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Fantasy Football 2018: Wide Receiver Primer

The wide receiver position is full of young and talented superstars, but here are five burning questions to consider before they fly off your draft board

Welcome to wide receiver, fantasy football’s most fun position. Why does it deserve that designation? Well, first, consider the top of the position. Antonio Brown is a living legend, likely already a top-five receiver of all-time who has shown no signs of slowing down. Odell Beckham is one of the league’s most exciting players, and has scored 38 touchdowns in 47 career games. Julio Jones is working on a streak of four straight seasons with at least 1,400 receiving yards. The only other player to do that in NFL history was Marvin Harrison, from 1999 through 2002. Add DeAndre Hopkins, Michael Thomas, A.J. Green, Davante Adams, Keenan Allen, Mike Evans, Doug Baldwin and T.Y. Hilton to the mix, and the position is in quite literally the best hands ever. Oh, and six of those guys—Beckham, Hopkins, Thomas, Adams, Allen and Evans—are all 26 or younger.

The fun doesn’t end there. Look beyond those top two tiers, and you’ll find even more players early in their careers whose best days are likely still ahead. Stefon Diggs, Brandin Cooks, Allen Robinson and Tyreek Hill have already experienced plenty of success, and the arrow is pointing up in an obvious way for all of them. Amari Cooper and Sammy Watkins have been mild disappointments to this point of their respective careers, but both still have elite WR1 potential, and will play this season at 24 years old and 25 years old, respectively. Juju Smith-Schuster had a monster rookie season. Again, the position is in great hands, not only this year, but for a generation to come.

It isn’t just the youngsters, though. Larry Fitzgerald has caught at least 100 balls for at least 1,000 yards and six touchdowns in each of the last three seasons. Demaryius Thomas survived a quarterback apocalypse the last few seasons, and is in line for his best year since Peyton Manning retired. Late bloomer Adam Thielen was a revelation for the Vikings last year, finishing eighth in receptions and fifth in yards. Golden Tate has four straight seasons with at least 90 catches, the seventh player in NFL history with such a streak. Other veterans like Alshon Jeffery, Jarvis Landry, Marvin Jones, Pierre Garcon, Randall Cobb and a host of others help make this fantasy’s deepest position. And guess what, in these three paragraphs, we’ve named just 27 receivers, fewer than the typical number of starters in even the shallowest leagues.

So, yeah, wide receiver is fantasy football’s most fun position. With that, let’s turn to five burning questions to consider leading up to draft day.


Burning Questions

Where’s the position’s indecision point?

Take one more quick look at the first paragraph of this column. There’s not much, if anything, to be worried about with the first 10 or 12 receivers who come off the board. The math says that a couple likely won’t live up to expectations, but no one is going to feel concerned about drafting any one of them. So where’s the first spot where at least a sliver of a red flag might start waving?

I’ve got Demaryius Thomas and Amari Cooper ranked 17th and 18th at the position, and that’s the first spot where I’d feel like I wasn’t making a slam-dunk selection. I like both players and feel like they’re great picks at their respective average draft positions, but it’d be silly to suggest either comes without risk. Thomas is in his age-30 season, and while that’s not a problem for receivers the way it is for running backs, he’s still likely kicking off the back nine of his career. Case Keenum may be a clear upgrade from Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler and even second-half-of-2015 Peyton Manning, but it’s not as though he’s a sure thing under center. I’ll grab Thomas with little hesitation at ADP, but there’s an obvious path to fantasy disappointment for him.

As for Cooper, he fell flat last season, finishing with 48 catches for 680 yards. Seven touchdowns masked in fantasy leagues just how bad he was from a real-life standpoint, but even there he was outside the top-30 receivers in standard and PPR leagues, behind players like Mohamed Sanu and Marquise Goodwin. Derek Carr has underperformed league-wide yards per attempt in all four of his seasons, and may never be a true franchise quarterback. For all of Jon Gruden’s protestations that Cooper will be a “main vein” of the offense, there’s some real risk that he’s designing an offense that would fit better in 1998 than it will in 2018. Cooper has immense potential, but clear risk.

The next receivers in my rankings are Tyreek Hill, Golden Tate and Alshon Jeffery. Yes, they all have obvious charms, but Hill and Jeffery are floor risks, while Tate has a limited ceiling. As much as I like any other player that comes after them, the slam-dunk option is no longer on the table at this point of the receiver rankings. The first indecision point at the position, at least by my estimation, comes at No. 17.

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Who will cement himself as an elite receiver this season?

Antonio Brown needed four years to become the player we know today. After being a sixth-round pick in the 2010 draft, he played sparingly as a rookie. He caught 69 passes for 1,108 yards and two touchdowns in his second year, then fell back to 66 grabs for 787 yards and five scores the next season. It was 2013, his fourth year in the league, that he became AB, racking up 110 catches for 1,499 yards and eight touchdowns. He hasn’t had a season with fewer than 101 catches, 1,284 yards and nine touchdowns since.

There’s a receiver entering his fourth season this year who has followed a similar path to Brown’s over his first three campaigns. He was a fifth-round pick in 2015, and like Brown, a smaller receiver, checking in at 6’0” and 191 pounds. He caught 52 passes for 720 yards and four scores as a rookie, setting a strong foundation in year one. He has made his way a bit more linearly than Brown did, posting lines of 84-903-3 in 2016, and 64-849-8 last year. He’s ready to put it all together in year four, just like Brown before him. His name is Stefon Diggs.

Fantasy Football 2018: QB Primer

Now, just to be clear, I’m not calling for a 110-1,499-8 year from Diggs this season. What I am saying, though, is that everything is in place for Diggs to break out in a big way this year. He has improved every season of his career, adding something to his game at each step along the way. Last year, it was the contested catch. Pro Football Focus found that Diggs had the highest catch rate on contested passes, while graded Diggs the best receiver on tight-window throws, essentially two ways of saying the same thing: Diggs makes plays.

He’s going to be making those plays on the opposite end of passes from the best quarterback with whom he has played in his young career. Make no mistake, Kirk Cousins is an obvious upgrade from Case Keenum. Yes, Keenum had a great year in 2017, completing 67.6% of his passes for 3,547 yards, 7.37 YPA and 22 touchdowns. Here’s the thing, though: Save for the completion percentage, Cousins has bested all of those marks in all three of his seasons as a starter. His career lows sit at 64.3% completion rate (so he’s no slouch there), 4,093 yards, 7.58 YPA and 25 touchdowns. Over his three years starting in Washington, he averaged a 67% completion rate, 4,392 yards, 7.8 YPA and 27 touchdowns per season. Cousins brings a floor and a ceiling to Minnesota’s passing game that it hasn’t enjoyed previous during Diggs’ career.

Diggs turns 25 at the end of November, and he has clearly been building toward a breakout across the first three years of his career. It will arrive this season.

Which passing game do you need to get a piece of?

There are a few good answers to this question, with teams like the Steelers, Saints, Chiefs, Vikings and Chargers immediately jumping to mind, second-tier options such as the Rams, Texans and Lions standing out, and under-the-radar units in Chicago and Cleveland carrying clear sleeper potential. But, as has been the case for the better part of a decade, the answer is the Packers. So long as Aaron Rodgers is the player we’ve come to know, mostly love, and—depending on your point of view—occasionally fear, it’s always the Packers.

Aaron Rodgers has played at least 15 games eight times in his career. He produced a WR1 and a WR2 in six of those seasons, and twice carried two of his receivers to a top-10 finish at the position in the same year (2014 and 2016). It’s always wise to bet that Rodgers will support two top-20 receivers. Davante Adams appears a lock for the top 10 and, with Rodgers throwing him the ball, has legitimate No. 1 overall receiver upside. Randall Cobb, meanwhile, reclaimed the role as the No. 2 receiver in the offense after quietly doing admirable work as the No. 3 the last two years, during which he caught 126 of 176 targets for 1,263 yards and eight scores.

On top of that, the Packers added Jimmy Graham, who can be a touchdown machine without being a target hog. Is his final year in Seattle, he scored 10 touchdowns and totaled 520 yards on 57 receptions and 96 targets. That makes Graham the perfect tight end for this offense from a fantasy perspective. He adds another legitimate weapon without taking too many targets away from Adams and Cobb, thus minimizing the risk that he’ll cannibalize their production.

If Rodgers does what he always does, the Packers will have a WR1, WR2 and one of the five or six highest-scoring tight ends in the league this season. You want a piece of this passing game.

Fantasy Football 2018: Running Back Primer

Who’s a mid-round pick with WR1 upside?

Again, there are plenty of options here, so allow me to issue apologies in advance to Allen Robinson, Adam Thielen, Tyreek Hill, Larry Fitzgerald and Amari Cooper. The best bet, alongside the previously discussed Stefon Diggs, is Brandin Cooks.

Cooks’s fantasy stock initially took a hit when the Patriots shipped him to the Rams for a first-round pick before the draft. It wasn’t just that he was leaving behind one of the most reliable scoring environments in New England, it was that he was joining a team with a lot of mouths to feed, including one of the highest-volume running backs in the league. With a 400-touch season possible for Todd Gurley and a usage tree at receiver that will include significant target shares for Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods, there was, and still is, good reason to worry about Cooks’ WR1 potential.

But first, let me alleviate any environment-related concerns you might have. Cooks has been on great offenses from the day he stepped into the league, joining the Saints in 2014. He was limited to 10 games as a rookie, catching 53 passes for 550 yards and three touchdowns. He broke out the next year, however, hauling in 84 passes for 1,138 yards and nine scores. Over Cooks’ last three seasons, including that breakout year, he has averaged 75.7 catches, 1,131 yards and eight touchdowns on 120 targets. That number would have ranked 13th last year, but outside the top 20 among receivers in 2015 and 2016. In the last two years, Cooks has ranked sixth and 12th in yards per target, and 14th and 23rd in fantasy points per touch while ranking as a top-12 receiver both seasons. He doesn’t need a 30% target share to put up WR1 numbers.

Second, Cooks’s status on the Rams has recently changed. Days before the start of training camp, the team signed him to a five-year deal with $50.5 in guaranteed money. For a team that has a lot of extensions it would like to get done—the Rams signed Gurley to his big deal after signing Cooks, and it still needs to work something out with Aaron Donald—the fact that Cooks was made a priority tells us a lot about what the coaching staff and front office thinks of him. And now, we can easily see the environment as a positive. Cooks has an innovative, offense-first head coach in Sean McVay who already went to bat for him, a young, improving quarterback who was the first overall pick in the draft two years ago, an elite running back to take away a ton of the defense’s attention, and a couple of reliable receiver teammates who will make doubling or bracketing Cooks on every play an impossibility.

Cooks doesn’t need a top-10 target share to reach WR1 status, but he might get one this season. If he does, he’ll be a league-winner.

Which receiver will you own the most shares of this year?

I’d love to say Antonio Brown or Odell Beckham, but there’s a lot of competition for those guys. Clearly, Diggs and Cooks will be on a lot of my teams, but they, too, are popular selections, coming off the board within the first 50 picks of a typical draft. It’s hard for any fantasy owner to guarantee that he or she will get one of those players, especially in drafts where slot determines so much. For this answer, I’ll have to dig a bit deeper, down into the ninth round of a standard 12-team draft, where Pierre Garcon is offering up immense value.

Garcon missed out on Jimmy Garoppolo mania, landing on IR with a season-ending neck injury just days after the 49ers swung their franchise-altering trade. Still, in eight games with C.J. Beathard and Brian Hoyer at the helm, Garcon caught 40 of 67 targets for 500 yards. For all the talk about Jerick McKinnon, George Kittle and Marquise Goodwin, it’s Garcon who enters this season as the No. 1 receiver in San Francisco, most likely to lead the team in targets. The last time he played with a competent quarterback was in 2016 when he was still in Washington, teamed up with Kirk Cousins. He caught 79 passes for 1,041 yards and three scores that season, ending the year as the No. 26 receiver in standard-scoring leagues, and No. 22 receiver in PPR. As the 39th receiver off the board in a typical draft, Garcon could be one of this season’s return-on-investment kings.

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