Fantasy Football: The Path to a WR1 Season Primer for 2020

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Editor’s Note: Get player profiles and Matt Harmon’s Reception Perception data on all of the top-50 fantasy wide receivers in the Ultimate Draft Kit.

For the fourth year, our writing staff continues our “Path to WR1 series examining wide receivers who are currently ranked outside of the top-15 receivers in Andy, Mike, and Jason’s initial WR rankings. The goal is to give some reasoning and definition to our methodology in determining the likelihood of a top-12 fantasy season from various prospective wide receivers. Our team of writers will be hypothesizing about players that possibly have a shot at finishing the year as a WR1. Last year, we identified some superb potential WR1 values including Chris Godwin and D.J. Moore.

Let us be clear: we are NOT projecting a WR1 end of the year total; instead, we are merely giving the high-end of the range of outcomes for players to show what type of ceiling is in the realm of possibilities. We poll our team of writers and take the consensus percentage of whether that WR is capable of churning out a WR1 season.

Each of these WRs brings a bit of optimism for 2020 and our job is simply to lay out the “path” to a top-12 finish. This journey ultimately comes down to projecting their target share, depth of those targets, receptions, yards, and TDs for the upcoming season. All of these statistical categories are defined and explained in this article.

Let us know on Twitter who your long shot WR1 candidates are using the #PathtoWR1 and tagging @TheFFBallers.

Predicting a Range of Outcomes

Whether people like to admit it or not, projecting fantasy point totals is a guessing game. We forecast usage while also acknowledging the fact that we don’t have all the info. In 2019, there were eight new head coaches and 16 new offensive coordinators with either new responsibilities or new teams. As recently discussed in the Coaching Changes podcast, for 2020, there are five new head coaches and 12 new offensive coordinators. In other words, there are many offensive situations where predicting player usage has to be met with humility. We don’t know everything and we shouldn’t pretend we do.

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When we are talking about a “range of outcomes”, to put it plainly, we’re seeking what’s the best and worst scenarios available for a given player. We’re finding a player’s ceiling and floor probabilities. There can be volatility for every single player (see DeAndre Hopkins 2016) especially when we consider all the different factors involved for a position that needs another to even give them an opportunity to contribute in fantasy. WRs are co-dependent on QBs. We also must maintain that none of this can be done in a vacuum as projecting one player’s ceiling can also forecast doom and gloom on a fellow teammate. For instance, if you’re projecting someone like Marquise Brown to sneak into the WR1 territory in 2020, it inevitably must have an effect on his Ravens teammates. (Hint: A Hollywood Brown article will be in the works from yours truly)

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The goal of exploring a range of outcomes (and in this case the high-end) is to see how likely a WR can meet or exceed their draft position. That is how you spot draft values, swing for the fences and cash in on the right player’s ceiling that wins you a league.

Laying Down the Path

Let’s go into the why behind what we will be discussing in each WR1 profile.

Target Share- The target share, also known as market share, reveals a team’s total passing output and gives us a clearer picture of that receiver’s importance to the passing game expressed as a percentage. Targets have the highest correlation year-to-year for fantasy simply by acknowledging how involved a player will be and how much percentage of the passing pie they get. While we cannot predict usage fully, it’s important to note that a majority of WR1s need to see upwards of a 20% target share. Anyone seeing close 30 percent is in a different stratosphere and almost a near locked-in WR1 finish.

However, not every target share percentage is created equal. Seeing close to 20% in the Steelers offense in 2019 still would’ve netted you only 92 targets. That would be rookie Diontae Johnson. The percentage of the volume matters and the competition is what we will focus on. For a more in-depth look at WR targets and how market share breaks down league-wide, check out an article I wrote last year called  WR Targets and What We Know.

Catch Rate- The catch rate shows how many of those targets get converted into receptions. This statistic is not as “sticky” as others with some year-to-year fluctuations. For instance, Amari Cooper has basically yo-yoed through his first four seasons seeing catch rates of 55.4%, 62.6%, 50%, sky-rocketing to 70.1% when he came to Dallas, and then settling in at 66.4% last year.

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We also have to take into account the type of routes run by wide receivers. Matt Harmon’s Reception Perception data found in the Ultimate Draft Kit gives you a better picture of the route tree of each WR. For example, Michael Thomas led WRs with an 80.5 percent catch rate in 2019; this makes sense given his penchant for short to intermediate routes paired with hyper-accurate Drew Brees. Compare that with the routes D.J. Chark ran and you can see that his sub-62 percent catch rate is actually nothing to shy away from.

Receptions- In order to project a player’s fantasy finish, we need to see the possible range of outcomes and if you live in a PPR league, you know receptions drive so much of what your WRs do. In PPR leagues, this is how to find undervalued target mavens such as veterans Jamison Crowder and Diontae Johnson. As I stated earlier, projecting how a WR converts receptions from their targets isn’t an exact science. However, the goal of this series is to reveal a range of outcomes and not just one median projection.

Yards- Yards are another volatile statistic especially when you start using yards-per-catch (ypc) statistics to plug-and-play from previous years. There is variance. Changing a WR’s ypc can be the difference between a 1,000-yard season like A.J. Brown’s or Larry Fitzgerald‘s 804 despite the fact Fitz saw 25 more targets than the rookie. When it comes to projecting yardage totals, we’re trying to highlight a healthy range based upon the team’s total pass attempts and the historical data from previous years.

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What we can say about yards is that the higher the amount, the more touchdowns we can expect and candidates who are due for more TDs in 2018. Last year JJ Zachariason highlighted this showing how certain players TD output is begging for a positive regression based upon high yardage totals. For most of 2019, Robert Woods was TD-less, disappointing owners before ending the second-half on a tear and gathering a few at the end. Eventually, things even out.

aDOT & Air Yards- Created by ESPN’s Mike Clay, the average depth of target (aDOT) is one of the better predictive metrics for WRs, especially over catch rate and yards per target. This stat is not dependent on the QB and captures that the depth of a receiver’s route is entirely about the pass-catcher. Wide receivers who run deeper routes and targeted by the QB, he has the opportunity for more yards. Sounds simple but remember, yards are more indicative of TDs despite the fact outliers such as Tyler Lockett’s 2018 season when he had ten TDs on just 70 targets. Somewhere Julio Jones is crying. As Danny Tuccitto of Intentional Rounding pointed out, aDOT can stabilize fairly quickly for WRs at only ten games. For instance, a WR like Mike Williams has routinely seen his aDOT push above 15 since being drafted by Los Angeles. He has been consistently targeted down-the-field and therefore projecting within this range helps us with a piece of the puzzle in figuring out his yardage totals.

Another relevant metric in the family of aDOT is Air Yards. Essentially, think about Air Yards as the number of yards from point of release of the QB to the catch point. Air yards can easily be calculated by taking total passing yards and subtracting Yards After the Catch (YAC). According to Josh Hermsmeyer, creator of AirYards.com, “when it comes to forecasting football players, the thing we are best at projecting is volume — carries, pass attempts, targets. Fortunately, volume correlates very well with fantasy points.” He adds in an interview at 4for4.com, that “if a player is getting a lot of targets and there are a lot of Air Yards behind those targets, but he has put up terrible games in terms of fantasy points, we should expect a rebound in the near future.

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What air yards tell us isn’t necessarily how far the ball traveled in the air but the yards a receiver could’ve gained if he caught the ball. For instance, Curtis Samuel‘s end of season yardage total (627) looks kinda sad and a bit disappointing especially if you thought he would be a breakout in 2019. However, he actually ranked 9th in the league at 1,608 Air Yards. What this tells us is that Samuel left a ton of yards on the field as his catch rate (51.4%) was low due to poor targets from Kyle Allen and Will Grier. Air Yards aren’t a measure of how much distance the ball actually traveled. Instead, they measure the prospective yards a receiver would have produced if he caught the ball and then was immediately tackled. In other words, they are a measure of intentions, which for fantasy is where we can start our projections.

TDs- Last but certainly not least is touchdowns. I wish I had a secret formula or years of data to prophesy this all-important category that makes or breaks your week. But finding the end-zone and predicting it is a fickle chore. As stated earlier, yards are a helpful marker towards projecting TDs for WRs. However, according to FantasyLabs, the Yards per TD rate has steadily declined over the last decade. Last year only three total pass-catchers caught double-digit TDs: Kenny Golladay, Mark Andrews, and Cooper Kupp. That’s it.

So how do we project TDs?

Well, a good starting place is finding a healthy mix of analyzing the offensive system, the QB’s TD rate, and the number of total team TDs you have to play around with. Did you see Giants rookie Darius Slayton with eight TDs while his higher-profile teammates Evan Engram, Sterling Shepard, and Saquon Barkley ended up with eight COMBINED? There needs to be some variance in play. Some players are destined to hover around double-digit TDs (Davante Adams) while others have shown that six or seven TDs is their ceiling such as T.Y. Hilton and Keenan Allen.

Conclusion

We will be unveiling a different WR1 candidate each week over the course of the month of the summer.  Let us remember that projecting a ceiling for a player is assuming a lot and all of the variables involved from point of release of the QB to the catch point of a WR can change drastically. Stay part of the conversation and let us know which WRs you could see make a tier jump and a draft-day value.

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