In our weekly Air Yards Breakdown, we’ll take a look at who led the NFL in this category and also go one step further. Air yards can be further split into “prayer yards.” Prayer yards are just what they sound like—air yards on passes that are deemed uncatchable. In other words, targets that the receiver doesn’t have a prayer of catching. Prayer yards lead to a player’s boom-bust potential.
Sources for all data can be found at the end of the article.
On to Week 4:
NFL Week 3 Air Yards Leaderboard— Dan Falkenheim (@thefalkon) September 28, 2023
👑: Davante Adams
💣's away: D.J. Chark
📈: Tank Dell pic.twitter.com/8nmqYK7LrF
Week 3 Summary
Chargers Receiving Corps Feasts Against the Vikings
The Vikings blitzed Justin Herbert on 82% of his dropbacks. It didn’t matter. Herbert had a career-high 405 passing yards, leading to blow-up games from Keenan Allen (18 receptions, 215 yards, 1 TD) and Mike Williams (seven receptions, 121 yards, 1 TD). Joshua Palmer got in on the action, too, tallying 16.6 PPR points. Last week’s air yards breakdown indicated this game had shootout potential.
The fantasy fallout centers on the Chargers passing attack without Williams, who tore his left ACL late in the third quarter and leaves behind 102 air yards per game. Austin Ekeler will likely eat into that when he returns from his ankle sprain and Allen could also see some of those air yards shifted his way, leaving the rest for Palmer and Quentin Johnston.
Don’t glean too much about Johnston from the first three weeks. The Athletic’s Daniel Popper reported that the Chargers planned to bring the first-round rookie along slowly, but that plan will now be fast-tracked by Wiliams’s injury. Johnston’s athleticism at 6’2”, 216 pounds appears to fit Williams’s slot role better than Palmer and, after this week, he has a Week 5 bye to fully integrate into the offense. He’s worth holding onto even if his potential doesn’t materialize before the bye.
In the immediate future, Palmer has a defined role and has the edge on Johnston for snaps in 12 personnel.
Sam LaPorta (TE, DET) Emerges
LaPorta finished first among all tight ends in PPR points (22.4), tied for first in targets (11) and tied for second in air yards (87). He was wide open on a 45-yard touchdown, too. His season to date has been encouraging, especially for a rookie. LaPorta has surpassed a 70% snap share and a 70% route rate in each of his first three games. The Lions have also split LaPorta out wide 37.8% of the time—the second-highest rate in the NFL. Numbers like those make LaPorta an every week starter.
Andy Dalton (QB, CAR) Ignites Panthers Passing Game Against Suspect Seahawks D
Through the first three weeks, the Seahawks defense has ranked 27th in both yards allowed per passing attempt (7.5) and EPA allowed per dropback (0.258). Andy Dalton, who filled in for an injured Bryce Young, took advantage and led Adam Thielen (138 air yards) and D.J. Chark (188 air yards) to WR3 and WR15 performances, respectively.
While Dalton has been better than expected for his pass catchers, Sunday’s performance might say more about Seattle’s coverage unit than the Panthers wideouts. (The up-and-down Giants get Seattle on Monday night.) Thielen ranks 50th in yards per route run (1.70) and Chark ranks 67th (1.33), which suggests their production is coming on volume rather than efficiency. Chark, with 121 prayer yards last week, is the more volatile option in a favorable matchup against the Vikings in Week 4.
Stud Wide Receivers Live Up to Their Role
Justin Jefferson, Ja’marr Chase, Tyreek Hill, Stefon Diggs, A.J. Brown and Davante Adams all cleared 120 air yards and 19 PPR points in Week 3, making good on their Top 15 rankings heading into the season. There are a few wide receivers that are nearly situation-proof. Jefferson, Chase, Hill, Diggs, Brown and Adams. Save the panic button for other struggling wideouts.
Week 4 Lookahead
Look for Calvin Ridley (WR, JAC) to Rebound
Ridley dropped a 28-yard touchdown in Week 3. He also couldn’t get his feet in bounds for two potential red-zone touchdowns in Week 2. He’s not alone in the near-miss category. Zay Jones also couldn’t haul in two would-be touchdowns in Week 2. Jamal Agnew fumbled a third-and-10 conversion at the Houston 32-yard line late in the second half. Kicker Brandon McManus also had a field goal blocked.
And yet, Trevor Lawrence is Pro Football Focus’ second-highest graded passer and their highest graded passer on deep passes. It’s unlikely that Jacksonville will continue to stumble as they have been through three weeks. Ridley has the 16th-most air yards (281) in the NFL, and should benefit when Jacksonville's comedy of errors ends.
Luke Musgrave (TE, GB) is on the Cusp of a Breakout, but Christian Watson’s (WR, GB) Return Looms
Musgrave was one 40-yard shot away from matching LaPorta’s breakout performance with his own. He still finished with a usable 10.9 points on six receptions for 49 yards. Similar to LaPorta, Musgrave has also eclipsed a 70% snap share and an 80% route rate in every game this season. In other words, Musgrave is a full-time tight end. He’s tied with Kyle Pitts for the most 20-plus yard targets among tight ends (3), creating some boom-bust potential in his receiving profile.
One hitch: Watson might siphon those deep targets away when he returns, and his upside is tantalizing in a capable Packers offense. Quarterback Jordan Love has the highest average depth of target (10.6) in the NFL but one of the lower completion percentages on passes 15 or more yards down the field (33%, 26th).
The Browns Are a Nightmare for Opposing Wide Receivers
The Browns defense has been terrorizing opponents under defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz: Cleveland has allowed one touchdown, 21 total first downs, and the lowest EPA per passing attempt in the NFL (-0.33). Need more proof? When opponents drop back against the Browns, they are running a successful play only 25% of the time.
Nearly 67% of opponents’ air yards against the Browns are prayer yards. A hobbled Joe Burrow in a rainy Week 1, a pedestrian Steelers offense in Week 2 and a woeful Titans offensive line in Week 3 might play into that. But, until further notice, Cleveland is the toughest defense to target through the air. Lamar Jackson and the Ravens face a tall task in Week 4.
The Players Who Are Not Appearing on Air Yards Lists
Air yards are often used as buy-low indicators: if a player racked up air yards and didn’t hit, then it’s easy to see how they bounce back in future weeks. What about receivers who aren’t showing up on these lists?
Jahan Dotson (WR, WAS) fits the bill. He was pegged as a second-year breakout after flashing last season. So far, his sophomore campaign has been disappointing. He’s scored 18.1 PPR points (74th) on 16 targets (tied for 60th) and 118 air yards (78th). His average depth of target has been sliced down from 13.98 in 2022 to 7.38 in ‘23.
Worse yet, the Commanders tight end usage has been a problem for Dotson. Cole Turner, Logan Thomas and John Bates have combined to soak up 31.5% of Washington’s targets and 33.3% of the team’s air yards. That Chiefs-esque usage has the Commanders tight end unit third in target share and second in air yard market share.
Dotson has still flashed his talent against man coverage and his downfield usage has been toned down, not erased. (His deep route rate is down from 43.7% last season to 28.6%, while his intermediate route rate is up from 37.6% to 55.4%.) Fantasy points aren’t scored without the football, though.
Drake London (WR, ATL) and Chris Godwin (WR, TB) are in a similar boat. London saw only 52 air yards in a game where the Falcons threw 38 times—the most passing attempts by an Arthur Smith-led Falcons team since Matt Ryan left—and Godwin has averaged just 56 air yards this season. Dotson, London and Godwin all have situation concerns, opening a buy-low window for all three players. The problem is that those situations might not change anytime soon.
NFL Week 3 Prayer Yards Leaderboard— Dan Falkenheim (@thefalkon) September 28, 2023
🥶: Treylon Burks (Tannehill just missed Burks on a 45-yard shot)
🙏: Rashid Shaheed (Two no-hope targets)
😞: Kyle Pitts (Still suffering from shaky QB play) pic.twitter.com/9gWvOzJlSr
Quick Prayer Yards Notes
- Kyle Pitts (TE, ATL) has more prayer yards (119) through three weeks than any other tight end and his 59.2% prayer yards rate is also third worst in the NFL. It’ll be hard to pinpoint when the boom weeks come if quarterback Desmond Ridder continues to struggle.
- Treylon Burks (WR, TEN) received 106 prayer yards against the Browns defense. One was on Ryan Tannehill—he missed Burks on a difficult throw on the move that could’ve been a 45-yard gain—but Burks was smothered on three of his other targets. Offensive lineman Peter Skoronski’s return might help, but the Titans passing offense is one of the worst in the league. Burks is hard to trust on a weekly basis.
- Yards, receptions, touchdowns, air yards and EPA pulled via nflverse
- Catchable air yards, prayer yards and play action data from FTN Data via nflverse
- Personnel data pulled from Joseph Hefner’s formations app
- Route participation pulled via Fantasy Life’s Utilization Report
- Yards per route run and tight end alignment pulled from the Fantasy Points Data Suite