What are air yards, you say? The name kind of gives it away, doesn’t it? Air yards, irreverently discussed in this air yards primer, matter because we actually get some context of how much a quarterback WANTED to get their receiver the ball, not just how often the receiver could catch it. It’s a stat that gives us much more clarity on what went right and what went wrong in a given team’s passing attack.
This column will dissect air yards each week, looking for actionable info in the coming weeks. Looking ahead to Week 18, we will analyze the list of the 68 wide receivers who finished last week with at least 30 air yards.
Market Share of Air Yards: Top Five in Week 17
These players received the five highest percentage share of their team’s total air yards in Week 17.
Mike Evans (220 air yards, 64.0%) – With his championship-winning performance in Week 17, Mike Evans entered some rare territory for 2022. All of Chris Olave, DeVonta Smith, DeVonta Parker, D.J Moore, Tyreek Hill, Justin Jefferson, Garrett Wilson, A.J Brown, and Kendrick Bourne also reached 200 air yards in a game season. But only Mike Evans did it twice. His 20.7 yards per reception last week were sixth-most among all wide receivers. It was simply one of the most dominant wide receiver games we have ever seen.
Amari Cooper (67 air yards, 62.0%) – And then we have Amari Cooper with just 67 air yards but only slightly less of a percentage of his team’s air yards. When you boil it down, it’s because Deshaun Watson sucks. And I don’t just mean as a person in general. I mean he sucks on the football field this year. The Browns didn’t need much more than their ground game to dispatch of the Wentz-led Commanders on Sunday, but Cooper simply needs more involvement downfield.
Mike Williams (117 air yards, 61.9%) – After so, so many weeks sidelined by injury or minimized as he worked back into shape, Justin Herbert finally started looking Big Mike Williams’ way this past week. He minimized Keenan Allen’s usage in this game (six targets, 60 yards), but Allen could not realistically expect 14 targets per game when Williams is healthy.
Jahan Dotson (109 air yards, 49.8%) – Good for Dotson for emerging as someone who can earn targets no matter who his quarterback is (31 targets the last four weeks). But the problem on Sunday was that his quarterback was Carson Wentz. So his seven targets went for three catches and 37 yards. Now he gets Sam Howell in Week 18. T’s and P’s that you get a good quarterback this offseason, Jahan!
Christian Watson (128 air yards, 49.6%) – It’s now clear through 17 weeks that when Watson is healthy, he is Aaron Rodgers’ guy. Watson has more than 100 air yards in four of the last seven weeks and more than 70 in two of the others. Among wide receivers, Watson had 80 more air yards than anyone else on his team.
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.
Terry McLaurin (39 air yards, 17.8% air yards share) – McLaurin was the ying to Jahan Dotson’s yang on Sunday, apparently. Wentz likely just lacks the arm strength or the mental awareness to get McLaurin the ball at this point. Good luck with Sam Howell!
Isaiah Hodgins (32 air yards, 26.0% air yards share) – Hodgins once again did a lot with his small share of air yards and his five targets on Sunday. He turned them into four catches for 42 yards and a score. This Richie James long and Isaiah Hodgins short combo is working quite well for the Giants right now and could be a formidable set of weapons in the postseason.
Allen Lazard (47 air yards, 18.2 % air yards share) – Four games out of seven, Lazard has now had less than 50 air yards. He has some spike weeks when Watson or Romeo Doubs are not in the lineup, but he is the number two option. Lazard has topped 80 yards once since Week 4.
Positive Regression Candidate
Marquise Brown (156 air yards, 61 receiving yards) – Hollywood Brown got Blough’ed on Sunday when he amassed the fourth-most air yards in Week 17 but just the 19th-most receiving yards. Blough was ultra-efficient with short-range targets to Greg Dortch and Trey McBride, but Brown was underthrown and overthrown on all his deep targets in this game.
It caps off a disappointing campaign for Brown, who certainly was impacted by quarterback injuries, but also a lack of usage. His 24% target share was his lowest since his rookie season, and his 10.8 yard average depth of target was a career low. Add in five games missed due to injury and just three scores, and this was a season that never got off the ground for the new Cardinals receiver.
Negative Regression Candidate
Kadarius Toney (46 air yards, 71 receiving yards) – When you have 71 total receiving yards, and 65 of them come on two catches, you are bound to get the regression monster headed your way the week after. He had some nice runs after the catch in this game, but we don’t consider those sticky from week to week.
Toney (as we will see more of below) only saw four targets, caught those four balls, and his other two catches each went for three yards. Toney is not the deep target for the Chiefs; that title falls to Marquez Valdes-Scantling or Skyy Moore. In fact, in the last five games, Toney suited up for the Chiefs, he had 33 total air yards.
This is the weekly place where we check how Deebo Samuel is producing compared to his model-breaking 2021 season.
With Deebo Samuel still not back on the field, we turn our attention to who will likely be featured in this space next year. In 2021 it was Cooper Kupp, who was an air yards mite, but a receiving yards giant. This year it was YAC monster Deebo Samuel who defied the model in 2021 with his out-of-the-world runs after the catch.
Next year, the model-breaking player is likely to be rookie Chris Olave. Olave has an astounding 1,531 air yards and 14.3 average depth of target this season. But he is the only one of 11 players to have at least 1,450 air yards and not have at least 1,000 receiving.
It really breaks down into two things. Number one, Andy Dalton and Jameis Winston are an abomination of a quarterback combination, something the Saints likely address in the draft. Second is Olave’s horrific yards after the catch. Even though he is top-10 in air yards among all wide receivers, he is outside the top 50 in yards after the catch (182 total).
What could Olave possibly do with a competent and accurate quarterback? We will address that as we begin to break down the 2023 season.
Notable Players Under 30 Air Yards
Jerry Jeudy (21 air yards, 38 receiving yards) – I wouldn’t read too much into this number. It’s but a mere flesh wound after some dominant performances. Russell Wilson threw 38 times in this matchup with the Chiefs, but the tight ends and running back accounted for more than 40% of the air yards.
Juju Smith-Schuster (19 air yards, 21 receiving yards) – Juju is just caught up in a numbers game right now in Kansas City. In the Sunday game against the Broncos, six players saw three or more targets, and seven players had more than 2o receiving yards, but only one of them was over 52.
Donovan Peoples-Jones (19 air yards, 13 receiving yards) – Deshaun Watson does have a favorite, and it just ain’t DPJ. He has three games out of his last five under 30 air yards, making that week with 178 in Week 14 look like a significant outlier.