Air Yards have told quite the tale of the wide receivers in 2021. In the top ten list, air yards had some no-doubter homeruns like Justin Jefferson, Stefon Diggs, Cooper Kupp, Tyreek Hill, and Davante Adams. But there were also some swings and misses such as Terry McLaurin, DJ Moore and Courtland Sutton. If you were counting on any of these guys as your WR1/2, your season probably ended two weeks ago. But all is not lost! Store this info in the back of your mind and monitor these situations when quarterbacks start signing. Guys like McLaurin, Moore, and Sutton don’t just get air yards because they are lucky. Targets are earned and if these guys can get some more capable arms delivering the ball, they become the sleepers in your draft.
Each week, this column dissects air yards for actionable info in the weeks to come, but for this column there will be a focus on championship week. For Week 17, we will do a quick analysis of the list of the 73 wide receivers who finished last week with at least 30 air yards and see if there are any diamonds we can mine from the rough.
Market Share of Air Yards: Top 5 in Week 116
These players received the five highest percentage share of their team’s total air yards in Week 16.
A.J. Brown (188 air yards, 77%) – The lamest running joke of Thursday Night Football was all of the Twitter warriors making some variation of the joke: “A.J. Brown showing us what a full load actually looks like.” After Mike Vrabel came out and said Brown would have a “full load” on Thursday assuming his conditioning looked good, speculation ran rampant. It turns out his coach was exactly right and Ryan Tannehill made up for some lost time with 16 targets and 145 receiving yards. (Note to self for off-season research project: find other members of the 50-70 club; 50% of the target share and 70% of the air yards in one game. Brown was added as a member this week).
Marquez Calloway (46 air yards, 61%) – Exhibit 1A of why studying air yards and air yards share can be fluky. Calloway saw 46 air yards. That was 61% (!!) of the Saints’ total. Just because you see Calloway with five targets, a 31% target share and the crazy 61% air yards share, don’t run out and assume you can deploy him in your championship roster. You can’t.
Antonio Brown (145 air yards, 55%) – The biggest “we knew it was coming” moment since the reveal that Kate Bishop’s mom was the one who broke bad on Hawkeye. With no Chris Godwin and Mike Evans on the roster, Brown saw an incredible 15 targets and 145 air yards. Expect more of the same with Tampa Bay still missing their two receivers and the hapless Jets next on the docket. Brown might make the short list of 2021 playoff heroes after this week is over.
Davante Adams (95 air yards, 54%) – It’s fitting that two guys who have been top-ten in air yards each of the last two seasons both end up in the top five in the last weekly round-up of the year. Frankly, I’m surprised this number was not higher with Marquez Valdes-Scantling out in Week 16. But Adams did his weekly thing with double-digit targets, over 100 yards receiving and a score. It feels like that has been his box score since the beginning of time. His fantasy managers are hoping for just one more of those in Week 17.
Justin Jefferson (156 air yards, 53%%) – Barring something crazy happening, this will be two years in a row that Jefferson led the NFL in air yards. He is 250 yards ahead of Stefon Diggs for the league lead on the back of 149 targets, second-most in the league. The underreported part of Jefferson’s game is how elite he has become at bringing in the ball long downfield while consistently double-teamed. Of the top-12 target leaders in the NFL this season, Jefferson’s 12.5 aDOT is without a doubt the highest.
Market Share of Air Yards: Highlights from the Bottom 20
These are intriguing highlights from the bottom 20 wide receivers with at least 30 air yards.
Russell Gage (40 air yards, 24% air yards share) – On the season, the Falcons rank 11th in terms of percentage of passing plays called (60.5%). But in the last three weeks, it has been the exact opposite. The Falcons have called pass just 53.9% of the time the last three weeks as they apparently just don’t care about getting the ball to Gage and playmakers like Kyle Pitts. Since Week 11, Matt Ryan has 10.9 fantasy points per game, which ranks 39th among quarterbacks. Other sure-fire hall of famers like Teddy Bridgewater, Daniel Jones and Josh Johnson have all scored more. Detroit should be an easy matchup in Week 17, but I would be careful about putting too much hope in Gage.
Zay Jones and Hunter Renfrow (88 combined air yards, Jones: 34% air yards share, Renfrow 27%) – Contrary to popular opinion, the Raiders aren’t just going to keep running the ball until they get all the way back to the 1970s. They rank fourth in passing play percentage this season at 62.7%. So someone please explain to me how Jones and Renfrow can combine for just 88 air yards and 90 receiving yards. Especially disappointing were the three lousy targets Renfrow saw in Week 16. Now comes a matchup with the Colts who allow the sixth-fewest receiving yards to the position this year. I expect the Raiders to try and ground and pound this one to keep the ball out of Jonathan Taylor’s hands, so exercise caution with your Raiders’ pass-catchers.
Positive Regression Candidate
Van Jefferson (120 air yards, 6 receiving yards) – Alright, I don’t know WTF that was from Matt Stafford in Week 16, but it caused Jefferson to have one of the oddest games you will ever see, and one that screams regression. Jefferson saw a healthy 17% target share and robustly healthy 40% of the air yards share in Week 16, but only came away with one catch for six yards when all is said and done. Considering his aDOT for the game was 20 yards, one catch for six is almost too weird to be true.
But here comes Baltimore in Week 17 to make sure the regression actually happens. The Ravens allow 31 points per game to their opponent the last three weeks (second-most in the league) and allow 75% of the passes against them to be completed in that time span – the worst rate in the league. Kupp and Beckham will get theirs as well, but I have no hesitation with Jefferson as a flex play this week.
Negative Regression Candidate
Isaiah McKenzie (105 air yards, 125 receiving yards) – I’ve seen the DFS screenshots of McKenzie winning people six-figure payouts from Week 16. I also know he was rostered in just 1% of Yahoo leagues this past week, so I doubt we see too many of those shots featuring McKenzie. With the Bills’ pass-catchers beginning to return, it seems unlikely we will see McKenzie Hero Week 2.0 again. The 12 targets and 105 air yards were outstanding, but Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis should be back to super-spread themselves all over the field in Week 17.
Hopefully you have better waiver options and don’t just chase the points. McKenzie is back to a bit-player this week.
This is the weekly place where we check how Cooper Kupp is breaking the air yards model.
Way back in August, this column was introduced with a primer on air yards, how it can be useful and how there are sometimes players like Cooper Kupp can break the mold with their elite abilities to draw numerous targets and gain yards after the catch. Well, 16 weeks later, I don’t care what model or metric or abacus you used, Kupp broke them all. Kupp is on pace for 199 targets and 1,950 receiving yards. Those are numbers we haven’t seen in 10 years since Matt Stafford’s former BFF Calvin Johnson was patrolling the field.
But we know about what Kupp did this year. Who were Kupp-lites who excelled in receptions, yards, and scores without the air yards?
Adam Thielen – 40th in air yards, 95 receptions and 10 touchdowns
Hunter Renfrow – 50th in air yards, 92 receptions and six touchdowns
Gabriel Davis – 66th in air yards, 470 receiving yards and six touchdowns.
The takeaway? If you’re deciding between receivers in a draft who don’t get the massive air yards, target the players in the high-volume passing offenses.
Notable Players Under 30 Air Yards
Rashod Bateman (21 air yards, 26 receiving yards) – I’m sure Bateman doesn’t care much about air yards after scoring his first career NFL touchdown. But as fantasy managers, we should care a whole lot about his usage. Four of his last five games have seen five or fewer targets. And that’s with the Ravens’ calling pass at the second-highest rate in the league over the last three weeks. With a matchup incoming versus the Rams and their second-best figure of only eight receiving touchdowns allowed, I’m not chasing last week’s production.
Tyreek Hill (14 air yards, 19 receiving yards) – I hope you survived the Hill power outage from Week 16, because there were surely plenty of people burned by it. He came out this week and said he was exhausted after feeling the effects of returning from COVID which leaves fantasy managers with a mess this week. This Chiefs-Bengals tilt looks like it could be a shootout. We want Hill at his best in that one. You’re not sitting him, but he certainly isn’t overflowing with positive vibes coming into this important week.
Kadarious Toney (28 air yards, 28 receiving yards) – Nine targets? Awesome. A 3.1 yard aDOT? Abysmal. Jake Fromm and Mike Glennon as co-quarterbacks? Abomination. I really do like Toney as a future NFL talent, but his QB situation has to change or some of the target competition must be removed going into 2022.