Yeah, sure, we know. The top quarterbacks pile up more points, the leading running backs own higher VBD numbers and top-level tight ends are harder to find, but here’s saying wide receiver is the most important position right now in fantasy football, circa NFL 2014.
More fantasy draft choices and roster spots are typically devoted to the position than any other and the bust- and injury-rate among wideouts seems to be smaller — especially when compared to their RB1 & 2 cousins. And, besides, don’t most of those top-level TEs yearn to be wide receivers anyway? Right, Jimmy G?
But more choices and more roster spots devoted to receivers also means more chances for fantasy personnel mistakes. So, that in mind, we’ve pored over the stats, crunched some numbers (with a big assist to the pro-football-reference.com database) and have come up with five guidelines to abide by before filling in that WR1 line on your depth chart.
Ready, set . . .
Be Wary of the Low-Reception, High-TD Producers
Specifically, the numbers we’re talking about here are wideouts with 55-or-fewer receptions but 10-or-more touchdown catches in a season and how they’ve fared the following year. Over the last 30 seasons, 20 wide receivers have qualified in this category, the latest being the Bengals’ Marvin Jones (51 receptions/10 TDs) and the Steelers’ Jerricho Cotchery (46/10) this past season.
So just how have the previous 18 fared in their follow-up seasons? Well, not so good, as you might’ve deducted from the section header.
A full 16 of the 18 saw their TD receptions decrease that ensuing season, and the fall was rather dramatic as well, averaging a drop of a little more than seven scores per receiver. Laurent Robinson is the most recent example as he followed up his 51/11 2011 season in Dallas with a 24/0 2012 campaign in Jacksonville. Yikes! The only exceptions during the span have been the Chiefs’ Stephone Paige (43/10 in ’85 to 52/11 in ’86) and the Seahawks’ Daryl Turner (35/10 in ’84 to 34/13 in ’85).
Meanwhile, TD catches weren’t the only numbers that typically dipped as 13 of the 18 also saw their total receptions and/or yardage figures fall off the following season as well.
So be wary — very wary — of Jones and Cotchery this season. And go ahead and throw in the Broncos’ Wes Welker (73/10) while you’re at it with the same time-tested trend applying to WRs with 800 or fewer yards and 10 or more TDs in a season as well.
Short Wideouts Usually Short on TDs
Hey, they’re referred to as big red-zone targets for a reason.
On the other end of the WR scale, however, the shorter wideouts (those 5-foot-11 and under) don’t usually rack up the stand-out TD totals. Since the 1970 merger, only 46 times has a wide receiver 5-11 or shorter snared as many as 10 touchdown receptions in a season, and only six of those 46 seasons produced 13 or more TD grabs. Also, only two of those 46 have taken place during the last five seasons, with the 5-11 Greg Jennings (12 TDs in 2010) and the 5-9 Welker (10 in ’13) accomplishing the feat.
So as impressive as these diminutive dynamos might be, don’t be banking on double-digit TD receptions from the likes of Antonio Brown (5-10), DeSean Jackson (5-10), Emmanuel Sanders (5-11), Randall Cobb (5-10), Golden Tate (5-11) or T.Y. Hilton (5-10) this season. History says they’ll come up a little short.
Top-20 Teammates? More Common Than You Think
Wary of drafting two projected stud receivers from the same team? Concerned about cannibalization and having enough fantasy points to go around? Don’t be.
If the talent is there, and the situation is right, the WR1 fantasy points will follow. Looking back over the last 10 seasons in The Huddle’s fantasy stats archive, there have been no fewer than 33 sets of WR teammates who have finished among the top 20 fantasy wideouts in any given season.
There have been at least two sets in each of the 10 seasons and at least three pairs/trios in eight of the campaigns, including the Bears (5th-ranked Brandon Marshall & 9 Alshon Jeffery), Broncos (1 Demaryius Thomas, 8 Eric Decker & 20 Welker) and Bengals (4 A.J. Green & 20 Jones) of a year ago.
And it isn’t just the same teams and same wideouts appearing year after year, either, as 17 franchises have been represented among the 33 sets. Ten of those tandems have even finished among their season’s top 10 fantasy wideouts, with the latest being the aforementioned Thomas-Decker and Marshall-Jeffery combos last season.
When Aiming High, Bank on Youth, High-Round Draft Picks
Here’s where we narrow our focus and shine the light on the very best — the cream the fantasy WR crop. In breaking out the top 50 fantasy seasons by receivers since the merger, we’ve found the magic number to be at least 212 fantasy points per year. Further examining the list, three things jumped out:
- Only two of the top 25 seasons — Calvin Johnson’s 264.2 points in 2011 and Josh Gordon’s 227.4 points last year — have played out in the last five years.
- Just five of the 50 seasons were authored by a receiver older than the age of 30, and three of them belong to Jerry Rice (ages 31-33 in 1993-95). The other geezers were Terrell Owens (34 in 2007) and Mushin Muhammad (31 in ’04).
- Only nine of the 50 seasons featured a wideout drafted outside of the top two rounds of the actual NFL Draft or supplemental draft, and only four were accomplished by a WR selected outside of the top three rounds. That quartet is comprised of Marshall and former-Cardinal Roy Green (4th round), Cris Carter (4th round supplemental) and the undrafted Rod Smith.
The lesson? Youth and high-round picks clearly offer the most upside.
But Don’t Rely Too Much On Rookies
Now here comes the asterisk from the lesson above: Just don’t count on immediate rookie-year dividends from those youthful WRs — even those drafted high in the first round.
Since the merger, 97 wide receivers have been selected among the top 20 picks in the first round of the NFL Draft. Less than a third (30) of those 97 accumulated as many as 100 fantasy points as rookies, only 17 managed to score as many as 120 points in the first year and just nine topped 140 points — i.e. roughly the top 20 in a given season.
Breaking out the WRs selected in the top 10, they haven’t fared much better as fantasy rookies. With 49 falling into this category since the merger, only nine have scored at least 120 fantasy points in their debut campaigns and only four — A.J. Green and Julio Jones in 2011, Terry Glenn in 1996 and Joey Galloway in ’95 — managed to top 140 points.
So even with all the hype still lingering over the deep wide-receiver draft in May, don’t get carried away with your fantasy expectations for this season’s top-20 WR picks: Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr. and Brandin Cooks. History says only one member of the foursome will be fortunate just to reach 120 points.