What fantasy football receiver data trends after Week 2 tell us

By | September 19, 2023

Rams receiver Puka Nacua has been the biggest surprise in fantasy so far, but he will be a fixture throughout the season.  (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Rams receiver Puka Nacua has been the biggest surprise in fantasy so far, but he will be a fixture throughout the season. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

I’ve been in the world of fantasy gaming for a while, and target stats have come a long way, honey.

Targets didn’t become a trackable statistic until 1992. Pro Football Reference didn’t launch until 2003. My early days of fantasy football in the ’90s involved scoring championships by hand, sitting down in the morning with a pencil, a caffeinated beverage, and the newspaper.

The pencil and the newspaper are no longer in my life; caffeine remains.

In one of my first fantasy gigs, I offered a deep, incisive analysis like, “It seems like every other Peyton Manning pass is intended for Marvin Harrison.” Being online in the mid-90s and finding a bar that had an NFL Sunday ticket was like winning the lottery, a rocket ship to the moon.

Since then the reception of statistics and analysis has flourished. Heck, this article ten years ago would have simply been about goals, period. Today we have a lot of additional data: first reading targets, average target depth, captureable targets, routes traveled, red zone data; the cup seems bottomless.

My goal every Tuesday this season is to analyze receiver data and trends, tracking where the puck has been and trying to figure out where it’s headed. The objectives, obviously, will continue to have a strong impact. But remember: we now have several containers to examine.

Puka Nacua, too good to be true

Nacua was the breakout star of the new 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 – when a pick in that range wasn’t expected to produce immediately – and in his debut he missed, a 10-217 – 2 explosion in Detroit. Boldin followed that up with 8-62-0 the next week, and we were ready to run. He was the fantasy WR6 that year.

Nacua’s 35 targets in two games ties the record for fastest open target in a season. Andre Rison had 35 targets early in 1994, and Roddy White racked up 35 early in the 2010 season. Nine other players have tallied 30 or more targets in 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 averaged just 10.6 yards per catch. And he still doesn’t have a touchdown. Everyone except Nacua on that 30-target-and-up query scored at least once in their season-opening push, and six players had multiple touchdowns. Sure, we like touchdowns.

While teammate Tutu Atwell has also been a pleasant surprise for the Rams (and is getting more and more love on the field; Atwell is a priority pick in many leagues), the design of the offense has been all about Nacua. The rookie ranks third in first-read percentage (44.8%), behind alphas Davante Adams and Garrett Wilson (I’m too sad to talk about him right now).

Matthew Stafford is off to a great start and Sean McVay remains one of the smartest play designers in the league.

Bottom line, even when Cooper Kupp returns (should we say “if”?), Nacua is too talented to not have a meaty, fantasy-relevant role. And the Rams will be underdogs more often than not, forcing them to chase the game and increase their passing volume. It could be a fantasy carnival.

Marvin Mims Jr., hiding in plain sight

Mims, the rookie from Denver, landed atop many sleeper lists in the summer. His debut was uneventful–two short receptions, just 17 snaps–and expectations were low for the Week 2 game against Washington. Then Mims had a coming out party on Sunday, with a 60-yard touchdown catch, a 53-yard reception and a pair of runs for 10 yards. Not bad for 16 unremarkable shots.

Let’s put it in a different context. Not bad for a run of five unremarkable routes.

You can view the path 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 deduce that Mims is destined for a larger 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 may not reach alpha status.

Of course there are several moving parts here. If Russell Wilson doesn’t improve his game, he could be in danger of being benched – and that could be a feature or a bug for this offense, depending on what you think of Jarrett Stidham.

Mims is currently in 23% of Yahoo leagues. That number will increase significantly as Wednesday morning’s waiver implementation is processed. Perhaps Mims is better seen as a slow-developing Polaroid, someone who could be used more proactively after Halloween, but I still hope a good number of you are able to hide it.

Say it for the Cardinals, it was fun watching. Sure, they’re 0-2, but it was a competitive 0-2. Both games were winnable. (It’s still shocking that the Giants somehow pulled off Sunday’s comeback win. The pick against Arizona was fruitful, but stressful, for the Survivor players.)

Ertz wasn’t on the draft radar this summer. Who wants a compelling conclusion to 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 disappointed, but it’s useful in any PPR-related league. Ertz profiles as TE6 in full PPR, and is first at the position in first-read targets (30.2%). When the Cardinals go on the air, this is the man with priority. Ertz also leads in terms of raw targets (18) and market share (29.5%).

Maybe the Cardinals are showing off Ertz. Maybe you can’t count on a 33-year-old tight end for an entire season. I just know that Ertz has a safe and interesting role at the moment, and Play For Today is always part of my fantasy ethos. Let’s take our first wins and 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, according to the header, but your friend doesn’t know that. Ferguson has racked up eight red zone targets in two games. Tyreek Hill, Zay Flowers, Calvin Ridley, Tyler Lockett and Zay Jones are all next, with five (hell, the Jaguars racked up “near touchdowns” in Week 2).

If you’d like your goals to be measured a little more closely, Ferguson continues to track them. He has five targets among the 10 (first) and three targets among the five (tied for first).

The Cowboys, of course, have a monster defense and won both games in a rout. There will be weeks where the Dallas offense doesn’t have much passing volume. Ferguson had a touchdown in Week 2 but otherwise his 5-22-1 line is uninspiring. But there is obviously a latent positive side here. If your league format warrants rostering two or maybe three tight ends, Ferguson is the perfect backup guy.

Check in with the running backs

Don’t forget to consider backfields when tracking target data and various sidebars. We like defenders who know how to play in all game scripts, who don’t become invisible if their team falls behind. Versatility is your friend.

Two intriguing defenders, Kyren Williams and Jaylen Warren, top the RB’s list of targets, 12 each. Williams, Bijan Robinson (It looks fantastic) and Tony Pollard all have three red zone targets, tied for the most: Williams is also among the leaders in red zone carries. Aaron Jones still leads the league in receiving yards, despite not playing in Week 2. (AJ Dillon appeared to be walking in quicksand in the loss at Atlanta; the team desperately needs Jones back.)

One way to enter the Circle of Trust is to capture everything in your area. Rhamondre Stevenson (9 for 9). Rachaad White (7-for-7) and Chuba Hubbard (7-for-7) did just that.

On the other hand, even if dropped passes aren’t treated as fumbles, there are a handful of players with already two drops: Saquon Barkley, Joe Mixon, Joshua Kelley, Breece Hall and the ever-present Williams. Veteran players rarely get 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

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