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Air Yards Differential 2021: Searching for 2022 Wide Receiver Breakouts

by Scott Youngson | @jscottyoungson | Featured Writer
Jan 10, 2022
Air Yards Differential 2021: Searching for 2022 Wide Receiver Breakouts

Now that the 2021 fantasy football season is behind us, we have a ton of data that we can analyze. It’s never too early to start preparing for 2022! Today we’re going to focus on air yards for wide receivers. If you’re not familiar with the air yards stat, it’s the distance the ball travels through the air from the line of scrimmage on a passing play. Players who accumulate a high number of air yards are seeing a lot of deep shots down the field, a lot of targets, or both.

Air yards do not measure if the receiver catches the ball, however. Thus a player can generate a ton of air yards and still not be a very effective receiver for fantasy. That’s where the air yards differential comes in. The differential is essentially the difference between intended yards and actual yards (factoring out yards after catch). You can calculate it as follows:

Air Yards + Yards After Catch – Receiving Yards

If a player has a high air yards differential, there was an opportunity for him to have a better fantasy year than he had. A high differential typically is accompanied by either a relatively low catch rate or a high drop rate and can be as much on the QB as the receiver. The good news for players with a high differential, though, is that their QBs were looking for them often.

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Now onto the fun stuff. We pulled the data through Week 17 for all wide receivers, and fourteen players had an air yards differential greater than 700 yards:

Player Team Air Yards YAC Rec Yds AY Diff Catch % Drop %
Justin Jefferson MIN 2,014 493 1,509 998 64.2 7.4
Terry McLaurin WAS 1,641 262 960 943 58.7 2.5
Marquise Brown BAL 1,507 382 981 908 64.2 3.6
Tyreek Hill KC 1,673 458 1,237 894 69.6 5.7
DJ Moore CAR 1,549 412 1,070 891 58.7 5.8
DK Metcalf SEA 1,481 314 909 886 59.8 1.9
Stefon Diggs BUF 1,716 309 1,144 881 63.1 2.7
Courtland Sutton DEN 1,449 140 763 826 60.0 4.2
Darnell Mooney CHI 1,401 323 929 795 55.6 4.8
Diontae Johnson PIT 1,387 517 1,110 794 62.6 2.7
Ja’Marr Chase CIN 1,567 644 1,429 782 64.2 9.8
DeVonta Smith PHI 1,430 206 875 761 61.1 2.1
Robby Anderson CAR 1,047 144 469 722 48.3 4.5
Brandin Cooks HOU 1,391 334 1,011 714 66.4 1.5

Despite their high differentials, six of these players finished as Top 10 fantasy WRs (half-point ppr scoring), which shows their tremendous volume in 2021. These include:

  • Ja’Marr Chase (WR – CIN):  WR4
  • Justin Jefferson (WR – MIN):  WR5
  • Tyreek Hill (WR – KC):  WR6
  • Stefon Diggs (WR – BUF):  WR7
  • Diontae Johnson (WR – PIT):  WR8 (in fifteen games!)
  • DK Metcalf (WR – SEA):  WR10

These players should all be drafted high next year and are in stable situations with their team and QB. The one exception is Johnson, as Ben Roethlisberger (QB – PIT) plans to retire. Whoever replaces Big Ben could affect Johnson’s value next season.

Brandin Cooks (WR – HOU) had another solid season, finishing as WR16. His consistency is truly amazing, as he’s averaged between 11.7 and 13.2 points per game every season except for 2019. Cooks’ fantasy value next year will be tied in large part to which team he’s playing for, who his QB is, and the quality of the other pass-catchers on the offense. Regardless of the situation, though, he’s proven himself to be a solid WR2 most every season.

DJ Moore (WR – CAR) started off the season hot. He was WR4 after Week 4. As the injuries mounted for the Panthers, however, his production waned. He ended up WR20 for the season despite playing in all 16 games. He could have a new QB next season, but regardless, he’s a name to watch if he falls in your draft as the talent and opportunity are there for him.

It was a tale of two halves for Marquise Brown (WR – BAL). Through the first eight games (Week 9), he was considered one of the steals of the draft as the 5th best fantasy WR. However, it was all downhill after that for him, as he failed to reach double-digit scoring the rest of the season and finished as WR22. He dealt with various injuries and illnesses in the second half, which may have contributed to his decline. With one of the highest differentials in the league and a huge target share, it’s easy to imagine him exceeding expectations in 2022.

Terry McLaurin (WR – WAS) is one of the most talented wide receivers in the NFL and has been a solid fantasy force in his three professional seasons. Despite playing the entire season with the backup QB, he finished as WR25 in fantasy. McLaurin had the second-highest differential on the season despite a low 2.5% drop rate. Sorry Taylor Heinicke (QB – WAS), but it looks like this is on you! If The Football Team can provide McLaurin with a better QB in 2022, the sky’s the limit.

This season, despite uneven QB play, Darnell Mooney (WR – CHI) showed excellent progress from 7.5 fantasy ppg in 2021 to 10 ppg in 2022. He passed Allen Robinson II (WR – CHI) on the Bears depth chart and finished the year as a solid WR26. If Justin Fields (QB – CHI) continues to improve, Mooney could prove a real bargain in 2022 drafts.

The last three players, DeVonta Smith (WR – PHI), Courtland Sutton (WR – DEN), and Robby Anderson (WR – CAR), may have the most upside in next year’s drafts as they all had somewhat disappointing seasons. Smith was the best of the trio, finishing the year as WR31 and posting a few big weeks along the way. But the Eagles lacked commitment to the passing game, which made him a boom or bust option. Should the Eagles stick with Jalen Hurts (QB – PHI) as their QB for next season, it may be more of the same for Smith. But if they start to run a more traditional offense, he has the talent and target share to break out next year.

Sutton may be the most interesting player on the list as his average depth of target (aDOT) was the highest among the fourteen players by a considerable margin at 15.3 yards. This fact is surprising given the reputation of Teddy Bridgewater (QB – DEN) as a dink and dunk quarterback. Sutton did most of his damage when Jerry Jeudy (WR – DEN) was on the IR during Weeks 2 – 7. When Jeudy was active, Sutton failed to score in double-digits the entire season. As a result, his future playing alongside Jeudy looks bleak. However, if the Broncos bring in a more dynamic QB, Sutton could jump considerably from his 2021 finish as WR42.

Last we have Robby Anderson, who may win the award for the most disappointing WR who stayed healthy in 2021. Anderson had his best season in 2020 and was drafted as a solid flex-option this season. He finished as WR56, however. His catch rate was a meager 48.3% despite a moderate aDOT of 9.5 yards. Perhaps Sam Darnold (QB – CAR) is to blame, as DJ Moore also made this list. In any case, Anderson has nowhere to go but up. If there is a change in QB for the Panthers next year, he might prove to be a late-round flier who pays big dividends.

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Scott Youngson is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Scott, check out his archive and follow him @FantasyMutant.

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