What Does it Take to Finish as a WR1? (Fantasy Football)

by Zachary Hanshew | @ZaktheMonster | Featured Writer
Jul 20, 2018

Will Mike Evans be a WR1 this season?

The goal of all fantasy owners is to draft the best player at each position – no kidding. The best players score the most fantasy points, and the team with the most fantasy points wins. It’s pretty simple. But outside of ADP, expert projections, and gut feeling, how should owners approach drafting a player who is “the best?” What does that even really mean? Owners need to understand common statistical thresholds, averages, and minimums that “the best” players share so that they can properly project, value, and contextualize players when drafting a team.

This article will answer the question, “What does it really take to be a WR1?” We went back five years to 2013 and compiled yearly and cumulative averages for all WR1s over that time period in Standard scoring leagues. We used targets, receptions, receiving yards, receiving TDs, and percentage of team target share to determine the average statistics of a WR1 in a given year and cumulatively over the last five years. Minimum stat lines were acknowledged as were outliers and important trends. 

Using these numbers for reference, we can evaluate the likelihood that a receiver will finish as a WR1 in 2018. Let’s take a look at 10 WRs using our statistics to determine if that player has the potential to finish as a WR1 in 2018. Obvious top finishers such as Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, and Odell Beckham Jr., were not mentioned.

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The Numbers

You can see the top 12 finishers last year and their statistics for the season below. Statistics are outlined as (Targets-Receptions-Receiving yards-Receiving TDs-Percentage of team target share). The average line for a WR1 in 2017 in a Standard scoring league was 140 targets, 87 receptions, 1,238 yards, 7 TD, and a 25.2% team target share (140-87-1238-7-25.2%). 

  1. DeAndre Hopkins 174-96-1378-13-33.1%
  2. Antonio Brown 163-101-1533-9-27.6%
  3. Keenan Allen 152-102-1393-6-26.1%
  4. Tyreek Hill 105-75-1183-7-19.3%
  5. Marvin Jones 107-61-1101-9-18.7%
  6. Julio Jones 148-88-1444-3-27.9%
  7. Brandin Cooks 114-65-1082-7-19.4%
  8. Michael Thomas 149-104-1245-5-27.8%
  9. Larry Fitzgerald 161-109-1156-6-26.9%
  10. AJ Green 143-75-1078-8-28.0%
  11. Doug Baldwin 116-75-991-8-20.9%
  12. Adam Thielen 142-91-1276-4-26.9%

Marvin Jones and Brandin Cooks both finished with under 75 receptions for the season, making use of big plays and TDs to finish inside the top-12. Their low reception totals were only two out of three WR1 seasons where a player finished with under 75 receptions. Julio Jones and Adam Thielen both had under five TDs, the only times that has happened for a WR1 over the last five seasons. Of these 12 players, six finished under the yearly average for receiving yards, five finished under the yearly average for receptions, five finished under the yearly average for TDs, and four finished under the yearly average for percentage of team target share. The anomalies from this season were Julio Jones‘ three scores, Tyreek Hill‘s 105 targets, and Marvin Jones‘ 61 receptions.

Here are the totals from the remaining years and the five-year average:

  • 2016: 141-90-1223-9-23.5%
  • 2015: 156-99-1378-11-26.1%
  • 2014: 146-94-1361-11-25.0%
  • 2013: 154-93-1399-10-25.4%

Five year average (2013-2017): 147-93-1320-10-25.0%

The most recent season, 2017, saw five-year lows in targets, receptions, and receiving TDs, although the 2017 average is very close to the five-year average. Some historic lows were seen as well. The bare minimum WR1 stats for each category over the last five years were:

Finally, consider these facts before we dive into our projections:

  • Of the 60 WR1s over the last five seasons, 30 have accounted for at least 25% of team target share in their WR1 season. 
  • Only 8 have accounted for less than 20% of team target share in their WR1 season. 
  • The same team has produced two WR1s in the same season seven times in the last five years. 
  • Only three WR1s have finished with fewer than 75 receptions in their WR1 season (Marvin Jones/Brandin Cooks, 2017 & Mike Evans, 2014)
  • Only two WR1s have finished with under 1,000 receiving yards in their WR1 season (Doug Baldwin, 2017 & Davante Adams, 2016) 
  • Only three WR1s have finished with fewer than 110 targets in their WR1 season (Tyreek Hill/Marvin Jones, 2017 & Doug Baldwin, 2015)
  • Only two WR1s have finished with fewer than five receiving TDs in their WR1 season (Julio Jones/Adam Thielen, 2017) 

Davante Adams (GB) (ADP: WR7)
Never a reception-hog, Adams has found recent success as a TD-dependent player on a pass-heavy offense. In four seasons, he has not topped 75 receptions, and he has not had a thousand-yard receiving effort. Adams now has the benefit of being the “number 1” receiver for Aaron Rodgers in 2018, but that status has only been beneficial for Jordy Nelson in recent years. Who can forget Randall Cobb‘s much-hyped and easily-forgettable 2015 season as the number one receiver with Jordy Nelson out? Adams hasn’t yet proven he can be successful as Green Bay’s top option. He has scored 10 and 12 TDs the last two seasons, but only Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham Jr. have scored double-digit TDs in three consecutive seasons in the last five seasons. Adams isn’t on the same level as those guys, and his end-zone production isn’t sustainable.  His average receptions and meager yardage will not be enough to propel him to WR1 status when his TDs regress this season. You can do better, especially for his price.

Mike Evans (TB) (ADP: WR9)
Evans started his career off with four straight thousand-yard receiving seasons, averaging 77 receptions and eight TDs per season. His TDs have been wildly inconsistent, with totals of 12, 5, 12, and 3. He is in the WR1-2 range every single year due to the healthy volume of targets (nearly 145 per year) and potential for double-digit scores. There’s not serious competition for targets in Tampa Bay, with an aging DeSean Jackson and sophomore wideout Chris Godwin. Evans will have the target volume to be a WR1, but the QB situation over the first three weeks of the season is still in flux after Jameis Winston‘s suspension. Furthermore, the drafting of the hyper-talented Ronald Jones from USC will mean more “ground and pound” and less “air it out.” I think the uncertainty at QB, renewed commitment to the run game, and TD variation all take Evans out of the top-12 conversation this season.

Tyreek Hill (KC) (ADP: WR10)
Tyreek “the Freak” does not pique my interest this season. His 105 targets in 2017 ranked as the second-fewest WR targets in the last five seasons among players finishing inside the top-12 (Doug Baldwin‘s 103 in 2015 were the fewest). The addition of Sammy Watkins to this team will further limit Hill’s potential opportunities. Hill finished second in targets on the Chiefs behind Travis Kelce in 2016 and 2017. In 2016, the next most targeted player was Jeremy Maclin with 76. In 2017, the next most targeted player was Kareem Hunt with 63. Hill has not had a lot of competition for targets in his first two seasons. Sammy Watkins has been targeted 346 times in 52 career games, good for 6.6 per game – a 106 target pace over a full season. The return of all-purpose back Spencer Ware eats into Hill’s targets even more. Hill has scored 13 TDs in two seasons, with five of those going for at least 55 yards. That is not sustainable production, especially on a team with an unproven QB in Patrick Mahomes. Tyreek was ultra-efficient last year, but an equally efficient 2018 won’t be good enough for a WR1 finish with so many mouths to feed.

Adam Thielen (MIN) (ADP: WR11)
Fantasy owners were understandably “Hooked on a Thielen” in 2018, as the former Minnesota State product set career marks in his fourth NFL season. After winning bold owners their fantasy titles in 2016 (12-202-2 in Week 16), Thielen was a popular sleeper pick in drafts last year, overshadowed only by his teammate, Stefon Diggs. The former led his team in targets, receptions, and receiving yards by a healthy margin in 2017, finishing as a WR1 for the first time in his career. Thielen is a possession receiver with sure hands and good separation ability. There are absolutely some question marks on his ability to produce at such a high level again. The team has arguably a better QB in Kirk Cousins, but chemistry early on is a concern. A healthy Stefon Diggs and Dalvin Cook mean fewer opportunities for Thielen. Thielen is not a big TD scorer, ranking third on his team despite the otherwise impressive stat line. Minnesota’s run last year felt like a Cinderella story, highlighted by under-the-radar players outperforming expectations and capped off with a walk-off TD in the NFC playoffs. Thielen showed that he is talented enough to be a WR1, but I don’t think he quite makes the cut in 2018. Thielen will easily be a top-25 receiver, but he will not be among the 12 best at his position.

Doug Baldwin (SEA) (ADP: WR13)
Seattle’s run game was dreadful to say the least in 2017. In fact, Seattle had only one rushing TD scored by RBs last year. That will likely change in 2018 with the addition of first round pick Rashaad Penny. Penny was drafted early to add another dimension to this team and take some of the offensive burden off of Russell Wilson, who lead QBs in total TDs last year. The addition of a productive run game should open up the offense for Russell Wilson and his go-to receiver Doug Baldwin. In 2018, Wilson will lean on Baldwin more than ever. The departures of Jimmy Graham and Paul Richardson leave a gaping 176 targets up for grabs. Since Baldwin became a full-time starter in 2014, he has averaged just 110.5 targets per season, well shy of the WR1 average of 147. I believe Baldwin absorbs the majority of the available targets this season and increases his receptions, yardage, and TDs of which he has averaged 78, 1003, and 8 respectively. The team has underachiever Tyler Lockett opposite Baldwin and a “Who’s that guy?” rotation at TE. Baldwin’s numbers have been well below WR1 averages, but he should see a sharp spike in volume this year. The breakup of the “Legion of Boom” means Seattle may have to play in shoot-outs or catch-up games frequently, further bolstering Baldwin’s opportunities. He’s a WR1 in 2018.

Amari Cooper (OAK) (ADP: WR15)
Cooper has the full support of his new head coach, Jon Gruden. Gruden said Cooper “reminds him of a young Tim Brown” and expects him to catch 120-125 balls this season. That’s high praise from such a high-profile coach. With Derek Carr‘s favorite target, Michael Crabtree, off to Baltimore, the former top-5 pick will have 140 targets available. I think Jordy Nelson finds his place in this offense, but Cooper will get the bulk of those targets tossed his way. In games with at least 10 targets, Amari Cooper has averaged nearly 15 Fantasy points per game in his career. Cooper is a prime rebound candidate after a horribly disappointing 2017 season. Oakland’s Offensive Line still ranks 6th according to NumberFire, giving Derek Carr plenty of time to make accurate throws. Cooper is in the WR1 discussion this year.

Josh Gordon (CLE) (ADP: WR16)
I referenced his boom/bust potential in my last article. Gordon has a potentially limitless ceiling but a floor that scrapes the bottom-of-the-barrel. With a career average of over 17 yards per reception, Gordon is one of the league’s most explosive players. He led the league in receiving five years ago while notching back-to-back 200-yard receiving efforts that season. Cleveland’s offense got an upgrade with the addition of Tyrod Taylor – arguably Gordon’s best QB of his career. His skill set and improved offense easily give Gordon the flash he needs to finish as a WR1, but a potential bust is always looming.

JuJu Smith-Schuster (PIT) (ADP: WR18)
His final line of 58-917-7 was good for a WR2 finish in his rookie year. Not too shabby for a guy playing opposite Antonio Brown. His final numbers were especially impressive considering he was held without a catch in Week 1 and missed Week 12. Martavis Bryant is no longer with the team, and Pittsburgh still hasn’t addressed the TE position. The opportunities will be there for the former Trojan, and I expect a sophomore breakout with a lot of attention on Antonio Brown and an offense that scores a lot of points. I doubt Le’Veon Bell misses any game time, but his relationship with the team is clearly strained because of a failed contract extension. Pittsburgh may rely more heavily on the pass this season – good news for Smith-Schuster. Over the last five seasons, a pair of teammates have both finished top-12 in the same season seven times, so it’s possible for this offense to support two WR1s. At his current ADP, there’s crazy value associated with this guy. You’ll be feeling some good JuJu when you draft Smith-Schuster this year. A WR1 finish is certainly in the cards. 

Demaryius Thomas (DEN) (ADP: WR21)
Reports of his demise were greatly exaggerated after a small step back in production last season. Demaryius Thomas, a perennial WR1 and one-time overall WR1, is once again squarely in the conversation for a top-12 positional finish. The Fantasy community at large is sleeping on him, and I’m not sure why. Even with horrendous QB play (no apologies Osweiler and Siemian), Thomas was the WR23 last year, finishing with just under 1,000 yards and five TDs. He absolutely soaks up targets, averaging 155 per year, converting 96 per year into receptions since he became a full-time starter in 2012. In that same time, he averaged 1303 receiving yards and over 8 TDs, both more than the average WR1 finish. With the competent Case Keenum at the helm for Denver this season, expect the talented vet to exceed his ADP and finish as a WR1.

Michael Crabtree (BAL) (ADP: WR30)
Crab may be the most undervalued WR commodity taken in fantasy drafts this year. He led his team in targets and receptions the last four years in Oakland, leading in TDs three times. Infamously known for his run-in with Richard Sherman in the NFC title game years ago, Crabtree is a quality wideout with good hands and a nose for the end zone. I believe Joe Flacco steps his game up, not only for his upcoming contract, but for his pride after Baltimore traded up to grab Lamar Jackson in the first round. He’ll have a great year, and Crab will be the primary beneficiary of that 2018 success. Baltimore has completely changed their WR corps this year, adding “Silly” Willie Snead and John “Smokey” Brown. Neither offer a lot of upside, and Crabtree will easily be Flacco’s preferred target. He has the potential for WR1 numbers based on target volume and talent. Older receivers switching teams have fared well in Baltimore, with Steve Smith Sr. and Anquan Boldin finding renewed success and plenty of looks from Flacco on the Ravens. Crabtree is next. He’s well worth his current asking price. 


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Zachary Hanshew is a correspondent at FantasyPros. For more from Zachary, check out his archive and follow him @zakthemonster.

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