Josh Gordon: The Path to WR1 Fantasy Season
Editor’s Note – Check out The Path to a WR1 Fantasy Season: Series Guide to see how our writers compile their projections and the methodology behind this series.
The path to realizing Josh Gordon as a WR1 is quite simple, really. Hop into Doc Brown’s DeLorean, gun it up to 88 miles per hour, and head back to 2013. That was the last time Gordon played more than five games in a season, and he didn’t just finish as a WR1 — he finished as the WR1 (in non-PPR) in only 14 games. Great Scott, am I right?!
Gordon’s life and career quickly found its way off the rails, as he stumbled through a series of substance-abuse suspensions over the next three years. In September 2016, Gordon voluntarily checked himself into an in-patient rehabilitation facility, stating that he hoped the decision would “enable me to gain full control of my life and continue on a path to reach my full potential as a person.” Finally, in Week 13 of last season, Gordon made his return to football. He is now participating fully in OTAs for the first time in his career, preparing for what could be his first full season in the NFL since 2012.
Easily one of the most volatile players in fantasy this year, Gordon’s range of non-injury outcomes is about as wide as possible — he’s a puff away from a dishonorable early retirement and could also be one of the best wideouts in the league. Let’s break down Gordon’s finish to 2017, what it will take to reclaim his WR1 status, and what the likelihood will be. He’s currently the consensus WR23 in the Ballers WR rankings.
Want all the Reception Perception info on Josh Gordon? Buy the Ultimate Draft Kit to get data on all the rest of the top 50 WRs.
2017 Season Recap
Remember what I said about range of outcomes? Yeah. This is what I meant.
Even focusing in on just the final five games of 2017, Gordon’s bare stats are hardly impressive. Projected over a full season, that’s about 58 catches for 1,072 yards and a small handful of scores. Not atrocious, but more like a middling WR3 than a resurrected WR1.
Fortunately for any Josh Gordon truthers, I have two words: Deshone Kizer. He was Gordon’s quarterback for that five-game stretch and he was awful. Over the course of his rookie season, Kizer completed just 53.6% of his passes with a passer rating of 60.5 and an 11-22 TD-INT ratio — and all of those numbers were worse before Gordon’s return.
Kizer was promptly booted to backup duties in Green Bay so Gordon will see some combination of Tyrod Taylor and No. 1 overall draft pick, Baker Mayfield, in 2018. Barring a major bust for the highly-touted Mayfield, that combo should easily translate into the best quarterback play of Gordon’s career. We’ll get into some of the details in the following sections, but just note that the oft-maligned Tyrod Taylor’s career adjusted yards per attempt (per Pro Football Reference) and passer rating are both higher than those of recent WR1-producers Alex Smith and Matthew Stafford.
With such little useful data to go on, how do we project Gordon heading into this season?
The Path for 2018
In order for Gordon to return to WR1 territory, there are a number of statistical benchmarks he must meet.
Target Share – Gordon immediately seized the WR1 role upon his return to Cleveland last year attracting a 25.8% target share. It’s clear the Browns still saw him as their go-to guy. For a larger sample, we can also rewind to 2013, when Gordon drew 159 targets en route to a 23.7% target share.
Of course, Cleveland’s second-most targeted pass-catcher in 2013 was TE Jordan Cameron (118 targets). In 2018, the Browns will welcome Jarvis Landry, who has averaged 142 targets per year and has never garnered less than 112. We’re talking about a three-time Pro Bowler and reception-machine, so the threat to Gordon’s target share cannot be overlooked. Plus, the Browns have an up-and-coming tight end in David Njoku and a pass-catching maven in Duke Johnson out of the backfield.
Still, I’m not too concerned about Gordon’s volume in 2018. He is too dominant of a player (when on the field) to lose a crippling target share to anyone, even a quick-route specialist like Landry. Perhaps a duo to compare for insight might be Marvin Jones and Golden Tate in Detroit, who finished 2017 with 107 and 120 targets respectively (18.8% and 21.0% of 570 pass attempts). Gordon is light years more dominant than Jones, so I think he can comfortably hover around a 20% target share. Working off the Browns three-year average of 583 pass attempts, that puts Gordon in line for about 115-120 targets in 2018.
Don’t let anyone’s clamorings about Tyrod Taylor’s typical season-long pace of around 350 pass attempts throw you off course. Besides the fact that Taylor has played for an exaggerated ground-and-pound system in Buffalo and will now have his play-calling dictated by the perennially pass-happy Browns, he will also likely lose his job to Baker Mayfield at some point this season. Cleveland will throw the ball and they will throw it to Josh Gordon. If that wasn’t enough, new offensive coordinator Todd Haley is coming off a six-year stint in Pittsburgh, where he generated an average of 593 pass attempts per year (and never less than 574).
Catch Rate – Gordon’s 52% career catch rate is another cause for concern, as he will need to be highly efficient with his sub-130 targets to reach WR1 status. But this is where the horrendous quarterback play has left its darkest mark. Even in his revelatory 2013 season, where he sported a slightly better 54.7% catch rate, Gordon’s QBs were Jason Campbell, Brandon Weeden, and Brian Hoyer. Last year, with the truly terrible Kizer, his catch rate plummeted to 42.9%.
We simply have to project an increase considering the improvement at the quarterback position Gordon will see in 2018. Taylor has been, if nothing else, accurate and reliable as a passer (supporting a 62.5% catch rate for Sammy Watkins in 2015), and Mayfield was unanimously the most accurate QB in this draft class, if not the past several draft classes.
There’s also something to be said, however small, for the improvement we may actually see from Gordon himself. He’s in the heart of his prime at 27 years old, and could now play his first season of fully clean, focused NFL football. Though the low-end of his projected catch rate will stick around 50%, a median projection of 56% and a high-end projection of 62% are on the table.
Receptions – Given the range of targets and catch rate we’ve baselined so far, Gordon could optimistically see 70-80 receptions in 2018. I know what you’re thinking: That’s just not enough to crack the WR1 echelon, right?
Well just hold your horses there, cowboy or cowgirl. Here’s a quick hit list of receivers who have finished as PPR WR1s in the last three years with 80 or fewer catches, with a couple key stats included.
First off, it’s clearly possible. Second, it’s almost always accomplished with an elite yards per reception average, an elite touchdown total, or both. Third, keep in mind that this is PPR, where receptions matter more. If you play in a non-PPR league, Gordon’s game is even more viable. We’re going to address his projections in these categories shortly, so keep your eyes open.
Yards – Are your eyes still open? Great, prepare to have them opened a little wider. This is truly where the Josh Gordon question marks get crushed by pure explosive talent.
Over the course of his topsy-turvy career, Gordon has averaged 17.3 yards per reception. That’s higher than the career averages of Calvin Johnson (15.9), Randy Moss (15.6), Julio Jones (15.5) and pretty much every other receiver of note. Of that crew, only Moss averaged a higher Y/R during his first four seasons (17.5) than his full career, so we’re not looking at a case of veteran decline that Gordon hasn’t met.
The guy is phenomenal. At 6’3″, 225 lbs. with a pro-day 40-yard dash of 4.52 (and a rumored time of 4.35 in late 2017), it’s not too surprising, but the numbers speak the loudest. In fact, the 17.3 Y/R mark may even be a bit short. Without his anomalous, suspension-ridden, and possibly drug-impaired 2014 rate (12.6 Y/R), Gordon’s career total would sit at a monstrous 18.0 — and he hit 18.9 in 2013.
Theoretically give him 17.6 Y/R — short of his career-best but still ultra-elite — with the very attainable 70 reception benchmark we set a couple paragraphs up, and that’s 1,230 yards. But, for the sake of this Path to WR1 journey, let’s assume Gordon can recreate closer to an 18.0 Y/R rate over a more optimistic 75 catches. That’s 1,350 yards, easily top five numbers in any given year.
aDOT & Air Yards – Based on a couple more advanced metrics for projecting a receiver’s production somewhat independent of their QB, Average Depth of Target (aDOT) and Air Yards also fall heavily in Josh Gordon’s favor.
Just looking at 2017, Gordon’s aDOT came in at an elite 15.7, in the realm of deep-ball guys like Brandin Cooks and Will Fuller. That means he was heavily targeted downfield, opening greater opportunity for yards, and therefore fantasy points. The story is similar with Air Yards, where Gordon’s total of 675 literally doubles his actual yardage and allows us to project serious positive regression this season.
TDs – As usual, touchdowns are extremely difficult to predict in the NFL and in fantasy football. Moreover, the Browns have not topped 20 receiving touchdowns as a team since — you guessed it — 2013, when Gordon had 9 and the team had 26. Considering the revitalization of the Cleveland offense, the installment of a better arm(s) under center, and Gordon’s pure talent as a receiver, it’s not at all aggressive to project him for 6 TDs in 2018, with a ceiling as high as 10.
WR1 Possibility: Low Chance (Less Than 15%)
This percentage is based upon the combined average of the Fantasy Footballers writing staff. The 15% mark is essentially projecting that Gordon would hit WR1 PPR numbers 1.5 out of 10 times if we were to simulate 2018. Obviously, the risk is high with Gordon, and his current ADP in the third round (per Fantasy Football Calculator) makes that risk more dangerous.
The roadblocks are obviously significant with Gordon. A whiff of misconduct and he’ll be suspended for life. Taylor-plus-Mayfield will need to reverse a long-standing curse of awful QB play in Cleveland. There’s a non-zero chance Gordon forgot how to play football over the past three years. Landry could siphon the lion’s share of targets. You get the picture.
But the avenue to greatness is also fairly clear. If we project previously calculated totals of 70 receptions for 1,230 yards and 8 TDs, Gordon would compile 241 PPR fantasy points, good for a WR1 finish each of the last two seasons. The path is also much easier for Gordon in non-PPR, where those numbers would equate to 171 points — the WR8 in 2016 and WR4 last year. He’s done it before, and he can do it again. I think we’re all rooting for the guy and as long as he can stay on the right path, a path that could very well lead to the land of the WR1.