Fantasy Football Best Ball Leagues Draft Primer: Wide Receiver (2023)
The easiest way to kick off any positional primer is to take a look back at what happened the year before. What worked, what didn’t work – but most importantly, addressing the “WHY” behind the successes and failures.
That’s how I’ll start the breakdown of the wide receivers and every other position for early fantasy football drafters as we look ahead to the 2023 best ball season. Because with best ball, it’s never too early to start drafting.
And for more WR analysis from 2022, check out my article titled: Wide Receiver Season Recap & Advice for 2023 (Fantasy Football).
- Introduction to Best Ball Leagues
- Erickson’s Best Ball Positional Primers
- Best Ball Roster Construction Strategy
2023 NFL Best Ball Wide Receiver Primer
Wide Receiver Advance Rates
We can leverage alive rates from Underdog’s Best Ball Mania III tournament to get a better understanding of which wide receivers (Weeks 1-14) helped teams advance at the highest rate into the playoffs (Weeks 15-17). Using alive rates is helpful because it’s already factoring in the draft day cost of the player compared to their raw points scored.
As noted in the QB primer, there’s a lot of overlap between WRs and QBs on the same teams with high alive/advance rates. So yes, you should be stacking offenses.
The highest WR alive rates came from Justin Jefferson (41%, ADP WR2), DeVonta Smith (38%, WR36), Jaylen Waddle (27%, WR17), Tee Higgins (26%, WR11), Jahan Dotson (22%, WR60), Zay Jones (22%, WR84), Tyreek Hill (20%, WR9), A.J. Brown (19%, WR10), CeeDee Lamb (17%, WR6), K.J. Osborn (17%, WR69), Jakobi Meyers (15%, WR63) and Garrett Wilson (14%, WR52).
The most obvious takeaway that stands out is the sheer volume of drafted No. 2 WRs delivering high alive rates. This is suggesting that the best ROI picks you can make are drafting No. 2s that are discounted solely because they are viewed as No.2s by the market. It’s not because they aren’t talented or are in bad situations. In fact, it’s the opposite in most cases which is why they are the perfect targets in drafts. And their prices will almost always be kept in check to some extent due to the presence of the No. 1 wide receiver on their own team. Call it the “WR1 firewall.”
And among the top-5 WRs drafted, only Jefferson finished with an alive rate above 5%. The approach towards drafting WRs not-named Justin Jefferson early didn’t really pay off in 2022. WRs in the 6-11 range had much higher alive rates, with four WRs finishing above 17%. So it’s very interesting that the rhetoric coming out of 2022 is that drafters have to start with a WR-centric approach in the first round.
There’s then an undeniable plateau outside the top 11 and beyond, with occasional spikes from underrated value No. 2 WRs like Waddle, D. Smith, Tyler Lockett, George Pickens, D.J. Chark and Kendrick Bourne.
When analyzing points per game in regard to alive rates – only four of the top-ten scorers in points per game finished with top-ten alive rates. Six of the ten finished inside the top 10 in total points scored. Ergo, the name of the game with WR is still about scooping up value in the middle-to-later portions of drafts, with WRs counting for the biggest part of your best-ball roster.
Sure, you can still lock in a bonafide stud early on. Eight of the top ten drafted WRs based on ADP finished inside the top eight in points per game. And the two misses – Mike Evans, Deebo Samuel – still finished inside the top 20. But to really get your edge at wide receiver, you need to hit on these discounted No. 2 WRs in the middle-to-late rounds as the actual difference-makers/level-jumpers. The RB Dead Zone and the WR Shred Zone are one and the same from Rounds 3-6.
Be aggressive drafting WRs in this range, and be sure to load up on the position with so many roster spots to fill. Eight to nine receivers should suffice. And stack WRs not just with their QBs, but with their WR/TE teammates as well. An underrated aspect of this is that if one of them goes down or misses time, the other likely benefits from a higher target share – especially in the case of No. 2s.
For some additional context, I also looked back at the win rate percentage from the FFPC best ball drafts from 2021. Among the top 24 per ADP, just two WRs finished with win rates inside the top 10. Three inside the top 20. Just goes to show how volatile the WR position can be in fantasy football and how you want to take as many shots as possible targeting the position in the middle-to-late rounds.
I’ve laid out my current best-ball WR rankings/tiers so you can better recognize the groups of players you should be targeting for the highest ROI based on their ADPs.
Andrew Erickson’s Best Ball Wide Receiver Rankings & Tiers
Currently, I have four guys inside my “elite four” of fantasy WRs. I’d feel comfortable selecting any of them in the first round of best-ball drafts. I fully expect Jefferson to be the consensus No. 1 wide receiver, but Ja’Marr Chase to be right on his heels as the No. 2. Chase led all WRs in red-zone targets per game (28 in 14 games played). Therefore, he’s an extremely strong bet to finish No. 1 in red-zone targets and receiving touchdowns in 2023. His 22 receiving touchdowns through his first two seasons are the most by any WR since Odell Beckham Jr. In the games that Chase was healthy this year, he also posted a superior target share (30% vs. 28%) and identical air yards share (39%). All things being considered, Chase also has a quarterback that could easily throw for 50 TDs. Kirk Cousins is not that guy that will toss 40-plus touchdowns.
The second tier is the exact reason why you don’t need to force WR in Round 1. I’d presume that one or two of these players falls into Round 2, which will make them screaming values with high advance rates. There exists a path to these guys finishing much higher than their ranking. CeeDee Lamb (29%) and Tyreek Hill (31%) led this tier in target share in 2022.
Consider this group the “making the leap/back to glory” tier. Because the WRs in this group are either super young players that are ascending or more experienced players that have already posted elite fantasy seasons. Amari Cooper will be one of my primary targets in this range, with quarterback Deshaun Watson under center. Cooper finished as the WR9 overall and WR13 overall in points per game in 2022. His 2.11 yards per route run was the second-best mark of his career. And Cooper’s 42% air yards share ranked second among all WRs.
It’s another group of wide receivers that are either proven commodities or players looking to make another leap. There are also multiple pairs of teammates where the best approach would be to just take the cheaper player. Jerry Jeudy stands out to me as a target in this tier because he has full-blown breakout potential after an extremely underrated 2022 campaign. No player scored more fantasy points in PPR with a sub-75% overall route participation than Jeudy in 2022. And in Jeudy’s last six games: 25% target share and finished fifth in receiving yards overall. From Week 10 onward, the Broncos wide receiver led the NFL in yards per route run (2.71).
I also envision Packers WR Christian Watson taking a major step. He was absolutely dynamite as a rookie. Watson’s 25% target rate per route run is nothing but impressive-14th among all WRs with at least 60 targets. And in a must-win Week 18 contest versus the Lions, he was once again the target leader (23% target share), going for 104 receiving yards on a team-high five catches. From Week 10 onward, Watson ranked 3rd in yards per route run (2.58). If he takes over the downfield looks in 2023 that Allen Lazard saw the majority of, prepare for a massive second-year leap regardless of who is playing quarterback for the Packers.
It’s a mixed bag of uber-talented wide receivers that find themselves in sticky situations with bad or question marks at quarterback. The best approach with these players is to not just blindly fade them into oblivion but to be extremely price sensitive. So much of fantasy football comes down to opportunity cost, and paying up for a player that will be limited by adverse surroundings is not optimal. Instead, identify the wide receivers that possess real-life talent who are also discounted.
Diontae Johnson seems inevitable to be one of these talented, discounted guys for 2023 drafts. He didn’t score last season – likely a fluke – and second-year WR George Pickens is a darling in the fantasy community. But DJ is still the more proven asset, and it would not surprise me to see him be drafted consistently after Pickens by the time best ball drafts roll around.
Johnson’s ability to command targets – 28% target share and 137 targets (7th) in 2022 – suggests he is a prime candidate for positive regression in many facets. His combined downfield targets and red-zone targets were the most of any player not to score in 2022. Those trends don’t tend to carry over from year-to-year. Buy-low on Johnson. He was the WR15 in expected fantasy points per game.”
Draft rookie WRs. Their ADP often does not fully capture the upside they possess. The ADP acts more like a hedge or median projection when first-year players of recent years are so much more boom-or-bust. They either hit in a big way — Garrett Wilson, Jahan Dotson, George Pickens, Drake London, Chris Olave, Christian Watson — or drastically underwhelm — Skyy Moore, Treylon Burks, Jameson Williams. They are lottery tickets that you need to draft at all times during the best-ball season that are frequently drafted outside the top 36. Take full advantage.
Keep in mind that rookie WRs’ roles often grow as the season progresses. That makes them the perfect backfill targets for best ball formats that have prize structures heavily based on the final few weeks of the season.
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