Fantasy Football: Don’t Stop Living In the Red

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METAIRIE, LA - JUNE 08: New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) participates in drills during team OTA workouts on June 08, 2017 at New Orleans Saints Training Facility in Metairie, LA (Photo by Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

In 2009, the NFL Network created “NFL Redzone,” which is an exclusive channel broadcasting every single touchdown that occurs on Sundays between 1:00 pm and 8:00 pm. When an NFL team enters the red zone (from the 20 yard line to the goal line), the channel immediately switches to that game and broadcasts live. The coverage often leads to multiple games being shown on one screen, sometimes as many as four games being shown at once. It is an very popular channel among fantasy football fans, who get to watch uninterrupted, commercial-free action for seven consecutive hours. It plays perfectly into the two main characteristics of the fantasy football community;

Fantasy football players love scoring and have incredibly short attention spans.

Which brings us to the heart and soul of weekly fantasy football battles: the red zone. Watching a player on your fantasy team with the ball in the red zone is pure nirvana. Regardless of the position they play, it is that immediate possibility of scoring that tantalizes the fantasy brain.

When deciding between multiple players during your fantasy draft, it is important to assess the respective red zone efficiency. This can mean the difference between a fantasy steal or bust. Should you take Drew Brees of Aaron Rodgers? Mike Evans or Antonio Brown? Devonta Freeman or DeMarco Murray? The answer lies in the red zone.

Here are this season’s best projected red zone players by position.

(All statistics from PlayerProfiler and Pro Football-Reference).

Fantasy Football: Don’t Stop Living In the Red

Quarterbacks

1)  Drew Brees (New Orleans):

No fantasy quarterback is more prolific in the red zone than Drew Brees. He was the only quarterback with at least 65 red zone pass attempts that attained a 60 percent completion percentage on throws inside the 20 yard line and 10 yard line. Brees led the league with 113 total red zone pass attempts and was second in red zone completion percentage (65.5 percent). He is pure fantasy gold, and is the best red zone quarterback in fantasy football.

2)  Aaron Rodgers (Green Bay):

Ranking just a notch below Drew Brees is Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The Green Bay star quarterback finished second in red zone pass attempts (108), and red zone passing yards (384). Rodgers was the most accurate passer inside the 10 yard line, with an incredible 67.4 percent completion percentage last season. He threw a league leading 24 touchdown passes inside the 10 yard line, with zero interceptions. Rodgers remains one of the best red zone quarterbacks in football.

3)  Tom Brady (New England):

Brady is just as efficient as Brees and Rodgers, but simply lacks the red zone volume. While only playing 12 games last season, Brady finished with the best red zone completion percentage at 69.2 percent. In a full 16 game schedule in 2015, Brady ranked fourth overall with 87 red zone attempts, while leading the league with 27 red zone touchdown passes. New England was much more likely to run the ball at the goal line, thus Brady’s ranking falls below Brees and Rodgers. However, with LeGarrette Blount‘s departure, it would be easy to see Brady vaulting up to the top spot this season.

4) Philip Rivers (Los Angeles Chargers):

One of my most targeted fantasy quarterbacks is Philip Rivers, who has incredible red zone pass volume. In 2013, Rivers was fifth with 91 red zone pass attempts (91). In 2016, Rivers was third with 101 red zone pass attempts.  The commonality in those two years was the presence of offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt.  In the two seasons in-between, Rivers only averaged 73 red zone pass attempts. Also, since becoming the starter in 2006, Rivers has never missed a regular season game. He is rated below the big three because of his mediocre 47.1 percent red zone completion percentage (29th among quarterbacks). With a current QB15 ADP, Rivers is one of the best values in all of fantasy.

5)  Sam Bradford (Minnesota):

Many will be surprised to see Bradford on this list, but he absolutely deserves to be here. He completed 64.1 percent of his red zone passes, second best among all quarterbacks with at least 65 attempts. Bradford broke the all-time NFL record for completion percentage when he ended the season at 71.6 percent. He is extremely accurate under pressure as well, leading all quarterbacks with a 45 percent Pressured Completion Percentage. This was behind an injury ravaged Minnesota offensive line, and without the benefit of training camp after being traded from Philadelphia in early September. The best news for fantasy owners is that Bradford isn’t even getting drafted in most seasonal leagues with a current QB24 ADP.

Best of the Rest:

  • Matt Ryan (Atlanta Falcons):  100 red zone passing attempts in 2016, only averaged 69 in prior two seasons. No Kyle Shanahan = regression?
  • Andrew Luck (Indianapolis):  Still not throwing yet, only one season with over 72 red zone pass attempts
  • Derek Carr (Oakland):  High red zone volume (92 pass attempts), very low red zone completion percentage (47.8 percent)

Running Backs

  1.  David Johnson (Arizona):

    The “Red Zone King,” Johnson received 73.6 percent of all Arizona red zone rushing attempts last season and was the only running back to receive over 80 percent of his team’s rushing attempts inside the 10 yard line. The closer the Cardinals get to the goal line, the more they rely on Johnson. He also tied LeGarrette Blount with 12 touchdowns scored inside the five yard line. With perfect blend of volume and success, no one can also boast the red zone efficiency that David Johnson does.

  2. Melvin Gordon (Los Angeles Chargers):

    Last season was a complete reversal in red zone efficiency for Melvin Gordon. In his rookie season of 2015, Gordon only had 12 red zone carries (48th among all running backs) and failed to convert a single touchdown. Gordon exploded last season, finishing tied for third with 50 red zone rushing attempts despite missing three games due to a hip strain. He received a league leading 85 percent of his team’s rushing attempts inside the five yard line, converting nine for touchdowns. Neither Branden Oliver nor Kenneth Farrow pose any threat to his workload. Gordon projects for as much red zone volume as any other back in the league.

  3. Devonta Freeman (Atlanta):

    Despite sharing carries with Tevin Coleman, Freeman continues to justify his expensive draft value because of red zone production. Freeman is an explosive dual threat, ranking third among all running backs in red zone rushing attempts and 16th in receiving targets. That versatility is only rivaled by Tennessee’s DeMarco Murray. Freeman has averaged 3.3 red zone carries per season in both 2015 and 2016. As long as he maintains that role, he will continue as one of the most valuable red zone running backs in the league.

  4. DeMarco Murray (Tennessee):

    Similar to Devonta Freeman, the only threat to Murray’s efficient red zone production is teammate Derrick Henry. Murray is a prolific running back working behind one of the best offensive lines in football. He tied for sixth with 40 red zone rushing attempts. Murray was one of the most dominant red zone running backs, receiving 66.7 of Tennessee’s rushing attempts inside the 10 yard line, and 75 percent of the teams rushing attempts inside the five yard line. Murray was also the only other running back (besides Freeman) to have over 15 red zone receiving targets as well. If he maintains his 2016 role, DeMarco Murray is a fantasy football RB1 lock.

  5. Jonathan Stewart (Carolina):

    One of the best running back values in all of fantasy football, Stewart is also a red zone machine. Despite playing only 13 games, he finished tied for sixth with 40 red zone carries. Of particular note were his 16 carries inside the five yard line, tied for fifth among all running backs. Those 16 carries represented 66.7 percent of the teams total rushing attempts from that distance. Historically, these carries have been dominated by quarterback Cam Newton. But in an effort to keep Newton healthy, Stewart’s touches at the goal line will continue to increase. With an ADP of RB45 (136.5), Jonathan Stewart is an absolute steal because of his massive red zone volume.

Best of the Rest:

Wide Receivers

  1. Jordy Nelson (Green Bay):

    The best red zone receiver in the NFL is Jordy Nelson, and it’s not very close. Nelson received 29 red zone targets in 2016, seven more than any other receiver. His 21 red zone receptions was first among all wide receivers, as were his 14 total touchdowns. Nelson was also the only wide receiver to reach double digit receptions inside the ten yard line. He is tethered to a Hall of Fame quarterback in Aaron Rodgers that averaged 7.2 red zone passes per game. Nelson is so efficient that his WR6 ADP is actually is a value.

  2. Michael Thomas (New Orleans):

    It was quite a first impression for the rookie from Ohio State University. Thomas tied with Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald for the third most red zone receptions among wide receivers. His 68.4 percent catch rate on those passes was higher than Jordy Nelson (65.5 percent), Demaryius Thomas (66.7 percent), and Michael Crabtree (57.1 percent). He has one of the most accurate red zone quarterbacks in league throwing him the ball, and has an additional 11 red zone targets from Brandin Cooks’ departure up for grabs this season. Thomas was particularly effective inside the ten yard line, where his six receiving touchdowns were second most among all wide receivers.

  3. Larry Fitzgerald (Arizona):

    Even at 33 years old, Fitzgerald is “Mr. Consistency” in the red zone. Each of the last two seasons he has totaled 13 red zone receptions, ranking fifth among all wide receivers both times. Fitzgerald ranked fifth overall with 20 red zone targets and was one of only four wide receivers with a 65 percent red zone catch rate or higher. The closer the Cardinals got to the goal line, the more likely they targeted Fitzgerald, who accumulated 31.6 percent of all Arizona targets from within the 10 yard line. One of the most reliable receivers in the NFL, Fitzgerald’s sure hands and high target volume make him an easy top five red zone wide receiver in 2017.

  4. Golden Tate (Detroit):

    When Calvin Johnson retired prior to the 2016, most fantasy experts projected a huge increase in red zone targets for Golden Tate. Those targets unfortunately went to Anquan Boldin, who finished second among all wide receivers with 22 red zone opportunities. However, with Boldin’s departure, Tate is looking at greater opportunities as the slot wide receiver.

This should mean an increase in his already substantial red zone target volume. In 2016, Tate ranked tied for 13th among all wide receivers with 17 red zone targets. He was the only wide receiver with at least 16 red zone targets to only log one touchdown catch. Given the Lions rushing trouble (30th in team rushing yards last season) and offensive line woes, Tate should see high volume from one of the most active red zone passing quarterbacks in Matthew Stafford. With three consecutive 90 plus catch seasons, Tate is a huge fantsy buy at his current WR23 ADP.

5. Antonio Brown (Pittsburgh):

The thought is that Brown’s low 2016 red zone production was an outlier and not the beginning of a trend. His 23.4 red zone target share only ranked 20th among all wide receivers, and Brown finished a pedestrian 17th among wide receivers with nine total red zone receptions. However, he ranked second among all wide receivers with 33 red zone targets back in 2014, and second again with 23 targets in 2015. The only drawback for Brown remains quarterback Ben Roethlisberger‘s mediocre 53 percent red zone completion percentage over the last two seasons.

Best of the Rest:

  • Odell Beckham (New York Giants):  21 red zone targets in 2016, but only 42.8 percent catch rate. Eli Manning only 55.5 red zone completion percentage combined with Brandon Marshall presence limit opportunities
  • Michael Crabtree (Oakland):  Six red zone touchdowns in 2016, is outlier. Carr below 50 percent red zone completion percentage and Marshawn Lynch presence greatly reduces projection
  • Mike Evans (Tampa Bay):  Only nine red zone receptions (17th among all wide receivers) in career season. Defenses force Winston to secondary red zone options.

Tight Ends

  1. Kyle Rudolph (Minnesota):

    Somehow, Kyle Rudolph is still very much underappreciated by the fantasy football community. Last season, he led all tight ends with 24 red zone targets, six more than Antonio Gates. Rudolph was deadly inside the 10 yard line, where he garnered 34.5 percent of the Vikings passing targets. He was first among all tight ends with 15 receptions, and quarterback Sam Bradford set an all-time single-season completion percentage last year. Rudolph is currently the sixth tight end drafted, slightly ahead of Hunter Henry who splits time with Gates. In addition, Rudolph led all tight ends in total targets with 132. He possesses one of the most baffling ADPs in all of fantasy football.

  2. Greg Olsen (Carolina):

    Quarterback Cam Newton‘s best receiver is tight end Greg Olsen. His 129 targets ranked second among all tight ends behind Rudolph last season. Olsen is one the most consistent tight ends scoring threats, with an average of 9.5 red zone receptions over the last four seasons. He has ranked either first or second on the Panthers in target share each of the past two seasons. With Can Newton reducing his running volume, Olsen will see an uptick in red zone targets which can only increase his superior red zone efficiency.

  3. Coby Fleener (New Orleans):

    Another one of my favorite late round fantasy tight ends. Fleener had a slow adjustment to the high powered New Orleans offense. However, he did receive the same amount of red zone targets (16) as Hunter Henry and Greg Olsen. He has an outstanding fantasy quarterback in Drew Brees, and had 10 red zone targets over the last seven weeks. With Brandin Cooks leaving for New England, and Michael Thomas drawing the defensive focus, Fleener is a tremendous value at his current TE14 (132.6 ADP).

  4. Rob Gronkowski (New England):

    When healthy, Gronkowski is a dominant fantasy tight end. His red zone dominance however, is slightly overstated.

Gronkowski is a solid red zone option, but not the best red zone fantasy tight end. He has missed 19 games over the last four seasons, and is hurt by Patriots game scripts. New England prefers to run the ball near the goal line, and often holds a substantial fourth quarter lead over their opponent. Gronkowski certainly is a strong tight end red zone option, but his position dominance in that area isn’t as great as most fantasy drafters believe.

5.  Travis Kelce (Kansas City):

Finally, the Chiefs took the reins off Travis Kelce and let him free last season. His red zone volume has never been an issue (11, 10, and 16 targets each of the last three seasons), but his overall targets finally started to increase. Last season, Kelce produced a 22 percent Target Share, same as in 2015. With Jeremy Maclin‘s departure, the Chiefs possess limited red zone weapons, meaning even more opportunity for Kelce. The only reason he isn’t higher on this list is because the Chiefs’ much less explosive offense than the teams listed above.

Best of the Rest:

  • Martellus Bennett (Green Bay):  Uber-athletic tight end must share targets with Richard Rodgers, and strong wide receiver trio
  • Delanie Walker (Tennessee):  As efficient as any tight end in football, but turning 33 during the season. Titans added red zone magnet Eric Decker during offseason
  • Antonio Gates/Hunter Henry (Los Angeles Chargers):  Henry works majority of field, Gates works red zone. At 37 years old, Gates limits himself and Hunter simultaneously

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