We all know that last season’s performance has a major impact on where players are drafted for the upcoming year, but we also know that we win in fantasy by identifying breakouts before they happen, rather than paying for past production. So how do we do that? In this article I will lay out a framework for identifying WR breakout candidates using targets per route run, yards per target, and a handful of other metrics. I don’t expect every player on this list to hit but these are guys I want to be aggressively drafting due to their paths to significant upside.
What do targets per route run and yards per target tell us?
Targets per route run (TPRR) and yards per target (YPT) are the two underlying pieces that make up yards per route run (YPRR). YPRR is considered one of the best measures of WR performance as it reflects both a player’s ability to earn targets (TPRR) and then convert those targets into yards (YPT). Taken as a whole, YPRR is my favorite quick metric for evaluating which WRs have been good, but its usefulness for projecting breakouts is limited at best. In this article I will use YPRR as a very basic starting point and build from there.
Importantly, YPRR can be skewed by both the types of routes a receiver runs as well as the personnel groupings they play in. In order to find breakout candidates we need to dig deeper and add context such as average depth of target and how many 3 WR sets vs 2 WR sets a receiver is playing in.
What is our sample size?
I used 2021 regular season data for all WRs with at least 30 targets. This gives us 117 players to analyze.
Where is this data coming from?
All data comes from Pro Football Focus except for personnel grouping data which comes from Sports Info Solutions and Sharp Football Stats.
Do I actually have to read all this? Can’t you just give me the breakout candidates?
Sure, not everyone wants to read this stuff. The table below lists the receivers identified as breakout candidates in this article. Some of these are obvious, others not so much. The context for each player is important and you may not agree with my process. Blindly follow this list at your own risk.
|2022 WR Breakout Candidates|
Ok, so what exactly are we looking at here?
I started by breaking yards per route run into its component pieces: targets per route run and yards per target. I then calculated the average and standard deviation for the full sample of WRs and then gave each receiver a ‘score’ based on how many standard deviations above or below the average they were for each measure. For example, the average targets per route run for this group was 18.7% with a standard deviation of 4.8%. This means that a player with an exactly average TPRR would receive a score of 0 while a player exactly one standard deviation above the average (23.5%) would receive a score of 1. I then created the scatterplot below with the X axis plotting each player’s target’s per route run score and the Y axis plotting each player’s yards per target score as shown below.
This gives us 4 quadrants which we can use to put players into broad groups. The upper right group (quadrant 1) are players who scored above average in both categories and is unsurprisingly headlined by the best receivers in the league. The upper left quadrant (quadrant 2) are players who scored below average at earning targets but above average at converting those targets into yards. The lower left (quadrant 3) consists of the players who were below average at both earnings targets and converting them into yards. Finally, the lower right group (quadrant 4) were above average at earning targets but below average and turning them into yards. In the next section we will take a look at each of these quadrants separately and try to identify catalysts that could drive breakout performances for each profile.
Quadrant 1 (23 total players)
Most of the players in quadrant 1 have already broken out and are being drafted highly.
So how do we find breakouts in this group? The obvious path is for a player to run more routes while maintaining a similar level of target volume per route and efficiency per target. I sorted this group of players by the number of routes run and there are a few interesting names that show up at the bottom of the list. Not surprisingly, the players with the fewest routes run either missed time during the season or were not full time players (see below for list of quadrant 1 players with fewer than 400 targets). Two players I was not necessarily expecting to see in quadrant 1 were Corey Davis and Deonte Harty (formerly Deonte Harris).
|Name||2021 Routes Run|
Harty was remarkably good at earning targets and racking up yards on his 212 routes last season, but he is 5’6” 170 lbs and has shown little evidence of being anything more than a gadget player for the Saints. Davis, on the other hand, was only slightly above average at converting his targets into yards so he barely snuck into quadrant 1. Additionally, the Jets drafted a first round WR and an elite pass catching RB while also having Elijah Moore as an emerging star. This stiff target competition suggests Davis may have a hard time delivering high end fantasy production, even if he does run more routes this season. Robert Woods is a bounce back candidate with the potential to be the #1 WR in Tennessee but is 30 years old and has had a strong career so he doesn’t really fit the criteria for a breakout. A.J. Brown has already broken out and is a true superstar, draft him.
This leaves us with only one true breakout candidate in quadrant 1, Jerry Jeudy. Last season Jeudy suffered a high ankle sprain in week 1 and missed 6 games before returning for the second half of the season. Despite coming off the injury and having to deal with poor QB play, Jeudy posted very strong metrics. He scored well above average in targets per route run even though the Broncos played in 3 WR sets slightly more than league average. Additionally, he was better than Courtland Sutton (his primary competition for targets in 2022) in targets per route run, yards per target, passer rating when targeted, and yards after catch per reception last season.
Drafters are definitely on Jeudy with his current ADP sitting in the middle of the fourth round, but he still goes 6 picks after Sutton. With Russell Wilson now at QB and a potentially more aggressive offensive system, Jeudy has the upside for a monster season and is a receiver I want to be drafting often.
Quadrant 2 (35 players)
This group mostly consists of vertical threats with a high ADoT. This makes sense as these players naturally see a lower targets-per-route-run than possession receivers, but tend to have a higher yards per target due to their receptions being further downfield. There are a few guys in that mold who could have a career year, such as Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Gabriel Davis. MVS is now in Kansas City where he should play a similar role to what he did in Green Bay. It is very possible he could put up the best season of his career if he and Patrick Mahomes connect on enough big plays. I definitely like drafting MVS on my best ball teams but I view that as a bet on a high variance player rather than a true breakout.
Gabriel Davis is perhaps the one real breakout candidate among the high ADoT players in quadrant 2. In many ways Davis already had his breakout during the second half of last season and into the playoffs. His metrics improved pretty much across the board from his rookie to sophomore seasons, he plays in arguably the best offense in the league, should run more routes this year, and is only entering his age 23 season. All the pieces are there for Davis to take a big leap this year and the market is pricing him as such with a current Underdog ADP of 49.
The more interesting group of players within quadrant 2 are those with a lower ADoT. These players drew targets at a below average rate, but were efficient at converting those targets into yards without the help of having a super deep ADoT. The table below shows the receivers in quadrant 2 with an ADoT below 12.5 yards, which corresponds with an ADoT score of 0.5 or less (i.e. not more than 0.5 standard deviations above the average).
|Name||TPRR Score||YPT Score||ADoT Score||2021 Routes Run|
This is a really interesting group of players as we have a wide variety of roles and very different qualities of offenses. There are quite a few guys we could focus on as potential breakout candidates like Mecole Hardman, K.J. Osborn, Tim Patrick, and even deep sleeper Nick Westbrook-Ikhine. However, there are two players in this group that stand out to me as having the clearest paths to a monster season: Christian Kirk and Allen Lazard.
The Jaguars signed Christian Kirk to a massive four-year, $72 million contract this offseason which guarantees him a starting role in the offense. Last season, Kirk was only slightly below average at drawing targets on a per-route basis and he was playing in an Arizona offense that ran a lot of 3 and 4 WR sets which generally leads to a lower targets per route run. He now moves to a Jacksonville team coached by Doug Pederson who is notorious for using two tight end personnel more than any other team in the league. Assuming he brings that philosophy to Jacksonville, Kirk should run a lot more routes with just two WRs on the field which gives him the opportunity to earn a really strong target volume.
As long as Trevor Lawrence shows improvement over last year (hard to imagine he won’t with Urban Meyer gone) I think Christian Kirk is a good bet to set new career highs in catches (77) and yards (984) with reasonable TD upside as well. You can draft this upside in the 8th round on Underdog where Kirk currently goes as the WR42 off the board.
The very next WR drafted (WR43 on Underdog) after Christian Kirk is our next breakout candidate, Allen Lazard. Over the past three seasons Lazard has served as a complementary option in the Packers passing game, but with Davante Adams now on the Raiders there is a huge target void to be filled. The Packers are likely to feature their RBs and TEs heavily in the passing game, but there are still plenty of WR targets to be distributed. Lazard has a strong rapport with Aaron Rodgers and should be on the field for nearly every snap. His primary competition at WR are two rookies and an aging veteran in Randall Cobb who will be 32 entering this season.
Lazard should have every opportunity to establish himself atop the WR depth chart. He showed last season that he can be relatively efficient with the targets he receives by putting up 513 yards and 8 TDs on just 59 targets. If he sees 100+ targets in 2022 he is a dark horse contender to put up 1,000 yards and double digit touchdowns.
Quadrant 3 (33 players)
I will keep things a little shorter for quadrant 3 as these are the players who were below average at both earning targets and converting those targets into yards last season. As you would expect, most of this list is pretty gross (think Jalen Reagor and Demarcus Robinson) so we have to look hard to find breakout candidates. There are two names that stood out to me in this quadrant, one who I want to be targeting and one who I am going to be backing off a bit in drafts after this research.
The one breakout candidate I like in quadrant 3 is Rashod Bateman. As a rookie Bateman suffered an injury that required core muscle surgery on August 13th which caused him to miss the final month of the pre-season and then the first five weeks of the regular season. That is a difficult circumstance for any player, let alone a rookie. When he returned to the team, he was behind Mark Andrews and Marquise Brown who each commanded 140+ targets on the season. With Brown now in Arizona and no significant receiving weapons added, it looks like Bateman has a firm grasp on the WR1 job.
It is also worth mentioning that I really liked Bateman as a prospect which makes me even more willing to write off his disappointing rookie season. I expect him to be an every down player in 2022 and to earn a much higher volume of targets per route. If he is anywhere close to as good as I expected coming out of college then he should be poised for a great season. He won’t come cheap in drafts with his current ADP being in the middle of the fifth round, but if he hits on the upside case that I see for him I think he could be a player we are talking about around the 2-3 turn next summer.
The other player I want to talk about from quadrant 3 is popular late-round receiver Josh Palmer. Last season Palmer was woefully bad at both earning targets and converting those targets into routes. To be fair to him, he ran almost all of his routes in 3 WR sets alongside legit star WRs Keenan Allen and Mike Williams while also having a below average ADoT which hurts his yards per target score. That being said, nothing is really changing about his situation as both Keenan Allen and Mike Williams are back and the Chargers added more ancillary pieces by signing Gerald Everett and drafting Isaiah Spiller who are both solid pass catchers. On top of that, he really wasn’t a very good prospect coming out of college but that seems to have largely been forgotten due to the offense he is playing in.
I have been drafting a decent amount of Palmer so far but going through this process has changed how I view him. I now see Palmer as not much more than a contingent value play in the event of an injury ahead of him. That is still a player worth taking late in drafts on such a good offense, but his ADP has risen nearly 20 spots in the month of June to make him an early 13th round pick. I am going to start slowing down on taking Palmer and may stop drafting him entirely if his ADP continues to rise.
Quadrant 4 (26 Players)
Congrats if you’ve made it this far, I appreciate you sticking with this article 2500+ words in.
This group consists of players who are above average at earning targets but measure below average at generating yards per target, mostly due to their low ADoT scores (think Keenan Allen and Jaylen Waddle types). There are quite a few elite receivers in this group but we want to identify the players who can move into that tier. Looking through this list there were two players, Kadarius Toney and Rondale Moore, that stood out to me as having clear paths to posting huge production this season.
Both Toney and Moore ran a relatively limited number of routes last season but excelled at earning targets on the routes they did run. They also both had low ADoTs (more on that in a sec) but were elite at generating yards after the catch. For Toney, he really just needs to stay on the field and prove he can be an every down player. He is pretty clearly the most talented receiver on the Giants and should be a focal point of the offense when available.
There also seems to be a lot of optimism that new head coach Brian Daboll can turn this offense into one of the better groups in the league. While I am more skeptical about that than most, I do expect there to be some improvement for what was one the worst passing offenses in all of football last season. As long as Toney remains healthy and on the field his upside is tremendous. He is currently being drafted in the back of the 8th round on Underdog as the WR46 off the board which is a nice value in my opinion.
Rondale Moore’s 2021 season isn’t being talked about enough. He had an absurdly low ADoT of 1.2 yards and actually had negative air yards on the passes he caught. This means he created more yards after the catch than he had receiving yards on the season. It is hard to imagine a lower value role than the one Moore played last season. In spite of this, Moore showed he can be a dynamic player at the NFL level when given the opportunity. If Moore can earn a bigger role in this offense where he doesn’t have to create every yard for himself, look out.
The Cardinals are already talking about using Moore in different ways and there should definitely be an opportunity for him to show what he can do. Christian Kirk has moved on to Jacksonville and DeAndre Hopkins is suspended for the first 6 games of the season. While the team did bring in Marquise Brown and will have Zach Ertz available, I think Moore could be a key part of the passing attack to start the season. If he is able to get off to a hot start he can cement himself as the third WR when Hopkins returns which should still be a valuable role.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see Moore’s targets per route run dip a bit this season but that can be more than offset by just running more routes and actually seeing some downfield targets. I’m really excited to see what he can do at the beginning of the season and while his production may become a bit less consistent when Hopkins returns, I believe he can still provide massive spike weeks for our best ball teams as the WR3 in Arizona. He is currently being drafted at the end of the 10th round on Underdog as WR55.
That’s the full list, I won’t take up any more of your time on a conclusion, thanks for reading.