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 8, we will analyze the list of the 64 wide receivers who finished last week with at least 30 air yards.
Market Share of Air Yards: Top Five in Week 7
These players received the five highest percentage share of their team’s total air yards in Week 7.
Mike Evans (214 air yards, 74%) – Think about this number for a second. Evans received 74% of the air yards (359 total) on Sunday. Tom Brady threw for the fifth-most air yards in the league this past week. They played the Carolina Panthers. And they scored three points. You may have seen air yards in action when Evans dropped a wide-open 75-yard touchdown pass. It counts in the air yards column but not in the official box score. What results from that, boys and girls, is called regression!
DeAndre Hopkins (127 air yards, 59.9%) – DeAndre Hopkins returned in Week7 to absolutely nuke the value of any other Arizona pass-catcher while at the same time re-establishing his WR1 status. He walks into a perfect storm of a team that just lost their nominal WR1 and who are desperate for wins and some semblance of a consistent offense. There will be more 14-target days in his future.
Terry McLaurin (106 air yards, 55.8%) – All it took was a little Happy Hour Heinicke to unlock the talent that is Terry McLaurin. Carson Wentz refused to do it, but Heinicke knows who his best wide receiver is. McLaurin pulled down five of eight targets for 73 yards and a score and saw a robust 13.3-yard average depth of target (aDOT). That’s the kind of usage we want to see, and hopefully, it’s here to stay for Scary Terry.
Darius Slayton (100 air yards, 54.1%) – Slayton remains one of the last men standing in the New York Giants’ pass-catching roster, so he is getting the usage. Kadarius Toney, Kenny Golladay, Sterling Shepard and now Daniel Bellinger are injured. He does have Wan’Dale Robinson to compete with, but for reasons we will see below, Slayton is the player I want to count on for fantasy production.
D.J. Moore (87 air yards, 51.8%) – All it took for Moore to have a decent fantasy day was a) a change in quarterback, b) another wide receiver on the team to get traded, and c) the best running back in the league to leave via trade. Now, if we can just do those things every week, we might be onto something. But, kidding aside, if Moore can’t keep producing now with more than 30% of the target share shipped out of town, it’s never going to happen.
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.
Brandin Cooks (34 air yards, 15.5% air yards share) – This looks fluky to me, as Brevin Jordan and Phillip Dorsett both had more air yards than Cooks this past week. That is the first time it has happened all year, so I expect Cooks to be back up near his normal 70-100 air yards by next week.
Rashod Bateman (33 air yards, 33.8% air yards share) – Almost 34% of his team’s air yards is a great number! Except when the total air yards for Lamar Jackson is 100, and then it just sucks. Lamar didn’t need to throw at all last week if we’re being honest. But shootouts are likely on the horizon, and Bateman is healthy now. Buy low if you can.
Allen Lazard (37 air yards, 18% air yards share) – Lazard was our candidate last week to be a positive regression candidate after a big air yards day and not much box score production. Swing and a miss! But this whole Packers’ season has been one big swing and miss, so maybe we should just downgrade this whole crew until we see some vintage Aaron Rodgers.
Positive Regression Candidate
Tyreek Hill (172 air yards, 72 receiving yards) – Hill’s game lends itself to these massive air yard games. His 172 air yards were the third-highest in the league this week, and his 51.5% air yards share just missed the top-five list above. But those same skills also lend themselves to some seven catches on 14 targets type of games because he has such a high aDOT (13.2 yards on Sunday).
But that being said, Tua Tagovailoa is a very accurate quarterback (assuming no lingering head injury effects) and should be much more in sync with Hill moving forward. We saw some massive games from the Hill-Tagovailoa connection before the concussions came. I imagine there will be more prototypical Hill blow-up spots after Tua shakes the rust off.
Negative Regression Candidate
Juju Smith-Schuster (57 air yards, 124 receiving yards) – A full 24% of Smith-Schuster’s yards after the catch came in this one game on Sunday. Of his 124 receiving yards, 63 of them were after the catch. HOWEVER! The interesting thing is he has now done something similar in back-to-back weeks. In Week 6, he had only 35 air yards but finished with 113 receiving yards thanks to 78 yards after catch (YAC). He has also scored in back-to-back weeks, and it looks like he has turned back the clock to 2019.
Can this continue? I guess that depends on how we think the Kansas City offense will evolve throughout the season. We have plenty of evidence of Tyreek Hill generating massive YAC seasons over the years. This could end up being the lower aDOT version of that hook-up if Patrick Mahomes and Smith-Schuster develop this connection in the flat or in the middle of an opponent’s zone. I put Juju here as a negative regression candidate because of the outlier-like YAC totals in Weeks 6 and 7.
But I’m certainly happy to be proven wrong.
This is the weekly place where we check how Deebo Samuel is producing compared to his model-breaking 2021 season.
Deebo Samuel suffered a hamstring injury during the loss to the Chiefs on Sunday, so you can blame his poor performance on that if you want. But the truth is, his production has been trending down for weeks, and now he has a Christian McCaffrey problem to deal with.
Samuel only saw seven targets for five catches and 42 yards. We can live with the seven targets because he has a unique, uncanny ability to create yards after the catch. But his one rushing attempt on Sunday is his lowest of the season and should sound an alarm to all of his fantasy managers. McCaffrey is taking the lion’s share of the rushing attempts now as long as he is healthy.
That leaves Samuel with just his low aDOT and short passes to generate enough fantasy production to be worth a second-round pick. I didn’t buy into the historic season before 2022 started, and I certainly don’t buy into it now. Unless he rediscovers the YAC magic in the second half of the fantasy season, he will go down as one of the bigger busts of the year.
Notable Players Under 30 Air Yards
Rondale Moore (25 air yards, 31 receiving yards) – He got Nuk’d. Plain and simple. Moore belongs in the slot primarily, which is not where he played Sunday. If they can get him back in there predominantly, I can see Moore on the ascent. But with Hopkins and Zach Ertz in tow, this might be a tough stretch for Moore’s value.
Wan’Dale Robinson (18 air yards, 50 receiving yards) – Please understand, it looks like Robinson could get 30 targets a game and might not get 30 air yards. His eight targets in Week 7 resulted in just 18 air yards on Sunday. This is why Slayton’s air yards share will always look so high. Both Robinson and Barkley catch passes near the line of scrimmage, so most of the passing yards downfield are to Slayton. Anyway, Robinson will be a productive PPR asset moving forward, but will he ever be a 7-catch, 115-yard guy? Likely not.
Nico Collins (22 air yards, 33 receiving yards) – A groin injury sidelined him in the second half of the Raiders game and might keep him out for a number of weeks. Collins was an air yards darling this year (his 411 leads the Texans by almost 30 yards), but it never really translated to catch production. He will be stuck on 305 receiving yards and no scores for a while.