Going Deep  

 

Finding the best fantasy football home-run hitters

It doesn't happen very often in life, but sometimes two things go together so well you wonder how it didn't come togther sooner. Like salt and cracked pepper potato chips. How was this not the first ever flavor of potato chip? Did we really need to fuss around with mushroom-flavored potato chips when this gem of simplistic yet bold flavor was staring us in the face all the time? I say no.

Where was I?

Oh yes ... fantasy football. This week, Going Deep is taking a look at ... well, going deep. A sexy deep ball (h/t to producer Black Tie of the Dave Dameshek Football Program) is not only a joy to watch, but for fantasy owners it can turn a whole week around. Having your quarterback connect on a 50-yard scoring strike is a joy like few others in the fantasy universe.

So it's about time we looked at quarterbacks who threw the deep ball and the receivers who catch them. Going Deep is going deep. It's so perfect, it's a wonder it didn't happen sooner.

Let's start with the guys who throw the long ball more than anyone else. By the way, "deep" is any pass that travels 20 yards or more in the air. When you look at the top five quarterbacks in deep ball attempts, you'll find a few names you'd expect and maybe a couple you wouldn't.

1. Joe Flacco - 96
T-2. Drew Brees - 80
Andy Dalton - 80
Ben Roethlisberger - 80
5. Peyton Manning - 78

Peyton Manning, eh? For all of the talk about lost arm strength, Manning didn't hesitate to chuck the ball downfield last season. It certainly helps having a group of receivers who can effectively stretch secondaries. With the amount of times the Lions threw the football, it was a bit eye-opening not to see Matthew Stafford rank higher. Stafford was ninth on the list, going downfield 69 times in 2013. Much of that could be owed to the significant number of targets that went to Reggie Bush and Joique Bell out of the backfield.

It's one thing to throw the ball down the field. It's another thing to be efficient about it. Of Flacco's 96 deep-ball attempts last season, he connected on just 20 of them. That's slightly better than a 20 percent completion rate. You don't need to be a football genius to know that's not a great number. In most cases, quarterbacks who threw deep at a greater volume were less successful. Makes sense, right? They're called low percentage throws for a reason. In that case, it's worth looking at the signal-callers that connected at a more consistent rate. The name at the top won't shock a lot of people.

1. Aaron Rodgers - 51.3%
2. Josh McCown - 45.0%
3. Peyton Manning - 43.6%
4. Philip Rivers - 42.4%
5. Russell Wilson - 41.8%

Admittedly this list is somewhat flawed. After all, Aaron Rodgers missed nearly eight full games with a broken collarbone and had just 39 deep throws. Josh McCown, who had just five starts all season, had even fewer long tosses. So in order to get a more representative list, what would it look like if we filtered out the quarterbacks with fewer than 48 deep balls (an average of three per game)?

1. Peyton Manning - 43.5% (78 attempts)
2. Philip Rivers - 42.4% (59 attempts)
3. Russell Wilson - 41.8% (67 attempts)
4. Nick Foles - 41.2% (51 attempts
5. Jay Cutler - 40.7% (54 attempts)

I don't think anyone needs any more proof that Peyton Manning is good at football, but there it is. The other big takeaway is that the Bears like throwing the ball down the field in Marc Trestman's offense. It certainly doesn't hurt that Chicago has a pair of big wide receivers in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery to go get the football. Since we're on the subject of pass-catchers, it's worth looking at the guys who see the most long ball targets and figuring out which are the most efficient with their chances.

1. Torrey Smith - 42 targets
2. A.J. Green - 37 targets
3. Mike Wallace - 36 targets
4. Josh Gordon - 35 targets
5. Alshon Jeffery - 32 targets

You likely noticed a little crossover from one of the earlier lists. Joe Flacco led the league in deep ball attempts last season. Torrey Smith led the NFL in deep ball targets. Funny how that works. Similarly, both Andy Dalton and A.J. Green were in the top five in their respective categories. Such is the way of passing games lacking depth among its pass-catchers. Yet while the watchword of fantasy success is opportunity, actual production is valued over all. That's where someone like Smith falls short. Last season, the Ravens wideout caught just 12 of the 42 deep balls in his direction -- none for touchdowns.

By contrast, DeSean Jackson hauled in 13 of the 27 long balls he saw -- nearly 50 percent! -- and took six of those to the house. Of course, that was last year in Chip Kelly's offense. It remains to be seen if Jackson will be afforded the same opportunities this season in Washington. The rest of the top five is filled with players similarly coveted by fantasy owners.

Well, mostly. Jerome Simpson isn't exactly the most viable fantasy receiver -- especially on a team that is expected to feature Cordarrelle Patterson this season. The Bears nearly landed both of their top receivers on this list. Brandon Marshall checks in just behind Simpson with a 39.3 percent success rate and three scores.

So what does all of this mean? You certainly can't count on a long passing touchdown every week from either your quarterback or receiver. But it's worth paying attention to the players who are more likely to accomplish the feat more frequently than their counterparts. It's especially big for receivers. It's fairly commonplace for a wideout to have one big catch only to be shut down for the rest of the day ... yet still post a decent fantasy total.

Moreover, it brings up the concept of the quarterback-wide receiver handcuff. The idea is widely accepted when it comes to backing up fantasy running backs, but isn't talked about nearly as much with pitch and catch duos. As quarterbacks and receivers continue to gain prominence in fantasy football, it's a theory that holds more merit. Why get credit for a touchdown once when you can get credit for it twice? It's an idea that could take a QB2 like Jay Cutler and give him a little more upside. It makes so much sense, it's a wonder we didn't think of it earlier.

Marcas Grant is a fantasy editor for NFL.com and a man who gets queasy thinking about mushroom-flavored potato chips. Tweet him pictures of tasty food or fantasy football questions @MarcasG.

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