The Path to a WR1 Fantasy Football Season: The 2023 Primer
Editor’s Note: Find out the full statistical projections for the Footballers Consensus WR1s in the Ultimate Draft Kit.
For the seventh(!) year, our Fantasy Footballers writing staff keeps this train moving and continues our “Path to WR1”series examining wide receivers who are currently ranked outside of the top-15 receivers in Andy, Mike, and Jason’s initial WR projections. The goal is to give some reasoning and definition to our methodology in determining the likelihood of a top-12 fantasy season from various prospective wide receivers. Our team of writers will be hypothesizing about players that possibly have a shot at finishing the year as a WR1. In 2019, we identified some superb potential WR1 values including Chris Godwin. In 2020, we struck gold again with D.K. Metcalf and A.J. Brown. In 2021, we had one of our writers (Ryan DeVaney) pound the table for Ja’Marr Chase. Last year, Aaron Larson was dead on with A.J. Brown, who finished as a top-5 WR.
Let us be clear: we are NOT projecting a WR1 end-of-the-year total; instead, we are merely giving the high-end of the range of outcomes for players to show what type of ceiling is in the realm of possibilities. We poll our team of writers and take the consensus percentage of whether that WR is capable of churning out a WR1 season.
Each of these WRs brings a bit of optimism for 2023 and our job is simply to lay out the “path” to a top-12 finish. This journey ultimately comes down to projecting their target share, depth of those targets, receptions, yards, and TDs for the upcoming season. All of these statistical categories are defined and explained in this article.
Let us know on Twitter who your long shot WR1 candidates are using the #PathtoWR1 and tagging @TheFFBallers.
WRs Have a Range of Outcomes
Whether people like to admit it or not, projecting fantasy point totals is a guessing game. We forecast usage while also acknowledging the fact that we don’t have all the info. There are many offensive situations where predicting player usage has to be met with humility. We don’t know everything and we shouldn’t pretend we do. I wrote an article entitled Forecasting 101: How to Project NFL Offenses Knowing You Could Be Wrong which highlights some of those points.
When we are talking about a “range of outcomes”, to put it plainly, we’re seeking what’s the best and worst scenarios available for a given player. We’re finding a player’s ceiling and floor probabilities. There can be volatility for every single player (see Diontae Johnson’s zero TDs) especially when we consider all the different factors involved for a position that needs another to even give them an opportunity to contribute in fantasy.
WRs are co-dependent on QBs. We also must maintain that none of this can be done in a vacuum as projecting one player’s ceiling can also forecast doom and gloom on a fellow teammate. For instance, if you’re projecting someone like Terry McLaurin to sneak into the WR1 territory in 2023, it inevitably must have an effect on his Commanders teammates. And perhaps somehow Sam Howell or Jacoby Brissett get it together.
The goal of exploring a range of outcomes (and in this case the high-end) is to see how likely a WR can meet or exceed their draft position. That is how you spot draft values, swing for the fences, and cash in on the right player’s ceiling that wins you a league. I’ve also added the 5-Year averages of top-12 WRs just to give us a threshold to compare.
Laying Down the Path
Let’s go into the why behind what we will be discussing in each WR1 profile.
Target Share- The target share, also known as market share, reveals a team’s total passing output and gives us a clearer picture of that receiver’s importance to the passing game expressed as a percentage. Targets have the highest correlation year-to-year for fantasy simply by acknowledging how involved a player will be and how much percentage of the passing pie they get. While we cannot predict usage fully, it’s important to note that a majority of WR1s need to see upwards of a 20% target share. Anyone seeing close to 30 percent is in a different stratosphere and almost a near locked-in WR1 finish.
However, not every target share percentage is created equal. Seeing 29% in the Falcons offense in 2022 netted Drake London 117 targets while Joshua Palmer of the Chargers saw ten targets fewer but only an 16.9 percent share. The percentage of the volume matters, especially because Atlanta QBs were horrific last year. For more on how to view different pass-catching groups, I wrote Navigating Winners & Losers Post-NFL Draft in early May.
Catch Rate- The catch rate of a WR shows how many of those targets get converted into receptions. We need these for projections-sake but for predictions-sake, it honestly doesn’t tell us a whole lot about WR1 status. This statistic is not as “sticky” as others with some year-to-year fluctuations and is not nearly correlative at all to fantasy productions compared to the other counting stats. In other words, year-to-year fluctuations do happen in catch rate.
Use catch rate to convert targets to receptions but don’t use this percentage to distinguish who a WR1 could be by any means. We must take into account the type of routes run by wide receivers. Laviska Shenault Jr.‘s 84.4 percent catch rate led all WRs in 2022 but when you think about the number of behind-the-line plays, drags, and slants, it’s not nearly as impressive. Compare that with the routes D.K. Metcalf ran and you can see that his 63.8 percent catch rate is actually nothing to shy away from especially on a Seahawks offense that emphasizes deep targets and end zone targets.
Receptions- In order to project a player’s fantasy finish, we need to see the possible range of outcomes and if you live in a PPR league, you know receptions drive so much of what your WRs do. In PPR leagues, this is how to find undervalued target mavens such as veterans Diontae Johnson or Christian Kirk. As I stated earlier, projecting how a WR converts receptions from their targets isn’t an exact science. However, the goal of this series is to reveal a range of outcomes and not just one median projection. If I told you before the season that Michael Pittman would finish with 99 receptions (8th most in the league), you would’ve been jumping for joy. Pitty City ended a dumpster fire with the fewest PPR fantasy points ever for someone with 99+ receptions. Whoops.
Yards- Yards are another volatile statistic especially when you start using yards-per-catch (ypc) statistics to plug-and-play from previous years. There is variance. Changing a WR’s ypc can be the difference between another 1,000-yard season like Mike Evans or Michael Pittman Jr.‘s 925 despite the fact Pitty City saw 14 more targets than Evans. When it comes to projecting yardage totals, we’re trying to highlight a healthy range based on the team’s total pass attempts and the historical data from previous years.
We can say about yards that the higher the amount, the more touchdowns we can expect, and candidates who are due for more TDs in 2023. Our own Marvin Elequin does a great job showing how TDs are volatile and that when you factor in expected fantasy points from 2022, yardage totals are a better stabilizing predictor. Players like Diontae Johnson are begging for some positive regression based on their opportunity and yardage (oh and those TDs). Eventually, things even out.
aDOT & Air Yards- Created by ESPN’s Mike Clay, the average depth of target (aDOT) is one of the better predictive metrics for WRs, especially over catch rate and yards per target. This stat is not dependent on the QB and captures that the depth of a receiver’s route is entirely about the pass-catcher. Wide receivers who run deeper routes and are targeted by the QB have opportunity for more yards. Sounds simple but remember, yards are more indicative of TDs despite the fact outliers such as Tyler Lockett’s 2018 season when he had ten TDs on just 70 targets. As Danny Tuccitto of Intentional Rounding pointed out, aDOT can stabilize fairly quickly for WRs at only ten games. For instance, a WR like Mike Williams has routinely seen his aDOT push above 15. He has been consistently targeted down-the-field and therefore projecting within this range helps us with a piece of the puzzle in figuring out his yardage totals.
Another relevant metric in the family of aDOT is Air Yards. Essentially, think about Air Yards as the number of yards from point of release of the QB to the catch point- whether the ball is caught or not is irrelevant as air yards can be classified as “completed” or “incompleted”.
What air yards tell us isn’t only how far the ball traveled in the air but the yards a receiver could’ve gained if he caught the ball. For instance, D.J. Moore‘s end-of-season yardage total (892) looks kinda meh and uninspiring. It ranked 26th and Moore was once again a “what could’ve been” for fantasy. However, he actually ranked 7th in the league “Unrealized Air Yards” and 4th in deep targets. What this tells us is that Moore (and the hodge hodge of QBs he had in Carolina) left a ton of yards on the field as his catchable target rate (64.4%) was incredibly low (90th among WRs) due to poor targets or deep shots that never came to fruition. Air Yards aren’t a measure of how much distance the ball actually traveled. Instead, they measure the prospective yards a receiver would have produced if he caught the ball and then was immediately tackled. In other words, they are a measure of intentions, which for fantasy is where we can start our projections.
TDs- Last but certainly not least is touchdowns. I wish I had a secret formula or years of data to prophesy this all-important category that makes or breaks your week. But finding the end-zone and predicting it is a fickle chore. As stated earlier, yards are a helpful marker towards projecting TDs for WRs. However, according to FantasyLabs, the Yards per TD rate has steadily declined over the last decade. Predicting TDs is a tough business.
So how do we project TDs?
Well, a good starting place is finding a healthy mix of analyzing the offensive system, the QB’s TD rate, and the number of total team TDs you have to play around with. There needs to be some variance in play. Red-zone warriors can overcome age gaps. Some players are TD monsters every year (Davante Adams) while others have shown that six or seven TDs is their ceiling such as Keenan Allen. Find a range of outcomes for each player. Double-digit TDs aren’t unheard of for players like Gabe Davis or maybe a massive 2nd year jump for someone like Chris Olave.
WR1 Marks to Hit
After laying out the categories above, we need to give ourselves a bar to compare with raw projections. I looked at the last five years and compared who finished as a top-12 WR just to outline the type of thresholds we’re looking for in projecting someone on the high-end range.
|Categories||5-Year WR1 Averages|
Remember, those are simply averages of the best WRs that fantasy football has to offer. Cooper Kupp and Justin Jefferson certainly can skew some of the data. Here are some of the statistical oddities over those five years worth mentioning:
- Two WRs finished inside the top-10 despite finishing with fewer than 1,000 receiving yards: D.K. Metcalf (967) in 2021 and Adam Thielen (925) in 2020.
- The lowest TD total for a WR1 over the last five years was six receiving TDs accomplished by 15 percent of the WR1s in this timeframe including Keenan Allen twice.
- Christian Kirk snuck into this group in 2022. However, his 11.9 fantasy points per game was the lowest of any WR1 in this sample.
- The context of the season each WR is playing in makes a huge difference. For instance, Juju Smith-Schuster finished as the WR9 in 2018 despite seeing a whopping 166 targets. In fact, his 241 fantasy points would’ve been better than Chris Godwin‘s WR2 season just a year later.
We will be unveiling a different WR1 candidate each week over the course of the summer. Let us remember that projecting a ceiling for a player is assuming a lot and all of the variables involved from point of release of the QB to the catch point of a WR can change drastically. Stay part of the conversation and let us know which WRs you could see make a tier jump and a draft-day value.