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WR3s with WR1 Potential (2021 Fantasy Football)

by Paul Ghiglieri | @FantasyEvolves | Featured Writer
Mar 28, 2021

 
The wide receiver position has become flooded with talent in recent seasons. Rookies like Justin Jefferson and Tee Higgins broke receiving records, while CeeDee Lamb and Brandon Aiyuk flashed WR1 ceilings for 2021. All this came on the heels of a 2019 class that saw D.K. Metcalf and A.J. Brown join the upper echelon of pass-catchers in the league. Veterans like Davante Adams and Tyreek Hill continued to dominate, while Calvin Ridley finally became the man in Atlanta. Keenan Allen enjoyed a resurgence with better QB play under center, and Michael Thomas may experience the same next season. Allen Robinson keeps getting it done despite poor quarterback play, and Chris Godwin is one year removed from an 86/1,333/9 season in just his second year as a pro. None of this includes the bevy of talented wideouts poised to enter the league in 2021 as part of a class that is already being discussed as being possibly as good as last year’s group.

All of this is to say, we may be heading into a golden age for wide receiver production as the NFL becomes increasingly more pass-happy. That could depress the value of receivers overall to the point where more people consider taking running backs early in redraft leagues while still hoping to land a WR1 well beyond the first couple of rounds.

Here’s the thing, though – you still need alphas to win. That’s why everyone hopping aboard the Marquise Brown hype train last year saw the ride go something like this:

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Despite being the presumptive top target in one of the league’s best offenses, Brown simply couldn’t turn his target share numbers into elite production. Air yards and red zone efficiency in 2019 suggested he was in for a breakout year in 2020, but true alphas run a more diversified route tree, and they can win at all three levels of the field. More often than not, they also boast more size than what Brown possesses, though that’s a discussion for another day.

While there are plenty of wide receivers taken early in drafts capable of producing like an alpha, that does not mean there won’t be value later that may provide similar production if you know what to look for in a receiver. Let’s take a look at the current expert consensus rankings (ECR) on Fantasy Pros to see which WR3s (any wideout ranked after the top 24 at the position) have the potential to produce like a WR1 in 2021.

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Brandon Aiyuk (WR – SF) – ECR WR25
That’s right. Somehow, Brandon Aiyuk is not even being ranked as a WR2 by fantasy analysts for next year despite this:

Take the discount and run. Brandon Aiyuk led the incoming rookie class in college yards after the catch (YAC). He finished fourth among rookies in 2020 behind Justin Jefferson, Tee Higgins, and Chase Claypool despite missing three weeks to injury last year. Aiyuk is 6’1″, 206 lbs, and an absolute beast after the catch. There used to be a narrative that HC Kyle Shanahan’s offense historically featured a number one receiver lined up at X on the perimeter. Analysts pointed to the prolific output of greats like Andre Johnson, Julio Jones, and Pierre Garcon, who have been featured in his system. Recent seasons have not seen much output from 49ers receivers, but that likely has more to do with the fact that the team has not had a wideout of Aiyuk’s caliber on the roster before that demanded a larger target share. Does Shanahan think Aiyuk can be as productive as the great X receivers he’s had in the past to feature him in this offense?

The evolution of Brandon Aiyiuk into a WR1 has just begun.

Courtland Sutton (WR – DEN) – ECR WR26
Everyone seems keen on justifying Kenny Golladay as a WR1 based on the money the New York Giants paid him and the fact that Golladay is among the league leaders in yards per reception (16.7) since 2018. While it’s true that Golladay is a big-play threat and fills a void that had been missing in New York, Courtland Sutton’s YPR (16.1) is right on par, and Sutton boasts a far more rounded skillset.

Golladay doesn’t offer much separation as a receiver, and he wins at the contested catch point. Sutton, however, ranks among the league leaders in separation over expected (SOE) per play. He was also among the top five in contested catch rates in 2019 as well.

The only thing Sutton has not enjoyed is solid quarterback play, but whether it’s Deshaun Watson or Drew Lock taking another step forward in 2021, Sutton looks poised to remind everyone why he’s still a WR1 alpha.

D.J. Chark (WR – JAX) – ECR WR28
D.J. Chark joins a tier of outliers as a wideout who mostly faceplanted as a rookie only to blossom later. Despite doing virtually nothing as a rookie, Chark graded out as PFF’s third-best receiver among the second-year wideouts in 2019, behind only Sutton and D.J. Moore. It should be noted that the 2018 class has not received the same hype as 2019 and 2020, but Sutton, Moore, Chark, and Calvin Ridley look fully capable of changing that narrative. Chark’s rookie season was defined by drops and fumbles. His poor play may have been further exacerbated by his struggles with anxiety, something Chark has recently been more outspoken about to the media to help others overcome similar struggles. Many will point to Chark’s low BMI potentially creating trouble adjusting to more physical corner play at the NFL level, but his elite route-running ability and 6’4″ height allows him to make adjustments against more physical coverage and leverage his body in ways that still allow him to make tough catches.

Perhaps most importantly, Chark runs a 4.34 forty, and his 90+ percentile speed and burst scores essentially turbocharge his elite route running. When Chark was featured in 2019, his yards per route run, catch rate, and air yards share were among the league leaders. Unfortunately, the success of 2019 was followed by a disappointing 2020 season. So why, after another down year in 2020 and essentially only one year of great production in three, do I think Chark has the ability to return WR1 value next year?

Trevor Lawrence. That’s why.

Chark’s 1,300 air yards in 2020 were good for eighth overall in football, but his unrealized air yards (756) were sixth-highest in the league. His 59% contested catch rate was good for 21st among receivers, but his catchable target rate (70.2%) ranked 90th among wideouts last year. Then there is this:

If Chark could do it with Gardner Minshew throwing him the rock in 2019, it would be foolish to assume it cannot happen with arguably the best QB prospect since Andrew Luck under center in Duval.

Tee Higgins (WR – CIN) – ECR WR30
I’m admittedly a little concerned about Tee Higgins’ chances of producing like a WR1 in 2021. The team already has Tyler Boyd and Auden Tate, but some mocks have them taking franchise signal-caller Joe Burrow’s college teammate at LSU, Ja’Marr Chase, with their first pick. The team reportedly made an offer to Kenny Golladay that included a pitch from Burrow despite Higgins breaking Cris Collinsworth’s franchise receptions record and topping 1,000 yards as a rookie.

Higgins gave me Mike Williams vibes coming out of college despite a solid production profile, but his development was swift, and he proved me wrong with a stellar rookie campaign. That said, the team seems willing to add a premier wideout despite their needs on defense and along the offensive line. The team probably would prefer Burrow not to have to drop back 40.4 times per game as he did in 2020, and if so, to have another big target to throw to even when covered rather than waiting for his receivers to get open and risk getting pummeled in the pocket.

All of this might be factoring into why experts do not have Higgins ranked higher. The good news is that the Bengals would be exercising extreme malpractice if they do not fortify their OL to protect Burrow. That probably takes them out of the running for Chase with the fifth overall pick, thus increasing the chances that Higgins remains the top target in Cincinnatti next year. According to PFF, Higgins was the third-highest graded rookie receiver last year, behind only Justin Jefferson and Brandon Aiyuk. In a loaded 2020 rookie receiver class, Higgins shined among the brightest.

Curtis Samuel (WR – WAS) – ECR WR43
Curtis Samuel has always been a dynamic playmaker, possessing elite speed and versatility as a ball carrier. Early in his career (an odd thing to say, given Samuel is still only 24), the Carolina Panthers under HC Ron Rivera and OC Scott Turner used Samuel more downfield with an average depth of target (aDOT) of 14.6. They took advantage of Samuel’s speed to create mismatches and get him the ball in space. In 2020, the new regime under Matt Rhule opted to use Robby Anderson downfield and Samuel more in the slot and as a joker, lining him up in the backfield and focusing on getting him the ball on shorter and intermediate passes to allow him to use his speed to make plays after the catch. While that hardly qualifies as misusing Samuel, it certainly limited his ability to stretch the field.

Samuel carried the ball 41 times for 200 yards in 2020. In 2019 under Rivera and Turner, Samuel only carried the ball 19 times. However, he gained 130 yards on those 19 touches, showing better efficiency. Many expected Samuel to break out in 2019, but atrocious quarterback play after Cam Newton’s injury led to over 1,000 unrealized air yards while D.J. Moore gobbled up the higher percentage targets. Samuel was far more productive in 2020 under Rhule. So, was Samuel misused in 2019 under OC Scott Turner, or did poor quarterback play prevent him from excelling? With maverick Ryan Fitzpatrick under center and former OSU teammate Terry McLaurin across from him, Samuel could easily eclipse all his career highs in receiving production. The combined yards and scores via the air and ground should give Samuel an excellent chance to post WR1 numbers, and he was actually more productive than McLaurin in college:

Most are understandably assuming Fitzpatrick’s arrival means McLaurin’s production will soar. While that’s likely true, it could be the younger Samuel who emerges as the most productive option in that offense.

Ja’Marr Chase (ECR WR56)
Jaylen Waddle (ECR WR70)
I am including these two rookie wide receivers, even though we have no idea who will draft them or what role they’ll be asked to play in their respective offenses because the consensus seems to believe they will be fantasy relevant in 2021. This makes sense when you consider Chase is one of the best receiving prospects we’ve seen in years, and Waddle is drawing rave reviews as the most explosive playmaker in this class, earning him Tyreek Hill comps across the industry.

More than likely, both rookie wideouts will be drafted as no better than a WR4 or WR5 on redraft fantasy rosters next year, regardless of how highly they are taken this April. Nonetheless, we’ve seen three consecutive years of rookie wide receivers smashing right out of the gate, so both these youngsters have the talent to produce a WR1 fantasy season, even in Year 1.

Chase had an equally impressive season at age 19 as Heisman winner Devonta Smith had last year at age 21, and he outproduced Justin Jefferson as a sophomore on the historic LSU offense in 2019. Chase is the prototype for an alpha.

Waddle boasts elite play speed and return ability. Before anyone cites Henry Ruggs as a cautionary tale, note that Waddle actually outproduced Devonta Smith last year for their first four games before getting hurt. His college production profile puts Ruggs to shame. Landing spot will likely be key for both players, but there is major upside here if the volume is there.

Bryan Edwards (WR – LVR) – ECR WR73
Bryan Edwards is basically free right now. There is a good possibility nobody even bothers to draft him in redraft next year, the same way nobody drafted D.J. Chark after a highly underwhelming rookie season. However, Bryan Edwards had one of the earliest documented college breakout ages (17), according to PlayerProfiler.com. Moreover, Raiders GM Mike Mayock felt that had Edwards not been hurt during the combine, he very well may have been taken in the first round in 2020. Despite the injury, the Raiders still took Edwards in the second round after spending a first-rounder on Henry Ruggs. Edwards’ college dominator rating ranked in the 94th percentile, and at 6’3″, 212lbs, he’s built like an alpha, and the team remains high on him.

 

Edwards has the size you want in a WR1, and his 17.5 yards per touch show that Edwards can win downfield and after the catch. Aside from stud tight end Darren Waller, the competition is hardly inspiring. Ruggs is still largely one-dimensional and the recently acquired but oft-injured John Brown the only other threat for targets out wide. Injuries have derailed Edwards’ pro career so far, but take a look at the play below to see why it’s easy to feel like he could be special.

 

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Paul Ghiglieri is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Paul, check out his archive and follow him @FantasyEvolves.

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