Using air yards to find fantasy football sleepers in 2021


Have you ever heard of “air yards”? Air yards are predictive and useful in identifying fantasy football sleepers. The metric can answer a lot of questions as you look to gain an edge in your redraft, keeper, and dynasty fantasy football leagues.

Air yards defined

Air yards have been around for years, but FiveThirtyEight writer Josh Hermsmeyer popularized the metric. He also created related metrics RACR (Receiver Air Conversion Ratio) and WOPR (Weighted Opportunity Rating).

Air yards indicate how far a pass traveled in the air before it was caught. This and targets are useful in answering two questions: 1) Which receiver does the offensive coordinator and quarterback want to throw the football to? and 2) And what types of routes are certain receivers running?

A wide receiver’s fantasy production is dependent on multiple things happening in succession. The receiver runs a route as outlined in their team’s playbook and earns a target by separating from a defender.

Then, the receiver needs to make the catch. The quarterback’s accuracy and the depth of the target influence this action, with shorter passes having a higher catch percentage than deep passes.

Completed air yards vs. incomplete air yards

Air yards can be split into two types: completed and incomplete. Completed air yards are typical receiving yards minus yards after the catch. Incomplete air yards consist of targets that did not become a reception, were dropped, or were broken up by a defender.

You get total air yards when you combine completed and incomplete together. The metric is handy in understanding which receivers offenses would like to feature. Let’s also briefly discuss the other metrics Hermsmeyer created that I mentioned earlier. 

Other advanced metrics using air yards

If you divide receiving yards by total air yards, you get RACR. The metric boils down to yards per target divided by aDOT (Average Depth of Target), which ESPN’s Mike Clay created. This metric tells you how deep a wide receiver ran his route and how many air yards he saw per target on average. RACR essentially combines catch rate and yards after the catch into one metric.

Have you ever wondered how efficient a receiver was at the depth of target he was targeted the most? WOPR is a weighted combination of the share of team targets a player receives and the share of team air yards. You may also be wondering what other frequently referenced stats are reliable indicators of future performance for receivers.

Most predictive wide receiver stats

Air yards, aDOT, and targets are solid metrics to use when predicting yardage for receivers. A receiver’s receptions and receiving yards are simply the results of those targets.

Efficiency metrics are fun but not practical

Efficiency metrics can fluctuate from one season to the next. Catch rate and touchdown rate are great examples of these. I can almost hear you thinking about red-zone targets. It is a measure of opportunity but does not guarantee a receiver will score more touchdowns.

Bringing it all together

In conclusion, air yards are correlated highly to fantasy point production. Like targets, it helps quantify a receiver’s opportunity. Here is an example of one NFL receiver who is a sleeper in 2021 based on the advanced metric.

Michael Gallup is a late-round gem you shouldn’t pass on in drafts

Michael Gallup is often viewed as an afterthought when evaluating the Cowboys’ receivers. He was inconsistent on a week-to-week basis in 2020. Nonetheless, Gallup recorded three WR1 outings last season, averaging 26 PPR fantasy points per game. He saw increased target volume after the Cowboys’ Week 10 bye week with Dalton under center.

Gallup finished the year with the most receiving air yards (1,243) among Dallas receivers. His RACR was only 0.68, though the return of quarterback Dallas Prescott will help increase that number in 2021.

There is a good chance that Gallup will finish with the third-most targets in 2021, behind Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb. Still, it is worth noting that all three of the Cowboys’ receivers could exceed 100+ targets. Dallas should pick up offensively in 2021 where they left off with Prescott last season.

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Be sure to follow us on Twitter (@PFN365) to stay current with all things around the NFL and the upcoming 2021 fantasy football season. Also, continue to visit Pro Football Network for NFL news and in-depth analysis while also visiting our fantasy football section for more coverage and up-to-date rankings.

Eric is a Senior Fantasy Analyst for Pro Football Network and a member of the FSWA (Fantasy Sports Writers Association). You can read more of his work here and follow Eric on Twitter @EricNMoody.

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