HSAC’s Fantasy Football Sleepers & Busts: Wide Receivers

by Danny Blumenthal

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After going over some fantasy football sleepers and busts at quarterback, tight end, and running back, it’s time to transition to the wide receivers. Last year, Michael Thomas broke out with one of the greatest seasons for a wide receiver ever, besting all others by at least 99 fantasy points. While the following sleepers probably won’t match Thomas’ sensational season, some of them could surprise. As a reminder, sleepers and busts are not necessarily elite or terrible players. Instead, they are players whose performance might not match up with their past performance or Average Draft Position (ADP) in ESPN leagues.

Wide Receiver Sleepers

Jarvis Landry, Cleveland Browns (ESPN ADP: WR25, Pick 67.0)

Per Pro-Football-Reference, only 3 players have gotten 125 or more targets in each of the last five seasons – DeAndre Hopkins, Julio Jones, and Jarvis Landry. Given that previous HSAC research has found that targets are the top predictor of success for wideouts, and Landry is only going at WR25, the Browns’ receiver is underrated. In each of the last five seasons, Landry has rated as a top-20 wide receiver, racking up at least 80 catches and over 900 receiving yards.

This year should be no different. In fact, if Landry is healthy by Week 1 (which it appears he will be), he may perform even better than in the past. New Browns coach Kevin Stefanski loves using play-action passes, leading the Vikings to one of the highest rates of play-action passing in the league last year. These passes are highly efficient compared to other plays, because they provide clearer passing lanes for quarterbacks as defenders get drawn closer to the line of scrimmage. And even before Stefanski’s arrival in Cleveland, the Browns receivers excelled off of play-action. Last year, Odell Beckham Jr. ranked 2nd in receiving yards off of play-action passes, followed closely by Jarvis Landry in 3rd. If Stefanski continues to rely on play-action, Jarvis Landry is due for a strong season in 2020.

Robert Woods, Los Angeles Rams (ESPN ADP: WR20, Pick 49.9)

Robert Woods is another wideout who should benefit from a new scheme, albeit from the same coaching staff. Towards the end of last season, the Rams transitioned from an offense that solely relied on 11 formation (1 running back, 1 tight end, 3 receivers) to one that also used 12 formation (1 running back, 2 tight ends, 2 wide receivers). Compare the Rams’ personnel between the first (Weeks 1-9) and second (Weeks 10-17) halves of the year. 

TimeRams’ 12 formation frequencyRams’ 12 formation frequency rank
1st half of the season11%T-29th
2nd half of the season30%5th

And see if you can spot which formation works better for Robert Woods:

TimeCatches Catches RankYardsYards Rank
1st half of the season38T-33rd47134th
2nd half of the season523rd6634th

In the past, the downside with Rams receivers has been that there was high variance in terms of who would be getting targets each week. Now that Brandin Cooks and Todd Gurley are gone, only two starting-caliber receivers (Woods and Cooper Kupp) remain. As a result, the Rams should rely even further on 12 personnel next year, and Robert Woods will see more targets. 

Finally, Woods was one of the unluckiest players in scoring last season. After reaching the end zone five and six times in his first two seasons in Los Angeles, Woods only caught two touchdowns in 2019. Among the 36 receivers with at least 100 targets last year, he was dead-last in touchdowns per target. With better touchdown luck, as well as improved performance due to the Rams’ personnel changes, look for Robert Woods to challenge for a back-end WR1 spot this year.

D.J. Moore, Carolina Panthers (ESPN ADP: WR11, Pick 34.1)

Even as he spent much of the year with Kyle Allen at quarterback, D.J. Moore still had a solid sophomore season. Until his injury in Week 16, Moore was the 8th-ranked wide receiver in PPR points, edging out stars such as Amari Cooper and Tyler Lockett. However, Moore gets his points quite differently than these players. While Cooper and Lockett tend to go deep (average depth of target – aDOT – of more than 12 yards), Moore makes a living on shorter passes. Since the Panthers’ new quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater, tends to throw short, he and Moore (52nd-ranked aDOT of 11.1 yards) should be a perfect match. 

Some fans are hesitant to select D.J. Moore early because he could face competition from Curtis Samuel and new Panther Robby Anderson. However, both Samuel and Anderson (aDOTs of 14.6 yards) rely more on deep passes. Therefore, Moore should still be Bridgewater’s go-to receiver underneath. In addition, Moore should see more targets as the Panthers continue to rely on the pass. Carolina is rebuilding, suggesting that they will be behind in most games this year. As a result, they will throw the ball more often as they seek to make a comeback. The addition of Joe Brady, the architect of LSU’s undefeated championship run last season, could also push Carolina to throw the ball more. 

Finally, Moore is a candidate to score more touchdowns in 2020. Of receivers with at least 100 targets, Moore ranked 34th out of 36 players in touchdowns per target. While Moore might be expected to have a lower rank in this category as an underneath receiver, he still should move up a little with better scoring luck. With the expectation of more targets from Teddy Bridgewater, better health, and more touchdowns, D.J. Moore deserves a WR1 billing.

John Brown, Buffalo Bills (ESPN ADP: WR48, Pick 134.2)

If you’re looking for a flier late in the draft, you could do a lot worse than John Brown. Despite low expectations, Brown actually finished as WR20 last year. He has a high floor, as he piled up 13 games of double-digit PPR points last year – only Michael Thomas had more. Fans may be hesitant about his target share with the Bills’ addition of Stefon Diggs. However, this also means that he will be facing worse cornerbacks, since Diggs will occupy opponents’ shutdown corners. When FiveThirtyEight’s Josh Hermsmeyer explored which receivers create the most separation, he found that Brown was one of the best in the business in both 2018 and 2019. If Brown faces worse cornerbacks, he could use that separation to break off a big play like this one from last year against the Patriots:

John Brown’s combination of consistency and explosiveness make him a wise sleeper to pick up in the closing rounds of your draft.  

Brandin Cooks, Houston Texans (ESPN ADP: WR37, Pick 97.2)

Before last year, Brandin Cooks had consistently been a quality fantasy wide receiver. He had racked up 100 or more targets and ranked in the top-15 at the position for four straight seasons. However, Cooks was the odd man out for the Rams in 2019. He suffered through injuries and also saw less playing time after Los Angeles transitioned away from 3-receiver sets. 

Now in Houston, Cooks should revert closer to his previous success level. The Texans have a major hole to fill after trading away DeAndre Hopkins, and Cooks could challenge Will Fuller V for the team’s WR1 spot. In addition to the potential for an increase in targets, trading Jared Goff for Deshaun Watson should be a major upgrade for Brandin Cooks. Cooks, a deep-ball receiver, underperformed on long passes last year with Goff. This year, he will be working with the NFL’s #2 deep passer in Watson, rather than Goff, who only ranks 21st. Even though Cooks has bounced around the league, he has produced with every team he has played on. If he can stay healthy in 2020, Cooks should outperform his ADP dramatically.

Wide Receiver Busts

Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (ESPN ADP: WR7, Pick 23.2)

Many fans anticipate an outstanding year from Mike Evans now that Tom Brady has moved to Tampa Bay. However, Evans mainly excels as a deep threat, ranking tied for 5th in deep targets and 9th in aDOT last year. This could be problematic, as he is transitioning from the quarterback who threw deep the most of anyone (Jameis Winston) to one who threw the 23rd-most in Brady. While Evans was mainly Winston’s go-to receiver, Brady will probably opt for shorter throws to Chris Godwin (who ranked 63rd in aDOT), or old friend Rob Gronkowski, before looking deep.

Furthermore, Godwin was more consistent in 2019, putting up twice as many 100-yard games as Evans. It’s generally wise to select players with higher floors early in the draft, and then transition to higher-upside players later on. Most fantasy players expect to start their top draft selections every single week, so they rely on those stars to produce week in and week out. Therefore, even though Godwin (ADP of Pick 22.8) and Evans have almost identical ADPs, Godwin is probably the Buccaneer receiver to grab first. 

Adam Thielen, Minnesota Vikings (ESPN ADP: WR9, Pick 30.3)

Offseason activity has led to significant hype for another player as well. With Stefon Diggs’ trade to Buffalo, Adam Thielen has been elevated into the conversation as a top-tier wide receiver. While fans anticipate Thielen to see more targets without Diggs, those targets might not turn into catches as easily. Diggs’ absence means that he will face more double-teams and #1 cornerbacks, and should thus see his catch percentage fall. Rookie Justin Jefferson is expected to take over in the slot and push Thielen outside. This could further diminish Thielen’s consistency, since outside passes are not as reliable as those over the middle

The Vikings’ reliance on rushing should also limit Thielen’s upside. Minnesota ran the ball the 4th-most of any team last year, keeping it on the ground for more than 48% of their plays. New offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak should continue this trend, since his teams have ranked in the top 10 in rushing attempts in 9 of his 12 years as an offensive coordinator. Not only will this insistence on running the ball lower Thielen’s targets, but it could also spell trouble in the red zone. Thielen is already due to regress as a scorer in 2020 after racking up 6 touchdowns in 10 games last year. If the team also devotes more resources to running inside the 20, he could be shut out of the end zone often. While Thielen is a solid second-tier wideout, his ADP of WR9 is too rich.

A.J. Brown, Tennessee Titans (ESPN ADP: WR18, Pick 47.3)

Like teammate Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown was a big play machine last year. He racked up five touchdowns of 40 yards or more, including this 51-yard score against the division rival Texans:

However, also like Henry, Brown is not likely to rack up so many big plays next year. Taking the above play as an example, not only did Brown need his sensational speed, but he also relied on Ryan Tannehill to roll out and extend the play, Corey Davis to provide a strong block upfield, and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves to make a poor effort on a tackle. Brown does not have control over all of these components, so he will probably decline in this area next year. Similarly, Brown led the league in yards per target (12.5) and was way above average in terms of touchdown percentage (9.5%). In all of these areas, Brown’s efficiency is difficult to sustain, so expect some regression in 2020.

If Brown sees an increase in targets, then he could offset this decline in efficiency. However, the Titans plan to be a run-first offense again this year, so Brown might not see a major uptick in volume. In addition, his role in the Titans’ offense is inconsistent from week-to-week. Only once last year did he see more than 5 targets in consecutive games. While Brown’s big-play ability can be enticing, he probably needs to see more targets in order to be considered a WR2.

Courtland Sutton, Denver Broncos (ESPN ADP: WR15, Pick 43.0)

Last season, Sutton weathered an inconsistent quarterbacking rotation of Joe Flacco, Brandon Allen, and Drew Lock to finish as a back-end WR2. Some pundits project an even stronger season from Sutton in 2020, since there should be more consistency from Denver’s quarterbacks with Lock’s emergence at the end of the year. However, there are still causes for concern. Firstly, Sutton actually performed worse with Lock compared to the other quarterbacks, racking up more than 14 PPR points per game with Flacco and Allen while only mustering 12 with Lock. Even if Sutton and Lock can form more of a connection, the Broncos are due to face a scary set of pass rushes this year. The Steelers, Saints, and Buccaneers all rated as PFF’s top-10 pass rushes, and these teams might not give Lock the time he needs to find Sutton on deep passes.

In addition, Sutton will face more competition for targets this season. The Broncos spent early draft picks on receivers Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler, and both players could see action early in the year. The Broncos also signed running back Melvin Gordon, suggesting that Denver plans to maintain last year’s run-first offense. Even if Drew Lock steps forward in 2020, Sutton might not see the volume he would if he were the unquestioned #1 option like he was last year. 

Finally, Courtland Sutton’s performance is unpredictable from week to week. Per ESPN’s consistency ratings, he rated as a top-25 receiver in fewer than half of his games. While some players can be boom-or-bust players with high upside, Sutton did not have much “boom” – he never finished a week as a top-5 wide receiver. Receivers with lower ADPs than Sutton, such as Tyler Lockett and Robert Woods, have higher upside and are likely to see more targets.

Check out HSAC’s sleepers and busts for other positions as well! 

Quarterbacks: https://harvardsportsanalysis.org/2020/09/hsacs-fantasy-football-preview-quarterback-sleepers-busts/

Running Backs: https://harvardsportsanalysis.org/2020/09/hsacs-fantasy-football-sleepers-busts-running-backs/

Tight Ends: https://harvardsportsanalysis.org/2020/09/hsacs-fantasy-football-sleepers-busts-tight-ends/

Editor’s Note: If you have questions about this article (or fantasy football in general), please reach out to HSAC on Twitter – @Harvard_Sports – or via email at harvardsportsanalysis@gmail.com.

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