Down big to the Saints in the Superdome midway into the third quarter of Week 16 last December, the Jacksonville Jaguars' Blake Bortles dropped back from a shotgun stance on first and 20 and planted his right foot on the two-yard line. Bortles, who led the NFL in passes traveling at least 10 yards past the line of scrimmage last season, threw an in-stride strike to Allen Robinson at the 39-yard line. The result was a 90-yard score -- good for the longest reception of the entire NFL season.
While the Jags would lose the game by 11 points, the play had a seismic effect on the fantasy football landscape. Using ESPN standard scoring, Robinson's haul netted 15 fantasy points. To put this single-play bounty in perspective, the Steelers' Antonio Brown averaged 15.2 fantasy points per game to lead the wide receiver position last season. Innumerable fantasy titles were decided in those 10 seconds of game play.
The big play is a highly coveted outcome in fantasy football. In a league that continues to trend pass-happy, we often look to the receiver position for such slate-shifting performances. The goal of this piece is to get a better idea of which NFL offenses have consistently and prolifically pushed the ball deep downfield; and subsequently which players we suspect should have meaningful vertical roles for their respective offenses in 2016. There is natural variance in big-play production in the NFL, but let's attempt to identify some potential indicators for unearthing such production.
As my colleague Mike Clay has deduced, YAC (yards after the catch) and even yards per reception haven't proved particularly predictive or consistent for projecting yardage production. With a specific eye on big-play mavens at the position -- given that average depth of target has proved somewhat predictive in projecting receiving performance -- we've employed a study of relative air yards per target at the wide receiver position. Air yards are simply the yards traveled in the air from the point of release to the intended receiver.
To add some clarity to this concept of relative air yards -- or "RELAY," to make it sound cooler -- we've subtracted the team's average air yards per target to receivers from the average air yards per target for specific receivers who had at least 30 targets in 2015. For example, the Miami Dolphins' receivers averaged 10.4 air yards per target last season, while rookie DeVante Parker averaged 14.3 air yards per target, netting him a RELAY rate of 3.9 yards -- the sixth-highest clip of the 2015 season. Below, you'll find the top 30 performers in RELAY from last season.
We're not purporting RELAY to be revolutionary; rather, it simply reveals a player's net valuable vertical targets relative to their positional peers. Regarding notable takeaways from this index, it's telling to see both Michael Floyd and John Brown on the list, given Carson Palmer averaged 6.13 throws per game of at least 10 yards past the line of the scrimmage last season -- the fifth-highest rate of such attempts over the past three seasons. In fact, Palmer is second only to Andrew Luck in throws per game of at least 10 yards past the sticks over the previous two seasons. I'm particularly high on Brown and believe he can become a top-15 fantasy producer at the position this season, but I also think there is room for profit with Floyd as well, given coach Bruce Arians' propensity for having Palmer persistently push the ball vertically.
The Cardinals' Floyd rates second in average air yards per target (16.6), behind only the San Diego Chargers' Malcom Floyd over the past two seasons (18.3). With the Bolts' Floyd having retired, Travis Benjamin is set to assume this valuable vertical role in San Diego. Benjamin was 28th in total standard fantasy points and 35th per game at the position, while playing with a blend of sub-optimal passing partners in Cleveland last season; he's currently going 50th on average at the position in early ADP results.
Despite being limited to 13 games last season, Buffalo's Sammy Watkins led all receivers by 16 percent in fantasy points on throws at least 10 yards past the line of the scrimmage. This big-play maven was fueled in part by Tyrod Taylor averaging 5.2 throws of such a distance per game last season, the sixth-highest rate over the past two seasons (minimum 10 games). While injury concerns continue to present real risk for shares of Watkins, he's arguably already the league's most dangerous deep threat at just 23 years old.
Seattle's Tyler Lockett is gaining steam this summer as a breakout candidate among pundits and fantasy investors. Helping to buoy the burgeoning hype, the speedster -- who ranked in the 87th percentile in the 40-yard dash among positional draft prospects as a close physical comparable to Arizona's Brown, per Mockdraftable -- ranked 22nd in RELAY and ninth in fantasy points per target on throws of at least 10 yards past the line of scrimmage last season. Even if the Seattle passing game never becomes a volume-driven attack, the inherent verticality of Lockett's role remains intriguing.
As for a cheaper sophomore breakout candidate, it's worth noting the Titans' Dorial Green-Beckham was the leading vertical target on a Titans' offense that averaged 12.2 air yards per attempt to its receivers, the sixth-highest rate in the league last year. Even if you don't believe in DGB's season-long value given his still-raw skill set, we'll likely witness some slate-shifting hookups with Marcus Mariota this fall for DFS purposes. Of the discounted veteran tier, we should remember the 49ers' Torrey Smith opened his career with four consecutive top-24 fantasy finishes at the position in Baltimore and is due for a spike in targets in Chip Kelly's snap-happy scheme.
To follow up on Parker, the Fins' Ryan Tannehill attempted 88 passes that traveled at least 10 yards past the line last season, fifth most in the league. Last season, Parker was tied for 17th in fantasy points per game at the position from Week 12, when he began receiving heavy snap exposure. With his rich aforementioned RELAY rate in place, shares of Parker around his current ADP (30th at the position) could prove profitable.
We find Washington's DeSean Jackson going just ahead of Parker in drafts so far, on average, as the renowned big-play burner dominated on deep balls even during last season's injury-plagued campaign. The chart below details fantasy points per target on targets of at least 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, with Jackson leading the pack after already finishing third in the league in RELAY. There will surely be some lean, low-reception outings for Jackson, but for investors willing to accept the variance of his production pattern at a draft price that seems to bake in these inherent risks, some big Sundays are still part of the portfolio.
The Colts' Luck has averaged the most "deep" attempts (10 yards past scrimmage) per game over the past two seasons. With vertical targets surely on tap for both T.Y. Hilton and Donte Moncrief, big plays should again prove common for the Colts in 2016. Even second-year sleeper Phillip Dorsett could flash as a vertical weapon worthy of deep-league and DFS interest.
It's also interesting to see Tampa's Jameis Winston appear on this vertical passing index, as Mike Evans is due for a healthy correction in touchdown and big-play production heading into his third campaign. Below, you'll find the leading signal-callers in passes of at least 10 yards past the sticks since 2014.