Narrowing the Field to Find 2021’s Stefon Diggs (Fantasy Football)
The year was 2020.
A collective of people made a near-unanimous decision to banish a young, talented WR who found himself among the most frigid of playing environments. Buffalo was a true tundra that had not seen elite production at the WR position in years. Stefon Diggs was not only written off but not even remotely on anyone’s radar to return top-5 fantasy value.
Count me among that cohort who was straight “No Diggity” in 2020.
“Putrid passing pie!”, we all cried. The Bills were a supposedly “run-first” offense with a QB who only had been completing less than 58 percent of his passes. This was a death sentence for Diggs’ fantasy value and we all collectively bought into this assumption. (Except for our own Kacey Kasem who destroyed our Writers League and many others after she pounded the table for him last year)
I want to walk back through the process that led to Diggs being one of the most valuable players in fantasy last year and identify five different sets of criteria for 2021. Perhaps we can find gold in the same hills Diggs emerged from last year. For those new to the concept, this is the third year I’ve taken on this “Narrowing the Field” series. It has led me to identify some major hits including George Kittle, Mark Andrews, Robert Woods, Calvin Ridley, and Chris Godwin before they all broke out. I finished Finding 2021’s David Montgomery article earlier last month if you’re interested.
For the Footballers’ official sleepers, breakouts, and busts at the WR position, check out the Ultimate Draft Kit.
1. Outside the Top Four Rounds
This should seem obvious but all of the WRs going inside the top-50 players need to be crossed off our list. Your memory might be a bit hazy but last year Diggs went off the board at 6.03 as the WR27. Yes, I know it sounds wild looking back but Diggs was being drafted behind guys like T.Y. Hilton and Marquise Brown.
Diggs’ talent was never in question but he was coming off a season where he finished as the WR21 in 15 games played but finished with only 63 receptions. His yards per reception went through the roof (17.9) but the reliability towards the end of the season. From Week 9 on, he averaged a pedestrian 10.2 fantasy points per game and sunk many teams with four games outside the top-40. In fact, Diggs was fairly boom/bust in 2019 with eight games according to our consistency metrics where he completely sunk your team. All in all, it was easy seeing where he was being pushed to later in drafts.
The narrative of “veteran WR changing teams” also did not help. The industry as a whole whiffed on Diggs and as I detailed in Forecasting 101: How to Project Offenses Knowing You Could Be Wrong, we are often quick to make up our minds and too slow to change them. The Ballers always talk about “staying water” and perhaps there was room for someone outside the first four rounds to go nuclear.
Players Eliminated: About 17 WRs are being taken in the first four rounds
2. Room for QB Improvement
One of the common challenges brought up for fantasy managers when envisioning a Diggs breakout was Josh Allen. For fantasy, he was useable but in real life, the Bills felt held back from truly launching into an elite passing game. The Bills ranked 27th in passing yards per game (204.8) which is almost comical to consider now. Completion percentage gets all the credit, but as I pointed out recently on Twitter, OC Brian Daboll stepped on the gas allowing his QB to throw on 1st down at an insane rate. Check out how the Bills compared from 2019-to-2020.
|Yards Per Att.||26th||5th|
We need a QB that has either yet to reach their potential OR there is a common narrative surrounding the QB position for that team that is trending south.
Players Eliminated: Adam Thielen, Cooper Kupp, Tyler Lockett, Antonio Brown, Mike Williams, Cole Beasley
3. Chance to Be a Target Hog
We loved Diggs’ talent and ability to get open but couldn’t foresee a scenario where Diggs and Josh Allen collided into fantasy goodness. But it was there all along. There was a range of outcomes (even if it was small) where Diggs went ham as the alpha in this offense. The Bills decidedly dropkicked everyone in the face of their forecasts and instead reinvented that offense so that Diggs could lead the league in targets, receptions, and receiving yards. Now asking
We need someone that can command north of a 22 percent target share. This can happen through talent like Diggs or a situation where a three-headed monster among pass-catchers becomes just one or two via injury or someone else declining. We need to have seen hyper-targeting at some point in their career to even begin squinting our eyes.
Players Eliminated: Robby Anderson, Courtland Sutton, Deebo Samuel, Tyler Boyd, D.J. Chark Jr., Marvin Jones, Jarvis Landry, William Fuller V, Curtis Samuel, Darnell Mooney, Nelson Agholor
4. Offense Able to “Take the Leap”
What a difference a year makes… Buffalo had three total snaps of four or more WRs on the field in 2019. As mentioned in Tracking 11-Personnel & Other WR Usage form 2020, they paced the league in those sets with 16 percent of their plays. OC Brian Daboll gets a ton of credit for reinventing Josh Allen as a high completion percentage passer but the production Buffalo received from their WR3 & 4 (Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis) is probably just as important. In Pass-Catching Trends and What They Mean from 2020, I detailed how the growing trend of WR3s seeing 75+ targets for competent passing offenses will continue. The Bills changed it up.. imagine that.
Let Diggs and the rest of the Bills be a reminder to search for a range of outcomes when forecasting and knowing you aren’t looking for one point of final data. We want offenses that can take the leap in 2021, a subject fellow writer Nate Henry detailed recently. Specifically, I want to see an NFL offense that has room for improvement that scored 50 or fewer total TDs in 2020, finished in the bottom-half of passing, or has room for their team’s passing TD rate to skyrocket in 2021.
Players Eliminated: Michael Pittman Jr., T.Y. Hilton, Michael Gallup, Mecole Hardman
5. GroupThink is Alive & Well
At the end of the day, the consensus approach was to fade Diggs in drafts. Count me among those who had very little of Diggs in redraft formats. Although I did get carried by a Diggs and Allen stack in a dynasty league all the way to a championship before finally losing to Jason & Mike’s superteam, I fell into the trap as many did assuming we knew what was going to happen. The best place to test this last criterion is using ADP but also narrative-based arguments that spring up on Twitter. So this last group, I’m using players who Twitter is collectively “in-love” with to eliminate. A lot of these guys are just too young for the fantasy community to write them off just yet. We want a bit of pessimism to drive down the draft price.
Players Eliminated: Laviska Shenault Jr., Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Brandon Aiyuk, Chase Claypool, Jerry Jeudy, Bryan Edwards
The WRs with the Best Chance to Go “No Diggity”
For the ADPs for these players, I used FantasyFootballerCalculator.com for Half-PPR scoring.
Diontae Johnson– Current ADP: 5.08/WR20
In fantasy volume is king and with Johnson, we’ve seen a player who has demanded targets at an insane rate. Last year, he had the highest target share per snap in the NFL, which removes plays where he isn’t on the field. He was 6th in total targets (144) among WRs. The emotional swing for Johnson surrounds a narrative about his drops and his QB being “over-the-hill”. Although Johnson did struggle with drops last year and benched at one point, drops are mostly a noisy statistic as the league leaders fluctuate year-to-year. Other plays that ranked in the top-5 of that statistic (D.K. Metcalf & Tyreek Hill) are not receiving any of the same criticisms. Johnson is an elite route runner in a very similar mold as Diggs as a slightly underweight pass catcher. While teammates Chase Claypool and Juju Smith-Schuster certainly will get theirs, Johnson seems like he’s coming in at a discounted price in 2021. He’s also the clear favorite to lead this trio in receptions. At his ADP (5.09), where else are you gonna find guaranteed volume like that?
D.J. Moore– Current ADP: 6.03/WR24
Does that ADP look familiar? Yup, that is the exact spot our guy Diggs was going last year. Moore is a tantalizing talent and someone I’ve written about the last couple of offseasons who has yet to have it all come together in one season. It’s crazy to think this guy is three years into the league. As I detailed in WR Breakouts & the Historical Implications, he’s gathered the 10th most receptions ever before turning 24. Carolina certainly could lock him up with an extension this off-season which further boosts his dynasty stock in my opinion. 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. 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. He’s slowly slipped in dynasty rankings to WR18 after being routinely a top-10 WR. His role shifted greatly where Robby Anderson took over most of the underneath routes and Moore ended up with the 6th most Deep Targets and the 5th most Air Yards in 2020. That ADP fluctuates depending on your site but it wouldn’t shock anyone if he ends up a top-10 WR this year. The shocking part would be Sam Darnold being the one to get him there.
Odell Beckham Jr.- Current ADP: 6.08/WR26
Odell might be the poster boy for this article. Let’s be honest… he’s been written off as an elite WR and rightfully so. What has this guy done since coming to Cleveland? He’s gone over 100 receiving yards once and routinely has been drafted in name-value only. But now the price has dipped to a point where once again you can tantalize yourself of what could be… The Browns are also quite similar to those Bills of 2020 in that everyone and their mama has signed their fate in ink that “this is a running team”. Hard to argue that from what we saw with Kevin Stefanski in his first year. However, per Pat Thorman of ETR, over their final six weeks (after their run of crazy weather games), they ranked 7th in their situation-neutral pass rate. There is room for Baker Mayfield to take a step forward and support a high-end fantasy WR. We know this guy can command targets and also be a diva (hey but so can Diggs). The range of outcomes for Beckham seems like the widest of any receiver profiled here.
Kenny Golladay– Current ADP: 6.12/WR28
The stench surrounding the Giants is palpable. HC Joe Judge’s high-T approach is not winning over many veterans and the media storm around this team screams stay away. When we add in Kenny G’s hamstring injury, the consensus everywhere is this a passing game we want no part of. Does this sound familiar? Listen it takes some bravery to sort through the muck and mire of the offseason and click Golladay’s name in your draft queue. We’ve seen him be an absolute baller as back in 2019 he led the league in deep targets and end-zone targets, arguably the most valuable targets for fantasy. He can be a true alpha on this team as his competition is Sterling Shepard, Darius Slayton, and Evan Engram… not exactly going to light the world on fire. But pretend he’s healthy for a minute, if Daniel Jones in Year 3 (same as Josh Allen‘s breakout) somehow puts things together, the biggest beneficiary is going to be Kenny G. He obviously plays a different role than Diggs as a red-zone dominator winning with size and strength over finesse. But just a year ago, Golladay was being taken as a top-7 WR in redraft. He’s being punished for the scenery change and QB throwing him the ball. I will confess though that OC Jason Garrett isn’t quite Brian Daboll. They are from different planets.
Corey Davis– Current ADP: 10.11/WR49
I’ll throw in one more name on this list as Davis has been gaining steam in the fantasy circles over the last two weeks. Davis is an absolute steal at his current draft price. Expect that to be closer to Round 9 in the coming weeks but the freshly-inked New York Jet was underwhelming to say the least in Tennessee. As a top-5 NFL draft pick, he was a bust when you consider the opportunity he had to become an alpha. Last year, something clicked alongside A.J. Brown and he ended up with nearly 1,000 yards. But it was how he commanded targets that intrigues me the most. If we adjust for routes run, Davis saw a target every 4.23 routes run, 11th among players with 90+ targets. This preseason he’s been hyper-targeted by rookie Zach Wilson, something we love to see. Let Davis fill out your WR4 spot and reap the rewards. Asking him to go full Stefon Diggs is a bit much but he’s on a new team… with a QB the consensus doubted in the draft process… with a suspect running game. It’s not outlandish.