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Identifying the Next WR1s (2022 Fantasy Football)

by Sam Ryner | Featured Writer
Apr 25, 2022

The most common denominator among fantasy football championship teams is that they have players drafted in the mid to late rounds who significantly outproduce their preseason projections. I’m unaware of any fantasy football analyst who projected Cooper Kupp to be a top-12 wide receiver last season, let alone the overall WR1. Still, if you were fortunate enough to draft him in the fourth or fifth round, you probably had a successful season.

Every year, multiple players seem to come out of nowhere and become league-winners for fantasy teams. If we can find a way to predict which players have the best chances of taking that leap into fantasy stardom, we’ll give ourselves an edge over our league mates. So, which players are more likely to jump into WR1 territory for the first time in their careers? To answer that, we need to dive into the data.

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Since 2012, 56 players have finished as WR1s in 12-team PPR scoring formats. Of those 56 players, 44 had WR1 seasons for the first time in their careers from 2012 to 2021. In the sample, I didn’t include players who produced their first WR1 finish before 2012, such as Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, and Andre Johnson.

There was an average of 7.3 different WR1s year-over-year in the sample. If history is any indication, it is more likely that over half of the players who finished in the top 12 in 2021 will not be WR1s again in 2022. Over that same span, an average of 4.4 players became WR1s for the first time in their careers each season. If history repeats itself, approximately four players who have never finished as WR1s will finish in the top 12 this year. Our job is to identify who those players might be. It’s crucial to understand when receivers have achieved this feat in the past to help make these predictions.

Since 2012:

  • 34.09% first became WR1s in their 3rd season
  • 20.45% in their 2nd season
  • 15.9% in their 5th season
  • 11.36% in their rookie season
  • 6.81% in their 4th season
  • 6.81% in their 6th season
  • 2.27% in their 8th season
  • 2.27% in their 11th season (cheers to you, Julian Edelman)
  • 0 players in their 7th, 9th, 10th, or 12th+ seasons

Data shows us that over 50% of receivers become WR1s in their 2nd or 3rd season. That needs to be our starting point while trying to identify future first-time WR1s, followed by 5th-year players, with rookies coming in close behind.

3rd-Year Players Most Likely to Enter WR1 Territory

  1. CeeDee Lamb He is an obvious choice among the 3rd-year players. Lamb has finished as a WR2 in two consecutive seasons, and Amari Cooper, who has been his main competition for targets, was traded to Cleveland this offseason. Dak Prescott should pepper Lamb with enough targets in 2022 to make him the favorite to become a new WR1. However, this projection is already baked into his ADP, as he’s currently going as the WR8 in Underdog Fantasy drafts.
  2. Tee HigginsAlthough overshadowed by 2021 rookie phenom Ja’Marr Chase, Higgins has put together an impressive first two years of his career and finished as a WR2 while playing just 14 games in 2021. He caught 74 passes for 1,091 yards and six touchdowns in 2021 while functioning as the second option in Cincinnati’s passing offense. Higgins has the talent to take another step forward while growing with young superstar Joe Burrow and the Bengals.
  3. Jerry JeudyIt’s been a disappointing career start for Jeudy, who has dealt with poor quarterback play and injuries during his first two seasons. Enter Russell Wilson, and there’s a newfound hope in Denver that Jeudy can finally meet his draft expectations. Jeudy is an elite route runner with YAC ability, and he will finally have the chance to play with an elite QB in 2022.

3rd-year honorable mentions to potentially target in drafts: Michael Pittman Jr., Brandon Aiyuk, Darnell Mooney

2nd-Year Players Most Likely to Enter WR1 Territory

  1. DeVonta Smith Smith quietly put together an impressive rookie season in 2021 but has been compared to (and overshadowed by) other rookie sensations from the past two seasons in Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson. Smith proved in his rookie season that he could separate from NFL corners consistently, and he has excellent ball skills. However, Philadelphia ran the ball more than any team in the league, and QB Jalen Hurts struggled at times with accuracy. If Philadelphia’s offense can find more balance and Hurts can progress as a passer, watch out for Devonta Smith.
  2. Amon-Ra St. BrownSt. Brown exploded onto the scene from week 13 through the rest of the 2021 regular season. During that span, St. Brown received double-digit targets and at least eight receptions in each game to go along with five total touchdowns. Those were high-end WR1 numbers over that stretch. Doubters will say he only put up those numbers after TE T.J. Hockenson went down, and there were no other quality WRs in that offense competing for targets. St. Brown truthers will counter by asserting that defenses knew he was the only threat on offense, and they still couldn’t stop him. Fantasy managers will need to decide where they stand on St. Brown. He has shown flashes of brilliance, but it’s a small sample size.

2nd-year honorable mentions to potentially target in drafts: Kadarius Toney, Elijah Moore

5th-Year Players Most Likely to Enter WR1 Territory

  1. D.J. Moore – Moore has been flirting with WR1 status in recent years but hasn’t crossed that barrier yet. He’s finished as a WR2 for three consecutive seasons. Moore’s another player who has experienced poor quarterback play, but he was still able to produce three straight 1,000-yard seasons. His lack of touchdowns has been holding him back, as he hasn’t scored more than four in any season. If Moore can improve in the touchdown department, he’s a good bet to reach the top 12.

5th-year honorable mentions to potentially target in drafts: Courtland Sutton, Christian Kirk

Rookies Most Likely to Enter WR1 Territory

In the past 10 seasons, five rookies have performed as WR1s. Four of the five were first-rounders in their respective NFL drafts, and the fifth player was a second-round pick. With that data, we can assume that if a rookie does break into the WR1 range in 2022, it will likely be one of the more high-profile prospects. The following receivers fit the bill:

  1. Garrett Wilson, Ohio State
  2. Drake London, USC
  3. Jameson Williams, Alabama
  4. Chris Olave, Ohio State
  5. Treylon Burks, Arkansas

While targeting rookies, consider their landing spot and potential role in the offense. For example, suppose one of these receivers lands in Green Bay. Even if he wasn’t the first receiver selected in the NFL Draft, he ultimately could become the most valuable player of the bunch, with Aaron Rodgers passing him the ball and a lack of competition for targets in the Green Bay offense. All five of these receivers are very talented, and there isn’t a consensus No. 1 prospect in the group. This year more so than others, fantasy managers should heavily weigh in landing spots while ranking rookie WRs in fantasy drafts.

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