Fantasy Football: The Path to a WR1 Season Primer for 2021

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Editor’s Note: Find out the full statistical projections for the Footballers Consensus WR1s in the Ultimate Draft Kit.

For the fifth 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. Last year, we struck gold again with D.K. Metcalf and A.J. Brown. Robert Woods was knocking on the door at WR13.

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 2021 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.

Predicting 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. In 2020, there were five new head coaches and 12 new offensive coordinators with either new responsibilities or new teams. I highlighted recently in Coaching Changes & What They Mean for 2021 the seven new head coaches and a total of 13 new offensive coordinators. In other words, 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.

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 DeAndre Hopkins 2016) 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 Courtland Sutton or Jerry Jeudy to sneak into the WR1 territory in 2021, it inevitably must have an effect on their Broncos teammates. And perhaps somehow Drew Lock or Teddy Bridgewater (or Aaron Rodgers) get it together.

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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.

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 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 close to 20% in the Steelers offense in 2019 still would’ve netted you only 92 targets. That would be rookie Diontae Johnson. The percentage of the volume matters and the competition is what we will focus on. For a more in-depth look at WR targets and how market share breaks down league-wide, check out an article I wrote called  WR Targets and What We Know.

Catch Rate- The catch rate 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 not nearly correlative at all to fantasy productions compared to the other counting stats.

Use catch rate to convert targets to receptions but don’t use this percentage to distinguish who a WR1 could be by any means. For instance, Robby Anderson was known perenially as the “go-route” guy in New York and last year he ran a ridiculous amount of drag routes and his catch rate changed drastically.

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Distance Depth of Target Targets Target %
Behind Line -5 to 0 11 8.21%
Short 1 to 10 72 53.73%
Intermediate 11 to 19 29 21.64%
Deep 20+ 22 16.42%

His 70 percent catch rate looks like an outlier when we see his career average for his first four years in the league was 54.2 percent! His fantasy production was buoyed mostly by volume with career-highs in targets (136) and receptions (95). Yet he finished as WR24.

Getty Images / Mike Ehrmann

We must take into account the type of routes run by wide receivers. Juju Smith-Schuster‘s 75.8 percent catch rate was a top-5 mark in 2020 but when you think about the number of drags and slants, it’s not nearly as impressive. Compare that with the routes Tyreek Hill ran and you can see that his 64 percent catch rate is actually nothing to shy away from.

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 Robert Woods. 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.

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 a 1,000-yard season like A.J. Brown’s or Keenan Allen‘s 992 despite the fact Fitz saw 31 more targets than the rookie. When it comes to projecting yardage totals, we’re trying to highlight a healthy range based upon the team’s total pass attempts and the historical data from previous years.

What we can say about yards is that the higher the amount, the more touchdowns we can expect and candidates who are due for more TDs in 2018. Last year JJ Zachariason highlighted this showing how certain player’s TD output is begging for a positive regression based upon high yardage totals. Players like D.J. Moore are begging for some positive regression. 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. Somewhere Julio Jones is crying. 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 since being drafted by Los Angeles. 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”. According to Josh Hermsmeyer, creator of AirYards.com, “when it comes to forecasting football players, the thing we are best at projecting is volume — carries, pass attempts, targets. Fortunately, volume correlates very well with fantasy points.” He adds in an interview at 4for4.com, that “if a player is getting a lot of targets and there are a lot of Air Yards behind those targets, but he has put up terrible games in terms of fantasy points, we should expect a rebound in the near future.

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, Bears WR Darnell Mooney‘s end-of-season yardage total (631) looks kinda meh and uninspiring. However, he actually ranked 10th in the league “Unrealized Air Yards” and 11th in deep targets. What this tells us is that Mooney (and Mitch Trubisky/Nick Foles) left a ton of yards on the field as his catch rate (62%) was low due to poor targets. 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.

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Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

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. We did see a resurgence with nine different pass-catchers with double-digit TDs after only three in 2019.

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. Did you see Steelers rookie Chase Claypool with double-digit TDs heading into 2020? Or the fact that Jimmy “Graham-pa” caught as many TDs (8) as Michael Thomas, Julio Jones, Odell Beckham Jr., and Kenny Golladay combined in 2020.There needs to be some variance in play. 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.

Conclusion

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.

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