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Splitsville: Diving deep into wide receivers

Michael Salfino
Yahoo Sports

Let’s start with wide receivers in this week’s Splitsville with a stat that I’ve been tracking for years, receiving yards per target.

Here’s the top 25, minimum 50 targets.

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Hakeem Nicks at 9.62 does not fit into the narrative that he’s a shell of his former self. Of course, he hasn’t scored a touchdown in more than a year and that’s terrible for his 2013 value. But looking toward 2014, I believe that this performance on all passes thrown to him is the better predictive tool. Nicks will probably have a change of scenery, too, as an impending free agent. Depending on where he lands, he could be a sweet 2014 draft-day value in the middle or even late rounds.

Victor Cruz is 8.77 by the way, above the average of 8.25.

There obviously are reasons why certain players lag in this category. Their quarterbacks could be terrible. They could be the first read on most plays and thus get tagged with targets on most throwaways when there is quick pressure and/or a missed assignment. But when a receiver does poorly in yards per target, it at least needs to be investigated and explained. It cannot be ignored.

So let’s look at big names below the 8.25 average.

Vincent Jackson (8.20), T.Y. Hilton (7.98), Dez Bryant (7.97), Larry Fitzgerald (7.37), Roddy White (7.34), Pierre Garcon (7.32), Julian Edelman (7.23), Mike Wallace (7.19), Cordarrelle Patterson (7.18), Julian Edelman (7.18), Wes Welker (7.14), Steve Smith (7.02) and Dwayne Bowe (6.92).

The Fitzgerald number is really interesting compared to Floyd’s elite performance in the top 25. Perhaps the extra attention Fitzgerald draws is creating easier targets for Floyd. But the obvious answer is that Floyd is just much better than Fitzgerald now. You could not pay me to draft Fitzgerald in 2014.

Looking at the receivers who don’t qualify with the target minimum, Kenny Stills is actually the NFL leader at 13.38 yards per target (37 targets). Justin Hunter, who I believe will be a 2014 bargain relative to Patterson, is a very impressive 9.57 yards per target (37). We can stick a fork in Miles Austin, too, by the way (179 yards on 37 targets, 4.84). Yet the Cowboys have benched Terrance Williams (9.61 yards per target) in favor of Austin because they are the dumbest team in football.

I think a better way to look at yards per target is to peg it to the team’s overall yards per pass attempt. I’m going to see how that charts this offseason. Let me know what you think of this approach in the comments. We really need to unlock the sleeper receivers because this is now the bread and butter of our game.

The outstanding ProFootballFocus ranks backs on their running only, which takes into account the blocking they received on each carry. So it’s not merely yards per attempt. It’s more like possible yards per attempt.

Here is their top 10 and note the widely available name here, someone most of the sharps have faded as a stiff blocking a superior player: LeSean McCoy, Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, Alfred Morris, DeMarco Murray, Eddie Lacy, Jamaal Charles, Ben Tate, DANIEL THOMAS, Arian Foster.

Knowshon Moreno’s 22nd-best run rating of 2.8 is pretty much identical to 23rd-ranked Montee Ball (2.7). For scale, McCoy’s is an off-the-chart 21.4. As I stated in the Scouting Notebook, McCoy is the No. 1 pick next year unless you decide to lock up Josh Gordon or Calvin Johnson (you won’t get an argument from me).

The worst backs in order of badness: Ray Rice, C.J. Spiller, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Trent Richardson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Rashard Mendenhall, Daryl Richardson, Darren McFadden, Bilal Powell, Bernard Pierce, Lamar Miller, Willis McGahee and Ryan Mathews (all are in negative territory). Note that Mathews' teammate Danny Woodhead is 3.2.

Finally, in Peterson’s absence, Toby Gerhart should do well as he’s an impressive 21st best, just ahead of Moreno. And the Vikings have the seventh best run-blocking line, too, according to ProFootballFocus’s grading.

This neatly brings me to a note on Twitter (@michaelsalfino) about how the defensive matchups did not work out in Week 14 (the good passing defenses were torched). I feel badly about that but this does not surprise me. Using defensive strength to determine your offensive matchups is a delicate operation. It works for average players in average offenses. Superstars and/or players in great offenses are matchup-proof because, as I’ve repeatedly said here and everywhere I can say things, offenses control outcomes. Think of offenses as having the stronger gravity, pulling defenses to their level of established performance rather than vice versa. And this goes for bad offenses, too. This is why fantasy football defenses should be streamed, for example. And yes, it’s been quantified by the stat guys. About two thirds of the outcome of a play is GENERALLY determined by the offense, the remainder by the defense. And, of course, offenses (and by that I mostly mean quarterbacks) can just have a bad day, too.

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