With one simple line of prediction, all the weeks of Air Yards analysis went down the crapper. Here it is, from the Week 16 Air Yards report:
“Antonio Brown might make the short list of 2021 playoff heroes after this week is over.”
Yikes. As one commenter pointed out, “that prediction did not wear well.” Brown also did not wear his jersey well, dropping it on the ground, and giving a farewell tour around the stadium just after halftime. At that point, his opportunity to help your fantasy team or his real life football team in the playoffs disappeared faster than the cannon smoke from Raymond James Stadium.
But Air Yards, like many other advanced stats, tells us what could (or perhaps should) happen given similar circumstances over time. Brown smashed in Week 16 with no Chris Godwin or Mike Evans. Given similar circumstances plus playing-time incentives in Week 17, we had every reason to believe Brown would manhandle the Jets. It was the process and in the process we trust.
Until a potential mid-game retirement variable is introduced in to the Air Yards model, we will just have to rely on the data we have. What can 2021 air yards teach us for 2022? Let’s find out.
Market Share of Air Yards: Top 5 of 2021
These players received the five highest percentage share of their team’s total air yards in 2021.
A.J. Brown (47.4%) – I mean what did you expect, that Ryan Tannehill was going to give targets to Anthony Firkser or Chester Rogers or Nick Westboork-Ikhine? Attendance is part of the grade in football as well, so Julio Jones didn’t make the cut. Of course Brown saw almost 50% of the air yards and 28% of the targets. Brown could have done so much more if his yards per target was not a career-low 8.1 or his catch rate wasn’t a career-low 59.6%. Brown was top 25 in total air yards despite missing four games this year. I’ll be buying the dip if there is one in 2022.
Justin Jefferson (46.4%) – Jefferson leads the league in total air yards for a second year in a row on the back of an elite 12.31 aDOT and 160 targets through 16 games. He is top five in almost every relevant receiving category this season: routes run, receptions, receiving yards, deep targets, target share. But Jefferson is this elite with only the 33rd highest catchable target rate according to Player Profiler. Imagine if he was paired with an elite quarterback. There is a lot to be decided between now and then, Jefferson has a real case to be made as the number one wide receiver taken in fantasy drafts next season.
D. J. Moore (42.1%) – Remember those few weeks early in the season when D.J. Moore was good? Fun times. Despite the frightening carousel of Sam Darnold, Cam Newton and P.J. Walker at quarterback, Moore amassed the third-highest air yards share and the fourth-most total air yards in the league. That’s the good news. The bad news? It’s really bad. Despite the sixth-most targets in the league (152), Moore was just 13th in receptions and he was gifted the 84th-best catchable target rate and 86th-best target quality rating in the league. Please get this man a capable arm under center before it’s too late.
Terry McLaurin (41.4%) – Ditto for this guy. The Football Team at least tried with Ryan Fitzpatrick, but Old Man River broke his hip in the first game and #McSoarin’s targets were never the same. He sure as hell tried, demanding the third-most air yards in the league (1,634) with an excellent 13.1 yard aDOT. Despite all those air yards, McLaurin only accumulated 960 receiving yards through Week 16, 21st in the league. McLaurin also had – you guessed it – a godawful catchable target rate, 72nd in the league. I think we are starting to see pattern emerge here.
Brandin Cooks (41.1%) – The real pattern among these top five, is that apart from Jefferson, none of these other wide receivers had competition from anyone we would consider an above average wide receiver on their team. Julio never played. Robby Anderson died a fantasy death. Cooks had Nico Collins. Despite all the Texans’ ineptitude, Cooks did finish top-12 in targets and top-15 in air yards this season with six spikes through 16 weeks. I don’t know what the ADP is going to be on Cook next season, but if Davis Mills is still at the helm, I’m buying. According to RotoViz, Cooks averaged 10 targets, 68 receiving yards and 16.3 PPR points per game with Mills (7.5, 62.2, and 11.7 without).
Total Air Yards: Highlights from the Top 20
These are intriguing highlights from the 20 wide receivers with the most air yards this season.
Tyreek Hill (1,617 air yards, 36.7% air yards share) – Hill finished the fantasy season fifth in air yards but 11th in air yards share per game. That tells you how often the Chiefs pass the ball and how long Hill’s targets are when Mahomes looks his way. Add in Hill’s otherworldly speed and top-ten yards after the catch in 2021 and you have another top-five wide receiver finish. Ho hum. We will see him right back in the top three again next year. Dynasty, redraft, bestball, whatever. He is still an elite pick. He just gets it done with massive spike weeks.
Ja’Marr Chase (1,597 air yards, 38.6% air yards share) – For as magical a rookie season we thought Justin Jefferson had last year, Ja’Marr Chase is hold-my-beer-ing all over everyone to end the season. He is unlikely to play much if at all in Week 17 so he will have to settle for the fourth-most receiving yards (1,429), sixth-most air yards (1,597), third-most yards after the catch (622), and second-most touchdowns (13) on the year. Your clear dynasty WR1.
Courtland Sutton (1,490 air yards, 32.1% air yards share) – What do we make of Sutton’s year? He finishes top-12 in air yards with 1,490 and the highest aDOT of any player in the top 15 of total air yards. But that’s about where the positives end. Even with a top-12 finish in air yards, Sutton finished 34th in receiving yards (763) and no player had a larger discrepancy between their total air yards and their receiving yards. Player Profiler tracks a stat called unrealized air yards. With 877 unrealized air yards, Sutton had the second-most in the league. Teddy Bridgewater’s deep ball completion percentage ranked 32nd in the league, and it’s now clear his inability to hit the long ball is what is holding back Sutton. Bridgewater ain’t the answer. Drew Lock ain’t the answer. Let’s hope the Broncos find it soon.
Positive Regression Candidate for 2022
Stefon Diggs (1,723 air yards, 1,144 receiving yards) – Sutton could be the posted boy for positive regression in 2022, but more people were counting on Diggs after he was drafted as a second-round pick in 2021. Everything went the way it was supposed to for Diggs this year. He had the seventh-most targets in the league. He had the second-most air yards. So then why are disappointed with 94 catches, 1, 144 receiving yards, and nine scores?
Part of it is the recency bias of 125 catches and 1,535 yards last year. Part of it was Buffalo was just middle of the pack in percent of pass plays called (59.8%), including just 53% their last three games. But mostly when a player is drafted as the second overall wide receiver, we want better than WR10 numbers in fantasy points per game.
Diggs only saw the 53rd-highest target accuracy when the ball came his way this year. All this points to a season closer to 202o in 2022 assuming the Bills keep airing it out.
Negative Regression Candidate for 2021
Deebo Samuel (976 air yards, 1,310 receiving yards) – Listen, I loved Deebo Samuel this season. LOVED. He was a riddle wrapped in a mystery wrapped in an enigma and it was a beautiful, wild ride for fantasy managers. But Samuel would need to be used in exactly the same way next year to duplicate his receiving success from 2021.
Samuel finished Week 17 with 114 targets, 20th in the NFL. He finished with 73 receptions, 21st in the NFL. But he somehow finished just behind Cooper Kupp with 719 yards after the catch, almost 10 yards per reception. For context, Kupp finished with 806 yards after the catch on 138 receptions; just 5.8 yards after the catch per reception. Even Ja’Marr Chase with his elite run after the catch ability averaged only 7.9 yards after the catch per reception.
The 49ers and fantasy managers did also learn Samuel can stockpile fantasy points on the ground, so perhaps that continues next season. But we simply can’t count on that level of yards after the catch again, especially when it comes with just an 8.6 aDOT, 30th among receivers with at least 50 catches.
This was the weekly place where we saw how Cooper Kupp is broke the air yards model.
What more can be said? He broke it. We predicted he might when his column was first introduced in August and he did it. Now he is poised to break all the receiving records in Week 18. Thank you for this all-time season Cooper Kupp. Let’s run it back in 2022.
Notable Players Under 500 Air Yards in 2021
Jerry Jeudy (466 air yards) – The Courtland Sutton problem but with injuries thrown into the mix as well. Theoretically, they should work. Sutton with the aDOT of 15 catching bombs down the field and Jeudy with the 9.5 aDOT working the seam and the middle of the field. But unfortunately none of it works with Bridgewater and Lock.
Kadarious Toney (339 air yards) – Injuries. Daniel Jones. Mike Glennon. Jake Fromm. Joe Judge. Jason Garrett. Practice squad receivers. Toney gets a mulligan for this year and we are just going to pray to the fantasy gods that he is not started down an Evan Engram career trajectory.
Demarcus Robinson (366 air yards) – The Chiefs had four players with at least 500 air yards. Robinson was not one of them. The Chiefs had five players with at least 50 targets this season. Robinson was not one of them. The Chiefs had five players with at least a 10% target share. Robinson was not one of them. Demarcus Robinson is a free agent in 2022. It’s over. No more last round darts or best ball shots.