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  • Could Mike Evans become a top-three fantasy football receiver this season? Can Amari Cooper overcome his lack of touchdowns?
By Michael Beller
August 15, 2017

There’s an understandable impulse reverberating through the fantasy football world that has running backs once again in the driver’s seat. After the exploits of Le’Veon Bell, David Johnson and Ezekiel Elliott last season, draft-day prices for running backs have bounced back to pre-2016 levels. It might be understandable, but it’s a mistake.

As a whole, receivers remain more reliable investments when it comes to fantasy football. Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham may have ceded the very beginning of the first round back to the elite backs, but they and their brethren should dominate the early and middle rounds. It’s a pass-first, pass-second and pass-third league, with receivers share of the fantasy marketplace growing year over year.

In other words, owners should know this position inside and out before heading into drafts. The stars at the top of the position can be the core of a championship team, there’s significant value at the position in the middle rounds, and there are bound to be a handful of late-round gems who turn into weekly fantasy starters.

Running backs may have won back the high-scoring crown last year, but fantasy football remains a receivers game.

Fantasy Football Rankings: Quarterbacks | Running Backs

Burning questions

Can someone threaten the established order?

This will be the second straight season with Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham and Julio Jones as the top three receivers in ADP, and for Brown, it will be his third consecutive year as the No. 1 receiver by ADP. Jones’s streak in the top-three will increase to three seasons, while Beckham will enjoy his third straight year with a top-five ADP at the position.

However, it won’t be that way forever—if anyone is going to threaten their primacy, it will be Mike Evans of the Buccaneers.

Through the first three seasons of his career, Evans has 238 catches for 3,578 yards and 27 touchdowns. Since entering the league, Evans is seventh in receiving yards, third in receiving touchdowns, and fifth in fantasy points (the top three, as you might guess, are Brown, Beckham and Jones, with Demaryius Thomas in fourth). Last year was the best of Evans’s career thus far. He set career highs with 96 receptions and 1,321 yards, and tied a career high with 12 touchdowns. That’s the sort of growth expected of a star player in his third year, and it’s little surprise that he and Jameis Winston took off in their second season working together.

The Buccaneers added DeSean Jackson and O.J. Howard this offseason, and while that might reduce Evans’s target share, it will almost certainly increase the efficiency of the offense. That’s a great way to counteract a loss in volume, especially when you’re a do-it-all receiver like Evans. With his prowess on deep balls—he had 31 receptions on passes that traveled at least 15 yards in the air last year—and in the red zone—he had nine targets inside the 10-yard line and turned six of them into touchdowns—Evans is elite at the two most valuable types of passes for fantasy purposes. Forget about breaking up the top three, he has the ceiling to be the No. 1 receiver in fantasy leagues this year.

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Why doesn’t anyone believe in Eric Decker?

Decker has had significant roles on three top-10 offenses in his career—the 2012 and ’13 Broncos, and ’15 Jets. In those three seasons, he has averaged 84 receptions for 1,126.3 yards and 12 touchdowns. That translates to 11.54 standard-league points per game, and 16.79 PPR points per game. In all of those years, Decker never finished worse than the WR10 in standard leagues and WR13 in PPR leagues.

The Titans made a big splash after Decker was a surprise cut, securing his services to lead a revamped wide receiver group, that also includes No. 5 overall pick Corey Davis. Everyone loves Marcus Mariota. Everyone loves the Titans. They’re a popular pick to win the AFC South, a sleeper Super Bowl selection, and expected to take off offensively this year. So, why does no one seem to like Decker?

Decker’s ADP places him just inside the top 100 overall players and slots him 37th at his own position, behind the likes of Pierre Garcon and Kelvin Benjamin. Decker may have more competition for looks with the Titans than he ever did with the Broncos or Jets. The Titans will still rely heavily on the run game, led by DeMarco Murray, and Davis, Delanie Walker and Rishard Matthews will all have significant roles in the passing game. Still, Decker has never been part of a top-10 offense and not delivered huge numbers for his fantasy owners. Why would that change this season?

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Can Amari Cooper overcome his touchdown deficiency?

Through the first two seasons of Cooper’s career, an alarming trend has developed. Despite hauling in 155 receptions on 262 targets for 2,223 yards, Cooper has just 11 touchdowns. Cooper is one of just seven receivers in NFL history with at least 150 receptions, 250 targets and 2,000 yards in the first two years of his career. Among those seven, the only one with fewer touchdowns was Anquan Boldin, who had nine. The rest, including Dwayne Bowe, had at least 12, and averaged 18.4.

Now, there are two ways to look at this set of data. One is to say that Cooper has simply had bad touchdown luck. A player as talented and productive as him can’t help but find the end zone more often, so long as he keeps getting plenty of targets from Derek Carr. Since that’s unlikely to change, the touchdowns should start appearing in bunches. In fact, this logic would suggest that Cooper could even make up for lost time, putting up a monster touchdown total as soon as this season.

The other way to look at this, though, is to consider the case of Andre Johnson. He was one of the most dominant receivers of his time, and came up just five catches short of the 150-reception, 250-target, 2,000-yard thresholds we used to kick off this section. Had he qualified, and had none of those five extra catches resulted in touchdowns, he would’ve been a second receiver to hit the catch, target and yardage marks to post fewer scores than Cooper. Johnson had 10 touchdowns in the first two years of his career. The underwhelming touchdown totals were to become a theme of his 12 seasons in the league.

As good as Johnson was, he never had a 10-touchdown season in his career. In fact, he had just four seasons with more than six trips to the end zone. We know that touchdowns, especially receiving touchdowns, are among the most volatile stats in football. Still, when a pattern this striking emerges, it’s hard to ignore.

It’s far too early in Cooper’s career to put him alongside Johnson, but it bears watching. He has 21 career targets in the red zone, including seven inside the 10-yard line, and has turned just two of them into touchdowns, none of which started inside the 10. The bet here remains on Cooper’s abundance of talent, but there is touchdown-related risk not baked into his ADP.

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Is there hope for last year’s first-round busts, DeAndre Hopkins and Allen Robinson?

Yes for Hopkins, no for Robinson. And it has everything to do with the way their teams addressed what held them back last season.

I firmly believe that Deshaun Watson was the best quarterback in the 2017 draft class. Even if you don’t believe that, I don’t think anyone who spent any amount of time watching him at Clemson could question his ability to succeed at the next level. He may not start right away, but I do not think it will be long before we see him under center for the Texans. The upgrade to him from Tom Savage and Brock Osweiler cannot be overstated.

As ugly as things were for Hopkins last year, he still caught more than 50% of his passes and picked up 954 yards. Neither of those are great metrics by his standards, but it says a lot about him when the Texans as a whole averaged 5.86 yards per attempt and had more interceptions than touchdowns. There was little he could do to drag up his terrible quarterbacks last season, and he likely made as much or more out of it than any receiver could have.

Robinson, unfortunately, will still be playing his football with Blake Bortles. The former third overall pick was one of the worst quarterbacks in the league last season, and Robinson suffered. He still managed to score six touchdowns, but he caught just 73 of his 151 targets, a catch rate of 48.3%, for 883 yards, losing more than five yards off his yards per catch average from the previous season. All of that points to an alarming lack of efficiency, and that starts with Bortles’s scattershot right arm.

Robinson wasn’t completely blameless, either. In sum, Bortles completed 58.9% of his passes for 6.24 YPA. Robinson averaged 5.85 yards per target. Compare that with Marqise Lee, who managed 8.1 yards per target. Even Allen Hurns, who had a dreadful season, totaled 6.28 yards per target. Unlike Hopkins, he did not make the most of a bad situation.

Last year drove him the lesson to fantasy owners that they want their receivers and running backs tied to, at worst, league average quarterbacks. Bad quarterbacks lead bad offenses that score fewer points, pick up fewer yards, and stall out on third down more often. Players can get away with a couple of bad games from their quarterback, but there’s a cumulative effect on their fantasy production when it happens week over week. Both Hopkins and Robinson were on the wrong side of that last season. Only one of them plays for a team that attempted to address that in the offseason. Believe in the Hopkins bounce-back season, but not in the Robinson one.

Wide receiver rankings

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