Targets and receiving yards can only tell you so much about an NFL receiver’s performance.
Consider two wideouts who both finished a week with 12 targets each. Their receiving totals—89 and 56 yards, respectively—begin to tell a story but don’t illustrate the full picture. Where was a player targeted on the football field? How much of a receiver’s yardage came from the throw itself compared to yards after the catch? Were the deep shots where the receiver didn’t come down with the ball meaningful?
Enter air yards, first introduced to the fantasy community by Josh Hermsmeyer in 2016. Air yards are the amount of yards a pass travels in the air, and the metric can help identify how a receiver is being utilized. Ratchet up a receiver’s average depth of target (aDOT) and widen the range of outcomes:more deep shots but decrease the likelihood of those targets being caught. Tone down a receiver’s aDOT and generate more consistency: more short and intermediate looks and increase the chances the receiver can make good on those targets.
We’ll take a look at who led the NFL in air yards every week and also go one step further. Air yards can be further split into “prayer yards.” Prayer yards are just what they sound like—air yards on passes that are deemed uncatchable. In other words, targets that the receiver doesn’t have a prayer of catching. Prayer yards lead to a player’s boom-bust potential.
Sources for all data can be found at the end of the article.
On to Week 2:
Week 2 Summary
Tee Higgins (WR, CIN) Bounces Back
After leading the NFL in prayer yards (140) and laying a goose egg in Week 1, Higgins scored 28.9 PPR points and finished as the WR4 in Week 2. He did Tee Higgins things, using his size to come down with two goal-to-go touchdowns, and his 138 air yards per game ranks third in the league. Moving forward, the concern shifts to Joe Burrow’s right calf and what this passing attack looks like if Burrow is not at 100%. The Bengals enter a potential get-right stretch against the Rams, Titans, Cardinals and Seahawks.
Nico Collins (WR, HOU) Breaks Out
Collins had a career-best performance against the Colts, catching seven balls for 146 receiving yards and one touchdown. Surprised by his role? Don’t be. The third-year wideout had the third most air yards in Week 1 (158) and, in 2022, saw more prayer yards as a percentage of his total air yards than any other player not named Kyle Pitts. He’s finally benefiting from improved quarterback play, and the Texans and C.J. Stroud should only improve as their offensive line gets healthier.
Puka Nacua’s (WR, LAR) Role Is Legit
Nacua’s play has been reminiscent of Robert Woods in the new, surprisingly potent Rams offense. As a result, the rookie from BYU leads the NFL in catchable targets (28, five more than Justin Jefferson) and ranks third in catchable air yards (194). Sean McVay can’t keep getting away with it, can he? Regression will hit over the course of the season but, for now, Nacua looks like a bonafide Top 24 wide receiver. Nacua’s target profile suggests there’s hope for a meaningful role even when Cooper Kupp returns.
Week 3 Lookahead
Expect Bigger Games from Mike Williams (WR, LAC)
Williams had a ho-hum Week 1 and rebounded with a respectable WR24 performance on eight catches, 83 receiving yards and 160 air yards. Williams’s 123 prayer yards were the second highest in Week 2, mostly coming on a 43-yard throw into double coverage and another 42-yard shot near the sideline.
He now faces a blitz-happy Vikings defense that surrendered 18.8 PPR points to Mike Evans in Week 1 and 23.1 points to DeVonta Smith last week. The familiar boom weeks will come for Williams, eventually. The Chargers-Vikings matchup has the highest over-under (54.5) of the week, which brings us to …
… Expect a Shootout Between the Chargers and Vikings
The Chargers secondary has faced communication issues, and it’s proven out by the numbers: Brandon Staley’s defense has surrendered the second-most passing plays of 20-plus yards (11) and ranks dead last in average EPA (expected points added) per play allowed against play action passes. Up next? The Vikings, who have dialed up play actions more frequently (22.9%) than any other team besides the Giants.
Rookie wide receiver Jordan Addison has been used exclusively in three wide receiver sets. When he’s been on the field, Addison is a deep threat. His aDOT is 15.5 yards—ninth highest among all receivers with at least five targets—and he saw 50 prayer yards on two targets in Week 2. Jefferson and tight end T.J. Hockenson should thrive in this matchup, but Addison could also benefit if the Chargers don’t get their secondary in order.
Kendrick Bourne (WR, NE) is Who Everyone Wanted Tyquan Thornton to Be
There was a brief moment early in the offseason where the fantasy community thought Tyquan Thornton could be a breakout receiver as the Patriots’ deep threat. It turns out that player is actually Bourne, for all the positives and negatives of that role.
The positives: Bourne has averaged 156.5 air yards—second-best in the NFL—and has played on 92% of snaps when the Patriots are in three wide receiver sets. The negatives: With DeVante Parker back in the lineup, Bourne only played on 41% of New England’s snaps in 12 personnel and his prayer yards (128) led the league in Week 2. Bourne can be seen as a boom-bust option if he’s not an every-down receiver moving forward, especially if the Patriots pass rate (71%) ticks down.
Are Tank Dell (WR, HOU) and Marvin Mims (WR, DEN) here to stay?
Rookies Dell and Mims both eclipsed 20 PPR points and 90 air yards, but in vastly different ways. Dell’s average depth of target (7.2 yards) sat closer to the line of scrimmage and he received consistent snaps (88% snap rate in 11 personnel, 73% in 12 personnel). Mims only ran six routes, averaged 56.5 air yards per target and hauled in a 46-yard moon ball from Russell Wilson for the bulk of his fantasy points.
Dell had four first-half targets and his route rate jumped from 46% to 82%, a sign that he has carved out a meaningful role in the Texans’ offense. Mims still needs to climb past Lil’Jordan Humphrey and Brandon Johnson on the depth chart.
Daniel Jones (QB, NYG) Pushes the Ball Deep
The Giants offense looked anemic in the first half against the Cardinals, and then Jones went long. He completed two of three passes of 30-plus yards in the second half, leading to a touchdown on one drive and the game-winning field goal on the other. Wideouts Darius Slayton and Jalin Hyatt soaked up those targets and had 208 air yards between them, but both are only high variance plays at the moment. Monitor Hyatt’s snaps to see if he develops into something more than a rotational player. Additionally, Darren Waller led all tight ends with 76 air yards, and Jones continuing to throw deep would be beneficial for his pass catchers.
Quick Prayer Yards Notes
- Garrett Wilson’s (WR, NYJ) outlook appears dire with Zach Wilson as his QB.
- On the other hand, Baker Mayfield has been just fine for Mike Evans (WR, TB), who has the second-most catchable air yards in the NFL. We’ll see if that continues.
- Elijah Moore (WR, CLE) had the 10th most prayer yards (68) in Week 2 and should have better days ahead. The Browns are having Moore run routes out of the backfield to get 1-on-1 matchups against linebackers.
- Yards, receptions, touchdowns, air yards and EPA pulled via nflverse
- Catchable air yards, prayer yards and play action data from FTN Data via nflverse
- Personnel data pulled from Joseph Hefner’s formations app
- Route participation pulled via Fantasy Life’s Utilization Report