So much of the conversation in fantasy football circles revolves around whether or not a player is #good, but that is not the best way to approach redraft leagues. While talent is undoubtedly important, opportunity is far more predictive of fantasy success, and that remains true at wide receiver.
Over the past five years, there have been 182 instances of a wide receiver getting at least 100 targets in a season. Of those seasons, just 34 finished outside the top-36 fantasy receivers even in standard scoring. The number falls to 25 in PPR formats. Last season was an odd one for receivers, but no wideout who finished with 100 targets ended up outside the top-33 in PPR. Even in a standard format, identifying a receiver who will garner 100 targets gives fantasy players an 80-percent chance of landing at least a WR3.
On a weekly basis, the importance of targets shines through even more clearly. In some older but great work, Sean Fakete noted volume is among the strongest predictors of elite fantasy games. 98 percent of weekly top finishers from 2013-15 had at least six receptions. The same is true of 86 percent of top-6 finishes and 76 percent of top-12 receivers. When trying to identify high-upside receivers on a weekly basis, volume should play a big role in the decision-making process.
The problem is most high-volume receivers are already valued properly. DeAndre Hopkins and Antonio Brown finished 1-2 in targets last season, and they are, not coincidentally, the first two receivers off the board this year. That said, there are some receivers being drafted outside the top-36 at the position who have the potential for a large workload even before considering any injury possibilities.
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Randall Cobb – WR37
Cobb feels like cheating because he is only one spot below the threshold and likely would be drafted higher if not for the glut of WR3-types at the receiver position this season. Still, he is worth discussing both because of his target upside and the history of No. 2 receivers in Green Bay.
In the 8 seasons Aaron Rodgers has played at least 15 games, he has supported two 100-target receivers in five of them, and his No. 2 receiver has been a top-24 option in all but two of them. In two of his last three seasons, the No. 2 receiver has been a top 10 option – Cobb was the WR6 in 2014 and Davante Adams was the WR7 in 2016.
Those two monster seasons were on the back of 12 touchdown explosions, and Cobb is unlikely to match that total with Jimmy Graham brought in to soak up the red-zone targets Jordy Nelson vacated. Even so, Cobb himself has shown he can return top-36 value as the No. 2 option with a modest touchdown total in the very recent past, finishing as the WR29 with a 79/829/6 line in 2015. At worst he appears to be going at value, and he has the upside in this offense to be much better than that.
Robert Woods – WR38
While he finished with just 85 targets last season, Woods was well on his way to 100 looks if not for an injury. He averaged just over seven targets a game in his 12 active weeks last season, putting him on a 113.3 target pace. He also handled 22.5 percent of the Rams’ targets in the games he was active, a number which would have earned him 116.6 targets over a full 16 games. Looking at those numbers, Woods seems certain to top 100 targets if he stays healthy, but it is not quite that simple.
Sammy Watkins handled just 14.7 percent of Jared Goff’s targets last season, and that was with Woods missing three of those games. Brought in to replace him, Brandin Cooks figures to have a much bigger role this season, which puts some downward pressure on both Woods’ and Cooper Kupp’s target share. Already a low-volume passing team last season, an even better defense could depress Goff’s attempt total even further this year, and there has been chatter about the tight ends, who commanded just 17 percent of the targets last season, getting more work in the passing game this year.
Coming off a breakout season, it is highly unlikely the Rams forget about Woods entirely, but it is fair to project him for a smaller role in the offense. His current ADP is fine and the upside is obviously there for 110-plus targets, but it might not be as good a bet as it appears.
Kelvin Benjamin – WR39
Benjamin is the most open-and-shut case on this list. Even if he was not the only semi-reliable option on the depth chart – we will see what Zay Jones and Corey Coleman can become – new OC Brian Daboll has a history of heavily targeting his No. 1 receivers. Dwayne Bowe saw 28.2 percent of the targets when he was healthy under Daboll in 2012, and Brandon Marshall earned a massive 30.1 percent of the targets with Miami in 2011.
The knocks against Benjamin are his talent, which is at best questionable, his ability to stay healthy, which is more than questionable, and his offense, which could be the worst in the league this season. That said, Benjamin has already shown what he can do when healthy by finishing as the WR17 for a Panthers offense which was 19th in points scored and 15th in passing touchdowns in 2014. He is probably not going to reach even those heights this year in an offense which almost certainly will be worse than that, but WR39 feels like his full-health floor.
Jamison Crowder – WR41
Washington’s receiver corps is tough to project. Alex Smith is new, Paul Richardson is new, Josh Doctson struggled in his first real season, and Jordan Reed is as big an injury risk as anyone. With all of that uncertainty, Crowder is an interesting bet to top 100 targets, something he did last season in just 15 games and came within a target of in 2016.
That said, he might need some help to actually reach that mark. Crowder has averaged 1.63 fewer targets in games he has played with Reed throughout his career, which is unsurprising based on how each player is used. The targets were there, but Crowder also was a less effective fantasy player while Chris Thompson was healthy last season, averaging 15 fewer yards and 4.24 fewer PPR fantasy points.
The good news for Crowder is neither of those players is a particularly good bet to stay healthy, and Crowder has already earned praise for his connection with his new quarterback. He is a more interesting pick in PPR formats, but Crowder can match his standard ADP if things fall correctly.
Allen Hurns – WR42
The reality is we do not know who will emerge as the No. 1 in Dallas’ offense, but it is worth speculating considering it is a spot which earned Dez Bryant almost eight targets a game over the last two seasons. Hurns has to be the favorite at this point in the preseason. He has worked as the No. 1 all offseason, started the first preseason game, and saw as many snaps with Dak Prescott as any receiver not named Michael Gallup.
The concern for Hurns actually reaching his target upside is twofold. First, he has played just 21 games because of several different injuries over the last two seasons. Even if he opens the season as the clear No. 1, it is not guaranteed he stays there. Second, there are several options for targets in Dallas’ remade passing corps including Gallup, Cole Beasley, and, at least based on camp reports, Tavon Austin. In fact, Gallup might be a better bet at his 13th-round ADP just based on cost.
Still, it would be silly to discount Hurns’ target upside, especially in an undervalued passing attack, and his rapidly falling ADP makes taking the risk more palatable than it was a month ago.
~Nelson Agholor – WR43
It is easy to make a regression case against Agholor. His yards per target jumped from 5.7 his first two seasons to 8.1 last year, he scored 2.28 more touchdowns than expected based on his usage, and the Eagles’ offense and specifically passing game should drop off after throwing for 38 touchdowns a season ago. All of that made Agholor look like an overvalued candidate heading into August.
That math changes a bit, however, following news Alshon Jeffery might not be ready for the start of the season following offseason shoulder surgery. Even with Jeffery on the field for all 16 games last season and Zach Ertz commanding 110 targets, Agholor managed 95 of his own in an offense which ran the ball at an above-league-average rate. If Jeffery is taken out of the equation for even a few games, the path to 100 targets is wide open, and it remains possible the Agholor we saw last season is just his new level of play – he was a first round pick for a reason.
Pierre Garcon – WR44
Garcon looked like he would be an easy pick early in the summer. While he did not get to play with Jimmy Garoppolo last season, it seemed likely he would return to the No. 1 role which had him on a 144 target pace over the first seven games last year. Sure Marquise Goodwin broke out after Garcon was injured, but Garcon profiles better as the No. 1 target and was used that way when both were healthy last season – Garcon had a 22.6 percent target share compared to 14.4 percent for Goodwin.
Training camp and the first preseason game have told a dramatically different story, however. Goodwin has consistently been labeled as the No. 1 receiver, with ESPN’s Nick Wagoner saying he is “clearly Jimmy Garoppolo‘s favorite target,” and Goodwin was targeted three times to zero for Garcon in the preseason opener, although that is admittedly a microscopic sample size.
All is not lost, however. While Goodwin was impressive with Garoppolo last season, catching 67.4 percent of his targets with a 13.2 YPR, last season was the first time he topped 450 yards or 30 catches in his career. He has also suffered six known concussions in the NFL including two last year. Even though it looks great now, there are avenues for Goodwin to disappoint, and Garcon’s price is low enough it makes some sense to take a shot, especially with San Francisco’s offense on the rise.
Sterling Shepard – WR49
Shepard might seem like an odd inclusion on this list considering he very well could be the fourth option in the passing game behind Odell Beckham, Evan Engram, and Saquon Barkley, but the top-heavy nature of New York’s offense could still allow Shepard to sniff 100 targets. On new coach Pat Shurmur’s Vikings last season, Stefon Diggs earned 95 targets in 14 games despite Adam Thielen commanding 142, Kyle Rudolph getting 81, and Jerick McKinnon and Dalvin Cook combining for 84.
All of those totals are good benchmarks for Beckham, Engram, and Barkley, respectively, and that came on an offense which threw the ball just 527 times. Unlikely to be in such advantageous game scripts this year, the safe money is on the Giants throwing more than that, which would allow Shepard to reach the 100 target mark even if he does not receive quite the same target share as Diggs did a season ago.
Cameron Meredith – WR50
Meredith’s outlook is complicated by his health. Recovering from an ACL tear, the receiver worryingly missed time in the last week with an undisclosed injury. That issue reportedly has nothing to do with his knee, but it is still a concern. Even so, it is tough to argue against his target upside if healthy.
Drew Brees is one of the most commonly cited regression candidates in fantasy football. After seven seasons in a row of at least 625 attempts, a number he had hit in nine of his 11 seasons in New Orleans, Brees’ attempt total tumbled all the way to 536 last season. A dominant running game certainly played a role in that fall, but the Saints leading on 52.6 percent of their snaps was a bigger factor in the shift, and that will be difficult for them to do again while sporting one of the toughest schedules in the league.
That means Brees should throw more this year, and Meredith is a strong candidate to see a large share of those targets. Even with Brandin Cooks and Michael Thomas atop the depth chart, Willie Snead topped 100 targets with a 15.4 percent target share in 2016, and he did the same with a 15.1 percent target share in 2015 despite Cooks and Ben Watson also getting more than 100 looks. That kind of target share feels like Meredith’s floor if he is healthy, and he could certainly be more involved than that in an offense which tends to spread the ball around.
Kenny Stills – WR51
Stills was certainly not the first name which came to mind when thinking about who would replace Jarvis Landry’s vacated targets, especially after the Dolphins added Albert Wilson and Danny Amendola during free agency. That thinking has to change a little bit at this point, however. Amendola still looks headed for a significant role, but Wilson has struggled to find his place while DeVante Parker is sidelined by an injury which could threaten his Week 1 status.
Perhaps under the radar, Stills finished second on the Dolphins in targets last season with 105. Miami is unlikely to throw 602 times again – they attempted 477 passes in 2016 with Ryan Tannehill healthy for 13 games – but Stills’ target share has a good shot to grow with Landry gone and Parker hurt. A big-play threat who could command a solid target share, Stills has the makings of this season’s Robby Anderson.
Marqise Lee – WR53
Lee has to be on this list because he saw 105 targets in 2016 and 96 in just 14 games last season, but it is tough to get excited about his prospects. His WR49 finish two years ago is one of the 34 instances of a 100-target receiver failing to crack WR3 value, and he was the WR42 last year in per-game scoring while failing to top 90 yards in any game.
With more competition for targets this season, Lee is not even guaranteed to crack 100 targets, and he is not likely to be fantasy-viable outside of deep leagues even if he does. Dede Westbrook has less target certainty, but he is a much better pick in the double-digit rounds.
Rishard Matthews – WR62
Matthews has been a mainstay on this list since joining the Titans, and it has tended to work out. He managed to finish as the WR13 on 108 targets in 2016, and while he did not top 100 targets last season, he still posted a 53/795/4 line in 14 games for a dreadful passing attack.
This year is a bit different, though. Not only is first-round sophomore Corey Davis expected to take on a bigger role, but Mathews has been sidelined all of camp with a mysterious injury the Titans are reluctant to talk about. If he gets back into camp and looks like he will be ready for Week 1, he will once again be interesting, but right now he looks like someone to avoid.
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