One thing is clear when looking at the regression which traditionally strikes wide receivers who score 10-plus touchdowns in a season. Consistently scoring touchdowns year on year is difficult even for the top talents in the game, and predicting which receivers will score a lot of touchdowns in a given season is equally hard. Luckily, there are two factors which can almost always be found in an elite touchdown season: opportunity and efficiency.
Opportunity is the most important of the pair. Every wide receiver in the top five of red-zone targets last season scored more than 10 touchdowns, and seven of the 11 wide receivers who scored double-digit touchdowns had more than 20 red-zone looks. Jeremy Maclin’s 13 red-zone targets were the lowest of any player who scored at least 10 touchdowns last season.
High efficiency does not lead to big touchdown numbers as often as high opportunity does – zero targets to even the most efficient receiver equals zero touchdowns – but red-zone efficiency is more helpful for identifying players who may be poised for a touchdown jump. Eight of the 11 wide receivers who scored double-digit touchdowns last season had better than a 30% red-zone conversion rate, but there were 21 players with a better than 30% rate who did not see the same touchdown success. Smart money says a few of those players will jump into the elite-touchdown scoring range in 2015.
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Calvin Johnson has seen wild swings in touchdown production in his career, but he has been fairly consistent in the red zone. Johnson has a 30% conversion rate on 144 career red-zone targets and has converted less than 25% of his red-zone targets just twice in his career.
His 33% conversion rate last season, then, was no fluke. The problem was Johnson saw just 15 targets inside the red zone, only one more than Golden Tate and his 14% conversion rate. Johnson may not get back to the 26 red-zone looks he saw in 2013, but a full slate of games (hopefully) could see him back around the 20 red-zone target range, making him a good bet for big touchdown numbers this season.
After not posting better than a 25% red-zone conversion rate through his first six seasons in the league, Brandon Marshall has become an elite weapon around the end zone late in his career. He has converted 23 of his last 63 red-zone looks and has posted a better than 34% red-zone conversion rate each of the last three years.
The question now that he is with the Jets is how many opportunities will Marshall see in the red zone? Marshall been targeted at least 20 times in the red zone six of the last eight seasons and has not had less than 15 in any year except his rookie season. No Jet receiver has seen more than 15 red-zone targets in the last three years, but the offensive situation in New York has changed.
Chan Gailey is now calling the shots for the Jets’ offense, and while his offenses in Buffalo did not create prolific wide receiver touchdown numbers, Stevie Johnson did average almost 18 red-zone targets a season while playing for Gailey. Johnson never played with a No. 2 like Eric Decker, though, and unless the Jets’ quarterback situation magically improves, it is difficult to see a ton of scoring opportunities for Marshall. He would well to match the eight touchdowns he scored last year in Chicago.
Martavis Bryant’s 44% red-zone conversion rate was almost double the league average, but it is not as high as expected for a player who scored a touchdown every six targets last season. In fact, given Bryant’s skill set and 6-4, 211-pound frame, the 44% conversion rate is not particularly unsustainable. Bryant’s career average could very well fall somewhere in the lower-30% range, and given more than the nine red-zone looks he saw last season, Bryant could easily match the four red-zone touchdowns he scored in 2014.
The issue is he is not going to score from 80 and 94 yards again, and though he will see a lot more targets this season, the majority of those will not come in scoring areas. Bryant certainly has the upside to be an elite touchdown scorer, but a repeat of the eight touchdowns he put up last season is the safe bet.
As a 6-3, 212-pound wide receiver with good ball skills, it is not surprising Jordan Matthews was successful in the red zone his rookie year. He scored on 38% of his red-zone looks and scored six of his eight touchdowns in the red zone last season. That is not too far above expectations for a player of Matthews’ size and abilities.
The surprising part of Matthews’ success was the lack of looks inside the 10-yard line. Only two of Matthews 16 red-zone targets and none of his touchdowns came from inside the 10. Mike Evans, another rookie with similar success inside the red-zone, scored four of his six red-zone touchdowns from inside the 10. Without those very close looks, Matthews’ effectiveness in the scoring area is even more impressive.
Matthews may not have much room for opportunity growth with the Eagles. He already led the team in red-zone looks last season, and even without Jeremy Maclin, the emergence of Zach Ertz and rookie Nelson Agholor should keep Matthews’ numbers in check. Still, his red-zone efficiency should remain steady, making another eight touchdown season a real possibility.
Cardinals’ quarterbacks only threw five fewer passes in the red zone last season than in 2013, but Michael Floyd saw his red-zone looks cut in half. Part of that could be because of Floyd’s reduced role in the offense in general, but there is a possibility the Cardinals made a conscious effort to minimize Floyd’s involvement in the red zone after he converted just 14% of his chances in 2013.
Considering Floyd saw no looks inside the 10 and three of his seven red-zone targets came in the final game of the season, the idea the Cardinals simply moved away from Floyd in the red zone feels likely. After Larry Fitzgerald and John Brown went a combined 1-for-18 from inside the red zone last season, it might be smart to give Floyd more looks this year. If he gets them, he could be a sleeper for a Torrey Smith-like season
Jordan Cameron has scored eight of his 10 career touchdowns inside the 20 including six inside the 10, and rookie Devante Parker profiles as a player who should win inside the red zone. Neither is a certainty for health, however, and if either is limited or out because of injury, Miami will need someone to pick up the slack in scoring territory. Enter Jarvis Landry and Greg Jennings.
Jennings is the easiest to trust of the two because he has a history of red-zone success. He has seen at least 10 red-zone targets every year of his career and has converted 28.5% of his red-zone looks. Those numbers could be inflated because a lot of those targets came with Aaron Rodgers throwing him the football, but he was very successful with Teddy Bridgewater last season. If he gets some of the 21 red-zone targets which left with Mike Wallace, he could find success.
Landry does not have the same history of success as Jennings, but he did show a knack for getting into the end zone last season by scoring all of his touchdowns from inside 15 yards. Landry is not targeted down the field and does not have the breakaway capability to score long touchdowns, but as long as he continues to see around 15 red-zone looks a season, he could be a sneaky five-to-seven touchdown player.
Kamar Aiken only has 32 career targets, so it is difficult to make any sweeping generalizations. Still, he scored on three of his red zone targets in the regular season, and he added another 19-yard score in the Ravens’ playoff loss to the Patriots.
With Torrey Smith gone, there are targets to seize in the Ravens’ wide receiver corps. Rookie Breshad Perriman is the rightful favorite to land the majority of those targets, but if he falters, Aiken would be the next guy in line. He is name to monitor is all leagues and decent flier in deeper formats.
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