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On Target: Beating the 'Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda' Game

Howard Bender

Howard Bender has been covering fantasy sports for over a decade on a variety of web sites. For more from him, you can find his personal musings on his blog or follow him on Twitter at @rotobuzzguy. For questions, thoughts or comments you can email him at

The only thing a fantasy football owner hates more than losing his weekly matchup is that stupid game of "Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda" that gets played either late Monday night or early Tuesday morning. You know the game I'm talking about. You can almost hear the internal monologue from millions of losers right now. "I coulda won this game. I shoulda beaten this clown. I woulda won ... if I just started Mike Wallace instead of Steve Smith." Cue the sound we know so well.

Sometimes the lineup choices we are faced with each week can be incredibly annoying. We read all the updates, we study all the game matchups and we try to get inside the thought process of offensive coordinators everywhere with the hope of starting the right player each week and not having to play that stupid game afterward, as we see another notch get placed in the loss column. Sometimes we get it right, otherwise we'd just give up, but then sometimes even when we do get it right, we still play that stupid game because we know that come season's end, every point matters.

And that, my friends, is where this column comes in.

As the inaugural piece of the season stated, what we do here is feed you as much relevant data as we can to help make your tough decisions a little easier. We try to determine how trusted these receivers are by their respective coaches and quarterbacks by looking at targets, target percentage and red-zone looks while also checking players' reliability with statistics like catch rate. With enough information, we'll help you narrow your choices and hopefully eliminate "Coulda, Shoulda, Would" altogether.

Each week, we'll look at two tables. The first will is the top-20 target leaders from each week and the second will be a cumulative targets leaderboard for the season. It's a slight deviation from what we were going to run with but I received enough feedback from many of you asking for it to be organized this way. We'll track risers and fallers as well as look at the top players in most of the stat categories. While small sample size might be considered an issue in the early going, remember, three weeks in is usually a quarter of the regular season in fantasy, so it's really not that small.

Now let's look at the top targets this week. (Click column headings to sort.)

Julian Edelman, NEWR780391813460.072.246.2
Jimmy Graham, NOTE179146161000.062.534.8
DeSean Jackson, PHIWR193137159116.760.040.5
Cecil Shorts, JACWR9303814800.057.136.8
A.J. Green, CINWR41045146466.742.931.1
Julio Jones, ATLWR182143141100.078.632.6
Pierre Garcon, WASWR143140138325.061.532.5
DeAndre Hopkins, HOUWR117148137628.653.827.1
Andre Johnson, HOUWR7604813800.061.527.1
Eric Decker, DENWR87043139340.069.230.2
Dez Bryant, DALWR141142139550.069.231.0
Torrey Smith, BALWR8503313700.053.839.4
Tavon Austin, STLWR47255126845.550.021.8
T.Y. Hilton, INDWR12404312600.050.027.9
James Jones, GBWR1780421211222.291.728.6
Greg Little, CLEWR3303712400.033.332.4
Kendall Wright, TENWR54130117233.363.636.7
Vincent Jackson, TBWR7702211500.045.550.0
Austin Pettis, STLWR78155118418.272.720.0
Victor Cruz, NYGWR118049118328.672.722.4
Mike Wallace, MIAWR1151341191100.081.832.4
Matt Forte, CHIRB710391111312.5100.028.2
Steve Smith, CARWR52038115225.045.528.9

While I'd love to sit here and sing the praises of the likes of Jimmy Graham, Andre Johnson and Julio Jones, that's just not being productive. You don't need a fluff piece, you need knowledge. That said, I'm only going to highlight what's new or what might be considered a statistical anomaly for the week. We'll save the rah-rah stuff for another time.

Julian Edelman, NE -
As many expected, Tom Brady's new favorite was a targets beast last week. Brady is still trying to work on his timing and on-field rapport with rookies Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson, so rather than spend the majority of his time screaming at rookies (even on passes he clearly overthrew), he simply kept going back to Edelman. The fifth-year receiver should continue to see this much work, at least while Danny Amendola is out, but don't be surprised to see his targets drop as the weeks pass and Brady feels more comfortable with some of his other options. Oh yeah, and Rob Gronkowski is coming back soon too.

Cecil Shorts, JAX -
I was a big fan of Shorts last season and love the move to Chad Henne for the Jaguars. He and Shorts combined for some fantastic numbers last year, and their first game together this year was no different. But just be conscious of the fact that Shorts' targets will likely diminish once Justin Blackmon returns from his suspension. But don't worry. With the decrease in targets comes softer coverage as he won't be double-teamed as often. So while he may see fewer targets, he could still end up with more receiving yards and touchdowns. It's about quality, not quantity sometimes.

DeAndre Hopkins, HOU/Tavon Austin, STL -
It's a rookie receiver bonanza in the red zone here as DeAndre Hopkins and Tavon Austin combined for more red zone looks than Megatron, Graham, Julio and DeSean combined. The way Matt Schaub is throwing, and with Andre Johnson hindered by a concussion, Hopkins has the potential to put up ridiculous numbers, not just this week, but for the season. The Texans have been in dire need of a high-quality second receiver, and they now finally have one.

As for Austin, he is a budding star in an offense that is just warming up. Sam Bradford is feeling much more comfortable, and with Austin, Chris Givens and Jared Cook, the passing game should be front and center each and every week. Both guys are capable of putting up some serious yardage, but if they continue to see the abundance of red-zone looks, watch out.

Eric Decker, DEN/T.Y. Hilton, IND -
Fantasy owners are probably very thankful to see Eric Decker and T.Y. Hilton back on the leaderboards after such poor Week 1 performances. Decker will still have to fight for targets and could simply be at the whim of Peyton Manning each week, but Hilton is going to benefit significantly with Darrius Heyward-Bey injured.

Greg Little, CLE -
Take a good look at Little because now that Josh Gordon is back, this could be the last time you see him on the targets leaderboard. He's still considered the team's No. 2 wideout, but with Gordon and tight end Jordan Cameron, Little is not likely to see a lot come his way. You see what I did there? Thank you. Don't forget to tip your waitresses and try the veal!

Matt Forte, CHI -
I love seeing Matt Forte pop up here and be a more active participant in the Bears passing game. Although he hasn't exactly lit up the scoreboard these first two weeks, he has the potential to really take his game to the next level as he gets the majority of touches out of the backfield, sees the goal-line carries and becomes an integral part of the passing attack. If you already own him, you're going to have a lot of people knocking on your door to talk trade, and if you don't, well, you better get ready to pony up some good players for your trade offers because he won't come cheap.

And with two weeks' worth of data to compile, here's a look at the overall targets leaderboard. (Click column headings to sort.)

Andre Johnson, HOUWR222093292000.069.031.2
A.J. Green, CINWR20327827151080.055.634.6
Julian Edelman, NEWR1572912720841.774.129.7
Cecil Shorts, JACWR133079251100.044.031.6
Vincent Jackson, TBWR231053241200.050.045.3
DeSean Jackson, PHIWR2972622416114.366.738.7
Pierre Garcon, WASWR2071892415320.062.527.0
Jimmy Graham, NOTE2242812314325.060.928.4
Julio Jones, ATLWR2582812318516.778.328.4
Emmanuel Sanders, PITWR1350702212228.654.531.4
Brian Hartline, MIAWR1821722214150.063.630.6
Randall Cobb, GBWR23627922161246.772.727.8
Greg Little, CLEWR59090228325.036.424.4
Anquan Boldin, SFWR2151672114333.366.731.3
Dez Bryant, DALWR1631912113516.761.923.1
Kenbrell Thompkins, NEWR89091216725.028.623.1
Torrey Smith, BALWR177095211119.152.422.1
Brandon Marshall, CHIWR2172722015420.075.027.8
Eric Decker, DENWR1190852011630.055.023.5
Jordan Cameron, CLETE2031902014550.070.022.2
Steve Smith, CARWR1031611911642.957.931.1
Larry Fitzgerald, ARIWR1132801910742.952.623.8
Victor Cruz, NYGWR2363911913525.068.420.9
Brandon Myers, NYGTE1401911913925.068.420.9
Wes Welker, NEWR1063911912940.063.220.9
DeAndre Hopkins, HOUWR1831931912830.863.220.4
Tavon Austin, STLWR882931912829.463.220.4
Greg Olsen, CARTE1401611812228.666.729.5
Davone Bess, CLEWR850901810425.055.620.0
T.Y. Hilton, INDWR14406617900.052.925.8
Matt Forte, CHIRB1120721715310.088.223.6
Stephen Hill, NYJWR1250741710116.758.823.0
Calvin Johnson, DETWR1532791710640.058.821.5
Andre Roberts, ARIWR133080171100.064.721.3
Demaryius Thomas, DENWR2132851710220.058.820.0
Jason Witten, DALTE822911711525.064.718.7
Austin Pettis, STLWR941931711617.664.718.3
Reggie Wayne, INDWR1421661613220.081.324.2
Steve Johnson, BUFWR1502661611844.468.824.2
Antonio Brown, PITWR128070161100.068.822.9
Jerricho Cotchery, PITWR93170167628.643.822.9
Jamaal Charles, KCRB711701611750.068.822.9
Mike Wallace, MIAWR1301721610150.062.522.2
Ace Sanders, JACWR78079168533.350.020.3
Julius Thomas, DENTE1573851611110.068.818.8
Miles Austin, DALWR103091161300.081.317.6
DeMarco Murray, DALRB880911613325.081.317.6
Jared Cook, STLTE151293168517.650.017.2
Kendall Wright, TENWR65150159350.060.030.0
Martellus Bennett, CHITE1253721510940.066.720.8
Jermichael Finley, GBTE1212791511520.073.319.0
Rueben Randle, NYGWR11509115816.353.316.5
Hakeem Nicks, NYGWR197091159212.560.016.5
Brandon Stokley, BALWR7009515829.153.315.8

While this leaderboard is organized by total targets for easy reference, let's break things down by some of the other statistics worth noting.

Target Percentage Leaders

Vincent Jackson, TB (45.3%) -
If you followed this column last season you would have seen that VJax finished 11th overall in target percentage last year, and there's obviously no reason to expect anything less this year. Josh Freeman will give Mike Williams plenty of looks as well, but Jackson is his go-to guy. With little supporting cast in the passing game, Jackson's target numbers and subsequent yards total should be big. Don't worry, the touchdowns will come too.

DeSean Jackson, PHI (38.7%) -
Similarly to VJax, DeSean doesn't have a whole lot of competition for targets, either. The Eagles lost two receivers to injury in preseason, and it doesn't look like Michael Vick is going to spread the ball around too much. Sure, Riley Cooper and Jason Avant will see their fair share of looks, but Jackson will be the guy and should put up numbers we've been waiting for since 2009.

A.J. Green, CIN (34.6%) -
Another no brainer here, right? Sure, Green's Week 2 totals were a relative disaster, but Andy Dalton will keep coming back to this well often. I said this wouldn't be a fluff piece so we'll end the discussion here.

Red-Zone Target Leaders

As we move further into the season, Red-Zone Target Percentage will be what we look at more, but with the small sample size, the actual number of red-zone targets is more important.

Randall Cobb, GB (12) -
The fact that more than half his targets have come in the red zone is huge for overall value. We already know that Cobb is a beast in PPR leagues based on how Aaron Rodgers has utilized him in the offense, but if he's going to see this much red-zone action as well, then his touchdown total should jump significantly and push him farther up the ladder in standard leagues as well.

A.J. Green, CIN (10) -
High target percentage, a lot of red-zone looks, Green has it all, which is why he's one of the most coveted receivers in fantasy. I'm doing it again, aren't I? We'll just keep going.

Brandon Myers, NYG (9) -
Now here's a name I bet many overlooked on draft day. Myers finished among the top tight ends last year when it came to targets and target percentage. He's got great hands and already has the trust of Eli Manning, obviously. Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks will see the lion's share of targets, but when the Giants get inside the red zone, Myers is a major factor. He's going to become a highly coveted tight end, particularly in PPR leagues, so if you're weak at the position and want to strengthen without paying too steep a price, he should be on your radar.

Others Worth Noting

Martellus Bennett, CHI TE -
Watching Bennett build his on-field rapport with Jay Cutler has been a pleasure, and he has paid off big-time for those who waited on the position and drafted him. With a 20.8-percent target rate, nine red-zone looks and three touchdowns already, Bennett ranks amongst the top tight ends in the early going. He had an issue with drops last year, so if he could just increase that catch percentage and keep it up, everyone involved would feel more confident.

Mike Wallace/Brian Hartline, MIA WR -
So many were ready to throw in the towel early on Wallace after such a dismal showing in Week 1, but those with the ability to exhibit even just a little bit of patience were handsomely rewarded by a 115-yard, one-touchdown effort in Week 2. Meanwhile, Hartline continued to look strong and these two could end up as one of the more underrated tandems this year. We've all seen Wallace be a stud in the past, so it's a job we know he capable of doing. But now Hartline should be kicking in with red-zone work in addition to his possession-receiver prowess, and quarterback Ryan Tannehill is enjoying every minute of it.

Kenbrell Thompkins, NE WR -
I refuse to give up on this guy and don't think Brady is done with him just yet. That touchdown catch he dropped Thursday was overthrown, and a few of his missed targets were just as much Brady's fault as his. While Edelman likely will dominate the targets, Thompkins will still see his fair share, and once he starts hanging onto everything that comes his way, he's going to be a huge fantasy asset. Enough of this undrafted free agent talk. The guy has skills and just needs to have that one solid game to show it. Might not be this game, though, as the Bucs corners are tough.

Potential Risers
(players who failed to make the overall leaderboard)

Eddie Royal
Jordy Nelson
Dwayne Bowe
Marques Colston
Greg Olsen
Vernon Davis
Jason Witten

Potential Fallers

Greg Little
Stephen Hill
Ace Sanders
Davone Bess
Austin Pettis

Week 3 MatchUp to Watch

Carolina Panthers at New York Giants -
The Giants defense has had a rough go of it through the first two weeks, facing Dallas and Denver, and has been battered for 570 passing yards with four touchdowns and 199 rushing yards and another two scored. Cam Newton has yet to bust out, is primed for a big game and should have no trouble finding Greg Olsen and Steve Smith throughout the day. The G-Men also struggle with screens to the running backs, which could make for another strong week for DeAngelo Williams. Throw a sleeper watch on Brandon LaFell this week too. On the other side, it's pass, pass, pass for the Giants against the Panthers' 21st-ranked pass defense. Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks should have a field day with the Carolina corners, Rueben Randle should see plenty of action, Brandon Myers will get his looks and let's be on the lookout for David Wilson as Carolina also struggles with the screens to the running backs (23rd against RB-pass plays).