The wide receiver is the most important position in fantasy football. Times have changed and it's past the point where we should accept this reality.
Workhorse running backs are almost as much of a dinosaur as fullbacks in today's NFL. Committees are ever present, with teams specializing passing-down backs and two-down bangers to create diverse formations. While that might lead you to want to "zig while others zag" to chase running backs early in hopes of landing that unicorn workhorse of old, wide receivers are much less fragile and score at a much higher rate. Rotoworld's Rich Hribar showed that the way the league is heading and the way position scores, that drafting wide receiver-heavy teams is not a fad.
Top-tier wide receivers have always scored at a tremendous rate on par with the recent RB1 performances. However, it's the floor of the position that makes it so critical. From 2011 to 2015 the year-end score of the WR24 has been on a steady rise going from 126, 131, 134, 135 to 140 points. Conversely, the RB24 is going the opposite direction with year-end finishes of 147, 116, 126, 121 to 123 points.
With that in mind, and the correct reaction to hammer wideouts early and often throughout your fantasy drafts, let's try to find out what makes a Top-24 (WR1/WR2) wide receiver. We won't just look at the ingredients that bake together an elite top-scorer, but we'll even examine common threads for that next group in the 12 to 24 ranked range.
Don't bet against volume
The primary responsibility of the wide receiver is to run their route and create requisite separation on a routine basis to provide their quarterback a strong option to throw to. As such, it's no coincidence that some of the best wideouts in the NFL are the ones that rack up targets and push for not just their team's leading spot, but the top volume load in the league. It's not an exact science, but target totals can often be an indication of a wide receiver's ability or at least what the team feels about them.
Regardless of that, there's no question that target totals hold one of the strongest correlations to fantasy points among wide receivers.
Of the 120 top-24 fantasy receivers (standard scoring) in each year from 2011 to 2015:
26.7 percent finished with 150 or more targets
45.8 percent finished with 120 to 149 targets
27.5 percent finished with less than 120 targets
It appears getting to that 120 target threshold is key to being a WR1 or WR2 in fantasy. It's also a trend that's grown stronger in recent years. In 2011 41.7 percent of the top-24 wide receivers finished with less than 120 targets, but that's been in steady decline to just 20.8 percent in 2015.
It's quite rare for a wide receiver to get 120 targets and not finish as either a WR1 or WR2. Of the 116 wide receivers who garnered 120 targets or more since 2011 only 23.3 percent of them finished outside the top-24 in that season. When you get into the 150 target range, you're almost locked into a top-24 season. Only once since 2011 has a receiver garnered 150 or more targets and finished worse than a WR2 (Larry Fitzgerald, WR42, 2012). Since then every wide receiver with that kind of volume has, at worst, finished as a WR2.
When you're looking for a wide receiver in the first few rounds of your draft, the more volume they project for, the better you can feel about their fantasy outlook. The 150 or more target range is ideal for locking in a top-24 season. When mining for values in the mid to late rounds, that's where you're searching for sneaky 120-plus target candidates. If you take a receiver projected to come under that 120 threshold, you're banking on a slim percentage chance outlier.
How can a receiver overcome the lack of volume?
When looking back over our 2011 to 2015 sample size, the answer is pretty clear: score touchdowns. The average touchdown rate (touchdown/target) among top-24 receivers over the last five years was 6.63. Of the 33 wide receivers who finished as a WR1 or WR2 in that time frame despite seeing less than 120 targets all but six of them posted a touchdown rate above that average.
Wide receivers who finished as a top-24 wide receiver with less than 120 targets and a touchdown rate of 6.63:
1) A.J. Green: 6.1 (2011)
2) Lance Moore: 5.8 (2012)
3) Michael Floyd: 4.5 (2013)
4) DeSean Jackson: 6.3 (2014)
5) Brandon LaFell: 5.9 (2014)
6) A.J. Green: 5.2 (2014)
With just 18.2 percent of the field qualifying there, finishing as a top-24 receiver without 120 and not being buoyed by being a high-end touchdown score is a wild outlier. If a receiver is going to overcome a lack of individual volume in their offense to finish as a WR1 or WR2, you need them to be an efficient touchdown scorer. Otherwise, they'll probably fall into the WR3 range from a season-long perspective.
The trouble with projecting those volume-deficient, touchdown-scoring mavens as WR2s or better is that wide receiver touchdown rate is a tough statistic to produce year-to-year. TJ Hernandez of 4for4.com showed that of 17 statistics that analysts cite when trying to project a wide receiver's upcoming season touchdown rate held the third-lowest year-to-year correlation.
Hernandez states, "No efficiency metric for wide receivers is notably reliable from one year to the next, but yards per target and touchdown rate can have especially large yearly fluctuations." He goes on to say that, "Touchdowns are such a rare occurrence relative to targets that even a swing in just a couple of scores per season can have a huge impact on touchdown rate, hence the weak year-to-year correlation."
The lack of reliability in touchdown rates holding up yearly is perhaps why we see those touchdown-heavy receivers without steady volume, like Laurent Robinson (2011) or Riley Cooper (2013), soar up fantasy scoring charts only to slip away not soon after.
If you're counting on touchdowns or general efficiency over volume for a sleeper to crack the top-24, you might be in for a tricky endeavor. The same can be said if you're getting back in bed with an above average touchdown scorer from 2015. Two examples would be Allen Hurns and Doug Baldwin, but where you might be able to project more volume for the Seahawks' up-and-comer, the changes in Jacksonville don't look so kind.
The impact of quarterback quality
It seems only natural that a wide receiver would need strong quarterback play to reach WR1 or WR2 status. Using adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A) to measure quarterback quality we do see there's a slight correlation between good passers and top receiver scorers.
Top-24 wide receivers since 2011:
Played with a quarterback ranked in the top-14 in adjusted yards/attempt - 55.8 percent
Played with a quarterback ranked between 15th and 22nd in adjusted yards/attempt - 22.5 percent
Played with a quarterback ranked 23rd or worse in adjusted yards/attempt - 21.7 percent
Just over 50 percent of the WR1s and WR2s the last five years enjoyed top-half quarterback play, while 44.2 still managed to crack the top-24 despite playing with an average to poor passer.
Looking at the receivers who were attached to a quarterback who finished with an AY/A ranked 23rd or lower in a given season, there's a common but perhaps less quantifiable theme. The list includes at least one appearance by:
Julio Jones, Brandon Marshall, Denver's current duo, T.Y. Hilton, Jordan Matthews, Jeremy Maclin, Mike Evans, Alshon Jeffery, A.J. Green, Kelvin Benjamin, Andre Johnson, Pierre Garcon, Vincent Jackson, Josh Gordon, Torrey Smith, Calvin Johnson, Steve Johnson, Cecil Shorts, Larry Fitzgerald, and Dwayne Bowe (2011).
With maybe a few exceptions, it's safe to call just about all of those receivers certifiably good football players. There's another more quantifiable commonality, and that's that only one player who competed in 16 games (Jordan Matthews, WR24, 2014) finished with less than 120 targets.
With this data in mind, if a wide receiver is a proven good player and in line for locked-in volume, we shouldn't fret over their quarterback situation. The target load and their own individual talent are more important. This applies especially to receivers like Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and Torrey Smith for the upcoming season.
Using this data to find value plays in 2016 fantasy drafts
Now that we see that a receiver who pushes for more than 120 targets is statistically favored to finish as at least a WR2, we can mine current ADP to find values. We'll examine wide receivers going in the fifth-round or later on Fantasy Football Calculator who could realistically see 120 targets and outperform their current cost.
Frankly, Moncrief is a lock to finish with 120-plus targets. He cracked 100 last year without Andrew Luck in the picture. The Colts will need to throw in trailing situations and are built to be a league-leading pass offense. Even with T.Y. Hilton seeing 130-plus targets in 2014, the second wide receiver, Reggie Wayne, finished with 116 targets. In that year the Colts had a fourth wide receiver (Hakeem Nicks) and second tight end (Dwayne Allen) soaking up 118 targets. The team does not have that kind of depth anymore, and could become quite concentrated between the top two wideouts. Look for Indianapolis to have a duo of top-24 wide receivers. A legit ascending talent, Moncrief has a tantalizing ceiling this year.
Sanders currently goes off the board a whopping 13 spots behind his 2015 finish, when he played with horrific quarterbacking and only caught 56 percent of his 137 targets. You can argue he's set for a big volume decline, but Gary Kubiak's offense ranks an average of 13th in the NFL in pass attempts since 2008. Both Sanders and his teammate will be just fine in fantasy this season.
My favorite to lead the Cardinals in receiving and targets this year. Brown cracked 100 targets for the second straight season in 2015 and is the most consistent week to week wideout in Arizona. He's still on a massive upward trajectory. He's a wild discount at this ADP.
White could back into 120 targets through two avenues. The first being a highly concentrated, two wide-receiver-led offense brewing in the Windy City. Both he and Alshon Jeffery are supreme talents, and if John Fox lets the offense out of its shell, these two will be the catalyst for Jay Cutler. White could also inherit this volume if Jeffery sustains more injuries in his franchise tagged season.
Reports circled that it could indeed be Marvin Jones who serves as the Lions No. 1 wide receiver this upcoming season, not Golden Tate. It would make sense as Jones offers more downfield and outside the numbers ability than his counterpart. Even if Tate does see more targets this year, Jones is still as much of a lock for 120 targets as anyone on this list. The Lions are historically pass-heavy with Matthew Stafford under center, don't have any reason to flip that script and Calvin Johnson took 140-plus targets into retirement with him. I've been trying to hype Jones and beg for the massive gap between Tate and Jones' ADP to close to no response for too long now.
A Reception Perception sleeper I haven't hyped to his full ability yet, Stefon Diggs is an interesting candidate for this list. Reports out of camp are quite positive and he's likely locked into the Vikings No. 1 receiver role this season as Laquon Treadwell might come along slower. Diggs is a deserved talent for that role and flying far too under the radar. The Vikings might not have the volume for a 120 target receiver if they hold their 2015 level. However, Diggs was on a 103 target pace in the 13 games he played. If the Vikings pump up their aerial volume in what is likely Adrian Peterson's final year in Minnesota, Diggs could shatter this ADP.
There's a zero-percent chance Torrey Smith sees less than 120 targets on this team if he plays 16 games. On a high-paced offense, DeSean Jackson (126) and Jeremy Maclin (143) both flew by that number playing for Chip Kelly in 2013 and 2014, and the 49ers will be on plenty of pass-heavy game scripts. Smith is absolutely still a good enough player to deserve that kind of volume as the only established player in this pass-catching corps.
Well, Aiken finished with 127 targets last season and there's no more competition for targets than there was last year, unless Steve Smith miraculously recovers from a double torn Achilles at age 37. Aiken legitimately broke out last year and is the favorite to lead Baltimore in receiving. Marc Trestman's offenses have never finished outside the top half of the NFL in pass attempts throughout his career and the Ravens led the league in that stat last year.