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Positive Target Regression Wide Receivers (2020 Fantasy Football)

by Mark McWhirter | Featured Writer
Jul 29, 2020

Targets are perhaps the most valuable and predictable way to evaluate fantasy wide receivers — it’s difficult to produce without opportunity. While further analysis is required, such as target quality and scoring potential, examining target expectations is a good place to start. Alpha receivers such as Julio Jones annually lead the NFL in targets, and they rightfully cost a steep price at fantasy draft time.

There is value to be had, however, in wide receivers who could enjoy an increase in target volume this coming season. Below are eight receivers worth monitoring due to an expected uptick in targets, but for a look at players in other positions who should benefit from increased volume check out these recommended options.

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Adam Thielen (MIN)
Thielen is coming off a rough season that was marred by injury. Many fail to realize that Thielen was actually the WR9 after six weeks before an injury derailed him. During those first six weeks, Thielen averaged 6.3 targets per game, a distinct increase from his 4.8 average for the season. This was still a noticeable drop-off from his 2017 and 2018 pace. During those previous two years, Thielen averaged 9.2 targets per game. The good news is that while the Vikings offense is not expected to change significantly, new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak is likely to throw the ball more often than Kevin Stefanski did last season. The Vikings ran the ball more than they threw it in 2019, a characteristic that has not described Kubiak’s past offenses. Kubiak-led offenses have passed more than they’ve run 73% of the time, but the Vikings should be expected to remain amongst the league’s most run-heavy offenses.

Thielen received 48 targets last season, a far cry from the 148 he averaged from 2017-18. The previously mentioned target pace decrease is concerning, but Thielen is likely to enjoy a bounce-back in the target share department. Thielen commanded a 26.2% target share in 2018 and a 26.9% share in 2017. While that number dipped to 17.8% last season, Thielen held a 26% target share through the first six weeks, demonstrating Kirk Cousins’ reliance on his number one weapon. Stefon Diggs and his 21.9% target share have departed for Buffalo and the only significant receiving addition was first-rounder Justin Jefferson. There is ample opportunity for Jefferson to make an impact in his rookie year, but he is unlikely to fully fill the void left by Diggs. With the limited preparation time afforded by the pandemic, rookie development could require patience this season. Thielen is likely to be relied on heavily as a result.

With an ADP of WR16, fantasy managers smartly see Thielen’s bounce-back potential. A top-10 receiver in back-to-back years before 2019, Thielen has proven his ability to provide value at that price. The Vikings’ run-heavy scheme is unlikely to allow him to hit that ceiling, but Thielen should have a realistic shot at 125 targets and is worth the price of admission this season. For an in-depth outlook of Thielen’s potential, check out his game-by-game projections.

Calvin Ridley (ATL)
Even with target-monster Julio Jones in the mix, Calvin Ridley enters 2020 in an intriguing breakout spot. No team in the NFL has thrown the ball more than the Falcons over the past two years, who have averaged 651 pass attempts during that time. The defense remains a question mark and the division welcomed Tom Brady this offseason. Make no mistake about it, this team is going to be forced to throw the football. Ridley was on pace for 114 targets in 2019 but missed three games due to injury. Austin Hooper, Mohamed Sanu, and Devonta Freeman are no longer on the roster, providing additional target opportunity for Ridley. In fact, the Falcons’ 258 vacated targets are the most in the entire league, and by quite a margin.

Ridley received a target share of 17.7% last season, but that number shot up to 20.2% after Sanu was traded to the Patriots. This somewhat-small six-game sample is further complicated by the fact that Hooper missed three games during this span. It is therefore unknown exactly how the targets will be distributed when all of the Falcons’ pass-catchers are healthy. Also unknown is how involved newcomers Hayden Hurst and Todd Gurley will be in the passing attack. Nonetheless, they can be expected to command a significant portion of the 167 targets vacated by Hooper and Freeman. Not to be overlooked is Russell Gage, who was targeted 7.3 times per game after Sanu left town. Gage’s involvement was elevated due to injuries suffered by both Ridley and Hooper, making it difficult to predict his expected target share this season.

Ridley is an elite route runner and former first-round draft pick entering a season in which receivers have been known to reach the next level. Chris Godwin and Cooper Kupp represent recent examples of the commonly referenced “third-year breakout.”

Chris Godwin Career Stats

Games Played Targets Receptions Yards TDs
16 55 34 525 1
16 95 59 842 7
14 121 86 1333 9

 
Calvin Ridley Career Stats

Games Played Targets Receptions Yards TDs
16 92 64 821 10
13 93 63 866 7

 
With the limited time to build chemistry for players changing teams this season, incumbents will be relied on even more than usual. Ridley can, therefore, be expected to build on his target share from last season, in which even a 20% share would have resulted in 137 targets. If Ridley can reach the 22% target share enjoyed by Godwin and Kupp, he could threaten to surpass 140 targets this season. With an ADP of WR17, Ridley offers the right blend of upside and safety to make him a high-end WR2 with WR1 potential.

JuJu Smith-Schuster (PIT)
There is no way around admitting that JuJu Smith-Schuster had a tough year in 2019. Fortunately, there is no denying that it was not entirely his fault. Ben Roethlisberger was lost for the season in Week 2, and that forced the Steelers to rely on a run-heavy, defense-first game-plan. The question is thus whether the Steelers will return to their high-flying ways of 2018, when JuJu broke out in a big way, or employ a similarly subdued strategy in 2020. The answer is probably somewhere in-between.

The Steelers led the NFL with 689 pass attempts in 2018, but they were 26th last season with 510 attempts. The team boasts one of the league’s top defenses and is unlikely to return to the top of the passing hierarchy, making it unlikely for JuJu to reach the 166-target total he did two seasons ago. He can confidently be expected to blow past last season’s 70 targets, however. JuJu was on pace for only 93 targets on last year’s Mason Rudolph/Devlin Hodges-led offense, but extremely poor quarterback play provides a viable excuse for the fourth-year receiver. JuJu’s target quality and catchable target rate both decreased last season despite JuJu actually increasing his average target separation.

Ben Roethlisberger is returning from a major throwing-arm injury at 38 years old, and that poses a significant concern. Should Big Ben not return to his prior self, JuJu would suffer tremendously. Thus, JuJu is riskier than many receivers being drafted near his ADP of WR14. However, few possess his level of upside. JuJu has proven chemistry with his quarterback and has finished as the WR8 as recently as 2018. If Ben is healthy and shows limited rust out of the gates, JuJu could approach the 24.5% target share he earned during that breakout 2018. Such target share would have resulted in 125 targets for JuJu last season, demonstrating the positive target regression that should be in store even if the Steelers’ passing volume remains limited.

Diontae Johnson and Eric Ebron represent threats to steal targets, but you should remember that JuJu held that 24.5% target share when Antonio Brown was still on the team. The bigger concern is whether the absence of a true number one receiver on this roster will make it difficult for Smith-Schuster to feast on his coverage the way he was able to while lining up opposite Brown. JuJu is a riskier bet than many but his return to running more routes from the slot should provide a significant level of positive target regression this season. For a look at both sides of the coin regarding JuJu, check out this Fantasy War of Words.

A.J. Brown (TEN)
Brown was a beast in his rookie season. He averaged a ridiculous 20.2 yards per reception, good enough for second in the entire league.

Yards Per Reception Leaders 2019

Receiver YD/R
1. Mike Williams 20.4
2. A.J. Brown 20.2
3. Kenny Golladay 18.3
T4. Stefon Diggs 17.9
T4. Breshad Perriman 17.9
5. Mike Evans 17.3

 
Unfortunately, his production came on the back of only 84 targets. That is a risky number for the WR15 according to his ADP. The Titans were 31st in the NFL in passing attempts in both 2019 and 2018 — they threw only 448 times last season and 437 times a year prior. This is not a voluminous passing attack. With Ryan Tannehill now being more familiar with the offense, there is slight room for growth in passing attempts this season.

Brown held a 19.5% target share during his first taste of the pro ranks. That number elevated to 23.4% over his final ten games. That market share would have provided 105 targets for Brown if held for the entire season. Brown is not a candidate to lead the league in targets and will have to be efficient once again. Even so, Brown should enjoy positive target regression this year.

The Titans have 103 vacated targets due to the losses of Delanie Walker, Dion Lewis, and Tajae Sharpe. Darrynton Evans stands as the lone noteworthy offensive addition, meaning there are additional targets for Brown to seize. If Brown can take a step forward while maintaining a target share between 21-23%, he could provide Kenny Golladay-level production in 2020.

T.Y. Hilton (IND)
Hilton represents a strong value at his current ADP of WR27, as he is in line for notable positive target regression this season. After finishing last year with a total of only 68 targets, Hilton could threaten to nearly double that figure this time around. Philip Rivers was signed to play ahead of last season’s starter Jacoby Brissett. While Rivers is not Andrew Luck, this is still a notable upgrade for the Colts’ offense.

Hilton’s 6.8 targets per game in 2019 put him on pace for 109 targets over a full season. Remarkably, Hilton also accumulated 109 targets when Brissett was the starter in 2017. In Hilton’s last two non-Brissett seasons, he has averaged 146 targets per 16 games.

Hilton’s target shares over the past two seasons have been 24.6% and 22.6%, demonstrating his importance to the Colts’ offense. The team drafted Michael Pittman Jr. in the second round of this year’s draft, and they have last year’s second-rounder, Parris Campbell, fighting to establish his role in the offense as well. Nonetheless, this passing attack will continue to funnel itself through Hilton.

The Colts threw the ball only 513 times last year after finishing second with 644 attempts in 2018. While the team is likely to attempt more passes this season than last, the Colts employ a dynamic rushing attack behind an elite offensive line and will maintain a well-balanced approach. This caps the team’s passing volume but will still provide enough for Hilton to enjoy a bounce-back campaign.

Hilton secured 109 targets in 2017 when the Colts finished 30th with 487 pass attempts, illustrating the safe floor he possesses and the guaranteed positive target regression coming if his health cooperates. His ceiling may not be as high as it was when Luck was still around, but the Colts have 113 vacated targets, and that should provide enough opportunity for Hilton to finish in the 120-130 target range.

Terry McLaurin (WAS)
McLaurin quickly established himself as Washington’s number one option in the passing game during his rookie season. A wonderful route runner, McLaurin saw 6.6 targets per-game come his way, a 106-target pace for a full season. As the team threw only 479 times, this accounted for a 23% target share.

Washington enters 2020 having the fourth most vacated targets in the NFL with 178, due to the losses of Chris Thompson and Paul Richardson, along with the recent injury to Kelvin Harmon. There are several interesting additions to the receiving corps to monitor, such as third-round rookie Antonio Gibson, fourth-round rookie Antonio Gandy-Golden, and free-agent addition J.D. McKissic. None of these players are threats to McLaurin’s status as the clear-cut top weapon in this offense.

Washington ensured to protect then-rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins, as he attempted only 25.9 passes per game in his seven starts. That number is likely to increase this season, although not significantly. Washington only attempted 509 passes the year prior and Haskins has not shown enough at this point for the team to entrust him with dramatically more responsibility. This team is extremely devoid of weapons, however, and barring a rookie breakout will have limited dependable options outside of McLaurin.

Even a repeat of last season’s performance should enable McLaurin to approach the 120-target mark this season. His quarterback and low-volume offense will limit his ultimate ceiling, but McLaurin possesses the talent to experience significant growth as a player in year two. Whether it all comes together or not, expect McLaurin to be the beneficiary of valuable positive target regression this year.

Marquise Brown (BAL)
Brown entered his rookie season battling an injury and had minimal time to learn the Ravens’ offense. As such, he was held to a limited snap count, playing only 51% of the team’s offensive snaps. While he played in 14 games, two of those featured snap counts of 14 and 18. Therefore, Brown’s season-long target count of 71 is misleading. Taking out these two limited games, Brown averaged 5.33 targets-per-game, which would have resulted in 88 targets over 16 games. Further, Brown’s target share jumps from 18.9% to 20% once those games are eliminated. While Brown averaged 40 snaps per game, there were only 7 times he actually played 40 snaps. In those 7 games, Brown accumulated 45 targets on a 22% target share, which would have put him on pace for 103 over a full season.

The Ravens were the run-heaviest team in the NFL last season, and that is unlikely to change. The team can still be expected to throw the ball more often in 2020. The Ravens outscored opponents by an average of 15.6 points a year ago and that type of dominance is unlikely to be repeated. Closer games should result in more passing volume, as the team will spend less time milking the clock of blowout contests.

Even a slight uptick in passing volume should provide Brown with a realistic shot to surpass 100 targets this season. The Ravens have 74 vacated targets, with the only passing-game additions being rookie running back J.K. Dobbins and a couple of rookie receivers in Devin Duvernay and James Proche. Coming into this season more familiar with the offense, Brown should be primed for significant strides as a receiver. If he can command a market share north of 20%, there is potential for a drastic level of positive regression in Hollywood’s target total.

Anthony Miller (CHI)
Miller’s target share improved from 11.3% in his rookie season to 15% last year, resulting in his target count improving from 54 to 85. Miller continued to demonstrate a concerning lack of consistency but flashed the talent that made him a second-round pick during a five-game stretch where he accumulated 52 targets. This stretch would extrapolate to an eye-popping 166 targets over a full season. Miller’s target share was an elite 25.4% during this timeframe.

Anthony Miller Weeks 11-15

Week Targets Receptions Yards TDs
11 11 6 54 0
12 9 6 77 0
13 13 9 140 0
14 4 3 42 1
15 15 9 118 1

 
The Bears finished middle-of-the-pack in terms of passing volume last season with 580 pass attempts. This marked a notable increase over their 512 attempts from head coach Matt Nagy’s first season with the team. Much of this can be attributed to the Bears playing from behind more often last year. Their divisional competition has not gotten easier, making it likely that the team utilizes a similar approach in 2020.

With 99 vacated team targets and the most significant additions being Jimmy Graham and Ted Ginn Jr., Miller will be provided all the opportunity he can handle. Few obstacles exist that could block Miller from being the clear number two wide receiver in this offense, but pass-catching back Tarik Cohen could push for second in targets behind lead-dog Allen Robinson.

The success of this offense will depend on quarterback play. Nick Foles was brought in to compete with Mitch Trubisky, and Foles should be the favorite to start when the Bears begin play in week 1. Neither option provides excitement, and both are likely to limit the ceiling of the Bears’ receivers.

Miller is not a sure thing, but at his current ADP of WR52, he represents a low-cost option that appears poised for significant positive target regression. Although he is unlikely to match the heights of his elite five-game stretch from last year, Miller can be expected to improve upon his 15% target share. The Bears have averaged 546 pass attempts during Matt Nagy’s tenure, and an 18-20% target share would provide a target range of 98 – 109 for Miller. Should the Bears match last season’s 580 pass attempts, Miller’s range would fall between 104-116. The range of outcomes with such an unproven player is wide, but even projecting Miller with only cautious optimism shows the immense bargain he represents at his current cost.

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Mark McWhirter is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Mark, check out his archive.

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