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Fantasy Football: What air yardage and aDOT data say about potential must-target receivers in 2021

Fantasy analyst Jacob Gibbs dives into the metrics to uncover top receiving situations that deserve your attention in drafts.
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The Fantasy football research process has become more efficient over time as the collective space has worked together to weed out the noisy stats and let the cream rise to the top. Generally speaking, today's most commonly referenced stats also are some of the most highly correlated to Fantasy production. If you're interested in advanced stats, I've put together an Advanced Stats Guide for Fantasy Football to help familiarize readers with the stats I reference the most frequently.

Today's topic is a simple but important staple of Fantasy football research: air yards. Air yards simply refer to the number of yards a pass travels in the air past the line of scrimmage.

There are a number of air yard-related stats that are referenced regularly in Fantasy analysis, and I'll provide some context on each before diving into the 2021 player-specific analysis.

Air Yards and Air Yardage Share explained

The correlation between air yards and Fantasy points (0.67) at the wide receiver position isn't as strong as the correlation between targets (0.76) and Fantasy points, but it still indicates that air yards are one of the most important raw stats available for pass-catchers.

As with any stat, understanding context is crucial when using air yards for Fantasy analysis. Not all air yards are created equal -- Jerry Jeudy's 1,620 air yards from Drew Lock certainly weren't worth as much as Davante Adams' 1,329 from Aaron Rodgers in 2020. Every season, outliers like Jeudy (fifth in air yards in 2020) and A.J. Green (eighth) are going to exist near the top of the leaderboard in air yards. I just take their results with a grain of salt, knowing that their probability of converting their air yards into receiving yards are markedly lower than the players who surround them on the leaderboard -- those are the players whose air yardage results are actually worth giving our attention to.

A player's air yardage share (AY%) represents the percentage of his team's total air yards that he accounted for in the games that he played in. AY% is especially useful when doing team-level analysis -- particularly when projecting forward and trying to understand how the receiving volume might be dispersed among a QB's pass-catchers.

From my experience, the most useful application of target and air yardage shares comes when evaluating a receiving corps that has undergone noteworthy personnel changes during the offseason. When it comes to in-season research, raw air yards generally take precedence over air yardage share; team-level situations just don't fluctuate much during the season, so raw air yards remain fairly predictable on a week-by-week basis. And at the end of the day, raw air yards of course correlate more closely with Fantasy scoring than air yardage market share.

Average Depth of Target (aDOT) explained

A player's average depth of target (aDOT) is a simple representation of his air yards per target. The league average among qualified receivers in 2020 was 10.6 yards. Typically, aDOT is best used as context to gain a better understanding of how a player is used -- I wouldn't expect it to be predictive of Fantasy output in the way that targets or air yards can be.

Generally, a higher aDOT is going to lead to a lower catch rate and more empty air yards. For example, being aware of the discrepancy in aDOT between Jeudy (14.5 yards) and Allen Robinson (9.7 yards) helps understand how Jeudy finished with nearly 200 more air yards than A-Rob, even though Robinson saw 40 more targets. It also helps make sense of the fact that Robinson converted his air yards into receiving yards at an 86 percent rate, compared to just a 53 percent rate for Jeudy.

If you want to take it one step deeper in understanding how a player is used, a player's average route depth is also important to consider. This stat offers the truest representation of how an offensive scheme is using a pass-catcher, and it generally goes hand-in-hand with aDOT.

Putting all of these air yardage-related stats together to gain a more complete understanding of which quarterbacks are willing to air it out and how NFL offenses are using their downfield weapons can give you a serious edge in Fantasy.

So which receivers do the target per route run data suggest are ones to avoid in Fantasy drafts? And which players does Gibbs expect a big step forward from with more playing time in 2021? ... Join SportsLine here to see the complete data and which players Gibbs is focused on in 2021 drafts!

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Jacob GibbsDFS Guru