What Makes A WR1?

What Makes A WR1?

With the 2021 NFL season just a few weeks away, many fantasy drafts are rapidly approaching, if not already completed. One position I recently took a deep dive into was the Wide Receiver position. There are always several reasons every year to love or hate certain players, and I wanted to see if there were any similarities between high performing receivers over the last few years. I took a deep dive into the position going back to 2015 and analyzed characteristics of the receivers who finished in the Top 15 in each year. For the sake of this analysis, I used Half PPR, measured performance based on Points Per Game, and eliminated any receiver who played less than 10 games. A lot of my research and discussion in this article will focus around the Top 6 WRs each year. Having a “WR1” on your team, someone who finishes Top 12 at the position, is a great thing to have, but really context matters. If you’re drafting a player in the first or second round and he finishes as a WR1, it sounds like he did his job. But really, if that guy finishes as the WR9 or WR10, and you spent a top pick on him, then you didn’t get any return on your investment. You lost on that pick because odds are you took that guy as one of the Top 6-8 WRs off the board. He still finished as a “WR1” but taking the 6th WR off the board and having him finish as the WR10 doesn’t help your team.  

 

Here’s what I found:

 

Targets are KING

 

As I went through the data, it became very clear that targets rule the realm in fantasy football.  Every player who finished as the overall WR1 each year received at least 10.3 targets per game, and 5 out of the 6 WR1’s averaged over 11 a game. If you’re trying to figure out who has a chance at finishing as the WR1 this year, you need to identify players who have a high probability of getting at least 10 targets a game, and most likely will need to be above 11.

 

As I looked down the list of data, it became clear that not only do you need a high level of targets to finish as the #1 guy, but there seemed to be a certain threshold to get into the Top 6. Since 2015, there’s only been 3 players to finish in the Top 6 with under 8.5 targets per game. That’s three players out of 36 calculated, only 8.3%.  

  • Davante Adams 2017
  • Tyreek Hill 2017
  • DK Metcalf 2020

 

I thought it was interesting that 2 of these 3 cases came from the same year, so I looked at 2017 to see what might have happened, and it seems 2017 was a down year for WR scoring. The Top 6 WRs in 2017 averaged 14.95 points, by far the lowest of the 6 years. The Top 12 WRs averaged 13.7 points per game, again the lowest of the 6 years. We see two of these three outliers happened in the lowest scoring season at the position in recent history. If you took Adams’ and Hill’s production in 2017 and moved it into any other year, they would have finished 9th at best, and even outside the Top 15 in some years. So, this tells me the 2 outliers from 2017 were just a product of the position overall in 2017 being down and doesn’t disprove the idea that you need 8.5+ targets to finish in the Top 6.  

 

We’ll touch on DK Metcalf a little later.

 

There honestly didn’t seem to be much correlation once you got into the WR7+ range.  For these players, targets ranged from 6-10 a game in any given year. Some guys finished in this range with double digit targets, (Julio Jones – WR7, Odell Beckham – WR8, and Juju Smith-Schuster – WR9 in 2018) while others finished there with less volume (Adam Thielen – WR7, Will Fuller – WR8, AJ Brown – WR9 in 2020). The targets seemed a bit all over the place once you got outside the Top 6, but very consistently players needed 8.5+ targets to get into the Top 6.

 

Does Offense Matter?

 

I was also curious if the offense these guys played on had any direct impact with their fantasy output.  

 

Of the 36 WRs I analyzed (Top 6 each year from 2015 to now):

  • 10 came from a Top 10 scoring offense – 27.8%
  • 27 came from a Top 15 scoring offense – 75%
  • Only 9 came from a scoring offense outside the Top 15 – 25%

 

So, it seems it’s not impossible to finish in the Top 6 if you’re not in a high scoring offense, but the odds are certainly against you.  

 

Next, I looked at the passing offense specifically, and analyzed passing yards per game.

 

Of the 36 WRs analyzed:

  • 22 came from a Top 10 passing offense – 61.1%
  • 27 came from a Top 15 passing offense – 75%
  • Only 9 came from a passing offense outside the Top 15 – 25%

 

This was interesting because it gave us similar results as the scoring offense data; it’s not impossible to finish in the Top 6 if you’re passing offense is outside the Top 15, but the odds are against you. The part I found very interesting was that 22 of these WRs came from a Top 10 passing offense, where only 10 came from a Top 10 scoring offense. So, it seems that the passing offense has a much bigger impact on the WR output than scoring does, which makes sense.  Wide Receivers directly benefit from high passing offenses, while that might not be true of a high scoring offense. For example, the Baltimore Ravens have been one of the highest scoring offenses in the NFL each of the last two years but haven’t produced a remotely reliable fantasy WR.  

 

How does it look when we cross reference the two data sets?

  • 14 of the 36 WRs had a Top 10 passing and scoring offense – 38.9%
  • 23 of the 36 WRs had a Top 15 passing and scoring offense – 63.8%
  • 31 of the 36 WRs had one or the other category in the Top 15 – 86.1%
  • Only 5 WRs had neither a Top 15 scoring nor passing offense – 13.9%

 

So, when looking at wide receivers in your draft, it seems more important to focus on players that will probably be part of a high passing offense rather than scoring, but if you can combine the two and find players that will be part of Top 15 passing and scoring offenses, you improve your chances immensely. Over 63% of the Top 6 WRs since 2015 had a Top 15 scoring and passing offense. Only ~14% of them came from offenses outside the Top 15 in both. Those aren’t great odds, so you want to avoid players that look to be part of low volume, low scoring offenses, even if you expect them to get significant targets.

 

What Does This Mean?

 

So, what does all this data and information really mean?  If you’ve stuck with me long enough to get here, I appreciate you reading through, so now let’s use this data and apply it to our upcoming fantasy drafts.

 

There seems to be common thresholds to picking a Top 6 WR:

  • At least 8.5 targets per game
  • At least a Top 15 scoring OR Top 15 passing offense
  • Ideally, the offense finishes Top 15 in both categories
  • Focus on Passing offense first over scoring

 

While it’s hard to predict which offenses will be Top 15 in passing or scoring, Vegas always tends to have a good grasp on odds making.  

 

According to OddsShark, here’s the teams with the best odds to finish in the Top 15:

 

Scoring:

  1. Green Bay Packers
  2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  3. Buffalo Bills
  4. Tennessee Titans
  5. New Orleans Saints
  6. Kansas City Chiefs
  7. Seattle Seahawks
  8. Indianapolis Colts
  9. Baltimore Ravens
  10. Las Vegas Raiders
  11. Minnesota Vikings
  12. Pittsburgh Steelers
  13. Cleveland Browns
  14. Arizona Cardinals
  15. Miami Dolphins

 

Passing:

  1. Kansas City Chiefs
  2. Houston Texans
  3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  4. Buffalo Bills
  5. Atlanta Falcons
  6. Los Angeles Chargers
  7. Pittsburgh Steelers
  8. Las Vegas Raiders
  9. Green Bay Packers
  10. Dallas Cowboys
  11. Indianapolis Colts
  12. San Francisco 49ers
  13. Minnesota Vikings
  14. Carolina Panthers
  15. Detroit Lions

 

If we cross reference the data, here’s the teams that appear on both lists:

  • Kansas City Chiefs
  • Green Bay Packers
  • Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  • Buffalo Bills
  • Indianapolis Colts
  • Las Vegas Raiders
  • Minnesota Vikings
  • Pittsburgh Steelers

 

Let’s get into some individual player analysis based on these results.

 

The Elite

 

Given these odds and the research done here, I think it’s safe to assume the top tier elite WRs will remain mostly the same in 2021. Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill and Stefon Diggs are all Alpha WRs who will command double digit targets and have offenses projected in the Top 15 for passing and scoring. I think it’s a relatively safe bet that the overall WR1 this season comes from one of these three guys. Those three players are the Top 3 ranked WRs on FantasyPros, and I think it’s fair to put these three in a tier of their own.

 

The Could Be Elite

 

Justin Jefferson blazed onto the scene last year after a slow start to the season. Setting the record for receiving yards by a rookie, I think Jefferson absolutely has the potential to finish in the Top 6, and I genuinely think he’s a dark horse candidate to finish as the overall WR1 this season. The Minnesota Vikings are projected to have Top 15 offenses in both categories, and in the Vikings’ last 8 games of the season, Jefferson was getting over 10 targets a game.  He checks all three boxes for me this season and currently being drafted as the WR7, I’m all over Jefferson this year.  

 

Seems Just Right

 

Deandre Hopkins is a player who I think is priced very fair. Hopkins has always been a target hog, the most important data point, and I was surprised the Cardinals didn’t project as a Top 15 passing offense this season. Vegas has them just within the Top 15 in scoring, which normally would scare me off given those two factors, but Hopkins is an elite talent that we’ve seen dominate for years. He’s being drafted as the WR5 which seems about right for him. Unless Arizona blows away Vegas’ projections, you probably won’t see Top 3 upside with Hopkins, but given the target volume I feel he’s a safer pick.

 

The Overvalued

 

I might catch some heat for this section, but given the analysis done, I think these players are currently overvalued, and are being drafted at their ceiling this season.  

 

We touched on DK Metcalf earlier when we mentioned he was an extreme outlier by finishing in the Top 6 with under 8.5 targets per game.  The other two outliers came in 2017, an extremely down year for WRs, which puts DK in a category all by himself. Some people might argue this proves DK is elite and an absolute freak, which I agree with, but I’m not willing to bet on it again. I wrote a few weeks ago about why I expect Russell Wilson to regress and not meet his ADP this season. All those factors trickle down to Metcalf as well. Wilson had the most passing attempts of his career last season, which I don’t expect to come close to repeating. The Seahawks also spent one of their only three draft picks on a WR. Vegas tends to agree with me regarding less volume, since they don’t project the Seahawks to finish in the Top 15 in passing offense. We already saw how rare it was for a WR to finish in the Top 6 with under 8.5 targets, and if DK’s volume comes down a bit, which I expect, I think you’re overpaying by taking him as the WR6 off the board.  

 

Another third-year darling, AJ Brown is another player currently being drafted at his ceiling.  Brown hasn’t been a high-volume guy in either of his first two seasons so far, and with the addition of Julio Jones I can’t see Brown getting the required 8.5 targets per game needed to get to the Top 6. Arthur Smith is gone, and we have a new OC in town, but the Titans still have Derrick Henry who I expect to be leaned on a ton. The Titans have very little depth behind Brown and Julio, so of course an injury to Julio (which tends to happen often) could propel Brown to a higher number of targets but I’m not betting on an injury to happen for my guy to be successful.  Vegas has the Titans outside the Top 15 in passing, combined with expected lower target volume, I’m fading Brown at his current WR8 ADP.  

 

Calvin Ridley has been hyped and then some since Julio Jones was traded this off-season. The Atlanta Falcons aren’t projected to be in the Top 15 scoring offenses, but project Top 15 in passing and I believe Ridley will certainly meet the 8.5 target threshold, with the potential to get to double digits. He averaged over 11 targets per game when Julio was inactive last year. The Falcons spent high draft capital on Kyle Pitts, but that doesn’t scare me in terms of Ridley’s volume. Rookie Tight Ends typically take a while to get acclimated, and even if Pitts is a superstar out of the gates, the Falcons have literally nothing else on offense outside of those two guys. The problem I have with Ridley is his price. He’s currently ranked as the WR4 in drafts, which means you are most likely drafting him at his ceiling. However, of these three guys in my overvalued section, I would buy Ridley at WR4 over Metcalf and Brown at WR5 and WR8.  

 

The Undervalued

 

Here are a few players that I feel are being drafted too low.  

 

Keenan Allen jumps off the page as a screaming buy this season. He has always been a target hog in his career, and the Chargers are projected to have a Top 6 passing offense. Vegas doesn’t believe LA will finish in the Top 15 in scoring, which is fair, but Allen overwhelmingly dominates the targets on his team, they lost Hunter Henry, and I could see a scenario where the Chargers are one of the elite teams in the NFL. Even if they don’t finish Top 15 in scoring, Allen satisfies the two more important thresholds, and is currently going off the board at WR9, which to me, is his absolute floor.  

 

I was a big fan of Diontae Johnson last season, and I’m doubling down again this year.  Pittsburgh projects to be Top 15 in both categories, and Diontae already showed last year to be a favorite target of Big Ben. I not only expect DJ to get over the 8.5 target hurdle, but he should easily flirt with double digit targets each game. The Steelers were forced to use a quick hitting passing game in place of their run game last season, which cratered Johnson’s average depth of target and yards per reception.  The addition of Najee Harris I think is an overall positive for the Steelers’ offense, and will help create some more room for Johnson. Johnson is being drafted at WR20, and I think has a good shot at the Top 6 this year, and a very high probability at Top 12.  

 

The last undervalued player I love this year is a bit of a projection going into the season. Chris Godwin showed elite ability two years ago in 2019 but fell off a bit in 2020. He was playing with a new QB, albeit Tom Brady, but new QBs have historically taken several weeks or even a full season to get acclimated to Bruce Arian’s offense. Historically there has always been a significant jump in QB production in Year 2 of Arians’ system. Mike Evans has never been a high-volume player, and Brady has shown in the past he loves his slot WRs. Add in that Godwin missed several weeks last season with injury and played several games with a massive cast on his hand, I project Godwin to be in much better position this year to eclipse the 8.5 target threshold. The Bucs project as a Top 15 offense in both categories, and being drafted as the WR16, I think that is Godwin’s floor this season.  

 

Sleepers

 

A few mid to late round sleepers I like this year are Michael Pittman, and a deep sleeper, Bryan Edwards.  

 

Pittman was a high draft selection last year and flashed talent at times. The Colts are projected in the Top 15 in both categories this season, and I think Pittman could receive most of the passing volume in Indy. Carson Wentz had his best season of his career under Frank Reich in Philly, and Pittman, to me, is the clear #1 in this offense.  TY Hilton is a shade of his former self, and Parris Campbell hasn’t proven anything in twoseasons, except the inability to stay on the field. Phillip Rivers was notorious throughout his career for involving RBs and TEs in the passing game, so now with Wentz I think more volume goes to the WRs. This obviously all hinges on if Wentz will play and how much he’ll play with the recent injury he suffered in training camp. 

 

Bryan Edwards is a deep, late round dart throw that could probably be selected with the last pick of your draft. I was a big fan of Edwards coming out of South Carolina. A big bodied WR who broke out as a true freshman, injuries kept Edwards on the sideline at times in college, and that seemed to trickle over into the NFL.  However, last year was a very strange season for rookies, and I hate to write off a guy as injury prone after one season. If he can’t stay healthy again this year, perhaps it’s time to cut bait, but for now, we’ll see. The Raiders surprised me as one of the teams projected to finish in the Top 15 in both passing and scoring, so I did some digging into their WR corp. Nelson Agholor was a valuable piece last year, but went to New England this off-season. The Raiders seem to want to use Henry Ruggs as a deep threat, and those types of players don’t tend to accumulate high target volume. So, to me, that leaves Edwards as the next logical choice for a player who could get a high number of targets per game. Obviously, Darren Waller is the #1 option in this offense, but the Raiders are desperately trying to find a #2. Don’t be surprised if Edwards becomes that #2.  


 

 Thank you for reading and as always, stay true.

 

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