Positive Target Regression: Wide Receivers (2021 Fantasy Football)
This is the second article in my series reviewing target regression at the WR and RB positions. I previously wrote about four running backs that I think are in line for more work in 2021, and this week we’ll look at 4 wide receivers who I think could do the same. There are many reasons that a player could see an increase in work from one year to the next, and each of these is on this list for unique reasons of their own. With that said, let’s dig in and see what we can get from last year’s stats to help us figure out what to expect in 2021.
CeeDee Lamb (WR – DAL)
2020: 111 targets in 16 games – 6.9/game
It shouldn’t be shocking to see a player like CeeDee Lamb make this list of wide receivers in line for more targets. Last season, Lamb averaged 8 targets per game in the 5 games he played with Dak Prescott (QB – DAL) under center and only 6.4 targets per game without him. When Prescott got hurt, the entire offense went downhill fast, but now that Prescott is back, look for the Cowboys’ offense to be running at full power again, which only helps a player like Lamb.
Digging even deeper into the numbers shows that Lamb was very consistent overall in terms of opportunity in that offense. He averaged 6.7 targets per game in their 6 wins and 7.1 targets per game in their 10 losses. Lamb also averaged 6.7 targets per game in the 6 games against their NFC East opponents (WAS, NYG, PHI) and 7.1 targets per game against everyone else. These numbers are oddly similar and illustrate that while losing Dak definitely hurt Lamb’s production, no matter how you slice the numbers otherwise, Lamb should see a high number of targets every game.
Russell Gage (WR – ATL)
2020: 109 targets in 16 games – 6.8/game
Next on this list is the presumed WR2 for the Atlanta Falcons: Russell Gage. Gage is entering his fourth year in the league and on the Falcons. He’s seen his targets go up each year, starting with 10 in 2018, then 74 in 2019, and a whopping 109 last year. With a target number like that, it’s hard to imagine it going much higher, except the team just traded away veteran stalwart Julio Jones which opens a window for a player like Gage to step up and fill the role.
All that aside, Gage’s numbers last year weren’t exactly stellar. He averaged 7.1 targets per game in the 9 games he played with Jones on the field and only 6.4 when Jones was sidelined. That doesn’t exactly make you excited for his opportunity this year, but it still shows that with or without Jones on the field, the Falcons were looking Gage’s way enough to be fantasy relevant. Rookie Kyle Pitts (TE – ATL) may earn some targets of his own, but I still anticipate Gage to earn an uptick in targets of his own as the full-time WR2 option in 2021.
Tee Higgins (WR – CIN)
2020: 108 targets in 16 games – 6.8/game
The Bengals’ offense has been difficult to project for a few years now. Still, with the exit of aging vet AJ Green (WR – ARI) and the addition of Ja’Marr Chase (WR – CIN), along with the return of 2020 #1 pick Joe Burrow (QB – CIN) and star running back Joe Mixon (RB – CIN), this offense is definitely shaping up to be dominant in both the NFL and fantasy leagues alike. But what does that mean for players like Higgins and Tyler Boyd (WR – CIN) exactly?
Green’s 104 targets aren’t really vacated as much as they are likely leaving with him, but as I said, his departure does open up some opportunity on the offense, which rookie Chase should mostly fill, but Higgins should see an increase as well. Last year, Higgins averaged 7.1 targets per game with Burrow and 6.2 targets per game without him. As long as Burrow can return in Week 1 and stay healthy this year, and as long as that offense can continue improving and moving the ball well, I suspect Higgins sees the better year-over-year improvement than Boyd, making him a prime candidate for a list like this. Many fantasy managers are writing Higgins off, but I fully expect him to beat his WR28 finish in PPR leagues from last season, making him a potential value target in trades.
Will Fuller (WR – MIA)
2020: 75 targets in 11 games – 6.8/game
Last but not least is one of the most polarizing players in fantasy football: WR Will Fuller. I don’t play much best ball, but when I do, I love drafting Fuller to my team, but in season-long, he’s hard to handle. He’s consistently inconsistent, meaning he’s rarely someone you can rely on week to week for fantasy. In 2020 he added to his long list of frustrations by being suspended for 6 games due to a substance abuse problem, missing the last five of last year and the first of 2021. You could argue that there’s nowhere to go but up for a player like Fuller, but there’s more to it than that.
Fuller was signed by the Miami Dolphins during the offseason and is expected to be the team’s WR1 after his suspension is over. The Dolphins are a team on the rise, and the signing of Fuller should help the team immensely as long as he can stay on the field. It’s hard to project the future for a player like him, but if Fuller is indeed the team’s top WR target option, it’s hard to imagine him getting fewer than 7 targets per game as long as he’s not suspended or injured. If he’s going to take that step to true WR1, it’s now or never.
With everything that’s changing for Fuller, there were only a few slices of data that I found interesting for him heading into 2021. The first was that he was targeted 7.2 times per game in his nine 1 pm ET games, which was more than his average. He was also targeted more in the four games where the Texans won, 7.0 to 6.7. Obviously, neither of these stats matter all that much since he’s on a new team, but it does go to show that when asked to produce, he had no problem stepping up, even at the early hour where the Dolphins play 11 of their 17 games this year, so maybe there’s something to that? Stats aside, I’m all in on Fuller seeing more targets, both per game and in total, in 2021.
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