The Red Zone Report, Part One
In Part One of this two part series I will look at team red zone data, efficiency, and leaders in usage. Part Two, out next week, will look at all 32 teams and their red zone tendencies.
Touchdowns. Touchdowns. Touchdowns. In fantasy football we love them and we desire for the players on our team to score them. The quickest way to fantasy points (and success) is through touchdowns. so what’s the best predictor of touchdowns? Well, touchdowns like many of other aspects of fantasy sports bring variance, but red zone usage is our best way of finding touchdowns. Therefore, we want to target goal line running backs, running backs who receive both running and passing work in the red zone, receivers with a high number of red zone targets, and even red zone specialists. In fact, there were 1227 offensive touchdowns last season and 933 of those were scored in the red zone (76.04%). In other words, every three out of four offensive touchdowns were scored in the red zone. This article will cover everything red zone including which teams visited the red zone most last season, the most efficient teams in the red zone, and players that received the most red zone usage (percentage of team red zone targets, attempts, and touches).
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TEAM RED ZONE DATA
The New Orleans Saints led the NFL in both red zone drives per game (4.2) and red zone attempts (199). Red zone attempts are the total number of red zone rushing and passing attempts. They were followed by the Atlanta Falcons who averaged 3.9 red zone drives per game and 184 red zone attempts. The league averages were 138.1 red zone attempts and 3.3 red zone drives per game. Here is a look at all team red zone data from the 2016 season:
There is a lot of interesting data in this chart. The three columns on the far right show represent the number of their total offensive touchdowns that were scored in the red zone. You will notice that teams like Chicago, San Francisco, and Cleveland rank near the top. You may wonder how this is possible since they were all really bad teams last year. First, they were in the red zone a lot less than better teams. Therefore, they had less opportunities to stall in the red zone and turn the ball over or kick fields goals. It is important to understand that just because these teams were scoring a high percentage of their total touchdowns in the red zone that they were not necessarily efficient offenses. For example, the New York Jets had 3.4 red zone drives per game (slightly above the league average of 3.3) but only averaged 1.2 red zone touchdowns per game (third worst in the league and way below the league average of 1.8). This netted them a league-worst red zone touchdown percentage of 35.19%, despite scoring 73.09% of their offensive touchdowns in the red zone (league average as stated above was 76.04%). Houston is another great example. They were second in the league scoring 86.36% of their offensive touchdowns from the red zone, but were abysmal when reaching the red zone only converting 40.91% of their red zone drives into touchdowns (second worst in the league). So, why is this important? Let’s use Houston because they have the biggest discrepancy. Since they scored 0ver 86% of their offensive touchdowns in the red zone they were a team that lacked offensive upside when it came to big play scores (essentially rushing and receiving touchdowns of 20+ yards). In addition, they didn’t have many players to target in fantasy for touchdowns since they essentially were only scoring a touchdown every 2.5 times they entered the red zone. The Tennessee Titans were the most efficient team scoring 72.00% of the time they entered the red zone. Coincidentally, they were run the most balanced pass/run team in the red zone throwing 50.35% and running 49.65% of the time. Ten of the 32 team scored a touchdown 60% of the time or greater when entering the red zone: BUF, DAL, GB, IND, JAX, NE, NO, SF, and TEN. On the other end, seven teams scored a touchdown less than 50% of the time when entering the red zone: DEN, HOU, KC, LAR, PHI, SEA, and WAS. So, does efficient equal lots of red zone touchdowns? Of the ten most red zone efficient touchdown teams, eight scored 35 or more red zone touchdowns. The only teams that didn’t were San Francisco and Jacksonville. The league average was 26.7 red zone touchdowns. None of the seven teams that scored a touchdown less than 50% of the time while entering the red zone scored 30+ red zone touchdowns. As interesting and neat as all these stats are, there
As interesting and neat as all these stats are, there is a lot more important information we should cover. Teams run and pass tendencies are important trends we should follow as fantasy players. Why, you may ask. Well if a team passes 70% of the time in the red zone then it would be beneficial to target the pass catchers and quarterback in stacks to create upside unless we want to be super contrarian and chase the off chance the running back goes for two rushing touchdowns. On the slip side, we probably are looking to target goal line backs for a team that likes to pound it in the red zone. Let’s start with New England. If you played fantasy last year (or followed the NFL) you are aware that LeGarrette Blount dropped the blunt on opposing defenses to the tune of 18 touchdowns, 16 of which were scored in the red zone (88.9%). His average touchdown run was 7.39 yards on all touchdowns. If you remove his two non-red zone touchdowns (43 and 41 yards), his average red zone touchdown was 3.06 yards. Eleven of his 16 red zone touchdowns were one-yard scores and 13 were from five yards or less. So, why am I writing all of this? Well, it just so happens that the Patriots were the second heaviest running team in the red zone (56.98%), only behind Buffalo (Shady McCoy and TyGod Taylor, so not super surprising). I, for one, was one of the guys chasing the Blount games last year. He led the NFL in total red zone carries (68) and carries inside the ten-yard line (42). Both by relatively large margins. The Detroit Lions were the most pass-heavy team (70.63%) followed by the Jacksonville Jaguars (68.37%) and Green Bay Packers (65.85%). The Packers had the fifth most red zone attempts (passes and rushes), and had two receivers (Jordy Nelson, 29, and Davante Adams, 20) rank in the top seven in red zone targets. The most run-heavy teams were the Buffalo Bills (58.45%), New England, and the San Francisco 49ers (55.36%).
When looking at players who had the highest percentage of their teams touches in the red zone (receptions plus rushing attempts), the first 46 players with the highest percentage were running backs. The first non-running back was Cam Newton who corralled 16.83% of the teams red zone touches. If we look at the percentage of touches per red zone attempt (this percentage will be lower due to more team attempts than team touches), Cam Newton is the first non-running back at #47 with 11.89%. The following graph illustrates each teams total red zone attempts (the blue line) and their leader in red zone touches (the red line). The closer the blue and red line are, the higher percentage that player has in regards to their touch per team red zone attempt.
You can probably imagine after reading the blurb on LeGarrette Blount above, that he was one of the most heavily used and efficient running backs in the league last year. He, in fact, was the top dog. He led the league with a touch per every 2.53 team red zone attempts and scored 16 touchdowns. This is where things get a little crazy. If I asked you which player led the NFL with the highest percentage of his teams red zone attempts and touches, I would image you would say Blount, David Johnson, Demarco Murray, Melvin Gordon, Ezekiel Elliott (all great guesses), or someone along those lines (which is exactly what happened when I asked on Twitter. Well, I am sure you are shocked as everyone else who saw the tweet when I responded with Todd Gurley. That’s correct, Todd Gurley had the highest percentage of his teams red zone attempts (42.00%) and team touches (59.00%). That’s exactly what happens when you team is one of the worst in getting to the red zone (the Rams 100 red zone attempts were second-worst) and you have no offensive weapons (other than some gadget player called a Tavon Austin and an over-hyped Kenny Britt). Gurley’s 76.7% of the teams rush attempts in the red zone was also highest in the league. Gurley only managed 69 yards on 33 attempts (2.09 yards per attempt), but scored five of his six touchdowns in the red zone. So, just because he had the highest percentage workload in the red zone (for his team and NFL) doesn’t mean he was efficient. There were 21 running backs that had more red zone rushing touchdowns than Gurley including players like Ryan Matthews, Robert Turbin, Mike Gillislee, and M(fat)t Asiata. There were 23 backs who had more yards. I bring this up, because I could see similar work from Gurley this year, but in a a better offensive system with a better coach. He is one of my breakout candidates this year and I expect a huge year.
The graph below shows the top 30 running backs from last season ranked in order of highest percentage of team red zone attempts (rushing attempts plus targets):
Couple more notes:
- Blount led the league in red zone attempts per touch at 2.53. He was followed by Gurley at 2.56, and David Johnson at 2.59.
- Blount also led the league in red zone touches (68). He was followed by Devonta Freeman (62), David Johnson (61), and Melvin Gordon (55).
- A shocking name near the top of the list is Jeremy Hill. He was ninth among backs with a red zone touch every 3.17 team red zone attempts and was sixth in the NFL with 47 red zone touches. If Joe Mixon can overtake Hill soon, expect a pretty massive year.
- Carlos Hyde is a guy that is constantly undervalued in my opinion. On a really bad team last year he was 15th in red zone touches (36), but ranked tenth in percentage of team red zone attempts (33.04%). If you look at what Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman did in Kyle Shanahan’s offense and the fact that Matt Breida is Hyde’s backup, then you might agree with me that Hyde is due for a breakout this year.
- Despite missing four games last season, Le’Veon Bell still ranked eighth in the NFL with 43.21% of his teams red zone touches.
- Pass catching backs can be very useful in fantasy, especially on PPR sites. Tevin Coleman, Devonta Freeman, Demarco Murray, Thoe Riddick, Travaris Cadet, Darren Sproles, Ty Montgomery, and Mark Ingram all saw 10+ red zone targets and 15%+ of their targets were in the red zone. Riddick coveted 35.71% of his red zone targets into touchdowns and Cadet converted 40.00% into scores.
WIDE RECEIVERS AND TIGHT ENDS
Jordy Nelson led the NFL with 29 red zone targets last season, five more than the next player, Kyle Rudolph. Nelson converted those 29 targets into 11 touchdowns (37.93% touchdown rate), nine of which came from inside the ten-yard line. No other player had more than eight red zone receiving touchdowns. As good as Nelsons red touchdown rate was, there were six players who saw 15+ red zone targets who had a better rate. Tight end Cameron Brate led the way, converting 50.00% of his red zone targets (16) into touchdowns (eight). Rishard Matthews was second converting his 15 red zone targets into seven touchdowns (46.67%). Golden “Taint” Tate was the least efficient converting 17 red zone targets into only one touchdown (positive regression this year?) for a measly rate of 5.88%. The graph below shows all receivers and tight ends who saw 15+ red zone targets and their touchdown rate:
Also of importance, is the percentage of players targets they saw in the red zone. Tight end Jacob Tamme had the highest rate in the league. He saw 31 targets, eleven of which were in the red zone (35.48%). So, as concluded in the running back section, high percentages don’t always equal fantasy studs. Interestingly enough, four of the five highest red zone to total target percentages belonged to Atlanta Falcons: Tamme (1st), Justin Hardy (2nd), Tevin Coleman (4th, not a WR or TE), Devonta Freeman (5th, not a WR or TE). Hunter Henry ranked third at 30.19% (16 of 53 targets were in the red zone). He was more of a red zone specialist last season, converting a red zone target into a touchdown 43.75% of the time. Here is a look at the players who had the highest red zone target percentages:
Couple more notes:
- Mike Evans was a target monster last season leading the NFL with 173 targets. He only saw 17 red zone targets (9.83%), though, which was one more than teammate Cameron Brate. He did turn his 17 red zone targets into seven touchdowns (41.18% red zone touchdown rate). If the Bucs can close the gap between his total targets and red zone targets, Evans could be the WR1 in fantasy this year.
- Where is Julio Jones? Julio was 16th in the league (only played 14 games while the other 15 receivers played a full 16 games, other than Antonio Brown who played 15). Despite being 16th in the league in targets (and missing two games), Julio finished tied for 15th in receptions, second in receiving yards, and first in receiving yards per game (only WR to average more than 100 yards per game). There were 86 players who saw more red zone targets than Julio (57 WR, 20 TE, and 9 WR). FIFTY-SEVEN WIDE RECEIVERS! This is egregious. In fact, the following players on the Falcons had more RZ targets than Jones: Tevin Coleman, Devonta Freeman, Mohamed Sanu, Jacob Tamme, and Justin Hardy. The Falcons as a whole had 94 red zone targets. As mentioned, five others had more targets than Julio in the red zone while Julio only saw nine of these (9.57%). Freeman led the team with 17 red zone targets (tied for 15th in the league). Sanu was second on the team with 13 red zone targets. If new OC Steve Sarkisian uses Julio in the red zone more this year (as he has stated he will), then he has the upside to be the WR1 in fantasy this season.
- Of all wide receivers and pass catchers who saw 100+ targets last season, Jordy Nelson had the highest percentage of red zone targets to total targets (19.08%) and Kyle Rudolph (18.18%) was first among tight ends.
- Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders were the receiving duo with highest total numbers of targets (281 between them), but Jordy Nelson and Davante Adams were the receiving due with most red zone targets between them (49).
- The Philadelphia Eagles had the most players to see 10+ red zone targets with five players.
- Amari Cooper was second on the Oakland Raiders in targets (132) behind Michael Crabtree (145), but he was out-targeted in the red zone (13) by Crabtree (21) and Seth Roberts (20). He also had ZERO red zone touchdowns. That will change this year.
- Don’t sleep on the tight end position. There were nine tight ends in the top 40 of pass catchers in red zone targets.
In conclusion, targeting running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends with high red zone usage and workloads is important for fantasy. Understanding teams tendencies and focusing on these helps makes some of your lineup building easier than you would think. I hope you enjoyed the read. If you would like access to all the red zone data, click on this LINK and make a copy.