feather weight. Below is a summary of what I found — a rough composite of what it looks like when an undersized wideout reaches the ranks of the fantasy football elite.
There’s a lot to be desired in any wide receiver analysis that creates two broad buckets: one for giant receivers and another for Smurfs. For the purposes of this rambling analysis, I’ve chosen to focus on numbers produced by receivers universally seen as undersized, either by height or weight or both: Wes Welker, Mike Wallace, Percy Harvin, Victor Cruz, Steve Smith, DeSean Jackson, Brandon Lloyd, Greg Jennings, Jeremy Maclin, Randall Cobb, T.Y. Hilton, Odell Beckham, Jr., Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown, and Reggie Wayne.
I didn’t include Roddy White and Stevie Johnson in this analysis. White, who stands just six feet, weighs in at 213 pounds, making him far too heavy to qualify as undersized. Johnson, a top-12 receiver in 2010, stands at 6’2″ and weighs 208 pounds.
I think it’s important to remember that fantasy football remains a week-to-week game, that matchups matter, and that it’s the off-season, when we take zoomed-out looks at the game and argue with each other as a distraction from the abyss that is life.
Opportunity x Opportunity + Opportunity = Opportunity
Very few of fantasy’s top pass catchers get by on efficiency alone, no matter a guy’s height or weight (and weight is critically important, since there is no such thing as Team Tall Wide Receiver). Top-12 fantasy wideouts who manage to achieve top-end status without a relative glut of targets are almost always big: Mike Evans in 2014, Jordy Nelson in 2013, and Eric Decker in 2012 are just a few examples.
It’s no surprise then that a look at elite small receivers over the past seven NFL seasons shows an almost across-the-board case of target hogs in offenses that force feed to ball to said pass catchers.
|Percy Harvin||2011||118 (52 carries)|
|Odell Beckham, Jr.||2014||129|
|Average: 137.1 targets|
The exceptions to the target hog rule are fairly few and far between, with Wallace proving an anomaly thanks to his mostly absurd aDOT during his top-12 fantasy campaigns. Same goes for Jackson. Maclin, on the other hand, was an efficiency machine during his 106-target 2010 season.
Beckham is an interesting addition to the above list. Make no mistake, OBJ was the living, breathing definition of a target hog during his 12 games. He notched 10.8 targets per game, and an amazing 13.4 targets during his white-hot Week 11-17 run. OBJ was definitely efficient with his targets, but it’s important to note that his fantasy floor was tremendous largely because his opportunity was off the proverbial charts.
There is, as you may have guessed, more to the story than a simple look at opportunity for small receivers. There’s the pesky matter of quarterback quality, which we saw come to the forefront in 2014, when four of the six small top-12 receivers had all-world quarterbacks throwing footballs their way.
Great Quarterbacks And Their Small Receivers
The next step was to review quarterback performance of the undersized receivers who have cracked the top-12 barrier over the past seven seasons. It seems terribly anecdotal, after all, to simply say that top-end small receivers have awesome signal callers and that’s the end of the story. Drive home safely.
I looked at the fantasy finishes of every quarterback attached to the receivers listed in the above table, averaging out those seasonal performances in each season, then averaging out the average quarterback finishes across the seven-year span.
The average seasonal finish of a quarterback throwing passes to elite small receivers was QB5.7. Roughly, these guys were in offenses headed by top-6 quarterbacks. Again, this is a composite, meaning there were certainly exceptions. Namely, one Steve Smith, who will take your lunch and steal your spork.
Smith finished among fantasy’s best receivers in 2008 and 2009 despite some of the league’s worst quarterback play. Delhomme, thanks to a meager 15 touchdowns and 12 picks, finished as QB20 in 2008, when Smith managed to turn 121 targets into 1,405 yards and six touchdowns. Smith, the following season, was the recipient of 151 targets — enough to maintain elite status despite catching passes from Jimmy Clausen, he averaged 5.3 fantasy points per game in 13 contests.
Good process would dictate that we never assume similarly sized receivers can overcome quarterback deficiency like Smith has in his career. I think what matters is the following: 16 of the 23 small receiver seasons examined here have Peyton, Brady, Roethlisberger, Rodgers and Luck involved.
Red Zone Action For The Munchkins
A linchpin of the Big Wide Receiver approach is the bankability of those pass catchers’ involvement in the red zone. Big guys score touchdowns, as we’ve seen time and again. Receivers over 6’2″ and more than 210 pounds account for the vast majority of double-digit touchdown seasons, after all.
A cursory look at red zone opportunity shows us what we need to know about tall, heavy pass catchers, whether they’re receivers or tight ends. In 2014, Demaryius Thomas, Jordy Nelson, Alshon Jeffery, Andre Johnson, Martellus Bennett and Larry Donnell were among the 10 most targeted pass catchers in the red zone. The 2013 season saw Calvin Johnson, Jimmy Graham, Decker, Larry Fitzgerald, Nelson, and Tony Gonzalez among the 10 most targeted players in the red zone.
But a look at the 23 seasons in question — 23 top-12 campaigns posted by small receivers since 2008 — red zone involvement seems to be a common theme.
|Player||Season||Red zone targets|
|Odell Beckham, Jr.||2014||27|
Many of these small receivers survived and thrived without much red zone action at all. Hilton, for one, was hardly ever an option inside the 20 yard line for the Colts in 2014 as Luck peppered Dwayne Allen, Coby Fleener and Ahmad Bradshaw with targets close to the goal line.
Eight of these 23 seasons includes red zone opportunity that ranked inside the top-10, a not-insignificant factor that helped these guys post touchdown totals that have been rare for pass catcher their size. Brown, for instance, scored 13 touchdowns in 2014. Eight of those scores came in the red zone. Cobb, on the strength of 27 red zone looks from Rodgers, scored 10 red zone touchdowns in 2014 — more than anyone else. OBJ turned his massive red zone workload into a fantasy bonanza as well.
That sort of red zone opportunity and production is well outside the norm for receivers of Brown’s, OBJ’s and Cobb’s stature. It is, however, a big part of what made them elite options in 2014.
The Composite’s Formula
Probably it isn’t shocking to anyone who reads through this statistical slog that there are three key elements to high-end fantasy production from undersized wideouts: a glut of targets, elite quarterback production, and red zone opportunity. It’s not shocking to find that, among the 23 seasons examined here, the best campaigns included a perfect storm of all three key elements.
Creating this composite doesn’t preclude small receivers making fantasy hay via the deep ball, as Wallace did so often during his days in Pittsburgh or Jackson with the Eagles, getting by without a ton of targets and without much red zone involvement at all.
It’s vitally important to play the odds in fantasy football, and the odds say that weighty, tall receivers will score touchdowns. If that’s your plan — to score touchdowns — then there’s your strategy. Even the most ardent supporters of Team Big Wide Receiver should never discount small guys who will be the focal points of their offenses, catch passes from a highly productive quarterback and get decent looks inside the 20 yard line.
I hope the elite small receiver composite can be useful in 2015 and beyond. I’ll come back to this composite and its various lessons when the free agency dust has settled and we have some grasp on which small wideouts might fit with composite’s mold. And of course, which guys don’t.