Life In A Vacuum: What To Expect Without Davante Adams and Tyreek Hill (Fantasy Football)

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While the fires of free agency have cooled somewhat, the 2022 offseason has still been one for the ages. Franchise-defining players have swapped allegiances, often to the complete surprise of the fantasy community (a rare thing in the Internet age). These moves are notable not only for what a superstar brings to a new offense, but for what they leave behind.

Specifically, in this article, we’re going to dive into the ‘target vacuum’ left in Kansas City and Green Bay by the respective departures of Tyreek Hill and Davante Adams. We’ve already looked into how these veteran WRs might perform in their new landing spots; now it’s time to examine the opportunity left in their wake. All data, unless otherwise specified, is from nflfastR.

Methodology

The crucial metric here will be vacated receptions, which is calculated when a player leaves a team. For example, if a player is on a specific team in 2012 and is no longer on the team in 2013 (either through trade, retirement or missing a season due to injury) then all of their receptions in 2012 will be considered vacated in 2013. We can calculate vacated receptions for each team going back to 2000 and take the maximum number vacated (the biggest WR to leave, who we will label an ‘alpha’) in each year. It turns out that, for this metric, having an alpha WR that vacates 69 receptions or more is an extremely high mark (90th percentile), so we will use this for our cutoff.

This results in a sample of 55 instances over the last two decades. The high-water mark is, perhaps surprisingly, the 2013 New England Patriots. Wes Welker hauled in 118 receptions in 2012 before defecting to the Peyton Manning-led Denver Broncos the following year. Number two (appropriate, since it was under former Head Coach Adam Gase) was another surprising result: Jarvis Landry, who posted 112 receptions in 2017 before heading to Cleveland. Bill O’Brien’s ill-advised DeAndre Hopkins trade, which sent the superstar from Houston to Arizona, is a more intuitive third (104 receptions vacated).

We can measure the fallout from the teams these players left to get a sense of what to expect for the Chiefs and Packers. A word of caution: Davante Adams and Tyreek Hill posted 117 and 110 catches through 16 games, so they are both at the very top of this sample. This fact – that Hill and Adams are the ‘alphas’ of the alphas – will be important to remember throughout this analysis. We’re only considering ‘big’ reception vacuums in general, and yet Hill and Adams are still among the biggest.

The WR Room

A natural place to start is the change in the WR room. The gold standard of elite WR turnover is Mushin Muhammed to Steve Smith. The former posted 1405 yards and 16 TDs in 2004 before leaving for Chicago, when the latter took over for 1563 yards and 12 scores. However, this is certainly an outlier, especially for really elite alphas. For example, Diontae Johnson had a solid rookie season with 680 yards and 5 TDs, but this production was minimal compared to Antonio Brown‘s overall WR4 performance the year before.

On average, wide receivers for a team score 13 points lower on the year after an alpha leaves. The effect is stronger, though, if a really significant alpha (90+ receptions) departs: the team’s WR group scores on average 40 points less the following year.  Specifically, the ‘new alpha’ scores 32 points less on average than the departing alpha did. This is more reflective of the massive wake left by Hill and Adams, and brings us to our first tentative, but intuitive, result: expect less out of the KC and GB wideouts overall this year, and don’t expect the WR1 replacement to completely fill the shoes of Davante and Tyreek.

Still, while it’s reasonable to expect lower production from a WR core, fantasy managers are ultimately interested in opportunity. No one is really expecting a wideout to come in and replicate Tyreek Hill‘s production, but perhaps they can perform well enough to be fantasy relevant. This plot shows us the year over year (YoY) increase in fantasy points for a ‘new alpha’ after a team has had a significant WR departure:

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Steve Smith’s increase is a bit deceptive, since he missed nearly all of Mushin Muhammed’s last season. Instead, consider Julian Edelman – This chart tells us he scored nearly 150 points more in 2013 than he did 2012, which coincides with Wes Welker leaving. Put simply, the opportunity provided Jules a massive increase in fantasy value, even if he didn’t fully replicate Wes’ output.

As you can probably tell, the data bears this out in general. Even without Steve Smith’s outlier case (and Brandon Lloyd, who had a similar situation), the ‘new alpha’ in an offense is expected to score 60 points more in the season following a major departure than they did in the prior season. This has major implications for the Chiefs and Packers. While the WRs understandably won’t be able to completely make up for the gap left by Davante Adams and Tyreek Hill, the new alpha should see a big jump in individual production. Of course, the trick is figuring out who the new alpha is going to be. Will Allen Lazard or JuJu Smith-Schuster rise to the bell? Or will the teams draft exciting rookie wideouts destined to make a splash?

One final funny observation is Brandin Cooks, who shows up three times on this chart. Cooks was the ‘new alpha’ for a team three times in his career: the New Orleans Saints (Jimmy Graham, who left for Seattle), New England Patriots (Julian Edelman, who missed 2017) and the Houston Texans (DeAndre Hopkins).

The QB Situation

Surprisingly, I didn’t find much of a difference for RBs or TEs. The former is concerning for fans of Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon, who ostensibly project to soak up a lot of Aaron Rodgers‘ targets this upcoming season. Personally, though, I think this is an exception to the rule. While the average RB doesn’t appear to enjoy a large bump from an alpha WR departing, the highly-skilled triumvirate of Rodgers/Jones/Dillon should make some fantasy magic this year.

Anyways, there is a significant drop-off for signal-callers. Specifically, QBs who have an alpha with 90+ receptions leave are expected to score 27 fantasy points less on the season. That’s significant: it would have been enough to drop Aaron Rodgers from QB5 to QB9, below Jalen Hurts (and probably more, since it was a 17-game season). This dynamic is clear if we chart the YoY change in QB points for a departing alpha:

 

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The larger the departing alpha (higher receptions vacated on the X-axis), the less a QB is expected to score.  Of the four teams with the largest vacuum, the 2020 post-DeAndre Hopkins Texans are the only ones to see an increase in scoring at the position. This was a combination of a couple of factors, specifically trading for Brandin Cooks and the resurgence of Will Fuller V. Time will tell if Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes are supplemented with commensurate options to offset the loss of their superstars; if not, their rankings should be adjusted downward.

It is pretty interesting to look at the left-hand-side of this chart: most of the teams with ‘minor’ alphas departing (around 70 receptions vacated) seem to have a marked increase in QB production. It’s unclear what dynamic is causing this: getting rid of old, busted WRs and mixing up the offense, perhaps? If you have any theories, let me hear them.

Conclusion

The bottom line is intuitive: you can’t expect the new pass-catching options for the Kansas City Chiefs and Green Bay Packers to fully replicate the magic of Tyreek Hill and Davante Adams. These two superstars are leaving behind massive – nearly unprecedented – reception vacuums in their wake, and history tells us that we shouldn’t expect the same sort of production by their replacements. A direct implication of this is that Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes should be adjusted down in your rankings. Again, history predicts that they score about 1.7 PPG less, which is at least enough to move them outside of the ‘top tier’ of quarterback in redraft leagues.

Probably the most important result, though, is that even though the WRs who are brought in to replace the departing giants won’t fully measure up, they will still likely see a significant fantasy bump. The past two decades are rife with examples of players making solid gains on this opportunity, be it veterans like Brandin Cooks or (at the time) fresh faces like Julian Edelman coming in for Wes Welker and Julio Jones taking over for Roddy White. The tricky part, of course, is trying to guess who will attempt to carry the mantle of Hill and Adams; if you feel like shooting your shot, though, you just might win big.

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Thoughts? Questions? Let me hear it on Twitter.

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