Not all targets are created equal. Targets in the red zone are a lot more valuable than targets outside it because -- excuse me for stating the obvious -- they're more likely to result in touchdowns. There's still room to catch a pass inside the 20-yard-line short of the end zone, but with teams passing more and more inside the 10- and 5-yard-line, it's nearly impossible for those receptions to be anything but touchdowns.
Last year, seven players -- A.J. Green, Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker, Mike Williams, Julio Jones, Wes Welker and Reggie Wayne -- had at least 10 targets inside the 10-yard-line. Four of them -- Green, Marshall, Decker and Jones -- had double-digit touchdowns, and Williams had nine. Marshall led the league with seven targets inside the 5, while Decker, Jones, Wayne and Roddy White tied for second with six.
Some of those guys are great weapons in the red zone because of their size. However, Decker, Welker, Wayne and White saw all those targets based more on scheme than anything else. We know receiving touchdowns are very tough to predict from year to year, but if you can identify the players likely to be targeted in the red zone, either because of physical stature or offensive gameplan, you can eliminate some of the uncertainty and capitalize on a statistic that too few owners consult before the season. Below is a look at five undervalued players you can count on for red zone targets.
• Buccaneers' Mike Williams: 19 red zone targets, 26 percent of his team's total -- Let's start off with one of last year's most targeted players in the red zone. Williams' 19 targets inside the 20 ranked 11th in the league. Eleven of those came inside the 10, five of which were inside the 5. At 6-foot-2, 212 pounds, Williams is an imposing figure in the red zone, although he's not quite as big as teammate Vincent Jackson. However, the Buccaneers return all the same principals on offense. Josh Freeman appears comfortable with Williams when they get in scoring distance, something that is likely to carry over to this season. That should help him close in on double-digit touchdowns this season.
• Saints' Marques Colston: 23 targets, 22.8 percent -- Despite an impressive track record and a large role in a prolific offense with one of the best quarterbacks in the league, Colston is generally seen as a member of the second or third tier of receivers. That's a mistake. Colston had 23 red zone targets last year, nine of which were inside the 10, making last season the third time in the last four years he had 20-plus looks in the red zone. Jimmy Graham steals a lot of the targets when the Saints get very close to the goal line, but Colston is still one of Drew Brees' favorite receivers inside the 20. Brees has led the league in red zone attempts in three of the last four seasons, and is the only player to top 100 red zone passes every season from 2010 through 2012. Colston will benefit from that in 2013, as he always does.
• Bills' Steve Johnson: 17 targets, 35.4 percent -- No matter who wins the Bills starting quarterback job (the bet here is on E.J. Manuel), he will be a new starter playing for a new regime, so the continuity argument doesn't work for Johnson. He is easily the Bills' most dangerous weapon in the red zone, though, and the team knows it. His 35.4 percent target percentage in the red zone was second to Larry Fitzgerald's ridiculous 50 percent. At least 34 percent of the Bills' red zone pass attempts have gone in his direction each of the last three years, or every year he has played a significant number of snaps. The quarterback, coaching staff and scheme may all be new, but Johnson remains the team's best option when it gets inside the red zone. His streak of being the intended receiver on at least one-third of the Bills' pass plays inside the 20 will continue.
• Giants' Hakeem Nicks: 17 targets, 20.7 percent -- Last year, 21 receivers had at least 15 targets in the red zone. All but one of those receivers played at least 15 games (16 of them played in every game). That receiver was Nicks. The oft-injured Giant managed to get 17 red zone targets, six of which were inside the 10, in just 13 games. You can't really count on him being healthy for all 16 games, but Eli Manning clearly trusts the 6-foot-1, 208-pound North Carolina product. Nicks had 36.6 percent of the Giants' red zone targets in 2011. He missed three games in 2010, but was the intended receiver 18 times in the red zone, nearly 50 percent of the Giants' red zone pass attempts that year. He'll likely miss a handful of games again this year, but he makes the ones he plays count thanks to his frequent usage near the goal line.
• Jaguars' Cecil Shorts: 12 targets, 23.5 percent -- Shorts' 12 targets inside the 20 weren't especially high, though they did represent nearly a quarter of Jacksonville's red zone pass attempts. He doesn't have much of a track record to go on because he didn't play a lot in his rookie season of 2011. And the Jaguars' aren't likely to light up the scoreboard this season. So why is Shorts included in this column? Of his 12 red zone targets, five were inside the 10, and four of those were inside the 5. Justin Blackmon may be a big bigger, but a receiver doesn't get that many targets that close to the goal line on accident. Shorts was one of 15 receivers with at least four targets inside the 5-yard-line. I'm willing to bet he'll get a lot of opportunities in the red zone again this season.