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WR3s That Could Finish as WR1s (2021 Fantasy Football)

The game of fantasy football has evolved substantially over the years. Yet, one thing has remained constant – upside wins championships. This has been obvious for as long as you’ve played fantasy football, whether you realized it or not. If every single one of your draft picks returned par value, you would consistently make the playoffs, but you’d never win. It wouldn’t be because your team is bad, but because at least one of the other 11 teams in your league had players that outproduced their ADP.

Given that the elite wide receivers are more consistent in staying at the top than the elite running backs, it’s important to find those breakout wide receivers.

In 2020, you would be hard-pressed to argue any player was more valuable than the 27th wide receiver off the board, Stefon Diggs. After a move to Buffalo with a wildly inaccurate quarterback, fantasy managers were skeptical of Diggs’ chances to thrive in 2020. Along with Josh Allen, he proved everyone wrong, as Diggs was drafted as a WR3 but finished as the overall WR3.

Among the top 12 wide receivers in 2020, two others were drafted outside the top 24 – Will Fuller* (ADP WR34) and Justin Jefferson (ADP WR48). Diggs, and the kid who replaced him in Minnesota, were both league winners. Here is a very early look at guys who will likely be drafted as WR3s that have the potential to finish inside the top 12.

*Will Fuller only played in 11 games and also cheated.

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CeeDee Lamb (DAL)
Many analysts’ top rookie wide receiver prospect in 2020 was CeeDee Lamb. Although Lamb had a relatively disappointing season from a fantasy perspective, finishing as a low-end WR3, he flashed his talent and undeniable upside. Lamb is trending just outside the top 24 wide receivers in early ADP, which feels like a steal. Lamb averaged 13.2 ppg last season, but a deeper dive into that number reveals much more upside. The cutoff for WR1 numbers fluctuates year to year, but it’s typically somewhere between 16.0 and 17.0 ppg. Lamb averaged 17.12 ppg in the five games he played with Dak Prescott. As if that isn’t enough reason for optimism, those were also the first five games of Lamb’s career. It is very reasonable to assume he improved both in his ability and knowledge of the playbook as the season progressed, and he will be even better in his second season.

Brandon Aiyuk (SF)
It shouldn’t be surprising to see multiple sophomore wide receivers appear on this list. Second and third-year receivers are where fantasy managers butter their bread. If we can find the right guys, it can provide a substantial advantage. Brandon Aiyuk being drafted as a WR3 feels wrong, but the position is just so stacked with talent that when you look at the guys ahead of him, you realize it’s difficult to get Aiyuk much higher. There are several reasons to be excited about Aiyuk’s second season. For starters, he will see improved quarterback play. Even if that just means a healthy Jimmy Garoppolo, that’s still an upgrade over C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens. But perhaps most important is that we’ve seen proof of concept. From Weeks 8-16, Aiyuk played in six games and averaged 18.6 ppg, sixth-most over that span. Aiyuk posted four WR1 finishes as a rookie but had seven weeks (over half of his 12 games played) where he scored WR1 level fantasy points. Just like CeeDee Lamb, Aiyuk can be expected to improve as a player in his second season, making a WR1 finish within his range of outcomes.

Tee Higgins (CIN)
Here, we have yet another sophomore receiver in Tee Higgins. While Higgins did not necessarily display the same ceiling as CeeDee Lamb, he suffered a similar fate leading to artificially depressed fantasy numbers. Higgins averaged 14.74 ppg with Joe Burrow under center, but just 10.65 ppg with the iconic duo of Ryan Finley and Brandon Allen. Higgins has the prototypical size/speed combination of a true alpha X receiver, which is exactly what I expect him to be with a (hopefully) healthy Burrow. Higgins posted five WR1 level games as a rookie, but four of them came over the first 10 weeks of the season while Burrow was still on the field, which accounted for half of Higgins’ games played during that span. Higgins will enter 2021 as the unquestioned WR1 in Cincinnati and is someone I want on all of my teams at his expected price.

Chase Claypool (PIT)
On the topic of athletic specimens, look no further than 6’4, 238 lb Chase Claypool, who runs a 4.42. Claypool was never a starter as a rookie and wasn’t really given a chance to be an every-down player. Suppose the Steelers bring back JuJu Smith-Schuster, which severely caps Claypool’s ceiling and would remove him from this list. I believe that JuJu will be gone, and Claypool will start opposite Diontae Johnson. We know Ben Roethlisberger can support two WR1s – we’ve seen it before. Even at his advanced age, he proved last season he’s still better (at least from a fantasy perspective) than the alternatives. Claypool posted five WR1 worthy weeks in 2020, but this is less about his output and more about what we saw. Claypool oozes athleticism and has alpha wide receiver abilities. He flashed enough to show he would be a fantasy monster with 130 targets. Right now, it is very much up in the air whether he gets them. If he does, a WR1 finish is quite plausible.

Courtland Sutton (DEN)
Last but not least, we have the only non-second-year player on this list, Courtland Sutton. Although this will be Sutton’s fourth year in the NFL, it’s really his third season after his 2020 season was taken away by a torn ACL after less than a single half of football. Sutton was a mid WR3 in 2019 despite dealing with dreadful quarterback play. Right now, it is unclear what the Broncos’ plan is at quarterback this season. We know Drew Lock is terrible. We also know that the Broncos know this. What we don’t know is whether they can find an upgrade. Obviously, we’d prefer if Sutton had a better quarterback, but this is more of a bet on talent than anything else. Make no mistake about it; Sutton is the top dog in Denver. He is better at football than Jerry Jeudy, and it’s not particularly close. Sutton profiles like a true WR1, and 2021 could be the year he finally puts it all together. I thought that would be 2020, but he never got the chance. Out of all the players on this list, Sutton is the one I’m most confident will remain at a WR3 ADP. He has a chance to be one of the best values in all of fantasy football.

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Whether you’re new to fantasy football or a seasoned pro, our Fantasy Football 101: Strategy Tips & Advice page is for you. You can get started with Starting Your Own Fantasy Football League or head to more advanced strategy – like What is the Right Amount of Risk to Absorb on Draft Day? – to learn more.

Jason Katz is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Jason, check out his archive or follow him @jasonkatz13.

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