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Fantasy Football Air Yards Analysis & Takeaways: Week 9 (2023)

Fantasy Football Air Yards Analysis & Takeaways: Week 9 (2023)

Advanced stats can help fantasy managers determine potential breakout candidates in fantasy football. Two wide receivers can have similar stat lines in a given week. But they may have gotten there in different ways, and one may have more value going forward than another. 

In recent years, targets and target share have become an important part of how we value pass catchers. However, those metrics only tell part of the story. This is because not all targets have the same fantasy value. 

Air yards are an important metric because they can often indicate a player’s potential value. Downfield targets offer more big-play – and thus big-fantasy point – potential. Those players who are being targeted often and also down the field could be in store for more fantasy production down the road. 

Let us take a look at some of the top air yards performances from last week to see if we can uncover any hidden gems. 

Fantasy Football Air Yards Analysis & Takeaways

Stats via FTNFantasy.com

The Top-10 Quarterbacks

Name Team Att Air Yds aDOT
Sam Howell WAS 52 388 7.46
Jordan Love GB 41 372 9.07
Will Levis TEN 29 341 11.76
Derek Carr NO 27 332 12.3
Gardner Minshew IND 41 325 7.93
Tua Tagovailoa MIA 45 305 6.78
Jalen Hurts PHI 38 304 8
Baker Mayfield TB 42 301 7.17
Geno Smith SEA 37 280 7.57
Patrick Mahomes KC 38 278 7.32

It is officially time to talk about Sam Howell. Howell has now finished in the top three in air yards in four of the last five weeks. And it is translating to plenty of fantasy points. Howell enters Week 9 as the overall QB8 in fantasy for the season. A quick glance at his numbers may indicate that he is getting extra opportunities due to Washington playing from behind. But before you sell high on Howell, there are a couple of things to consider. 

First, I don’t think the trend of Washington falling behind changes anytime soon. The reason the Commanders have been playing from behind is that their defense is one of the worst in the league. They allow the second-most points per game in the NFL, ahead of only Indianapolis. And three of their next five opponents (Seattle, Dallas and Miami) are averaging at least 24 points per game this season. The Commanders also just traded arguably their two best defenders, Chase Young and Montez Sweat. That is certainly not going to improve their defensive exploits. They will continue to give up points in bunches and have to throw the ball to try to keep up on the scoreboard. 

It is also possible that emphasizing the passing game is simply how the Commanders wish to play on offense. Washington has by far the highest pass rate in the league at 73%. But they also have the second-highest PROE (pass rate over expected) at 8.7%. Only two other teams (Kansas City and Cincinnati) have a PROE over 4.5%. Those two teams have established franchise quarterbacks. I think it is way too early to put Howell in any conversation with the likes of Patrick Mahomes or Joe Burrow. However, with how Washington uses him, it may be time to consider that Howell could end the season as a fantasy QB1 in 12 and possibly even 10-team leagues. 

Will Levis made his NFL debut last week and threw four touchdowns. He finished the week second in aDOT (average depth of target), third in total air yards and sixth in fantasy points. Fantasy managers surely will not complain, and Levis should be added where available. He did finish the week with a -1.3 EPA (expected points added) and is still a work in progress, so managers should proceed with caution. It was encouraging for Levis’s rest-of-season outlook that the team kept stars Derrick Henry and DeAndre Hopkins through Tuesday’s trade deadline. However, I would not be in any rush to start him in one-QB leagues. In Week 9, Levis will face the Pittsburgh Steelers on the road on a short week. Pittsburgh has only allowed nine touchdowns on the year to opposing quarterbacks, so do not expect a repeat performance out of Levis in this game. 

The Top-10 Receivers

Name Team Tar Rec Rec Yds Air Yds aDOT Air % Tar %
Diontae Johnson PIT 14 8 85 188 13.43 52.66% 35%
Chris Olave NO 9 5 46 170 18.89 44.62% 31.03%
Garrett Wilson NYJ 13 7 100 164 12.62 61.42% 38.24%
DK Metcalf SEA 14 5 67 152 10.86 55.27% 38.89%
CeeDee Lamb DAL 14 12 158 144 10.29 49.15% 41.18%
Brandon Aiyuk SF 9 5 109 139 15.44 53.67% 30%
Davante Adams LV 7 1 11 139 19.86 59.40% 33.33%
DeAndre Hopkins TEN 6 4 128 134 22.33 41.36% 22.22%
Jaylen Waddle MIA 12 7 121 132 11 44.44% 28.57%
Calvin Ridley JAC 10 6 83 129 12.9 60% 31.25%

Diontae Johnson led all wide receivers last week with 188 air yards. He parlayed 14 targets into eight grabs for 85 yards. Johnson finished last week as the overall WR22 in half-PPR leagues. That is the same slot in which he landed the week prior after missing four games due to injury. Fantasy managers should expect another solid week out of Johnson in Week 9. The Steelers host the Tennessee Titans, a team that is known for being a pass-funnel defense. Quarterback Kenny Pickett left last week’s game early but is expected to play on Thursday night. Regardless of whether Pickett or Mitch Trubisky is under center, Johnson should be a fantasy starter in most formats. He has top-15 upside if he can ever remember how to score a touchdown. Johnson last found paydirt during the 2021 season. 

Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson follow Johnson on this week’s air yards leaderboard, and that’s hardly all the pair have in common. They are both second-year NFL wideouts who went to Ohio State and, through little fault of their own, have fallen short of fantasy expectations thus far in 2023. Olave and Wilson were drafted as borderline WR1s but enter Week 9 outside the top-25 overall. Albeit, Wilson sneaks into the top 25 on a per-game basis. The pair of former Buckeyes have largely struggled due to the play of their respective quarterbacks. Derek Carr ranks 16th in EPA and 17th in QBR among NFL quarterbacks. Wilson would probably pray to get that level of production out of his quarterback. Zach Wilson ranks dead last in EPA among starting quarterbacks, and he ranks 28th in QBR. 

The issue, of course, is that while Olave and Wilson are not likely to provide fantasy managers the return on investment they had expected before the season, we are still talking about tremendously talented wideouts. Olave has finished as a weekly top-36 fantasy wide receiver in six of eight games, while Wilson has done so in five of seven. The problem is neither man has posted a single top-12 weekly finish this season.

However, both wideouts have advantageous Week 9 matchups. Olave gets the Bears, who rank 31st in both pass DVOA and pass EPA. Wilson faces the Chargers, who are 26th in pass DVOA and 28th in pass EPA. Fantasy managers must hope this is the week one or both finally pop off. But it is probably wiser to treat them like WR2s and hope they can finally break through that top-12 threshold. 

The Top-10 Tight Ends

Name Team Tar Rec Rec Yds Air Yds aDOT Air % Tar %
George Kittle SF 11 9 149 105 9.55 40.54% 36.67%
Trey McBride ARI 14 10 95 98 7 40.83% 38.89%
T.J. Hockenson MIN 9 6 88 86 9.56 40.38% 27.27%
Andrew Ogletree IND 3 1 33 65 21.67 21.45% 7.89%
Tyler Higbee LA 7 5 45 65 9.29 30.52% 21.88%
Kyle Pitts ATL 5 3 35 60 12 19.54% 15.15%
Logan Thomas WAS 8 6 44 53 6.63 13.52% 15.69%
Cole Kmet CHI 10 10 79 53 5.3 21.03% 27.78%
Sam LaPorta DET 10 8 57 49 4.9 32.24% 29.41%
David Njoku CLE 8 4 77 45 5.63 17.93% 26.67%

Last week, we saw a truly rare sight – the San Francisco 49ers played an entire game from behind. It was one of those instances in which we are reminded how good George Kittle is. We often don’t see him reach his full potential from a fantasy perspective because the volume is not always there. But when it is, look out. Kittle caught nine of 11 targets for 149 yards, finishing as the overall TE3. He now has four top-eight finishes in his last six contests. The 49ers were also without Deebo Samuel, which may have led to some more work for the Iowa product. I expect Kittle’s workload will decrease slightly following San Francisco’s Week 9 bye. However, we are still talking about one of the very best tight ends in the game. 

Trey McBride broke out in a big way on Sunday. The second-year pro caught 10 passes for 95 yards and a touchdown. Before last week, McBride only had one career game with more than four receptions. With Zach Ertz on Injured Reserve (IR), McBride should get plenty of work going forward. Perhaps not as much as he got last week, but enough to make him extremely fantasy-relevant. The only potential fly in the ointment is that Arizona traded Joshua Dobbs, who had been their starting quarterback. It looks like Clayton Tune will likely be Arizona’s starter in Week 9, which is less than ideal in a matchup against the Cleveland Browns. No team has allowed fewer fantasy points to tight ends than the Browns. Week 9 may not be the best week to deploy McBride as a fantasy starter, but he should be good to go thereafter, presumably with Kyler Murray in the fold. 

The Top-Five Underperformers

Name Team Tar Rec Rec Yds Air Yds aDOT Air % Tar %
Rashee Rice KC 5 4 56 17 3.4 6.56% 13.51%
Zay Flowers BAL 7 5 19 24 3.43 15.48% 26.92%
Marquise Brown ARI 9 6 33 29 3.22 12.08% 25%
Alec Pierce IND 5 3 41 32 6.4 10.56% 13.16%
Trey Palmer TB 6 3 22 39 6.5 15.92% 15.38%

For this section of the air yards report, I want to specifically highlight the wide receiver position. We know that generally, running back and tight end targets occur within close proximity of the line of scrimmage. I also wanted to filter this section to include only those wideouts who earned at least five targets. These are generally the type of players who you may be considering starting in your weekly matchups. Even those with a low aDOT could be worth starting in PPR formats if they get enough volume. 

It seems the Baltimore Ravens are more apt to target Zay Flowers near the line of scrimmage when they are facing a defense that plays more zone coverages. In both Weeks 1 and 3, Flowers had exactly 28 air yards on 10 targets. Baltimore faced Houston and Indianapolis in those games. Both teams play zone at a top-five rate in the NFL. We saw similar usage last week against the Arizona Cardinals. Flowers had seven targets and just 24 air yards. The result was a mere 19 yards and a weekly WR74 finish. Baltimore will face the Seattle Seahawks in Week 9. They are tied with the Colts for playing the most zone defense. This could be another week where Flowers sees plenty of looks, but his fantasy production ceiling is lower than normal. 

Trey Palmer had 154 air yards back in Week 6. At the time, I thought it may be something for fantasy managers to keep an eye on. It appears, however, that his usage in that game was a one-off. Palmer has just 46 total air yards on eight targets in the two games since. Worse yet, those eight targets have netted just 27 receiving yards on four catches. A 50% catch rate and 6.75 yards per catch is not what you want to see from a receiver not being targeted down the field. Even in a week where four teams are on a bye, I cannot envision a realistic scenario in which you are starting Palmer this week, or anytime soon for that matter.

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