The Path to a WR1 Fantasy Football Season: D.J. Moore
In this installment of our “Path to a WR1 Season” series, I’m going to review the prospects for long-suffering Carolina Panthers receiver D.J. Moore. Well, long-suffering is hyperbole…sort of. ‘DJM’ has shown in his short four-year career that he is an incredibly talented NFL player, but has never had the quarterback play to truly unlock his upside. Despite the top talent, he’s finished as the WR19, WR22, and WR18 in the past three seasons. In this article, I’ll lay out the path for D.J. to take that next step into bona fide WR1 territory.
2021 Season Recap
Remember the hot start to the Carolina Panthers‘ 2021 season? Sam Darnold was leading the league in rushing touchdowns, and we were all chuckling at another player rebounding after escaping the clutches of Adam Gase? D.J. Moore was a big part of this hot start, finishing as a WR1 in three of the first four weeks (and the WR3 overall in Week 4). Things took a turn from there, though, both for the team and DJM, who couldn’t muster anything above a WR21 performance for the rest of the season.
This wasn’t for lack of trying: D.J. finished with 1,157 yards and 93 receptions. The catch (no pun intended) was a brutal touchdown rate; DJM found the end zone just four times last year, which – funnily enough – marks his third straight year with exactly four touchdowns. The Carolina QB Carousel didn’t help either, with Sam Darnold, Cam Newton and P.J. Walker all seeing snaps at the helm of the offense.
For better or worse, Moore inked his future with the Panthers this offseason. His contract extends through 2025 and promises $41 million guaranteed.
Laying Down the Path
According to PlayerProfiler.com, D.J. Moore captured a monstrous 28.4% of targets in 2021, good enough for 6th in the league. This was certainly an uptick, but his previous numbers were still solid: 24.6% in 2020 and 24.3% in 2019, both in 15 games. The latter number is especially salient because that was alongside Christian McCaffrey‘s record-breaking RB1 season. One might worry that, with a healthy CMC back in the fold, DMJ sees a massive drop in target share. The numbers bear out that, while a dip is likely, it might not be as significant as feared. What’s more, it requires McCaffrey to return to his peak form after two mostly-sidelined seasons.
The Carolina Panthers passed at an average rate last season, with 599 total attempts on the year. Assume they pass a similar amount this season, even though I could see them passing more if/when head coach Matt Rhule finds himself on the hot seat. If DJM can marshal even a quarter of that volume – again, that’s a 3.4% drop from his 2021 campaign – that means he will see 150 targets coming his way. With a player of his caliber, that is plenty of volume to deliver solid WR1 upside.
This is, admittedly, a weaker part of the argument. D.J. Moore has had drop issues: he led the league in drops in 2021 and finished 2nd in the category in 2020. He certainly hasn’t been helped by inconsistent QB play, but his ‘true catch rate’ on PlayerProfiler, which adjusts for passes that were not catchable, was still just 70th in the league at 80.2%.
I can’t see a way to ‘spin’ these metrics. I will say that, in DJM’s case, his path to being a WR1 is based on volume and talent as a playmaker with the ball in his hands (he posted 426 YAC last season, good enough for 12th in the league). While it would be nice to haul in some of those drops – and he might, since the top WRs in the game are always improving their craft – we don’t need him to be highly efficient. The Panthers are going to look his way a lot and, when he does come down with the pass, he will make things happen.
D.J. caught the ball 93 times last year, 12th among all players and 11th among wide receivers (Mark Andrews had 107). In 2019, the ‘CMC year’, he had a similar mark of 87 receptions in just 15 games. The implication is clear: DJM catches the ball a lot, even when Christian McCaffrey is soaking up targets.
This is my favorite part of the argument. D.J. Moore saw a massive amount of air yards – or the distance a pass travels in the air to a player, whether they catch it or not – in 2021. His 1,632 air yards were the 5th best mark in the league! Importantly, I recently found that air yardage is very sticky across seasons, and thus we would expect DJM’s dominant numbers to continue.
As mentioned above, D.J. Moore found the end zone four times last season, which marks the third year in a row of scoring exactly four times. This is a very low number given his usage, receptions, and yardage.
Why doesn’t DJM score as many touchdowns as we would expect? The answer is, honestly, unclear. He is certainly targeted less often in the red zone (13 targets last year according to PlayerProfile, 29th in the league), but has the play-making ability to break off long touchdowns from farther out. While we have seen multiple years of low touchdown rates, I’m going to continue to hope that these numbers are mostly bad luck. After all, in the ‘sticky stats’ article linked above, receiving touchdowns were (not surprisingly) the least sticky stat over time.
All told, I simply don’t believe the narrative that D.J. Moore can’t/won’t score touchdowns. If he found the end zone twice more – for a total of 6 on the year, very reasonable given his usage – he would have been a low-end WR1. I have faith in that positive regression finally kicking in.
Predicting a Range of Outcomes
It should be clear that the elephant in the room, outside of bad touchdown luck, for D.J. Moore‘s WR1 prospects is shoddy quarterback play. I think there are paths out of this potential despair. For one, the drumbeat of Baker Mayfield to the Carolina Panthers grows stronger each day. While Baker himself isn’t really a steady QB1 option, I have no doubt that he can support a WR1 in a situation where he’s desperately trying to prove himself.
This might seem like foolhardy extrapolation, especially because Jarvis Landry, Baker’s top wideout over the past two years, finished as the WR35 and WR62. Still, this is ignoring a crucial element. The Cleveland Browns of recent memory represent one of the best rushing attacks in the league – the combo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, and sometimes D’Ernest Johnson – and haven’t asked Baker to throw much. Last year, he tossed just 418 targets in 14 games. The WR room’s lack of production, then, might be volume-driven instead of Baker-driven. Jarvis had 101 targets during that WR35 campaign, far less than we expect DJM to see.
Now, the Baker trade could certainly fall through, and the Panthers could run back the QB carousel they had in 2021. Still, even if that happens, I have faith in D.J. Moore‘s potential. Again, if he had scored just two more touchdowns – above his oddly low mark of 4 TDs – he would have ranked as the WR12 last season. Even if he repeats with the same QB crew (plus rookie Matt Corral) I feel good about his potential to land in WR1 territory.
In general, while QB play is important, we don’t want it to be the reason we write a WR off entirely. Four of the top-12 WRs from last year (Deebo Samuel, Tyler Lockett, D.K. Metcalf, and Diontae Johnson) often struggled through periods of poor quarterback play. The DJM argument is similar: talent and volume should lead to fantasy production. He has a great chance at being a low-end/solid WR1 and, if the touchdown rate really flips, the shot at legitimate top-5 WR upside.
One last point I wanted to make: there’s space at the top. Two of the Top-12 WRs from last year (Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill) switched teams in the offseason. Adams and Hill are elite talents, but I’ve found that WRs who move teams generally see production decline significantly year over year. On the other side, three of the Top-12 (DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett, and Diontae Johnson) had their quarterbacks leave town and, at least in the Seattle Seahawks‘ case, be replaced by a much less exciting option. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect at least a few of these players to potentially fall out of the top 12, leaving extra space for Moore.
Hopefully, I’ve convinced you that D.J. Moore has true WR1 upside. He’s currently the WR18 off the board in Half-PPR ADP, and the UDK is even more bullish, ranking him as the WR14. I’ll come in even hotter: if I focus on RBs and an elite TE early in a draft, I have no problem taking DJM as my WR1 late in the fourth (where his ADP is). The volume and talent lay out a path to solid WR1 play, and even a chance at elite potential. All he has to do is take the next step.