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What We Learned in 2017: Wide Receiver and Tight End - Footballguys

A look back at 2017 to understand what we learned about the wide receiver and tight end positions in fantasy football, and how to apply that knowledge going forward.

The 2017-18 season is in the books. In my 12 years of closely covering fantasy football, there has not been one that had more twists and turns, and tests for fantasy owners to endure. Now that the tests are over, we can go back and see what we've learned. Wide receivers were more chaotic than usual, especially at the top of the board, and the top tight ends separated even more from the middling option, putting streaming on the table even more prominently as an option.

Wide Receiver

1. Early round wide receiver isn’t as safe or sure as advertised - Odell Beckham’s season ended prematurely because of injury. Jordy Nelson and TY Hilton lost their quarterbacks and ended up on fantasy benches by the end of the season. Dez Bryant and Amari Cooper were inconsistent, frustrating to watch, and rarely providing an advantage for their fantasy teams. Even Mike Evans, AJ Green, and Julio Jones came in well under expectations for a first-round pick. There is no obviously correct answer to the question of which position to target in the first round. In general, there was a lack of consistently dominant wide receivers, and fantasy players were able to get by with more mid-round picks and even waiver wire wonders in their weekly lineups.

How to Apply This Knowledge: Be open to a running back no matter what draft position you draw. The top four running backs are clear and worthy of top four picks, Alvin Kamara has mid-first appeal in PPR leagues, and Kareem Hunt, Leonard Fournette, Melvin Gordon III, and Dalvin Cook all have cases to be made for a first-round selection between 8-12.

2. DeAndre Hopkins is fine as long as he has any quarterback other than Brock Osweiler - Hopkins was a stud in 2015 and a dud in 2016 - now we can say, due to no fault of his own. A glimmer of a bounceback with Tom Savage late in 2016 turned into a full-fledged re-break out in 2017 with Savage, Deshaun Watson, and TJ Yates. The possibility of a full season with Watson after an ACL tear ended his season after only six games has Hopkins going in the mid-first round in early 2018 drafts.

How to Apply This Knowledge: If you want Hopkins, you’ll have to take him in the first, and if Watson plays a full season, he might be worth it.

3. The guard has changed at wide receiver in Green Bay - Jordy Nelson was an early season force on the back of six touchdowns in the first five games, but his lack of separation at this stage of his career killed whatever value he had with Aaron Rodgers once Brett Hundley took over. Davante Adams maintained his value with Hundley and signed a long term extension at the end of the season. Jordy Nelson was released after the season and became part of the senior citizen movement in Oakland.

How to Apply This Knowledge: Randall Cobb is potentially undervalued as the #2 receiver in Green Bay, and one of a cast of many could emerge from the waiver wire with the flanker job still open.

4. Keenan Allen’s injury risk is overstated - After a kidney injury in 2015 and torn ACL in 2016, fantasy drafters were a bit hesitant to take Keenan Allen where his previous production and current situation would dictate in 2017. Allen delivered seven 100-yard games and was only outproduced by DeAndre Hopkins and Antonio Brown. He won’t be on the board in the third round of any drafts this year.

How to Apply This Knowledge: Allen will cost an early-mid second, which is in line with his production levels, and where he was going in 2016 drafts.

5. Alshon Jeffery proved it, Terrelle Pryor didn’t - Pryor was the lone bright spot in the Browns passing game in 2016, but he received a chillier than expected reception in free agency, Alshon Jeffery had elite flashes at times with the Bears, but neither they or any other team in the NFL wanted to commit to him long term. Jeffery found his stride with Carson Wentz in Philadelphia and earned that long term deal, solidifying his value going into 2018. Pryor was hurt and unproductive, and his best football might already be behind him.

How to Apply This Knowledge: Jeffery’s ADP is actually the same or lower than 2017 and he was playing with a rotator cuff tear that he had surgically repaired. He might be a great value this year if the Eagles offense remains as productive as it was last year. Pryor already hurt his foot and might be a minor factor with the Jets, if he has any impact at all.

7. Martavis Bryant and Josh Gordon didn’t pick up where they left off - Bryant and Gordon are among the most-physical wide receivers to play the game in recent years. Both had sustained production stretches at a young age that seemed to portend even bigger things on the horizon but were sidelined for at least a year because of failed drug tests. Both were reinstated in 2017, but neither recaptured past glory. This offseason Bryant was traded to Oakland during the draft, and Gordon was joined by Jarvis Landry, dampening expectations for 2018.

How to Apply This Knowledge: Bryant is a bench pick in drafts, but if Jordy Nelson can’t separate, Bryant could become the de facto No. 2 receiver in Oakland and get back on the fantasy radar. Gordon is still costing a fourth-round pick in a lot of drafts on his reputation, newfound commitment to the game, and potential upgrade at quarterback. His range of outcomes is wide with the addition of Jarvis Landry, so account for that in your draft plan if you target him.

8. Maybe next year is DeVante Parker’s motto - After an offseason of positive news about Parker’s approach and preparation changing to avoid the nagging injuries and underachievement that typified his first two years, there were high hopes about his performance coming into that often magical year three for a young wide receiver. Parker underachieved yet again.

How to Apply This Knowledge: Parker’s 2018 ADP is actually lower than his 2017 ADP. Jarvis Landry is gone, so there might be an opening for more targets to shift to Parker - if he earns them. That discount in ADP will have us considering him again this year.

9. Sammy Watkins is a decoy? - The Rams surprised everyone by trading for Watkins during the preseason and then surprised everyone again by barely targeting their No. #1 receiver during the season. He was a chess piece, but the chess piece you trade with your opponent for one of their key pieces to set up a more advantageous configuration in your conflict. Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp became weekly upside WR3 plays riding the wake of Watkins canceling out the opposition’s often strong #No. 1 corner.

How to Apply This Knowledge: Will that dynamic continue after the Rams gave up even more to add Brandin Cooks, or will Cooks get a target share befitting his price? Will Watkins be a decoy to help Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill after the Chiefs paid him like an elite receiver, or will he return to Buffalo form with the sustained good health he had in Los Angeles? There are more questions than answers here, but Watkins ADP is even lower than it was after the Rams traded him last year, so it will cost less to see the outcome with Watkins on your roster, and that might be enough to target him as your WR3 or WR4.

10. Jeremy Maclin, Brandon Marshall, and Eric Decker are well past their primes - Every year it happens, we draft once productive wide receivers trying to capture value on the way down on their career parabola, only to find that the acceleration in their decline was greater than the last time we saw them play. 2017 was likely Maclin, Marshall, and Decker’s swan song as fantasy relevant receivers.

How to Apply This Knowledge: Jordy Nelson and Dez Bryant lead the group of aging wide receivers who could find the waiver wire in 2018 after a long career of fantasy contributions. Avoid them.

11. Minnesota and Detroit can support two strong fantasy wide receivers, but New Orleans no longer can - Preseason ADP indicated skepticism about Adam Thielen and Marvin Jones Jr’ ability to be everyweek WR2 plays, at least in part because of reluctance to trust their quarterbacks and offenses ability to support two top 25 fantasy wideouts. Ted Ginn Jr and Willie Snead IV both held ADP that wasn’t far off of Thielen and Jones going into the season, thanks in part to Drew Brees and New Orleans’ history of being a rich environment for fantasy wide receivers. Instead, the backfield became an even bigger part of the passing game with the introduction of Alvin Kamara, and New Orleans only supported one fantasy relevant wideout.

How to Apply This Knowledge: This year, Both Vikings and Lions receivers are in the top 25, and Cameron Meredith is reviving some hope that Brees can support two options at wide receiver. Chances are that there aren’t any great values to harvest in these passing games. Interestingly, early ADP indicated that fantasy drafters believe Cleveland can support two top 25 fantasy wide receivers.

12. The next generation of deep threats is here - Age is catching up with DeSean Jackson. John Brown can’t stay healthy. Martavis Bryant is inconsistent and ended up divorcing the Steelers. Never fear, a new generation of deep threats made their presence known in 2017. Robby Anderson chased down deep balls from Josh McCown like a frisbee-catching dog. Will Fuller V provided exactly the kind of get the behind the defense contributions the Texans hoped for when they took him in the first round in 2016. Keelan Cole went from undrafted free agent to Jaguars #1 producer at wide receiver down the stretch.

How to Apply This Knowledge: All three are available at considerable discounts from what their hot streaks in 2017 indicate they could be going forward. They are great targets, especially in .5 PPR or nonPPR leagues that increase their value.

13. Tyreek Hill wasn’t a fluke - After Cordarrelle Patterson’s rookie splash as a “manufactured touch” player, there was hesitation to buy into Hill in year two no matter how often the Chiefs stressed that his role would only grow in 2017. Hill delivered on expectations and then some, and justified a WR1 price he is carrying into 2018 drafts.

How to Apply This Knowledge: Expecting yet another year of growth for Hill’s value might be ill-advised with the addition of Sammy Watkins, far better than any #2 option last year. Patrick Mahomes will keep the deep passing game strong, but now Hill has a true running mate and might not be worth his low WR1 ADP.

Tight End

1. Travis Kelce is closing the gap on Rob Gronkowski and the gap between them and everyone else is opening - Travis Kelce benefited from a Chiefs offense that had a legitimate deep passing game and efficient running game to post his most productive season as a pro and pull closer to Rob Gronkowski than their preseason ADP gap predicted. Save for Zach Ertz growing into a robust Eagles pass offense, the rest of the tight end pack. The #12 tight end in receptions had 53 (Eric Ebron) and the #12 tight end in yardage had 560 (Jason Witten). In 2016 it was 57 receptions and 660 yards (Cameron Brate). No other position presented nearly that kind of gap between baseline production and the top performers on the year.

How to Apply This Knowledge: The value of Gronkowski and Kelce will grow even if their production plateaus if this trend continues. Be willing to take either if they are still there in the third.

2. Zach Ertz can score touchdowns - Ertz stayed right at his recent historical norms in receptions (74 after seasons of 78 and 75) and yardage (824 after seasons of 816 and 853) in 2017, but he doubled his career high touchdown total, posting eight scores. The Eagles pass offense exploded for 38 passing scores. At tight end, the team lost Trey Burton, who had five of his own, and added Dallas Goedert, a Jimmy Graham-esque figure at the catch point.

How to Apply This Knowledge: Ertz’s ADP has risen to be within a round of Travis Kelce and Rob Gronkowski, but he appears to have little room to grow after the uptick in scores last year.

3. Jordan Reed and Tyler Eifert’s bodies are reliably unreliable - Reed and Eifert had long injury histories heading into 2017, but they also were the only other two tight ends to approach Travis Kelce and Rob Gronkowski’s value in recent years. Both were drafted as a discount from their top production levels but still ahead of the pack at tight end. Neither did much to help fantasy teams win in 2017 after entering the campaign at less than 100%.

How to Apply This Knowledge: This year, both are going at a deeper discount, even lasting longer than solid but limited producers at the position like Kyle Rudolph and Delanie Walker, making the proposition of whether to draft them worth considering again.

4. Green Bay is still looking for their Jermichael Finley replacement - One popular candidate to crash the Gronk/Kelce part at tight end last year was Martellus Bennett. He was a strong performer for New England before getting hurt and the Packers paid market value for his services in free agency. Bennett was inconsistent and a non-factor before eventually ending up back on the Patriots roster and the Packers once again got unimpressive numbers from the tight end position (in part because Aaron Rodgers didn’t even play half of the season).

How to Apply This Knowledge: The Packers went back to well and gave Jimmy Graham even more money, and Graham is costing more than Bennett did in drafts, so unless Aaron Rodgers leans on him in the red zone the way Russell Wilson did, he’ll be overpriced.

5. A rookie tight end can be an every-week starter - Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, and Robert Griffin III dismantled the belief that a rookie quarterback can’t be an every-week starter for a winning fantasy team earlier this decade, and Deshaun Watson reminded us of that before going down with an ACL tear in practice. The long-held belief that a rookie tight end can’t be a successful every-week starter in fantasy was intact heading into 2017, but quasi-wideout Evan Engram soaked up the extra opportunity left by Odell Beckham’s season-ending injury and finished in the middle of the TE1 group.

How to Apply This Knowledge: Don’t draft Mike Gesicki (Miami) and Hayden Hurst (Baltimore), but keep them on your waiver wire speed dial list.