Three is a magic number. Yes it is. It's a magic number.
Somewhere in this fantasy football universe, the number three has underrated significance. With NFL teams putting the ball in the air more often it's placed a greater emphasis on wide receivers. More offenses are going with three receiver sets more frequently which means that fantasy owners can dig a little deeper on depth charts and still find some value.
This week in Going Deep ... we're looking at the number three -- three receiver sets, No. 3 receivers and all the magic therein.
When I started doing research for this week's column, I was already expecting the percentage of NFL plays run with three or more receivers to be pretty high. I had no idea. More than 53 percent of plays in 2013 began with a team having three or more receivers in the formation -- that doesn't include tight ends. As football's offensive game has evolved, the second running back (often a fullback) has now been replaced by the slot receiver.
It's one thing to send three receivers on the field, but obviously not every snap results in a pass attempt. A wide receiver who isn't getting the ball is merely set decoration. So it makes sense to look at the teams that actually had the most pass attempts from those formations. That changed things a little bit.
Most people would have placed the Broncos and Packers on this list. After all, those two teams each had three receivers that qualified as legitimate threats. But the Ravens? How many people were game-planning for Jacoby Jones? The Falcons struggled to keep receivers healthy all season with Julio Jones out for the year and Roddy White dealing with nagging issues. And the Dolphins had enough problems getting their No. 1 receiver, Mike Wallace, on track that it was hard to think about them turning to their third option for serious production.
But there were third bananas (is that a thing?) who were a major part of their team's offenses. Taking a look at some of the NFL's top No. 3 receivers -- based on a combination of depth chart position and pass targets -- showed that there were a handful of very productive players. Topping the list last season was Harry Douglas, who was propelled from a No. 3 option to one of Matt Ryan's top targets after the injuries to Jones and White last season.
While that might be an anomaly, the same can't be said for Wes Welker. Welker has been the third-most targeted wideout in the NFL over the past three seasons -- only Calvin Johnson and Brandon Marshall have had more throws come their way. But in 2013, Welker was essentially the third option for Peyton Manning in Denver ... and still was targeted 111 times.
Of course, that's not the norm. Picking out a No. 3 for each of the 32 NFL teams finds that those players, on average, had nearly 66 balls headed in their direction with an average of 37 receptions in 2013. That's all well and good -- opportunity is the lifeblood of fantasy success -- but it's production that speaks the loudest. So who were the most productive No. 3 receivers last year?
Let's put this in a 2014 context. Welker will continue to be listed as Denver's third receiver, but that's a deceiving title relative to how the Broncos offense runs. Cotchery has moved on to Carolina where he moves up the pecking order as the Panthers' No. 2 receiver behind Kelvin Benjamin. Patterson has a chance to be Minnesota's No. 1 receiver this year while Douglas and Royal appear likely to return to their previous roles.
That left me wondering which third receiver options could be primed for a nice 2014 season...
Jarrett Boykin, Packers: Being one of Aaron Rodgers' receivers is generally a pretty good gig and Boykin posted some nice numbers in 2013 with 49 catches, 681 yards and three touchdowns. Entering his third season, he should benefit from a healthy Randall Cobb attracting a lot of attention. With Green Bay not having a true threat at tight end, Boykin could have a chance to make a nice living in the middle of the field working from the slot.
Lance Moore, Steelers: Moore essentially filled this role during his tenure with the Saints and should slide in nicely to the role vacated by Cotchery. Pittsburgh is hoping that Markus Wheaton can step in and be the complement to Antonio Brown this season, but if things don't work out with Wheaton, Moore could easily step up and take the extra targets.
Hakeem Nicks, Colts: It seems strange to hang this tag on a guy who had been a No. 1 receiver for a number of years with the Giants. But age and circumstance have pushed him down the pecking order now that he's in Indianapolis. No one will argue Nicks' ability -- it's his availability that has been at issue in recent seasons. If he can overcome his nagging injuries, he'll see plenty of targets from Andrew Luck.
There are definitely other options out there ... and it's important to remember not to get too excited about some of these guys. While Welker can work as a nice flex option, players like Boykin, Moore and Nicks will probably fall into the WR4 category for fantasy owners. Yet the value of depth on your fantasy bench can't be overstated. If you can grab the right No. 3, it could be magical.
Marcas Grant is a fantasy editor for NFL.com. You can try to meet him at Conjunction Junction, but since it's not a real place, you might have better luck tweeting him at @MarcasG.