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NFL Countdown #23 and Efficiency vs. Volume... Why Not Both?

NFL Countdown #23: Three players tied for the most 20+ yard receptions

in 2020. One of them was a rookie, another a tight end, and another did so

with a hall-of-famer also lined up out wide.

The 2020 NFL season was different from every prior season in many different ways: we had cardboard fans, we watched football on every day of the week, and even got to see an elite quarterback lead his team to a win just after hobbling through the concourse to use the bathroom. One thing that felt normal this past season was the continued surge of the so-called “passing boom”. 2020 was the highest scoring season in NFL history by a pretty huge margin (1403 offensive TDs, up from 1244 in 2019), with offenses scheming their playmakers open downfield and taking the layups when those long throws aren’t as easy to pull off. Let’s take a closer look at three top-end receivers who each pulled in a league-high 23 catches of 20 yards or more.

Calvin Ridley

Although the Atlanta Falcons haven’t been a serious contender since they blew the infamous 28-3 lead in Super Bowl LI, their explosive pass-first offense and Swiss cheese secondary have given football fans a lot of excitement in their shootout losses. Matt Ryan has topped 4,000 passing yards for 10-straight seasons, leading the Falcons offense to finish near the top of the league every year in scoring. In his third season since being drafted 24th overall out of Alabama, Calvin Ridley made the leap from a very productive wide receiver all the way to the top-end of the league. With Julio Jones lined up on the opposite side of the field, Ridley often got less attention from opposing defenses and capitalized on his opportunity in a big way.

We’ve seen a lot of #2 wide receivers falter when the top dog wasn’t around to capture the defense’s attention, but 2020 taught us that Calvin Ridley has the bark and the bite of a number one option in the passing game. With or without Julio Jones in the lineup, Calvin Ridley was a star in 2020. The table below shows how Ridley performed with Julio Jones (“In Split”), and without Julio in the lineup (“Out of Split”). He led the league with 2,052 air yards – almost 300 more than second-place Tyreek Hill – and finished with the third highest average depth of target (14.3 yards) for players with over 80 targets. Now that Julio Jones is a Titan and the Falcons picked up tight end Kyle Pitts with their fourth overall draft pick, I don’t see any reason why Ridley won’t continue his downfield dominance in 2021.

Justin Jefferson

Did you pick up Justin Jefferson in fantasy last year? I certainly didn’t, and I’m still kicking myself for it. Expectations were not high for the Vikings offense in 2020, as the run-heavy team opened the season with Adam Thielen and Bisi Johnson out wide after trading away Stefon Diggs. There was a lot of intrigue surrounding rookie Justin Jefferson after he helped Joe Burrow to one of the more dominant seasons in college football history, but Jefferson didn’t get to start for the Vikings until week 3.

He exploded in his first start, converting nine targets into 175 yards and a touchdown. Jefferson had a few down games (5 games under 45 yards), but always received a ton of Kirk Cousins’ attention in an offense that essentially funneled targets to just two wide receivers (5+ targets in all but two games as a starter). Only five teams finished the season with fewer passing attempts than the Vikings, but Jefferson was still able to break the NFL rookie receiving yards record and Randy Moss’s rookie receptions total. Jefferson has the respect of his peers, as we saw the LSU signature celebration -- The Griddy -- take over the NFL last year. This man is the real deal, stepping right into Stefon Diggs’ vacated role in 2020 and running away with the bag.

Travis Kelce

For some reason, fantasy football players have consistently doubted Travis Kelce. Owners with the stones to spend an early pick on Kelce have always been happy about that pick, as he has led the league in scoring since 2016 at the barren wasteland of a position that is tight end. In 2020, Kelce was the highest scoring tight end in 5 weeks and landed outside the top five at the position just twice. With a 25% target share in an Andy Reid offense led by Patrick Mahomes, the league’s most productive tight end continued his dominance in 2020.

Since becoming a full-time starter in 2014, Kelce hasn’t finished a season with fewer than 850 yards, and has hit the 1,000 yard mark in every season since 2016. He led the league in receiving yards for a minute in 2020 until Stefon Diggs took over late in the season, finishing second among passcatchers with 1416 yards. Kelce almost made history by being the first tight end to ever finish at the top of the league in receiving yards, but sat out in Week 17 as Stefon Diggs picked up 76 yards to extend his lead.

The Chiefs took a step back in explosive play rate in 2020 as defenses made the business decision to stick with two high safeties to limit Tyreek Hill’s deep threat ability. With Patrick Mahomes under center and the speedy Tyreek Hill consistently taking the top off the defense, Travis Kelce capitalized on open spaces in the middle of the field. There was no better safety blanket for quarterbacks in 2020 than the 6-foot-5, 260 lb tight end in Kansas City. He got behind the first level of opposing defenses and saw an average depth of target (aDOT) of 8.5 yards while only dropping two passes over the course of the season. Despite his career-low aDOT, Kelce averaged 5.6 yards after the catch per reception as defenses struggled to bring down the big fella. Unless rookie phenom Kyle Pitts takes over in his first NFL season, I fully expect Travis Kelce to continue this historic run of tight end dominance over the rest of the league.

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