Which Wide Receivers Were Better/Worse Than Expected in 2019? (Fantasy Football)
Throughout this offseason, you’ve likely heard some fantasy football analyst tell you to follow the targets and/or opportunity when it comes to the wide receiver position. I don’t disagree with that assessment. In fact, I’ve said it on the podcast quite a bit. However, there are some targets that are worth more than others. And no, I’m not just talking about which quarterback those targets are coming from.
Each target to a wide receiver is worth roughly 1.40 points in a half-PPR format. Breaking it down further; a red zone target is worth roughly 2.37 fantasy points. But it doesn’t end there, as all red zone targets aren’t the same. Targets inside the 10-yard line are worth more. So, based on where the targets each player received were, they have an expected fantasy output. Today, we’ll find out who was better than the league average with their targets, while also finding out who did much worse than expected with their targets.
In case you missed it, there was an article that went up earlier this week highlighting just how good running backs were with the touches they were given in 2018. Not just carries, but targets as well. You can find that article right here. But now, here’s what the results showed for wide receivers.
Outside the Red Zone
There isn’t one statistic or metric that someone will point to that tells the whole story, so stop trying to find it. There is, however, statistics that will separate the men from the boys over a large sample size. It’s not to say one football season is a big sample size, but we have to work with the hand we’re dealt.
Just like the elite players near the top of every list, most bad players end up towards the bottom of lists. If you’re an elite or semi-decent player, you shouldn’t be popping up at the bottom of any list, including the one below. On the chart below, you’ll see the difference in how many non-red zone points they scored versus how many they were expected to score, knowing where their targets took place. I’ve narrowed it down to those who saw at least 40 or more targets, which was a total of 99 wide receivers in 2019.
The Top-36 Wide Receivers Non-Red Zone (Above Expected)
|22||DJ Chark Jr.||17.39|
|24||Will Fuller V||15.31|
|25||Phillip Dorsett II||15.17|
|34||John Ross III||9.74|
Knowing that big plays outside of the red zone are important to this category, it should come as no surprise to see guys like Stefon Diggs and A.J. Brown atop this list, as they continually broke out big plays. To see Mecole Hardman there was a shock, especially considering he had just 35 targets outside the red zone. He scored 1.54 more fantasy points per target than the average wide receiver would’ve. Another shocker was seeing Allen Lazard ahead of Michael Thomas.
Doug Baldwin was high on this list in 2017, and Tyler Lockett was No. 1 on this list in 2018, so it’s not surprising to D.K. Metcalf finish No. 14 his rookie season. Russell Wilson is good. That is all. To know that the Cowboys had three receivers inside the top 20, we may want to start talking about Dak Prescott in that elite territory.
The players who’ve finished top-24 in back-to-back years include Tyler Lockett, Tyreek Hill, Mike Evans, Amari Cooper, Michael Thomas, Mike Williams, Will Fuller, Tyrell Williams, and Calvin Ridley. These guys are obviously doing more with their targets than the average player would, which means they may not need the volume that some of the players who are consistently in the bottom-24 do. The only players who’ve been inside the top-24 three years in a row are Hill and Williams.
The Bottom-36 Wide Receivers Non-Red Zone (Below Expected)
|68||Odell Beckham Jr.||-10.86|
|85||Allen Robinson II||-18.60|
|88||Steven Sims Jr.||-19.64|
|96||Mohamed Sanu Sr.||-28.63|
Typically, if a wide receiver continually performs below average, they’ll have their targets reduced. That’s why you don’t see the numbers go high into the negatives the way they do in the positives for the top-36 receivers. The quarterback play was poor in Carolina last year, but to see Samuel finish deal last is rough. D.J. Moore had the same quarterbacks and finished No. 41 out of the 99 wide receivers. Had Samuel been simply average outside the red zone, he would’ve finished as the No. 21 wide receiver, right in between John Brown and Stefon Diggs.
The biggest names in the bottom-24 include Tyler Boyd, Julian Edelman, Christian Kirk, and Robert Woods. As crazy as it sounds, Edelman would’ve been the No. 3 wide receiver behind only Michael Thomas and Chris Godwin had he been average outside of the red zone. The opportunity was there for him. Boyd would’ve finished as a top-12 wide receiver.
We look for trends in these lists, so which players showed up in the bottom-24 in each of the last two seasons? Zay Jones was the only one. Extending it to the bottom-36 in both seasons, we added Dede Westbrook and Demaryius Thomas to that list. Again, players will start to lose targets if they’re not producing at least competent numbers with them.
Inside the Red Zone
This is the research that is volatile year-over-year because it’s heavily weighted by touchdowns, and it’s the reason the average target was worth 2.30 fantasy points instead of the 1.34 points outside the red zone. Again, I’ve broken this part down into targets that were inside the 10-yard line as well, which were worth even more. So instead of using this statistic as one to lean on for projecting future success, use it to see who may regress in 2019, because after all, touchdowns are the most volatile thing in fantasy football. Similar to the above charts, I’ve broken it down by those who scored much more than expected in the red zone, as well as those who scored much less than expected.
The Top-36 Red Zone Wide Receivers (Above Expected)
|1||Marvin Jones Jr.||27.53|
|18||Steven Sims Jr.||9.21|
|20||Willie Snead IV||8.35|
|28||Allen Robinson II||6.05|
These are the guys who’ll likely continue getting high-worth targets, as they delivered much more than the average receiver would’ve inside the red zone. Marvin Jones scored a touchdown on eight of his 15 red zone targets, which is a ridiculous percentage. The league average was one every 4.11 targets in the red zone.
We know touchdowns can be a tricky thing, as we watched someone like Amari Cooper finish 79th in this category in 2018, then shoot all the way up to No. 2 in 2019. There are players who are continually better than average, though. The four receivers who’ve finished top-24 inside the red zone in each of the last two years are: Calvin Ridley, Kenny Stills, Alshon Jeffery, and Tyler Lockett (Chris Godwin just missed the list, finishing 25th in 2018). Ridley is the only one who’s set up for even more targets in 2020.
The Bottom-36 Red Zone Wide Receivers (Below Expected)
|73||Mohamed Sanu Sr.||-3.66|
|75||Will Fuller V||-4.54|
|88||Odell Beckham Jr.||-9.63|
|89||Phillip Dorsett II||-9.99|
It’s rare to see a receiver who’s 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds score 28.2 fewer fantasy points in the red zone than an average receiver would’ve, but that’s precisely the case with Mike Williams. That was the worst finish among wide receivers since I started tracking these numbers three years ago. Moving to Tyrod Taylor and/or Justin Herbert likely won’t help. We’ve now seen JuJu Smith-Schuster rank No. 7 in 2017, No. 96 in 2018, and No. 94 in 2019. Are we due for positive regression with Ben Roethlisberger coming back?
Outside of Smith-Schuster, the other receivers who’ve been in the bottom-24 in consecutive years were Jarvis Landry and Marquez Valdes-Scantling. Extending it to the bottom-36, we’d include Sterling Shepard, Odell Beckham Jr., Danny Amendola, and D.J. Moore. I don’t want to take too much away from this group considering most of the numbers are in the single digits, and one touchdown could’ve knocked them out.
Overall (All Targets Combined)
Here’s the combined list of both red zone and non-red zone target differences with each receiver. Remember, this is based on what the average NFL receiver would’ve done with the exact same targets.
The Top-36 Overall Wide Receivers (Above Expected)
|Rank||Name||NonRZ Diff||RZ Diff||Total|
|16||Marvin Jones Jr.||0.97||27.53||28.50|
|24||DJ Chark Jr.||17.39||2.42||19.81|
|28||Willie Snead IV||6.79||8.35||15.14|
|31||Will Fuller V||15.31||-4.54||10.77|
|35||John Ross III||9.74||-1.65||8.08|
It’s pretty crazy to think that Amari Cooper is the only receiver who outscored expectations by at least 20 fantasy points in both inside and outside the red zone, though Michael Thomas and Tyler Lockett were close.
What would it mean to you if I said that A.J. Brown was expected to be the No. 47 wide receiver based on his targets and where they took place? Seriously, Auden Tate had close to the same expected fantasy output as him. Brown’s expected outcome was right in line with guys like Randall Cobb and Alex Erickson. I love Brown the player, but his situation is not ideal for elite fantasy numbers.
The players who wound up inside the top-24 in each of the last two years include Tyler Lockett, Tyreek Hill, Mike Evans, Calvin Ridley, Michael Thomas, Cooper Kupp, Tyrell Williams, Amari Cooper, Adam Thielen, and Kenny Stills. That’s a lot of names. Running backs aren’t nearly as consistent with their overachievers.
The Bottom-36 Overall Wide Receivers (Above Expected)
|Rank||Name||NonRZ Diff||RZ Diff||Total|
|70||Steven Sims Jr.||-19.64||9.21||-10.43|
|75||Allen Robinson II||-18.60||6.05||-12.55|
|81||Odell Beckham Jr.||-10.86||-9.63||-20.49|
|96||Mohamed Sanu Sr.||-28.63||-3.66||-32.29|
There are clearly some bad names at the bottom of this list. A lot of players who might not have jobs in 2020. So, when you see names like Christian Kirk, and Julian Edelman, Odell Beckham Jr., and Robert Woods near the bottom, it ignites a bit of concern. If Beckham would’ve played “average” in 2019, he would’ve finished as the No. 20 wide receiver. So, in reality, Beckham had a down season by his own standards, but he also lacked elite opportunity.
The only name that showed up in the bottom-24 in consecutive seasons was Larry Fitzgerald. In fact, he’s been on this list for three straight years now. At soon-to-be-37-years-old, I guess it should be expected, but he’s holding back the target numbers of other young receivers. Unfortunately, Kirk isn’t doing much better. This could have been a sign of Kyler Murray‘s struggles knowing both are in the bottom-24. If there’s any consolation, it’s that Jarvis Landry was dead last on this list in 2018 but moved up to No. 8 in 2019.
We should follow the targets, yes, but that’s only part of it. Just because you project Christian Kirk for more targets than Marvin Jones, it may not be wise to rank them that way. One of them continually outperforms expectations, while the other has disappointed. All targets are not created equal, nor are all players. Here are my favorite takeaways from the wide receivers.
- Calvin Ridley is a stud. After finishing as the No. 9 wide receiver on the overall list last year, Julio Jones didn’t make the top-36 receivers (he was No. 39). Are we witnessing a change in the guard?
- A.J. Brown ranked 47th among wide receivers in expected fantasy output. Regression will hit hard and it’s going to require a lot more than 10-15 targets for him to make up for it.
- Cowboys and Seahawks receivers don’t need as many targets as others to get into elite territory.
- Amari Cooper was one of the best wide receivers in football while playing through injuries.
- The Bengals pass-catchers were horrendous last year.
- Allen Lazard did a lot with a little and we might be undervaluing him in 2020.