As multiple rotoViz writers have proven multiple times, there’s a ridiculously strong correlation between wide receiver size and red zone production. Well, most tight ends these days are basically just big WRs.
I think a lot of NFL teams could maximize their red zone efficiency by removing all of their small-ish WRs and replacing them with TEs near the goal line. To give you an idea of how much better TEs can be over WRs in tight areas, I charted the red zone touchdown rate for the top 70 players in red zone targets at both positions since 2000.
While the best red zone receivers have converted just over 24 percent of their looks into scores, TEs check in at 30 percent. On any given red zone target since 2000, a TE has been 24 percent more likely to score than a WR.
Despite that, we still consistently see players like Santana Moss and DeSean Jackson (despite horrific red zone efficiency) playing near the goal line. Overall, the top 70 red zone receivers since 2000 have seen 6,487 targets inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, compared to just 4,202 for TEs. Those numbers should be reversed.
We know that weight is the best predictor of red zone success for WRs, with heavy ones checking in above 220 pounds and a few approaching 240 pounds. So how far does the correlation extend? I think it’s obvious that extra weight isn’t always a positive because, at a certain point, it will hinder a player’s ability to move athletically and make plays on the ball.
So, let’s break down TE red zone play based on size.
TE Red Zone Efficiency
Weight seems to be much more closely linked to red zone efficiency than height. And since WRs rarely top even 230 pounds, heavier is pretty much always better. The same goes for height, but to a lesser degree.
There seems to be a pretty linear relationship between height and red zone production for TEs, too, at least in the height range we observe in the NFL. I broke down every TE drafted since 2000 to receive at least 20 red zone targets. Here’s how they’ve produced.
Much like the WRs, the tallest TEs have produced the greatest efficiency. On average, a TE standing 6’6” or greater has been 13.8 percent more likely than a TE 6’3” or shorter to take a red zone target into the end zone.
This is interesting because 6’3” is actually fairly tall for a WR. There’s really no reason that we should think of WRs and TEs differently, though, at least in regards to their receiving numbers. A 6’4”, 235-pound player is a 6’4”, 235-pound player–it doesn’t matter where or how we file him.
This suggests that although height isn’t necessarily as important as weight for pass-catchers in the red zone, more is better. Being in the top-tier of pass-catchers in terms of height isn’t a hindrance. Hello Joseph Fauria.
However, the same “more is better” mentality doesn’t seem to apply to weight. At a certain point, it just hurts to be a fatass. There’s a reason Fauria could potentially dominate in the red zone but Haloti Ngata wouldn’t, even if he had a normal TE skill set.
Looking at the numbers, it appears as though more mass equates to better red zone efficiency up until around 260 pounds. That’s represented in the graph. It’s not like being 265 is a deathblow—you can see that TEs in that range have still been far more efficient in the red zone than those under 250 pounds—but just that efficiency seems to flatten out.
Also note that if we look at just the heaviest players, we see true red zone dominance. The six heaviest TEs in this sample have all been second-tier (at best) to below-average players: Bubba Franks, Alge Crumpler, Anthony Becht, Scott Chandler, Jim Kleinsasser, and Brandon Manumaleuna. Hardly a murderer’s row. But together, those TEs converted 110 of their 334 career red zone targets into TDs—32.9 percent.
To me, the fantasy impact here is pretty obvious: bigger is better for scoring touchdowns. You always have to monitor targets because few TEs see a WR-esque workload. However, if you’re deciding between two pass-catchers who you think will see a similar number of targets (over the course of a season or even just a single game), go with the bigger player, emphasizing weight first, then height.
For example, if I were deciding between a 6’1”, 211-pound WR projected to get 110 targets and a 6’4”, 223-pound receiver projected at 75 targets, I’d choose the smaller player. You can’t make up for that difference in workload. However, if the larger player were projected at, say, 100 or more targets, I’d be all over him. Even with fewer looks, his red zone efficiency should give him enough upside to make up for a small gap in targets.
The fact that size matters in regards to upside is reflected in daily fantasy football data. In my book Fantasy Football (and Baseball) for Smart People: How to Turn Your Hobby into a Fortune, I broke down winning tournament lineups on DraftKings based on the position used in the flex.
Relative to their cost, TEs have provided the most upside out of any flex position. Again, WRs will normally have better stats because they see more targets, so projecting workload is key. But when the targets are close to one another, whether you’re drafting a player or deciding who to start in a given week, you should choose the biggest player, all other things equal.
Comparing TEs to WRs
Finally, I want to compare the two. We already know that heavier receivers are better overall when it comes to scoring, and by a significant margin, but let’s take a look at how the relationship between weight and red zone efficiency looks if we bunch all pass-catchers together.
The relationship here is very obvious, with a correlational coefficient of 0.51, i.e. weight is really freaking important to red zone success. Let’s break it down into categories. There were 155 total players in my sample, so I broke down the numbers into five groups of 31 players.