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Fantasy Football Draft Primer: Wide Receiver Strategy, Rankings & Tiers (2023)

Fantasy Football Draft Primer: Wide Receiver Strategy, Rankings & Tiers (2023)

Bigfoot. The Loch Ness Monster. The Fountain of Youth. Flat Earth. Abundant depth at the wide receiver position.

These are some of the biggest myths of our time.

I’m no Sasquatchologist, so I’ll stick to vetting the last of those myths: ample depth at wide receiver.

Fantasy Football Draft Kit

Fantasy Football Draft Primer: Wide Receiver Strategy, Rankings & Tiers (2023)

The WR position is only deep in the sense that a lot of wide receivers get significant playing time. There are 32 NFL teams, after all, and each team starts at least two wide receivers. NFL offenses frequently use three-receiver sets, and some NFL teams have three fantasy-viable receivers.

But we need our wide receivers to do more than just get exercise by running routes with nothing to show for it. We need points, and the number of receivers who reliably deliver significant point totals is smaller than some fantasy managers think.

Only 29 receivers played at least 10 games and averaged double-digit points in half-point point per reception (PPR) scoring last season.

Only 32 receivers drew at least 100 targets.

Only 26 receivers scored more than 5 touchdowns.

Only 21 receivers hit the 1,000-yard mark.

Your goal should be to amass a formidable collection of high-scoring receivers, particularly if your league requires you to start three WRs every week.

3WR Leagues vs. 2WR Leagues

In a league that requires you to start three wide receivers, you should hammer the WR position early. Your goal should be to overwhelm your competitors at wide receiver. Ideally, your WR4 will be better than everyone else’s WR3 and maybe even better than some people’s WR2.

How important is the WR position in 3WR leagues? Think of it this way: If your league requires you to start 1 QB, 2 RBs, 3 WRs, 1 TE and 1 FLEX, at least 37.5% of your non-defense, non-kicker starters will be WRs. That percentage would jump to 50% if you put a WR in the flex spot.

In leagues where you’re required to start only two receivers, it’s OK to simply keep up with the competition at wide receiver as long as you’re building positional advantages elsewhere. In leagues where you have to start three receivers, it’s imperative to stay ahead of the curve at the position. If you’re able to overwhelm opponents at the WR position, you can ham-and-egg it at one or two of the other positions and still have a powerhouse team. If you’re the one being overwhelmed at the WR position on a weekly basis, your chances of making the fantasy playoffs will be slim.

In 3WR leagues, at least three of your first five draft picks should be wide receivers. Ideally, four of your first six picks will be receivers.

A More Predictable Position

We routinely see running backs taken in the mid to late rounds of fantasy drafts emerge as impactful performers. Tony Pollard‘s average draft position (ADP) last year was RB30, and he finished RB7 in half-point PPR fantasy scoring. Jamaal Williams‘ ADP was RB53, and he finished RB8. Rhamondre Stevenson‘s ADP was RB35, and he finished RB11.

It’s far less common to see wide receivers emerge from the middle and late rounds of fantasy drafts and make an impact. Garrett Wilson was a rare exception last season, finishing WR19 after having an ADP of WR59. But Wilson was still only a midrange WR2. Rarely do we ever see receivers come out of the fog to finish in WR1 range.

In 2022, nine of the 12 wide receivers with ADPs in the WR1 range finished as WR1s in fantasy points per game (half-point PPR). Two of the other three — Mike Evans and Tee Higgins — finished 13th and 14th, respectively, in fantasy points per game (FPPG) among receivers who played at least nine games. The only receiver to be drafted in the WR1 range last year and finish outside the top 14 in fantasy points per game was Deebo Samuel, who finished 25th in FPPG.

For the sake of comparison, seven of the 12 running backs with ADPs in the RB1 range finished top 12 in fantasy points per game last season.

The high reliability of early-round wide receivers is a good reason to invest heavily in the position.

Wide Receiver Rankings & Tiers

Here are the top 50 wide receivers in my redraft rankings, sorted into tiers, with thoughts on some of the players from each tier.

Tier 1

These two are the creme de la creme at the position. Jefferson has finished WR6, WR4 and WR1 in fantasy scoring in his three NFL seasons and has averaged 16.2 half-point PPR fantasy points per game. Chase finished WR5 in fantasy scoring as a rookie. He finished WR12 last year despite missing five games. Chase has averaged 16.0 half-point PPR fantasy points per game since entering the league.

Tier 2

After his outrageous 145-1947-16 performance in 2021, Kupp was leading all WRs in fantasy points per game last season, averaging 8.3 catches and 90.2 yards, when he went down with what turned out to be a season-ending ankle injury. Kupp has little target competition with the Rams and should once again receive a mammoth target share.

How good is Tyreek Hill? After playing in the high-flying Chiefs offense and catching balls from the best pure passer in the game, Patrick Mahomes, Hill joined a new team and stepped into an unfamiliar system helmed by an unproven quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa. Hill proceeded to establish new career highs in receptions (119) and receiving yards (1,710), finishing WR3 in fantasy scoring. Expect more of the prolific production to which we’ve become accustomed.

Lamb had had an exciting 2022 breakout in his third NFL season, with 107 catches for 1,359 yards and nine touchdowns. He had a hefty 28.6 target share, reflecting his importance to the Dallas offense.

Tier 3

Playing a full regular season for the first time since his rookie year in 2019, A.J. Brown turned in the best season of his career, posting 88-1496-11 despite playing in a run-heavy offense and sharing targets with another 1,000-yard receiver.

Since December 2021, Amon-Ra St. Brown has averaged 9.7 targets, 7.1 catches and 78.2 receiving yards per game. St. Brown should continue to be a target hog in 2023, particularly early in the season, while second-year WR Jameson Williams serves a six-game gambling suspension.

It might be a good idea to let someone else draft Adams this year. His first eight years in the NFL catching passes from future Hall-of-Famer Aaron Rodgers and then playing the 2022 season with former Fresno State teammate Derek Carr, Adams will likely be paired with QB Jimmy Garoppolo, who prefers to dink and dunk rather than take shots downfield. (Garoppolo averaged just 6.9 intended air yards per pass attempt last year.) Adams is reportedly unhappy with the direction of the Raiders — not an encouraging sign.

Wilson piled up 83 receptions and 1,103 yards last season and was named 2022 AP Offensive Rookie of the Year. He did that while playing with a potpourri of mediocre quarterbacks and could take his numbers up another notch this season while playing with future Hall of Famer Aaron Rodgers.

Olave finished his rookie year with 72-1042-4 despite missing a pair of games. The former Ohio State star had a 26.6% target share for the Saints last season and now gets a QB upgrade with Derek Carr. Olave has home-run speed, and Carr averaged 9.1 intended air yards per pass attempt last season, according to Pro Football Reference, the fourth-highest in the league.

2023 Fantasy Football Best Ball Draft Advice

Tier 4

Smith might be the No. 2 receiver on his own team, but don’t let that bother you. He’s a terrific route runner and is lethal after the catch. Smith caught fire down the stretch last season. In his final nine games (playoffs included), he had 54 catches for 784 yards and five touchdowns.

Cooper has volatile home/road splits, but he’s topped 1,100 receiving yards in three of the last four years. Maybe Cooper’s home/road splits won’t be as extreme this year if Browns QB Deshaun Watson shows more of his early-career form than he did in 2022.

London plays in a run-heavy offense helmed by inexperienced QB Desmond Ridder, but the 6-foot-4, 213-pound London commanded a whopping 29.3% target share as a rookie. That target share was bigger than it might have been if Falcons TE Kyle Pitts had been healthy all season, but Drake will still command plenty of targets even in Arthur Smith’s ultra-conservative offense.

A handful of big plays pumped up Watson’s fantasy point total last year, but with a 6-foot-5 frame and 4.36 speed, Watson is built to make big plays. He scored eight touchdowns over a four-game stretch last season. To some extent, Watson’s fantasy production will be at the mercy of the Packers’ new starting quarterback, Jordan Love, but Watson’s splashy rookie season whet our appetite for more.

Two years ago, Deebo Samuel had 1,400 receiving yards and six TD catches, along with 365 rushing yards and eight TD runs. Deebo’s average depth of target that season was 8.4 yards. Last year, his aDOT was only 4.3 yards (and in 2020, it was a ridiculous 2.2 yards). Deebo isn’t likely to post needle-moving rushing numbers again when the 49ers have Christian McCaffrey and Elijah Mitchell at RB. In 2021, Raheem Mostert went down for the season in Week 1, and there wasn’t a single 49er running back who played more than 11 games last year, so unique circumstances contributed to Deebo’s rushing breakout. Don’t overdraft him.

Tier 5

It’s possible Ridley picks up right where he left off after not playing since early in the 2021 season. But at his current price, investors need for that to happen in order to get a satisfying ROI. There are better WR values out there.

Moore had a three-year streak of 1,100-yard seasons snapped last year, but he scored a career-high seven touchdowns in 2022. Unfortunately, Moore is probably destined for a target dip now that he’s playing for the run-heavy Bears.

Aiyuk turned in a 78-1015-8 season last year, establishing career-high numbers across the board. He’s one of the most underrated receivers in the league.

Godwin had a career-high 104 catches last season despite having torn his ACL and MCL in December 2021. The Buccaneers’ unappealing QB situation could tamp down Godwin’s production in 2023, but as a slot receiver with a relatively low average depth of target (aDOT), Godwin is likely to be less adversely affected by mediocre QB play than big-play teammate Mike Evans.

It’s reasonable to be concerned about how Pittman will fare this season if he’s tethered to rookie QB Anthony Richardson for most of the season, but Pittman dealt with abominable quarterbacking in Indianapolis last season and still had 99 catches. Last year, he was a trendy draft option and carried a high-end WR2 price tag. This year, Pittman is a value at a WR3 cost.

The perennially underrated Tyler Lockett has turned in four consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, and he’s scored at least eight touchdowns in each of the last five years. But it’s fair to wonder whether the arrival of first-round rookie Jaxon Smith-Njigba will cost Lockett some targets.

Tier 6

As a rookie, Doston scored seven touchdowns in 12 games and had five weeks as a top-20 scorer at the WR position. He’s fast, he’s a good route runner, he’s terrific after the catch, and for a smaller receiver, he wins more than his fair share of contested catches, a la Tyreek Hill.

The Vikings drafted Addison in the first round to complement Justin Jefferson, and the rookie should benefit from the defensive attention his superstar teammate will inevitably draw.

Sutton was being over-drafted last year at a fourth-round ADP. After a disappointing 2022 season, Sutton now has a ninth-round ADP, making him a more attractive value.

Tier 7

Pickens made some spectacular highlight-reel grabs last year as a rookie, but he enters his second season with some red flags. Pickens had a 15.3% target share in 2022 and didn’t have more than eight targets in any game all season. He didn’t have more than six targets in any game from Week 6 on. Pickens was also near the bottom of the wide receiver rankings in separation, according to Next Gen Stats, and he only averaged 2.0 yards after the catch (YAC).

Tier 8

It’s hard to tell how the target distribution is going to shake out in Baltimore, but a change in offensive coordinators from run-heavy Greg Roman to less conservative Todd Monken should boost the collective value of the Ravens’ wide receivers, making Rashod Bateman and rookie Zay Flowers intriguing middle-round plays.

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s 111-1426-7 season in 2018 now seems like ancient history. He finished WR29 last season while playing with Patrick Mahomes in the high-octane Kansas City offense, so it’s hard to envision being a top-25 receiver now that he’s playing for the Patriots in an offense led by QB Mac Jones.

As noted earlier, Williams is facing a six-game suspension for gambling. He was an electrifying playmaker at Alabama and has the potential to be an impact fantasy performer. Just realize that when the injuries start to mount, and you need to grab replacements off the waiver wire, it might be hard to hold Williams on your roster while trying to weather the storm.

Toney has played 445 regular-season snaps over his two NFL seasons and has drawn 77 targets. That means he’s been targeted on 17.3% of his regular-season snaps — and that includes running plays. Toney is heading into his first full season with Patrick Mahomes as his quarterback and mad genius Andy Reid as his head coach. Toney had cleanup surgery on his knee in late July, and it’s certain to tank the ADP player who was already considered a major injury risk. Yes, it’s possible injuries will once again keep the talented Toney from achieving liftoff, but the minimal opportunity cost makes him worth a dart throw.

Final Thoughts

Here are a few final thoughts about drafting wide receivers in 2023:

  • Whether you’re planning your retirement or building a fantasy football roster, it’s only logical to invest more of your capital in stable assets than in unstable assets. Wide receivers are a more stable asset class than running backs and tight ends., so investing heavily in receivers is prudent. What you pay for at the position is generally what you get.
  • Don’t take shortcuts at wide receiver in your draft with the plan of supplementing your WR firepower via the waiver wire. At other positions, there are potential solutions to be found on the waiver wire. At wide receiver, the waiver wire offers only tourniquets.
  • Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that getting the best receiver on a bad team could be lucrative since that team will be facing a lot of negative, pass-heavy game scripts. If a team is bad, its many shortcomings probably extend to the passing game, whether it’s poor QB play, inadequate pass blocking, or both. There were six teams that won five games or fewer last season. None of them had a 1,000-yard receiver.

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