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Fantasy Football Air Yards Differential & Takeaways

Fantasy Football Air Yards Differential & Takeaways

Air yards or prayer yards? The hotly-contested metric of air yards is often referred to as “prayer yards” among fantasy circles because we can see Hail Mary-type passes inflate these numbers.

I’ll let you decide how you feel about that, but the reality is that many factors can contribute to a high differential between air yards and receiving yards. It may be an indication of a declining player, or a matter of circumstances, such as quarterback play.

Let’s dig into the highest air yardage differentials of the 2023 season, and I’ll give you some added context to chew on. There were 12 wide receivers who finished with a 500+ air-yard differential in 2023, as shown in the table below.

Fantasy Football Air Yards Differential (2023)

Player Tar Catchable Tgt Rate Rec Rec Yds Air Yds Diff Drop Rate ADOT Total Points Rank PPG
Rank
DeAndre Hopkins 133 65% 75 1057 1968 911 5.1 14.7 22 29
Calvin Ridley 132 65% 76 1016 1839 823 8.4 14.3 19 25
Chris Olave 138 72% 87 1123 1912 789 6.5 14.3 17 20
Davante Adams 171 68% 103 1144 1898 754 8 10.9 10 15
Garrett Wilson 164 67% 95 1042 1734 692 5.9 10.8 24 32
Mike Evans 127 73% 79 1255 1900 645 6 14.9 7 10
Marquise Brown 94 65% 51 574 1194 620 5.6 12.3 53 50
Terry McLaurin 128 68% 79 1002 1556 554 4.8 12.2 32 38
Zay Jones 62 63% 34 321 874 553 2.9 13.9 84 58
Stefon Diggs 159 75% 107 1183 1710 527 5.3 10.4 9 12
Justin Watson 51 63% 26 449 965 516 12.9 19.8 78 77
Tyler Lockett 117 74% 79 894 1406 512 4.8 12.6 34 40

Of the 12 players with a 500+ air-yard differential, only three of them finished as top-12 in points per game and just two of them in total points. The main reason this group saw little success is likely due to the quarterbacks accompanying them on Sunday’s. For context, fantasy’s top receivers all hovered around an 80% catchable target rate, while this group sits in the 60s and low 70s.

Looking beyond the catchable target rate, there are a few outliers on this list. Just three receivers from this group saw fewer than 100 targets on the season, with Marquise Brown sitting at 94 while Zay Jones saw just 62 and Justin Watson tallied 51. With a low target volume for Jones and Watson, it’s alarming to see such a high air yardage differential. Jones’ presence on the list is particularly puzzling after playing in just nine games and registering a modest 2.9 drop rate. Watson has one of the highest ADOTs across the league at 19.8 and a high drop rate of 12.9, but what they have in common is that they are both statues. Jones ran for just 51 yards after the catch and Watson accumulated 47. Neither of them offer much in the way of upside.

DeAndre Hopkins isn’t what he once was, but he can still play despite Ryan Tannehill, Will Levis and Malik Willis doing him no favors. The Titans have a potential out on the final year of his contract, and making his way to a more favorable situation would increase his fantasy value.

Calvin Ridley was one of the most frustrating players to roster this season, popping off at moments but falling short of expectations much of the time. With a 65% catchable target rate and an overall down season from Trevor Lawrence, the quarterback shoulders some of the blame for Ridley’s 823 yard differential, but Ridley’s 8.4 drop rate is uncomfortable. What’s surprising with Ridley is his 2.6 yards after catch per reception which is the 10th worst mark among all wide receivers. Part of that can be attributed to a quarterback and offense not supplying him with ample room to run after the catch, but Ridley has never stood out in that category. He posted 5.7 in his rookie season with the Falcons, before tallying 2.2, 3.1 and 2.9 in his past three seasons in Atlanta. Ridley isn’t set up to do a lot of work with the ball in his hands, but rather before it gets into his hands. He needs a quarterback with anticipation and precision on his targets, so his free agency route should be monitored closely. If he returns to Jacksonville, we need to see a leap from Lawrence to consider Ridley as a WR1 candidate.

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Chris Olave had a productive season but didn’t take the step forward many had anticipated. His 72% catchable target rate isn’t horrid and his 6.5 drop rate leaves a little to be desired, but it’s not the worst. It is difficult, however, to make up for those numbers that are a tad unfavorable on 138 targets when the next two guys on the list are notching 171 and 164. Still, Olave left a lot of yards on the field. His overall target accuracy came in at 73rd overall, which is part of the problem. Additionally, his target separation came in at 40th overall. In other words, Olave wasn’t generating a lot of separation and many of his targets were in tight windows or simply off target. He’s most definitely a candidate for a breakout if the Saints can upgrade at quarterback, but I’d like to see more separation from him.

Although Davante Adams had a more fantasy friendly season than Garrett Wilson, their production and impacts were similar. The issue for both of these players was simple: quarterback play. Even if their catchable target rates are slightly better than disastrous, their average depth of targets are among the lowest on this list. In theory, a lower depth of target should lead to a higher percentage of catchable targets. The Jets have a much cleaner path to a quarterback upgrade next season with Aaron Rodgers returning, so Wilson is an obvious breakout candidate. Adams on the other hand will need an offensive overhaul in Vegas to reach his ceiling.

Death, taxes and Mike Evans 1,000-yard seasons. There’s not much to say here as it was a typical Evans season. He is targeted downfield often and many of them turn into big plays, many of them don’t.

Marquise Brown is an interesting case study, as he saw just 94 targets and there are no major outliers on his stat sheet besides the air yardage differential. His 65% catchable target rate is the main accomplice, but many expected a breakout upon Kyler Murray‘s return, which wasn’t the case. Brown’s average depth of target was noticeably higher when Murray played, but the two failed to connect often. As with many on this list, Hollywood’s impending free agency will have a sizable impact on his outlook next season. I would expect a better season, but with the nature of his role, he’s likely to experience these ups and downs with deep targets downfield.

Terry McLaurin struggled in fantasy this year, although he didn’t play poorly. He didn’t score many touchdowns or have the reception total to make up for the lack of touchdowns, but his 554-air yard differential is largely a product of the Commanders offense. Sam Howell struggled at times, and a lack of playmakers around him made for difficulties opening up the offense. Washington is likely to upgrade at quarterback and if that leads to a few less air yards left on the table and a few more trips to the endzone, Terry will be scary once again.

It was a down year for Stefon Diggs, despite finishing as the WR9 overall and WR12 in points per game. He registered a low average depth of target at 10.3 but his catchable target rate was strong at 75%. So, what gives? There was a lack of big plays between Diggs and Josh Allen leading to just 7.3 yards before catch per reception, his lowest total as a Bill by far. This past season, Diggs landed at 9.4 yards before catch per reception as he and Allen connected on many big plays. It could be a good time to get out on Diggs, but the Bills offense was up and down all season, which likely played a big part.

Tyler Lockett‘s usage remained steady this season, despite the addition of Jaxon Smith-Njigba, but his yardage total dipped while his air yard differential came in at 512 yards. He sported a healthy average depth of target at 12.6 and a solid drop rate of 4.8, both in line with his career averages. Where things differed for Lockett was the lack of yards after catch per reception and long receptions overall. Lockett’s longest reception was 37 yards and his yards after catch per reception sat at 2.8, both the lowest of his career. We have grown accustomed to seeing Lockett win downfield with big, splash plays, but that wasn’t the case this season. He had a healthy-enough target and reception total to remain relevant, but his 11.3 yards per catch, second-lowest of his career, represent the inability for he and Geno Smith to connect on the deep ball. There’s a lot of uncertainty in Seattle, but it certainly seems like time to move on from Lockett.

Now, let’s take a quick look at the top 12 WRs in fantasy production.

Player Tar Catchable Tgt Rate Rec Rec Yds Air Yds Diff Drop Rate ADOT Total Points Rank PPG
Rank
CeeDee Lamb 179 82% 135 1749 1806 57 3.6 10.2 1 1
Tyreek Hill 167 80% 119 1799 1884 85 7 11.8 2 2
Amon-Ra St. Brown 158 80% 119 1515 1260 -255 3.3 8.5 3 4
Puka Nacua 153 80% 105 1486 1436 -50 11 9.3 4 6
A.J. Brown 152 78% 106 1456 1864 408 3.6 12.2 5 7
DJ Moore 132 76% 96 1364 1572 208 2 11.9 6 9
Mike Evans 127 73% 79 1255 1900 645 6 14.9 7 10
Keenan Allen 144 82% 107 1245 1447 202 5.3 10.7 8 3
Stefon Diggs 159 75% 107 1183 1710 527 5.3 10.4 9 12
Davante Adams 171 68% 103 1144 1898 754 8 10.9 10 15
Ja’Marr Chase 141 76% 100 1216 1278 62 3.8 9.6 11 11
Nico Collins 109 79% 80 1297 1252 -45 4.8 11 12 8

Obviously, outside of Mike Evans, Stefon Diggs and Davante Adams, we see a much smaller air yardage differential. Amon-Ra. St Brown, Puka Nacua and Nico Collins all came out with a negative air yardage differential, which is remarkable. They could be candidates for a dip in production next season, but each of them are in good systems and showed the capability to win consistently within their roles and the offense, so I wouldn’t go that far.

A.J. Brown is the biggest standout of the list with a 408 air yardage differential. He had a quality catchable target rate of 78%, his average depth of target is fine at 12.2, and his drop rate is low at 3.6. Nothing here points to a high air yardage differential, but the Eagles offense seemed to exit the highway into a construction zone this season. Brown’s average depth of target was slightly lower than the 13 he saw last season, but his 13.7 yards per catch took a big hit from the 16.3 he registered a year ago. Most notably, his yards after catch per reception fell from 6.1 this past season to 4.6 this season, which tells me that the Eagles didn’t make the most of his talent. We didn’t see much of his patented slant routes where he bullies a defender and rumbles his way downfield. Perhaps that was due to the Eagles lack of a deep threat to stretch the defense out, but Brown spent more time running along the sideline. First-time offensive coordinator Brian Johnson appears to be a head coaching candidate, but if he returns, I’d like to see them get Brown going with a head of steam across the middle more often.

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