Jonathan Bales is the founder of TheDCTimes.com
and writes for the New York Times and Dallas Cowboys. He’s
the author of Fantasy
Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft.
Creating the ultimate big board is the goal of every fantasy football
owner, and the foundation of any ranking system is a set of accurate
projections. A lot of fantasy owner haphazardly slap together some
initial projections, or even worse, create rankings without them.
Regardless of how intuitive you think your fantasy insights may
be, there’s a lot to be learned from running the numbers to
Making projections is easy, but creating accurate projections is
very difficult. When formulating projections, it should be the goal
of owners to determine which aspects of a player’s previous
statistics are repeatable. That is, one must figure out the “luck”
factor associated with each player in a given year.
When we determine which aspects of players’ stats were due
to luck and then adjust projections accordingly, we are implementing
regression toward the mean. Regression is a natural way to figure
out just how likely Calvin Johnson is to repeat his 1,681 receiving
yards from 2011, for example. The portions of a player’s stats
that were caused by unstable factors are unlikely to be repeated
in subsequent years.
For wide receivers, one of the statistics that is most likely to
change from year to year is yards-per-catch. Every year, wide receivers’
YPC are vastly different from previous seasons due to a few big
plays, a change in offensive philosophy that results in extra screen
passes, and other similar factors. By simply adjusting for YPC in
our projections, we can obtain projections that are more accurate
than simply mirroring the previous season’s numbers.
Mike Wallace is more than capable of leading
the league in receiving yards thanks to his big play ability.
For some rate statistics, such as yards-per-carry, we can regress
players’ stats to a league average. Yards-per-catch isn’t
one of those stats. Certain players (think Mike Wallace) are simply
more likely to post explosive plays than others (think Wes Welker).
To regress wide receiver YPC toward the mean, we need to figure
out exactly how a player’s stats in the previous season match
up with his “true” talent. If we were to simulate 1,000
seasons, for example, how many times would Victor Cruz repeat his
18.7 YPC from 2011?
One of the most effective ways to determine a receiver’s “true”
YPC is to average his YPC from previous seasons. Over a larger sample
size, a receiver’s YPC is more likely to be representative
of his true value than the number he posted in 2011 alone.
Below, I posted initial projections for 2012 receiving yards. Note
that this top 20 list consists solely of the top 20 receivers from
2011, so you can bet guys near the bottom of the list will be replaced
by players who underperformed last season (Dez Bryant, for example).
Also note that I projected receptions. Since receptions aren’t
a rate statistic, regressing them based on previous totals isn’t
incredibly accurate. There are formulas we can use to project catches,
but I will touch on that in another article. You can alter reception
total projections as you wish; the point is understanding how a
change in YPC can affect receiving yards.
Also note that I chose to use a receiver’s previous three seasons
as the sample size to determine “true” YPC. If a player hasn’t been
in the league that long, I either used his two previous seasons
or altered YPC based on my opinion (in the case of Victor
Cruz and A.J.
Lastly, the number in parentheses is the receiver’s 2011 yardage
2012 Receiving Projections
(9) Mike Wallace
75 receptions, 19.0 YPC = 1,425 yards
This is a big ‘if’ because of Wallace’s contract situation. If he
is ready to go, however, Wallace figures to improve upon his 16.6
YPC from 2011. Think he can’t sustain 19.0 YPC over 75 receptions?
He averaged 21.0 with 60 receptions in 2010.
(1) Calvin Johnson
90 receptions, 15.6 YPC = 1,404 yards
Due to excessive double-teams, it’s unlikely Megatron
will average 17.5 YPC again.
(20) DeSean Jackson
65 receptions, 19.2 YPC = 1,248 yards
The big winner in these projections is Jackson. Even with
a modest reception total of 65, DeSean will almost assuredly improve
upon his 16.6 YPC from 2011. He averaged 22.5 and 18.6 the prior
two seasons and plays in an explosive offense that will take pressure
(4) Larry Fitzgerald
85 receptions, 13.8 YPC = 1,173 yards
Fitzgerald’s projected ranking doesn’t change
here. Even with Michael Floyd in town, Fitz should catch more than
80 balls this year.
(6) Roddy White
90 receptions, 12.9YPC = 1,161 yards
Roddy is an interesting case because you never know how
much Julio Jones will cut into his targets. He’s been the
most heavily targeted receiver in the league over the last few years,
though, and his ranking actually figures to improve even if he hauls
in 10 fewer passes.
(7) Jordy Nelson
75 receptions, 15.3YPC = 1,148 yards
This is why it helps to run the numbers. As an athlete,
I don’t think Nelson can compete with most other players on
this list. My initial reaction would be to rank Nelson lower, but
increased targets, a dynamic offense, and perhaps the league’s
best quarterback equate to lower risk for Nelson than most believe.
(15) A.J. Green
80 receptions, 14.2 YPC = 1,136 yards
The thing that scares me most about Green is his quarterback.
With limited arm strength from Andy Dalton, I’m not sure Green
can repeat his 16.3 YPC from 2011. He still figures to be undervalued
if he can catch more passes, which is a likely proposition.
(8) Brandon Marshall
90 receptions, 12.6 YPC = 1,134 yards
Marshall’s upside is huge with Jay Cutler again feeding
him passes. 90 receptions may actually be lowballing the oft-troubled
receiver. If Marshall can kick that average up to 14+, look out.
(2) Wes Welker
100 receptions, 11.3 YPC = 1,130 yards
Welker is obviously more valuable in PPR leagues, but 122
receptions is highly unlikely this year.
(3) Victor Cruz
70 receptions, 16.0 YPC = 1,120 yards
With only one year of production, Cruz is a difficult player
to project. One thing I can say with relative confidence is that
Cruz’s big plays (including the 99-yard touchdown) inflated
his YPC last season. He’s explosive, but 18.7 YPC is a bit
(12) Marques Colston
80 receptions, 13.9 YPC = 1,112 yards
One of the most reliable fantasy performers due to his
quarterback and offense, Colston is a great choice for owners who
prefer low-risk teams.
(18) Darrius Heyward-Bey
75 receptions, 14.7 YPC = 1,103 yards
This might seem shockingly high for DHB, but he was actually
18th in receiving yards last season. Even projecting his YPC to
drop 0.5 yards, Heyward-Bey is potentially a low-end WR1 with high
upside. I just traded for him last night.
(11) Dwayne Bowe
75 receptions, 14.3 YPC = 1,073 yards
Bowe is an intriguing player because I’m not sure
he possesses the natural talent of many other No. 1 wide receivers
and he isn’t in a particularly dynamic offense. Still, he
keeps putting up numbers.
(10) Hakeem Nicks
70 receptions, 15.3 YPC = 1,071 yards
If Nicks’ broken foot is a non-issue, you can probably
increase his projected receptions by 10.
(14) Vincent Jackson
60 receptions, 17.8 YPC = 1,068 yards
Jackson has always put up a really high YPC, but he’s
in a completely different offense this season. He doesn’t
have Antonio Gates stealing underneath receptions, but he also has
a less talented quarterback. He’ll be difficult to project.
(17) Steve Johnson
80 receptions, 13.2 YPC = 1,056 yards
This is basically a repeat of Johnson’s 2011 numbers.
(19) Percy Harvin
85 receptions, 12.2 YPC = 1,037 yards
An explosive player, Harvin’s YPC is always low because
of screens. If he keeps averaging 11.1 YPC, however, his receiving
yards will always be modest. Keep in mind these rankings are for
receiving yards only, and Harvin offers multiple ways to beat defenses
(and score fantasy points).
(5) Steve Smith
68 receptions, 14.9 YPC = 1,013 yards
Smith is likely to see a decline in receptions in 2012.
Lower yards-per-catch is even more probable.
(13) Antonio Brown
75 receptions, 13.3 YPC = 998 yards
The reason Brown’s YPC is so low is because he figures
to take Hines Ward’s place as the quick screen machine in
the offense. Count on more receptions and lower YPC.
(16) Nate Washington
60 receptions, 14.1 YPC = 846 yards
Seventy-four receptions in 2011 was a career-high for Washington
(by far). It is unlikely to happen again in 2012.
Don’t forget, these aren’t the top 20 projected receivers
for 2012, but rather a rearranging of the top 20 from 2011. They’re
also simply initial projections and could be refined with additional
The big winners in the yardage projections are those players whose
2011 YPC didn’t necessarily reflect their true explosiveness,
i.e. Mike Wallace, DeSean Jackson, and Darrius Heyward-Bey. Similarly,
the losers are those who figure to see a dip in either receptions
or YPC, i.e. Wes Welker, Victor Cruz, and Steve Smith.