by Nick Ercolano
August 13, 2018
We're throwing haymakers in this week's #InTheMuckMonday - discussing that whole second tier of WRs - Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falcons, Michael Thomas of the New Orleans Saints and Keenan Allen of the Los Angeles Chargers.
13th Overall | WR4
15th Overall | WR5
The story of Julio goes two ways. He's amazing, but can't score TDs and is inconsistent.
I'm here to dispell noise and recency bias from the truth. The first part of that, him being amazing, is big facts. Julio is the NFL's all-time leading WR in yards per game (95.3). He's gone 4 consecutive seasons with over 80 catches and 1,400 receiving yards. The biggest statistic to takeaway here, IMO, is his yards per route run. Scott Barrett (@ScottBarrettDFB) of PFF has consistently been a proponent of using this metric as a key indicator to predict future success. There aren't many stats out there that are predictive, but in his article - Metrics That Matter: Yards Per Route Run he backs up his talk with numbers, showing that outside of total targets, the best predictive stat, with the highest correlation for predicting future success is YPRR, and it's very close to total raw targets.
So, just how goes is Julio when it comes to YPRR?
Over the last 12 years, since 2006 through 2017, Julio owns 3 of the top 5 YRR metrics in a single season, they were the previous three seasons. In 2017, he finished 1st among wideouts in YPRR for the third straight year and fourth time in the last five years. Here are 2017's leaders in YPRR:
As you can see, most of the top fantasy WRs are on this list.
Snaps in Route, that 2nd to last column is the concerning part. He's really good at YPRR, but doesn't run enough routes as you can see. I wanted to look at his target totals to see what's going on here. Over the last four years, Julio hasn't seen less than 125 targets in a given season, he's averaged 158/szn over that span, but the last two years he's been far below that at 145 and 125. Was he being less involved in the offense? I check AirYards.com to see his target market share and outside of that 2015 season where he saw over 200 targets, when they had literally no other weapons, it was Roddy White, banged up in his last season, Leonard Hankerson was the 2nd highest target market share in that offense (17%), Julio's involvement has stayed constant. His target market share in 2014 was 27%, in '15 it was at 33%, '16 back to 27% and last year 28%.
So, on a per route metric, he's seeing the same volume and producing the same high-level production. Can we expect an uptick in those numbers? I think so. I've talked plenty of times about how I think this offense is due for a major bounce back in 2018, in Steve Sarkisian's second year as the OC. Matt Ryan's 529 pass attempts was his lowest total since 2009. His passing yards, lowest since 2010, passing TDs (20), lowest since rookie year in 2008. But, according to PFF, only Tom Brady graded higher at the QB position in 2017. Ryan tied Brees for the 2nd highest QB grade last year. He hasn't fallen off. The offense just didn't finish drives. They ranked top-2 in the NFL in yards per drive, plays per drive & TOP per drive but 15th in PPG. Steve Sarkisian averaged more PPG in his first szn as the Falcons OC (221) than Kyle Shanahan did in his first year (21.2). That being said, I definitely expect a bounce back after a historically bad statistical year for Matt Ryan and it being the second year in this offense.
The concerns about Julio are tri-fold.
1. "Injury prone" - he's always limping but he's played in 61-of-64 games over the last four szns. Has no effect on my ranking for him.
2. Consistency is a huge concern for people. Is this real, or is this recency bias?
I made this chart to see what type of consistency we've normally seen from Julio. And consistency can be subjective, but I put it at a game in which he goes for 85+ receiving yards and/or catches at least 1 TD pass. As you can see from the chart, Julio's 2017 was a bit of an outlier. He wasn't below 64% in any of those games. And when you look at his last five playoff games, 7.4 receptions, 106 receiving yards, going under 85 just once and scored 4 times in 5 games. So, I think the recency bias thing, based on what we've seen out of Julio during a normal year, is more recency bias than big facts only.
The last concern obviously is Julio's TDs. Where he hit a new rock bottom in 2017, catching just 3 TDs. This came a year after everyone complained about not feeding Julio in the RZ enough. Welp, Julio would finish with 19 RZ targets and 11 10-Z targets, good for 8th highest and 3rd highest among NFL WRs last year. According to PlayerProfiler.com, Julio saw over 44% of his team's EZ targets, 5th highest % in the NFL. He got his looks. Those were around the same numbers that he saw in 2015, during his 8 TD campaign. So what happened?
On a per game basis, that was the lowest number of TDs/game by far for Julio Jones. Take a look at this chart:
These are his TD/game rates over the last 4 years. He hit a low of 18.75% in 2017 --- his career TD/game rate since 2011 is over 50%, excluding last year. Lastly, and the most predictive stat is TD catch rate, the % of your catches that go for TDs, it's the same reason we could predict a digression from Matt Ryan from 2016 to 2017, and positively from 2017 to 2018, along with Deshaun Watson, etc:
So this is the % of catches that have gone for TDs over the last 4 years. Again, might look minor, but it's a big drop off in 2017 to 3.41%. When you're seeing 150 targets, 2-3% difference is the difference in catching 3 TDs and 6 or 8 or 9, and the difference between finishing as WR6 or WR2 in fantasy. Prior to 2017, his career TD catch rate was over 8%.
Basically, to wrap this whole shits up, what I'm trying to say is, since Julio's play didn't fall off in 2017. His YPR number has been up each of the previous two szns compared to 2015, so he still has no trouble making plays downfield, his game speed per AirYards.com is still far, far above the NFL league average, he didn't slow down. And in case you're worried about Calvin Ridley in the mix, I wouldn't be. He's a rookie who won't command more than 80ish targets most likely. Taylor Gabriel is gone, who had 51 targets, those will go his way, plus he'll play in 2WR sets a lot, so he'll be eating into Sanu more than Julio. I always say, I hate drafting WRs who depend on TDs to make or break their season. Guys like Mike Evans, I avoid, because TDs fluctuate so drastically from YoY and aren't a predictive statistic whatsoever. Julio is literally the opposite of that. He guarantees you the catches and yards. Last year was an outlier, and there's a ton of recency bias going into his outlook by the regular fantasy football player. The TDs may not come, but unlike other players, you don't need them for production still. He finished as the WR4 in fantasy despite catching just 3 TDs, guys. You can expect Julio, along with Matt Ryan and this whole ATL offense to bounce back positively in 2018 and come back closer to their norms, statistically.
Thomas is very similar to Julio, in that he doesn't need touchdowns to produce for you. And coming off of a down TD-year where he caught only 5 compared to the 9 in prior years, we can also predict a bounce-back year for MT in that department.
The story of the Saints 2017 offense can be painted pretty easily. Their offense turned from a pass-heavy attack into a completely run-favored offense, especially down in the RZ.
The RZ TDs pivoted towards the run, a 50/50 split after being heavily in favor or the pass in 2016, and almost all years that Brees has been in New Orleans. But when we look a little bit closer, inside the 10Z, because for as far as scoring TDs is concerned in football, 10Z looks are where the money is made.
The % of plays and TDs is flipped towards the run. Ingram, who is suspended for the first 4 games had 19 10-Z rushes last year, and tied for the 5th most carries inside the 5-yard line.
Only 5 teams ran the ball more inside-the-10 than NO.
Having him gone, plus those numbers heading back to the norm, will increase Brees' and Thomas' fantasy value in 2018.
Brees, like Ryan, also saw really low numbers in some statistical categories from a usage standpoint - His 536 pass attempts were a full 137 less than 2016, a year prior and his lowest total ever in his 12 years in New Orleans, as was his 4.29 TD rate, both numbers we can expect to go up. If both or either of them go back to the norm, we could easily project for Brees to get back to his 32+ TDs, a mark he hadn't missed since 2007. Yes, 32+ TDs in every season since 2007. The best part is that we can tell for sure that Brees didn't fall off either. He set the record for the highest completion percentage of his career last year, completing 72% of his passes. His 8 interceptions were his lowest total since 2004 and he led the NFL in yards per attempt. It was simply a matter of volume for this passing game, which I expect to increase given the norms and Ingram, their bruiser, being out for 4 games.
But let's look at Thomas as a player, too. The just turned 24-year old, yes he's unbelievably young, will enter his 3rd year. That third-year breakout for WRs!!!! He doesn't need that, he hit it immediately.
Year 1: 92 - 1,137 - 9
Year 2: 104 - 1,245 - 5
So, we're looking at nearly 200 catches, 2,400 yards and 14 TDs over his first two seasons. He's finished as WR7 in 2016, and then WR5 in 2017 despite scoring just 5 times. I don't need to argue how good Thomas is at just about every aspect of the game as a WR, and coming into his 3rd year in the league, I expect him to be even better.
The question becomes, what is his outlook for 2018? Can he take a huge step up and become that top-3 or even compete for the #1 overall fantasy WR throne?
We have to look at how Michael Thomas has been used in this offense and by Brees. And I put together this disgusting chart:
Basically, we're seeing Brees' long balls, his valuable passes inside the 10, all that stuff dropped off from a volume standpoint, but Michael Thomas' did not. It actually increased, which was surprising. Thomas held over a 28% target share on the Saints, which was tied for 3rd highest in the NFL among WRs in 2017, only D-Hop (35%) and Antonio Brown (30%) had higher chunks of their offenses. That's a great thing in my eyes, because in just his second year, Brees trusted him with the volume of an elite WR1 in real life football. And he hasn't been good just based on volume.
Thomas literally has the highest catch rate of any WR over the previous two seasons. Brees knows he's coming down with the ball and that trust factor is huge.
So, their receiving core is where it gets a little tricky to project volume. They still have Ted Ginn, but they bring in FA wideout Cameron Meredith who was on his way to a breakout year in Chicago last year before suffering a brutal injury to his ACL/MCL. He's back now, avoided the PUP and is participating at training camp and from the videos I've seen, he looks really damn good. He could be a major factor here - he was a guy that over the last 5 weeks of the 2016 szn was WR6 in fantasy. And I think taking him at the end of your drafts would be wise. They also bring in field stretcher Tre'Quan Smith from UCF with their 3rd round pick. I've heard almost no noise about him from their camp. I think he's more depth and the heir to Ted Ginn, so although I really like him as a player, I don't see him making a big impact in 2018. But, they also bring in Ben Watson, who played in NO with Brees back in 2015 and had a career year 74-825-6. He led the team in both RZ targets by a wide margin and 10Z targets, so he could be someone Brees looks at often at that part of the field.
So when it comes down to it, a huge piece of Thomas' outlook is whether or not you think the volume in the Saints passing game goes back up. Maybe not to 2016 levels, where Brees attempted a career-high number of passes (673) but in between that and his Saints' low in 2017. If he does, Thomas should benefit greatly.
When it comes down to it a ton of people, well anyone who had Julio last year will automatically fade him this year. But, when you do your research on fantasy players, you have to go in with the mindset of being completely objective, pretend like you've never played before and you've never owned these players - so I implore you, if you owned Julio last year, which I did, don't write him off.
So, we have two guys whose passing games I expect to improve, either by volume or efficiency. Two guys who are the clear WR1's and have shown incredible talent. Two guys coming off down TD seasons. Two guys that rack up both catches and yards consistently.
When it comes down to it, I have less of a belief that the Saints will come near their 2016 passing numbers. This is a team that gave Drew Brees two more years on his contract, through 2019, they know this is their Superbowl window right now. He's 39, he'll be 40 next season and the way you protect your 40-year-old QB is to keep the ball out of his hands and make sure he takes less hits. The way you do that is by running the ball a shit ton, as well as passing to your RBs a lot. It's the exact same sentiment I talked about last year, in my top busts video, Brees was my QB in that video and I got a lot of hate in the preszn for it. I didn't think he was bad, but I knew that the Saints game plan was going to be to keep Brees upright. This led to a ridiculously run-heavy game plan, and a crazy amount of passing volume to their RBs. The Saints targeted their RBs on an NFL-high 32% of their passing plays. The next closest teams were SF (28%) and NE (27%), 4 and 5% higher, and when you're talking about 500+ pass attempts, that's a lot in volume.
So what I'm saying is, I don't think Thomas has anywhere near the ceiling Jones does, at least for now. I think the Saints game plan will stay relatively close to what it was last year and even if they do go more pass-heavy, they brought in a lot of weapons - Cameron Meredith, Ben Watson, Tre'Quan Smith, it's hard to see Thomas matching that 28% target share. I think he'll turn in a ridiculously efficient season, but again, I'm just not sure the volume will be enough to get him back in that top 3-5 fantasy WR range.
For that reason, I'm going with Julio. Last year was an outlier year for this offense and him. I expect more consistency and a bounce back in TDs for my man sticks.
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