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Offseason Low Down

Garbage Time Heroes For 2020

by C.D. Carter
Updated On: August 6, 2020, 6:31 pm ET

They make us feel so smart, so well versed, so savvy: an NFL team's top wide receiver available in the fourth or fifth round, just sitting there, begging us to draft them over another team's WR2. 

Grabbing a team's top wideout outside the first few rounds means we're getting volume at a discount. This makes for decent process, since opportunity is all that matters in fantasy football. Right? 

Well, you might not believe this, but fantasy managers aren't all that great at identifying which of these receivers will exceed their ADP in a given season. Former Rotoworlder Rich Hribar -- fantasy football's Beautiful Mind -- recently did a ten-year deep dive into teams' WR1 available in the WR13-24 range, finding the 122 qualifying receivers met their draft cost about half the time while putting up a top-12 scoring rate 25 percent of the time. About 16 percent of these wideouts posted top-six scoring rates. 

This volatility -- often dismissed by fantasy players who insist they can pinpoint top wideouts in the middle rounds -- is unavoidable if you're going this route in 2020 drafts. The impact of that volatility will vary according to how you put together your squad: the low-testosterone Zero RB drafter is snatching their WR3 or WR4 in the fourth round, whereas the balanced drafter or high-testosterone running back heavy drafter might be taking their WR1 or WR2. Rolling out this sort of receiver as your WR1 to start the season is very different from throwing him in your flex spot (this is where you ask where all my 300-touch running backs are). 

Just last year, we saw DeVante Parker drafted as the 58th receiver off the board and wind up as the league's 11th highest scoring wideout. Per Hribar, the only other time we've seen this unfold over the past decade was when Doug Baldwin was the WR10 after being drafted as the WR63 in 2015. 

Part of the appeal in taking a team's No. 1 receiver in the middle rounds can be reaping the benefits of some sweet, sweet garbage time production. Prioritizing receivers who could see a bunch of targets in blowouts isn't an excellent overarching strategy, but it can pay off, as it did last season with Parker (and for a while, Preston Williams) in Miami. 

I busted out my abacus this week and found that 2019's truly awful teams -- none of which won more than five games -- averaged 584.3 pass attempts. That would have been the 12th most attempts in 2019. Four of those eight teams (Dolphins, Giants, Panthers, Bengals) were in the top-10 in passes, while the Chargers were 11th. 

A planeload of junk time targets did some good for Tyler Boyd, last year's WR18 after being drafted at WR23. D.J. Moore, meanwhile, turned in a WR16 campaign in 2019 after being drafted behind 28 wideouts as the Panthers threw the league's second most passes in a season bursting with negative game script. In an injury riddled season, Sterling Shepard averaged the 25th most fantasy points per game among wideouts; he was drafted as the WR38. 

 

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It's hardly a recent trend. From 2015-2018, NFL teams with five or fewer victories averaged 550.7 pass attempts per season. About half of those teams finished in the top half of the league in passes. Though we're always going to deal with teams like last year's Washington squad -- complete with a horrid offense that ran the fewest offensive plays in the NFL -- we can work with educated guesses about which bad teams might be forced to throw the ball way more than they'd like to. 

Let's get into three No. 1 receivers in the WR13-36 range who profile as potential garbage time heroes.

D.J. Chark (ADP: WR20)

The Jags are going to be bad. Ask anyone. Better yet, ask Vegas, which has Jacksonville's win total set at five games -- the lowest in the league. They avoided the NFL basement by winning two of their final three games last year. It's safe to say the franchise's extremely fragile approach to team building has fallen to pieces. 

The Jaguars' incompetence worked out for Chark in 2019, as the big wideout (6'4" and 199 pounds) commanded 21.9 percent of the team's targets. Displaying rapport with Gardner Minshew II, Chark saw at least seven targets in 10 games last season. And it was in Jacksonville losses where he put up some of his fattest stat lines. Chark's splits tell the story.
 

2019 season Chark targets/game Chark receptions/game Chark yardage Chark TDs
Jaguars wins 6.9 4.2 57.2 0.4
Jaguars losses 8.3 5.2 72.2 0.6

 

The difference between Chark’s production in wins and losses last year works out to around 56 fantasy points over the course of the season. In case you were wondering (I know you were), Chark’s per-game clip in Jacksonville losses would have made him the WR7 in 2019 -- 10 spots higher than where he actually finished. 

The Jags in 2019 had some of the most dramatic gaps in pass rate according to game script. They threw the ball just 45 percent of the time while leading -- their pass rate spiked to 62.7 percent while trailing. They attempted passes on 46.7 percent of their plays while tied. Look closely and you’ll see a team that desperately wants to establish the run, bleed the clock, and play not to lose. The chances of the Jaguars being able to do that in 2020 is, well, not great. Which, in turn, could be great for Chark. 

Obviously I like Chark’s current ADP, but if we hear rumblings in the coming weeks about Jacksonville being slightly more aggressive on offense, perhaps stepping up the pace and trusting Minshew more, that makes Chark an even better target no matter how you’re constructing your fantasy roster. Minshew’s completion rate jumped to 68.2 percent in the no-huddle last year, seven points higher than with a huddle. 

If something were to keep Chark from suiting up for the Jags this season, Dede Westbrook could be the beneficiary. He took in 101 targets (17.9 percent share) last season, one more than Leonard Fournette. Chris Conley, who saw at least seven targets in seven of his final 10 games last year, could also be a sneaky option if Jacksonville has to go without Chark for a portion of 2020. 

Terry McLaurin (ADP: WR24)

It’s not easy to get psyched about a WR1 in an offense that ranked dead dog last in offensive snaps and 27th in pass attempts last year. The ole’ Football Team’s offense was abysmal in 2019, yet McLaurin missed two games and found a way to finish inside the top-30 fantasy receivers -- a feat for the ages. His per-game production would have put him at WR20 on the season. 

McLaurin seems as safe as a receiver can be in the fifth round of 12-team leagues. While his pumped-up touchdown rate of 12.1 percent is almost certain to dip in 2020, it might not matter all that much if the second-year wideout commands more than his 20 percent target share from a year ago. Washington has the fourth most vacated targets (38.4 percent) headed into the 2020 season. Steve Sims, Jr., and electric rookie Antonio Gibson will certainly take some of those vacated looks, but McLaurin stands to benefit the most as the team’s WR1. First-year offensive coordinator Scott Turner seems determined to install an innovative and creative offense -- a welcomed departure from last year’s bland and hilariously predictable Football Team offense.

McLaurin’s win-loss target splits don’t tell us much because Washington eked out a couple games in which their WR1 was heavily targeted, including an ugly 19-16 Week 12 victory over Detroit in which McLaurin saw a dozen targets. Needless to say, McLaurin saw plenty of action while Washington chased points: a nice 69.9 percent of his targets came while the Football Team trailed in 2019. 

That should continue in 2020. Washington has an over-under of 5.5 wins, the second lowest in the NFL. For balanced drafters and Robust RB adherents, McLaurin likely makes for the most stable WR2 option. His volatility, I suppose, would stem from just how involved Gibson and Sims are in the Washington passing game. McLaurin represents an embarrassment of riches for fantasy players who take him as their WR3 or WR4. 

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DeVante Parker (ADP: WR29)

Back to the aforementioned Parker, who profiles as the WR1 for a Miami team with a Vegas over-under of 6.5 wins. This is a Dolphins team that threw the ball on nearly two-thirds of their offensive snaps last season, partly attributable to game script but mostly due to a complete lack of a viable running attack. 

You can bet on the Dolphins throwing it a bunch once again in 2020, whether it’s the human beard, Ryan Fitzpatrick, or rookie Tua Tagovailoa. The Dolphins were a rare offense last year, one that passed the ball on 53.6 percent of their plays while leading. Their pass rate was 62.6 percent while trailing, about one percent higher than their pass rate when tied. 

For as bad as Miami was (and likely will be), Parker was not a product of garbage time. Quite the opposite: Parker averaged around nine fantasy points more per game in 2019 Dolphins wins than he did in losses, including two season-ending victories in which he saw 26 total targets and piled up 248 receiving yards. 

This was the topper of a late-season surge that coincided with the Dolphins losing Preston Williams to an ACL injury in early November. Probably it’s Williams’ potential presence in the Miami lineup that has suppressed Parker’s ADP. He might be going in the third or fourth round if questions surrounded Williams’ return from injury. Williams, of course, has been cleared for football activities nine months after his season ended in devastating fashion. 

Parker’s splits with and without Williams are plain ugly. 

 

2019 season Parker targets/game Parker receptions/game Parker yardage Parker TDs
With Williams 6.5 3.5 50 0.5
Without Williams 9.5 5.5 100.3 0.62

 

There’s always the chance the team will bring back Williams slowly, leaving Parker as the unquestioned alpha receiver and downfield threat who sees the most valuable targets. A fully healthy Williams for Week 1 poses problems for Parker though. 

Considering the kind of targets he gets, the kind of wideout he is (12th in yards per reception and 12th in average depth of target) and the Dolphins’ penchant for dropping back and letting it fly, I’d say Parker still represents the upside play in the sixth round of 12-team fantasy leagues. His volatility comes in the form of Williams lining up on the other side of the formation and siphoning the target load Parker enjoyed in the final month and a half of 2019.

Like Chark, Parker is iffy as a WR2. As a WR3 or WR4? That’s a different story. 

 

C.D. Carter

C.D. Carter is co-host of Living The Stream, owner of DraftDayConsultants.com and author of fantasy football books, including How To Think Like A Fantasy Football Winner. He can be found on Twitter @cdcarter13. He never logs off.