How to Spot a League Winner in 2022: WRs (Fantasy Football)
The phrase “league winner” gets bandied about a lot in fantasy football circles, often carelessly. Sometimes, analysts use this phrase as nothing more than an attention-getter to hype some mediocre player they love. But when used properly, there is truth to this concept – the idea that one single player can dominate for your team enough to nearly guarantee, on his own, a championship for your fantasy team.
Of course, no player can truly win a fantasy championship alone. Even Christian McCaffery’s historic 2019 season, where he scored a ridiculous 413.2 fantasy points, was only enough to get 48% of his managers into fantasy championships (still an absurd number, by the way). So, fantasy managers still must put together a solid team around a “league winner”, work the waiver wire, and play the matchups. Nevertheless, rostering some players undoubtedly gives fantasy teams an increased chance at a fantasy championship, just like McCaffery nearly gave his managers a 50-50 shot in 2019.
Last year, I wrote this series and got a lot of great feedback – and the people have demanded its return! I am happy to append my research from last year with 2021’s numbers. Rather than re-post all the numbers in the previous article’s tables, I will simply provide the link here, which you can use to look at it again. For the first part of this 2022 series, I recently posted How to Spot a League Winner: RBs.
Redefining a WR League Winner
From my analysis, league-winning players typically separate themselves from the pack. That means that the top 1-3 players each year, at any given offensive position, generally score at least 30 points more than their next closest competitor, where the end-of-year rankings start to bunch up. That’s good! We want our “league winner” not just to score a few more points than RB3 or WR2; we want them to score way more points. That means these types of players really do have “league winning upside”.
Last year, we set an arbitrary 260-fantasy point threshold (in 0.5 PPR scoring) to determine which wide receivers were league winners. That resulted in seventeen league-winning wide receivers from 2016-2020 (see list here). In 2021, five (!!!) more names eclipsed 260 fantasy points: Cooper Kupp, Deebo Samuel, Davante Adams, Justin Jefferson, and Ja’Marr Chase. Like before, these players truly separated themselves from the pack, particularly Cooper Kupp. Kupp’s historic season resulted in 367 fantasy points, which was over 50 fantasy points better than Antonio Brown‘s 2015 season, the highest season-long output in my short research window. Kupp’s outrageously good season combined with five players exceeding the 260-point threshold almost makes me rethink the threshold as too low, but still, the WR5, Ja’Marr Chase, scored 23 points more than WR6 Tyreek Hill and 30 more points than WR7 Stefon Diggs. Kupp’s season is clearly an outlier, but we may need to bump up this threshold in the future as more and more teams become more and more pass-heavy (also the 17-game schedule). Nevertheless, I will leave it for now since there does still appear to be a big gap between those that can hit 260 and those that cannot, even if that means more league winners at the WR position.
So, 2021 confirmed that 260 fantasy points are a pretty good threshold for segregating league winners from “the rest”, at least at the WR position. That means we are trying to find WRs in 2022 who will score 260 fantasy points. We aren’t so concerned about ADP and beating the market at the WR position because we need volume at the WR position to find a league winner, and likely high-volume earners typically have high draft costs already baked in. But, unlike the RB position, WR league winners do not exclusively come from the first couple of rounds. Indeed, both Kupp, Samuel, and Chase were all drafted in the 5th round or later.
You may recall that I analyzed a ton of data last year. In fact, after analyzing twenty-too possible statistical factors that explain why some instances resulted in a league-winning season, I discovered that:
- Team-level metrics don’t matter for the purposes of discovering a league-winning WR. For example, the Seahawks want to be a run-heavy offense, but that doesn’t hurt D.K. Metcalf‘s chances to be a league-winning WR. We want talented WRs more than WRs in good situations.
- We look for players that win at all levels of the field and utilized everywhere.
- QB talent matters, but not as much as we think. Individual WR talent still matters more.
- A league-winning WR is typically the undisputed WR1 on his team, thereby leading to a dominating target share (+28%).
- The fantasy community is good, but not great, at unearthing league-winning WRs, so our league winner likely has an ADP in the top 3 rounds.
- RACR and separation are the best measures of WR talent that we currently have. We will use these numbers to objectively measure “WR talent”.
The broad strokes of this theory proved true. There is no doubt that Kupp, Samuel, Chase, Jefferson, and Adams are all extremely talented WRs. My article last year named Justin Jefferson and Devante Adams as two of my three picks for a league winner, but my Calvin Ridley pick certainly did not result in a league winner. That said, Ridley sat out much of the season due to mental health reasons (glad to see him taking care of such an important aspect of his health!). We can’t exactly call this a miss, but I do need to acknowledge that Ridley was not on pace for a league-winning season (on pace for 75/675/5 ≈ 130 fantasy points – meh). Whether this performance was impacted by his mental health situation, we will never truly know. It’s probably best to chalk this up as a “loss”. Still scoring a 66% on picking a league winner is a strong result.
The true miss, however, was the fact that my analysis failed to uncover Kupp and Samuel, and particularly Kupp. That means we probably need to rethink the process slightly.
The core finding of last year’s article was the idea that WR talent correlates with WR fantasy production, regardless of QB and team situation. It has also long been understood that targets are earned, and targets are therefore a talent metric. I considered target share, RACR, average separation, and yards per route run, but I completely failed to consider targets per route run (TPRR). You’ve probably heard the Ballers talk about TPRR recently, and also noticed how they are implementing this stat more frequently into their projections and discussions. TPRR has been studied by some of the best in the industry and found to be perhaps the best indicator we have of future success.
The average TPRR for our league winners was 28%, which is amazing. We must account for this statistic in uncovering a league-winning WR. Another statistic that is probably worth considering is WOPR (WOPR = 1.5 × Target Market Share + 0.7 × Air Yards Market Share). Now I don’t have numbers for this stat going back five years, but I will note that Justin Jefferson, Cooper Kupp, and Davante Adams were all top-5 players in according to this statistic.
Still, none of these statistics really predicted Kupp or Deebo’s explosion. Kupp got a better quarterback, certainly, and Deebo put together his first healthy season ever. Also, Deebo’s running game involvement was not something anyone saw coming. Perhaps I need to give myself a break on not spotting these guys as league winners. Nevertheless, looking at TPRR and WOPR can’t hurt.
Who is the 2022 League Winner?
Yes, I picked him last year, and I am picking him again. Honestly, nothing has worsened for Jefferson since last year – everything is either status quo or better. Jefferson continues the chemistry he has developed with Kirk Cousins, he inherits a coach who is more pass-friendly, and early reports from camp suggest he can’t be guarded. The UDK projects Jefferson with almost 1800 yards and 12 touchdowns, which is a league-winning projection.
All the peripheral statistics back up this projection. Jefferson was #1 in WOPR, number 1 in air yards, and top-20 in RACR. His TPRR was 28%, and I see that number improving as the passing offense changes under new coach Kevin O’Connell. Jefferson is the second WR off the board, so there is very little risk in this pick by me. But, I needed to highlight that even though Jefferson was a league winner last year, he’s primed to improve this year and dominate.
I bet you didn’t know this: D.J. Moore was 5th in WOPR last season, had the 6th MOST targets, and the 4th highest target percentage. The problem was, that he was unable to convert those targets at a consistent rate (0nly 93 receptions, a mere 57% catch rate). But, the truth is, Sam Darnold was BAD. Darnold’s accuracy rate when targeting Moore was graded as a 6.6 out of 10, 86th among QBs targeting wide receivers, and he was ranked 32nd in accuracy in the NFL. In other words, horrible.
However, NFL evaluators have a “catchable pass rate” statistic that determines a players catch rate on accurate balls. They graded Moore’s catchable pass rate at 71.6%. Now, no WR will ever actually have their catch rate be equal to their catchable pass rate. Even Stefon Diggs‘ amazing 2020 season only resulted in a 76% catch rate on an 84.9% catchable pass rate. The point is, Moore’s catch rate is bound to go up with a more accurate quarterback. Enter Bake Mayfield.
Moore is good enough to earn 162 targets; he’s good enough to earn a huge percentage of his team’s air yards. He just needs someone to give him a real opportunity to catch those balls by throwing accurate passes. And he needs to find the end zone.
The UDK gives him 101 catches, 1334 yards, and 5 touchdowns. I get it, he has not shown the ability to score touchdowns in the NFL, but he’s never had a good enough offense or a good enough quarterback throwing him the ball. I’m going to take last year’s numbers and simply add in a better quarterback. On 162 targets, he can catch 68% rather than 57%, resulting in 110 catches, 1520 yards (accounting a reasonable 14 YPR, which was the 25th best YPR last season), and 9 touchdowns. That’s more than 260 points, and that’s a league winner.
In 2020, Stefon Diggs changed teams, and not too many people took a shot on him. Despite the amazing talent Diggs illustrated over his career, the fantasy community dogged Josh Allen as a QB unable to support a league-winning WR. But our model tells us to bet on talent over situation for the best of the best.
The story of A.J. Brown in 2022 feels so much like Stefon Diggs 2020. A supremely talented wide receiver moves from an extreme run-heavy offense to a different team that traded specifically for the talented player. The quarterback situation feels a bit questionable, and fears of an offensive situation drop the player’s price downward.
Still, we can’t ignore the facts. Brown’s yards per route run was 2.72 (7th in the league), TPRR 29.1%, and, in 2020, his touchdown rate was 15.7%. Those are elite numbers.
The only thing not elite about Brown was the number of route he ran – a mere 360. Part of that is due to injury, but a lot of it is due to lack of usage in a run-heavy, Derrick Henry-led offense. Now we take away Mike Vrabel and Derrick Henry, and we move him to a new team.
Now yes, Philly was very run-heavy last season, but, in the first six games of the year, Philly passed the ball 61% of the time! Last year, Philly ran 1075 plays. If, the Eagles ran something closer to 58% pass-run ratio, that means 623 passes. Is that outrageous to project? If 600+ passes are within the realm of possibilities, A.J. Brown is running a heck of a lot more than 360 routes. If we project him to run a route on 87% of the pass plays, which is his historical average (probably low, given he played on a weird offense for the modern NFL), that’s 542 routes run. Again, using his historical numbers, which are superb, on 542 routes, that equates to 158 targets, 104 catches, 1475 yards, and 10 TDs. That’s league-winning potential while still being conservative about everything other than Philly’s passing outlook.