The Path to a WR1 Fantasy Season: Series Guide

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As we begin another year of our “Path to WR1 series, I thought it was imperative to give some reasoning and definition to our methodology in determining the likelihood of a top 12 fantasy season from various prospective WRs. I wanted to give you the lay of the land as our writers will be examining WRs who are currently ranked outside of the top 15 receivers in Andy, Mike, and Jason’s initial WR rankings.

Last year our series identified some superb potential WR1 values in Stefon Diggs, Keenan Allen, Davante Adams, and our biggest slam dunk, DeAndre Hopkins.

We are hypothesizing about players that possibly have a shot at finishing the year as a WR1. Let us be clear: we are NOT projecting a WR1 end of the year total; instead, we are merely giving the high-end of the range of outcomes for players to show what type of ceiling is in the realm of possibilities. We poll our team of writers and take the consensus percentage of whether that WR is capable of churning out a WR1 season.

Each of these WRs brings a bit of optimism for 2018 and our job is simply to lay out the “path” to a top 12 finish. This journey ultimately comes down to projecting their target share, depth of those targets, receptions, yards, and TDs for the upcoming season. All of these statistical categories are defined and explained in this article. We must maintain that none of this can be done in a vacuum as projecting one player’s ceiling can also forecast doom and gloom on a fellow teammate. For instance, if you’re projecting Josh Gordon to sneak into the WR1 territory, it inevitably must have an effect on his Browns teammates.

Get player profiles and Reception Perception data on all of the top-50 WRs in the Ultimate Draft Kit.

Predicting a Range of Outcomes

Whether people like to admit it or not, projecting fantasy point totals is a guessing game. We forecast usage while also acknowledging the fact that we don’t have all the info. There are 18 new offensive coordinators this year with either new responsibilities or new teams. In other words, there are AT LEAST 18 offensive situations where player usage must be met with humility.

When we are talking about a “range of outcomes”, to put it plainly, we’re seeking what’s the best and worst scenarios available for a given player in 2018. We’re finding a player’s ceiling and floor probabilities. DeAndre Hopkins was the perfect example of this. In 2015, he was fantasy gold seeing 192(!) targets en route to 111 receptions for 1,521 yards and 11 TDs. However, we saw the bottom drop out in 2016 as Hopkins was met with poor QB play as he finished as the WR29 in 0.5 point leagues. Hopkins was being drafted at the 1.06 that year although some were clamoring him as a major regression candidate. There can be volatility for every single player especially when we consider all the different factors involved for a position that needs another to even give them an opportunity to contribute in fantasy. WRs are co-dependent on QBs.

The goal in exploring a range of outcomes (and in this case the high-end), is to see how likely a WR can meet or exceed their draft position. That is how you spot draft values and how swinging for the fences and cashing in on the right player’s ceiling can win you a league.

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Laying Down the Path

Let’s go into the why behind what we will be discussing in each WR1 profile.

Target Share- The target share, also known as market share, reveals a team’s total passing output and gives us a clearer picture of that receiver’s importance to the passing game expressed as a percentage. Targets have the highest correlation year-to-year for fantasy simply by acknowledging how involved a player will be and how much percentage of the passing pie they get. While we cannot predict usage fully, it’s important to note that a majority of WR1s need to see upwards of a 20% target share. Anything reaching 30% is a different stratosphere and almost a near locked-in WR1 finish. However, not every target share percentage is created equal. Seeing 20% in the Bills or Bears offense in 2017 still would’ve netted you less than 100 targets. The percentage of the volume matters and the competition is what we will focus in on.

Catch Rate- The catch rate shows how many of those targets get converted into receptions. This statistic is not as “sticky” as others with some year-to-year fluctuations. For instance, Amari Cooper has basically yo-yoed through his first 3 seasons seeing catch rates of 55.4%, 62.6%, and plummeting to 50% last year. Predicting those ebbs and flows is definitely a challenge.

We also have to take into account the type of routes run by WRs. Matt Harmon’s Reception Perception data found in the Ultimate Draft Kit gives you a better picture of the route tree of each WR. For example, Golden Tate leading the league with a 76.7% catch rate make sense given his penchant for running bubble screens and crossing-routes. Compare that with the routes DeAndre Hopkins and Julio Jones run and the large volume coming their way and you can see that their sub-60 percent catch rate is actually nothing to shy away from. Here were last season’s top 12 in catch rate with a minimum of 95+ targets.

Player Targets Catch Rate WR Finish
Golden Tate 120 76.7% WR12
Tyreek Hill 105 71.4% WR9
Michael Thomas 149 69.8% WR6
Jarvis Landry 161 69.6% WR5
Larry Fitzgerald 161 67.7% WR4
Stefon Diggs 95 67.4% WR19
Doug Baldwin 116 64.7% WR13
Keenan Allen 159 64.2% WR3
Adam Thielen 142 64.1% WR8
Jamison Crowder 103 64.1% WR33
Jermaine Kearse 102 63.7% WR26

I chose that threshold as only 6 players have finished with less than 110 targets and a WR1 finish in PPR leagues over the last 10 years. That means roughly 94% of the WRs that crossed the top 12 territory needed that type of volume to see WR1 production. The rest were extreme outliers with insane TD rates.

Receptions- In order to project a player’s fantasy finish, we need to see the possible range of outcomes when it comes to receptions. In PPR leagues, this is the category to find sneaky and undervalued target mavens such as Julian Edelman, Larry Fitzgerald, and last year’s WR1 darling, Jarvis Landry. As I said before, projecting how a WR converts receptions from their targets isn’t an exact science. However, the goal of this series is to reveal a range of outcomes and not just one median projection.

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For instance, if we look at the Cleveland Browns offense, how much volume does Landry need to repeat another WR1 season? We take the offensive system, the trends, and the QB to analyze how big of a pie we’re working with. Tyrod Taylor has never attempted more than 437 passes in a season. But let’s say we bump up the total passing volume in Cleveland to close to league average somewhere near 550 (which is a big assumption). In order for Landry to see 117 receptions again, he’d need nearly a 30% market share AND a catch rate similar to his sensational 71% in 2017. In other words, as you can tell through this simple exercise, I’m not banking on Landry to repeat his WR1-performance. Is it possible? Certainly. But this at least gives us a starting point of seeing the possible range of outcomes.

Yards- Yards are another volatile statistic especially when you start using yards-per-catch (ypc) statistics to plug-and-play from previous years. There is variance and changing a WR’s ypc even by a yard can be the difference between a 1,100-yard season like Marvin Jones‘ or Dez Bryant‘s anemic campaign despite the fact he caught 8 more balls and saw 25 more targets than Jones. When it comes to projecting yardage totals, we’re trying to highlight a healthy range based upon the team’s total pass attempts and the historical data from previous years.

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What we can say about yards is that the higher the amount, the more touchdowns we can expect and candidates who are due for more TDs in 2018. Recently, JJ Zachariason highlighted this showing how Julio Jones’ TD output is basically begging for a positive regression based upon his yardage.

aDOT & Air Yards- Created by ESPN’s Mike Clay, the average depth of target (aDOT) is one of the better predictive metrics for WRs, especially over catch rate and yards per target. The depth of a receiver’s route is entirely about the pass-catcher and not dependent on the QB. If a WR runs a deeper route and is targeted by the QB, he has the opportunity for more yards. Sounds simple but remember, yards are more indicative of TDs despite the fact outlier, red-zone warriors like Davante Adams exist. As Danny Tuccitto of Intentional Rounding points out, aDOT also stabilizes fairly quickly for WRs at only 10 games. For instance, Kenny Stills has routinely seen his aDOT push above 14 since his move to Miami. He has been consistently targeted down-the-field and therefore projecting within this range helps us out tremendously figure out his yardage totals.

Another relevant metric in the family of aDOT is Air Yards. Essentially, think about Air Yards as the number of yards from point of release of the QB to the catch point. Air yards can easily be calculated by taking total passing yards and subtracting Yards After the Catch (YAC). According to Josh Hermsmeyer, creator of AirYards.com, “when it comes to forecasting football players, the thing we are best at projecting is volume — carries, pass attempts, targets. Fortunately, volume correlates very well with fantasy points.” He adds in an interview at 4for4.com, that “if a player is getting a lot of targets and there are a lot of Air Yards behind those targets, but he has put up terrible games in terms of fantasy points, we should expect a rebound in the near future.

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What air yards tell us isn’t necessarily how far the ball traveled in the air but the yards a receiver could’ve gained if he caught the ball. For instance, Alshon Jeffrey’s end of season yardage total looks pedestrian at 789 and a bit disappointing especially for a team’s No. 1 wideout. However, he actually ranked 7th in the league at 1681 Air Yards. What this tells us is that Alshon left a ton of yards on the field as his catch rate was the lowest of his career at less than 50%. According to the Pro Football Focus, his yards per route run was 43rd in the league, behind even DeVante Parker. So Air Yards aren’t a measure of how much distance the ball actually traveled. Instead, they measure the prospective yards a receiver would have produced if he caught the ball and then was immediately tackled. In other words, they are a measure of intentions, which for fantasy is where we can start our projections.

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TDs- Last but certainly not least is touchdowns. I wish I had a secret formula or years of data to prophesy this all-important category that makes or breaks your week. But finding the end-zone and predicting it is a fickle chore. As stated earlier, yards are a helpful marker towards projecting TDs for WRs. However, according to FantasyLabs, the Yards per TD rate has steadily declined over the last decade. So how do we project TDs?

If you felt the TD fountain dry up in 2017, you weren’t alone. It was a down year as WRs caught their fewest TDs (84) over the last 10 years. The previous low (97) was in 2008. Only 3 pass catchers reached double-digits in receiving TDs in 2017. The days of banking on 10+ TDs from WRs is soon over. It’s totally within the range of outcomes but because today’s NFL is emphasizing the pass catching RB and double-TE sets as our own Keaton Denlay recently pointed out, we must temper our expectations when it comes to projecting scores for wideouts.

Conclusion

We will be unveiling a different WR1 candidate each week over the course of the month of June and July.  Let us remember that projecting a ceiling for a player is assuming a lot and all of the variables involved from point of release of the QB to the catch point of a WR can change drastically. Stay part of the conversation and let us know which WRs you could see make a tier jump and a draft day value.