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In this 2009 kickoff Football by the Numbers, let's look at the stats that matter most at each position.
You know you have something when stats correlate pretty neatly with fantasy scoring productivity. Then, you look for the outliers – guys who were good at the stats but not so good at scoring. And vice versa, too – guys good at scoring without the solid foundation of commensurate performance in our key stats.
Once we establish the best under-the-radar stats, we buy or sell the outliers based on current market value as determined by our friends at MockDraftCentral.com.
The key number for quarterbacks is yards per pass attempt. A QB with a better than 7.5 YPA will finish top 10 in TD passes four times out of five. And an 8.0 YPA or better gets you in the top five of the TD pass leader board with similar frequency.
In 2009, nine QBs finished at 7.5 YPA or better. And three of those (Philip Rivers(notes), Drew Brees(notes) and Matt Schaub(notes)) were 8.0 or better. Two others, Jake Delhomme(notes) and Matt Ryan(notes), each finished at 7.9.
At wide receiver, the key stat is targets (times thrown to). Some colleagues focus on receiver yards per target (YPT). But I'm skeptical of that stat because it penalizes the No. 1 guys who are the first read and thus get most of the throwaway-type passes when blitzers get through. Also, it rewards the slot guys who never get the double team. Receiver YPT implies that a team's best receiver is the guy with the best YPT. But he might have that best YPT precisely because he's not thrown to that often.
Targets are simpler and better. That stat likes Santana Moss(notes) (11th in targets last year) more than the fantasy market and is relatively bearish on Lee Evans(notes) (36 less targets than Moss even before Terrell Owens(notes) strode into town).
The stat I like best for running backs is red zone touches. If you told me now who the leaders were going to be in that stat, I'd take them pretty close to that order. Its predictive value is great even in season (after about four or five weeks). Unfortunately, in the preseason, the predictive value of last year's red zone touches leaders is shaky. For example, no one would have predicted last August that Michael Turner(notes) of the Falcons would lead the NFL in red zone carries (76) because we had no way to assess the gestalt of the Atlanta's offseason player and coaching moves.
So there's more art and less simple modeling when it comes to our red zone data. We'll expand on our reasons below, but a guy I like for red zone touches based on last year's use and offseason moves is the Giants' Brandon Jacobs(notes). And the guy I'd avoid at his current draft position is Carolina's explosive DeAngelo Williams(notes).
Matt Schaub, QB, Texans: He's been a big YPA outlier for two years now. So, three strikes and he's out. But I'm back seeing if I can pump that well with him again. His 8.0 YPA is elite. Andre Johnson(notes) might be the best receiver in football. The Mike Shanahan offense lives on with disciple Gary Kubiak. Best of all, you can get Schaub relatively late (seventh or eighth round), right where I ideally take my first QB.
Santana Moss, WR, Redskins: The numbers lead me to Moss, who is going about 70th on average. He's 30 years old, but speed is the last thing to go with these little, fast guys. He scares me as someone else's No. 3 receiver. So I'd rather he be mine.
Brandon Jacobs, RB, Giants: The Giants led the NFL in red zone possessions last year (69). We sometimes lose the forest through the trees by ignoring team stats. Derrick Ward(notes) is now in Tampa Bay, so Jacobs should get all the goal line carries. I'd think hard on him at the end of the first round (he's currently going about 18th overall).
Donovan McNabb(notes), QB, Eagles: I like him a lot this year. But he was below league average in YPA last year – 6.9 for McNabb compared to 7.1 average. While McNabb will make up in quantity of passes what he may lack in quality, this at least cautions us to not reach above his ADP (62nd).
Lee Evans, WR, Bills: No one ever makes a profit on Evans. His last three Septembers, he has one total TD. Yet he's being drafted ahead of definite No. 1 guy Moss.
DeAngelo Williams, Panthers: When you run for 560 yards in the final four games and basically split red zone carries with another back (Jonathan Stewart(notes)) in those games, you personify the concept of limited upside.
Michael Salfino’s work has appeared in USA Today’s Sports Weekly, RotoWire, dozens of newspapers nationwide and most recently throughout Comcast SportsNet and NESN. Michael also covers the Jets and Giants each week for SNY.tv.