I’ve been around the fantasy game for a while, and the target stat has come a long way, baby.
Targets didn’t become a tracked stat until 1992. Pro Football Reference wasn’t launched until 2003. My early days of fantasy football in the 90s involved scoring leagues by hand, sitting down in the morning with a pencil, a caffeinated beverage and the newspaper.
The pencil and newspaper are gone from my life now; the caffeine remains.
At one of my early fantasy gigs, I’d offer deep, hard-hitting analysis like, “It feels like every other Peyton Manning pass is intended for Marvin Harrison.” Being online in the mid-90s and finding a bar that had the NFL Sunday Ticket was hitting the lottery, a rocket ship to the moon.
Receiving stats and analysis have blossomed since. Heck, this article a decade ago would have been merely about targets, full stop. Today, we have so many additional data points — first-read targets, average depth of target, catchable targets, routes run, red-zone data; the cup feels bottomless.
My goal every Tuesday this season is to analyze wide receiver data and trends, tracking where the puck has been and trying to figure out where the puck is headed. Targets will still factor in plenty, of course. But remember: we have several different buckets to examine now.
Puka Nacua, too good to be true
Nacua has been the breakout star of the fresh fantasy season, the runaway leader in targets (35) and catches (25). Nacua is also second in yards, with 266 (Justin Jefferson is already at 309).
Nacua’s start reminds me of what Anquan Boldin did in 2003. Boldin was the 54th overall pick in the 2003 draft — back when a pick in that range wasn’t expected to produce immediately — and he smashed in his debut, a 10-217-2 explosion at Detroit. Boldin followed it up with 8-62-0 the next week, and we were off and running. He was the fantasy WR6 that year.
Nacua’s 35 targets through two games ties a record for the fastest target open to a season. Andre Rison had 35 targets to open 1994, and Roddy White collected 35 targets at the front of the 2010 season. Nine other players have totaled 30 or more targets through two weeks of an NFL season: Antonio Brown, Tony Martin, Randy Moss, Julian Edelman, Jimmy Smith, Isaac Bruce, Herman Moore, Jordy Nelson and Michael Thomas. Lots of star power on that list.
Of course, Nacua’s work is mostly short and intermediate — he’s only averaging 10.6 yards per catch. And he doesn’t have a touchdown yet. Everyone but Nacua on that 30-target-and-up query scored at least once on their season-opening push, and six players had multiple touchdowns. Sure, we like touchdowns.
Most targeted WR/TE without a touchdown (the Diontae Johnson stat)
M Williams, 18
Various 17s: Lamb, Atwell, Kirk, Thomas, Cooper, Chase.
— scott pianowski (@scott_pianowski) September 19, 2023
Although teammate Tutu Atwell has also been a pleasant surprise for the Rams (and is getting more downfield love; Atwell is a priority pickup in many leagues), the design of the offense has been all about Nacua. The rookie ranks third in first-read percentage (44.8%), trailing alphas Davante Adams and Garrett Wilson (I’m too sad to talk about him right now).
Matthew Stafford is off to a terrific start and Sean McVay remains one of the smartest play designers in the league.
Bottom line, even when Cooper Kupp comes back (should we be saying “if”?), Nacua is too talented not to have a meaty, fantasy-relevant role. And the Rams will be underdogs more often than not, forcing them to chase the game and build passing volume. This could be a fantasy carnival.
Marvin Mims Jr., hiding in plain sight
Mims, the Denver rookie, percolated to the top of many sleeper lists in the summer. His debut was quiet — two short catches, just 17 snaps — and expectations were low for the Week 2 game against Washington. Then Mims had a coming-out party Sunday, with a 60-yard touchdown catch, a 53-yard reception and a couple of runs for 10 yards. Not bad for 16 piddly snaps.
Let’s frame it in a different context. Not bad for a piddly five routes run.
You can view that route count as a feature or a bug. I prefer to frame it as a feature. If we assume rational coaching — and Sean Payton strikes most people as a rational coach — we would infer that Mims is headed for an expanded role after this breakout performance. The Broncos prioritized Mims on draft day and traded up to land him. Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton are quality players but might fall short of alpha status.
There are several moving parts here, of course. If Russell Wilson doesn’t improve his play, he might be in danger of being benched — and that could be a feature or a bug for this offense, depending on how you feel about Jarrett Stidham.
Mims is currently rostered in 23% of Yahoo leagues. That number will swell significantly when the Wednesday AM waiver run is processed. Maybe Mims is best seen as a slow-developing Polaroid, someone who could be more proactively utilized after Halloween, but I’m still hoping a fair number of you are able to stash him.
Say this for the Cardinals, they’ve been an entertaining watch. Sure, they’re 0-2, but it’s been a competitive 0-2. Both games were winnable. (It’s still shocking the Giants somehow pulled out Sunday’s comeback win. Picking against Arizona has been fruitful, but stressful, for Survivor players.)
Ertz wasn’t on draft radars in the summer. Who wants a catch-and-fall tight end in his age-33 season? But Ertz has been a key factor in Arizona’s offense so far.
That 12-77-0 receiving line might leave you underwhelmed, but it’s useful in any PPR-related league. Ertz checks in as TE6 in full PPR, and he’s first at the position in first-read targets (30.2%). When the Cardinals go to the air, this is the prioritized guy. Ertz also leads all tight ends in raw targets (18) and market share (29.5%).
Perhaps the Cardinals are showcasing Ertz. Perhaps a 33-year-old tight end can’t be counted on for a full season. I just know Ertz has a safe and juicy role at the moment, and Play For Today is always part of my fantasy ethos. Let’s bank early wins, try to get some leverage.
Jake Ferguson, under the radar in Dallas
You’ll win a lot of bar bets with this one — who leads the NFL in red-zone targets through two weeks? Obviously it’s Ferguson, per the header, but your buddy doesn’t know that. Ferguson has collected eight red-zone targets through two games. Tyreek Hill, Zay Flowers, Calvin Ridley, Tyler Lockett and Zay Jones are all next, with five (man, did the Jaguars collect “almost touchdowns” in Week 2).
If you prefer your targets measured a little closer, Ferguson still tracks. He has five targets inside the 10 (first) and three targets inside the five (tied for first).
The Cowboys, of course, have a monster defense and they’ve won both of their games in routs. There will be weeks where the Dallas offense doesn’t have a lot of passing volume. Ferguson had a touchdown in Week 2 but otherwise, his 5-22-1 line is uninspiring. But there’s obviously latent upside here. If your league format justifies rostering two or perhaps three tight ends, Ferguson is the perfect support guy.
Pittsburgh in the post-Diontae Johnson space
The Steelers had their first post-Johnson game Monday, and while you don’t want to over-analyze one game, you also want to be ahead of the flow. The new shape of target distribution is always important.
The game had some quirkiness, of course. Pittsburgh scored twice on defense. Quarterback Kenny Pickett didn’t play well. It’s possible this offense will be far less productive for fantasy than expected.
George Pickens absorbed 10 targets, and while he had just four catches, one of them was a 71-yard touchdown. Wheels up. Jaylen Warren was useful on six looks (4-66-0) and is pushing Najee Harris for touches. Everyone else was disappointing; Calvin Austin had just one catch on four targets, Pat Freiermuth had just one target, and Allen Robinson didn’t go anywhere (2-12-0).
Bottom line, Pickens becomes a proactive starter forward, Warren an interesting flex call if you need to be creative, Harris is a low-end RB2 at best, and everyone else needs to be benched or perhaps even dropped.
Checking in with running backs
Don’t forget to consider the backfields when we are tracking target data and the various sidebars. We like backs who can play in all game scripts, who won’t become invisible if his team falls behind. Versatility is your friend.
Two fascinating backs, Kyren Williams and Jaylen Warren, are at the top of the RB target list, 12 each. Williams, Bijan Robinson (looks amazing) and Tony Pollard all have three red-zone targets, tied for first — Williams is also among the leaders in red-zone carries. Aaron Jones still leads the position in receiving yards, despite not playing in Week 2. (AJ Dillon looked like he was running in quicksand in the loss at Atlanta; the Pack desperately needs Jones back.)
One way to enter the Circle of Trust is to catch everything in your area. Rhamondre Stevenson (9-for-9). Rachaad White (7-for-7) and Chuba Hubbard (7-for-7) have done just that.
On the flip side, while dropped passes aren’t treated like fumbles, there are a handful of players with two drops already: Saquon Barkley, Joe Mixon, Joshua Kelley, Breece Hall and the ubiquitous Williams. Veteran players are rarely taxed for drops, but we’ll see what happens with the younger guys.
Data from Pro Football Reference, Fantasy Points, and Rotowire was used in this article