Statistically Significant: First Downs Per Route Run


We hope you enjoy this FREE article preview! In order to access our other articles and content, including livestreams, projections and rankings, stat analysis and more, be sure to sign up today. We are here to help you #ScoreMore Fantasy Points!

Statistically Significant: First Downs Per Route Run

Yards per route run (YPRR) is an amazing stat for predicting breakouts and gauging the skill of WRs in fantasy football. I go into all the reasons why and how it can be used here. If you’re wholly unfamiliar, I’d suggest reading that piece first.

This article is not about YPRR, but rather an even better metric that I believe is comparatively underrated and underutilized. This different metric provides similar information but is quantifiably more stable and better at predicting next year’s fantasy points. For instance, last year, it would have helped you avoid landmines like Rashid Shaheed, Jerry Jeudy, Treylon Burks, and Rashod Bateman.

Presenting: first downs per route run (1D/RR).

Before you ask, the correlations above use PPR scoring. However, 1D/RR still beats YPRR at predicting a player’s FPG for the following season in half-point PPR (correlations of 0.70 and 0.69) and standard scoring (0.69 and 0.68) as well. The ideas discussed in this article apply to all scoring formats.

1D/RR is calculated by simply dividing a player’s total first downs by the total amount of routes they ran. First downs are a measure of a receiver’s ability to execute their route, earn a target, and convert it into a high-value reception that advances their team’s field position. Good receivers will do this more often, so when we divide by total routes to control for the volume of opportunities, we are left with an all-encompassing measure of WR skill and effectiveness.

Conceptually, it seems odd to prefer 1D/RR to YPRR. After all, it reduces a precise measure of production (yards) down to a binary yes/no indicator on each play — whether the player gained a first down. Shouldn’t we value a 30-yard reception more than a 10-yard reception? For an NFL offense deciding which play they would prefer to happen, the answer is obviously yes.

But we fantasy managers are not NFL offenses, and we are not choosing individual plays for our rosters — we are choosing players. Some players gain yards in less sustainable ways than others, sending out false signals about their actual ability via their YPRR. 1D/RR corrects this by giving a bonus to possession receivers — those who consistently win on their routes (remember, volume is efficiency) — while devaluing players who compile a large portion of their production on a handful of big plays.

1D/RR Leaders

You might be surprised to learn the top-10 WRs (min. 150 routes) by YPRR and 1D/RR in 2023 were the exact same players. The order is shuffled around a bit, but in general, WRs who place well in YPRR also place well in 1D/RR. You can use the two stats in the same way: as an all-in-one measure of target-earning and receiving efficiency, controlled for playing time and team pass volume.

If that’s all you need to hear, feel free to start sorting by 1D/RR in the Fantasy Points Data Suite to find potential breakouts, just as I’ve revealed Dontayvion Wicks below. Lock in your subscription today for 20% off the NFL Data Suite or All-In Bundle.

Though the two metrics’ uses are similar, know that 1D/RR gives us the most valuable information in the minority of cases where it disagrees with YPRR. If a player generated a lot of yards but relatively fewer first downs, that’s a signal they may not be as good as their YPRR efficiency suggests. Let’s identify these players so that you aren’t fooled and can avoid them in your fantasy drafts.

The Number-Crunching (if you don’t care for the math, just read the bolded areas)

I took every WR season over the past three years comprised of at least 150 routes. Based on that sample, I calculated a percentile rank for each player’s YPRR and 1D/RR. For example, in 2023, Chris Olave had an 85th-percentile YPRR (his 2.18 YPRR was better than 85% of other WRs) and an 89th-percentile 1D/RR (his 0.11 1D/RR was better than 89% of other WRs).

Then, I sorted players into three buckets:

  1. Big Play Merchants: those who ranked significantly better in YPRR than in 1D/RR — at least 10 percentiles higher.
  • Normal Players: those whose YPRR and 1D/RR percentiles were within 10 percentiles of each other (they ranked about the same in both stats).
  • Possession Merchants: those who ranked significantly better in 1D/RR than in YPRR — at least 10 percentiles higher.

Finally, I looked at whether each group became more or less efficient by YPRR in the subsequent year. Most Big Play Merchants (85%) were less efficient the following season, suggesting they got somewhat lucky in their original season. In this sense, they were the YPRR version of fool’s gold. 22 of the 26 players in this group experienced a decrease in YPRR the next season, with the decrease being greater than 0.5 YPRR for 10 of them.

Whether players in the other two groups improved or worsened their YPRR was essentially 50/50, so we can say Big Play Merchants are uniquely likely to regress negatively.

Players That 1D/RR Hates

If the above section was confusing (or you only read the bolded parts), don’t worry. In short, using 1D/RR, we’ve created a way to ascertain when YPRR is lying to us. We can immediately put this method to use by examining 2023’s Big Play Merchants, who are overwhelmingly likely to be less efficient in 2024, and who may be getting over-drafted based on the inflated perception their YPRR has created.

As you’ll notice from glancing at the below names, if YPRR has one weakness, it is that it tends to overrate one-dimensional deep threats (and also, occasionally, low-aDOT players who compile short gains without moving the chains). 1D/RR cuts through this noise

Deebo Samuel, WR, San Francisco 49ers YPRR Percentile: 91st, 1D/RR Percentile: 76th, 2023 FPG Rank: WR12, 2024 ADP: WR16

Samuel is the toughest player to pin down on this list because it’s well-known that his fantasy output relies on his ability to create big plays after the catch, an unsustainable model for most players. But he’s also led all WRs in yards after the catch per reception (YAC/R) during each of the past three seasons, so it’s difficult to call anything he does a fluke.

Additionally, we have seen Samuel be even more hyper-efficient than he was in 2023 — he sported a 98th-percentile 3.07 YPRR back in 2021 when he finished as the WR3 overall before his self-admittedly poor conditioning led to an injury-ravaged down year in 2022. Given that larger sample, I’m comfortable endorsing Samuel’s unique ability to maintain big-play-reliant production, and am not particularly offended at his ADP.

Jayden Reed, WR, Green Bay PackersYPRR Percentile: 87th, 1D/RR Percentile: 73rd, 2023 FPG Rank: WR26, 2024 ADP: WR32

Reed’s merely good 1D/RR compared to his incredible YPRR does signal a red flag. During his rookie season, 21.7% of Reed’s targets were from designed plays, the 6th-most of any WR and over double the sample’s average of 9.1%. Unlike fellow rookie and designed target hog Rashee Rice, Reed never grew into the role of a truly full-time WR. His 58.9% route share across the entire season actually fell slightly in the second half of the year.

Reed also ran 75.6% of his routes from the slot (6th-most). If he is truly a slot-only player and remains stonewalled by average-at-best talents like Romeo Doubs for reps in 2WR sets, we’ll never even get to find out whether he can maintain his efficiency over a larger route sample. Much less see the Year 2 breakout we’d normally get excited for after such an efficient rookie season. Reed’s ADP isn’t terrible, but I’ll prefer Christian Watson and Dontayvion Wicks at cost.

Jordan Addison, WR, Minnesota Vikings YPRR Percentile: 56th, 1D/RR Percentile: 44th, 2023 FPG Rank: WR30, 2024 ADP: WR37

When evaluating the many 2nd-year players appearing on this list, a helpful heuristic is to ask yourself: for this player to overperform expectations and break out, would he need to be more efficient than he was last year? Though I have my doubts discussed above, a player like Reed could simply earn more routes and a bigger role to take a step forward as a fantasy producer, even if his efficiency declines as his 1D/RR suggests.

Addison, on the other hand, already ran the 9th-most routes of any WR (559) and would require an efficiency bump from his mediocre 1.63 YPRR to rise above WR3 territory. That is looking less and less likely with Sam Darnold now the presumptive Week 1 starter in Minnesota. And historically speaking, Addison’s presence in the Big Play Merchant bucket means he’s very likely to be less efficient next year, especially if target black hole Justin Jefferson does not miss time as he did in 2023. As it stands, I am not particularly interested in Addison at cost.

George Pickens, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers YPRR Percentile: 88th, 1D/RR Percentile: 62nd, 2023 FPG Rank: WR36, 2024 ADP: WR34

In Pickens’ two college seasons, where he saw more than one target, he averaged just 3.2 and 3.4 YAC/R. As a rookie in the NFL, his 2.3 YAC/R ranked bottom-five among all WRs (min. 300 routes). His status as a contested-catch specialist with defects such as struggling to create separation and a penchant for immediately falling on the ground seemed cemented.

Then, Pickens went out and averaged nearly 6.6 YAC/R as an NFL sophomore, a top-10 mark that drove his surprisingly high 2.25 YPRR (20th-best). This is the opposite decision we face with Deebo Samuel — the overwhelming sample of Pickens’ career suggests he cannot maintain a diet of big plays comprised largely of yards after the catch, and his relatively lower 1D/RR marks him as a regression candidate.

Diontae Johnson’s departure and Russell Wilson’s arrival theoretically help Pickens, but in practice, they’ll mostly just serve to boost his ADP while Arthur Smith deploys one of the most run-heavy offenses in football. For perspective, Drake London commanded nearly a 28% target share (4th-best) as a rookie but averaged only 10.7 FPG (43rd). Pickens has never crested even a 21% target share, and will now be stuck in the same low-volume offense.

Rashid Shaheed, WR, New Orleans Saints YPRR Percentile: 63rd, 1D/RR Percentile: 39th, 2023 FPG Rank: WR48, 2024 ADP: WR58

“Big Play Merchant” may describe no player better than it does Shaheed; a mind-blowing 66% of his yards came on passes traveling 20 or more yards downfield. But in his case, the relative lack of first downs may not be such a bad thing, because absolutely nobody (least of all the drafters driving his ADP) expects Shaheed to develop into a more complete or consistent possession receiver. Last year, he had the same number of top-20 weekly finishes (5) as he did top-50 weekly finishes, making him the king of the “better in best ball” archetype (and also probably DFS).

Josh Downs, WR, Indianapolis Colts YPRR Percentile: 65th, 1D/RR Percentile: 44th, 2023 FPG Rank: WR52, 2024 ADP: WR49

On the surface, Downs had a moderately efficient rookie season in an offense led by a backup QB — signs that would ordinarily point toward a Year 2 breakout. In reality, Downs has Jayden Reed’s problem, but even worse: his 84.3% slot rate was 3rd-highest behind only Hunter Renfrow and Tyler Boyd. (In fairness, the Colts played 11-personnel at the 3rd-highest rate in the NFL last year, so unlike Reed, Downs should have an easier time getting on the field next year even if he does not develop on the outside).

Nevertheless, to give you an idea of how badly this caps Downs’ upside, the best season by a WR who ran more than 80% of their routes in the slot over the past three years was Christian Kirk’s 12.2 FPG on Kliff Kingsbury’s horizontal raid offense. Downs moving the chains at a well-below-average rate, even in this limited role, gives little incentive for the team to expand his responsibilities in 2024, making him a lower-upside pick than I’d originally assumed.

Jameson Williams, WR, Detroit LionsYPRR Percentile: 53rd, 1D/RR Percentile: 35th, 2023 FPG Rank: WR71, 2024 ADP: WR45

Half of Williams’ receiving yards in 2023 came on just four plays. That was enough to get him up to a respectable-seeming 1.59 YPRR, but 1D/RR isn’t fooled. Jared Goff threw deep at just a 7.3% rate last year, the lowest of any QB (min. 250 dropbacks). Williams has never hit 70 receiving yards during any of his 18 career games. Dan Campbell can cope in the media all he wants, but until proven otherwise, I view Williams as a less productive, more expensive Rashid Shaheed.

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.