This article is part of a series about wide receivers who could lead the league in targets.
The short list of WRs who are expected to lead the league in targets in 2016 consists of Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, and Odell Beckham Jr. However, there are several other WRs with a legitimate chance to challenge the big three. Knowing who they are should inform your draft strategy because targets are the lifeblood of fantasy scoring. Alshon Jeffery is absolutely one of those WRs.
Alshon Jeffery Shares Similarities With Other Recent Target Hogs
Before focusing on why Jeffery could lead the league in targets, one should know what a league leader looks like. In the past decade, no single season leader in targets has achieved that status without receiving at least 170 of them. Rather than focus my research only on the 10 season leaders, I included all occurrences of 170 targets during the time period in order to increase the sample.
Since 2006, there have been 25 occurrences of 170 targets amassed by 15 different players. Implied in that statistic is that some of the WRs reached the threshold multiple times. Jeffery has never reached 170 targets. In order to build a more accurate comparison profile for Jeffery, I decided to focus specifically on the first season in which each of the 15 WRs amassed 170 targets. I calculated the average age of the 15 WRs in their first 170 target season, most targets in season prior to their first 170 target season, and career games with 15 or more targets prior to their first 170 target season. See how Jeffery compares to the cohort.
Jeffery compares well with the rest of the first-time 170 target cohort. Admittedly, there are many situational conditions outside a player’s control which need to be met in order to become a league leader, and Jeffery’s similarity to this cohort may not be predictive of anything. However, it is interesting to note that Jeffery is essentially the same age, has posted essentially the same previous season high, and has more career 15+ target games than the average WR from the cohort.
Available Targets, the Path of Least Resistance
Now that we’ve established that Jeffery has some similarities to other players who have crossed the 170 target threshold, it’s a matter of finding a way for him to hit that mark (at minimum). Jeffery was banged up last season and only played in nine games. Would he have reached 170 targets if he played in all 16 and maintained his pace?
The Game Splits app says no, but he was right there.
All of the Bears pass catchers are returning in 2016 except for Martellus Bennett and Matt Forte. In 2015, that pair combined for 138 targets, or 26.5 percent of the team’s total (the Bears attempted 519 passes). In 2016, Jeffery will be competing primarily with Eddie Royal, Kevin White, and Zach Miller for those available targets. He needs to steal just three in order to reach 170. Royal and Miller have their merits and will likely receive a large share of the available targets. White is still an unknown commodity, however the team is clearly going to want to see what they have in their 2015 first round selection. However, with all that is known about the 2016 group, Jeffery is hands down the most talented and has the most rapport with quarterback Jay Cutler. In fact, Cutler has been measurably better when Jeffery is on the field.
Given the availability of targets, the relative talent of the competing pass catchers, and Cutler’s history of more pasting attempts, completions, yards, and touchdowns per game when Jeffery plays, it is highly logical that Jeffery will take on additional market share. Stealing three out of 138 seems like a lock. It is also certainly possible that Jeffery will command a much larger share of the available targets, which brings me to…
Jay Cutler and the Perfect Storm Known as the 2012 Chicago Bears
The 2012 Chicago Bears were a better team than the 2016 Bears, most notably due to the defense and the presence of Matt Forte. However, the passing personnel (on paper) was eerily similar to the projected passing offense personnel this season.
Of particular interest to me when comparing the rosters is the lack of an experienced WR2; instead both teams feature a high draft pick in their first season. Both tight ends were similarly inexperienced. In 2012, Jay Cutler fed Brandon Marshall an astonishing 39.9 percent of team targets. Call it a love affair. Call it forcing the ball. Call it Marshall just being a lot better than everyone else. Call it whatever you want; 39.9 percent of targets is otherworldly. I am not saying Jeffery will get that kind of share this season, but we have to include it in the possible range of outcomes, albeit it at the extreme high end. It is also notable that 2012 is not the only season in which Cutler directed an inordinate number of targets toward his WR1; he also gave Marshall a 33.3 percent target share (170/510) in 2007 in Denver. What would 2016 look like for Jeffery at 39.9 percent and 33.3 percent target market share?
As you can see, the extreme end of the projection gives Jeffery 212 targets, which would have been good for the league lead last year (Julio Jones had 203). The moderate projection, using 33.3 percent market share, still puts Jeffery safely over the 170 target threshold. This is despite a modest team projection of 531 passing attempts, which would have placed 23rd in the league last year. The Bears threw 523 times last year, a mere 8 less attempts than this projection.
Also working in Jeffery’s favor is his usage last season. Per Scott Barrett of Pro Football Focus, the Bears WR led the league in targets per route run in 2015.
With a Vegas projected win total of 6.5 this season, the Bears figure to be trailing early and often. It is possible the team could exceed 531 passing attempts on that basis, which means Jeffery’s projected target totals would be even higher if the target share remained the same, or conversely he could achieve the same target number with a smaller target share.
Alshon Jeffery fits the profile of a breakout 170 target WR as he is a similar age, has posted similar single season target highs, and has a history of big games. The surrounding cast in Chicago is unproven. Jay Cutler has a history of providing huge target market share to his WR1. Vegas thinks Chicago will be trailing plenty this season so game scripts figure to be positive to the passing game. Alshon Jeffery could absolutely lead the league in targets in 2016.