The goal of fantasy football is to win, and one of the ways we achieve that is by identifying WRs who finish near the top of their position. It’s pretty easy to draft a WR inside the top 12 who finishes as a WR1, but it is much harder and more valuable to draft a WR outside of the top 12 who finishes as a WR1.
This article breaks down some historical markers for WR1s and then identifies the WRs being drafted outside of the top 12 by average draft position (ADP) who have the best chance at finishing as a WR1.
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Identifying WR1s (2023 Fantasy Football)
For my research, I looked at the top 12 WRs by points per game (PPG) who played a minimum of eight games in their respective season over the last 10 years, where we’ve seen passing volume remain relatively stable. This gives us a sample of 120 data points, plenty large enough to conclude from. I compiled each WRs PPG, the year in the league when they finished as a WR1, their target share in the previous year, and their team’s pass attempts in that season.
The last three stem from the following hypothesis:
- 1: WR1s are more likely to come from certain experience levels
- 2: WR1s don’t appear out of nowhere
- 3: WR1s play on teams with a greater passing volume than the league average.
The table below shows a summary of these stats.
|Stat||95th Percentile||Average||5th Percentile|
|Yr in League||10.0||5.2||2.0|
|TS% Prior Yr||30.5%||24.0%||15.6%|
|Tm PA in Year||681||595||514|
We see that, on average, WR1s are in their fifth season, earn a 24% target share in the prior year, and their team throws the ball 595 times. The year-in-league average is a little misleading, as the below chart gives us a better idea of what season WR1s play in.
We can see that WR1s most often come from a player's third year in the NFL, while Years 2, 4, 5, 6 and 7 all feature WR1 rates of 10% or more. We also see a steady and consistent decline in WR1 finishes beginning in a player's sixth year in the NFL.
What's most interesting to me is the brief dip in the WR1 rate at Year 4. When looking at the massive WR1 rate in the previous year, Year 3, it seems logical that this spike and then decline can be explained by contract extensions. Most teams don't discuss contract extensions until after a player's third season, so it makes total sense that good players seeking massive contracts produce quite well in their third season.
Then, after receiving their contract, they don't feel the pressure to perform and fall off a bit in their fourth season.
The last thing of note is how few rookies are WR1s. In the last 10 seasons, we've only seen this happen four times, which represents just 3.3% of all WR1s since 2013. The four players who achieved this feat are Odell Beckham Jr. (2014), Michael Thomas (2016), Justin Jefferson (2020) and Ja'Marr Chase (2021).
All four produced WR1 numbers at least once more time in their career, so this doesn't necessarily help us identify rookies who can finish as WR1s (stay tuned for a later article that dives deeper into that). Still, it shows that if a rookie finishes as a WR1, it's not a fluke. He's good at football.
The next metric to examine is a receiver's target share. As seen in the table above, the average WR1 over the last decade had a target share of 24% in the prior year, meaning he was highly used the year before. This supports my hypothesis that WR1s don't come out of nowhere -- they usually are a significant piece of their offense the year before their WR1 finish.
The fifth percentile target share of 15.6% suggests that any WR who had a target share less than that in 2022 probably shouldn't be considered as a potential WR1 in 2023.
Finally, let's investigate the WR1's team passing attempt total. On average, a WR1s team will throw the ball 595 times. In the same 10-year timespan, the NFL average for team pass attempts was 564. This shows that WR1s play on teams who throw the ball at a higher rate than the league average. This makes perfect sense, as we know that elite fantasy performances are driven by volume.
The fifth percentile shows a team passing total of 514, which helps us eliminate teams who are projected to run run-heavy offenses. A few examples of teams that probably won't reach 514 passing attempts are the Bears, Colts and Falcons.
Now that I've broken down these metrics, we can begin to identify the WRs most likely to become WR1s. In doing this, I'll look at all WRs currently being drafted outside of the top 12 of their position using FFPC ADP data. Here are six receivers, two being drafted between WR13-WR24, two between WR25-WR36 and two between WR37-48, that I believe fit all or most of the criteria I've laid out who could become WR1s in 2023.
DK Metcalf (SEA) | WR15
DK Metcalf is no stranger to finishing as a WR1. Metcalf finished as the WR10 in 2020, his sophomore season, and then WR22 in 2021 and WR24 in 2022. He's been quite efficient throughout his career, averaging 8.5 yards per target and a 7% TD rate. Similarly to Diontae, Metcalf is entering his fifth season, played on a team that threw the ball 573 times and posted a 25.5% target share in 2022.
Jerry Jeudy (DEN) | WR22
It feels like Jeudy is hyped up as a breakout candidate every year, but this might just be his year. Jeudy finished 2022 with a healthy 20.8% target share in a Broncos offense that struggled under one-and-done Head Coach Nathaniel Hackett. Russell Wilson now gets the legendary Sean Payton as his HC, and Jeudy is still awaiting a contract extension, although the Broncos seem to still be into him as they picked up his fifth-year option back in May.
The Broncos threw the ball 571 times last, just above the league average. I think it's likely that number can increase slightly as they used a high draft pick on WR Marvin Mims and didn't bring in much RB competition, a possible signal that they want to be more pass-heavy in 2023.
Diontae Johnson (PIT) | WR29
While Diontae's ADP is significantly lower on FFPC than Underdog, where he is going off the board as the WR35 on average, I still feel like he's a great value. Diontae received a 27.0% target share last year, which is a good bit above the 24.0% average for WR1s in their prior season. He also is entering his fifth season, the year where we've seen the second most WR1s come from.
Finally, the Steelers threw the ball 571 times last year, which, while respectable on its own, is likely to increase as Kenny Pickett enters his second season in the NFL. Diontae is being faded because of an improbable zero TDs in 2022 on 147 targets. Expect him to see regression toward the mean in 2023 in that category.
Marquise Brown (ARI) | WR31
This one might come as a surprise, given that Kyler Murray's status is up in the air, but Brown is another player I've been high on all offseason, and my research supports my stance. Brown fits my WR1 metrics well, as he is entering his fifth season, had a 23.7% target share last year, and his team threw the ball a whopping 664 times in 2022.
It's reasonable to project a decrease in passing volume due to Murray's likely absence for a few games, but Hopkins is now gone, which cements Brown as the clear #1 option in Arizona's offense.
Kadarius Toney (KC) | WR38
Once you get past the top 36 WRs, it's hard to identify mid-late round guys with WR1 potential, but nailing those picks is key to fantasy success. Toney presents an interesting profile, as he's entering his third year (where we most often see WR1s), and he's tied to an extremely high pass volume offense in the Chiefs, whose 651 pass attempts ranked fifth in the NFL in 2022.
His problem is proven success. In his two seasons in the league, Toney has only played 19 of 38 games and has played for two teams already. However, this year he has a full offseason to get acclimated to the offense and synched up with Patrick Mahomes. He's flashed some efficiency in his limited playing time with Kansas City, scoring twice on just 17 targets and posting 10.1 yards per target. The WR1 role is wide open, so why not Toney?
Jordan Addison (MIN) | WR39
I hesitated to include Addison as I have an article similar to this, just focusing on rookies coming out next week, but he probably has the best shot of any player in this tier to become a WR1. First, Minnesota has a high-volume offense. Kevin O'Connell arrived as the Vikings' HC in 2022, and they proceeded to throw the ball a whopping 672 times, the third most in the NFL a season ago.
Next, Minnesota also used their first-round pick on Addison, showing they value him highly. Finally, Minnesota is no stranger to supporting two WR1s. It's a foregone conclusion that fellow Viking WR Justin Jefferson will finish among the top of his position if he stays healthy. Still, history suggests there's room for another top-12 finisher on this team.
In 2020, Justin Jefferson finished as a WR1, and so did his teammate, Adam Thielen. If Addison is as good as he was in 2021 with Pittsburgh, he could easily finish as a WR1 and be a league winner.