The Path to a WR1 Fantasy Football Season: Michael Pittman Jr.
It wasn’t long ago that the streets of Pitty City were filled with a hustle and bustle of optimism. Everybody wanted in on the talented young wideout in Indianapolis who finished as the WR15 in 2021. The arrival of Matt Ryan in Indy was viewed as an upgrade over the Carson Wentz experience and it was easy to envision Pittman taking another step and leveling up to a WR1 for fantasy football.
Fast forward one year and Pitty City feels like a ghost town. Questions abound as the Colts have hit the reset button by bringing in first-time head coach Shane Steichen and drafting athletic anomaly Anthony Richardson to be the franchise’s future at quarterback. So where does this leave Pittman? Let’s take a look at exactly what it would take for Pittman to put up a WR1 season with the new-look Colts.
After finishing as WR15 in 2021, Pittman was a popular breakout candidate heading into the 2022 season. The breakout call looked on point after he put up 121 receiving yards and a touchdown in Week 1, but the wheels quickly fell off the Pittman hype train. He missed Week 2 with a quad injury, then had to endure targets from the combination of an over-the-hill Matt Ryan, Sam “Elingeger”, and Nick Foles.
Pittman’s usage stats were strong on the season, featuring career highs in targets (141) and receptions (99). Unfortunately, the bottom fell out on most of his efficiency stats, as shown in the table below.
As highlighted by Andy on a recent episode, he had the lowest receiving yards and fantasy production ever for a wide receiver with 99+ receptions in a season.
Indy’s 2022 season also featured the failed Jeff Saturday experiment, which led to the team finishing 31st in scoring offense and 32nd in total touchdowns. All things considered, it’s a minor miracle that Pittman finished as WR23 in 2022.
The Path for 2023
It’s hard to imagine the Indy offense being any worse in 2023, but exactly what it will look like remains to be seen. All signs point to Anthony Richardson starting the season at quarterback in an offense designed by Shane Steichen, who was the offensive coordinator in Philadephia with Jalen Hurts the last two seasons. How would this new offense theoretically lead to a WR1 finish for Pittman? Let’s explore.
Pittman’s target share feels relatively safe. After posting a 14% target in an injury-plagued rookie season, he’s topped 25% in consecutive seasons. The Colts drafted Josh Downs in the third round of the 2023 NFL draft, but he is more of a Parris Campbell replacement than a threat to Pittman’s target share. Barring injury. Pittman feels like a lock to lead Indy with at least a 25% target share in 2023.
Receptions and Catch Rate
Here’s where it gets tricky. Pittman set career highs in both receptions (99) and catch rate (70%) in 2022. Given the fact that he’ll be playing with a mobile rookie quarterback with a big arm but questionable accuracy, there’s a good chance these numbers decline. As we’ll see in the coming paragraphs, Pittman will need to make up for the potential dip in catch rate with an increase in aDOT and touchdowns to become a WR1 in 2023.
Yards and aDOT
Despite recording 11 more receptions in 2022 than in 2021, Pittman logged 12 fewer receiving yards. The mediocre Colt QBs just weren’t pushing the ball downfield to him in 2022. The hope for 2023 is that the strong-armed Richardson targets Pittman significantly farther downfield, allowing him to rack up yardage, even if it is at the expense of a lower catch rate.
Touchdowns are the make-or-break statistic on his path to a WR1 season in 2023. Unfortunately, they are also the most difficult to project. The good news is that at 6’4”, Pittman makes a good end-zone target. He posted a 50% contested catch rate in 2022, which tied him with Stefon Diggs and A.J. Brown. If the Colts’ offense scores more points in 2023, which is mathematically probable, Pittman has a great chance to top his career-high of six touchdowns in a season. If regression swings far enough in the positive direction for Pittman and the Colts, he has the potential to hit double-digit touchdowns for the first time in his career.
Michael Pittman has shown enough talent in his three professional seasons to warrant WR1 consideration. Whether or not he reaches that potential depends on the offense he plays in and the quarterback delivering his targets. Through his first three seasons, he’s seen targets from Philip Rivers, Jacoby Brissett, Carson Wentz, Jacob Eason, Matt Ryan, Sam Ehlinger, and Nick Foles. The offense has nowhere to go but up, but about what rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson?
Rookie quarterbacks are typically known as bad news for their pass catchers. Once again, Andy pointed out in a recent episode that 70% of rookie quarterbacks failed to produce a top 36 wide receiver for fantasy. However, there are two quarterbacks in (semi) recent history that supported a WR1 in their rookie season.
Anthony Richardson vs Cam Newton pic.twitter.com/fhlI5Aem0z
— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) March 4, 2023
Steve Smith finished as WR7 overall in Newton’s rookie season. While Smith and Pittman are very different wide receiver archetypes, they’re both clear alpha wideouts in their offense. The other rookie quarterback to support a WR1 was Andrew Luck, who did so with Reggie Wayne just one year later. Luck is athletically closer to Cam Newton than you might think. Just check the upper right corner of his PlayerProfiler page. Richardson will have to follow in their footsteps for Pittman to be a WR1 season in 2023.
Based on the five-year averages in Borg’s Primer, Pittman needs roughly the same amount of targets and receptions that he saw last season, with an increase in yardage and touchdowns. The receptions project as the most difficult to repeat, but increases in yardage and touchdowns aren’t out of the question.
Ultimately, it comes down to Shane Steichen, Anthony Richardson, and positive regression. If the new coach and quarterback combo leads Indy to an improved offense, Pittman has a legitimate shot to be a WR1 in 2023. It would also lead to real estate in Pitty City once again becoming a hot commodity.