What We Learned in 2018: Wide Receiver

A look back at what we learned at the wide receiver position in 2018

Links to other positions:

QB: https://subscribers.footballguys.com/apps/article.php?article=2019-what-we-learned-qb

RB: https://subscribers.footballguys.com/apps/article.php?article=2019-what-we-learned-rb

TE: https://subscribers.footballguys.com/apps/article.php?article=2019-what-we-learned-te

The 2018 fantasy season featured some new and familiar names among the elite, and some mid-season developments that reversed fortunes. None of the top performers were cheap, but that didn’t mean that a team had to have invested a lot at the position to win their league. More than any specific strategy at wide receiver, the most important part of “winning” at wide receiver was identifying the talents on the rise.

Where Patrick Mahomes II and Tyreek Hill are going, they won’t need roads

Hill shrugged off Cordarrelle Patterson comparisons in his second year to prove that he was a legitimate wide receiver. With a big-armed and bold quarterback at the helm in 2018, he took his production to a new level. Mahomes is just getting started with only one full year and a game under his belt, so the best could be yet to come.

2019 Application

Hill will be a slam dunk pick in the early second and could (should?) make it into the late first with a stable situation that could still push him to new heights.

Aaron Rodgers has a new #1 but no #2, and Jordy isn’t even a #3 without Rodgers

While Rodgers had a disappointing season for fantasy, his #1 receiver didn’t even though it wasn’t the name we were used to seeing on the back end of all of those touchdown passes. Davante Adams’ ability to keep producing with Brett Hundley in 2017 was an indicator that he would be more than ready to be everything Jordy Nelson was and more in 2018 after Nelson was released and ended up signing in Oakland. Nelson was mostly a fantasy non-factor with the Raiders, but did have a big game early in the season and some high volume PPR specials late in the season after Amari Cooper was dealt to the Cowboys. He showed he had more left than it looked like he did with Hundley, but still not enough to justify a mid-round ADP.

2019 Application

Adams will be a top three receiver and mid-first round pick. If Matt LaFleur and the new offensive staff unlock Rodgers dormant ceiling, Adams could still be a value at that ADP. Nelson is likely to go undrafted after being joined by some new blood in Oakland this offseason.

Antonio Brown wasn’t always the Steelers #1 in 2018 and may not even be a Steeler in 2019

Juju Smith-Schuster still finished behind Antonio Brown at the end of the season, but both finished as fantasy WR1s, and at times he decisively outproduced Brown. Brown got his normal huge target share early in the season, but wasn’t producing big plays and seemed to be out of sync with Ben Roethlisberger. By the end of the season, he was out of sync with the entire team. There’s still a chance Brown remains a Steeler for the 2019 season, but as of now it appears much more likely he’ll be on another team and Smith-Schuster will become the #1.

2019 Application

Brown will still likely go in the top 20 picks in any event, but his early draft late first/early second ADP seems too optimistic with a team and quarterback change on the horizon. The best case scenario for his 2019 fantasy stock is a return to the Steelers. Smith-Schuster isn’t going ahead of Brown yet, but if Brown leaves, he should. His early ADP of a mid-second round pick might be a value come August. James Washington is likely to move up the depth chart and isn’t on 2019 fantasy radar yet. There’s still time to buy low in dynasty and early best ball drafts.

Michael Thomas is an elite WR1 and Adam Thielen was for a brief time but probably isn’t now

Some of the most profitable picks in redraft leagues weren’t obscure or against the grain selections, they were just picks that embraced the upward slop of a player’s outlook heading into the 2018 season. Adams, Hill and Smith-Schuster were three of those players. Michael Thomas was another, providing first round value at a second round price. He started the season with a huge bang and had a brief mid-season return to week-winning scores to fuel a huge season. Adam Thielen was the #1 fantasy wide receiver by a large margin through eight weeks, but teams started defending him more effectively and then the Vikings fired their offensive coordinator and turned to a run-heavy attack in December, rendering him a defanged WR2/WR3 for the remainder of the season.

2019 Application

Thomas is going to cost a mid-first and should return that value, but like Hill, he will have a wide range of weekly outcomes if 2018 is any indication of how 2019 will go. Thielen is carrying an early ADP of late second/early third, which might still be a bit too high with Stefon Diggs still there considering the anemic numbers Thielen posted once no longer interim offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski took over. Theilen is also a sell high in dynasty leagues

Julian Edelman can perform without performance-enhancing drugs

Edelman was overlooked in redraft leagues because of his four-game suspension to open the season and worries that the suspension was a sign that he wouldn’t be the player he used to be post-ACL surgery. He ended up posting numbers that would have put him over his 2016 totals if he had played a full season. And then he won the Super Bowl MVP

2019 Application

Edelman is still going in the 4th/5th in early PPR drafts. With no sign that he or Tom Brady will retire after this season, that looks like low-hanging fruit when searching for value to harvest in the mid-rounds.

TY Hilton just needed some Luck and Desean Jackson some Fitzmagic

Hilton and Jackson provided some value at ADP even though they weren’t receivers entering or settling into their prime years. The value came from quarterback changes, which could have been foreseen in one case, but not the other. Andrew Luck shrugged off a slow start and Hilton a myriad of injuries to resume the form that once allowed the combination to account for the season-high receiving yards total by a wideout in 2016. Desean Jackson looked like the best deep threat in the league with Ryan Fitzpatrick after Jameis Winston gave way to Ryan Fitzpatrick while he was serving a suspension to begin the season. Jackson’s fantasy bandwagon ran out of gas after both quarterbacks played badly enough to be benched and he landed on the injury report.

2019 Application

It looks like Winston will be back, but Jackson is still going in the eighth round in early drafts. That seems ill-advised, especially with Jackson likely being released soon. Hilton is going in late second/early third, which doesn’t present much opportunity for profit. Buy low/value candidates who could benefit from a quarterback change include Dede Westbrook in Jacksonville, Emmanuel Sanders and Courtland Sutton in Denver, and Marquise Goodwin and Dante Pettis in San Francisco.

The Rams passing pie can serve three, and serve them well

Sammy Watkins was often a decoy in the 2017 Rams offense. The Rams gave up more to get Brandin Cooks, and it seemed he would expand on Watkins targets and production at the expense of one or both or Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp. Instead, all three were solid to strong WR2’s for fantasy, with Kupp and Woods more consistent and Cooks more peak/valley. Jared Goff and the Rams offense grew in year two, and the addition of Cooks only helped.

2019 Application

None of the Rams receivers are going in the first two rounds, but none should fall to the sixth in this year’s drafts and that feels correct. Kupp is going third coming off of a torn ACL, and presents the best value, albeit with some risk associated his recovery. The Jets have a new offense, but Sam Darnold offers similar growth potential for Robby Anderson and Quincy Enunwa. Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen could help one of their receivers become a bigger fantasy force in year two. Jarvis Landry, Larry Fitzgerald, and Christian Kirk could benefit from their quarterback and offense’s growth. As mentioned above, Watkins and Tyreek Hill could do even more in Mahomes’ second full season. Allen Robinson is candidate to make a leap in production if Mitchell Trubisky gets more comfortable. Jimmy Garoppolo’s receivers in San Francisco come up again under this year-to-year boost factor.

Will Fuller V’s connection with Deshaun Watson wasn’t a fluke, but him staying healthy for an entire season might be

Fuller posted what seemed like unsustainable numbers during a short stint with Deshaun Watson in 2017. When Watson and Fuller were both on the field in 2018, the numbers weren’t quite as overwhelming, but Fuller produced at near WR1 levels. He also once again had an injury-riddled season that was started late because of a hamstring injury and ended early because of a torn ACL. Before the injury, Fuller was on track to be one of the best ADP value of 2018 drafts.

2019 Application

Deshaun Watson has shown the ability to elevate a second wide receiver to very strong numbers while feeding DeAndre Hopkins at a top three overall rate. That has been Will Fuller V so far, but for a game here and there, it was fourth-round pick Keke Coutee in 2018. Of course, Coutee’s hamstring problem lingered all season. We probably never got to see anything resemble a 100% Coutee, but that could be an indicator of a Fuller-esque injury plague as much as brighter days to come. Fuller and Coutee are both carrying early ADPS (fifth for Fuller, 12th for Coutee) that more than price in their injury history considering the high weekly ceiling they have displayed at this early juncture of their careers.

Tyler Boyd ate the cake at John Ross’s coming out party, but Kenny Golladay got to enjoy all of his

Ross had a strong offseason and preseason and the 2017 top ten pick looked poised for takeoff. While he did show a knack for scoring touchdowns, it was actually 2016 second-round pick Tyler Boyd who broke out in the Bengals offense, and later carried the passing game after AJ Green’s season was ended by a toe injury and aggravation. Kenny Golladay’s arrow was pointing up heading into the season and unlike Ross, he delivered. He was aided by a midseason trade of Golden Tate and season-ending injury for Marvin Jones Jr.

2019 Application

Boyd and Golladay are both going in the fifth in early drafts. John Ross should be helped by the departure of Marvin Lewis, and two of Boyd’s strongest games came when Ross was out. Golladay won’t have to compete with Tate for targets. Both will have new offensive coordinators. Cooper Kupp, Will Fuller V, and Doug Baldwin are all going around the same point and might be more enticing for different reason. The bottom line is that the fifth round looks strong at wide receiver. James Washington, Mike Williams, Dede Westbrook, Keke Coutee, Christian Kirk, DJ Moore, Curtis Samuel, Anthony Miller, Michael Gallup, Dante Pettis, and Chris Godwin are all good candidates to make the second/third year leap at wide receiver this season.

Amari Cooper just needed a change of scenery, but Golden Tate didn’t

For a long time, fantasy players stayed away from wide receivers who changed teams in the offseason because of the difficult chemistry/learning/integration curve to overcome in year one. With that in mind, a receiver changing teams mid-season should be kryptonite for fantasy lineups. Not only did Amari Cooper defy that when he was dealt the Cowboys, he shrugged off inconsistency that had been dragging down his fantasy stock for over a year. Golden Tate, who admittedly went for a lot less in his trade and entered a much more crowded offense, saw his production nosedive. Mid-season trades still add volatility to a receiver’s outlook, but Cooper brought the upper end of that new range of possibilities into focus.

2019 Application

With general managers more open to trades, evaluating in-season trade effect on fantasy value is going to be a more frequent exercise. We should be more open to it providing a boost than we have been in the past. Devante Parker looks like a receiver who could have benefited from an in-season trade and should get a shot on a new team next season.

Emmanuel Sanders and Tyler Lockett’s performance dropoffs in 2017 were because of injuries

Sanders and Lockett were disappointments for fantasy teams while playing through injuries in 2017, but came into 2018 fully healed from maladies that slowed them. Both outproduced expectations and provided value at ADP, although Sanders once again missed multiple games due to injury issues.

2019 Application

Lockett’s arrow is still pointing up, and let us remember that he admitted he wasn’t 100% in 2017 after a catastrophic leg injury ended his 2016. Sanders might be getting to that point where the injuries catch up with him, although he is still the clear #1 in Denver and he displayed great chemistry with Case Keenum. Both are worth the late sixth early ADP, although Lockett has to overcome a low volume passing game and running mate in Doug Baldwin who could be the example of a player to buy low on the injury bounceback bump as he’s going only a round before Lockett. Keke Coutee, Dante Pettis, Marquise Goodwin, Quincy Enunwa, and TY Hilton all fit the profile of players who could have a stronger 2019 if they can have a healthier 2019.

Corey Davis needs a healthy quarterback, or maybe a new one

Davis was able to avoid the hamstring issues that torpedoed his rookie year and elevated to the #1 receiver for the Titans offense. Three times during the season Marcus Mariota was mostly healthy and Davis put up the kind of numbers that put a fantasy team over the top in their weekly matchup. The rest of the time he was a lead weight in an offense that was a lead weight.

2019 Application

How much can change with a new offensive coordinator (albeit one that was promoted from within - tight end coach Arthur Smith) and the same quarterback? Considering that Davis’s ADP is still very affordable as a seventh round pick in early drafts, enough to make him worth the plunge. John Brown and Larry Fitzgerald also qualify as bounceback candidates after languishing in poor pass offenses for some or all of 2018.

Jarvis Landry’s value was necessity based in Miami and the vacuum left did not create a fantasy relevant option there

We always suspected that Jarvis Landry’s value was based more on volume than the pure gravitational pull of his ability. The Browns paid for his stats and while he contributed to turnaround in the team’s culture and win-loss record, a strong fantasy season did not accompany that “real football” success. Landry started strong with Tyrod Taylor and his season was dotted with big weeks once Baker Mayfield took over, but there was no consistency in his fantasy profile. Meanwhile in Miami, there was no one receiver that soaked up his targets, and the Miami passing game ended up being where wide receiver value goes to die.

2019 Application

Landry is still going in the fourth/fifth round in early drafts, which indicates some optimism about his role in the offense gaining some consistency next year. Perhaps if Rashard Higgins and Breshad Perriman both leave in free agency, that could create the opening for Landry’s week-to-week production to level off. Duke Johnson Jr and David Njoku were also neglected at times and this offense still runs through Nick Chubb when the team is winning, so there’s a lot of questions about how the passing game will look in year two of the Baker Kitchens show. Landry’s price is too rich at the moment.

Allen Robinson still has it. So does Sammy Watkins. That doesn’t mean they will put your fantasy team over the top

The two biggest free agent contracts at wide receiver yielded strong performances - well at least when the players were healthy. Robinson started slow and then missed a few games with a groin issue. He flashed his formerly elite game when he returned from injury and again in the playoff loss to Philadelphia, but was otherwise held back by an offense with too many mouths to feed in an inconsistent passing game when Chase Daniel took over for a few games and the offense switched to cold weather mode in December. Watkins was poised to benefit from the best matchups in a rising tide lifts all ships scenario in Kansas City when yet another foot ailment sidelined him for six of the last seven games. He looked good in the playoff to create some optimism for the 2019 campaign.

2019 Application

Both of these receivers will be underrated in next year’s drafts. Watkins is going in the 7th/8th range which feels way too pessimistic and Robinson in the 5th/6th which is very reasonable considering his raw ability and the potential for this offense to take a step forward in 2019. This pair could also get a bump in year two with their new teams. There’s no one near the echelon of Robinson or Watkins in this year’s free agent wide receiver class.

Even the Patriots can’t save Josh Gordon

2018 added another excruciating chapter in the Josh Gordon saga. First he was going to triumphantly return to the Browns and possibly hit a previously unseen level of play as a sober and focused player. Then he mysteriously didn’t show for camp. Then he returned for Week 1 and caught a touchdown. Then he was traded to the Patriots for change Bill Belichick found in his couch cushions. Then Gordon resumed 80-90% of his old form (probably limited by a preseason hamstring injury) for two-plus months in a Patriots uniform and we all thought they got over on the Browns again. Then he was suspended indefinitely once again.

2019 Application

Ian Rapoport has already reported that Gordon could be reinstated in time for training camp. Gordon is in rehab right now and we certainly wish him the best in his efforts to get on a positive track. It’s fair to wonder if that can ever happen as long as he is playing professional football. Putting the massive human side of this story aside, even with the relatively low chances Gordon finds a sustainable way to stay clean and play in the NFL, the risk/reward proposition in dynasty leagues is probably worth the plunge at the current greatly depressed price. Meanwhile, the Patriots have Chris Hogan, Cordarrelle Patterson and Phillip Dorsett entering free agency, so Gordon or no Gordon, they have work to do at wide receiver.

Sam Darnold can support one fantasy relevant wide receiver and he might be able to support two, but otherwise wide receivers went hungry in offenses led by rookie quarterbacks

Robby Anderson didn’t need Josh McCown to return to his 2017 level of production, he just needed Sam Darnold to settle down. Anderson was an elite fantasy option from Weeks 14-16, perhaps helped a bit by the absence of Quincy Enunwa for two games, but still playing like a true #1 receiver. Teams could not resist temptation of putting first-round quarterbacks in the lineup - even Lamar Jackson got in and was the biggest winner of the five-man group - but other than a flash of Robert Foster here and a dash of Jarvis Landry there, none were able to support even once consistent fantasy receiver.

2019 Application

This year may sport 2-4 first round quarterbacks in the draft, but they will likely be lower-rated and less capable of supporting fantasy value than the 2018 class. We’ll be staying away from receivers on any team that could play a 2019 rookie at quarterback. Players like Foster, Christian Kirk and Larry Fitzgerald, and Michael Crabtree could get a little bump from having a more experienced starter this year. Anderson looks like a steal at his early ADP in the seventh round.

Rookie wide receivers can flash, but not sustain

Lots of rookie wide receivers had their moments this year. Calvin Ridley, DJ Moore, Courtland Sutton, Keke Coutee, Anthony Miller, Michael Gallup, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Tre’Quan Smith, and Dante Pettis all stole headlines for a week here and there, but didn’t deliver on the excitement generated by sporadic big plays and big games. There was no true #1 in the class, and no one fell into an ideal situation except Coutee, who couldn’t stay healthy.

2019 Application

All of these guys will be cheap and worth investment on the second-year rebound in redraft leagues. The 2019 wide receiver draft class has a similar outlook with only Ole Miss product DK Metcalf projecting as a #1 or high first-round pick (pending medical checks of his neck). Unless a 2019 rookie lands in a plum spot, we’ll be passing on them in redraft leagues.

Pierre Garcon wasn’t the 49ers #1, but neither was Marquise Goodwin

Garcon had made beautiful music with Kyle Shanahan as a #1 receiver back in Washington in 2013, so it just made sense that he would do the same now that Shanahan had a quarterback in San Francisco. Instead, Shanahan having a quarterback lasted all of three weeks and Garcon looked like he was in the decline phase of his career. Somewhere along the way during the summer Marquise Goodwin generated buzz as the new #1, and his ADP followed suit. Goodwin couldn’t stay on the field for more than a few games at a time and never fulfilled those expectations. The breakout player of the 49ers passing game was instead tight end George Kittle.

2019 Application

Goodwin is going in the 10th round or later, and even behind Dante Pettis in some drafts. Both seem like worthy picks with the likelihood that the 49ers offense should be able to support at least one weekly option at wide receiver along with Kittle.