Fantasy football is a game of numbers. Literally. Touches, targets, yards, touchdowns -- all of it adding up to determine a champion at the end of the season.
But for anyone with a little bit of fantasy experience, sometimes it's the numbers inside the numbers that can make a difference. It's great that Calvin Johnson is getting all sorts of targets, but what is he doing with them? What happens to running backs after a 300-carry season? How long can quarterbacks who run actually be productive? That's why I'm Going Deep.
Every week, I'll dig inside some of the numbers and try to figure out which players are the most efficient with their opportunities, which ones are primed for big things and which ones could be headed for a decline.
And since we were mentioning targets, let's begin with wide receivers. (Plus the name of the column is Going Deep ... so there's that.)
If you're looking for fantasy value at the wide receiver spot, you're generally looking for guys who are going to see the ball a lot. After all, it would have been hard for Megatron to set a single-season record for receiving yards without leading the league in targets. But any fantasy owner who watched the Lions star all season can surely recount their frustration over his five touchdowns.
Touchdowns are where it's at, right? Yards are great, but if your players aren't finding the painted area on a regular basis, it gets hard to win. So I decided to figure out which guys are the most efficient with their opportunties by breaking down the best in TD-to-Target ratio -- in other words, who finds the end zone the most often in relation to how many throws come their way.
First, one ground rule. I capped the minimum number of targets for a season at 56 (3.5 targets per game). Otherwise, someone like Kealoha Pilares would come out looking like a superstar. No offense to Mr. Pilares, but he is no one's fantasy football commodity.
But once you filter out the interlopers, what's left over includes a few surprises. James Jones' big season might have been bigger than we imagined. The Packers wideout not only set a career-high with 14 touchdown receptions, but more than 14 percent of his targets ended in the end zone. Similarly, Antonio Gates -- who isn't the tight end he one was -- did a lot with a little, edging his way into the top 10.
Contrast that with Calvin Johnson, who saw a league-high 204 targets but with just five TDs posted a ratio of .025. Then again, you wouldn't expect players with high target totals to have high TD-to-target ratios. Touchdowns don't grow on trees.
But it's not impossible to be a high-target guy and still be efficient with your chances. Take Eric Decker, for example. The Broncos receiver finished in the top 30 in targets last season -- more than 20 percent of the passes Peyton Manning threw in 2012 went his direction -- yet still took more than 10 percent of his chances to the house. Kyle Rudolph led the Vikings in targets (94) last season and made the most of them with nine touchdowns.
Lest you think I don't hear the orchestra warming up to introduce another episode of Small Sample Size Theater, I opened things up to look at the same numbers over a three-year span.
You'll immediately notice a couple of things -- Gronkowski and Jones are still hanging around in the top two. And there are a whole lotta Packers on this list (there's a reason Aaron Rodgers is the top-rated QB in fantasy).
Beyond that, the list is an interesting collection of players who (for the most part) wind up as quality reserve fantasy options. Yes, Dez Bryant and Julio Jones are going to be No. 1 receivers in every fantasy league this year. But it wouldn't be a surprise to see them miss out on this list next season. Volume targets aren't necessarily efficient and both Bryant and Jones should expect to see their volumes go up in 2013.
Stars are stars for a reason. They see a large number of targets for a reason. That reason is that those players make plays, plain and simple. So you're not going to avoid someone like A.J. Green or Demaryius Thomas because they landed outside of the top 25 in last season's list. However, it should start to reshape your thinking on guys a little further down the depth chart.
By nature, No. 2 receivers usually aren't going to see a high number of targets. That's why they're No. 2 receivers (duh!). But the guys who do the most with their chances are the guys fantasy owners will want to target. It's the reason Lance Moore might get the edge over a player with a similar number of targets like Brian Hartline or DeSean Jackson.
Fantasy leagues are rarely won in the first round -- though they can be lost there, like the time I was in a league where someone took Ryan Mathews second overall (true story!) But I digress.
Building depth is the key to constructing a winning fantasy roster. If you can find a quality No. 2 or No. 3 receiver, it could give you a leg up on the competition.