WR Breakouts & the Historical Implications from 2020 (Fantasy Football)

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I won’t lie… my job affords me to be curious about statistics. Piecing together our show docs for the Fantasy Footballers podcast gives me the opportunity to jump down the rabbit hole and ask the question: has anyone else ever done this?

Using historical comparisons when analyzing production is super helpful to give you a grid for what has been done and is it an indicator for future success. Recently, we’ve been discussing the TRUTH about Fantasy WRs in 2020 and after working through the data, there were a couple of historical marks that I thought needed to be shared.

I need to give a shoutout to Stathead, the statistical research tool for SportsReference.com. This is by far the easiest search engine to fill out all the specific criteria I need to start getting curious about player production. #NotaSponsor but I cannot recommend more highly the benefit of getting a subscription there.

Justin Jefferson Setting the World on Fire

You likely know all about Jefferson breaking Anquan Boldin’s rookie receiving yards record. But to put 1,400 yards in perspective, here are all the receivers since 1990 to put up 1,300 yards before the age of 23:

Year Player Age Games Targets Receptions Rec Yards TDs
2013 Josh Gordon 22 14 159 87 1646 9
2018 JuJu Smith-Schuster 22 16 166 111 1426 7
1999 Randy Moss* 22 16 137 80 1413 11
2005 Larry Fitzgerald 22 16 165 103 1409 10
2020 Justin Jefferson 21 16 125 88 1400 7
2015 Allen Robinson 22 16 151 80 1400 14
1998 Randy Moss* 21 16 124 69 1313 17
2014 Odell Beckham Jr. 22 12 130 91 1305 12

What does this tell us? First off, dang how good was Josh Gordon? RIP for fantasy. Jefferson actually has room to grow which is insane to say. His expectation based on the yardage would’ve called for closer to ten TDs. He could go the route of Juju where I’d bet that his 2018 campaign will go down as the best of his career. He could take another step forward in the TD department. Regardless, we saw one of the best rookie receiving seasons on a run-first offense that for much of the season he was the perceived WR2 on his own team. Adam Thielen hogged all the TDs (14) bolstered a league-leading 20(!) end-zone targets. I expect some of that number to shift to Jefferson in Year Two. Speaking of two, we need to throw out the first two weeks of the season…when teammate OLABISI JOHNSON OUTSNAPPED him! Ok enough yelling, Jefferson was the WR4 from Weeks 3 to 17. This isn’t a small sample size or a couple of lucky games. He’s a 100-yard game waiting to happen and based on that rookie production profile, he’s a top-10 WR for me at this point.

Did Tyler Lockett Have the Worst 100 Catch Season Ever?

If you jumped aboard the rollercoaster known as Tyler Lockett in fantasy, you understand the agony that 80 percent of the year brought. He had the highest “bust rate” ever for top-10 WR since the TRUTH series was birthed. According to PFR’s Approximate Value metric, Lockett’s season was 2nd worst ever for a player with 100/1000/10+ in a season. In other words, he didn’t outperform historically those with similar statistical markers. But when we look at the rest of his career, the uptick in overall targets masked what truly was going on: he was inefficient. Compare 2020 to Lockett’s previous years and the stats don’t look so sexy.

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Year Targets Receptions Receiving Yards TDs Yards Per Reception
2015 69 51 664 6 13
2016 66 41 597 1 14.6
2017 71 45 555 2 12.3
2018 71 57 965 10 16.9
2019 110 82 1057 8 12.9
2020 132 100 1054 10 10.5

What does this tell us? Lockett’s counting stats are not helpful in deciphering his effectiveness. The roundedness of 100/1000/10 looks good but let’s unpack how it really occurred. Weeks 3, 7, and 17 accounted for 49% of his total fantasy production.  For a player with 1,000 yards to go over 100 only twice is nuts. Russell Wilson and Lockett are so in-sync most of the time that their efficiency together has become almost legendary. In 2018, Wilson had a perfect QB Rating when targeting him. Things have slipped a bit as no-one could keep up that ridiculous pace. But Lockett is entering a contract year so there is more at stake in 2021. Lockett’s end of season top-10 finish might cause casual drafters to put more stock in the stats. But come draft season, his draft price might enter into WR15-20 range which still makes him more than palatable as your team’s WR2.

A.J. Brown Cannot Be Stopped

We started this offseason with a viral video where A.J. Brown admitted that he played of the year with two bum knees after recording himself on his hospital bed post-surgery. But did you notice out on the football field? No-one wants to tackle this guy. In fact, Brown has the 2nd highest Yards per Target (11.19) for the 1st two years of a career (135 target min) in NFL history.

Year Player Games Targets Receptions Yards TDs Y/Tgt
2009-2010 Mike Wallace 32 170 99 2013 16 11.84
2019-2020 A.J. Brown 30 190 122 2126 19 11.19
1998-1999 Randy Moss* 32 261 149 2726 28 10.44
2006-2007 Santonio Holmes 29 171 101 1766 10 10.33
1999-2020 Torry Holt 32 236 134 2423 12 10.27

That’s right, it’s former speed merchant Mike Wallace at #1. And in case you haven’t caught on, this article is basically an ode to Randy Moss. He shows up in almost every chart.

What does this tell us? Ok, you already know he’s a beast with the ball in his hands. But can we get the man more targets? With Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith testing free agency, we could see Brown break the 120-target barrier and take the next step forward among the elites of fantasy. His draft cost will be an intriguing story once summer hits if Tennessee decides not to add any other high-profiled pass catchers in free agency or the draft. Think of him as a young Julio Jones. He might be hobbled half the time he’s out there but when this guy gets a target, it’s worth its weight in gold.

Breaking News: Juju Smith-Schuster Still is Young

We know, we know… he’s still young. For a while, Juju was the standard for WRs under the age of (insert whatever you want) to compare with. Despite 2019’s complete dumpster fire at QB and an up-and-down 2020, he’s still on pace with other recent historical youngsters. Through four seasons, he’s tied with Randy Moss for the 4th most receptions by a WR before turning 25.

Years Player Games Receptions Yards TDs
2004-2007 Larry Fitzgerald 60 330 4544 34
2013-2016 DeAndre Hopkins 64 317 4487 23
2014-2017 Mike Evans 61 309 4579 32
1998-2001 Randy Moss 64 308 5396 53
2017-2020 Juju Smith-Schuster 58 308 3726 26
2014-2016 Odell Beckham Jr. 43 288 4122 35
2014-2016 Jarvis Landry 48 288 3051 13

What does this tell us? Honestly, you can go either way with this one especially as he’s about to hop teams as a free agent. You can take that factoid and simply file it away as Juju’s star burned bright at an early age. Maybe we’ve seen the best we’re ever going to see with this guy. Yes, there might be some maturity issues but in terms of long-term dynasty implications, Juju also could have another 4-5 year run ready depending on the landing spot and scheme fit. As a big slot WR, he honestly has to find himself in a situation where he can win consistently versus zone because he’s been atrocious in one-on-one battles against man coverage. He’s also a volume guy which made him so special his 2nd year in the league when he saw 166 targets. In dynasty, this is the perfect time to trade for Juju IF you think he lands in a high-octane offense even on a bad team. He likely will be more expensive after he finds a new home. The ambiguity of “what is he?” gives you the type of discount you want if it’s for the right price.

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MapleTron Has a Nose for the End Zone

Hold onto your shorts people. Chase Claypool is one of Mike “The Fantasy Hitman” Wright’s favorite players in the league and for good reason. With 11 total TDs, he put himself in an elite group of rookie wideouts over the last decade with 11 total TDs: Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr, Tyreek Hill & Claypool. That’s it. Those guys are difference makers at the position and we saw it early on in their careers. He also accomplished this despite seeing limited volume on a Steelers team with Juju Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson higher in the pecking order. Here are the rookie wideouts with nine or more receiving TDs over the last decade on fewer than 65 receptions:

Year Player Games Receptions Yards Rec TDs
2018 Calvin Ridley 16 64 821 10
2020 Chase Claypool 16 62 873 9

What does this tell us? That bodes well for the young playmaker that at that young of an age, he visited the end-zone and the Steelers saw that it was an effective part of their gameplan once he was utilized that way. In his Week 5 4-TD explosion, it was clear Pittsburgh game-planned around getting the ball to Claypool on the slants and letting him take it to the house. I think the best comparable for who Claypool could become in fantasy circles is Mike Evans. He’s a red-zone monster capable of two TDs anytime he’s out on the field but not just as a post-up presence. Evans made his mark early-on with 50/50 balls from Jameis Winston. The QB play will be interesting to see who pairs up with Claypool long-term. He also has another young WR on the other side of the formation who demands targets. Diontae Johnson had the highest target rate per snap in the NFL. With Juju out the door, it’s not inconceivable to think Claypool sees 115+ targets in his second season.

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Stealth Mode: Ceedee Lamb Flying Under the Radar

Perhaps you forgot about Ceedee Lamb as Justin Jefferson‘s monstrous effort likely cast a huge shadow over the Cowboys rookie wideout. Through the first five weeks of the season, he had a 16-game pace of 93/1385/6. He already has cemented himself as one of the league’s premier slot wideouts ranking 2nd in slot targets, receptions, and yards. But he also stands among an elite group of rookie wideouts with 70+ receptions and 900+ receiving yards over the last decade.

Year Player Games Receptions Yards TDs
2016 Michael Thomas 15 92 1137 9
2014 Odell Beckham Jr 12 91 1305 12
2020 Justin Jefferson 16 88 1400 7
2020 Ceedee Lamb 16 74 935 5
2014 Kelvin Benjamin 16 73 1008 9
2015 Amari Cooper 16 72 1070 6
2013 Keenan Allen 15 71 1046 8

What does this tell us? This guy was drafted in the 1st round for a reason. His production profile and Reception Perception article by Matt Harmon screamed that he’s going to be a WR1 in this league. The other options in Dallas cloud some of our vision which is why his ADP (WR37 / 8.06) made him the WR3 behind Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup. But he looked like he was on an historic pace with Dak through that 1st month and with the hopes that Dak is back in 2021, I’ll gladly hitch a ride on the Lamb train. In dynasty, he’s easily a top-15 WR for me and I could see that come to fruition in redraft leagues as well this year. Think of 2020 as a building block to a player that I’m bullish enough to hit 85/1100/7 but you likely can get him outside the top-24 in drafts.

Can Someone Buy a TD for DJ?

D.J. Moore is as talented a WR you’ll find in the NFL especially when you consider his production at this young of an age. He’s gathered the 10th most receptions ever before turning 24. But as you look at this talented list (which of course has Randy Moss on it) he is lacking in one major department for fantasy: touchdowns.

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Years Player Games Targets Receptions Yards Y/R TDs
2013-2015 DeAndre Hopkins 48 410 239 3533 14.78 19
2014-2016 Mike Evans 46 443 238 3578 15.03 27
2004-2006 Larry Fitzgerald 45 391 230 3135 13.63 24
1998-2000 Randy Moss* 48 390 226 4163 18.42 43
2009-2011 Percy Harvin 45 321 218 2625 12.04 17
2013-2015 Keenan Allen 37 315 215 2554 11.88 16
2014-2016 Brandin Cooks 42 315 215 2861 13.31 20
2017-2019 JuJu Smith-Schuster 42 315 211 2895 13.72 17
1999-2001 David Boston 48 389 209 3227 15.44 17
2018-2020 D.J. Moore 46 335 208 3156 15.17 10

What does this tell us?  Through three seasons, Moore has ten total TDs. His expectation based on his yardage is more like 18 so there is room for positive regression. But Teddy Bridgewater likely will be throwing him the rock for at least one more season in Carolina before they could even think about cutting him. Moore finds himself in a similar position as Juju Smith-Schuster: a young receiver with boatloads of receptions at such a young age who is entering a contract year. It’s crazy to think this guy is three years into the league and will be only 24 when he’s ready to hit a payday. Carolina certainly could lock him up with an extension this off-season which further boosts his dynasty stock in my opinion. He’s slowly slipped in dynasty rankings to WR18 after being routinely a top-10 WR.

Burrow to Higgins is Going to Be a Thing

I wrote an article a couple of years ago entitled Can Rookie QBs Sustain WR Production? as an opportunity to dive into the data over the last 20 years. But what about when a rookie QB is paired up with a rookie wideout? That could spell double trouble and yet Tee Higgins and Joe Burrow had a season the likes of we haven’t seen… since almost a decade ago in Cincinnati. I looked at the top rookie QB/WR pairings every year over the last decade:

Year Rookie QB Rookie WR Targets Receptions Rec Yards TDs
2011 Andy Dalton A.J. Green 115 65 1057 7
2012 Brandon Weeden Josh Gordon 96 50 805 5
2013 EJ Manuel Robert Woods 85 40 587 3
2014 Blake Bortles Allen Hurns 97 51 677 6
2015 Marcus Mariota Dorial Green-Beckham 67 32 549 4
2016 Cody Kessler Corey Coleman 73 33 413 3
2017 Deshaun Watson Chris Thompson 6 5 84 0
2018 Josh Allen Robert Foster 44 27 541 3
2019 Daniel Jones Darius Slayton 84 48 740 8
2020 Joe Burrow Tee Higgins 108 67 908 6

Yes, I understand this is a bit down the rabbit hole of statistical analysis but having nostalgia for names like Corey Coleman and Dorial Green-Beckham is a chance to laugh and/or cry from the dynasty roster spots those two destroyed.

What does this tell us? It isn’t normal or optimal for a rookie pairing for fantasy. And yet, Higgins was more than serviceable finishing as the WRx. You also can look at his snap counts and see Weeks 1 and 17 were not actual games that he worked with. Higgins did all of this in 14 games played. He’s another guy who was overshadowed by Justin Jefferson‘s greatness and yet he was everything the Bengals could’ve wanted from their second-round draft pick. With A.J. Green and John Ross gone, Higgins and Tyler Boyd are going to command a ton of targets but only one of those guys has the ability to win o 50/50 balls and be an end-zone difference-maker. Boyd led the team with 16 red-zone targets but only four of those were standing in the end-zone, the real gold for fantasy. Higgins had seven such targets and will look to build off of that in 2021. Joe Burrow‘s devastating injury casts a bit of a shadow on this dynamic duo but I’ll take the dip and the amnesia fantasy managers might have over the off-season. Higgins is a WR2 in fantasy waiting to happen in 2021.


Philip Hofman says:

this is a lovely article sir

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