Target Watch: How to Choose Your Fantasy Football Receivers
Howard Bender tracks all the NFL targets and helps you choose which receivers are the best to start each week
While so many people like to over-complicate things, it is the savvy and wise fantasy owner who knows that the road to your fantasy football championship is paved with one simple fact: He who touches the ball the most stands the greatest chance to produce the most fantasy points. It’s really just that easy. You want to win? Grab a quarterback who passes the ball a ton. Get yourself a running back who sees the most touches out of his team’s backfield. And when you’re picking and choosing which wide receivers and tight ends to start or pick up off the waiver wire, it’s all about the targets.
The value of a wide receiver or tight end is directly tied to the quarterback. He could have all the talent in the world, but if the quarterback doesn’t throw him the ball, then he’s not scoring any points. Sure, it’s very possible for a guy who sees just three targets per game to outscore a guy who sees 10 per on any given Sunday, but the chances of that happening consistently throughout the season are extremely slim. The receivers who finished in the top-20 for total fantasy points last year were, for the most part, all in the top-20 for total targets as well. Exceptions? Sure. And we’ll get to them soon enough, but the bottom line is that the guys who the quarterbacks look for the most are the ones you want on your fantasy team.
But before you dismiss the above with a “Duh, thanks Captain Obvious,” understand that it’s more than just raw target numbers you are looking at. There are a number of other factors you need to take into account and a clear understanding of what they are will make all the difference in which players you start each week and which ones you pick up off waivers. The table below will have everything you will need.
While many fantasy owners will take a cursory glance at totals like targets, receptions, yards and touchdowns, one of the most important statistics to use is how this table is actually organized – target percentage. That number tells you how many targets a player gets in relation to how many passes his team’s quarterback throws. How often a player is targeted in his team's passing attack tells you plenty about his role in the offense, and ultimately, his fantasy value. A high target percentage means a player is getting the ball more often than most and has significantly more opportunities to rack up yardage, find the end zone, and, in the end, put up strong fantasy numbers. So while you could be looking at two players who have a similar number of targets, the player with the higher target percentage is the one you want. He’s more of a go-to guy for his team and will thus see better opportunities. In this case, it’s the quality as much as it is the quantity.
But while organizing by target percentage is my preference, the table you will be using has a number of other statistics because of one inherent flaw in the rate stat. While a high target percentage obviously means the player is a major focal point of his team's passing attack, some players can prove to be more valuable in fantasy despite a lower target rate. For example, once he starts playing, Dwayne Bowe may have a higher target percentage than Demaryius Thomas because he is one of maybe two or three viable receiving options while Thomas is competing in a high-octane offense with a number of quality receivers.
You also have to take into consideration that a player's target rate is obviously affected by the number of pass plays called each game. Denver and New Orleans are always going to have a higher percentage of passing plays each week while teams like St. Louis and Minnesota may focus more on the ground attack. The higher number of pass plays tends to drive down the target rate.
That is why I implore you to utilize this entire table and not just assume that the player with the higher target percentage is the way to go. When I do my own analysis each week, I start with the target rate, but then I turn to the actual number of targets, red-zone target percentage and catch rate. Both catch percentage and red-zone target percentage are important to watch as both become subsets of the overall Target Percentage. If a player has a low catch rate, there is little chance of him seeing a decent target percentage. Simply put, a quarterback isn't going to throw to a guy who can't hold onto the ball. Vincent Jackson has been an exception to this over the last few seasons, but perhaps with Mike Evans around, that will change.
Similarly, a high red-zone percentage may not necessarily indicate a high-scoring player in fantasy if he lacks the yardage. Sure, he may grab the six points for the touchdown reception, but without strong yardage numbers, his point total may not be as glamorous. Think of these players like touchdown vultures among the running backs. However, even a player who has a low red-zone target percentage can still produce boatloads of points if he has a high target percentage, simply because he racks up a ton of yards each game and still occasionally finds the end zone.
From there I look at the individual match-ups and finally come to a decision. Sounds complicated, but that's why this table has been assembled. It will give you an all-in-one look at all the relevant data and then I'll follow it up with some additional thoughts, weekly start/sit suggestions and match-ups to watch.
Targets/Target Percentage Leaderboard
*Red Zone Target Data not available at time of publishing but will be added later.
Players to Note
Keep in mind that we’re not here to discuss players like Calvin Johnson, Demaryius Thomas, Julio Jones or Brandon Marshall. Those are your no-brainers and if you’re thinking of sitting any of them, even with a tough match-up ahead, you’re playing this game wrong. Those guys are your bread and butter and they should be starting for you unless they are injured or on a bye week. We’re looking at the guys where the decisions may be a little more difficult.
Anquan Boldin, WR SF – There was definitely a time where Boldin may have been a no-brainer, but things have changed as he’s gotten along in years. He did see a team-high nine targets this past week, but that might not always be the case. Colin Kaepernick’s other favorite wideout, Michael Crabtree only saw four targets in this game, but that number is sure to increase over time and those targets are likely to come at the expense of Boldin. While the 49ers chose not to give an explanation for Crabtree’s reduced role, many were aware that he had been limited in recent weeks by a calf injury. That could certainly have been a major factor and his use on the field likely was more as a decoy than anything else. Boldin is still a trusted receiver, but keep in mind that when the 49ers are healthy, there are plenty of other options to target as well. Case in point, Vernon Davis who was more of a red zone threat this time around but should also see plenty of work between the 20s.
Donnie Avery, WR KC – The wide receiver position for Kansas City looks terrible and with Dwayne Bowe suspended for the first game of the season, it looked even worse. While Avery will still be considered the No. 2 on the team and will see his share of the targets, the numbers have never nor will they be there for you this year and beyond. Avery has always been more of a short-yardage possession receiver and has never been relied upon for much more than that. He has never registered more than 800 receiving yards or five touchdowns in any given year. He’s not about to start now.
Andrew Hawkins, WR CLE – With Josh Gordon suspended and not likely to return (the NFL will not open themselves up to a series of lawsuits just to rescind his suspension) and Jordan Cameron dealing with a shoulder injury, Hawkins seems to be the guy who Brian Hoyer looks for downfield. Miles Austin and Terrance Benjamin each have their levels of involvement, but Hawkins’ 10 targets should be taken as a good sign. He’s not going to be some big game-breaker and should probably only be viewed as a WR3 right now, but keep an eye on him and track the growth.
Antonio Gates, TE SD – So many people went all-in on Ladarius Green this year, proclaiming him to be the “sleeper darling” of the late rounds in drafts. However, overlooking Gates was/is a big mistake. Gates saw a team-high 10 targets against the Cardinals while Green saw just two. Philip Rivers has full confidence in the veteran tight end and obviously has no intention of phasing him out of the passing game anytime soon. If there’s an unsuspecting owner who “settled” for Gates during the draft, you may want to see if you can pry him away.
Brian Quick, WR STL – While many expected Kenny Britt and Tavon Austin to be the main targets in St. Louis this season, it was Quick who dominated the targets. Why? Very simple. Britt and Austin spent the offseason working with Sam Bradford and when he went down, they worked with Shaun Hill during first-team reps. Meanwhile, Quick was splitting time between first and second team reps and spent a fair amount of time working with back-up quarterback Austin Davis over the summer and just prior to the season. The two established a rapport that neither Britt nor Austin had built with him. Therefore he went with the receiver he trusted most. We’ll see how first-team reps go this week as Davis will have to learn to spread the ball around more, but Quick should remain a favorite target of his until he bonds with the other guys more.
Allen Hurns, WR JAC – Fantasy owners trampled over their opponents to get to the waiver wire to add Hurns, but was it the right move? Is he worth the big investment of your FAAB budget? His nine targets and 20.9-percent target rate look tasty on the surface, but did you notice that he didn’t see a single target in the second half of Sunday’s game? Not one. He was in there because Cecil Shorts was out and will likely head back to a support role once Shorts is healthy. Marqise Lee did a great job as the team’s No. 2 so don’t expect Hurns to push past him on the depth chart anytime soon. Depending on Shorts’ health, Hurns may be worth an add for this week and potentially Week 3, but beyond that, his production is likely to take a significant hit.
Kenbrell Thompkins, WR NE – His 10 targets gave the impression that he and Tom Brady were clicking again, but with just five catches, the return of Rob Gronkowski, the health of Aaron Dobson and the sure hands of Julian Edelman, Thompkins may not be worthy of a roster spot for the long haul. The Patriots have a substantial arsenal of weapons for Brady, so don’t expect a 50-percent catch rate to take him very far.
Potential Risers (Players who failed to make the Week 1 leaderboard)
|Antonio Brown, WR PIT|
|Alshon Jeffery, WR CHI|
|Dez Bryant, WR DAL|
|Cordarrelle Patterson, WR MIN|
|Vernon Davis, TE SF|
|Coby Fleener, TE IND|
|Harry Douglas, WR ATL|
|Kenbrell Thompkins, WR NE|
|Jerrel Jernigan, WR NYG|
|Jacoby Jones, WR BAL|
Week 2 Match-Up to Watch:
Philadelphia Eagles at Indianapolis Colts – Granted, one week doesn’t exactly give you much of a sample size for your pass defense rankings, but the Eagles currently rank 18th while the Colts are at a dismal 25th. The Eagles had some early game troubles with the Jaguars which could mean for a tasty first half for Andrew Luck and his arsenal of receiving threats. Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton, Hakeem Nicks and both tight ends could see some serious targets come their way. Meanwhile, the Colts got roasted by the Broncos and considering the apparent weakness against the tight end, Zach Ertz could see some extra work. Add in Jeremy Maclin, Riley Cooper and rookie Jordan Matthews and we could have ourselves quite the Monday night shootout.