2018 NFL Draft Guide: Red Zone Consistency
Matt Selz takes a look at red zone consistency and which players you should be targeting in drafts for your fantasy football teams.
Red isn’t typically associated with good things. If you’re “in the red” you are broke. Code Red and Red Alert are often used as terms of phrases to signify an emergency. Hurricane flags are mostly red. Buzzers that alert you to danger are often red in color too. You get the point. There is also a reason it’s called the red zone on a football field, because it’s a danger zone for the defenses when trying to keep the offense from getting on the board. However, for fantasy purposes it should really be considered the “green zone” as in it’s pay dirt time for your players. Why is it more important that the rest of the field? One simple percentage shows why…67.48% of all touchdowns scored through the air last year came inside the 20-yard line and 46.56% came inside the ten-yard line. For running backs those percentages are even higher, for clear reasons as long runs are rarer these days.
So the touchdowns are great and all but targets are still important too as that’s what allows a player to score the touchdowns in the first place. The question becomes who is getting those targets and which teams are the most proficient when they get to the 20-yard line. That’s what we intend to answer with this article so you can capitalize on that part of the field with your fantasy lineups week-to-week.
In order for a wideout or tight end of yours to catch a ball or a touchdown in the red zone a quarterback first has to throw the ball. In the first set of tables we’ve ranked the teams by number of targets, targets per player, and yardage both inside the 20 and inside the ten. The teams that produce the most targets and yardage in both of those areas of the field are ones that will produce a high total of touchdowns overall.
|Inside the 20|
It’s not a total shock that New England and Pittsburgh are the two highest rated red zone offenses from last year. Both are either ranked one or two in the three metrics and are the only two teams with more than 8.0 targets/player throughout the year. Now with all that said it doesn’t mean they are evenly distributed. On the Patriots, for example, Rob Gronkowski tallied 22 total targets on the year, or 24.4% of the teams total with Danny Amendola , Brandin Cooks , Chris Hogan , and James White all with 12 or 11 targets last year. Whereas in Pittsburgh, Antonio Brown , Le’Veon Bell, JuJu Smith-Schuster , Jesse James , and Martavis Bryant were all targeted 10-20 times with Brown and Bell getting 20 and 16 looks respectively. The surprise among the red zone rankings would be San Francisco being ranked fourth in average rank given the perception of their offense prior to Jimmy Garoppolo with all of their quarterbacks posting less than 20 total touchdowns through the air. George Kittle led all SF targets with 16 on the season with Marquise Goodwin closely following with 15 and Carlos Hyde with 11. What you’ll notice about several of the guys on this list is that they aren’t with the same team this year since the turnover in the NFL is quite constant but we will get into that a bit later and what it means for their old teams and new teams.
|Inside the 10|
Compared to the table above, things get a bit more shaken up with the Chargers, Seahawks, and Falcons taking up three of the top-five spots though New England and Pittsburgh are still in the top-five as well. Both the Chargers and Seahawks had more than half of their overall red zone targets come inside the ten-yard line last year as L.A. led the league with 44 such passing attempts, which was actually more than Indianapolis had in all of the red zone combined (42). The team inside the top five that sticks out as maybe needing some help this year is Seattle after losing Jimmy Graham . Graham accounted for 16 targets inside the ten just by himself last year and Paul Richardson had five so both of them combined take up just over half of Seattle’s total. That means more pressure on Doug Baldwin and Tyler Lockett and their running game to convert in those scenarios. San Francisco is ranked fourth in the overall red zone numbers and ninth inside the ten despite not having the greatest of QB play for much of last year. In 2018 Jimmy Garoppolo will be under center the whole year and that should improve their offensive output as should having a healthy wide receiver corps unlike last year. One other quick thing to point out is that if a team is near the bottom of the list or even in the middle, it doesn’t mean they had a bad offense it just means they didn’t spend a lot of time in that section of the field. Take, for example, the Eagles, Saints, Vikings, and Chiefs all of whom had very good offenses for much of the year, but they are 13th or worst in the rankings because they didn’t need to spend a lot of time inside the ten to score, or they did it on the ground and not through the air as the next table will help to show.
We already showed that league-wide more than two-thirds of all aerial scores came from this spot of the field, but now it’s time to see who is more of a deep ball type of guy compared to who sustains longer drives better in terms of scoring.
|RZ||Inside||% in||% <|
You’ll notice that the headings on the table show the total touchdowns thrown by the top-36 quarterbacks compared to how many they threw in the red zone and inside the ten. What sticks out immediately is how many scores actually come from inside the opponent’s 20 with ten of the 17 quarterbacks at 20 or more touchdowns posting a RZ % of 72% or higher and as high as 85.71%. While there are ten at better than 70% there are also five at less than 56% including two at an even 50% in Philip Rivers and Alex Smith . The three quarterbacks above 80% are an interesting group with Blake Bortles leading the way at 85.71%, Jared Goff at 82.14%, and Tom Brady at 81.25% with the last two being a bit surprising since the Rams and Patriots were thought to have big play offenses last year.
|RZ||Inside||% in||% <|
The lowest percentage for a full-time starter was Josh McCown with just 44.4% of his touchdowns coming from the red zone. Jimmy Garoppolo has a 100% red zone rate with all seven of his touchdowns thrown coming from no farther than the 20-yard line and in fact, six came from inside the ten. In a twist C.J. Beathard is the only Niners QB from last year to not have a touchdown from closer than 21 yards. While only playing seven games last year due to his collar bone injury, Aaron Rodgers still put up some surprising numbers with 12 of the 16 touchdowns coming from the red zone and ten of the 12 coming from inside the ten. That’s a little unusual for a deep play kind of offense like Green Bay typically runs.
While as interesting as it is to see the breakdowns for the quarterbacks, the value on your fantasy teams are found at the skill positions with how often they get in the end zone. Now predicting actual touchdown totals from year-to-year is next to impossible with the way the systems change and turnover on rosters happen and with injuries happening at a prodigious rate. However, studying what the skill guys are capable of doing, in what we’ve referred to as the green zone, is worth the time.
|Player||Team||Targets||w/ Targets||one game|
This first table has the top ten targeted receivers in the red zone last year and the first thing that pops out is that there weren’t two from the same team in that section. The other thing is that the top three fantasy tight ends were also in that grouping with Jimmy Graham , Rob Gronkowski , and Travis Kelce all getting more than 20 looks. Dez Bryant is the only one in the section with a target in less than ten games last year meaning he saw two-to-three targets in each game he was looked toward, but in the other games he never sniffed the ball in the red zone. Interestingly he is also the only one who is also currently looking for a team still. Most of the guys targeted this much make sense knowing the flow of their offenses and who the go to guys are, but Cooper Kupp might be the most surprising name which bodes well again for him despite the addition of Brandin Cooks to the roster. Another note about Kupp, and Kelce for that matter, is that they are the only two players with more than 13 targets (37 total players), to get targeted at least once in 13 of 16 games played. Players with more weeks targeted are the ones you want to look for in your drafts for more touchdown chances on a week-to-week basis.
|Player||Team||Targets||w/ Targets||one game|
The next 20 guys on the list are also an interesting mix of players with still a lot of stud wideouts and tight ends on the list but also getting into the first running backs. For the first time we see teammates listed with nearly identical totals with Nelson Agholor and Zach Ertz each tallying 18 while Adam Thielen and Kyle Rudolph saw 17 and 16 respectively, and Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas saw the same totals as Thielen and Rudolph. Le’Veon Bell and JuJu Smith-Schuster had Big Ben target them 16 and 15 times each as did George Kittle and Marquise Goodwin out in San Francisco with their mash-up of QB play. The stud receiver that isn’t getting as much pub this offseason as he usually does is A.J. Green and based on his targets in the red zone there could be a reason for it with him only seeing targets in eight games despite playing all 16 last year. Five of his 16 looks came in one game, meaning 11 came in the other seven which isn’t great for a top-flight wideout like Green. The same too can be said about Michael Thomas who has been argued as a top wide receiver option this year even though as the clear cut number one receiver in New Orleans last year, he saw fewer targets than the rookie Alvin Kamara did and just a few more than Mark Ingram did for a pass happy offense. His 16 targets came in eight games with four being posted in one game.
|Player||Team||Targets||w/ Targets||one game|
Sneaky pickups is the theme of this table with guys who may not be thought of as red zone threats residing here. The top three listed are all sneaky plays with Crabtree heading to Baltimore and seeing how well Ben Watson and Mike Wallace both did last year gives hope that Crabtree can continue to be a solid TD threat inside the 20. Jamison Crowder is like the Albert Wilson of the Washington receiving corps, and Wilson did well last year with Alex Smith at the helm so you can expect Crowder to have similar numbers to last year’s despite the quarterback change. Ben Watson is going back to New Orleans where he had a resurgent 2016 and as the lead tight end in an offense that likes to feature them inside the 20, Watson could be in for a good year as well with similar target numbers to last year in a tight end heavy offense in Baltimore. In addition to Watson there are sneaky tight end options in Cameron Brate , Tyler Kroft , Eric Ebron , and Jesse James all of whom have intrigue about their 2018 campaigns. Brate and James are the number one’s on their teams, but Kroft and Ebron are in a time share of sorts in Cincy and Indy, but both Tyler Eifert in Cincy and Jack Doyle in Indy have shown they need reliable number two’s behind them and with Andrew Luck making his return, there should be enough balls to go around with the Colts. There are three straight Patriots near the bottom of this section but only one of them is still with the team in Chris Hogan , which could mean an uptick in targets his way, though the signing of Eric Decker won’t help his cause.
|Player||Team||Targets||w/ Targets||one game|
To be clear there are more than the 80 guys listed in these tables that saw targets this past year; 371 to be exact, but the cutoff of 10 targets was the easiest dividing line and one that eliminated the chances the player had just a couple of big weeks. There are a lot of players in this part that have changed teams since last year who should see improved value like Austin Seferian-Jenkins , Carlos Hyde , Eric Decker , Sammy Watkins , and perhaps Martavis Bryant (if he can improve in camp). Others should be able to put up better numbers simply because the quarterback will improve as is the case in Indy, Oakland, Denver, both New York teams, and Arizona. So there is upside on this list if you pair these stats with the systems they’re now in and the roles they have with their new teams or an expanded one with their current team.
Part of the success players have in this part of the field and what leads to more balls coming their way is the ability to catch the passes in the first place. Out of the 371 total players with at least one passing target in the red zone last year, just 21 caught ten of those targets or more, which works out to just over 5%. So just five percent of the players that take the field each Sunday or Monday will actually rack up a significant amount of grabs within the majority of scoring positions.
|Inside 20||Inside 10|
Jarvis Landry led all of the NFL in red zone catches last year with 18 out of his 23 targets in Miami and 11 of those grabs came inside the ten-yard line on the 14 targets from there. His 11 catches make him the only one in the NFL to snare double-digit balls inside the ten. Nine of the remaining 20 players on the list are not receivers but are running backs and tight ends with each of the top five tight end options going into the draft being in that group. Jimmy Graham led the tight ends, and really everyone, with 26 targets on the year, catching 16 of them for the second-highest total in the league. Kyle Rudolph leads this group of 21 with a catch rate of 87.5% overall by catching 14 of his 16 targets but then upping the percentage to 88.89% inside the 10 grabbing eight-of-nine passes. Zach Ertz , Rob Gronkowski , and Travis Kelce finish off the five tight ends with Gronk and Kelce being two of the worst with catch rates at 50% and 47.6% respectively.
Two members of the Saints backfield are on the list with Kamara and Ingram each catching better than 82% of their respective targets. The only other two running backs on this list are McCaffrey and Bell who are to be expected based on the kind of role and system they play in but the proficiency they showed is the part that catches the eye with McCaffrey hauling in 84.6% and Bell reeling in better than 68%. Clearly three of those four lead the team in red zone carries but again we’re simply breaking down catches here since those are more finicky over the course of a season.
Big points and big money in fantasy football, however, come from scoring on the red zone chances you are given, turning it into the green zone, as shown in the previous tables. So who made the most of their chances? Luckily for you we have the data on that as well.
|RZ||10 yd. <||%RZ||% 10 yd|
|RZ||10 yd. <||%RZ||% 10 yd|
Only three pass catchers scored ten or more touchdowns last year with DeAndre Hopkins leading the way followed by Davante Adams and Jimmy Graham each with ten (now both of whom are teammates). However, just because you scored the touchdowns doesn’t mean they came from the 20 or closer except in the case of a few guys. The aforementioned Graham is the guy with the highest touchdown total where they all came from inside the red zone. All ten of his were from there and eight of them were, in fact, ten yards or less from the goal line. Compare that to Hopkins totals where six of his 13 were scored on 21+-yard plays. Of the seven of his 13 caught in the red zone, all of those were from the ten or closer meaning he is either a deep ball threat or he is a jump ball threat. Jarvis Landry , Mohamed Sanu , and Michael Thomas are the only three pass catchers (in the top 50) to have caught all of their touchdowns from inside the ten-yard line; Landry with nine, Sanu with five, and Thomas with five. Those three, along with Graham, lead a group of ten players with all of their scores coming in the red zone with the remaining six being Tyler Kroft , Zach Ertz , Larry Fitzgerald , Evan Engram , Demaryius Thomas , and Cooper Kupp . In contrast to those types of guys are Tyreek Hill and Robby Anderson who combined to score just one of their 14 total scores (seven each) closer than 21 yards out with the one coming from Anderson. The next closest player percentage-wise is Evan Engram at 33% (2-of-6).
Does all of this data mean that everything will hold true again this year? Certainly not, as is true for any other fantasy sport you might play, however it is a handy thing to look at when deciding between two guys who seem close in stats. If one guy typically sees more passes his way in the red zone then he might be worth a higher rank than the other guy. As for players switching teams nearly every offseason, it’s important to know how teams like to use their players and how the systems fit what the player brings to the table, For example, Jimmy Graham and Ben Watson are two tight ends that have switched teams this offseason, but in all honesty their value may have gone up because of the systems they are moving to. Green Bay likes to employ the tight end in the passing game especially in the red zone and near the goal line, which is exactly what Graham is proficient at. Watson is joining the Saints who have been using tight ends the same way for years, and Watson has already excelled in that system. Now the downside for other players on their teams like Davante Adams and Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram is that they may slide down the target list a bit since Graham and Watson will take some from them.
On the flip side of the player movement is that occasionally a player’s targets actually go up after switching teams. A guy like Cooper Kupp comes to mind despite Brandin Cooks being added to the roster in L.A. because it will be near impossible to double-team Kupp with Cooks, Gurley, Robert Woods , Gerald Everett , Josh Reynolds all being weapons. DeVante Parker should see an increase in targets with Jarvis Landry now in Cleveland. There’s no clear cut take of how the targets will be distributed since Julius Thomas and Kenny Stills were about even with Parker last year. And speaking of Landry, he will likely be the top target in Cleveland even if Josh Gordon returns mentally right before the start of the season. The other benefit to Landry is that David Njoku , Josh Gordon , and Duke Johnson can all take the pressure off of him better than his counterparts in Miami could. One last example would be New England and their constantly shuffling roster. Even though several of their top options from last year aren’t there this year, Chris Hogan , Gronk, Eric Decker , Rex Burkhead , James White , and maybe even Sony Michel will all fill in about the same way as the previous year’s team did.