So not going to lie, I kinda, sorta click-baited you here.
Don't get me wrong, I will get to five receivers that are low-key potential game breakers. But to do that I need to explain a stat that high-brow fantasy types are cool with but most managers have no idea exists.
Channeling my inner Bob Ryan from "Entourage," what if I told you there are hidden yards when it comes to evaluating fantasy wide receivers? A stat that doesn't show up in box scores (yet). A stat that in two years time will be part of the mainstream conversation in fantasy that you could be on top of now to give you an edge versus your opponents. Is that something you might be interested in?
We're talking about air yards and to me this stat is just as important as targets when trying to project and predict receiver production.
I've touched on the concept before but basically if a quarterback throws it from the 10 to a receiver at the 20, it's calculated as 10 air yards. Pretty simple. And when it comes to air yards, just like targets, more is better.
Think of it this way. Receiver X gets 10 targets. Each target travels 10 air yards and Receiver X catches all 10 and is immediately tackled. In this scenario he would rack up 100 receiving yards.
Now, take that same receiver with the same number of targets, only this time each target travels 50 air yards. Obviously, passes like this are harder to complete but let's say he connects on all 10 targets and is again immediately tackled. The upside is 500 receiving yards. FIVE HUNDRED.
500 >>>>>> 100.
Here's another way to see it: let's say Receiver A sees five targets and each one is 50 yards. He is able to catch two of the five (a very reasonable conversion rate) and is immediately tackled after each catch. That's still 100 yards.
Meanwhile, Receiver B is your underneath, possession receiver. To get to 100 yards receiving he would need to catch 10 passes of 10 air yards each assuming he gets tackled at the spot of reception. Catching 10 receptions is tough to do regardless of depth. Case in point, there have been 175 NFL games played this year and we've only seen 19 10-plus catch performances, and four of them belong to Antonio Brown.
Now clearly, the floor for Receiver A is much lower because Receiver A could legitimately catch nothing. But the ceiling is obviously higher because of the intended air yards.
I know a lot of you reading this are coming up with all kinds of stories in your head right now trying to prove air yards wrong. "Oh but bro, what if Receiver X has a catch and run for 80 yards to the house???! Huh???! Then guess what bro... YOU'RE WRONNNNNGGGGG!!!"
Counterpoint: Jarvis Landry, a classic underneath receiver, is second in the league in receptions with 75. He has all the opportunity in the world to go get yards after receptions but even he is averaging just 27 yards per game after the catch. Those yards aren't easy to come by. This also discounts the potential yards after the catch on deep routes and doesn't account at all the fact that deep shots increase your exposure to touchdowns.
Resisting air yards is like ignoring target totals (which I'm sure happened plenty back when they were first introduced). It doesn't always work out but you're playing the odds. If a guy has a high target total, odds are he'll eventually make a play. If a guy has a high air yards total, odds are he'll eventually make a BIG play.
But "What is a good number of air yards?" you ask. Well, you want a receiver getting north of 90 air yards per game. Anything more than 110 is terrific.
The bottom line is this: If you want upside, you need to chase air yards like you chase targets. Air yards data can be found on our Next Gen Stats page.
Ok, got it? Good, let's go.
Here are five underrated receivers that could pop in the near future due to air yards, targets and schedule.
Despite the fact that Jones has been a stud this year, (WR4 in standard, WR11 in PPR), it feels like the fantasy community continues to wait for the other shoe to drop. I get it, we saw it last year, Marv came out gangbusters, highlighted by a monstrous 205-yard, two-touchdown performance in Week 3 before slowly fading from existence.
This year feels different. He's clearly developed more chemistry with Matthew Stafford who's 133.2 quarterback rating when targeting Jones deep is the fourth-best rating among any QB-WR combo with at least 10 such targets.
Having Kenny Golladay back in the mix certainly adds to the volatility (see: Week 10 versus CLE) but given his share of targets and air yards in this offense, it's hard to ignore the upside.
Despite the tough schedule coming up, I'm playing him every week. That should seem like a no-brainer for a top-10 receiver, but you know and I know, you're going to be stressing about that decision come game time.
To be 100 percent honest, I was not a big Robby Anderson guy. I thought he was a one-dimensional deep threat playing in an offense that wouldn't be able to throw deep. Wrong on both counts. My bad.
Todd Bowles and offensive coordinator John Morton have done a good job figuring out ways to attack opposing defenses deep and Josh McCown has been absolutely fearless chucking it. The Anderson breakout season is no fluke.
That being said, Anderson is a bit more volatile than Jones given his up and down air yard/target totals (68 air yards in Week 8, 48 in Week 9) but you're not sitting him after a monster six-reception, 146-yard, two-touchdown performance versus the Panthers this past weekend.
AIR YARDS SLEEPER
AIR YARDS DEEP SLEEPERS
It'd be easy to say Richardson is a big boom-or-bust play which is true-ish ... but you know, he's actually been pretty good as a flex play in PPR formats. Richardson has posted nine or more points in eight of his 11 games. He was also a week winner in Week 8 when he posted a huge line: six receptions, 105 yards, two touchdowns.
In potential shootouts versus the Eagles and Rams, I'm in on Richardson, no doubt. The Jags game is concerning but I can tell myself a story where all the attention is paid to Doug Baldwin and Richardson finds a way to get behind the defense on at least one attempt. And versus Dallas in a potential fantasy championship? Yeah buddy, sign me up.
Since joining the Bears several weeks ago via trade, Inman has emerged as Chicago's most functional receiver. I get that this is not necessarily the most glowing of endorsements but if you're in a deeper league and you're looking for something, anything, Inman isn't a terrible play. In PPR formats Inman has hit double digits in two of his three games as a Bear without scoring a touchdown.
The air yard totals every game have been encouraging and if the Bears are forced into higher scoring games like we saw against Green Bay and Philly, Inman is clearly the guy getting downfield opportunities.
It's a good matchup versus the Niners although I have concerns that John Fox will try to run 50 times in that game. Cincy and Detroit are likely to put up points though, which means good things from a fantasy perspective for Inman. And a Week 16 Midway matchup versus the Browns! Well ... unlike John Fox, I will pass.