Everyone loves big plays.
When you are monitoring your fantasy matchup on Sunday and suddenly see your team gain five or six points out of nowhere, there is no better feeling. You know one of your players just caught a long ball and took it the distance. And some leagues award bonus points for such big plays, making some fantasy owners draft a bit differently. So I figured I’d take a look at some of the best big play wideouts in today’s game, and using ESPN’s vertical fantasy point metrics, see who you should be targeting for those big plays.
A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals
Vertical FPPG: 5.9 (1st)
No receiver in football had more fantasy points per game on vertical passes than Green, who continues to serve as the best receiver in football not named Calvin Johnson. At least, that’s how I feel. His 18 receptions of 20 yards or more were good for the 14th-most in football and his eight touchdowns on vertical passes tied for the league lead. And as a team last season, the Bengals ranked eighth in football in passing plays of 20-plus yards (57), and even with pass-friendly Jay Gruden gone, this team knows that, despite the emergence of running back Giovani Bernard, their best player still lines up on the outside on Sundays. Also, last year, Andy Dalton attempted 86 passes of 20 yards or more, second in the league only to Joe Flacco (via PFF), so this team wants to take shots down the field. 14.7 percent of Dalton’s attempts were vertical throws last year, and even with run-oriented Hue Jackson calling the plays, Dalton will still take his shots, and Green will be the one reeling them in.
Demaryius Thomas, Denver Broncos
Fantasy points on vertical targets: 96
When I think of Thomas, I think of an insane big-play receiver, but not one who does it hauling in long bombs for 70 yards. Nom instead, Thomas is the best screen receiver in football, coming off a season where he led the NFL in fantasy points on passes 10 yards or fewer (115), but he also has the ability to stretch the field and dominate on vertical passes. And is 96 fantasy points on those vertical throws was good for 10th-most in the league, but, interestingly enough, it was second on his own team, as Eric Decker netted 114 fantasy points on such throws. He has that ability, but more of his production will come off screens or quick slants. According to ESPN, nine of Thomas’ 14 touchdowns from last season came off of dink-and-dunk passes, but they will translate to big plays. Thomas finished tied-for-ninth in the league with 19 receptions of 20 yards or more, but considering Peyton Manning ranked 32nd among passers in average depth of target (8.3), expect more of a quick-hitting approach.
Brandon Marshall/Alshon Jeffery, Chicago Bears
The best wide receiver tandem in football, Marshall and Jeffery made big play after big play for this exciting Bears offense. When Jay Cutler was under center, this offense took more shots downfield than when Josh McCown was under center. Last year, 16.1 percent of Cutler’s pass attempts traveled 20 yards or more, the second-most in football. That helped Jeffery absolutely breakout in his second season in the league.
His 933 vertical receiving yards ranked second in football and his 590 receiving yards on stretch vertical passes (20+ yards) were the most in the NFL. Also, he had three touchdowns going for 45 yards or more, the fifth-most in the league. Meanwhile, Cutler is going to continue taking deep shots, as his 10.0 aDOT ranked 4th-highest among quarterbacks, according to PFF. Under Marc Trestman the god, this offense is going to be conducive to big plays, and Jeffery is one of the best.
Meanwhile, Brandon Marshall has been doing it for years. Over the last two seasons, no pass-catcher has accumulated more targets (355), and only one receiver has seen more vertical targets (173) than Marshall. We already discussed Cutler’s love for throwing it down the field, and Cutler has an elite rapport with Marshall, too.
Jordy Nelson, Green Bay Packers
Fantasy points on vertical throws: 118 (4th)
Nelson is one of the best vertical wideouts in the game that no one seems to ever talk about. His 118 fantasy points on such throws ranked fourth in the league, and accumulated for about 70 percent of his total fantasy point production in 2013. And only three receivers posted more plays of 20-plus yards than Nelson did a season ago (22). As long as Aaron Rodgers remains under center, Nelson should be drafted as a top-10 wideout. Last year, Nelson scored 123 fantasy points in the nine games Rodgers played, and just 49 points the rest of the contests. And with Rodgers, Nelson averaged 5.89 receptions, 0.78 targets and 8.78 targets per game, compared to 4.57/0.14/6.86 without Rodgers under center.
Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers
Brown was so, so good last year, and quickly made all Steelers fans forget about the departure of Mike Wallace. He finished as a top-seven fantasy wide receiver, and used his elite route-running and speed to make big plays for Pittsburgh and fantasy owners. According to ESPN, Brown’s 37 vertical receptions ranked fourth-most in the league, while his 11 stretch vertical catches ranked inside the top-10. Meanwhile, only DeSean Jackson and Josh Gordon posted more plays of 20 yards or more than Brown last year (23). And luckily, offensive coordinator Todd Haley got out of the way and let Ben Roethlisberger run the offense, as Ben ranked 10th among passers in vertical pass attempts, and his 93 fantasy points on vertical passes ranked inside the top-10 as well.
Stats provided by Pro Football Focus and ESPN Fantasy.