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Negative Target Regression: Wide Receivers (2021 Fantasy Football)

Jul 19, 2021

My last article was the good news. This one is the bad news. These are four players who I think either hit their ceiling in terms of targets earned last year or who have had their opportunity change so much that their historical numbers just can’t be used to predict their future usage. By no means are these the only players that are likely to lose targets, nor are these the ones that will lose the most, but these are the ones that I think are most worth mentioning as we prepare for the 2021 season.

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Robby Anderson (WR – CAR)
2020: 136 targets in 16 games – 8.5/game

I know what you’re thinking: how can Robby Anderson even be on this list? And I get it, trust me. He had a great 2020 and everyone is calling him a breakout candidate for 2021. I’m just not so sure. Let me explain.

The obvious reason to include him on a list like this is the narrative that the Panthers getting Christian McCaffrey (RB – CAR) back will take targets away from Anderson. That makes sense in my head too, but the numbers tell a different story. Last season, in the three games that CMC played Anderson saw an average of 10.3 targets per game. In the other 13 games where McCaffrey was sidelined, he only saw an average of 8.1 targets per game. This goes entirely counter to the narrative that CMC will hurt Anderson and instead it tells me that when CMC is on the field, the entire team benefits from it. So if that’s not it, what is?

The other narrative going around that you may have heard is that Anderson has a rapport with his former Jets teammate in Sam Darnold (QB – CAR). A QB-WR connection is something that tends to carry more weight, in my opinion. Again though, the numbers tell us something else. In the 25 games they played together in two seasons with the Jets, Anderson saw an average of 6.6 targets per game from Darnold. That’s not exactly crazy. If we add in 2020, Anderson has played in 21 games without Darnold in the last three years: 16 for the Panthers and 3 each in 2018 and 2019. In those 21 games, Anderson saw an average of 7.7 targets per game, a full target more per game on average.

So between all of the narrative and numbers, what should we expect for 2021? The addition of Darnold, while it may sound beneficial to Anderson, might actually be a negative. It turns out that CMC coming back might help counteract that a little bit, but in the end, it will all come down to how the Panthers decide to use both Darnold and Anderson along with teammates McCaffrey and WR DJ Moore (WR – CAR). Anderson’s 8.5 targets per game last year was huge for his fantasy performance, and with all of the changes in this offense, I’m starting to think that 8.5 targets per game is basically his ceiling, meaning he’s due for a downturn, even if only slightly, in 2021.

Brandin Cooks (WR – HOU)
2020: 119 targets in 15 games – 7.9/game

Unlike the Robby Anderson take, this one feels a little safer to me. Brandin Cooks had a pretty good 2020 but his 2021 is entirely up in the air for fantasy players. If his teammate Deshaun Watson suits up for the Texans and plays all 17 games this year Cooks should be the biggest beneficiary of that as the team’s clear-cut WR1. Last season with Watson, Cooks averaged 7.9 targets per game and a 23.7% target share on the whole. These numbers aren’t exactly stellar, but they’re definitely good enough for a WR2 option on most fantasy teams.

However, if Watson doesn’t play and the Texans are forced to start Tyrod Taylor (QB – HOU) or rookie Davis Mills (QB – HOU) instead, this could be bad for Cooks as well as the entire Texans offense as a whole. Cooks has played with a variety of quarterbacks in his career, but either Taylor or Mills would easily be the worst of the bunch. Cooks should still see WR1 targets and could see his target share go over 30%, but his targets per game numbers would still likely be lower than last year due to volume alone. The Texans signed a few veteran running backs, and appear to be in full-on tank mode, so it’s hard to imagine them throwing the ball early and often even if they’re losing. For me, this just makes Cooks a player I’m passing on in most drafts, at least until we learn more about Watson’s status.

Curtis Samuel (WR – WAS)
2020: 97 targets in 15 games – 6.5/game

Now we come to Curtis Samuel, another tough one to predict, but I’m going to try anyway. The vast majority of analysts and projectors have Samuel returning to his old ways now that he’s reunited with former Panthers Head Coach Ron Rivera in Washington, but I’m just not so sure. It’s true that Rivera deployed Samuel as a gadget player and basically found whatever way possible to get him the ball, but will that continue now? In 2019, in the 12 games that Rivera coached Samuel before being fired, Samuel averaged 7.1 targets per game. In the four without Rivera, Samuel only averaged 5.0 targets per game.

Fast forward to 2021 and the two are back together on a new team with a new surrounding cast. This offseason, the Washington Football team signed veteran signal-caller Ryan Fitzpatrick (QB – WAS) to helm the team, and as we all know, Fitz DGAF, as the kids say. Fitz doesn’t exactly throw a ton of check-downs, which makes me think that outside receiver Terry McLaurin (WR – WAS) is likely to benefit more from his style than Samuel would. Add to that the addition of deep threat Dyami Brown (WR – WAS) in the draft and the expected improvement of Antonio Gibson (RB – WAS) out of the backfield and I just don’t know if there’s enough left on the bone for Samuel to see more than 6.5 targets per game. Much like Anderson, that feels more like his ceiling in this new situation.

AJ Green (WR – ARI)
2020: 104 targets in 16 games – 6.5/game

Last but not least is the aging wonder known as AJ Green. Green played the last nine seasons for the Cincinnati Bengals, amassing 649 catches on 1,130 targets in 127 total games played. This gives him an average of 8.9 targets per game for his career. However, last year, even while receiving 104 targets, he only averaged 6.5 per game, well under his career average. What’s worse is that he only had one more reception in 2020 (47) across a full 16 games than he did in 2019 (46) when he only played in 9 games, showing that he hasn’t been very helpful, either for his NFL team or for fantasy teams.

Now Green will be suiting up in the desert for the Arizona Cardinals. He’s not going to be the team’s WR1 since that job belongs to DeAndre Hopkins (WR – ARI), and it could be argued that he’s also behind Chase Edmonds (RB – ARI) in terms of potential targets. Green is the easy fade to come down from his 2020 stats at least in terms of opportunity. His new offense likes to throw the ball and move the ball downfield, but it’s just hard to imagine Green getting anywhere close to 6.5 targets a game again at this stage of his career. For fantasy managers, he’s likely going undrafted in shallower leagues and will likely ride the bench in ones where he is rostered, which is as it should be in my opinion.

Hit me up on Twitter @AndrewHallFF and let me know what you think about these players, and feel free to point out any players you think I missed. Stick with FantasyPros through the rest of the offseason leading up to Week 1. Check out our frequently updated rankings and ADP data. Let us help you dominate your league!

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