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Fantasy hints from next-level data

12/4/2013 - NFL
Brian Hartline ranks 26th in fantasy scoring among wide receivers, with 91 points. Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports

Finding a player on the waiver wire at this junction of the season who may actually improve your team is nearly impossible. Usually, if you are going to find something useful this late in the season, it occurs because you snagged someone coming back from an injury whom other owners either bailed on (Nate Burleson) or didn't want to take a chance on (Michael Crabtree).

However, looking into the target data below, there's another option -- a player who is available in nearly two-thirds of ESPN.com standard leagues, and hasn't been injured this season -- Brian Hartline.

Hartline is averaging 8.4 targets per game and currently ranks 26th in fantasy points for all wide receivers. That doesn't make Hartline an elite option, but it's probably higher than what your perception of him is.

It's safe to say that most people view Hartline like their backup plan for the prom rather than anyone they truly wanted to bring to the dance. But when that backup plan starts producing like Hartline has, it's time to wonder if more games like Sunday's -- when he beat the New York Jets for 127 yards and a touchdown -- might be possible in the near future.

On target

Receiving yardage is the most variable form of yardage, which makes sense because so much of it is dependent on where the quarterback elects to throw the ball. Because of this, variations in the number of times a player is targeted by his quarterback can greatly change a player's value. So while your receiver may have scored 10 fantasy points this weekend, you need to know whether it's reasonable to expect that he can repeat that type of performance on a routine basis. If a receiver had one target that he turned into a 40-yard touchdown, you need to realize that he was one quarterback decision away from posting a goose egg. Conversely, if your wideout had 12 targets and finished with 108 yards receiving, his prospects for consistent fantasy production are significantly greater.

Below, you'll see all of the players who are averaging eight or more targets in their past four games, and how many of those targets were on plays that began in the red zone during Week 13.

Note: Targets are not an official NFL statistic. Based on the methodology that stat services use, the number of targets listed may be different than target values listed elsewhere. ESPN Stats & Information's philosophy is to count a target when the analyst thinks the pass was actually intended for the player. Therefore, if a quarterback is obviously throwing a ball away, the analyst will not record a target for that pass. This gives a truer representation of what a target is -- a pass thrown to a particular player, with the intent for that player to catch the ball -- and therefore should be more helpful to the fantasy community.

Fantasy insights based on data through Week 13

• You might think that the loss of Reggie Wayne would mean more red zone targets for Coby Fleener. It really hasn't. Since Week 9, Fleener has as many red zone targets (four) as his teammates Darrius Heyward-Bey and LaVon Brazill, neither of whom really instill fear into opponents.

• After scoring only two touchdowns on 17 targets last season in the red zone, Calvin Johnson has seven such touchdowns in 24 attempts this season. Yes, the best is getting better.

Eric Decker converted almost 46 percent (11-of-24) of his red zone targets last season into touchdowns. Despite his awesome stat line against the Kansas City Chiefs, Decker has only five touchdowns on 15 red zone targets this season. With Julius Thomas nearing a return, there's no reason to expect Decker to have anywhere close to a repeat of his Sunday performance at any point for the remainder of the year.

• After being targeted 10 times in his first game back from injury, Nate Burleson saw no targets on Thanksgiving against the Green Bay Packers. He did run 25 routes, so he was on the field plenty; Matthew Stafford simply looked elsewhere.

• If Michael Crabtree is somehow available in your league, execute a waiver claim on him immediately. Crabtree posted a solid fantasy day Sunday despite running only 21 routes, on which he drew four targets. In 2012, Crabtree was targeted on about one of every three routes he ran. Look for Crabtree's targets to progress weekly and for him to become an elite option quickly.

Big plays and up close

There were eight NFL players who totaled three or more rushes that gained 10 or more yards each. They were: Adrian Peterson (8), Reggie Bush (5), Robert Griffin III (4), Ryan Fitzpatrick (3), Montee Ball (3), Matt Forte (3), Jamaal Charles (3) and Bobby Rainey (3).

Meanwhile, there were 11 players with at least two carries from their opponent's 5-yard line or closer. They were: DeMarco Murray (3), Le'Veon Bell (3), Nick Foles (3), Rashad Jennings (3), Fitzpatrick (3), Steven Jackson (3), Andy Dalton (2), Joique Bell (2), Lamar Miller (2), Marshawn Lynch (2) and Mike Tolbert (2). Foles, Dalton, Miller, Lynch and Tolbert all failed to convert at least one of these carries into six points; the others were successful at least once.

Peterson has 17 rushes for 10 yards or more since Week 10. To put that into perspective, that's two more than Ryan Mathews and three more than Chris Johnson have for the entire season, respectively.

All three of Foles' rushes inside the opponent's 5-yard line were kneel-downs to run out the clock. Nothing to see in those stats.

Since Week 8, Ball is averaging 5.33 yards per rush to Knowshon Moreno's 4.01. Most of the difference between the two during that span comes after contact, as Ball is gaining 1.10 more yards per rush after contact than Moreno.

Red zone play-calling chart

Below is a listing of the percentage of run/pass plays each team has executed this season in the red zone. Pass plays are defined as any play in which the quarterback attempted a pass or was sacked, and all other plays are deemed as a rush.