This article is part of a series about wide receivers that could lead the league in targets.
The big three wide receivers this year, and first off the board in any format, are almost universally Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, and Odell Beckham. However, there are several other receivers with a legitimate chance to lead the league in targets this season. Could Demaryius Thomas lead the league in targets in 2016?
History is on Thomas’ Side
Let’s start with a quick quiz. Over the past four seasons, do you know how many wide receivers eclipsed Demaryius Thomas in targets?
Curious by how many targets?
Top-12 Wide Receivers in Targets 2012 - 2015
Antonio Brown edges out Thomas by just one lowly target. These two players are manufactured touches weekly in their respective offenses and continue to produce at elite levels.
Another thing that sticks out is reliability. Thomas led the subset in games played without missing a single game during that four-year span. While he may have been hurt or hobbling through some snaps over that time period, his continued on-field presence should be noted.
The list of receivers in this table only further proves Jacob Rickrode’s assertion that there just isn’t much room for young receivers to enter the upper echelon of wide receivers quite yet. That’s why I’m sticking with a tried and true veteran in Demaryius Thomas to lead the league in targets this year.
Thomas may have seen a dip in efficiency last season, but he still finished the season as the WR9 in PPR formats. In fact, Thomas is the only wide receiver that’s produced four straight (WR9, WR2, WR1, WR5) top-12 fantasy seasons. Those type of performances don’t come around without heavy targets going in a player’s direction.
2016 is on Thomas’ Side
Heading into 2016, Thomas has several things in his favor that could allow him to finish at the top of the target leaderboard.
HIGH TARGET MARKET SHARE
Thomas has thrived with an incredible target market share over the past two seasons.
Demaryius Thomas Targets 2012-2015
|Year||Targets||Target Rank||Target Market Share||PPR Fantasy Ranking|
Very few receivers hover around the 30-percent mark for their target share, yet Thomas has done so in back to back seasons. Following Eric Decker’s departure in 2013, Emmanuel Sanders has tried, but just hasn’t carved much into Thomas’ target-heavy role. Decker saw 20.9 and 20.3 percent of Denver’s targets from 2012-13 compared to Sanders’ 23.2 and 22.6 percent (2014-’15). That’s a bit higher than Decker, but not enough to dent Thomas’ workload.
After Adam Gase left in 2014, there could have been room for wondering if Thomas could repeat his lofty 30.3 percent target market share, but we saw already him nearly match that total with new offensive coordinator Rick Dennison (29.04 percent) last year. Dennison catered his game plans around his best offensive weapon and there’s little reason to doubt that will change given the depth chart in Denver.
Thomas was also a heavily targeted red zone weapon for his offense. Thomas finished top-12 with the highest percentage of his team’s red zone targets (25.9%) going his direction. He might have only converted 3 of his 21 targets for scores, but only six other wide receivers saw more red zone targets than Thomas last season.
LITTLE COMPETITION FOR TARGETS
Last season, Thomas and Sanders were just one of two pairs of wide receivers that saw over 50 percent of their team’s targets (the other being Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker). Not many teams forced the ball to their top two weapons as often as the Broncos did, but it looks like it could happen again in 2016.
Denver’s offseason moves of note included letting Vernon Davis and Owen Daniels walk – two players that combined for over 100 targets last year. Replacing them with former third-round pick Jeff Heuerman and Virgil Green (12 receptions last season) shouldn’t cause concern at all for Thomas when projecting the Broncos target distribution.
Outside of a few unabashed Cody Latimer dynasty diehards, the rest of the receiving corps leaves much to be desired. Jordan Norwood had a nice Super Bowl performance (his 61-yard punt return was the longest in SB history) but will be entering his age-30 season and has 600 career receiving yards to his name. Undrafted Bennie Fowler remains just another guy for depth purposes.
Last year C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman combined to make up just over 11 percent of the team’s targets. There isn’t anything to suggest that Dennison will be targeting his running backs out of the backfield any more in 2016 than last year.
PROJECTED GAME FLOW
Projecting game flow is a tall task, but there are more resources out there than ever which can help us find a realistic range of outcomes.
Vegas is a terrific tool for us to start our analysis. In 2015, the Broncos finished with 7 of their first 15 games ending within three points or less. The sharks in Vegas are projected even more close games for Denver this year, expecting 9 of their first 15 games in 2016 to finish within three-points or less.
More close games will lead to fewer blowouts for Denver, ultimately keeping them a balanced offense once again this season. The Broncos have been a middle of the road passing team ranking 13th (59.7%), 17th (59.2%), and 16th (59.8%) in passing play percentage over the past three seasons. Given the close games that we expect Denver to see this year, we can reasonably project them to continue their balanced attack, passing nearly 60-percent of the time.
The elephant in the room that has to be addressed is the quarterback situation. While we still don’t know if we can expect Mark Sanchez or Trevor Siemian to line up under center Week 1 (with an outside chance for Paxton Lynch), we know the quarterback situation can’t get much worse than last year.
Last year, both Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler finished with 0.07 paFPOEPA (Passing Fantasy Points Over Expectation Per Attempt). That tied for the 34th-best mark last season. Mark Sanchez however, finished with 0.19. That number beat stalwarts like Drew Brees and Tom Brady, as Sanchez put up the seventh-highest mark among all quarterbacks with 80 or more pass attempts.
Sanchez gets his due crow, but he’s a capable, veteran quarterback. As noted by Justin Winn last year, Thomas doesn’t need a highly efficient quarterback to get his numbers:
“Thomas isn’t just a product of Peyton Manning either. If you prorate his 13 games as an NFL sophomore to a full season you get a stat line of 52 receptions, 1,044 yards, and six TDs. That was with Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow.”
We’ve already seen a litmus test of what this offense would look like after the departure of both offensive guru Adam Gase and Manning throwing like he was playing a game of dizzy bat on the sideline before each drive.
A routine double-digit target receiver in any given week, Thomas has already had a season leading the league in targets (2013). He already commands a major target market share in this offense. And he will likely be playing in more close games this year than he has since Manning’s arrival.
A screaming value at his currently early-third round ADP, Thomas isn’t just a viable contender to lead the league in targets – he’s a viable contender to lead your fantasy team with his fifth-consecutive WR1 season.