2019 Wide Receiver Fantasy Draft Preview: The position is more important than ever

New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas
Michael Thomas' status as an elite WR1 earned him a nice payday. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Current wide receiver landscape

Over the last five NFL seasons, I’ve been evaluating the wide receiver position in-depth using a methodology I developed called Reception Perception.

(That won’t be the last time I reference Reception Perception so make sure to check out the series’ 2019 primer if you’re not familiar.)

In that span, over 50,000 routes for over 200 players have been logged into the Reception Perception database. Plenty of individual player and league-wide takeaways can be found within that catalog. One that seems unavoidable when you look at the results in full: Wide receiver is a stacked position in the NFL right now.

Take fantasy out of the equation for a moment. Try and briefly jot down a Top 10 list for the best wide receivers in the sport right now. It’s almost impossible to do this objectively and come away without feeling like you left someone off your collection.

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We have a group of the established elite players who have been here for a minute and are still playing at an elite level. Antonio Brown and Julio Jones are still dominating to this day. Players a bit younger than them but right in their tier like DeAndre Hopkins, Davante Adams and Michael Thomas are up there for the title of the best wide receiver in the league. The legendary Odell Beckham Jr. still highlights a 2014 class that pumped talent into the position a few years back. The Rams and Vikings boast wide receiver corps so good it’s up for debate which is the best one on the roster. A collection of 26-year-old-and-younger receivers like Tyler Lockett, Calvin Ridley, Chris Godwin, D.J. Moore, Christian Kirk and so many more look ready to truly break out and make the position that much stronger.

A high-leverage scoring group that’s only seeing an increase in options; wide receivers are more important than ever in fantasy football. At the very least, getting the picks correct is of more consequence than ever.

Wide receiver Draft Strategy

The wealth of riches at wide receiver has certainly affected fantasy leagues, especially as the great passing boom of the NFL continues to progress. That movement has created opportunity at every end of the position’s spectrum.

A handful of all-out dominant target monsters still exists at the top of draft boards. Even more consequential, some teams’ passing games have become so spread out that ancillary wide receivers down the depth chart see a volume boost. That’s led to more viable options to collect in late rounds and especially creates options for best-ball dart throws in ranges previously thought to be unexplored.

So, that means there are a few ways to skin the cat when drafting this position in fantasy.

If you so choose, you can reasonably collect a pair of potential WR1s in drafts this year. A hyper-elite pairing of an Odell Beckham Jr. with a Tyreek Hill, or a Julio Jones and JuJu Smith-Schuster marriage is possible. It’ll cost you both a first and second-round pick but the potential is tempting. You can take a discounted version of this approach by grabbing one of those Round 1 options or snagging a Mike Evans or Antonio Brown in Round 2, then coming back in Round 3 to target a Keenan Allen-type, or one of the two Vikings receivers.

Of course, if you go this path, you’ll be passing up on some strong running back options. And that particular position gets noticeably gross in Rounds 5 to 8. The good news is, wide receiver value exists all throughout the draft board.

You can cobble together a corps of players with 100-plus target upside in the sixth round and beyond. Options like Allen Robinson, Robby Anderson, Dante Pettis, Marvin Jones, Larry Fitzgerald, and Corey Davis abound. Even well down the draft board, the double-digit rounds provide big play value with guys like John Brown, DeSean Jackson, Anthony Miller and more.

My strategy behind the position, thanks to all of these options, is to be fluid. If you like the way the board unfolds that you want to strike early, you can nab an unfair advantage with a pair of WR1s. You need not pigeon-hole yourself, however. There is enough value for those who can’t leave a draft without a strong feature back or two.

Key Stats I Use to Evaluate WRs

Targets: It’s basic, but fantasy always comes back to opportunity. A wide receiver can’t do a thing in the stat sheet if they don’t have the ball thrown their way. As such, this is the primary stat for deciphering a receiver’s worth in fantasy. More targets, more value.

Share of team targets: It’s helpful to unpack targets a step further and look at it from a team-level perspective. If a receiver is only averaging six targets per game but makes up a healthy 20 percent share of the team’s total targets, that’s a good signal. In a more pass-heavy game script or a potential high-scoring affair, that receiver’s outlook that week would get a raw volume boost.

Fantasy Football Draft Kit
Fantasy Football Draft Kit

Air yards: Here we take opportunity one step further, deciphering not just how many targets a receiver gets but what type of targets they receive. Targets further down the field are worth more than those closer to the line of scrimmage. Josh Hermsmeyer collects this data and was paramount in bringing it into the mainstream for fantasy.

Average depth of target: Molding targets and air yards together. Shows how deep or shallow a player’s targets are in-game. This can help you mix different types of receivers when building lineups. Players with a more shallow average depth of target are safer than those with higher figures but also provide less upside.

Route usage stats: Divvying up counting stats by route instead of by target has proven to be more predictive when forecasting future success. Even more importantly, measuring how many routes a receiver runs per game helps understand opportunity deeper than their snap rate.

Alignment data: Knowing where a receiver lines up and from what position they’re running their routes helps us identify favorable matchups on a weekly basis. You can match them up against weaker cornerbacks on opposing teams. It’s especially helpful to measure how much slot usage a receiver is likely to see on any given week.

Scoring area stats: We need to look at both targets in the red zone and even more crucially, targets inside the 10-yard line. We want touchdowns from our wideouts. Opportunity in scoring position makes that more likely.

Reception Perception: All personal bias admitted. Evaluating talent in football is hard. It’s especially difficult to use raw, and even some advanced, stats with the wide receiver position because they are so inherently dependent on outside variables to accrue production. With Reception Perception, we’re able to isolate the receiver (as much as possible) and attempt to quantify the qualitative reality of route-running. Through five years of research, I’ve found it helpful in spotting potential breakout players and most especially when trying to identify roles and strengths for receivers.

Top-12 Fantasy WRs

Per the Yahoo composite expert ranks:

1) DeAndre Hopkins 2) Davante Adams 3) Julio Jones 4) Odell Beckham Jr. 5) Michael Thomas 6) JuJu Smith-Schuster 7) Tyreek Hill 8) Antonio Brown 9) Mike Evans 10) T.Y. Hilton 11) Keenan Allen 12) Amari Cooper

Matt Harmon’s Top-12 (even though he does not officially rank fantasy players when tiers aren’t involved):

Top Fantasy Wide Receivers
Top Fantasy Wide Receivers

Draft-day Steal

Curtis Samuel is my favorite 2019 breakout receiver this side of Chris Godwin. When you take a 30,000-foot view, there’s just not much not to like with this player for the upcoming season. Starting with: He’s good. You can see it all over the film and the evidence has been scattered all throughout training camp news bites this summer. Samuel finished in the 94th percentile in Reception Perception’s success rate vs, man coverage metrics. He brings strong release moves off the line of scrimmage when he is pressed, with a 74.6 percent success rate (79th percentile). It is not a stretch at all to say Samuel looks like an early career Stefon Diggs. Not only do they run routes the same way, but their Reception Perception results are also strikingly similar.

The drumbeat has been building for Samuel for a while; it’s just continued into this summer. He produced late last season when he finally saw a full snap share. His QB is healthy this offseason. The offense is better than at any point in the Ron River/Cam Newton era. He is a clear starter and that will bring the volume.

The team structured plans to make him a starter by phasing out Devin Funchess late last year and letting him walk without resistance this spring. For god’s sake, the social media crew in Carolina can’t stop posting about Samuel and D.J. Moore on their Instagram page. All the while, Samuel is still cheap in the vast majority of drafts with an ADP (for now) outside the Top-40 receivers.

This is happening; get on board.

Follow Matt: @MattHarmon_BYB

More Positional Previews: Quarterback | Running Back

Fantasy Team Previews

AFC East: Bills | Dolphins | Jets | Patriots

NFC East: Cowboys | Eagles | Giants | Washington

AFC South: Colts | Texans | Jaguars | Titans

NFC South: Buccaneers | Saints | Panthers | Falcons

AFC North: Bengals | Steelers | Ravens | Browns

NFC North: Lions | Vikings | Packers | Bears

AFC West: Chiefs | Chargers | Raiders | Broncos

NFC West: Rams | Cardinals | 49ers | Seahawks