Every year, there are a handful of receivers who balled out on limited targets the previous season, and then the fantasy football community debates whether or not to buy a leap from them the following year. A perfect example this year would be Mecole Hardman. My goal with this column is to figure out if these types of receivers are worth buying in fantasy.
High-Efficiency, Low-Volume WR Study
Don’t mind these completely arbitrary cutoffs, but I’m defining these highly-efficient low-target receivers as players who:
1) Were in their first, second, or third season, AND
2) Had between 40-90 targets, AND
3) Averaged at least 9.0 yards per target.
Since 2000, there were 91 receivers who met these criteria, but that number drops to 84 when I eliminate last year’s qualifiers to do this study. Among the 84 qualifiers, only 29 of them (34.5%) reached at least 90 targets the following season (sorry for another arbitrary cutoff). For fantasy football purposes, that’s less than ideal as almost anyone you want to be starting at receiver should be projected for more than 90 targets. Simply put, most of these highly-efficient low-target young receivers don’t see enough volume the following season to be fantasy difference makers.
The other issue with these types of receivers is how to build projections for them. Do we use their yards per target average from the previous season? That would be a money burning idea. Of the 29 receivers who reached at least 90 targets the following season, only three of them (10%) had a yards per target equal to or better than the one they had in their previous highly-efficient season. On average, their yards per target dropped by 1.5 the following year if they are the semi-rare receiver to actually see a notable uptick in targets.
The reason for this is simple: efficiency decreases with more volume. Quarterbacks throw the ball to their best receiver even if they are covered more tightly. For the most part, these highly-efficient low-target young receivers were only being targeted when they were wide open. That drives up their efficiency numbers. When they become a focal point of the passing offense, it’s harder to replicate the efficiency because defenses are preparing for them. It’s exactly why I hate seeing people reference average separation stats when justifying a receiver’s upside for fantasy football. Higher separation rates are actually negatively correlated to receiving yards and touchdowns:
2020 WRs Who Fit This Criteria
I think Brown is one of the best young receivers in the NFL. In fact, he may already be a top-12 receiver in terms of talent. But that doesn’t protect him from negative regression. I’ve built a handful of receiving models this offseason, and Brown always was near the top of the negative regression leaderboards because of how ridiculous his rookie season was last year. Brown is the second biggest negative regression candidate per my yards after catch over expected metric, the fifth biggest negative regression candidate per my expected receiving touchdowns model, and averaged a whopping 7.4 fantasy points per game over expected. Brown’s efficiency (12.5 yards per target) will be regressing bigly in 2020, although an uptick in targets (84) should offset most of it. He’s currently my WR19, so I haven’t been drafting any Brown in early fantasy drafts, which is sad because I think Brown is very, very good at football.
Deebo Samuel (WR37 in ADP)
Like Brown, Samuel elevated his yards per target average (9.9) with insane production after the catch. My YAC model said Samuel was sixth in yards after the catch over expected, a high enough score to bet against repeating in 2020, and I would’ve said the same thing before his Lisfranc injury. Because Samuel did a lot of his damage with change-of-direction and short-area burst, the broken foot is extra concerning. We aren’t completely sure if he will open the season on the PUP list (auto six missed games) or if he will be rushed back onto the field, but I’m nervous that Samuel won’t be able to break as many tackles and pick up as many yards after the catch on a less than 100% foot, not to mention the high re-injury rate of that particular medical issue. I’ll take my chances elsewhere.
Mecole Hardman (WR45 in ADP)
My bold take is that Hardman will not average 13.1 yards per target in 2020, but of the receivers we are going through in this exercise, I’m most confident that Hardman will average at least 9.0 yards per target (hello, Patrick Mahomes). The real question is not if he’ll be efficient (I set his YPT at 9.5 in my personal projections), but will he see enough targets to matter for fantasy football? Hardman didn’t run more than 21 routes in any game with a healthy Tyreek Hill last season, so he will need a) an injury to Hill, or b) will have to leap Sammy Watkins and/or Demarcus Robinson on the depth chart. I think he can beat out Robinson -- he’s simply more talented -- but I’m still anticipating a low-volume role if the Chiefs Offense stays healthy. I’ve only been drafting Hardman if he falls beyond his average draft position or if I drafted Mahomes earlier in the draft. Hardman is my WR48 and could be a boom-bust flex option during bye weeks.
The rest of them:
Mike Williams (WR46 in ADP)
Allen Lazard (WR65 in ADP)
James Washington (WR81 in ADP)
John Ross (WR82 in ADP)
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