In the past few seasons, I've noticed that a particular statistic has become en vogue among fantasy football owners: wide receiver targets. For the uninitiated, a player gets credit for a target if he is the intended receiver of a pass. Basically, if you look at the official play-by-play of any game and see the words "to (insert receiver's name here)," that's a target. Practically speaking, a player's number of targets -- or, even better, his percentage of team targets -- tells you how involved that player is in his team's pass offense.
Although target statistics are also widely available for running backs and tight ends, it's the ones for wide receivers that generally garner the most scrutiny from the fantasy football public -- and for good reason. The contribution a wide receiver will make to his team on a year-in-year-out and week-in-week-out basis is the hardest of the three positions to predict.
Running backs get the vast majority of their opportunities via the running game, and the ones who don't, like Darren Sproles, are widely known. Even in committee backfields like those in Green Bay and Carolina, the split between backs is consistent enough to be reasonably predictable. Similarly, it's common knowledge which teams employ a feature tight end (e.g., the New Orleans Saints), which teams split opportunities between two tight ends (e.g., the New England Patriots) and which pretend as though the position doesn't exist (e.g., the Chicago Bears).
This isn't the case at all for wide receivers once you get past the handful of elites whose talent demands that they get 10 or more balls thrown their way every game. Rather, what happens far more often is that a wide receiver is heavily involved one game, then disappears for two, then resurges in the next game, and so on. The Packers and Saints are notorious for this with respect to their receivers not named Greg Jennings and Marques Colston, although even they disappear during a few games per season.
Wide receiver targets are scrutinized like Masonic imagery because fantasy football owners think there's secret information in targets that isn't contained in receptions. For instance, take the fact Devin Hester has 44 targets but only 21 catches through seven games. The targets devotee interprets this to mean, "Hester's a big part of the Bears' pass offense, and he'll start catching more than half of those passes as the season goes on." In other words, he believes that 44 is the more important number than 21, or at least that it adds valuable information to the number 21.
So which is it? For wide receivers, can we predict fantasy points better using targets than receptions? Well, below is a chart I put together using the top 72 fantasy wide receivers for each season from 2008 to 2010. The chart plots targets and receptions on the horizontal axis and fantasy points in a non-points-per-reception league on the vertical axis. The blue dots represent fantasy points by number of targets, whereas the red dots represent fantasy points by number of receptions. For convenience, I've added in a black line corresponding to the trend for each group of dots.