23 Apr The Fantasy Contrarian: Top WR’s In The 2018 NFL Draft
By: Michael Roban – @FFContrarian
- 1. a person who opposes or rejects popular opinion.
A Contrarian Look at the Top WRs in the 2018 NFL Draft
Okay ill admit it, this year’s WR group is a big shrug. Various publications and prognosticators are all over the place with the rankings. I have seen Courtland Sutton ranked everywhere from WR1 of the class all the way down to 22nd!!! That is quite a variance. Others have receivers like D.J. Chark (this year’s combine metrics freak) as high as number 4 while others have dismissed him as a one dimensional Ted Ginn, Jr. type. Drafting rookie dynasty WRs is not easy for the “instant gratification” I-Want-It NOW crowd. For the most part they aren’t the shiny new plug and play toy you take home from Best Buy. Particularly the past few years. Last year there were a few top WRs that were considered consensus top picks like Corey Davis and Mike Williams but while Davis flashed a little toward the end of the season, only Juju Smith Schuster (who many in the dynasty community were down on) and Cooper Kupp proved to be starter worthy rookie WRs. Perhaps we were spoiled a bit by the epic 2014 draft which yielded an embarrassment of riches at the WR position – Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, OBJ, Brandin Cooks, Kelvin Benjamin, Jordan Matthews, Allen Robinson and Jarvis Landry all produced in year one. Incredibly from that class we also have Marquise Lee, Paul Richardson, John Brown, Donte Moncrief and Martavis Bryant as well. Indeed, out of the first 12 picks only Cody Latimer hasn’t emerged yet and he may get a chance to prove himself now with a change of scenario. Epic! But in 2015 only Amari Cooper and Stefon Diggs (a 5th round pick) proved to be a first year starter as Kevin White, Brashad Perriman, Philly Dorsett, Devin Smith and Dorial Green-Beckham all look like colossal busts (sorry to break the news to you Kevin White truthers but it doesn’t seem to be happening for your guy). That isn’t to say though that the class was a complete bust – Nelson Agholor had the third year breakout that used to be the normal success route for WRs. DeVante Parker may still prove to be a dynasty asset and Devin Funchess came on strong last year. Ty Montgomery has shown he belongs in the year (we just do not know at what position…still).
Since dynasty rosters are long term relationships, wide receivers can be difficult to be patient with sometimes. RBs are easier to draft because you tend to know what you have kind of early. They provide instant gratification. WRs usually need a few years to pay off. So what do we make of this years crop? It is kind of like dating – it takes awhile to see whether or not whether or not there is long term potential. RBs can be like Tinder dates – useful for relatively short periods without any long term commitments. They can even stay in your phone list. You might even call them once in a while. Like the RBs on the end of your roster. Possibly useful but easy to move on from when better ones come along. Sometimes though you meet someone special right? And you know it right away? Special RBs are like that. There is love at first sight. They are like the date that seemingly ticks all your boxes and completes you. You are going to live happily ever after together – until the day comes when they break your heart. Yes, RBs come and go. It is also generally true that if a RB isn’t producing within his first year or two in the NFL it is probably a good idea to move on. But WRs tell a different story. Other than the rare players that come in and dominate right away (see below for examples) quite often it takes a few years for the WR2 and WR3 types (who are extremely valuable in fantasy football) to blossom.
On first glance, there does not appear to be an OBJ, Nuk Hopkins or AJ Green in this bunch. So it is quite possible that most of these are all “buy and hold” WR phenotypes. Lets first look at the bust rate of players from 2015 (which this class seems to resemble far more than the unicorn 2014 class) – there were 6 WRs drafted in the first round of the NFL draft that year and 3 are productive NFL players (Cooper, Parker and Agholor) while the other 3 (Kevin White, Perriman and Dorsett) are looking like busts. 2nd rounders fared worse as 2/3 are busts (Devin Smith and Green-Beckham) while Funchess has come on in his 2nd season. A few productive players have come from the 3rd round on – Stefon Diggs, Ty Montgomery and Jamison Crowder. But the rest would be, at best, roster cloggers. Are you still clinging to DeAndre Smelter? How about Kenny Bell? Tre McBride? I hope not.
So how to separate the wheat from the chaff here? It is possible that many of you have come across the term “Game Theory”. It is a bit of a misnomer as it is not really about how to win at “games” like, say, Monopoly. In its simplest sense, it is applied in zero-sum games in which one person’s gain is another person’s loss. Fantasy leagues are zero sum games. Essentially if you can force your opponent to make guesses while you are making educated “optimized” decisions, then you will always have an edge on your opponents.
Unless you play in a league full of expert game talent evaluators you can use data baselines that will help you make optimized decisions particularly when subsequently paired with things like talent reports from reputable evaluators, tape review (i.e. your own eyeball test) and of course the NFL Draft. Now mind you, this is never a flawless process. Models like the ones below will only help you make the best decision with the information that is currently available. There are players who will always transcend the odds and emerge as outliers. We have discussed this in past articles. But I have again turned to the work of Kevin Cole while he was at Pro Football Focus to uncover a model that will no doubt help us uncover the best receivers to draft here and most importantly WHEN to take them in your draft. If you have the 1.08 and have to decide between a Rashard Penny or a DJ Moore (or DJ Moore and, say, Calvin Ridley) this is the information you need to make that analysis. Obviously if you are looking at some of these guys in the third or fourth round the stakes are quite a bit lower. If you blow your 1.08 it might set you back a year or two. 4th rounders by contrast are dart throws and they will not generally hurt your team (although without question the ability to hit on one of those can help your team make a leap much earlier than you thought possible).
This model is similar to the one used to identify RBs that will succeed early in the NFL. It is predictive of WRs who will become top 24 PPR WRs in the first 3 years of their NFL careers. The model, like the RB model, has four data points – age of player when entering the NFL, career Market Share of Yards (meaning over his college career what percentage of the teams passing yardage did he garner), Receptions per game in final college season and Receiving TDs per game in final college season. Taken together, this spits out a rating that can accurately predict the highest likelihood of this type of success in the NFL. Interestingly, unlike the RB model, there is nothing in here about the Combine. The goal is to find players who have a game that translates to the NFL. It is important to note that this model is predictive of players who will thrive under a PPR scoring system, so for players in non-PPR leagues you are looking for players that are more TD dependent, yardage types rather than target hogs (although there would naturally be some overlap). It also doesn’t mean a player will be a failure if he doesn’t rank high here. We are trying to predict which of these have the best chance to emerge as Top 24 PPR WRs. Cooper Kupp was a tremendous success last year and didn’t make the cut.
What I find most interesting about this class is that there really are no prototype players. The big physical WRs that can win at the catch point, run great routes, have great hands and separation speed are the ones that we covet. They are the receivers that turn into WR1s and dominate the focus of whatever passing game they are in. This group seems made of specialists that will need a good fit, the right kind of QB and the right kind of system to thrive in. For instance, Calvin Ridley is not very physical – his SPARQ scores were terrible at the combine. As you can see from his numbers he isn’t much in the red zone due likely to his lack of physicality. He will need a QB that throws his receivers open and relies on timing routes. Marvin Harrison was that kind of receiver and he and Peyton Manning made beautiful music together for years. Others like Courtland Sutton are more jump ball types that will work well with a QB that doesn’t mind throwing 50-50 balls for his receivers. An Alex Smith might not be the best scenario for a WR like Sutton.
What we are looking for here is a score of at least .40. WRs that scored at .70 or higher had a 70% success rate at becoming top 24 PPR WRs in the NFL. At .6-.7 the rate dropped to 60%. And so on. So the rate creates a baseline for the odds of success. Great! We now know who is most likely based on this data to at least become in the first 3 years a WR2 or better in the NFL
The Cream of the Crop: Well the bad news is that nobody attained the lofty .7 figure achieved by players like Lee Evans, Dez Bryant, Hakeem Nicks, Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald (who clocked in at a nearly perverse .91) which supports the notion that this class isn’t chock-full-of special talent. Keep in mind that the model also predicted likely success for Chris Henry (talented but troubled), Antonio Bryant and Charles Rogers (bust). The top WR (drum roll please) here is DJ Moore. He was able to garner a 35% market share for his college career in team passing yards had a high reception average and scored TDs at a reason rate of 2 for every 3 games. Not Megatron or Larry Fitzgerald totals but paints the portrait of a target hog that also can win in the red zone. The somewhat maligned Courtland Sutton also hit the board. While more of a 50-50 proposition at .52, he is in the same range as Santonio Holmes, Keenan Allen, Alshon Jeffery and Plaxico Burress. Not bad company. Of course that is also the realm of Jabar Gaffney, Dwayne Jarrett and Robert Ferguson. Still the numbers show a player with a relatively large share of the teams passing yardage and a reliable end zone target almost scoring a TD a game. He might not be the polished product but my suggestion would be to wait and see where he lands – if he lands in a great situation with a clear path to starting and a QB that knows how to use a big target who can win 50-50 balls I think the risk is much lower and he provides tremendous upside. Still if you combine Sutton’s athletic profile with the numbers in the model it paints a portrait of a player with tremendous upside as a fantasy wide receiver. Both of these are players I would look to target in the mid to late first round of a PPR rookie draft. Ive seen drafts where Moore has gone as high as 1.04 though. Just keep in mind with Sutton is that there are enough detractors out there to tell you that he probably has a higher possibility of being a bust than Moore as well.
It is also worth pointing out that Sutton is going ahead of Moore in many drafts (although Moore has been a steady riser lately). While the numbers support that Sutton is a solid late round rookie pick, the evidence strongly suggests (and of course the NFL Draft might alter this a bit) that Moore should be the player to target for the first pass catcher off the board.
Calvin Ridley comes in also at .50 which is almost as good as Sutton. So why am I listing him as overrated? I realize I might get some hate here because most drafts have him ranked third. So why do I say he is overrated? Well, Ive seen Ridley often targeted as the first WR off the board and almost always a first rounder. To me he is going to be very scheme and QB dependent to have immediate PPR success. Having said that, he is a terrific route runner and if he falls to a team with a great offense where he can be moved around and utilized well he certainly can have success. My only reason for listing him here is that many publications and prognosticators have him ranked ahead of the other two and the numbers show a player who will not be a red zone factor. He therefore will require volume to become a consistent PPR WR2. Additionally, he is a player I would avoid in non-PPR formats that are more TD dependent for WRs. Also he is relatively old at age 24. Hey, what I wouldn’t give to be 24 again. But I digress…Still, he is the same age as Amare Cooper so keep that in perspective. He isn’t likely going to develop much beyond where he is which limits his upside. He pretty much is what he is – a very solid WR but limited in certain ways that might be frustrating if you draft him with, say, the 1.06. To me, and I am sure there are Calvin Ridley truthers who will disagree, I wouldn’t consider Ridley until both Moore and Sutton are off the board AND the top 7 RBs are gone. In a SuperFlex there will likely be 4 QBs taken in the first round as well which means I am not even considering Ridley unless he falls to me around 2.02 or so. And he likely will not.
Equanameous St. Brown has a great name. In fact, ESB is so good that I want to bump him up just for that reason alone. He had a great combine and like Sutton his ratings have been all over the place. Some are rating him as a late first rounder in PPR leagues. Those that favor him point to his prototypical size and speed (plus he had a great showing at the combine). But his detractors point out the flaws in his game that can be problematic at the pro level. In a nutshell, he is a project and while he has the physical profile of a WR1 (and apparently superior intelligence which doesn’t hurt) he rates out as an NFL project. It might be somewhat fair to attribute his low ratings to poor QB play. To wit, his market share of yardage was much higher his sophomore year (playing with Kizer) than with the poor QB running the Notre Dame offense last year and the shift to a run based attack. It is very possible therefore that these figures do not truly reflect his ability and potential in the NFL. But there are less risky options available where you would likely have to draft him. I wouldn’t touch ESB before the third round in any rookie draft particularly a PPR format at his current rookie ADP. And again, he is not lasting anywhere close to the third round. Let your opponents draft ESB with a high second rounder and do not be that guy.
I like Anthony Miller. I really do. But his rating doesn’t justify being drafted at the end of the 2nd round. He would be a terrific player to target in the middle of the 3rd round but I would rather come away from the draft with guys like Michael Gallup in the 2nd round and Jordan Lasley in the 3rd. Miller scored a ton of TDs and clearly can win the ball in tight spaces. But he is 23 years old and his relatively low market share of yardage is suspicious given that his target volume was so high. That seems to indicate a player utilized mostly in the short yardage game. He seems to have a nose for the end zone but I am worried that his game will not fully translate to the NFL. If he fell to me in the 3rd round I would be feeling much better about him but he is a pass at his current ADP.
Auden Tate is a player I just do not understand. It seems to me he is purely being drafted at his current ADP based on his projected size and theory that his ability to win the ball in tight spaces will transcend his lack of speed and other flaws. He was used extensively as an end zone target at Florida State but was hardly a playmaking target hog. His current ADP is late first round/early third round and at that price he will not come close to landing on any of my rosters.
DaeSean Hamilton is another trendy sleeper pick and is probably one of the best route runners in the group. But again, the model doesn’t favor older receivers (he is 23) that didn’t garner a large share of his teams passing yardage.
Another player inexplicably getting love as a sleeper is Antonio Callaway. He has serious character issues that make him even getting drafted to be a longshot. Why on earth you would waste a valuable on a 3rd rounder that is going to struggle to make a roster is beyond me. He is a talented player that is likely to contribute mostly as a punt returner on any team that drafts him. His ADP right now is late third round and while he does have upside if he can stay out of trouble I would rather target a player like Richie James there (although James if he is drafted at all has been going in the 4th round or later). Big physical receivers like Simmie Cobbs and Allen Lazard would likely provide better value here as well.
Solid Value: These are players that represent decent value at their current rookie ADP. The first is James Washington who scores around .42. This is in the Golden Tate, Robert Woods, Michael Crabtree , Kenny Britt and Deon Branch neighborhood. Incidentally, Britt and Woods have not cracked the top 24 in PPR formats although they have been (at least for one season) a viable WR3. Incidentally AJ Green only scored a .36. So lets keep this in mind when using this table. Washington certainly has the look of a quality NFL WR and most analysts have him in the same range. He should be available at the back end of the first round in most rookie drafts. What I love about Washington he is a big play threat that can also win the ball in tight spaces. He scored a TD a game in his last season and looks like a player that can be a consistent scoring threat in the NFL. On the downside, the numbers indicate a player who have the penchant to disappear from games – which is the only red flag to his scores as he only had 25% of his teams passing yardage. Washington easily passes the eye test – but make sure you don’t take him too early and certainly not before DJ Moore or Sutton. Washington has a chance to be a terrific NFL playmaker and I love him at 1.10 or near the backend of the first round, particularly after guys like Penny and RoJo are off the board. I would even consider taking him over Ridley if he lands in a great spot.
Christian Kirk too scores in the .42 range. He is generally ranked after Sutton, Ridley, Moore and Washington and looks like a solid pick in that range given that scoring at his current ADP of 1.12. He does have the look of a slot receiver though so again, he is a player that I am not drafting in any of my leagues prior to the NFL draft. His situation will become much clearer though in the coming week and he is an intriguing talent who possibly could emerge as a PPR star. His TD rate of 77% also shows that he can be useful as an endzone target as well. I am looking to get Kirk right after the 1-2 turn and he seems to be great value there particularly if the top RBs are gone. While he doesn’t get my blood pumping the numbers do not lie and as long as you do not reach for him he seems to be well placed around the turn.
Bargains: This is the group I am heavily targeting and to me where you get an edge on your opponents. Michael Gallup has definitely been on many top 10 lists but his numbers put him squarely in play with Washington and Kirk where they are currently being drafted. Since you can probably get Gallup in the mid to late 2nd round in many instances a strategy where you can land a priority RB in the first round and Gallup in the 2nd makes a great deal of sense. He is player I am targeting heavily with my 2nd round picks. The other player that possibly is available in the third round might present the best value of all – Jordan Lasley at .46 has the stats and the game tape to back up the risk of his off field behavior. Lasley is largely considered a bit of a nut case. Some of it might be immaturity. But the risk his behavior poses probably justifies his third round ADP. But if he is available when you are picking there I would pounce and even try to move up a few spots if necessary. Finally, Richie James is my favorite sleeper and is often not even being drafted (he has no current ADP) and a player to target in the 4th round and maybe even later as he is flying so far under the radar. This is mostly because he played at Middle Tennessee State. But James is a big play receiver who excels after the catch. He also is a fantastic blocker with fantastic hands. I have no idea why he is not getting more love in the community but this kid is an NFL receiver who is going to find his way onto the field. I will be adding him to as many teams as possible. I am looking to draft all three of these guys when possible after drafting RBs with my early picks.
Another potentially underrated player is Jake Weineke although he could just as easily be dismissed as a player benefiting from playing inferior competition. Yes, another South Dakota Jack Rabbit Weineke’s numbers are certainly impressive. But since he will be available in the 4th and even 5th rounds (or even not drafted and available as a FA) I would make him a priority add if he lands in a nice spot with a clear path to playing time. He is a tough physical WR who was an absolute TD machine at 1.14 per game. Like Auden Tate, speed is not a big part of his game, but he fits the profile of a big slot player who will be a factor in the red zone. Unlike Tate though, he was a much bigger part of his teams overall passing offense and was the focus of the passing game. He is a player to keep an eye on.
Tre-Quan Smith is also a player that is being criminally overlooked. His ADP is pushing him into the 4th round but his rating grades out as a mid to late 2nd rounder. Many evaluators have dismissed him but his combine numbers were compelling and his production on a very good UCF team is undeniable. Given the varying degree of opinion on Smith (and I will admit I have not seen enough of him to have an eyeball-test opinion) I would pay close attention to where he is drafted. If he lands in a good situation I wouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger on him in the 4th round.
So how does Game Theory play a factor in this? Other than DJ Moore, the chart demonstrates that most of these players have a 50% or less chance at becoming at WR2 or better for your dynasty team. While your opponents are basing opinions on the last thing they read on Twitter or some talking head on ESPN, you will be armed with the data to fully understand the odds and the value of where these players should be taken. Landing spots will be instrumental for both scheme, QB and opportunity of course and you can adjust slightly. You will be playing with an optimal strategy while your opponent will be guessing and using inefficient information. When you can play optimally you force your opponent to play on a sub-optimal basis which always gives you an edge. In the long term, this will serve you very well as a dynasty player.
Finally, just because a player doesn’t rank high on this chart it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t “swipe right” for them. Most of the receivers that I have charted have their merits and all could end up being contributors for an NFL team (and a few will likely become key fantasy contributors). Hopefully this chart (along with the upcoming draft) will provide the keys to understanding where they should be drafted in your rookie drafts.