Zero Wide Receiver Drafting and Players To Target

Dave Kluge breaks down 'Zero Wide Receiver' drafting and players to target. A quick intro to the philosophy of the draft strategy is followed by a handful of wide receivers to reach for later in your drafts.

Zero Wide Receiver drafting has been a hot topic for years now. There are many draft strategies out there nowadays. Some include waiting for a late-round quarterback or stockpiling tight ends. A small sect of experts is even pushing Zero Running Back drafting, a direct antithesis to what is being discussed in this article. The concept of building a Zero Wide Receiver team is simple: do not draft any wide receivers early. That's it! Sure, you’ll miss out on Davante Adams and Tyreek Hill, but your odds of hitting on a mid- to late-round wide receiver are much higher than they are on drafting a serviceable running back with a similar draft pick.

First of all, let’s look at how the NFL landscape and running back usage have changed over the years. Gone are the days of most teams having a running back that can be locked in for 200+ carries. There are many benefits to an NFL team operating under the dreaded running-back-by-committee approach. Careers are lengthened, player strengths can be highlighted, legs stay fresh, and injury risk declines. What works for NFL teams and what fantasy managers want very rarely align.

Breaking the last 30 years up into decade-long sample sizes, let's look at how many running backs hit certain carry thresholds over each period.

Decade
250+ Carries
300+ Carries
350+ Carries
1991-2000
134
68
19
2001-2010
146
85
18
2011-2020
86
19
3

Obviously, the volume of high-carry running backs is dwindling, and bellcow running backs have become a dying breed. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, but they are much rarer than they used to be. Only an average of just 8.6 running backs per season have hit the 250-carry mark over the last decade. If you want to win your league, it’s almost necessary to get at least one of those guys.

So, who are the backs that have a chance at hitting that number in 2021?

Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, Dalvin Cook, Derrick Henry, Ezekiel Elliott, Austin Ekeler, Jonathan Taylor, Alvin Kamara, Joe Mixon, Chris Carson, Aaron Jones, David Montgomery, James Robinson, Melvin Gordon III, D'Andre Swift, Cam Akers, Nick Chubb, Antonio Gibson.

The chance that all or even half of these backs can hit the 250-carry threshold is very doubtful. But all of these players are in a situation where they could potentially end up with that volume. How you choose to rank these players is ultimately up to you, but your target should be to acquire at least three of these running backs within the first four rounds.

A mistake many people make going into a draft is sticking too firmly to a preconceived strategy. If you’re picking at the end of the second round and Adams or Hill are still there, you’d be crazy to pass on them. But, sticking to a plan with proven success is an adequate starting point. The only other instance I’d stray away from drafting running backs would be if Travis Kelce, George Kittle, or Darren Waller dropped to me with a very fair value.

You’re probably wondering why wide receivers haven’t even been discussed yet. Once you get to the fifth round, then you can start looking at your receivers. At this point, you should have at least three potential bellcow running backs (maybe four) and an elite tight end. You might think that you’re punting at wide receiver, but you’d be sorely mistaken!

In 2020, 90.2% of the wide receivers that finished between 10-15 points were drafted after the fourth round. Looking at the players in respective positional pools, it's clear that the amount of starter-worthy wide receivers is much deeper than quality running backs.

Position
10+ PPG
15+ PPG
20+ PPG
Running Backs
36
14
3
Wide Receivers
60
19
3

That doesn’t mean that you’re only going to find guys who will score less than 15 points a week, either. As a matter of fact, Stefon Diggs, Calvin Ridley, DK Metcalf, Justin Jefferson, Tyler Lockett, and Adam Thielen all had average draft positions outside of the fourth round in 2020, and all finished top-10 in scoring!

Another big selling point for Zero Wide Receiver drafting is that the discrepancies between the top players and average players at their respective positions are much slimmer in the receiver pool. In 2020, the difference between the top-three running backs’ average (26.5 points per game) and Mike Davis (RB20) was 12.7 points. The difference between the top-three wide receivers’ average (23.0 points per game) and Diontae Johnson (WR20) was just 8.1 points.

Hopefully you have bought into this draft strategy. With last year’s aforementioned receivers seeing a considerable spike in draft position heading into 2021, let’s take a look at some wide receivers outside of the fourth round that could finish as a top-10 wide receiver in 2021.

Tyler Lockett - (ADP 64)

It appears as if there’s a changing of the guard in Seattle, with DK Metcalf carving out a role as the team’s alpha wide receiver. It’s tough to argue against after the season we just saw where Metcalf finished as the WR7 in PPR leagues and seemed unstoppable in certain games. Now, heading into 2021, Metcalf is ranked in the same tier as Davante Adams and Tyreek Hill and will likely command at least a second-round pick. Lockett, on the other hand, can be had for fifth-rounder and offers huge upside. Shockingly, Lockett actually had more targets than Metcalf in 2020. Two games heavily inflated Lockett’s numbers when he totaled 24 receptions for 300 yards and six touchdowns. If drafting Lockett, don’t rely on him to give you a safe weekly floor but expect him to win you some weeks single-handedly. The Seahawks just committed to a four-year/$69M extension that will keep Lockett in Seattle through age 32. He has developed a great rapport with Russell Wilson and has seen 110-plus targets in consecutive seasons. While Metcalf will likely finish as the team’s WR1 again, Lockett can be had for much cheaper in your draft and is a tremendous value later on.

Courtland Sutton (ADP 71)

One of my favorites things to do in fantasy football is to take advantage of the notorious recency bias that plagues managers. Courtland Sutton was getting drafted as the 22nd wide receiver off the board in 2020 after a breakout sophomore season. In an awful situation for him and his fantasy managers, his third-year season was quickly derailed after a Week 1 ACL tear. Now, heading into 2021, Sutton’s value has plummeted and he’s being selected in the fifth and sixth rounds of fantasy drafts. What we saw from Sutton in 2019 was extremely impressive. Even with poor quarterback play from Joe Flacco, Drew Lock, and Brandon Allen, Sutton managed to rack up 1,112 yards and six touchdowns. Not only did he put up the numbers, but he flashed on the field, regularly pulling down acrobatic catches and contested balls. He’s 6’4” with great speed and athleticism and has all of the tools to be one of the league’s premier receivers. His quarterback play could improve if the Broncos opt to draft a rookie in a few weeks. But his supporting cast has already seen a boost with the addition of Jerry Jeudy and the emergence of Noah Fant. This should all help take some pressure off Sutton, who is primed for another huge season in 2021.

Robby Anderson (ADP 88)

Similar to Metcalf and Lockett, the Carolina Panthers have a strong duo of receivers and the one getting drafted later seems to be a screaming value. D.J. Moore is currently ranked as WR16 while Robby Anderson is ranked at WR42, and getting drafted in the seventh round. I understand that Moore has draft capital and measurables that make him a favorable option in fantasy. But last season, Anderson out-targeted Moore 136 to 118. Heading into 2021, the Panthers will have Sam Darnold under center, a quarterback that Anderson spent two years with on the Jets. Anderson was Darnold’s favorite target as a rookie and was out-targeted by only Jamison Crowder the following year. The young quarterback and speedy receiver already have a connection and it isn’t crazy to deduce that Anderson finishes as the Panthers’ top pass-catcher again in 2021. While Moore certainly has the skills to supplant Anderson, the chance of snagging a seventh-round guy with WR1 potential is way too enticing to pass up.

Laviska Shenault Jr (ADP 114)

Laviska Shenault Jr was extremely hyped as a young rookie coming into the league and failed to live up to his lofty expectations. Known as a do-it-all type of player, Shenault didn’t see a ton of opportunities as a rookie -- just 79 targets and 18 rushes. However, he finished 26th in the league in fantasy points per touch, showing that he’s already cementing himself as a top-tier play-maker in the league. He didn't need a ton of touchdowns to do it either, scoring just five times all season. The Jaguars ran a carousel at quarterback in 2020, starting Gardner Minshew, Mike Glennon, and Jake Luton. Now, after a brutal 1-15 season, they are all but guaranteed to select Trevor Lawrence with the first overall pick in April’s draft. The improvement at quarterback will assuredly help out the 22-year-old second-year receiver. He’s got a lot of unteachable traits and elite athleticism that can translate to a breakout sophomore campaign. Like some of the other receivers being highlighted, there is certainly risk involved. D.J. Chark Jr and Marvin Jones Jr will both be involved in an offense with a lot of mouths to feed. But being drafted in the same round as running backs like Latavius Murray, Darrell Henderson, and Rashaad Penny, Shenault offers a much higher ceiling. Because you already locked in your elite backs in the early rounds, there's no reason to even think about drafting these backups now.

Michael Pittman Jr (ADP 123)

In a similar position to Shenault, Michael Pittman Jr had a lot of hype surrounding him as a second-round rookie and failed to hit his projections. Because of that, his value is falling heading into his second year as fantasy managers turn their attention to the new and shiny rookies. Pittman’s season was plagued with injuries and a 39-year-old quarterback that couldn’t push the ball downfield. Pittman has top-end speed and a huge body, making him much better suited for a Carson Wentz-led offense, as opposed to a noodle-armed Philip Rivers one. After a stint on Injured Reserve, Pittman had a solid finish to the season, averaging 47.1 yards per game and 14.1 per reception over his final nine games. Right now, his value is dirt cheap and he still has all of the same traits that made him a desirable rookie. With T.Y. Hilton now 31 years old, Pittman is in a position to carve out a role as the Colts’ top receiver in 2021. A big part of his breakout will lie on the shoulders of Wentz, but the best offensive line in the league and a smash-mouth run game should help the quarterback get back on track after a horrendous 2020 campaign in Philadelphia. With a current value in the tenth round, Pittman is a fantastic player to snag late.


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