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I once wrote a novella in which the central protagonist goes insane while creating the perfect fantasy football algorithm, which accounts for every conceivable factor and generates flawless projections, week after week.
My fascination with predicting the future is less than healthy.
It’s this time of year when that fascination kicks into overdrive, as well-adjusted fantasy managers — folks who have not pored over average draft positions since St. Patrick’s Day — enter the fray, bringing into sharper focus how players will be valued in our August drafts. As popular perception holds more sway in the six weeks before most of our seasonal drafts commence, finding metrics that tell a more accurate — if less understandable — story becomes ever more important.
That’s where the inscrutable Rotoviz analyst Blair Andrews comes into play: Andrews this week reminded his readers that receiver fantasy points over expectation (FPOE) is “more predictive of itself than traditional efficiency metrics like yards per target” and is “more predictive of future fantasy scoring than any other efficiency metric, including catch rate and yards per reception.”
FPOE isn’t nearly as predictive of future fantasy production as the king of predictiveness: Past fantasy points. But a close look at which wide receivers have consistently posted more fantasy points than we would expect — considering their targets, depth of target, and a range of other factors — can identify breakout candidates. Instead of overthinking everything (my favorite pastime) and avoiding an efficient fantasy producer because he simply can’t keep up his torrid pace, I’ve come to embrace many of these FPOE all-stars, who have shown time and again what they can do when given the opportunity. Good players, it turns out, score a bunch of fantasy points.
Andrews has found it doesn’t really matter if we’re looking at second-year receivers or fifth-year receivers — chasing prior year efficiency is a solid process-oriented start in pinpointing wideouts who can outperform their ADP.
Below are three wide receivers whose FPOE might nudge you in their direction this summer.
Will Fuller (Miami Dolphins)
ADP: Yahoo WR35
A one-game suspension and the move to an offense headed by a quarterback who was downright heinous as a downfield passer in 2020 are going to keep Fuller’s ADP deflated this summer unless you’re in a fantasy league with a bunch of Dolphins fans. And I get it — Tua Tagovailoa was among the NFL’s most abysmal deep throwers in his (very) shaky rookie campaign. Gone are the days of YOLO balls from Deshaun Watson to Fuller.
Fuller, however, was fifth among wide receivers last year in FPOE, trailing Davante Adams, Justin Jefferson, A.J. Brown, and Tyreek Hill. That’s not the worst company to keep for fantasy purposes. Fuller tacked up nearly 64 points over expectation before his excellent 2020 campaign came to a screeching halt after he violated the NFL policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
2020 was hardly the first time Fuller, 27, had scored more fantasy points than we would have expected. He had positive FPOE in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, before he emerged as the team’s top wideout. In 2018, Fuller was 33 fantasy points over expectation after a mere seven games — his season cut short due to injury. He was tenth in FPOE in 2017, a smidge behind then-Texans teammate DeAndre Hopkins.
There’s reason to believe Tagovailoa can be a better deep passer in 2021. Skewering opposing secondaries at Alabama in 2018, Tagovailoa was tops in the nation in adjusted completion percentage on deep passes, throwing a catchable pass on 68 percent of his attempts of at least 20 yards downfield. Miami’s offense will reportedly be better geared toward Tua this season after the rookie struggled last year in a system devised with Ryan Fitzpatrick in mind. If you can stomach drafting a wideout who will finish his 2020 suspension in Week 1, you’re getting a highly efficient wideout who has a clear path to the No. 1 receiver role in a Dolphins offense likely being underrated by fantasy players.
A ninth round pick in 12-team leagues, Fuller fits in a variety of draft approaches. He can be your WR5 or WR6 if you pile up wideouts early on, or he could be a more-than-viable WR3 if you’re hunting for slept-on receivers in the middle rounds who have volume-based upside.
Lockett has defied the regression truthers, scoring 28 regular season touchdowns over the past three seasons, an absurd 11.7 percent TD rate. Whatever it is — his speed, his after the catch elusiveness, his rapport with Russell Wilson — Lockett is a touchdown machine sent from the future to drive analytics geeks insane.
His FPOE is, accordingly, quite good. Lockett was 11th in FPOE among wideouts in 2020. Since 2017, only Tyreek Hill has scored more fantasy points over expectation than Lockett, who has the 19th most air yards over that four-season span — quite the accomplishment in the run-establishing Seahawks offense.
Fantasy managers go into the 2021 draft season with the sour taste of Lockett’s ugly second half of the 2020 season: He went from fantasy’s top receiver in Week 9 to WR24 over the season’s final eight weeks (in PPR leagues). The efficiency machine fell apart. It all came out to a WR8 season for Lockett, though he was largely unplayable in 12-team leagues in November and December.
Enter new Seahawks offensive coordinator Shane Waldron, a Sean McVay disciple who has pledged to make Seattle’s offense less of a vomit-inducing roller coaster ride in 2021. Russell Wilson has described Waldron’s system — presumably similar to McVay’s, with plenty of pre-snap motion — as “complex,” while Lockett has said it offers wideouts more “freedom” in how they run their routes. Seattle wideouts have praised Waldron’s system as bringing more nuanced roles for pass catchers — not just fly patterns leading to thrilling rainbow deep balls from Wilson.
Lockett will always be a downfield burner, but more intermediate targets could make him a more consistent fantasy producer who won’t have to hit the long ball every single week. We saw a similar situation unfold in 2020 with Robby Anderson in Carolina.
Lockett, a late fifth-round or early sixth-round pick in 12-team leagues right now on Yahoo, could be a luxurious WR3 option for Zero RB drafters. If the Seahawks’ new offense does, in fact, make Lockett a more consistent scorer, he should be fine for those who draft him as their WR2. Lockett outscoring teammate D.K. Metcalf — a second rounder — is certainly within the range of outcomes in 2021. He was a mere six fantasy points from doing just that in 2020.
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Tre’Quan Smith (NO)
Stop trying to make Tre’Quan Smith a thing, they say. He’ll never be a thing. I will continue to ignore these cries in 2021. This is the year Smith becomes a thing in fantasy.
Smith in 2020 was 30th in FPOE among wide receivers who played at least 10 games, hardly terrible for a guy who saw a meager 50 targets. Even more eye-popping: Only 23 receivers have a higher FPOE than Smith since he entered the NFL in 2017.
He caught 34 of those balls for 448 yards and four touchdowns, ranking second on the Saints in yards per reception (13.2). A distant No. 3 wideout behind Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, Smith finished 2020 with 16 percent of the Saints’ air yards and trailed only Sanders in yards after the catch. There were, in short, a lot of reasons to be hopeful about Smith’s prospects should he land a more prominent role in the New Orleans offense.
Smith’s game couldn’t have been a worse fit for late-career Drew Brees, who dinked and dunked his way down the field while the speedy Smith (83rd percentile speed score) ran downfield routes mostly for exercise on a Sunday afternoon. Smith never meshed with Brees’ reliance on timing routes and anticipatory throws. It was when Sean Payton relented in the Saints’ ugly postseason loss to Tampa and let Jameis Winston rip one downfield that Smith caught a 54-yard touchdown; he ended the game with three grabs, 85 yards, and two scores.
With Winston the Saints’ presumed 2021 starter, NewOrleans.football's Nick Underhill has said the gunslinging quarterback could be the key in unlocking Smith’s potential in Payton’s offense. Smith’s strengths — corner, post, go, and seam routes — will be a much better fit with Winston — or Taysom Hill, should he emerge as the Week 1 starter.
We’ll see Smith compete for No. 2 receiver duties with Marquez Callaway after Sanders’ departure to Buffalo. Thirty-four percent of the Saints’ targets have been vacated, along with a whopping half of their air yards. Smith, a reasonably efficient pass catcher, is in prime position to take full advantage of that available opportunity in New Orleans.
He could be highly valuable this season in larger formats with multiple flex spots. In other words, you could do worse.