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 5, we will do a quick analysis of the list of the 67 wide receivers who finished last week with at least 30 air yards.
Market Share of Air Yards: Top Five in Week 4
These players received the five highest percentage share of their team’s total air yards in Week 4.
Marquise Brown (137 air yards, 59.8%) – This Marquise “Hollywood” Brown-Kyler Murray bromance is apparently a very real thing. That’s now three straight games with at least 11 targets for Brown, and he has 228 receiving yards in his last two games. Brown actually has seen catch rates below 66% in three of his four games, so if Murray can get a little more accurate, there is a top-10 season lurking here for Brown.
Darnell Mooney (105 air yards, 59%) – He’s alive! The Bears were forced to throw the ball every once in a while in their game against the Giants on Sunday, which means Mooney finally got some usage. His four catches and 94 receiving yards were easily season highs and were almost 70 more yards than his previous three games COMBINED. This is a low-volume passing attack that is likely to hinder Mooney all year.
Darius Slayton (96 air yards, 55.2%) – Not really sure anything is actionable from this game, considering the state of the New York Giants’ wide receivers and how much they are emphasizing Saquon Barkley. Getting the most air yards from Daniel Jones is like getting the most campaign support from Joe Biden. It just ain’t going to help you too much.
A.J. Brown (79 air yards, 52%) – Low passing numbers this week from Jalen Hurts with the running game looking so dominant, but it’s nice to see Brown back on this list after the crazy game from Devonta Smith two weeks ago. Brown is now ninth in the NFL in the share of his team’s air yards (40.5%).
DK Metcalf (153 air yards, 49.5%) – I include Metcalf here, although he was technically sixth this week. Nelson Agholor was fifth by fractions of a percentage, but his 50 air yards in a Patriots’ offense that looked like it dropped out of the sky straight from 1952 didn’t really tell us anything. Metcalf, however, is now just outside the top 10 in the entire league in share of team’s air yards (39.3%), and it’s clear Geno Smith is not going to play conservatively this year as many predicted he would. So if you invested in Metcalf in drafts this offseason, enjoy your profit.
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.
Devonta Smith (37 air yards, 24.3% air yards share) – As noted with A.J. Brown, Smith went back to the WR2 role this past week, and the Eagles did not need to pass when they were able to run for 210 yards and four scores against Jacksonville. Expect more of an aerial attack this week against Dallas, so I’m not worried about this one.
Rashod Bateman (33 air yards, 25.2% air yards share) – Bateman suffered a foot injury late in this game and did not play in the fourth quarter. It’s a shame because Bateman had his most targets of the season through just three quarters (six), but the passing game might see a dip going forward. With J.K. Dobbins healthy this week, the Ravens passed the ball just 48% of the time compared to 54% on the season.
JuJu Smith-Schuster (41 air yards, 18.1% air yards share) – This is now back-to-back weeks with at least a 23% target share for Smith-Schuster, and he is only eight targets behind Travis Kelce for the team lead this season. That type of usage from Patrick Mahomes will eventually lead to big things, so expect the yards and scores to start trending up soon.
Positive Regression Candidate
Ja’Marr Chase (116 air yards, 81 receiving yards) – We have a situation to monitor brewing over in Cincinnati. Chase leads the team in receptions, target share, air yards, team air yards share, and routes run. But it’s Tee Higgins with a decent lead in receiving yards on the year. Higgins’ receiving yards have increased four straight weeks, while Chase now has two of his four games under 55 yards.
The under-the-hood numbers suggest that Chase is just fine and will get his big-play catches soon. But the offensive line needs to do Joe Burrow some favors before we might see the big plays consistently. Burrow ranks just 22nd in overall protection rate this year (percentage of drop-backs where the QB was hurried or pressured), and he ranks just 31st in pressured catchable pass rate.
Burrow needs time for the big plays to Chase to materialize, and so far, those opportunities are quite rare.
Negative Regression Candidate
Allen Lazard (105 air yards, 116 receiving yards) – Lazard earned eight targets on Sunday against the New England Patriots, which is a fantastic number considering his receiving competition in Green Bay. But in his career, Lazard has only two games with at least five targets where he saw more than the 19.3 yards per reception he gained in Week 4.
So while Lazard saw a healthy 25% target share in Week 4, that was easily his highest number of the season. For the year, he is only at 18.2%, behind even Romeo Doubs. Presently, seven players on the Packers have at least a 10% target share, not even counting Randall Cobb and his 9.7% this year.
It appears there will be weeks where it’s the Allen Lazard game. But they will likely be sprinkled among the Romeo Doubs games, the Aaron Jones games and even the Robert Tonyan games. Until we see Lazard consistently break away from the pack, it’s hard to call him more than a WR3 right now.
This is the weekly place where we check how Deebo Samuel is producing compared to his model-breaking 2021 season.
It was a tough week for the “Deebo can’t repeat 2021” truthers such as myself. He turned seven targets into 115 yards and a huge 57-yard touchdown. And while his yards per reception was a huge 19.2 on Monday night, it came with just a minuscule 2.0-yard average depth of target (aDOT). Once again, he turned a screen pass just beyond the line of scrimmage into a massive yards after catch (YAC) touchdown.
His aDOT this year is only 2.71 to 3.6 yards for the season (depending on which site you choose to trust). But no matter what you use, that is an impossibly small number. This season, there are NINE other 49ers with an aDOT higher than Samuel.
When he pulls off plays like he did on Monday night, it’s clear that this guy is a freak, and the air yards and aDOT rules do not apply to him. This was his most “2021-ish” game of the year, but his receiving yards have gone up four straight weeks even while the rushing attempts decrease.
Notable Players Under 30 Air Yards
Gabriel Davis (25 air yards, 13 receiving yards) – Not much to see here. Davis was making his way back from an ankle injury, and Josh Allen had an uncharacteristically inaccurate game. However, with Jamison Crowder out with injury now, Davis’ role as the WR2 on this team is a lock.
Treylon Burks (24 air yards, 14 receiving yards) – Tough break for a guy who just looked like he was starting to see a usage uptick on the Titans. Burks will miss multiple weeks with turf toe and will have to work himself back into the offensive rhythm when he heals.
Michael Pittman, Jr. (19 air yards, 31 receiving yards) – It’s not quite panic time yet, but Pittman’s targets, receptions and yards have decreased in each of his three games. And Matt Ryan does not look like the upgrade the Colts thought he would be over Carson Wentz. Among 30 starting quarterbacks, Ryan ranks just 18th in clean pocket accuracy rating. Here’s hoping they start throwing at a higher clip with Jonathan Taylor out.