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Identifying High Volume WRs at Discount Prices

Examining unexpectedly high target volumes to pluck out value plays at WR

The wide receiver position means different things to different fantasy owners, of course. But success in any league format requires them to identify value – production that comes far below the cost of acquisition. Therefore, your research should begin with a study in league-wide target volume.

In almost every case, volume is king. Sure, some receivers fail to produce statistically with the hefty volume they’re given. And some are indeed capable of transcending volume and turning a middling number of targets into fantasy gold. But those are the exceptions; not even Jerry Rice could produce studly fantasy numbers without ample opportunity.

Here's a quick breakdown of 2014's WR1 and WR2 volumes (for 12-team leagues in PPR formats):

WR1 (1-12)

 

WR2 (13-24)

26.6%

Average Target Share

24.0%

27.9%

Median Target Share

24.4%

21.1%

Minimum Target Share

18.5%

30.3%

Maximum Target Share

26.7%

Thus the importance of identifying high-volume gold – especially the nuggets being overlooked in fantasy drafts. With a solid set of projections rooted in expected target shares (the percentage of his team’s targets a receiver draws), we uncover a handful of guys poised for WR1 or WR2 volume, but currently being drafted below that potential. For various reasons, these aren’t the sexiest picks on the board, but their opportunity potential suggests real high-tier value. They come with high floors and higher ceilings than you might expect.

wr1 volume potential

DeAndre Hopkins

Bill O’Brien’s Houston debut brought about an unusual pecking order in the passing game. The offense completely eschewed tight ends and reserve wideouts, pushing a whopping 73.4% of targets through the trio of Hopkins, Andre Johnson, and Arian Foster. A stunning 32% went to Johnson alone, and he’s left town.

How much of that can we expect Hopkins to claim? It’s hard to say, because he’s already something of a target monster. He’s one of just five WRs since 2000 to amass 215 targets by age 22, and he saw WR1-level usage throughout 2014. Will he build on his studly 26% share from last year, or will Johnson’s role stay static and his committee of replacements simply share it?

There’s certainly no one Johnson-esque target hog set to line up opposite Hopkins. Cecil Shorts looks like the early favorite to start, but he’s a perpetual injury case who hasn’t posted an efficient season since 2012. The underappreciated Nate Washington was a savvy addition, but he doesn’t profile to Johnson’s role. And rookie Jaelen Strong is a polarizing prospect; his build and physicality are top-notch, but he’ll likely fight for scraps as a rookie – he was called out by O’Brien during OTAs for conditioning issues and doesn’t profile as a dynamic #1 anyway.

All told, it seems most likely that Johnson’s role will be dissected and spread among the committee, and none look like world-beaters poised to take gobs of targets from Hopkins. And it seems inevitable that Hopkins transitions from dynamic #2 option to the team’s unquestioned #1. Assuming that’s the case, he’ll certainly eat into Johnson’s 32% and bump his target count noticeably. It’s important to temper your expectations, of course. We’ll need the preseason to clarify some of the roles, and this QB situation could be a sheer garbage fire, so projecting Hopkins into the fantasy WR1 stratosphere is a bit premature. But he’s a near-lock to see that kind of volume, and given his age and production thus far, he’s the best WR1 gamble among his WR2 peers.

2015 Projection: 140 targets (28% share), 81 receptions, 1,256 yards, 7 touchdowns

WR2 volume potential

Eric Decker

Decker has cultivated a pretty unfair characterization, that he’s a good-not-great talent who’s only produced alongside Peyton Manning. That’s inaccurate – he’s posted a studly 11% touchdown rate with the likes of Kyle Orton, Tim Tebow, Geno Smith, and Michael Vick – and it’s short-sighted to assume he’ll just fade away with Brandon Marshall on board. Decker is the younger, more explosive, and more efficient receiver, and he already has a year of dominating the Jets pass game under his belt. All of this is being forgotten as Decker’s ADP currently sits in the 10th round, while Marshall goes with the high-upside WR2/3 tier in Round 5.

Last offseason, many assumed that Decker’s gaudy target totals from Denver would plummet with the Jets. Ultimately, it was more of a scale-down – Decker gave up a few targets post-Manning, but immediately became the focal point of the Jets passing game. He gobbled up 24.6% of team targets, and his usage actually rose when Percy Harvin came aboard midseason. The team never wavered from Decker as the preferred option.

The addition of Marshall is certainly a threat to that mark, but not a death knell. Marshall remains an upper-tier if inconsistent wideout, worlds ahead of the Harvin/Greg Salas/David Nelson grouping from last year. But he’s no longer the 150-target threat he was a few years back. Never much of a downfield playmaker, Marshall is now 31 and saw his yardage rates plummet in 2014 as superior talent Alshon Jeffery proved the more dynamic option. He’s in his Muhsin Muhammad phase: a reliable and occasionally dynamic possession target high on predictability but low on upside. Decker is without question the more explosive receiver of the two, but also the more efficient:

B. Marshall

2013 – 2014

E. Decker

29

Games

31

25.1%

Target Share

22.0%

9.3

Targets/Gm

8.1

7.5

Yds/Target

9.0

59.6%

Catch Rate

64.1%

12.5

Yds/Rec

14.0

12.4%

TD Rate

9.9%

(It’s important to note that Marshall’s impressive TD total has not manifested itself with any QB but Jay Cutler. He topped seven touchdowns just once over his first six seasons, and his career TD rate is absolutely dwarfed by Decker’s. Expect Decker to retain plenty of red zone work.)

Simply put: if the Jets are wise, they’ll keep Decker as their primary target and work in Marshall as an elite possession option. That may garner Marshall more looks, but according to their recent histories, Decker can fall 15-20 targets short of Marshall and still post better fantasy numbers. He’s the Jet to target – even if his ADP weren’t five full rounds lower than Marshall’s.

2015 Projection: 134 targets (24.5% share), 84 receptions, 1,094 yards, 6 TDs

Vincent Jackson

It’s amazing how bad luck, for lack of a better term, can torpedo a fine fantasy season. Jackson’s 2014 could’ve gone much better than it ultimately did. He drew 142 targets – more than Dez Bryant, Julian Edelman, or Randall Cobb – which should indicate a monstrous fantasy season, or at least one ahead of the WR2 game. But circumstances conspired against Jackson last year. He never makes it easy to turn high volume into big reception totals (a career 52.2% catch rate), but poor quarterbacking shackled him badly. Neither Josh McCown nor Mike Glennon were able to locate their deep balls well at all, limiting Jackson’s big-play ability as his YPR fell to a career-low 14.3. Most damningly, he caught just two touchdowns, likely a byproduct of playing in the league’s fourth-lowest scoring offense.

The other factor that doomed the public perception of Jackson’s 2014 – and has him vastly overshadowed in 2015 drafts – was the rapid emergence of Mike Evans. But Evans didn’t really harm Jackson’s usage rate last year; while Evans grabbed the midseason headlines for his huge games, Jackson easily won the usage battle with 27% of team targets to Evans’ 23%. Evans is a great talent, but not an ultra-reliable target hog. He’s best and most often utilized in downfield mismatches and on physical jump balls, not dominating his QB’s eye on short and intermediate routes. He should see an increase from last year’s 8.2 targets/game, but not enough of one to relegate Jackson to a role player.

And the two seem to (again) have little real competition in the passing game. The wholly uninspiring and inefficient Louis Murphy should man the slot, and the team’s tight end stable doesn’t look poised to snatch a huge share of the passing game. Jackson and Evans should continue to divvy up the vast majority of Buccaneers targets pretty evenly, giving each a good shot at 70-75 catches. With his typical yardage and touchdown production, Jackson could turn that kind of volume into a 1,100-yard, 8-TD line that outpaces his late sixth-round ADP.

2015 Projection: 140 targets (25.5% share), 69 receptions, 1,039 yards, 5 TDs

Steve Smith

Smith is a walking red flag: he’s old, he’s small, and his offense just added an explosive receiver in the draft’s first round. We’re not going to try to convince you to expect special things from Smith in 2015. But it’s not all about upside, and there are valuable fantasy nuggets to be extracted from older (even flat-out old) receivers. That’s especially true in the eighth round – where Smith’s ADP current lies – where he can be had as a rock-solid WR3 at a WR4 cost.

From 2012-13, Joe Flacco and Torrey Smith developed somewhat of an on-field love affair. Torrey drew 21% of Flacco’s targets over that span, and the two shared an impressive 8.5 average yards per attempt mark – a better number than Flacco compiled with Derrick Mason or Anquan Boldin. They were an efficient, effective pair – but Steve’s arrival last year completely flipped the script. For whatever reason, Flacco cooled on Torrey in favor of targeting Steve 134 times, 24.2% of his throws. He even looked Steve’s way more often in the red zone. If Steve can divert his QB’s attention from his favorite target so quickly, what’s stopping him from vanquishing a rookie speedster and a handful of special teams types the same way?

It’s hard to project a 36-year-old wideout to WR2 numbers. But it’s even harder to expect a raw rookie and a few marginal talents to overpower a proven commodity just one year after a 134-target season. Most likely, Smith will spent most of 2015 as Flacco’s preferred target. He may tail off eventually as Breshad Perriman and Maxx Williams acclimate to the NFL, but neither looks likely to even approach Torrey Smith’s usage, let alone threaten Smith’s dominance of attention. There’s not a lot of upside to this pick, but there’s more predictability and security than you might think.

2015 Projection: 123 targets (22% share), 71 receptions, 939 yards, 5 touchdowns