2019 NFL Draft Guide: Red Zone Consistency
Matt Selz takes a look at red zone consistency and which players you should be targeting in drafts for your fantasy football teams.
Every time one of the analysts here at Fantasy Alarm signs off from a video or a podcast or a live stream we all say something to the effect of, “we hope to see you in the green.” Green representing in the money in the DFS contests or on the winning side of the ledger in season-long match-ups. We all know green is the color of money and making money is good, in fact, that’s the point of a lot of fantasy leagues in general and football leagues specifically. But how do you finish in the money or on the winning side more often than not and therefore maximize your time in the green? You have to get the players on your team that score the most points and contribute the most touchdowns each week. If you’ve read other articles in the Draft Guide you will have seen numerous strategies for accomplishing that goal, including a prior article titled Studying Red Zone Targets, by yours truly, in which the data shows that over the last three years 68-70-percent of touchdowns through the air have come in the Red Zone and 85-90-percent of rushing scores have come inside the 20-yard-line across the league. So with that many scores coming from this part of the field, let’s do a deep dive to see who’s getting the most looks, chances, targets, and scores over the last year so you can maximize your chances of getting the touchdowns on your team each week.
Before we get busy with individual player stats, we need to examine what the teams are doing in general.
The RZ Att. Columns are the total number of trips to the Red Zone the team made in that season. The RZ Pct columns show the percentage of trips they scored a touchdown. The difference and change columns show the 2018 numbers subtracted from the 2017 numbers.
The table is sorted by the team with the biggest change in scoring efficiency from year-to-year. If you’ll notice, however, 19 of the teams are between 9.9 and negative-10.1-percent meaning more than half the league stayed relatively steady between the past two years. Overall, there were six teams that made it to the Red Zone six times in 2018 compared to just three in 2017, meaning there were more opportunities for the scoring to come from that area of the field in the most recent season. The other thing that might not be immediately noticeable is that in 2018, teams were more efficient at scoring. In 2017, the Eagles led the NFL in Red Zone touchdown conversion rate at 65.5-percent, in 2018, that mark was bested by eight teams including three over the 70-percent threshold. If you’re wondering what this has to do with consistency, well it’s just that, it shows who has been the most consistent as a team at making it inside the opponents 20-yard-line over the last few years. It also shows that you can’t necessarily expect the same results year in and year out and I’ll point out a few examples. Pittsburgh found the Red Zone 14 times less in 2018 than they did in 2017 yet they were far more effective at scoring notching four more touchdowns overall last year even with the drama surrounding them with Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. The Patriots, on the other hand, dropped both in the number of trips and touchdowns scored in the Red Zone from 2018 to 2017, which was to be expected since the offense wasn’t as good in 2018. However, what should be noticed is that they were nearly as effective with just a 0.4-percent difference in scoring rate. So once they got there they were still scoring with the same ease.
The year columns show the percentage of touchdowns allowed by that team’s defense. The Opp. Trips column is the total number of trips the opposing offense made into the Red Zone throughout those years. The Change column is the difference in the 2017 and 2018 scoring rate where a negative number indicates they were worse at stopping scores in 2018.
Defenses were worse in 2018 than 2017 when looking at the amount they allowed opposing offenses to score inside the 20. There were six teams that allowed 70-percent or more of opponent’s trips to result in a touchdown in 2018, the highest mark in 2017 was 67.4-percent. To put it another way, of the top-10 teams in preventing scores inside the 20 in 2017, only half were able to place in the top-10 again in 2018 while the other half from 2017 ranked 28, 25, 17, 24, and 21 the following year. Even the top percentage got higher in 2018 (44.3) compared to 2017 (36.1). Now we all know that playing defense in the NFL has gotten progressively harder over the last few years due to rules changes and ever-growing fondness for exotic offensive formations, just looking at the number of trips allowed and the changes in effectiveness will show you that close proximity defense is tougher to play. The numbers shown in the table above have a direct correlation to why so many offenses were so successful in the Red Zone in 2018. But it also gives a bit a preview to the table below too.
Can you figure out which column relates to the weaker defenses in this table? How about the “Plays/Trip” column? The league leader in that category last year was surprisingly the team with the fewest Red Zone trips, the Arizona Cardinals with 28 and 3.2 plays per trip. Not to dwell, but teams spending on average just 2.7 plays in the Red Zone per trip means they are scoring quite quick and generally resulting in touchdowns, given the percentages already shown earlier. The true takeaway from this table is to see what kind of plays each team ran in their Red Zone chances and who was skewed toward the pass or the run. Buffalo led the way in terms of rushing percentage inside the 20 with 61.3-percent of their plays being on the ground, while the Steelers led the way through the air at 65.5-percent. Two of the top-three teams in respect to plays run in the Rams and the Patriots, who also met in the Super Bowl, were also the two most-balanced teams, respective to play-calling, with New England being an even 50-50 split and Los Angeles being a 50.5-49.5 split.
Now that we have a general idea of what the teams have done on either side of the ball in the last couple of years, we’ve got to start examining just who all of those plays are going to. Of course, we’re going to start with the most important player on the field for each team and that would be the quarterbacks.
The final column of the next two tables shows the percentage of Red Zone touchdowns that came from inside the 10. The Inside 10 % column shows what percentage of the total TD number came from inside the 10.
The top-12 signal-callers, sorted by total touchdowns thrown in 2018, are a collection of guys you’d expect to see in this section. Aside from being gobsmacked by the sheer number of touchdowns Patrick Mahomes through over anyone else, look at how many came from in the Red Zone. That’s supposed to be an air raid, big play, offense yet 70-percent of the touchdowns through the air were still inside the 20 and 40-percent were inside the 10. Both Andrew Luck and Ben Roethlisberger are in systems that throw the ball a ton, Roethlisberger led the NFL in passing yards in 2018, but they score in two different ways. Luck had the third-highest percentage of touchdowns thrown in the Red Zone, of anyone throwing double-digit touchdowns, at 84.6-percent. Meanwhile, Roethlisberger had one of the lowest Red Zone scoring percentages in the top-12 and top-24 at 61.8-percent and before you go thinking it was all JuJu Smith-Schuster ’s fault, you’ll see later that it wasn’t. Perhaps the biggest surprise in this first table is that Tom Brady ’s percentage is just 62.1-percent coming inside the 20 and two-thirds of those came inside the 10. So, the Patriots scored nearly 40-percent of touchdowns last year from 21 yards or further out even though they didn’t have a healthy Rob Gronkowski and really only had Julian Edelman as the only true threat on the outside.
This group of quarterbacks is much closer together in their total amounts of touchdowns thrown last year, however, they are more spread out in the amount in the Red Zone. The highest percentage for any full-time starter is found in the section with Eli Manning ’s 90.5-percent and he also had the highest percentage inside the 10 as well at nearly 62-percent and that just shows how lackluster that offense was even with Odell Beckham Jr. still on the roster and Saquon Barkley being a pass-catching threat all the time. The lowest percentage of Red Zone scores in this group is Dak Prescott at just 54.5-percent, and you’ll see why later when you look at Amari Cooper ’s numbers further down. Once Cooper got on the team the offense had more big strike capability, but it wasn’t just that as Prescott had six rushing touchdowns inside the 20, leading the team, and that reduced his need to pass in that area. The second-highest percentage of Red Zone touchdowns is also in the section with Carson Wentz and his 85.4-percent. With the offense being a more methodical operation in 2018, it’s not surprising to see the rate be that high for him and the Eagles.
With the prevalence of quarterbacks running the ball more often nowadays, this seems like a pretty good time to delve a bit into the running plays each time attempted in 2018. Wouldn’t you know it, we’ve got a table for that too, just take a peek below.
This table shows the total number of run plays run in the Red Zone be each team and how many players were used for those plays. The max column shows the most attempts that went to one player on the team and the % column shows what percentage of attempts the max accounts for.
We won’t take too much time to talk about running backs because, as the Studying Red Zone Targets article alludes to, nearly 90-percent of all rushing touchdowns in the last three seasons have been scored in this area. With that many being scored here, it’s clear of importance, but with the changing dynamic of the running back position for NFL teams, telling you who held what role last year isn’t as important as showing how many players toted the rock inside the 20 for the teams. To point out the fact that teams believe anyone can carry the football at any part of the field or any down, you can see that 12 teams last year used at least eight different ball carriers in the Red Zone with the Rams and Saints leading the way with 10. Meanwhile, seven used four or fewer with the Packers leading the way with the fewest at three. One team’s leading Red Zone carrier was their quarterback, Lamar Jackson in Baltimore, and Josh Allen in Buffalo came one carry shy of tying LeSean McCoy for the Bills lead. For all of those who were concerned that Cam Newton takes too many Red Zone carries away from other backs in Carolina, Christian McCaffrey had 30 more carries than Newton did last year who averaged just one a game. Studying things like this also can make sense of some offseason moves that teams made. For instance, the acquisition of Jordan Howard by the Eagles will improve their Red Zone rushing game. The Bears ran the ball three percent less than the Eagles did inside the 20 last year, yet Howard’s nine touchdowns on 35 carries are far better than the Eagles needing five guys and 67 carries to post 11 scores. If you just so happened to notice the highest “max” in the table at 64, that belongs to Todd Gurley even though the Rams used 10 different ball carriers inside the 20. Six of those 10 were wide receivers on jet sweeps accounting for 10 of the 99 attempts. The problem for the Rams this year will be to see how they replace the 64 touches, 17 scores, and 204 yards that Gurley gave them near the endzone if he is truly as limited as some fear that he is with the arthritic knee. A backfield with similar questions to answer is that of the Chiefs as, with Kareem Hunt no longer on the roster, Patrick Mahomes , Spencer Ware , and Damien Williams lead K.C. in Red Zone carries from last year with 15, 12, and 10 respectively while Hunt had 27 for seven scores in his abbreviated season. Williams did come on strong with four scores on those 10 carries later in the year but he’s never been a lead back in his carrier so that is yet to be sorted out.
The team, quarterback, and running back stats are all well and good but we want to see how those wide receivers are getting their looks right? After all, getting touchdowns from your wide receivers is the way to really boost the scoring from your pass catchers. All told, there were 72 receiving targets that saw at least 10 Red Zone targets of the course of the 2018 season which is actually lower than the 80 that we saw in 2017 accomplish the same feat. Are we ready to take a deep dive into the receiving targets, catches, and touchdowns at this point? Great!
The percent Tgt column in both tables shows the percentage of team targets that player received in that part of the field.
There were 10 players to get both 21 or more targets overall and double-digit targets inside the 10. All of the players getting 22 or more targets accounted for a quarter or more of their team's targets including two Saints on that list. Only one of those Saints made the Inside the 10 section in Michael Thomas . There is a surprising swap that happens at the bottom of the table with Eric Ebron having the most targets for the Colts overall but then seeing T.Y. Hilton as the top target getter inside the 10 is interesting since he’s the smaller-bodied guy.
There are still a ton of very well-known names in both of these sections and there are still a few teams that have multiple guys in both areas. Davante Adams , while leading the NFL in total Red Zone targets with 31, only had eight looks inside the 10. Chris Godwin is found here with 16 targets in the Red Zone overall, but we noticed him in the earlier table with 11 inside the 10, ranking fourth in the league. Two sets of teammates showed that there are in fact enough balls to go around in this pass-heavy era of the NFL as the Vikings duo of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs and Giants duo, last year, of Odell Beckham and Sterling Shepard had nearly identical numbers in the 20 and the 10 yards areas. Moving on to Cleveland for 2019, Beckham matches up with Jarvis Landry similarly too and only adds another look to stop for the Browns offense this year.
A couple of guys that peak interest in these sections starts with Jared Cook who is now on his way to New Orleans, which we’ve seen what they do with guys in the Red Zone already. Two more Bucs and Bears show up and show that the Bears are just as likely to go to the tight end as the running back in short fields. Tampa’s number one wide receiver, Mike Evans , is actually third in both overall targets and targets inside the 10 on the team and well behind Godwin.
That shows the top-40 guys in Red Zone targets last year, and if there were some Rams’ wide receivers you didn’t see it was because their seasons were cut short by injury like Cooper Kupp who put up 12 targets in just half a season of play and Gerald Everett came on late and had 11 such looks. Even when healthy they did split targets quite a bit and thus reducing the total number any of them can put up, but it’s clear that when he’s out there, Kupp is getting the top looks.
It’s all well and good to get the looks, but it’s what you do with them that matters. With that in mind let’s look at who snagged the most catches in this group. There were 72 players that were targeted at least 10 times inside the 20 last year, out of 384 players that saw at least one target, and of those 72 players, only 26 caught double-digit passes. That’s a third of the guys that saw double-digit targets actually caught double-digit passes and overall 6.7-percent of players that saw a Red Zone look nabbing 10 or more catches.
It’s not always the guys with the most targets that get the most catches, as you can see. Davante Adams ranks fourth in catches despite seeing the most targets and that netted him the second-worst catch percentage of any of the guys on this list at just over 50-percent. Four of the players had catch rates higher than 80-percent inside the 20 as well as inside the 10, though it’s a slightly different group of four. Impressively there are two guys from the same team that broke the 80-percent barrier in both areas in Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara of the Saints, who actually get better inside the 10 than just in the general Red Zone. In fact, 11 of the 26 players had a higher catch percentage inside the 10 than inside the 20, though part of that is a factor of simply having a smaller total of looks. Not only did JuJu Smith-Schuster have more targets than, his now-former teammate, Antonio Brown in both parts of the Red Zone, he also had a better catch rate in both as well, which could explain why he kept getting the chances since Brown’s 45.8-percent catch rate is the lowest of anyone with 10 or more grabs. The positional breakdown of this section is also something to take note of. Of the 26 players in this group, 14 were wide receivers, six were running backs, and six were tight ends which speaks to the multi-pronged attack of current NFL passing attacks, especially in short field situations. So, don’t just assume that wideouts are the only ones getting plays run for them in this part of the field.
So what, your players have caught a bunch of passes in the Red Zone? But what are they doing with those chances in terms of scoring? You didn’t think we weren’t going to talk about who scored the most Red Zone touchdowns, did you? Of course, we are.
Above are the top-30 touchdown getters from 2018 and where those scores came from. If we’re doing a quick comparison to 2017 numbers, only three receivers caught double-digit touchdowns that year while a robust nine different players reached that level in 2018 and another three fell just one shy. It shouldn’t be a shock to see two Chiefs in the double-digit category since Patrick Mahomes threw 11 more touchdowns than the next closest quarterback and the two recipients are the obvious choices in Tyreke Hill and Travis Kelce . The Vikings were the next closest team to getting two in the double-digit region with both Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs grabbing nine apiece. Before we get too caught up with who caught how many and who led which team, the percentages are fascinating. Even among the guys with 10 scores, there’s a range of Red Zone scores from 92.3-30-percent and inside the 10 the percentages range from 60-10 so clearly, scoring isn’t being done the same way even though they have similar totals overall. Just how reliant was Davante Adams for Red Zone scores? His 12 Red Zone touchdowns is higher than all but four receivers touchdown total overall last year. Being known as the favorite target of a pass-happy quarterback in a big-play system doesn’t always turn into big scoring plays as you can see as it comes down to role. It gets clearer looking back at the Chiefs guys as Hill had more touchdowns than Kelce but Kelce had nearly twice the Red Zone scores that Hill did meaning Hill needed the big plays to bolster his stat lines. Dropping a bit further down the list, John Ross is the only player in the top-30, and one of just eight in the top-60, to have the same percentage come from inside the 20 overall compared with inside the 10. Ross had five of his seven scores overall come from the Red Zone but all five of those came from 10 yards or closer from the goal line. In this part of the table, there are three players that didn’t need any big plays to get their scores as 100-percent of their scores came from inside the Red Zone. James White , Alshon Jeffery , and Cameron Brate had all of their seven or six touchdowns come from this part of the field.
There aren’t the huge swings in percentages or totals in this table as the first one but it’s still important to see the other 30 receivers that caught at least five touchdowns last year. There were another three guys that caught 100-percent of their scores inside the 20 and one of them, Chris Conley , had 80-percent of his scores come from 10 yards or closer. Perhaps the most interesting stat line of the year resides in this section with Jaron Brown of the Seahawks. Brown nabbed five touchdowns in 2018, all of which came in the Red Zone, but he managed to do that on just 14 catches. Fourteen catches total for the whole year regardless of field position. That kind of stat line doesn’t really do anyone any good because it also came with just 166 yards as well so he’s not even worth it in best ball or DFS conversations either, but it is an impressive touchdown total from less than a catch per game average.
Playing off of the Jaron Brown stat line, we have to know how many games these receivers are seeing targets in, otherwise, the raw data doesn’t help much. Don’t fret, we’ve got you covered there too.
These are all the guys that saw 20 or more targets. Thirteen. That’s it. For the most part, they saw a look in at least three-quarters of the games played while four of them saw looks in 11. These guys are the cream of the crop and shouldn’t have trouble repeating these numbers again in 2019 even with two of them switching teams.