Targets are paramount when it comes to evaluating pass-catchers for fantasy football. There are no air yards, receiving yards, receptions, or touchdowns without first earning a target. And to earn a target, you need to be deemed “open” by the quarterback. It’s one big trickle-down effect. There’s a reason the biggest and most consistent target-earners are near the top of fantasy football ADP: They can be relied on by not just their team’s offense to earn targets and produce on those targets, but that also trickles down to the fantasy managers drafting those pass-catchers and starting them in their lineups each week.

In this season’s Fantasy Football Target Report, we’ll take a weekly team-by-team look into these target earners and separate the wheat from the chaff. To properly lead into what we’ll be looking at this season, we’ll have to establish a baseline of the most important things we’re looking at with targets and other receiving metrics that paint the full picture for who we should be rostering, who we should be adding, and who we can drop. Combing the box scores doesn’t paint a clear picture of the players we should target, roster, and start. Fantasy football rankings can only paint so much of the picture as well.

Everything we’ll be talking about here and this season in this season’s Fantasy Football Target Report will be some of the best statistics and metrics that correlate with fantasy football production. Think of targets as a page in a coloring book, just the outline yet to be colored. Coloring on that page adds context and flavor to that page. That’s what we’ll be doing with targets — adding more context than just some target totals and saying, “go add this player,” which doesn’t help anybody.

We’re better than that.

Let’s color in these pages and take a look to see what we’ll be working with this season with the number one goal — to help you all bring home those fantasy football championships!


The Importance of Targets and Target Share

We want the players on our rosters in fantasy football who will earn targets. Plain and simple. Targets are the most important thing to look at when trying to separate one receiver from another on a basic level. Sure, the player who earned 160 targets may be a better fantasy option than the player who earned 110, but that doesn’t take into account the offenses these players are in, the target share percentages on their particular team, how deep down the field these targets were earned, and so on.

147 targets from Diontae Johnson last season were much different than A.J. Brown’s 146 targets. Brown’s one less target — thanks to his offense’s efficiency — resulted in two more receptions, 614 more receiving yards and a whopping 11 more touchdowns than Johnson’s tally last season. There’s a reason why Brown’s ADP lands him at the end of the first round of fantasy drafts, and Johnson’s ADP has him being drafted on average in the fifth round.

Targets are pretty self-explanatory — it’s the number of reception opportunities earned by a pass-catcher. The more opportunities, the better for fantasy football. It’s the highest correlation to fantasy points for wide receivers, one of the highest for tight ends, and a key separating factor for running backs going either in the first couple of rounds or being drafted in the dreaded “running back dead zone”.

The best players on their respective offenses command the ball and, thus, command and earn targets. The offense establishing intent to target a player ends with either a completion or an incompletion. How important are they to fantasy production? Only Tyler Lockett (WR13), Brandon Aiyuk (WR15), and Tee Higgins (WR19) accrued less than 115 targets and still finished in the top 20 in fantasy scoring (PPR) among wide receivers. Volume is the name of the game.

Target share can get a bit more muddied with different offenses and how much they pass, which skews these numbers. All target shares are not created equal. Drake London was the biggest example of this last season, where he earned a whopping 29.4% of his team’s target share on 117 targets last season, but the 2022 Atlanta Falcons ran the football into the Paleozoic Age, only notching 414 total pass attempts as a team.

On the flip side, Chris Godwin’s 142 targets were only good for 19.6% of his team’s targets, but the 2022 Buccaneers, in Tom Brady’s swan song, passed the ball a league-high 751 times. The Buccaneers also had the league’s highest raw pass rate (68%).

Not all target shares are created equal. 


The Importance of Routes Run

It’s hard to get targets if you’re not on the field. It's not exactly breaking news here, but it’s true.

The wide receivers and tight ends we’re drafting at the top of fantasy drafts are the ones you’d expect to be running elite route shares and, thus, earning a huge amount of targets. Some situations can be a bit tricky to dissect, but that’s what we’re here for.

TPRR Leaders in 2022 (min. 90+ targets)

YPRR Leaders in 2022 (min. 90+ targets)

We’ll also be diving into yards per route run (YPRR) and targets per route run (TPRR) as they are metrics branching off of routes run that further provide context to find the receivers we should be drafting and rostering this season.

For example, In 2022, while running at least 88% of pass routes for their respective teams, Adam Thielen (15.9% targets per route run, 1.06 yards per route run) and Parris Campbell (15.1% TPRR, 1.03 YPRR) were the bottom-two worst wide receivers with 90+ targets in almost every efficiency metric on a per-route basis. Both are unsurprisingly on new teams this season and being drafted in the double-digit rounds after their brutal 2022 campaigns.

On the flip side, players like Chigoziem Okonkwo for the Tennessee Titans only ran 172 total pass routes last year while mixing in with Austin Hooper and Geoff Swaim, but his 2.62 YPRR and TE2 finish (among TE with 45+ targets) in yards per target portend much greater passing game utilization this season; especially considering both Hooper and Swaim are gone. 

Efficiency in a limited sample size of routes is going to earn players more opportunity in most instances. Unfortunately, we can’t help stubborn coaches who keep their best players off the field. 

ESPN Analytics Receiver Ratings

Throughout the target report this season, there will be many references to three main components of ESPN’s Receiver Ratings: Open Score, Catch Score, and YAC Score.

ESPN Analytics has analyzed every single route run by a wide receiver, tight end, and running back — no matter if they were targeted on that route or not — and assesses a pass-catchers’ performance in three phases: 

  • Getting open
  • Contesting and making the catch
  • Generating yards after the catch

Last season’s top 14 in ESPN Analytics’ Receiver Ratings

Those three components (measured per play, not cumulatively) are combined to make an overall receiving metric that is updated weekly throughout the 2023 NFL season. Open Score accounts for roughly half of the overall score, Catch Score accounts for slightly over a quarter of the score, and YAC Score comprises the rest. 50 is considered a league-average score for these metrics on a 0-99 scale.

Are these metrics the end all be all? At the very least, they correlate very well with well-known player evaluation metrics like Pro Football Focus’ Grades (0.74 on a 0-1 scale) and Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value (0.68).

They will make very useful reference points for providing more context to a pass-catching profile as the season progresses.


The Importance of Air Yards

Air yards are the distance between where the pass is thrown from a quarterback to where the intended receiver either catches or doesn’t catch the ball. It doesn’t matter if the player catches the ball; the air yards are recorded regardless.

The path to air yards is:

  • Pass-catcher runs a route
  • The quarterback throws the ball, and the pass-catcher earns the target
  • Pass-catcher either catches or doesn’t catch the ball
  • Any yards gained after a completed catch are considered yards after the catch (YAC).

The purpose of air yards is to provide another way to establish the intent of the offense. Quarterbacking, coaching scheme, and formation alignment all combine to help to provide the opportunity to the pass-catcher, and the quarterback targeting the pass-catcher during his progression through a pass play shows that intent.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that 2022’s top three wide receivers in terms of fantasy points at the position ended up as the leaders in raw air yards last season, but New Orleans Saints wide receiver Chris Olave sticks out as somebody who ended up with a 14.2-yard aDOT yet still earned 119 targets. The Saints targeted him downfield in a massive way. In a comically massive way.

Olave had three games of over 53% of the Saints’ air yards and two contests over 63%, including a ridiculous 334 air yards in Week 2. Sure, Olave was inefficient with the targets he earned, but he also had Jameis Winston and Andy Dalton throwing him the ball. The point is that the New Orleans offense showed CLEAR intent in targeting Olave deep with a heavy volume of deep passes. Now the Saints get what we assume is a sizable upgrade in Derek Carr at quarterback, and that’s why Olave is a late-second-round to early-third-round pick in fantasy drafts.

In addition to Air Yards, a couple of other metrics used in conjunction with Air Yards further flesh everything out: WOPR and RACR.

  • WOPR is a weighted opportunity metric that combines target share and air yards share and is a very predictive way to find the receivers targeted the most at intermediate to deep ranges. A WOPR over .700 is considered elite.
  • RACR is a metric that looks at what percentage of a receiver’s air yards is converted into actual yards. It’s calculated by dividing receiving yards by total air yards.

The Importance of Average Depth of Target (aDOT)

aDOT is an abbreviation for Average Depth of Target. Simply, it’s how deep down the field a player is earning their targets. It goes from one extreme to the other, with Deebo Samuel’s 4.2-yard season-long aDOT up to Gabe Davis’ 15.4-yard aDOT from 2022. aDOT over a long stretch of targets can be good for defining not only a receiver’s role within their offense but can also help determine the types of targets a pass-catcher receives. It’s very hard to earn a high volume of targets with a high aDOT, which is why a number like 14.2-yard aDOT for Chris Olave is a bit of an outlier on 119 targets, but he was also an air-yard maven finishing sixth amongst receivers last season in raw air yards.

We did not get any crazy Rondale Moore 1.4-yard aDOT from 2021 tallies last season, but Moore’s schemed touches at or near the line of scrimmage indicate how a player was being used in their offense — to get space with blockers and earn yards after the catch.

A sweet spot for aDOT is between 9.5 and 12.0 yards, where players like Justin Jefferson, Davante Adams, and Stefon Diggs all earn their targets at a high rate in all area of the field.

There are some higher outliers like the aforementioned Olave (14.2), Terry McLaurin (12.8), Tyreek Hill (12.2) and Jaylen Waddle (12.6) as well as some notable low-end outliers such as  Amon-Ra St. Brown, who finished 2022 with a 6.5-yard aDOT, plus Chris Godwin (5.5)  and Cooper Kupp (7.2). These three players all play slot and stay on the field when the formation condenses to two-receiver sets. Godwin’s aDOT was absurdly low and a career-low, but I’ll give some benefit of the doubt due to his 2021 ACL injury and recovery that lingered a game or two into last season.

At tight end, some of the highest aDOT players are a veritable who’s who when we profile the receiving archetype at this position: Kyle Pitts (13.8), Darren Waller (13.4), Mark Andrews (9.8), and… Greg Dulcich with an 11.3-yard aDOT?  These are tight ends running wide receiver routes that are cheat codes at the position and carry some of the highest upside.

On the other side of the coin, you have Tyler Higbee’s 3.0-yard aDOT on 108 targets, who was a safety valve for Matthew Stafford, Baker Mayfield and the litany of terrible backups that wore a Rams jersey last season.

We DO want deeper targets down the field from our fantasy wide receivers and tight ends, but not to the point where they only receive deep targets. DeSean Jackson is the best example of this, and he was so good for so long in his career at earning deep targets. Players like Marquez Valdes-Scantling’s 13.2% target share, 13.9-yard aDOT, and WR75 finish in fantasy points per game in 2022? Not as much.

We’ll be winning a lot of championships together, #FAmily. We can dive a bit further into pass-catchers to find the ones worth targeting, the ones that quarterbacks are targeting, and the league-winners from the roster-cloggers. Stay plugged this season, and we’ll take it home in 2023.


NFL Links: