After opening up our summer series with a look at scoring, drives, play calling and a look at red zone production, our attention has since shifted to the positional level of fantasy output. The first two posts covered tight ends and then quarterbacks – the two fantasy positions that traditionally only require one starter – but we’re now getting into the position that will undoubtedly occupy the largest portion of your fantasy roster, wide receivers.
If you’ve been following this series since that open, you’re well aware that the 2017 season suffered a major decline in passing-game output that had ripple effects throughout all of fantasy football. With passing points curbed a year ago, the wide receiver position suffered its worst collective fantasy season since 2009.
WR Fantasy Output Over the Past 10 Years
We previously highlighted a week ago that overall passing volume was a major issue in generating fantasy output and all of the raw stats for wideouta above completely nosedived because of that loss. To tack onto overall play volume and passing splits taking a step back, teams also targeted their wide receivers less from a leaguewide rate stance. Wide receivers accounted for 57.6 percent of the leaguewide targets a year ago, their lowest mark of the past decade and their fantasy output followed suit. As we begin our descent into the windows of how this impacted the fantasy scorers we actually cared about, let’s shrink down scoring output to the top of the position for fantasy purposes.
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After the massive receiving spike from 2012-2015, we’ve had back-to-back seasons of decline from the top of the position. A year ago, many including myself hypothesized that with teams running more personnel sets that incorporated three or more receivers on the field at the same time, that the top of the position was beginning to be shaved down because of target disparity given all of the passing options on the field at once. The evidence here was the rate of those sets being called in game have been steadily climbing paired with the continuing rising tide of WR3 fantasy output in the chart above and the overall wide receiver fantasy output in the opening table, which all still rose through 2016 despite an overall lag in output at the WR1 and WR2 scorers. But 2017 was such a down season in overall passing out, that the WR3 group was stopped in their ascending tracks as well.
Not only was it the worst fantasy season for receivers over the past 10 years, but one that dates back all the way into the 1990’s in terms of production from the bulk of the top of the position.
Top-24 Scoring WRs in 2017
Scaling down to just the top of the position – the players making the biggest impact and typically carrying the highest cost in drafts the following year since we’re consistently cooking last year’s output into average draft position – provides a deeper look into why receiving points failed to carry fantasy teams like they had in previous seasons. Collectively, the top-12 scoring wide receivers had their lowest scoring season for fantasy purposes since 1993.
WR1 Fantasy Scoring Output and Leaguewide Rates Over the Past 10 Years
Volume was the biggest culprit in passing-game loss a year ago and that rolls right into fantasy WR1s collecting their third-lowest target total of the past decade. Surprisingly, it even went up a tiny bit from 2016. In terms of what percentage of the league’s total passing output that the highest-scoring wideouts inherit, targets and reception rates rose from 2016 and although they failed to reach the heights of 2015, they were more or less in line with the type of rates that we saw when wide receiving business was beginning to boom. Despite the reception rates being near those totals when points really began to fly, the top of the receiving position got pummeled in the touchdown output department. As a group, the 84 receiving touchdowns posted by fantasy WR1s were the fewest they’ve accrued in a season since 1982, which was only a 9-game season due to a player strike.
Yes, we were bound to inevitably hit a breaking point in the continued rise of leaguewide passing rate and passing game output, but the type of decline that we saw in passing output from 2017 isn’t just a simple breaking point or a reversion, I believe it’s far more likely to be an overcorrection. Last week we discussed the varying quarterback injuries being at a high over the past several seasons and offensive line play having a down season as well. While all of this is strictly descriptive of the prior season, we’re now working with the type of drop-off from the wide receiver position that is not dissimilar from the one we witnessed from the running back position during the 2014 campaign. We’re working with a low point in fantasy output posted by the top of the wide receiving food chain dating back over 25 seasons, not just a simple slice off the pie here. That alone is advantageous when factoring in that the cost of the top wide receivers has now been lowered. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you should take wide receivers over top running backs, just that you now have the opportunity to acquire those players cheaper than you have over the past few seasons.
Year over Year Correlation for WR Stats over the Past 10 Years
Even if you don’t want to pay top-dollar for receiving work, inevitably you’re going to be using a lot of roster space on the position. When selecting players there’s no way around factoring in what a player has already done in his career to this point in his current cost. The table above is looking at which wide receiver stats have the highest roll-over rate from season to season. This covers the entirety of the position to account for variance, with the only seasons removed were the years played prior to a player missing the following season.
Right away you can spot that per game output triumphs over seasonal totals. Where you can take advantage of this with players that have a depressed 2018 cost due to previous injury or suspension. A few names that pop under this umbrella are Odell Beckham, Allen Robinson, Julian Edelman, Pierre Garcon, Emmanuel Sanders and Allen Hurns. There’s a case-by-case discussion to be had for each of these players and their current market value, but as a conversation starter, their current cost is below their per game output at the position.
The two stats that have the highest per game and seasonal tie in to the previous season are rooted in opportunity. Overall receptions and then targets are the most bankable descriptive statistics that hold predictive power. With a deep player pool, opportunity is king and shouldn’t be ignored, even if we’re going to pole some holes in the efficiency that volume may be attached to. Over the past 10 years, fantasy WR1 scorers have averaged 148.6 total targets, 9.5 targets per game and a 25.7 percent share of their team’s target opportunity. Just 16 of those 120 players had fewer than 125 targets in the respective season they were a WR1 scorer and just two had fewer than 100 targets. Moving down the line, fantasy WR2 scorers have averaged 125.4 targets, 8.1 targets per game and 22.5 percent of their team targets while WR3 scorers have averaged 105.5 targets, 6.9 targets per game and 19.2 percent of their respective team targets. An easy way to begin breaking players up at the position into tiers and separating players with tight ADP is to have a top-down view of volume. A player such as Tyreek Hill –who has an aggregate ADP of WR10 yet ranked 28th in targets per game for wideouts in 2017– has far less bankable opportunity than several receivers he is currently valued over.
Bringing up the rear in both per game and seasonal correlation is touchdown production. Often, touchdown output is the driving force a player’s end-of-year fantasy ranking – which greatly impacts their fantasy cost for the following season – but players will go through several spikes throughout their career in the touchdown department. Flipping the page, we’ll be looking at which wide receivers benefited the most from receiving touchdown output in 2017 versus their career output prior to last season, gives us a list of names that could potentially be due to see a decrease in scoring output generated from finding the end zone this upcoming season.
Largest Increase in PPR Output Stemming from ReTD in 2017
No receiver had a larger portion of his fantasy points scored a year ago come solely from touchdown output than Will Fuller. After scoring twice on 47 receptions as a rookie in 2016, Fuller caught seven touchdowns a year ago on 50 targets and 28 catches. In totality, Fuller scored a touchdown once every 7.1 targets last year, the highest rate a receiver has had in a season on 25 or more targets since Martavis Bryant in 2014. Even more bonkers is that Fuller scored once every 3.1 targets from Watson over four full games, scoring all seven of his touchdowns in his first four games played of the season on just 13 total receptions. Bryant’s 2014 -2015 output is a good heat check for keeping expectations for Fuller in check as after Bryant scored eight times on 26 catches that 2014 season, he came back to score six times on 50 catches the following season. One thing Fuller does have going for him is that he did show he was capable of elite touchdown output while in college, averaging .94 receiving touchdowns per game over his 32-game collegiate career at Notre Dame. Over his 26 games played over his sophomore and junior seasons, Fuller caught a touchdown in 21 of them.
In his first full season in three years and his first season with the Eagles, Alshon Jeffery posted his fewest amount of receptions (3.6) and receiving yardage (49.3) per game since his rookie season in 2012 while his 47.5 percent catch rate was his lowest in any season. Even through that decline, Jeffery managed a top-20 fantasy season since he notched a career-high 15.8 percent touchdown rate on his receptions, nearly doubling his career rate of 8.6 percent entering 2017. 27.6 percent of his fantasy output came strictly from touchdown receptions. It was also revealed that Jeffery played the entirety of the season with a torn rotator cuff and had surgery this offseason., which may have played into his off-kilter efficiency, but with the Eagles as a team being a candidate for fewer offensive touchdowns overall with a lower rate of passing touchdowns coming for the touchdowns they do score, we’re going to need to see those efficiency marks rebound. Two spots below Jeffery in percentage of points scored strictly from touchdown receptions is Nelson Agholor, who reached 60 yards receiving in just four games and had just four games with more than four reception. The Eagles potential recoil in touchdowns and touchdown passes applies here as well while Philadelphia has directly upgraded with Mike Wallace replacing Torrey Smith as target competition for both players.
32.8 percent of Sammy Watkins‘ fantasy scoring came via touchdowns and he did his damage by catching seven red-zone touchdowns a year ago after catching just five during his three seasons in Buffalo. Unfortunately, tat touchdown spike accompanied career-lows in receptions (2.6) and receiving yards (39.5) per game. Watkins has flashed a major ceiling at times, but he also has been a volatile producer as he’s been a top-24 scorer in just 19 of 52 career games to this point. He potentially has another volume issue lingering in Kansas City, playing alongside Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. I have been taking Watkins here and there as the cheapest avenue into the Chiefs offense, but it’s well in the range of outcomes that the Kansas City offense as a whole is due for decline and that Watkins’ addition may mean more for Hill and Kelce failing to live up to their costs rather than making Watkins a valuable asset himself as Kansas City is missing just 62 targets from the wide receiving group they had a year ago.
I’m personally very high on Stefon Diggs as a player ready to make a leap, so I’m in a tough spot on this one because he also is relatively expensive to acquire. After scoring seven times through 20 games, Stefon Diggs found the end zone eight times through 14 games a year ago. A big plus to that output was directly how he performed in the red zone in comparison to his teammate Adam Thielen. Diggs turned 6-of-12 red zone targets into scores after just 2-of-18 over his first two seasons while Thielen turned just 2-of-16 red zone looks into scores while converting just 1-of-8 inside of the 10-yard line despite out-targeting Diggs in that area of the field 8-5. We’ve gotten pockets of Diggs showing an elite receiver ceiling- it just hasn’t come fully together yet for a full season-but we should expect his touchdown reliance to decrease in the 2018, meaning we need his game to finally make that anticipated jump consistently in year four.
A boom-or-bust option through his first two NFL seasons, Amari Cooper was more bust in 2017 as he failed to even reach 50-yards receiving in nine of his 14 games played. On the positive end, he did set a career-high with seven touchdown receptions and found the end zone in four of his final five games of the season. Still only 24-years-old, Cooper should be expected to leave his disappointing 2017 season in the rearview mirror and get back to the 75-80 catch, 1,000-yard receiver that we saw from him over his first two seasons. But one potentially hanging issue for Cooper and Oakland is the availability of Martavis Bryant, who is rumored to be suspended at some point for a serious length of time. The addition of Bryant allows Cooper to move around the field more to maximize his skillset and reduce his weekly volatility over being forced to carry a vertical passing game on his own like he has been to start his career alongside Michael Crabtree and Seth Roberts. It should be Oakland’s priority to allow Cooper to move around the offense more in his fourth season and create more accessible targets for him to maximize his skill set. Cooper’s best game of the 2017 season (an 11 catch, 210-yard game with two touchdowns on 19 targets) came when he received 10 targets from the slot. He turned those 10 targets into six catches for 95 yards and a touchdown. For the rest of the season, Cooper only received 20 total targets from the slot outside of that game.
Chris Hogan began 2017 as the WR8 overall Weeks 1-8 before suffering a shoulder injury that sidelined him for all but one game for the remainder of the season. Over that span, Hogan ranked fifth in the league in red zone targets (11) and third in targets from inside of the 10-yard line (six) for all players. Over that span, he never once reached 80-yards receiving in a game and had more than six targets overall in just three of those games. Through two seasons in New England, Hogan has played just eight games with both Edelman and Rob Gronkowski in the lineup at the same time. We’ll touch on those splits in a moment, but we don’t have a strong grasp on where Hogan’s ceiling and floor fall once Edelman returns from his suspension.
As we highlighted in the red zone piece, scoring touchdowns is more about opportunity than true skill and Jarvis Landry was second in the NFL with 13 targets inside of the 10-yard line while leading the league in receptions (10) and receiving touchdowns (nine) in that area of the field. With that short-yardage spike, Landry turned eight percent of his receptions into touchdowns a year ago after just 4.5 percent through his first three years in the NFL. His longest touchdown reception on the year was just nine yards out and five came from five yards and in. The Browns will have to create much more scoring opportunities for him to roll that production over while Cleveland has more capable playmakers than Miami did a year ago in that area of the field.
DeAndre Hopkins paced the NFL with 13 receiving touchdowns a year ago. He got there on the strength of scoring seven times inside of the 10-yard after scoring just seven times from that area of the field through four seasons. While many will point to his splits with and without Deshaun Watson, it’s Hopkins’ consistency over the back half of the season without Watson when Houston was 31st in offensive scoring per game Weeks 9-16 that cemented his WR1 status in fantasy circles moving forward. Believe it or not, but Hopkins’ three “lowest” scoring weeks of the season actually came with Watson under center and not the pile of vagabonds he had throwing to him the other weeks. He still had a safe floor in those lowest weeks, hence the air qoutes there, but his other three weeks with Watson under center were just filled with immense ceiling output that made his averages with Watson active so insanely lofty. Hopkins shouldn’t be expected to score at the rate he did a year ago because Watson should find regression naturally, and early odds makers have already set his line with an expected under of 9.5 scores in 2018, but of course 8-9 scores is just fine and not all regression is detrimental and something to hide from.
Michael Crabtree’s targets (7.2), receptions (4.1), catch rate (57.4 percent) and yardage (44.1) per game were all lows for him over his three seasons in Oakland and immediately trades a step down in offensive systems moving on to Baltimore. No longer a splash play option, Crabtree has averaged just 10.8 yards per reception over the past four seasons but has circumvented that with volume and scoring eight or more touchdowns in each of the past three seasons. Joe Flacco has had just two wide receivers catch eight touchdowns in a season through 10 years, with both being Torrey Smith in 2012 and 2014.
Largest Decrease in PPR Output Stemming from ReTD in 2017
We’re now flipping the table in hopes of uncovering some players that may be undervalued and due for more touchdown production. No wide receiver had more receptions a year ago while failing to score a touchdown than Terrance Williams. He failed to score at all on 78 targets and 53 receptions last year, but any potential rebound for him in finding the end zone is marginal for us as he’s never finished higher than WR43 through five seasons in the league. Martavis Bryant also is in no man’s land as many close to the Raiders are expecting him to be suspended an indefinite amount of time, so he’s off our radar for the time being as well.
We’ve already talked about Julio Jones and his ongoing inability to reach the end zone despite the Falcon’s efforts to get him opportunities a year ago, so we won’t linger here. Even for the standards he’s set for his career, Jones’ three touchdowns were wildly below expectation. Him scoring just three times while posting 1,444 yards was almost a ludicrous as that season when Calvin Johnson scored just five times while flirting with 2,000 yards receiving in 2012. We’ve been blinded a bit by just how good of a player Jones is because he’s failed to cash in on giving us one high-TD season to go along with all of receptions and yardage. In 2017, Jones eclipsed 1,400 yards for the fourth consecutive season, something only Marvin Harrison has accomplished outside of Jones. For the second straight year, he had over 80 receptions while averaging over 16.0 yards per catch, something only Torry Holt and Calvin Johnson have ever done in back to back season.
After scoring eight times on 65 catches as a rookie, Sterling Shepard was a player we were expecting touchdown regression from a year ago and it came quickly, catching two scores on 59 passes a year ago. Still, despite that decline and playing only 11 games, Shepard still improved on his rookie season yardage (731 yards) due to an efficiency spike – catching 70.2 percent of his targets after 61.9 percent as a rookie – and the Giants missing Odell Beckham for three-fourths of the season. The main concern here is that Shepard saw 9.2 targets per game with Beckham out of the lineup after just 5.8 per game prior while New York now has added Saquon Barkley and Evan Engram has a full season to build off of.
Both 49ers receivers appear here as Pierre Garcon failed to score at all through eight games while Marquise Goodwin scored just twice on 105 targets, which was the fewest number of touchdowns scored by any of the 27 wide receivers to surpass 100 targets a year ago, a group that averaged 6.6 scores each. The 49ers are a sound blind faith bet to have a passing touchdown increase in 2018, but we’ll be discussing the split between Garcon and Goodwin a little further in a moment.
DeVante Parker has been a perpetual disappointment for expectations through three seasons and he scored just one time on 96 targets a year ago. Despite failing to breakout once again, Parker was still more of a useful fantasy option than most realize as a floor player. Parker was the WR33 or higher in eight of the 10 games in which he just had at least four targets in. We should be able to count a target floor surpassing that arbitrary mark with Miami missing a host of targets left open from the trade of Jarvis Landry, but as mentioned with Landry earlier, the Dolphins also have the most vacated targets (25), receptions (17) and touchdowns (13) from inside of the 10-yard line from a year ago. Parker’s inability to crash in on the hype over the past two seasons will surely keep his cost in a palatable area to go back to the well and with the vacated targets, Tannehill returning, and unlucky touchdown fortune he had a year ago, there’s still reason to take another shot on the 25-year-old receiver beating his draft cost in 2018.
Hurns’ career rates are still living off of a 2015 season in which he scored 10 times as he has amassed just 74 catches for 961 yards and five touchdowns in 21 games over the past two seasons. He goes to a Dallas team that is missing 56 percent of their 2017 targets. While enough of those available targets will surely find Hurns, he will be drawing better coverage as a primary perimeter player. 60 percent of Hurns’ career receptions and 14 of his 21 touchdowns have come from the slot.
Kelvin Benjamin started 2017 in solid fashion, catching 32 passes for 475 yards and two touchdowns through eight games, but even while in Carolina his touchdown output was up the bar he had set over his first two seasons in the league. Benjamin turned just two of 51 targets into scores while with the Panthers and then just one of 27 targets for a touchdown after his trade to Buffalo after scoring seven and nine times during his first two seasons. Benjamin isn’t someone you want to ride a week to week wave with, but he should sleepwalk his way to 120 plus targets this year, which makes him a player to at least keep an eye on as a bench option as he’s more than capable of putting up an inefficient fantasy season carried for tremendous volume from an inaccurate passer as evidence of his 2014 campaign when he was the WR15 overall.
Since entering the league, Michael Thomas has 25 games with five or more receptions, tied for second in the NFL over that span (Jarvis Landry) and the most such arbitrary games any player has had over their first two seasons in NFL history. Despite all those catches, Thomas was a bit unlucky last season, turning just 4.8 percent of his receptions into scores after 9.8 percent his rookie season. As we covered in the first article of this series, we should anticipate the Saints’ passing volume and touchdown production via the air to rise from last year’s totals.
Hampered by missing multiple games for the second consecutive season and the disarray of the Colts offense, Donte Moncrief posted his lowest totals in receptions (2.2) and receiving yardage (32.6) per game since his rookie season in 2014 while finding the end zone just two times. This was after scoring seven times on 30 receptions in 2016 and six times on 64 catches in 2015. Moncrief inked a hefty one-year, $9.6M deal this offseason with the Jaguars this offseason and is expected to be the primary receiver outside of Marqise Lee. He joins a muddled group of receivers in Jacksonville and his short-term contract may not be enough to keep him ahead of the youth behind him on the depth chart for the entirety of 2018, but Moncrief is the one from the group that has tangible red zone production over their career. Since entering the league, Moncrief has converted 12-of-32 (37.5 percent) of his red zone targets into a touchdown and 9-of-15 (60 percent) of his targets inside of the 10-yard line into scores.
I know you’re ready to get out of here, but wrapping up this lengthy post, I wanted to share a few splits that will be ones to stick a pin in when laying out your own projections, tiers and rankings as we approach August.
Jones has shown off a WR1 ceiling for stretches in each of his two seasons in Detroit, but his best fantasy moments a year ago came when rookie Kenny Golladay missed five games in season with a hamstring injury. Outside of that run, Jones caught more than four passes in just 1-of-11 games with three or fewer receptions in seven of those games. After averaging 16.9 yards per catch in 2016, Jones led the NFL with 18.0 yards per catch a year ago, establishing himself as one of the league’s best vertical playmakers, but is more of a best ball target for me at cost than a redraft one as Detroit should be expected to run the ball more often while potentially still being one of the slowest paced teams in the league, forcing Jones to remain hyper-efficient with the opportunities he does get.
Garcon soaked up high-volume from Brian Hoyer and C.J. Beathard yet ranked seventh among wideouts in targets (67), tied for ninth in receptions (40) and was 11th in receiving yardage (500) all with no touchdown receptions over that span of playing with them. Once he was shelved for the remainder of the season, Goodwin’s opportunity rose, truly culminating into a weekly fantasy option once Jimmy Garoppolo took over for the final weeks. It was during that time that Goodwin was used as a true receiver and not solely as a deep-ball specialist. After catching just 27-of-62 (43.5 percent) targets from Hoyer and Beathard, Goodwin and Garoppolo connected on 29-of-43 (67.4 percent) looks for 384 yards and his average depth of target went from 17.0 yards downfield to 14.3 yards. We can’t just blindly expect a 32-year old Garcon to just totally re-establish his large share of the targets after Goodwin came on strong, showed rapport with Garoppolo and got an immediate contract extension this offseason, but Goodwin’s potential volume levels in either direction will be what makes him a supreme value at his cost or a major bust if he’s relegated back to a niche option.
Hilton’s 2018 outlook all comes down to the health and availability of Andrew Luck and the vibe is considerably more positive this offseason and will provide actual proof on Luck’s health with Frank Reich stating that Luck will have to play this preseason. Hilton has at least 80 receptions and 1,000 yards receiving in each of his past three full seasons attached to Luck and led the NFL in receiving yardage in the most recent season the two played together. Without Luck, he’s just a run of the mill volatile option, finishing as a WR3 or better in 9-of-26 career games played without Luck in the lineup. If Luck is back without limitations, then Hilton immediately slides back into lower-end WR1 territory as the Colts have limited experience and tangible NFL production behind him as the receiver position.
As mentioned earlier, through two seasons, Chris Hogan has played just eight total games with both Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski active. In those games, he’s totaled just 16 catches for 342 yards and one touchdown on 25 targets. HIs role has also been completely different in each season because the Patriots had Brandin Cooks a year ago to go along with the loss of Edelman. Hogan ran 46 percent of his routes from the slot with Julian Edelman inactive a year ago as opposed to 37 percent the year prior when Hogan played more of a vertical role in the offense, posting 17.9 yards per catch in 2016 as opposed to 12.9 yards per grab a year ago. Opportunity will initially still be present while Edelman serves his suspension, but without Cooks and viable slot options such as Jordan Matthews and even a longer play in Riley McCarron possibly playing inside while Edleman is out, Hogan may once again be more of that vertical option in the offense that he was two years ago. Edelman is 32-years old and coming off a torn ACL but has also averaged over 6.0 receptions per game in each of his past four seasons in the league and has averaged 29.2 percent, 23.8 percent, 25.6 percent and 24.6 percent of the New England targets per game over that span. Hogan is still a threat to carry weekly touchdown upside given his attachment to the New England offense, but if related back to the field-stretching role he had in 2016 when the Patriots were at full strength and had more target competition, it’s anyone’s guess where his target volume will fall after Edelman returns in Week 5.
With his third consecutive season with fewer than 900 receiving yards and just 14 total touchdowns over that span, Cobb’s 2014 season of 91/1,287/12 appears to be a career outlier at this point. But with an unsettled position on the perimeter post the release of Jordy Nelson and only the addition of Jimmy Graham – who struggled outside of the red zone in his age 31 season a year ago- Cobb should regain some traction as a very cheap fantasy path to some of the production Rodgers put out. In his five full games with Rodgers a year ago, Cobb quietly tallied 30 receptions for 302 yards and two touchdowns on 45 targets while being the WR27 or higher in four of those weeks. He had nine or more targets in three of those games. In standard formats, he’s severely damaged because the yardage output remains pedestrian. Expecting 2014-type of output is going to be a losing proposition, but in reception-based scoring formats Cobb appears to be undervalued for those looking for a solid weekly WR3 in lineups and overall WR2 output.
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