Statistically Significant: Yards Per Route Run


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Statistically Significant: Yards Per Route Run

Recently, I tweeted about how well various stats predict a WR’s fantasy points per game in the following season. For many, this raised a question: Why do we bother with advanced stats like yards per route run (YPRR) if simpler ones like last year’s fantasy points and receiving yards per game (YPG) are more predictive?

I want to be very clear: as efficiency stats go, YPRR is close to the best (outside of one of my pet metrics I discuss here — first downs per route run). If you want to learn about my nitpicks with YPRR, read that article. In today’s article, I’m going to ardently defend its usefulness.

Across the entire player pool, there are indeed more predictive metrics than YPRR. But predicting the entire player pool should not be our goal if we want to win fantasy leagues, because fantasy football is instead about finding edge cases in relatively few high-leverage spots each season.

For example, it’s intuitively more important to get one’s Round 1 pick right than one’s Round 12 pick. If we had a stat that would give you a 100% hit rate in Round 1, you wouldn’t care how useful it is in Round 12. If we had a stat that did nothing but predict next year’s power-law players, it would be the most important and impactful one in all of fantasy football. How well it would predict whether Gabe Davis will average 7.0 FPG or 12.0 FPG is immaterial.

Speaking of finding important edge cases, simple metrics like FPG are often ineffective at this. That’s because a player’s cost (ADP) is largely a function of their recent FPG; it is almost always “priced in.”

That’s fine for a WR entering Year 6 with the same QB on a team whose roster and coaching staff have not changed. But what if he has a new QB or offensive coordinator that will lead to higher-quality targets or higher pass volume? What if he’s young and entering a possible breakout year? What if he’s received new target competition? These are critical evaluations every year, where simply copy-pasting the most predictive overall stat as your rankings will leave you woefully unequipped for success.

How does YPRR help? Most directly, dividing a player’s yards (the measure of his results) by his routes run (a minute and standardizable unit of volume) gives us a good hint of how well he might respond to his volume changing. It also allows us to more meaningfully compare players across different teams with different overall pass rates. In other words, it’s a good approximation of overall ability and skill.

That makes YPRR an incredible tool for evaluating:

  • A rookie who was a part-time player until Week 11

  • A player who is the subject of trade rumors

  • A player who was knocked out of several games early due to injuries

  • A player whose entire coaching staff was fired, or

  • A WR who played with five different quarterbacks.

As they’re relevant to 2024, I will tackle all of those cases below. But to provide a few past examples:

  • A.J. Brown’s 2.59 YPRR with the Titans in 2021 ranked top-5, though he averaged only 13.9 FPG. The following season, when traded to the Eagles and no longer stuck on one of the most run-heavy offenses in the NFL, he was a top-7 fantasy WR.

  • Though his playing time was somewhat limited over his first two seasons, Chris Godwin was perhaps the most obvious breakout candidate of all time entering 2019. He’d averaged nearly 2.00 YPRR over his career up to that point before exploding for over 1,300 yards and finishing as the WR2 overall in Year 3

  • In a part-time role in 2016, Adam Thielen also averaged nearly 2.00 YPRR. He was a fantasy WR1 in 2017.

  • In general, YPRR is excellent at spotting busts after only one year in the league. It’s a great stat to prevent yourself from buying into rookie face-planters like David Bell and Tyquan Thornton (or in 2024, probably Jalin Hyatt and Jonathan Mingo) when they inevitably receive hype during training camps.

  • Rookie season YPRR is also incredibly predictive for predicting positive career outcomes.

Let’s dive into 2023’s YPRR leaders with the help of the incredible Fantasy Points Data Suite, which you can get your hands on by locking in your subscription for the NFL Data Suite or All-In Bundle (20% off through March 31, 2024).

2023 YPRR Leaders

It should be no surprise that Justin Jefferson, CeeDee Lamb, Amon-Ra St. Brown, and A.J. Brown show up here — the most explosive, dominant, and productive WRs in the NFL top this list every single year. Let’s dive into the more surprising names, with an eye toward what their excellent 2023 efficiency could signal going forward.

Tyreek Hill, WR, Miami Dolphins YPRR Rank: Best, FPG Rank: 2nd-best, 2024 ADP: WR2

Though Hill is another “obvious” name, I wanted to dedicate a short section to highlight just how impossible his 2023 season was.

— Scott Barrett (@ScottBarrettDFB) February 18, 2024

Hill led the league in receiving yards despite hardly producing in 4th quarters, due to the Dolphins blowing teams out so frequently and perhaps wanting to save Hill’s health for when they needed him most. If Hill had run as many routes as CeeDee Lamb last season, he’d have compiled a mind-boggling 2,442 yards.

Hill has broken fantasy leagues, YPRR, every chart I try to fit him on, and the heart of anybody who has ever dared to fade him in DFS. In real NFL terms, he’s probably the most valuable non-QB in football. In fantasy football terms, he’s an easy top-3 pick.

Nico Collins, WR, Houston Texans YPRR Rank: 2nd-best, FPG Rank: 7th-best, 2024 ADP: WR9

In hindsight, Collins’ third-year breakout was predictable on multiple levels. I mentioned him by name in Age Curves after he led the Texans in YPRR during his sophomore season, tying D.J. Moore’s and Mike Evans’ 1.99 YPRR in games with Davis Mills. And it probably isn’t a coincidence that a fourth WR who played with C.J. Stroud in college is about to get drafted by the NFL in Round 1 (Marvin Harrison Jr.); which is to say, Stroud appears to be an elite talent elevator. It also isn’t a coincidence that Collins vastly outproduced all of Stroud’s former Round 1 receivers (that is, Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave, and Jaxon Smith-Njigba) in 2023.

This isn’t to say that Collins was solely carried by his QB, but it’s notable that Round 3 rookie Tank Dell also finished top-20 in YPRR (2.40) and that Noah Brown (2.11) suddenly became more efficient than Stefon Diggs in his sixth season. But for fantasy football purposes, I see this as a positive; it’s not as if anyone is casting doubt on Ja’Marr Chase’s stardom because he plays with Joe Burrow.

To give Collins his flowers for a moment, if not for whatever magic trick Tyreek Hill pulled this year, the Texans WR would own the best single season by YPRR over the past three years, a period that includes Cooper Kupp’s record-breaking and spreadsheet-destroying 2021 season. Collins finished top-6 in YAC/R and top-7 in MTF/reception, stats indicative of game-altering elusiveness, speed, and/or physicality. Both feats are made even more impressive by Collins’ 11.4 aDOT, as the archetype of WR that ordinarily experiences such success after the catch generally sees target depths closer to Deebo Samuel (7.5).

Regardless of how much of an outlier Collins’ season appears to be, I’m willing to buy into the idea that he is indeed a top-10 fantasy WR. Perhaps I’d hesitate if he were separated from Stroud and/or OC Bobby Slowik, but that’s not something we have to worry about in 2024.

Brandon Aiyuk, WR, San Francisco 49ers YPRR Rank: 3rd-best, FPG Rank: 15th-best, 2024 ADP: WR13

Aiyuk's appearance on this list is unsurprising, given that his quarterback just had the most efficient season of all time in yards per pass attempt and his playcaller’s penchant for helping to scheme downfield separation.

But Aiyuk wasn’t only benefitting from wide-open deep shots; 14.8% of his routes resulted in him converting a first down, the 2nd-best mark in the league. First downs per route run (1D/RR) is a similar, slightly more predictive offshoot of YPRR that helps weed out big-play receivers who got lucky in small samples. Aiyuk performing well in both metrics is an excellent sign.

Of course, there is rampant speculation about whether the 49ers might trade Aiyuk rather than extend him to address their impending salary cap crunch, but that would be an odd move for a team to make in the middle of a Super Bowl window. Given Brock Purdy’s unbelievably cheap rookie contract, this offense can easily be kept together for another year if the front office desires.

The best landing spots for Aiyuk would be teams with either a strong run game or a credible underneath threat to incentivize opposing defenses to play more of the single-high coverage against which Aiyuk thrives most. The Ravens (faced the most single high of any team last year) or Lions (9th-most) arguably represent situational upgrades. But if Aiyuk remains on the 49ers, the limited route volume resulting from their balanced offense makes it hard to rank him among the elites, as his YPRR ranking would indicate. His high-end WR2 ADP seems roughly appropriate.

Jaylen Waddle, WR, Miami Dolphins YPRR Rank: 5th-best, FPG Rank: 21st-best, 2024 ADP: WR22

As you can see above, Waddle’s per-route efficiency was built mostly from beating two high coverage, making him and our next player somewhat unique among this list. This is a winning formula for Waddle, as opposing defenses played two high against the Dolphins 59.5% of the time — the most of any team in the league — out of desperation to contain Tyreek Hill.

So why did Waddle’s season feel disappointing? Over the past three seasons, WRs have scored a TD for every 166 receiving yards on average — for Waddle, that ratio was a TD for every 254 yards last year. Given the offense on which Waddle plays and his long track record of hyper-efficiency (starting with his college career, and continuing into back-to-back top-5 finishes in YPRR in the NFL, as well as a top-3 finish in depth-adjusted yards per target over expected in 2022), it is not an exaggeration to call him the biggest positive TD regression candidate in the league heading into 2024.

Add that Waddle was consistently in and out of games with minor injuries throughout a major chunk of the season, and it’s easy to see the path for him to bounce back. He bested a 70% route share in only six games, averaging 17.5 FPG (would rank 7th-best) and 83.3 receiving YPG (10th-best). When we use YPRR – which relies on a more granular unit of volume than games played – it becomes clear he is being drafted at his floor.

Puka Nacua, WR, Los Angeles Rams YPRR Rank: 9th-best, FPG Rank: 6th-best, 2024 ADP: WR6

Nacua was the poster child for YPRR before he even entered the NFL. As powerful as the stat is for both prospect and rookie evaluation, it should be no surprise his college efficiency translated to the pros — in the form of a top-5 rookie season by YPRR since 2010.

Like Waddle, Nacua even ran somewhat cold in the TD department, scoring once for every 248 receiving yards and ultimately finishing with 2.7 fewer TDs than expected, given the depth and locations of his targets. Unlike Waddle, this is less an argument for positive regression in 2024 (though I suppose it doesn’t hurt) and more an acknowledgment that Nacua’s historic season could easily have been even more historic from a fantasy perspective.

I’m unsure it even matters how healthy the aging and slowing Cooper Kupp stays next year; with the pair sharing the field from Weeks 6-16, Nacua still averaged 75.5 receiving YPG (12th-best) and 2.62 YPRR (7th-best). From Week 7 on, Kupp ranked just 41st in YPRR (1.59). Every indication is that Nacua deserves his mid-range WR1 ADP, with the upside even existing for him to outperform that should he somehow reach even greater heights in Year 2.

Rashee Rice, WR, Kansas City Chiefs YPRR Rank: 10th-best, FPG Rank: 28th-best, 2024 ADP: WR14

At face value, we should get excited about a hyper-efficient rookie season from a WR tied to Patrick Mahomes. Underdog drafters have clearly done so, given Rice’s aggressive ADP. But there were a couple of concerns with Rice’s profile I want to push back against.

Rice’s 5.2 aDOT was the 2nd-lowest of any WR last year (min. 150 routes), only narrowly beating Hunter Renfrow. Very few recent WRs have been so efficient on such low target depth: Amon-Ra St. Brown (2022) and Kadarius Toney (2021) are the best comparisons. But even the Toney comparison can easily be spun as a positive, given Rice walked in and took the role the Chiefs had envisioned for Toney this year.

To further support the thinking that Rice’s role is more sustainable than it appears, as Denny Carter points out, nearly 65% of Mahomes’ attempts last year came within nine yards of the line of scrimmage. The Chiefs’ opponents deployed two high safeties at a top-10 rate, to which Mahomes responded by posting a 6.7 aDOT (3rd-lowest among 33 qualifying passers). Unless defenses decide they prefer to get torched downfield as they did for the first five seasons of Mahomes’ career, Rice’s role will continue to be incredibly valuable and important to the Chiefs’ offense.

Rice still performed very well when he was used as a more traditional WR. His YPRR falls from 2.62 (10th-best) to 2.41 (15th-best) if you remove screens — not too significant. He also still ranked top-15 when lined up out wide and led the Chiefs in YPRR on all attempts that traveled at least 5 yards downfield.

No matter how you slice the data, it’s pretty hard to make Rice look bad — the best you can do is merely well above average. After the Chiefs’ bye when Rice finally began running over 60% route shares, he averaged 80.0 receiving YPG (would have ranked 12th-best) and 17.1 FPG (9th-best) — so in that sense, his high-end WR2 price tag seems like a bargain.

The upside (Rice’s role and route inventory expanding in Year 2) is balanced fairly well against the downside (the Chiefs draft another WR with the 32nd overall pick — though that’s looking less likely after the team added Marquise Brown, who I do not see as a threat to Rice). And that upside should not be understated; again, Rice had one of the most efficient rookie seasons in recent memory.

Keenan Allen, WR, Chicago Bears YPRR Rank: 11th-best, FPG Rank: 3rd-best, 2024 ADP: WR26

It’s truly performance art by the early Underdog-drafting cognoscenti that Allen can have his most efficient season in years, finish top-3 in FPG, and be the only league-winning WR aside from Puka Nacua drafted after Round 3. Yet, I can paste the exact blurb I wrote about him last summer word-for-word, with minor adjustments:

We know his upside – Allen has ranked top-12 in FPG in each of the last six seven seasons. The discount you’re getting on Allen this year is likely a case of fantasy drafters over-predicting an older WR’s decline – coming from the age curves guy. I’ll run for the hills immediately when a player shows signs of aging, but Allen displayed nothing of the sort – his 2.30 YPRR (WR12) 2.56 YPRR (WR11) was as good as ever. At age 31 32, Allen could well have multiple years left in the tank.

Of course, Allen will now have much stiffer target competition in D.J. Moore after a surprise trade to the Bears. But given his recent track record (39.7% first-read target share, 2nd-best), he is positioned to earn a massive slice of Caleb Williams’ passing volume. This is arguably a better situation than the Jim Harbaugh-led Chargers, who now project as one of the run-heaviest teams in the league after parting ways with each of their top two WRs.

Amari Cooper, WR, Cleveland Browns YPRR Rank: 12th-best, FPG Rank: 17th-best, 2024 ADP: WR29

Cooper’s efficiency is even more impressive when you consider the QB play he dealt with. Just 69.8% of Cooper’s targets were catchable last year, the 10th-worst rate among 81 qualifying WRs. In six games with Dorian Thompson-Robinson, P.J. Walker, and Jeff Driskel, he averaged a 63.0% catchable target rate (2nd-worst) and just 7.9 FPG.

As much as I’d love to blame this on Deshaun Watson, Cooper’s catchable target rate shot up to 76.3% (would rank 48th), and his FPG up to 17.6 (6th-best) in Watson’s five starts. His luck with Joe Flacco was similar, averaging 23.1 FPG across four games due to drastically increased pass volume.

Cooper performed like an elite WR1 last season whenever he had better than league-worst QB play, including his 51.5-point performance in Week 16 which propelled countless teams through the semifinal round. If Watson returning is Cooper’s worst-case scenario next season, this context and his excellent YPRR point to him being clearly underpriced.

2023 YPRR Underperformers (Quick Hits)

Not every WR can be efficient. The following names stick out as particularly terrible among 112 qualifying WRs in 2023, considering the high hopes fantasy managers once held for this group.

Jahan Dotson (0.85 YPRR, 15th-worst) — Dotson ran the 3rd-most routes in the NFL last season but had just 80 targets to show for it, his 0.13 targets per route run (12th-worst) dangerously approaching Marquez Valdez-Scantling levels of wind sprints. He had a promising second half of his rookie season, but his failure to pass Curtis Samuel in the pecking order for a second straight season should be a death knell to any excitement you had for him.

Treylon Burks (0.93 YPRR, 18th-worst) — At least pre-DeAndre Hopkins signing, it was possible to talk yourself into Burks last summer based on the same second-half splits as Dotson. If you did, you had the pleasure of watching Burks be outclassed as a deep threat by Chris Moore (1.60 YPRR) and as a possession receiver by Nick Westbrook-Ikhine (12.0% first-read target share to Burks’ 9.5%). Second-half splits just for the sake of second-half splits will almost always fool you, especially for rookies, who always improve in the second half of the season…

Jonathan Mingo (0.81 YPRR, 12th-worst) — …unless it’s Jonathan Mingo, who maintained the exact same (dreadful) efficiency both before and after Week 10. We heard plenty of excuses about Mingo’s college production shortcomings (he was one of the least efficient college WRs we’ve seen of late to get meaningful NFL playing time), but they amounted to the least efficient rookie season this side of Tyquan Thornton. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that his 22.2% first-read target share was the best out of any WR ranking in the bottom-40 by YPRR, suggesting his inefficiency was at least partially on Bryce Young. Still, it’s overwhelmingly likely Mingo is a bust.

Quentin Johnston (0.96 YPRR, 20th-worst) — Efficiency is at least partially down to situation and QB play; just look at the amount of WRs in Shanahan/McVay-style systems who top the YPRR ranks, or at Amari Cooper’s splits by QB outlined above. So it’s especially biting when a Round 1 rookie cannot break 1.00 YPRR with Justin Herbert, on a team where Keenan Allen finished top-12, and even Josh Palmer eked out a top-40 finish. With a run-heavy offensive philosophy and likely another rookie pass-catcher on the way, it’s probably already over for Johnston.

Ryan is a young marketing professional who takes a data-based approach to every one of his interests. He uses the skills gained from his economics degree and liberal arts education to weave and contextualize the stories the numbers indicate. At Fantasy Points, Ryan hopes to play a part in pushing analysis in the fantasy football industry forward.