How to Spot a League Winner in 2023: 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 McCaffrey’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 McCaffrey nearly gave his managers a 50/50 shot in 2019.
For the last two years, I have written this series and received a lot of great feedback. I am happy to append my research from last year with 2022’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 2023 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 one to three 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.”
For the last two years, we set an arbitrary 260-fantasy point threshold (in 0.5 PPR scoring) to determine which wide receivers were league winners. That resulted in 22 league-winning wide receivers from 2016-2021 (see list here). If we followed the 260-point threshold, we’d add four more league winners from 2022, but that doesn’t seem right, especially after we added five last year.
Moving forward, I am going to increase this number to 300, just like for running backs. The 17-game season and the increased involvement of wide receivers in modern offenses justify this increase. As such, Justin Jefferson was the only league-winning wide receiver in 2022, which again “feels” right because he scored twenty more points than the WR2, Davante Adams. There is not nearly as big of a gap between Stefon Diggs, the last WR to score over 260 points (266.2), and the WR5, A.J. Brown, who scored 255.6 (just over a half point per game difference).
So, a 300 fantasy points threshold is pretty good for segregating league winners from “the rest,” at least at the WR position. That means we are trying to find WRs in 2023 who will score 300 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 Cooper Kupp, Deebo Samuel, and Ja’Marr Chase were all drafted in the 5th round or later in 2021.
You may recall that I analyzed a ton of data previously. In fact, after analyzing twenty-two 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. We want talented WRs more than WRs in good situations.
- We look for players who win at all levels of the field and are 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 three rounds.
- TPRR, RACR, and separation are the best measures of WR talent that we currently have. We will use these numbers to objectively measure “WR talent.”
These are all good summary points, but I think I need to hit on the first point a bit harder, so allow me to elaborate.
We’ve been conditioned to think about wide receiver opportunity too much. Oftentimes, team-level passing just isn’t enough to hold down really great players. Also, I’ve stopped believing in the concept of “vacated targets.” That’s not a thing, and we should stop thinking it is. Why do I say that?
I think we can all agree that targets are a talent statistic, right? Wide receivers don’t get a target merely because they are on the field. Instead, a wide receiver receives a target if they get open, and the quarterback looks their way. This differentiates a target from a carry. A running back might get a carry simply because it’s 3rd and one, and the coach called a running play to get that yard. Receiving that carry is not indicative of the running back’s talent; it’s indicative of the coach’s philosophy and preference. We’ve seen plenty of terrible running backs receive a ton of carries. In contrast, a target requires a wide receiver to run a good route, use his God-given talents to outrun or out-maneuver the defense, or find a soft spot in the zone using his mental talent. A target is the quarterback recognizing that the wide receiver did a good job and offered an opportunity to make a play. In most situations, a wide receiver achieves “being open” on his own, not due to blocking or some other teammate set-up. This is the most basic logic defending targets as a talent statistic, but there are of course other factors like quarterbacks developing a trust in talented wide receivers because they consistently get open in games and practice.
So, if a player needs talent to receive a target, then the concept of “vacated targets” does not follow. If Justin Jefferson left the Vikings, and the Vikings tried to replace Justin Jefferson with Gabe Davis, Gabe Davis would not “inherit” 184 targets simply because Davis would be filling the role as the Vikings WR1. Justin Jefferson is so good at football that he earns 184 targets. Davis, trying to fill those shoes, would be lucky to get 100. NFL offenses, and good NFL quarterbacks, do not dole out passing targets according to the depth chart. Passing in the NFL is capitalism, not communism. Moreover, the offense takes a hit by losing a player of Justin Jefferson‘s ability. Without Jefferson consistently getting open, the offense may have fewer offensive plays because of fewer first downs or fewer offensive yards due to fewer explosive plays. That may cut Davis from 100 targets on 600 passing plays to 70 on 525.
So how do we measure “talent” at the WR position? Last year, I relied heavily on TPRR, and my talent evaluation abilities, to pick two really great options for you. I picked Justin Jefferson and A.J. Brown – the WR1 and WR5, respectively. 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. I also picked D.J. Moore last year, which did not work out, so we may need to consider quarterback quality a bit more heavily. But ultimately, I am going to pick players I think are awesome at football. You should do the same.
Who is the 2023 League Winner?
I love Ja’Marr Chase as a player. When he’s on the field, he moves differently. That’s why he saw a nearly 30% target share on the Bengals in the 12 games he played, and a TPRR of 25%, which was top 12. That target share boosted his reception total from 4.7 receptions per game to 7.25 receptions per game, which is a pace of 123 receptions (Justin Jefferson led the league in receptions in 2022 with 128). So, the talent is there to get the target and reception share necessary to be a league winner.
Chase had a really nice year last season, finishing 12th at the position despite only playing in 12 games. He was actually the WR6 in fantasy points per game, and he was as steady as they come because he never “busted” according to the Fantasy Footballers’ consistency rankings.
But the number that jumps off the page for me is his number of red zone targets. Last year, he saw 26 red zone targets, third most in the NFL (in only 12 games), and yet he only converted five of those 26 red zone targets into touchdowns. He had nine TDs on the year in 2022; would it really shock you if he scored 15-18 touchdowns in 2023? He plays with an excellent quarterback in Joe Burrow, on a strong offense, and he’s the clear alpha on the team.
Chase’s path to 300 fantasy points comes through huge touchdown scoring and staying healthy. He’s my clear pick for the 2023 league winner.
Perhaps a bit of a dark horse option here, as he’s being drafted as WR12, but I love second-year WRs. Garrett Wilson might be the more popular pick here, given that his future is tied up with a better quarterback. However, I think we need to recognize that Aaron Rodgers isn’t going to just stop throwing to his two favorite receivers, Allen Lazard and Randall Cobb. Wilson could certainly dominate his way to a league-winning season, but I like Olave’s path more.
Olave has all the peripheral numbers we want to see. In 2023, he was 8th in TPRR across the entire NFL, as a rookie. Only Drake London had a better rookie TPRR number than Olave, but those numbers are skewed by the extremely low passing volume of the 2022 Atlanta Falcons. In addition to demanding targets on the Saints, Chris Olave demonstrated excellent deep ball skills. He saw 29 deep targets and was 8th in the league in air yards. By the way, Olave’s 29 deep targets came on only 406 routes run (46th in the league). That is an extremely high deep target to route run ratio.
Now, he sees a QB upgrade in Derek Carr. Carr may not be the sexiest QB name in NFL, but he just supported a WR2 season for Davante Adams, who was a mere 14 points from reaching our 300-point, league-winner threshold. Carr helped Adams reach those heights by being unafraid to chuck the ball deep to Adams. Adams was second in deep targets, led the league in air yards, and saw 180 targets! In other words, when Carr likes a wide receiver, he isn’t afraid to go to him a lot and often deep. Carr’s deep ball willingness and Olave’s proven skill set mesh perfectly.
Finally, Olave is going to need to score a lot of touchdowns to get to 300 fantasy points. He scored only four last year, despite a high TPRR and an absurd deep ball number. The quarterback upgrade should help both him and the offense in general. An offense level-up will be necessary to get him to league-winning status because the Saints were one of the worst offenses in the league in 2022. Still, I am a believer, and I think Olave is the primary driver of an upgrade for the Saints offense.