- The second in our SI/4for4 Debate Series covers the case for wide receivers Denver Broncos' Demaryius Thomas and Seattle Seahawks' Doug Baldwin.
The Debate Series of the SI/4 For 4 Fantasy Football Draft Kit will pit two top minds in the fantasy industry against one another. They will take opposing sides of a decision many fantasy owners will face during their drafts, and make the case for their guy. In this installment, SI’s Michael Beller and 4 For 4’s T.J. Hernandez debate Doug Baldwin vs. Demaryius Thomas.
Doug Baldwin, WR, Seahawks (ADP: 26.25)
Michael Beller makes the case for Baldwin over Thomas…
Here’s the full list of wide receivers who have been in the top 10 in standard league fantasy points both of the last two seasons: Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, Odell Beckham and Baldwin. That’s pretty impressive company for a guy who was an afterthought in fantasy leagues at this time two years ago. For my money, one of the safest bets in fantasy leagues this year is that Baldwin will do his part to keep this top-10 quartet rolling for another season.
At this stage of the draft, with Hopkins and Baldwin likely to come off the board in the late-second or early-third round of a 12-team draft, I still want reliable, high floors. Those three words, strung together in that order, encapsulate Baldwin’s attractiveness in all fantasy formats.
The regression police were out in full force for Baldwin last year, as though he stole the 14 touchdowns he scored in 2015. In all honesty, there was no way for him to do anything but regress last season, at least in terms of fantasy points, because of all those touchdowns. After all, it’s hard for a receiver to post consecutive 14-score seasons. Through 2015, there had been 52 instances of a receiver scoring 14 touchdowns in a season. Only Jerry Rice in 1987 and Marvin Harrison in 2001 scored at least 14 the following season (Rice, for the record, scored 22). Not including the three who reached that threshold in ’15, those receivers averaged 8.1 trips to the end zone the next season.
Baldwin fell right in line with the guys not named Rice and Harrison, scoring seven touchdowns last year. Everywhere else, he improved. He caught a career high 94 passes on a career high 126 targets for a career high 1,128 yards. He reprised his role as one of the best slot receivers in the game and efficient with the deep ball, catching 16 passes of at least 20 yards, good for 11th-most in the NFL.
Everything could go right for Baldwin this year, and he still won’t have a top-three ceiling. Barring a Russell Wilson injury, however, he has a low-end WR1/high-end WR2 floor. I’ll happily take that at an ADP of 28. And it’s that most recent point, including the guy who helps make it true, that pushes Baldwin ahead of Hopkins on my draft board.
Baldwin has the luxury of playing with Wilson, one of the best quarterbacks in the league. Hopkins, meanwhile has to deal with either Trevor Siemian or Paxton Lynch under center. That’s a huge advantage for Baldwin. Not only do we know exactly what to expect from Wilson, we know that it should be awfully good. Remember, Wilson played at less than 100% for essentially all of last season, due to ankle and knee injuries. His return to full health should be a rising tide that lifts all ships in Seattle. Unless something wildly unexpected occurs with these two teams, the Seahawks will score more points, rack up more yards, convert more third downs, and be more efficient than the Broncos. That’s what translates most directly to fantasy production. All things being equal between the players themselves, I’d rather bet on the No. 1 receiver on the better offense. That’s Baldwin by a wide margin.
As the Seahawks transition further away from the Marshawn Lynch years, they’re putting the ball in Wilson’s hands more and more. In 2015, Lynch’s last season with the Seahawks, Wilson dropped back on 48.7% of the team’s red-zone snaps. Last year, that number shot up to 52.1%. The difference was even more stark inside the 10-yard-line, what our own John Paulsen calls the crimson zone. The Seahawks called pass plays on 52.3% of their snaps in the crimson last year. In 2015, they passed on 44% of snaps inside the 10-yard line. Jimmy Graham will gobble up his fair share of those targets, but Baldwin will be right there alongside him.
I could say more, but I’ve taken up my fair share of oxygen in this debate. If this decision faces you in a draft this summer, ignore Thomas’s ceiling, which could be significantly lowered depending on the performance of the Siemian/Lynch duo. Instead, grab Baldwin’s surefire production.
Demaryius Thomas, WR, Broncos (ADP: 30.0)
T.J. Hernandez makes the case for Thomas over Baldwin…
When it comes to finding a reliable source of fantasy points at the wide receiver position, the conversation starts with targets. Over the last three seasons, only Antonio Brown (528) has seen more targets than Demaryius Thomas (505). During that span, just three receivers have scored more fantasy points—in both standard and PPR—than Thomas, despite the fact that last year, DT posted his lowest catch, yardage, and touchdown totals since 2011.
While many fantasy owners may look to a down 2016 campaign as a sign of things to come for Thomas, they forget that he injured his hip on the first play of the season, but still didn’t miss a single game—a feat he’s accomplished in each of the past five seasons. Rather than being the beginning of Thomas’s decline, his 2016 season is most likely explained as one in which he played slightly hobbled, with his production representing the floor of his range of outcomes.
The greatest reason to be optimistic about Thomas returning to the top-10 ranks at his position is the makeup of the Broncos offense. Denver’s passing game has the most concentrated target allocation in the league. Over the past two seasons, Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders have received 51% of Denver’s targets, the highest mark of any pass-catching duo. With no notable additions to his team’s receiving corps this year, Thomas figures to see the hefty target volume in 2017 that he’s become accustomed to over the years.
The two obvious knocks on Thomas go hand-in-hand: quarterback play and touchdown upside.
Thomas has never scored double-digit touchdowns without Peyton Manning under center, but he has overcome atrocious quarterback play before. In 2015, Thomas finished as the WR13 in standard leagues and the WR9 in PPR leagues despite a reduced Manning and Brock Osweiler providing targets that were arguably less valuable than the ones Thomas saw from Trevor Siemian in 2016.
Regarding Thomas’s touchdown prowess, or lack thereof, my published research on the stickiness of year-to-year stats showed that touchdown total and touchdown rate are among the most variable stats for a wide receiver from one year to the next. In other words, given the relatively infrequent and random nature of touchdowns, it shouldn’t be too surprising when any receiver—especially one that receives a high amount of target volume—posts a juicy touchdown total.
For the same reasons that I am confident about investing in Thomas in fantasy drafts, I have pause about spending a high-leverage pick on Doug Baldwin.
Last season, Baldwin’s 125 targets represented the most he has seen in his career, but he still finished just 19th among wide receivers in that department. Unlike the Broncos, the Seahawks are a team that is going to spread the ball around. While no player in the Russell Wilson era has seen more than 22% of Seahawks targets, Thomas saw 25% of Broncos targets in 2016. Even with its highest pass/run ratio since drafting Wilson, Seattle ranked 18th in total pass attempts—just behind the Broncos.
The intrigue with drafting Baldwin comes from his touchdown upside, but he scored just two more touchdowns than Thomas in 2016. In fact, one could argue that Baldwin’s 5.6% touchdown rate was higher than expected given Wilson’s touchdown rate of just 4.1%.
Although Wilson played injured for most of 2016, his career touchdown rate sits at 5.6%, so we can’t reasonably expect Baldwin to see a huge uptick in scoring just because of a healthy Russ.
In order to make Baldwin an anchor of my fantasy team, there would have to be strong evidence that he will see a significant increase in targets, and I have yet to come across any indication of that happening in 2017. When spending a high-leverage pick on a player, I want one with a high baseline projection and room to outperform his price. Demaryius Thomas offers exactly that.