Red Zone Carries+Targets: 2017 Review

(Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire)

Even with more and more leagues switching to PPR scoring, touchdowns remain the most important statistic for determining weekly winners in season long and daily fantasy football leagues. During the season, this article will look at notable red zone usage from the week before, and attempt to find players that will over and underperform in the upcoming week. Thanks to Pro Football Reference for their great statistics and play index, and Graham Barfield for his excellent team-level data. Before we start looking ahead to week one, let’s look back at last year and find some interesting trends to use for the upcoming year.

Patriots: Red zone kings

The New England Patriots ran 11.9 red zone plays per game, a significant 1.5 plays per game more than the 2nd place Steelers in 2017. More red zone plays means more chances at touchdowns, increasing upside for big weeks and breakout players. While the Patriots are notoriously hard to predict, their frequency in the red zone makes it worth rolling the dice on their RBs and WRs in the later rounds of drafts. And while Rob Gronkowski figures to be the best bet every week for TDs, the lower owned Patriots will be worth targeting in big DFS tournaments. And of course, Tom Brady remains an elite fantasy quarterback for all of the reasons listed above. Some things never change, as the Patriots seem poised to steamroll through the AFC East like clockwork.

Good teams produce more red zone chances

While this may be obvious to most, it’s easy to get overloaded with information and forget some of the basics.  Look at the top 10 teams ranked by red zone plays per game in 2017.

Team RZ Plays/G
NE 11.9
PIT 10.4
LAR 10.1
BAL 9.4
SFO 9.3
NO 9.1
DAL 9.1
PHI 9.1
ATL 8.8
MIN 8.8

Only 3 teams on that list missed the playoffs last year, with Baltimore losing a playoff spot in the last minute of their season, San Francisco catching fire with Jimmy Garoppolo joining mid-season, and Dallas finishing with a 9-7 record.  Both Super Bowl teams (NE, PHI) made the list, and Jacksonville is the lone team to make a conference championship game and not be a top 10 team in red zone plays. While predicting the good teams is easier said than done, keep this in mind while looking at players that have switched teams, or players whose teams have improved over the offseason.

RBs with elite red zone carries+targets

Player C+T RZ Fantasy Pts % Team’s RZ C+T
Todd Gurley 72 123 42%
Le’Veon Bell 77 95 43%
Melvin Gordon 59 91 42%
LeSean McCoy 51 51 40%

Only 4 running backs received 40% or more of their team’s red zone carries+targets. (1) Le’Veon Bell led the NFL in red zone carries+targets and was the league’s most frequently used red zone player over the course of last year. (2) Todd Gurley II was the most efficient of the top four running backs,  scoring 28 more fantasy red zone points than the number two scorer. He received a massive 90% of his teams carries inside the 5-yard line. (3) Melvin Gordon had the 3rd most receiving points for a running back in the red zone, behind only Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey. Add that to Gordon’s goal-line back usage inside the five (74% of team carries) and Gordon is probably an undervalued fantasy running back. (4) LeSean McCoy scored a disappointing 51 red zone fantasy points in ’17, with the other 3 running backs (listed above) scoring 91, 95, and 123 pts inside the red zone.  If he maintains top 4 red zone usage and scores fantasy points closer to the rest of his group, he may be an excellent DFS play for as long as he’s not suspended.

Wide receiver highs and lows

Wide receivers are not nearly as dependant on the red zone as most running backs. Julio Jones was a top 10 PPR pass catcher in 2017, despite scoring a shockingly low 14 red zone fantasy points all of last year. Last season looks like Julio’s floor, barring injury. A lucky year with touchdowns could make him the WR1, as the red zone targets volume was not a problem last year.

Jarvis Landry caught fire inside the 10-yard line last year, with 11 catches on 14 targets for 48 yards and 9 touchdowns on the year. After moving to the Browns in the offseason, Landry’s 2018 usage is somewhat unknown, as he has been lining up more out wide in the preseason. Landry could survive a drop in targets if he maintains his red zone efficiency, but that may prove difficult.

Davante Adams led all wide receivers with 34.8% of his team’s targets in the red zone last year. He finished as a top 10 wide receiver in PPR leagues despite Aaron Rodgers missing over half the season. While Jimmy Graham (2017’s most targeted red zone pass catcher) will take a portion of Davante’s red zone targets, the return of Rodgers will more than make up for it.

I’ve been going back and forth on Tyreek Hill all offseason. On one hand, he’s a 24-year-old freak athlete who could be hitting the prime of his career. He’s in an offense being run by a proven fantasy points producer in Andy Reid, and Hill produces explosive touchdowns on a regular basis. He was WR9 last year, even higher if you played in a league with long touchdown bonuses or return yard points. On the other hand, Tyreek received only 5% of his team’s red zone targets, 6 carries+targets total in the red zone, and scored 2 red zone fantasy points all year. Like Julio, Tyreek showed he can put up a top 10 season without red zone production. But Tyreek’s lack of red zone work might limit his upside in the end, and last year might turn out to be his ceiling.

Quick takeaways

Drew Brees was QB 3 in red zone pass attempts last year, yet was only QB 8 in red zone fantasy points. If he remains top three in red zone attempts, I’m willing to bet he scores significantly more fantasy points in the red zone this year.

Tom Brady led all QBs in red zone passing attempts, red zone fantasy points, and fantasy points inside the 10. He was 40 years old.

Jimmy Graham, a tight end, led all wide receivers in 2017 with 35.1% of his team’s red zone targets, and 26 total red zone targets.

Bengals tight end Tyler Kroft was TE 2 in fantasy points inside the ten-yard line last year. Promising news for Tyler Eifert (if healthy), or Tyler Kroft (if Eifert is unhealthy).

Corey Clement only received 11% of the Eagles red zone carries+targets but was the third most efficient running back in the league in scoring red zone points.

Rex Burkhead only received 11% of the Patriots red zone carries+targets but was the sixth most efficient running back in the league in scoring red zone points.

 

2018 red zone outlook

In season-long leagues, red zone usage helps explain the huge role that running backs have in winning leagues. The top 3 running backs had 77, 72, and 59 carries+targets in the red zone last year, while the top 3 pass catchers had 26, 24, and 23 red zone carries+targets. Sure, wide receivers are more efficient with their chances, but if a running back gets 72 carries like Gurley last year and everything goes right, they can single-handedly win you a league with their massive touchdown production. This doesn’t mean you should reach for mediocre running backs early. But if you have a chance at an elite red zone running back and take a wide receiver, you may be passing up on a league winner.

In daily fantasy GPP’s (large tournaments) you may want to consider targeting the red zone wide receivers. While receivers in season-long can get by without red zone work, in daily fantasy you will need lots of touchdowns to win a big tournament. The wide receivers with high red zone usage like Davante Adams, Jarvis Landry, Keenan Allen, and DeAndre Hopkins will have more chances at multi-touchdown games than receivers like Tyreek Hill, Brandin Cooks, Will Fuller, and Golden Tate, despite their apparent explosive upside.

Ultimately, red zone usage is a small sample size and is prone to wild swings from year to year. But the upside that running backs get from their massive red zone usage makes them worth investing in early and often. Even with PPR scoring closing the gap between running backs and wide receivers, using red zone carries+targets to guide your drafting can improve your chances of finding the next Todd Gurley II.

Next Friday we will look at how red zone usage will affect the week one games, and how you can benefit from that information.

Erik Smith

Ohio University graduate. Former food service employee in Yellowstone National Park. Now lives in Asheville, NC, right off the Blue Ridge Parkway. Late round QB and TE enthusiast.

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