Raymond Summerlin

By the Numbers

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Alternate History: WRs

Friday, June 15, 2018


Opportunity is the most important element of fantasy success, but efficiency plays a big role as well. It also waxes and wanes from year to year even for the best players, and those deviations can lead to outlier seasons even when opportunity remains steady. With that in mind, I thought it would be interesting to look at an alternate history in which the best fantasy scorers from last season performed at their career averages.

For wide receivers, that means adjusting yards per target and yards per carry. I also created an expected rushing and receiving touchdown number based on the percentage chance of each carry or target resulting in a score. For instance, a target from the one-yard line has resulted in a touchdown 54.4 percent of the time over the last five seasons, so a target from the one is worth .544 expected touchdowns. Lost fumbles were left out of the equation because they are particularly fluky.

Expected WRs

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-Mike Evans seems like a clear bounce-back candidate when looking at last season’s rankings, but Demaryius Thomas, who actually finishes one spot ahead of him on this list, is not getting the same kind of buzz. Age certainly has something to do with that, and we have seen the 30-year-old enter his decline phase over the last couple seasons. That said, it is easy to explain away Thomas’ 6.8 yards-per-target average from last season by citing quarterback play, especially since Emmanuel Sanders saw an even steeper decline. He also played in an offense which scored just 27 touchdowns, tied for fifth-fewest in the league. Assuming Case Keenum is not a complete bust, he should both help the receiver be more efficient and create more scoring chances, making Thomas a good bet to better what he did last season. Considering he is being drafted right about where he finished, that makes him a good value.  

-While Evans’ and Thomas’ climbs scream bounce back, Dez Bryant’s and Jordy Nelson’s do not have the same effect. Perhaps that is recency bias, especially since 29-year-old Bryant does not seem any more likely than 30-year-old Thomas to have hit the cliff, but both players just seemed washed a season ago. In Bryant's case, that opinion is strengthened by his inability to land a contract on the open market. On the bright side, both players managed to score around their expected touchdown total, suggesting they can still be effective fantasy players if given opportunities near the end zone. Nelson figures to get those after replacing Michael Crabtree in Oakland, and any team which signs Bryant would likely do so with the red zone in mind. Even so, caution is warranted in both cases.

-Marvin Jones went the other way than the four above, dropping 11 places in part because of expected touchdowns but also because of his expected yardage total. The owner of a career 8.4 yards-per-target average entering the season, Jones managed a whopping 10.3 yards per target in 2017. That jump might suggest Jones is in line for a precipitous fall, but that is likely not the case. Jones’ career YPT is depressed by his time in Cincinnati, where he averaged eight yards per target. That number jumped all the way to nine his first season with the Lions, suggesting the drop off will not be as large as his career numbers would indicate. Jones is likely to take a step back, but he is still good value in the fifth round.

-If the arrival of Sammy Watkins was not enough to temper expectations for Tyreek Hill, this table should do the trick. In addition to scoring all seven of his receiving touchdowns from 30 yards or more, Hill averaged 11.3 yards per target in his second season, 4.2 yards more than he managed as a rookie. That said, half of Hill’s receiving touchdowns in 2016 came from more than 30 yards out, so he obviously has the ability to replicate that production. He is also likely to maintain his downfield role with rocket-armed Patrick Mahomes taking over at quarterback. Still, his per target efficiency is almost certain to regress, a big issue considering the extra competition for looks this season. He has the weekly upside to maintain a top-24 spot among the receivers, but his current top-12 ADP feels inflated.

-Working in Hill’s favor is Watkins’ equally poor showing in this exercise. That said, his fall exclusively had to do with touchdowns, and his expected yardage total was actually higher than what he managed in his one season with the Rams. Based on what we saw from Kansas City’s offense last season and the change to Mahomes, Watkins has a good shot to be better per target this season than he was in 2017, and he should top the 70 targets he managed a season ago despite competition from Hill, Travis Kelce, and Kareem Hunt.

-JuJu Smith-Schuster had a spectacular first season, but it is fair to question if he will be able to replicate his per-target numbers as a sophomore. Smith-Schuster’s 11.6 yards-per-target average is the highest among the top-fifty wideouts. The only two players within even a yard of him are Tyreek Hill and Ted Ginn, receivers who were targeted on average more than two yards further down the field than Smith-Schuster was last season. Smith-Schuster also outpaced his expected touchdown total in part because of a 97-yard score. Perhaps this is just who he is, and he will continue to be ridiculously efficient a la Adam Thielen, but it is more likely regression is coming. The good news is an increase in volume should soften that blow, keeping him in the WR2 conversation.

-While teammate Adam Thielen struggled to score last season, Stefon Diggs was a touchdown magnet, finding the end zone 3.88 more times than his usage would predict. A 59-yard score helped that total, but Diggs was also highly effective in the red zone, converting 6-of-12 targets inside the 20 and 3-of-5 inside the 10. That success was a surprise based on his history. He turned just two of his 18 red-zone targets into touchdowns over his first two seasons and one of his four chances inside the 10. An ascending player, it is possible Diggs simply became more effective near the end zone, but it is still likely some of that touchdown luck dries up this season. Hopefully he can replace it with a full season and an increased target share.

-Nelson Agholor and to a smaller degree Robert Woods and Paul Richardson all suffered large falls in this exercise because 2017 was their first season of real success in the league. Agholor’s improvement was certainly the most surprising, jumping from 5.7 yards per target his first two seasons to 8.1 last year, but Woods also saw a big bump (7.1 to 9.2) while Richardson averaged 1.4 more yards per target than he had to that point in his career. Playing in better offenses with better quarterbacks than they were paired with early in their career, Agholor and Woods should maintain a large chunk of their gains, but Richardson’s outlook is murkier following his move to Washington.



Raymond Summerlin is a football writer for Rotoworld.com. He can be found on Twitter at @RMSummerlin.
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