Which Wide Receivers Were Better/Worse Than Expected in 2020? (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 our 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.
During the 2020 NFL season, each target to a wide receiver was worth roughly 1.49 fantasy points in a half PPR format. Breaking it down a bit further, a target between the 20-11-yard line was worth 1.91 fantasy points. But it doesn’t end there, as all red zone targets aren’t the same. Wherever a wide receiver is targeted, they have an expected fantasy output. Today, we’ll find out who was better than expected with their targets, as well as who underperformed.
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 during the 2020 season. Not just carries, but targets as well. You can find that article right here.
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 must 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 this one. 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 2020.
The Top-24 Wide Receivers Non-Red Zone (Above Expected)
|15||Marvin Jones Jr.||20.2|
|21||Henry Ruggs III||15.1|
To no surprise, you’ll see a lot of big-play wide receivers on this list, as big plays are necessary to outperform expectations outside the red zone. Tyreek Hill is a maniac. Since I started charting this study, he’s finished with 54.7 points over expected in 2020, 27.8 points over in 2019, 61.2 points over in 2018, and 64.7 points over in 2017. He’s been top-10 every year and has finished No. 1 or No. 2 in three of the four seasons.
Will Fuller being all the way up at No. 3 despite seeing just 68 non-red zone targets is ridiculous, which means he scored 0.68 more fantasy points per target than the average wide receiver would’ve. Now, will he be able to do that with Tua Tagovailoa, who had no wide receivers on this list? Julio Jones was still on top of his game, even at 31 years old. D.K. Metcalf has only played two seasons, but was No. 14 his rookie year, and now No. 5. Can he continue to climb?
What a change for Nelson Agholor. He went from finishing 97 out of 99 in 2019, to finishing as the No. 4 wide receiver in 2020. It goes to show that quarterback play and/or scheme can play a huge difference in a wide receiver’s expected point total.
The players who’ve finished top-24 in consecutive years include Tyreek Hill (4), Mike Evans (3), Mike Williams (3), Will Fuller (3), and Calvin Ridley (3). 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 one name that stands out among that bunch is Mike Williams, who isn’t being drafted in the same stratosphere as the others.
The Bottom-24 Wide Receivers Non-Red Zone (Below Expected)
The first thing I noticed is that there are three Bengals wide receivers on this list. Granted, A.J. Green was remarkably worse than Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, but they were still all here. If you didn’t check out the running back article earlier this week, Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard both underwhelmed. Maybe it’s time to start questioning Zac Taylor’s scheme? Oddly enough, Taylor came from Sean McVay’s coaching tree, which also has three receivers on this list. I’ve been quick to say it was Jared Goff, but maybe targets are even more important than anything to receivers in McVay’s scheme.
One of the names that was a bit surprising to see on here was Keenan Allen, though he did fail to hit 1,000 yards, even with 147 targets. Had he been average on his non-red zone targets, he would’ve finished as the No. 5 wide receiver rather than No. 14. Brandon Aiyuk was also a surprise, though seeing he averaged just 7.8 yards per target, it makes more sense. His 77 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns certainly helped prop up his fantasy numbers.
We look for trends in these lists, so which players showed up in the bottom-24 in consecutive seasons? Russell Gage, Robert Woods, and Tyler Boyd. If there’s a trend there, it’s that they’re all slot-heavy receivers, which would make sense because they typically don’t generate the big plays. But still, it does mean they’re more reliant on volume than almost all other receivers.
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 2.41 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 to the mean in 2021, 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-24 Red Zone Wide Receivers (Above Expected)
I can’t express how ridiculous Adam Thielen‘s touchdown total was from 2020, but this chart shows it. He scored 48.7 more fantasy points than the average wide receiver would’ve, which would’ve knocked him down to the WR26 from the WR8 spot where he finished. Crazy, right? Just how improbable was that? Well, the league leader in red zone efficiency in 2019 was Marvin Jones with 27.5 points, Davante Adams in 2018 with 29.4 points, and Stefon Diggs in 2017 with 29.2 points. It’s clear as day that both Thielen and Adams are coming back down to earth in 2021.
A.J. Brown was No. 11 on this list last year, so seeing him move up to No. 3 this year is encouraging, as he continues to break efficiency. His teammate Corey Davis was also on this list, highlighting that Ryan Tannehill helps his receivers just as much as they help him. Good news for Julio Jones. Keenan Allen‘s red zone numbers were much better than his non-red zone numbers, helping him get back on track, though he’s never been one to be too high on the touchdown efficiency metrics. It was good to see JuJu Smith-Schuster get into the top-24, as he’d been No. 94 in 2019, and No. 96 in 2018. Touchdowns are a fickle thing.
Again, we know touchdowns can be a tricky thing and we shouldn’t expect them, unless someone continually breaks efficiency. Those who’ve popped up on this list in consecutive seasons include Tyler Lockett (3), A.J. Brown (2), Chris Godwin (2 – almost three, as he finished No. 25 in 2018), Adam Thielen (2), Marquise Brown (2), and Willie Snead (2). The player who just missed his third consecutive year on this list was Calvin Ridley, who finished No. 26 out of 99 wide receivers this year.
The Bottom-24 Red Zone Wide Receivers (Below Expected)
|79||Odell Beckham Jr.||-7.4|
|86||Michael Pittman Jr.||-10.6|
This is typically an area I love to look at when it comes to buy-low potential. These players underdelivered in the red zone last year. It could’ve been bad luck. It could’ve been bad quarterback play. It could’ve been whatever, but we know touchdowns are volatile, so these particular numbers can flip rather easily.
Michael Thomas played in just seven games last year, but still managed to score 18.9 fewer fantasy points than the average wide receiver would’ve in the red zone. This screams buy low. There are some big-name wide receivers at the bottom of this list, and while this hasn’t influenced some players’ draft position, it certainly has on others, like Mike Williams. He would’ve finished as the WR36 last year had he simply been average in the red zone, and we know he’s capable of producing there (scored 16.5 points over expected in the red zone in 2018). D.J. Moore would’ve been the WR15 with just average touchdown luck in the red zone.
You never want to see this being a trend, but there are a few receivers who’ve popped up in the bottom-24 in consecutive years, including Jarvis Landry (3), Mike Williams (2), D.J. Moore (2), Jakobi Meyers (2), Odell Beckham Jr. (2), and Sammy Watkins (2). These players are having a hard time finding the end zone as much as others do with similar opportunity.
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-24 Overall Wide Receivers (Above Expected)
|Rank||Player||NonRZDiff||RZ Diff||Total Diff|
|17||Marvin Jones Jr.||20.2||2.3||22.5|
There are a lot of names on this list that make sense, and then there’s guys like Marquez Valdes-Scantling and David Moore, who’ve certainly performed over expectations, though their quarterbacks are two of the best in the game. Speaking of the best in the game, Tyreek Hill plays with Patrick Mahomes, and it’s led to him scoring 172.1 more fantasy points than he was expected to over the last three years. If he keeps getting the elite volume he was over the second half of last season, he just might break records. His 73.6 points over expectation in 2020 were the second highest we’ve seen in this study, behind only Tyler Lockett‘s 2018 season where he scored 83.9 points over expectations.
If there are three names who stand out on this list, it’s Adam Thielen, Tyler Lockett, and Tim Patrick. All three of them performed below average outside of the red zone but benefitted from some touchdown luck. Both Thielen and Lockett have proven to be above average in that territory, but it’s going to lead to more boom/bust performances.
The names who’ve shown up inside the top-24 in consecutive seasons include Tyreek Hill (4), Tyler Lockett (3), Mike Evans (3), Calvin Ridley (3), Adam Thielen (3), A.J. Brown (2), Chris Godwin (2), Stefon Diggs (2), Marvin Jones (2), and Mecole Hardman (2). The name that stands out here is Mecole Hardman, who’s turned 75 career touches into 59.7 more fantasy points than the average wide receiver would’ve. If only he’d get more opportunities.
The Bottom-24 Overall Wide Receivers (Below Expected)
|Rank||Player||NonRZDiff||RZ Diff||Total Diff|
It’s flat-out bananas that A.J. Green scored 63.8 fewer fantasy points than expectations. If he’d been simply the league average on them, he would’ve finished as the No. 37 wide receiver rather than the No. 68 wide receiver that he did. Going to a new team is likely to change his outlook, but this is by far the worst number I’ve seen since I started this study four years ago. He was great for a long time, but that time seems to have passed.
The only receiver who’s shown up on this list in more than two straight seasons is Larry Fitzgerald, who’s now been in the bottom-24 for four straight seasons. Those who’ve popped up on this bottom-24 list in each of the last two seasons include Tyler Boyd, Sammy Watkins, Danny Amendola, Anthony Miller, and Russell Gage. It’s a shame for Boyd, as he’s likely to see a dip in targets with Ja’Marr Chase in town. Watkins is certainly seeing less targets with the Ravens. Miller is falling out with the Bears. Gage is likely in line for a target share increase, but it’s also a new scheme with likely much fewer pass attempts.
We should follow the targets, yes, but that’s only part of it. Just because you project Russell Gage for more targets than Mecole Hardman, 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.
- Mike Williams is listed in a category with Tyreek Hill, Mike Evans, Will Fuller, and Calvin Ridley. That’s something to latch onto. If he performs simply average in the red zone, you’re going to see a top-36 wide receiver in 2021.
- Nelson Agholor went from bottom-five to top-five in the same category from 2019 to 2020. The difference was the offense and quarterback. He gets another new pair in 2021.
- Tyreek Hill and A.J. Brown continually break efficiency. Don’t try to predict regression.
- Maybe Sean McVay’s coaching scheme and tree (Zac Taylor) forces their wide receivers to rely on massive volume rather than efficiency.
- Tyler Boyd losing volume is a massive concern for his fantasy outlook.
- Adam Thielen will regress… a lot.
- Michael Thomas had some very bad luck in the red zone last year. He’s a buy low.
- If D.J. Moore starts scoring touchdowns at just an average rate, we are going to have a top-15 wide receiver on our hands.
- Mecole Hardman is going to explode if he gets opportunity.