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Jonathan Bales | Archive | Email | Twitter
Staff Writer

Projecting Wide Receivers - Yards-Per-Reception

Jonathan Bales is the founder of 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 create projections.

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.

Mike Wallace

Mike Wallace is more than capable of leading the league in receiving yards thanks to his big play ability.

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.

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. Green).

Lastly, the number in parentheses is the receiver’s 2011 yardage rank.

2012 Receiving Projections

1. (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.

2. (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.

3. (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 off him.

4. (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.

5. (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.

6. (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.

7. (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. (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.

9. (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.

10. (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 unrealistic.

11. (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.

12. (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.

13. (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.

14. (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.

15. (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.

16. (17) Steve Johnson
80 receptions, 13.2 YPC = 1,056 yards

This is basically a repeat of Johnson’s 2011 numbers.

17. (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).

18. (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.

19. (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.

20. (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 considerations.

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.