As average draft positions (ADPs) fluctuate throughout the summer, certain players at certain points of the draft become almost too good to pass up. That's sort of the long and short of why we're doing this "Must-Own" series for a second year. In each piece, we highlight players at a certain position who are "must-owns" at their relative draft slotting. Matt Franciscovich crushed running backs earlier this week, and Marcas Grant served you up some signal-callers as well. That leaves wide receivers to little old me. Much like with the late-round wide receiver targets I gave you last week, I'll try to do my best Matt Harmon impersonation and point out the wide receivers you'd be foolish to pass on in fantasy this fall. You won't need to draft ALL of these players, but getting a few on your roster certainly wouldn't hurt.
The most underappreciated top-tier fantasy WR: Doug Baldwin
I simply don't understand the disrespect Doug Baldwin receives as an elite fantasy wide receiver. Maybe this is why he's always so angry. Currently being drafted as the WR11 on both FantasyFootballCalculator.com and MyFantasyLeague.com, Baldwin is coming at a value. Plenty of the wide receivers going in his range -- Amari Cooper, Dez Bryant, DeAndre Hopkins, Brandin Cooks, Terrelle Pryor, etc. -- carry much more harrowing question marks into the 2017 season. Especially to be drafted as a fringe WR1. Baldwin, meanwhile, has maintained a consistent target share in the Seattle offense over the last three years (22, 21, 22 percent, respectively) even as the team's pass attempts have increased in each of those seasons (454, 489, 567). On top of that, he's blossomed in his new No. 1 wide receiver role, delivering back-to-back top-10 fantasy finishes in both standard and PPR formats. He's expanded his game, too, making him more trustworthy for fantasy. In 2015, 95 percent of Baldwin's yardage (1,011) and 93 percent of his touchdowns (13) came from the slot, per Next Gen Stats. In 2016, those percentages fell to 59 for yardage (662) and 57 for touchdowns (four). Baldwin proved he could win outside on a consistent basis, posting a 78 percent catch rate and 15.36 yards per catch average when lined up out wide. Lastly, Baldwin's role in the offense is secure. Jimmy Graham could see some more work, but Tyler Lockett is recovering from a serious late-season injury and the rest of the pass-catching corps is relatively unproven (Paul Richardson) or uninspiring (Jermaine Kearse). Any way you slice it, Baldwin is going to ball out once again in 2017.
2017's Davante Adams: Donte Moncrief
This one isn't exactly a one-to-one comparison, as Davante Adams was barely being drafted this time last year while Donte Moncrief currently carries a Round 6 ADP (WR29), but hear me out. Much like Adams, Moncrief has been the subject of endless amounts of offseason hype year after year. In fact, he was featured in this very column last year as the "All too obvious breakout candidate" ... whoops. However, the same logic my colleague Matt Harmon applied back then holds true in 2017. Moncrief still checks all the boxes as a talented, physically gifted player in a high-powered offense featuring an elite quarterback. He's scored 13 touchdowns in his last 23 games, hauling in nine of his 11 targets inside the 10-yard line for touchdowns in those games, proving his knack for finding pay dirt. Moncrief is also hitting for the cycle when it comes to offseason narratives, as he's already slimmed down, is dominating practices, and is focusing on staying healthy while playing for a new contract. Luck's recovery from shoulder surgery is worth monitoring, but if both he and Moncrief stay healthy double-digit touchdowns seem extremely achievable for Moncrief. We've done this dance before, but it's now or never with Moncrief. Here's to hoping he finally delivers on all of that promise and goes gangbusters in fantasy.
The hate has gone too far on: Emmanuel Sanders
First, a bit of clarity. I think we can all agree that Emmanuel Sanders will never again reach the heights he did during that magical 2014 season with Peyton Manning when he notched 101 receptions, 1,404 yards, and nine touchdowns. But that's perfectly OK. In fact, in this post-Manning world, Sanders has proven to be a reliable WR2 in fantasy ... yet he's currently barely being drafted as a WR3 (WR34 on FFCalc and WR31 on MFL). Counting 2015 as a P.M. (post-Manning) season, Sanders has posted nearly identical stat lines in the last two years. Seriously, look at this insanity:
2015: 136 targets, 76 receptions, 1,135 yards, six TDs
2016: 137 targets, 79 receptions, 1,032 yards, five TDs
So what's changed to sink his ADP? His quarterback will be one of the two he played with last season, either Trevor Siemian or Paxton Lynch. Demaryius Thomas is still there to command attention on the other side of the field. The one change is the arrival of Mike McCoy as Denver's offensive coordinator, but I struggle to see how that is a negative. Four of the last five offenses McCoy has led have finished in the top 10 in the league in both passing yards and passing touchdowns, save the 2015 Chargers which finished fourth in yards but 13th in touchdowns. And it's worth pointing out that was an apocalyptic injury-riddled season for the Bolts. To wrap this up, I'm not saying Sanders is suddenly going to leap frog a bunch of receivers and finish in the top 12. But in the last two years, he's finished as the WR18 and WR21 in standard, and WR 19 and WR20 in PPR. He seems like a safe bet to finish in that range again, but he's being drafted a few rounds later than that projection.
The all too obvious breakout: Willie Snead
Yes, we're once again feeling the need for Snead (and this is the last time I'll use that joke in print. Please @ me if you catch me breaking this promise). Willie Snead has been an underrated gem for the Saints the last two years, seeing over 100 targets while posting respectable stat lines of 69-984-3 and 72-895-4, respectively. He's an excellent technician as a route-runner, with high scores in Matt Harmon's Reception Perception analysis. So why is Snead the obvious breakout candidate? Here's the simple math: great on-field play + role in high-scoring offense + attachment to elite QB + increased target volume = breakout. Of course, plenty of variables could throw off that equation, but it's one we should trust in this instance.
Snead's talent is the first step, but playing in the Saints offense with Drew Brees also gives him a bump. Yes, Brees is adept at spreading the ball around, but the options other than Snead to inherit the 143 targets opened up by the departures of Brandin Cooks and Tim Hightower aren't the most inspiring. Ted Ginn will eat into some deep game work, sure, and Coby Fleener could get some more looks as well. but Snead should get a healthy bump from the 100 target range toward the 120 range. Brees doesn't have a long history of feeding wide receivers that many targets, but this offense could be changing. The receiving corps isn't as deep as in the past, while the backfield has been bolstered by the acquisitions of Adrian Peterson and Alvin Kamara. Perhaps this signals a more concentrated passing attack on the horizon. If so, again, Snead should be the primary beneficiary. The only bugaboo that could sink a Snead breakout would be red-zone looks. As Brad Evans of Yahoo noted, Snead has ranked 94th and 90th in red-zone target percentage the last two years. That could bump up in 2017, but it's certainly not a guarantee. Still, increased yardage and catch totals should at the very least push Snead into the WR2 conversation when 2017 is all said and done.
Bargain bin WR1 target hog: Pierre Garcon
Sure, as a 30-year old, 6-foot, 209-pound wide receiver Garcon might not fit the bill as a prototypical "No. 1" option, but his situation couldn't be better for 2017. Garcon left the packed Washington passing attack for San Francisco via free agency to reunite with his former offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan. There's little competition for heavy targets in the Bay Area after Garcon. Seriously. Look at this roster and tell me who is going to steal tons of targets from Garcon? That's what I thought. Everyone likes to point back to 2013 when Garcon was last in a Shanahan-led offense and posted the best year of his career: 181 targets, 113 receptions, 1,346 yards, five touchdowns. That season for Garcon is still likely an outlier, but his market share in San Francisco should be enticing.
Let's do some quick math to spell this out based on Shanahan's historical tendencies. The average offensive plays run in a Shanahan offense is 1,031, with an average run-pass ratio of 56-44. If that trend holds, the 49ers will attempt approximately 577 passes. The No. 1 wideout in Shanahan's offenses averages a 25.5 percent market share, which would put Garcon at about 147 targets. That figure would have been a top-12 target total in each of the last five years, and during that span only six players to finish in the top 12 in targets failed to finish as at least a WR2. They were Allen Robinson and DeAndre Hopkins (2016), Mike Evans (2015), Andre Johnson and Vincent Jackson (2014), and Larry Fitzgerald (2012).
Now, those numbers are all based on averages, and PLENTY could happen in the coming weeks to disrupt or augment those very baseline projections. But they help paint the picture of how Garcon is currently being criminally undervalued in fantasy. He should be pummeled with targets and as history has shown, he should be able to turn those into plenty of fantasy points.
Newest addition to the late-round gang: Tyrell Williams
Just last week I talked up several late-round wide receiver values, but now there's a new kid in town. With the news breaking that the Chargers first-round pick, wide receiver Mike Williams, could start training camp on the PUP, Tyrell Williams rockets back into the conversation as a must-own late-round wide receiver.
An undrafted free agent out of Western Oregon in 2015, Williams spent most of his rookie year on the practice squad. Through attrition, he was not only bumped up to the active roster full-time in 2016 but became the team's de facto No. 1 wide receiver, putting together a nice stat line of 69 catches, 1,059 yards and seven scores with a 15.35 yards per catch average. Last year, only four receivers had a higher ypc average than Williams (min. 100 targets): DeSean Jackson, Julio Jones, Marvin Jones and T.Y. Hilton. With Mike Williams missing much of training camp and potentially the early portions of the season (he'll need time to get in game shape and get timing down with Philip Rivers), Tyrell should be able to hit the ground running in 2017. In 2016 he averaged 2.50 yards of separation when targeted, which just missed the top 10 among No. 2 wide receivers per Next Gen Stats tracking. A competent receiver with a much clearer path to targets, Williams is ripe for the picking in the later rounds. If Mike Williams' injury lingers, expect Tyrell's ADP to skyrocket.
The rookie WR to own this year in fantasy: John Ross
I wrestled with this one for a while. Corey Davis was my favorite wide receiver in the class and originally landed in a great situation with the Titans. However, the signing of Eric Decker this summer really hurt Davis' chances of reaching his fantasy potential as a rookie. Likewise, Mike Williams is a great fit with the Chargers, but joins a pass-catching corps so crowded it puts clown cars to shame and now (as mentioned above) could start on the PUP. Meanwhile, Ross carries the lowest ADP of the three (Round 12, WR54), trailing Davis by about 33 picks in mid-July.
So, what's the case for drafting Ross? First and foremost, we need to toss out last year for the Bengals and, more specifically, Andy Dalton. Injuries to several offensive playmakers (Tyler Eifert, A.J. Green, Giovani Bernard) greatly contributed to this unit finishing 24th in scoring -- by far the lowest mark of Dalton's career. Without any dynamic threats in the passing game, Dalton posted the lowest touchdown rate of his career (3.2 percent), which puts him in a place for positive regression this fall (his career average was 5.02 prior to last season). Now, Green and Eifert are the top options for Dalton, but that doesn't leave Ross with scraps. Assuming Ross beats out Brandon LaFell for the No. 2 wide receiver role (not a given, but LaFell's contract is minimal and only partially guaranteed for 2017), he could see anywhere from 15 to 20 percent of the targets. If Dalton hits his career average of 530 attempts per year (using his average from his injury-shortened 2015 season), that could put Ross in line for 90-plus targets. Now, this isn't a game-changing total and very likely leaves Ross outside the top-24 fantasy wide receivers per Matt Harmon's study last summer, but it's not a number to ignore.
Ross just set the NFL Scouting Combine record in the 40-yard dash and has lethal speed. His big-play ability can help negate his lack of volume but will put him more in the boom-or-bust category. However, as a rotational WR3 available in the 12th round, owners could simply start Ross in games that figure to feature pass-heavy game scripts for the Bengals, hoping for a deep touchdown pass to help push their lineup over the edge. However, his status and playing time should be monitored through training camp and the preseason, as LaFell and Tyler Boyd could factor in regularly and muck up any fantasy relevance Ross would otherwise carry.
Deep sleeper with a chance to surprise: Paul Richardson
I profiled Richardson in my first deep sleeper column back in May, but since that feels like an eternity ago, I'm giving him a bump again. You can read my full reasoning in that article, but here's the gist: the Seahawks offense has increased its passing attempts in five straight seasons, Richardson performed really well in the postseason, and there's no clear No. 3 option in Seattle behind Doug Baldwin and Jimmy Graham. In theory, it'd be Tyler Lockett, but he's recovering from a broken leg suffered LATE last season. Richardson's price in fantasy drafts is currently FREE, making him a great late-round dart throw who could be a weekly difference-maker.
BONUS! The player I love but couldn't fit into a silly category: Stefon Diggs
To be fair, I could have labeled Diggs a breakout instead of Snead. But in an effort to write about more players (since I've already touched on Diggs this offseason), I gave Snead the spotlight. But Diggs is certainly worth more fantasy attention given his current seventh-round, WR33 ADP.
It's important to consider the context when looking back on Diggs' solid 2016 production -- 84 receptions, 903 yards, three touchdowns on 112 targets. Not only was Diggs battling a groin injury for much of the season, but after a whole offseason with Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback, he had to play with Shaun Hill in Week 1 and then adjust to Sam Bradford the rest of the way. The offensive line was a sieve, the running game was non-existent (32nd in yards, 32nd in yards per attempt, 28th in rushing touchdowns), and to top it all off, offensive coordinator Norv Turner left the team following a Week 8 loss to the Chicago Bears.
Looking ahead to 2017, most of those issues have been addressed. The team drafted Dalvin Cook and signed Latavius Murray to improve the ground attack. They replaced Matt Kalil and Andre Smith at tackle with Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers, which could be an improvement but at worst looks like a lateral move. As for the offense, Bradford/Diggs have had a full offseason together in Pat Shurmur's system, which is deploying Diggs downfield more frequently and has "put an emphasis on "big plays." Combining all of these factors together, it's hard to envision a healthy Diggs not improving his numbers across the board in 2017.
*-- Follow Alex on Twitter @AlexGelhar or "Like" his page on Facebook for more NFL and fantasy analysis. He's saddened by the untimely passing of Chester Bennington, former frontman for Linkin Park. "Hybrid Theory" and "Meteora" were two defining albums of his youth, and he'll be forever grateful to Chester and the band for providing him with so many memories. Rest in peace, Chester. *