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Fantasy football: Using air yards in your best ball drafts

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Raw receiving yardage tells you something about a pass-catcher for fantasy football. But only a little something. Today, we’re going to look at air yards, which is another big piece of the “evaluating a receiver” puzzle.

What are air yards?

Air yards are the number of total yards the ball travels before reaching a receiver. That means whether the receiver catchers the ball is irrelevant; it’s simply the distance of a target. From there you can see air yard share, which is the percentage of a team’s air yards that go to a specific receiver. The higher the percentage, the greater the offensive pie that receiver commands. Dividing air yards by total targets is how we get the stat average depth of target, or aDOT. While aDOT isn't a sticky statistic year over year and is more predictive on a weekly basis, air yard share gives us a good sense of players who are commanding a lot of volume.

How do we use air yards in fantasy football drafts?

Air yards belong to the receiver more than the quarterback. They give us a sense of the type of routes a receiver is running or the sheer volume of the offense he commands. Last year, no player had a greater air yard share of the offense than Michael Thomas (counting only active games), despite him being known as the slant god, underneath receiver. Massive volume can hide route depth, but looking at the receivers with great air yard shares give us a sense of target monsters or big-play threats.

Volume is king in fantasy, and it will remain king until fantasy is no more. We want guys who are going to get as much opportunity as possible and have that opportunity be as valuable as possible. Of all the players with at least a 25% target share every single one of them had at least 25% of the air yards as well. While air yard share gives us a good sense of the role a receiver has, the highest total air yard share guys usually have solid volume as well. Every player with at least 35% of his team's air yard share also had at least a 22% target share.

The players who have a higher air-yard share with lower target share are often big-play threats. Mike Williams is a great example in Los Angeles. While Keenan Allen had a 10% greater share of the targets, Williams had a 3% greater air yard share, as his aDOT was double Allen’s. Allen had the volume, but Williams was the big-play threat down the field. While that leads to more weekly volatility, it gives Williams a nice weekly ceiling, ideal for a mid-round best ball pick. In best ball we love to go for those weekly spike weeks and using air yards and aDOT is a great way to identify players who have those roles.

Three best ball targets using air yards

Chase Claypool, Pittsburgh Steelers

Claypool is an athletic freak who broke out his rookie year and has the downfield role to himself in Pittsburgh. While he saw only 17% of his team’s targets, he saw 30.56% of the air yards, with a 13.19-yard aDOT. Fellow starters Diontae Johnson and JuJu Smith-Schuster managed aDOTs of 7.94 and 5.49 yards, respectively. Claypool's big-play ability led to four top-16 overall receiving weeks, but his inconsistent target share led to five weeks of falling out of the top 70. With an increase in projected playing time and his role defined, Claypool could take a big step in his sophomore season and has a massive weekly ceiling.

D.J. Chark, Jacksonville Jaguars

Chark is a big play waiting to happen, but last year he had the quarterback play of a junior varsity high school team, and that didn't unlock it. He caught only 53 of 94 targets, a 56.4% catch rate that ranked 92nd among receivers. His catchable target rate was just 70.2%, which ranked 91st in the league. Going from Gardner Minshew and Mike Glennon to Trevor Lawrence, who is known for his deep-ball accuracy, could unlock a massive ceiling. Chark finished with a 14.11-yard aDOT, which ranked eighth among all receivers with at least 50 targets, and had 34.77% of his team's air yards. If Chark and Lawrence can gain chemistry, he has massive weekly upside. 

Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Green Bay Packers

While concerns around Aaron Rodgers staying and playing in Green Bay continue, Valdes-Scantling remains nearly free at the end of best ball drafts. He saw 29.5% of his team’s air yard share last year (second on the team) and led all of football with a 16.84-yard aDOT (min. 50 targets). The Packers added Amari Rodgers in the draft, but he is much more of an underneath receiver and shouldn’t impact MVS much. While Valdes-Scantling has the weekly floor of the basement, he put together five top-24 WR performances and is a worthwhile end-of-draft best ball flier due to his big-play ability.

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