Unlocking top-10 fantasy wide receivers

Unlocking top-10 fantasy wide receivers

Positional Analysis

Unlocking top-10 fantasy wide receivers

(Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports)

Are there keys or commonalities with Top-10 fantasy wideouts? Their stats have been on the rise for the last decade and in particular over the last four years.  In 2015, the Top 10 combined for 1,046 catches with the average topping 100 receptions for the first time. This position once begrudgingly filled the middle rounds of drafts but now commands a growing presence in the first two rounds.

The Metrics

To determine Top-10 status, I considered a standard scoring of 1 point per yard (rush or catch), six point touchdowns and one point per reception. I also did the analysis without reception points but the results were nearly identical.

Those scoring rules were used on every wide receiver to have caught a pass in the last twenty years. Overall, the findings were consistent between those players whose entire careers fell inside those boundaries and those that are still playing.

Since 1997, there were 927 wideouts that caught a pass. Of those, 601 began their career in 1997 or later and ended it by 2016 or earlier. There are 186 receivers that caught a pass last year and remain on active rosters.

The spreadsheet showing all 927 and how they ranked since 1997 until 2016 can be downloaded here. It reflects the findings below and is a fun look back for those who have played fantasy football for many years.

Gone but not forgotten

Of the 601 that played their entire career between those years, only 33 ever turned in a Top 10 performance. That seems low at first glance and how it broke down is even more surprising.

  • Eighteen of the 33 (55%) managed just the one Top 10 in their career.
  • Six of the 33 (18%) recorded only two. Those included Hines Ward, Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, Javon Walker, Santana Moss and T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
  • Nine of the 33 (27%) produced three or more Top 10 years. They were Randy Moss (8), Reggie Wayne (6), Torry Holt (6), Andre Johnson (6), Calvin Johnson (5), Roddy White (5), Wes Welker (5), Ocho Cinco (5), and Steve Smith (3).

Think about that. Over a 20 year period, there were only nine players that entered the NFL, produced three or more Top-10 years, and then retired. That’s nine of 601 players.  About three in every four of the Top 10 players never had more than two appearances. Most only reached the Top 10 once.

Inside of those careers, when did they reach the Top 10?

  • For the six players with just two appearances, only two of them had back-to-back years (Hines Ward and T.J. Houshmandzadeh). The other four all sandwiched a worse season during a three-year stretch. Oddly, three of the four had their first Top 10 in their third season. Only Donald Driver did it later in his career (years six and eight). If a player only had two Top 10s, they almost always happen within a three year period, if not back-to-back. And they happen early in their career.
  • Randy Moss led the pack with six straight appearances. Roddy White and Chad Ochocinco both had five in a row while Calvin Johnson and Torry Holt managed four consecutive. Marvin Harrison fell out of the analysis since he started in 1996 but he had eight straight Top 10s. Notable is that almost all wideouts with the most Top 10s were not the product of an elite quarterback. They were of the exceptionally rare instance when a wideout made a quarterback better.
  • For the ten receivers with at least three seasons of a Top 10, seven had their breakout during their second season. Demaryius Thomas did so in his third year and Brandon Marshall and Antonio Brown waited until their fourth. By their fifth year, there is no chance they will start to produce three or more Top 10s. As a general rule, those superstars started their elite seasons in their second year.

Also interesting is that of the 18 with a single Top 10, just five were also in the top five that year. Ten were no better than eighth. All of the eight with more than two Top 10s produced at least one year with a top three. Most receivers who end eighth, ninth or tenth in their first Top 10 will never have another. They simply had a big year unlike the others in their career. But there is no guarantee of a repeat regardless of where in the Top 10 they initially placed.

Producing a top five season

No surprise, but those players with the most Top 10 years also had the most top five years – and by percentage as well.  On average, any receiver with at least three Top 10s would have at least half of them qualify as top five. And those are truly difference making years. Randy Moss turned in seven and Calvin Johnson had four but no others produced more than three Top 5s. It is a rare group. The greater emphasis on passing actually makes it tougher to produce a top five year as there are more receivers with big talent and production.

Applying the past to the currently active players

There are 186 active wide receivers that caught at least one pass last year. There is the normal rookie dump after the NFL draft but they can be ignored for purposes of the Top 10. The only rookies with Top 10 performances were Randy Moss (1998), Stevie Johnson (2010), Anquan Boldin (2003), Odell  Beckham (2014) and Michael Thomas (2016). Rookie receivers are now thrown into a starting role instead of taking a year to learn the game. That means earlier breakouts will happen more in the future than it did in the past. Historically, the best rookie wideout would usually end up as thirtieth or worse. Not so much anymore.

Let’s breakdown the 186 current players for how they fit into the patterns.

  • Only 26 current players have produced a top-ten season. Of those, 13 have hit the mark just one time and as before, it is roughly half the total. Mike Evans, Brandin Cooks, Michael Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, Jarvis Landry, Allen Robinson, DeAndre Hopkins, DeSean Jackson, Randall Cobb, Alshon Jeffery, Victor Cruz, Jeremy Maclin and Eric Decker had the one Top 10. History says that most will not repeat that one great season. Particularly Jackson, Cruz, Jeffery and Decker who hasn’t logged such for at least three or more seasons.
  • Notable is that Mike Evans, Brandin Cooks and Michael Thomas were the only first-timers in the Top 10s last year and in their third seasons other than the rookie Thomas. The year before that witnessed Jarvis Landry, Allen Robinson and DeAndre Hopkins who were in their second or third seasons. But they did not repeat. That first trip to the Top 10 continues to be mostly second or third-year players.
  • The best situated for a first Top 10 belongs to Corey Coleman, Will Fuller, Josh Doctson, Laquon Treadwell, Sterling Shepard, Amari Cooper, Kevin White, Devante Parker, Nelson Agholor, Breshad Perriman and Jamison Crowder. Only Cooper is considered as a top ten wideout in the Average Draft but two more usually happen.
  • There are only two active receivers with two Top 10s and again they were both within a three-year span (T.Y. Hilton and Doug Baldwin). The only players with one Top 10 in the past two years are the above Evans, Cooks, Thomas, Landry, Robinson, and Hopkins. All are situated for that second visit but only Evans and Thomas are being drafted in expectation of a Top 10.
  • Both Larry Fitzgerald and Brandon Marshall were best with seven Top 10s. Amazingly Fitzgerald was Top 10 for the last two years. And Marshall was there in 2015. But both are at the end of their careers. No other current wideouts have produced more than four such seasons. Julio Jones (4) and Antonio Brown (4) have been the next most common and strung three and four straight Top 10s respectively. Odell Beckham, Demaryius Thomas, and Dez Bryant also had three straight though only Beckham was in the Top 10 last year. One more failure to return to the Top 10 by Bryant means a three-year gap. That would make any future return highly unlikely according to history.
  • Antonio Brown has four straight Top 3 seasons. That keeps company with only Marvin Harrison, Randy Moss and Calvin Johnson.
  • With seven Top 10s and four Top 5s, Brandon Marshall has been the fourth best fantasy wideout of the last 20 years. He trails only Marvin Harrison, Randy Moss and Terrell Owens who all had eight appearances in the Top 10.

The tendency is to highly value the most recent season and that certainly offers the best idea of what could happen for this year. But there is one reality with that.

The Top 10 from 2016

1 – Antonio Brown
2 – Jordy Nelson
3 – Odell Beckham
4 – Mike Evans
5 – T.Y. Hilton
6 – Doug Baldwin
7 – Brandin Cooks
8 – Julio Jones
9 – Larry Fitzgerald
10 – Michael Thomas

According to the Average Draft,  all are being drafted in the first ten other than Cooks (13) and Fitzgerald (26). Here are how many Top 10 players repeated the following year for the last decade: 5, 3, 3, 4, 4, 3, 3, 5, 3, 4.

Not eight. Never eight. Or seven or six. Just a couple of fives.

In fairness, there were many instances of ending up just outside the Top 10 the following year. And the reality is that wideouts are scoring more and the point differential between the 10th and 20th best wideout has never been smaller. In 2016 that was 33 points or about two points per game. Ten years ago it was 70 points. And there is a lot to say for consistency, track record, and predictability.

Which five will miss the top ten this year? Chances are it will happen. Larry Fitzgerald is the only one that seems certain not to return.

The NFL is a passing league that has matured. Defenses are starting to improve as they always do. What is good for fantasy football is that there are fewer dominating stars compared to the past because the position produces more players with higher points each year.

Nothing here mandates what will happen. Every player is unique and has to be evaluated individually. But understanding how the Top 10 has worked over the last two decades is just one more piece of information to consider.

  • Most players have their first Top 10 in the second or third year. It used to be three or four years.
  • Top 5 years increase the likelihood of more good seasons.
  • Half the Top 10 wideouts will only reach it once in their career.
  • A second Top 10 usually happens in the next two seasons or it very rarely happens.
  • The larger the gap between Top 10s decreases the chance it will ever happen again.
  • Only three or four Top 10 players usually repeat next year.
  • Antonio Brown has been a really, really good draft pick.

Reception points have become the norm.  Make sure your fantasy team is getting more than their fair share.

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