One of the major fantasy storylines through the first four weeks of the season includes how centerpiece receivers across the board have massively underperformed expectations.
I mean, look at the top 25 wideouts right now in PPR formats. Sammy Watkins, D.J. Chark, John Ross, Tyrell Williams, Marquise Brown, Terry McLaurin, and Demarcus Robinson are all among the top 25 fantasy receivers. Every single one of them was waiver wire fodder to start the season.
Put another way: Seven of the top 25 — nearly 30 percent — of your best receivers right now weren’t even drafted.
Meanwhile, Davante Adams is your WR17, DeAndre Hopkins the WR20, Odell Beckham WR24, JuJu Smith-Schuster WR39, and Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs are your WR28 and 56 respectively.
I’m not one for chalk and love the topsy-turvy nature of fantasy football but sheesh, what the hell is happening right now???
Look, it’s a long season, I get it. Some of these early season outliers could very well even out as the season goes along but some of these big-name guys will continue to toil away in obscurity.
Let’s try to sort through this mess and see who’s set to pop and who may continue to flop.
YOUR VIKINGS WILL REBOUND
Kirk Cousins is getting killed right now by media, by fans, and even by his own teammates. If you have Thielen or Diggs you’re probably as full-throated as the most ardent Cousins hater.
But I’m of the mindset that he’s actually playing ok. He’s not great by any stretch of the imagination but if we’re being real, matchups matter a whole heckuva lot.
Lamar Jackson looked like he was ready to break the game after facing Miami and Arizona to start the season. What we have found is that those are easily the two worst defenses in the NFL. Once Jackson started seeing real defenses, a lot of his deficiencies as a passer reappeared.
Similarly, Cousins has struggled in games against Green Bay and freakin’ Chicago. We didn’t know it at the time but the Packers are nasty in their defensive secondary. In his two other games, coach Mike Zimmer essentially refused to pass it.
The Vikings have the Giants, Eagles, Lions, Redskins, and Chiefs coming up. That is the cakiest of cake schedules for a passer.
Now I know I spent all these words talking about Cousins but really I would be doing everything in my power to make buy-low bids for both Thielen and Diggs. Cousins is a streamer at best but the point being that he’ll play better now that schedule eases up meaning his pass-catchers should benefit greatly.
NUK DA BOMB OR NUK DA BUST?
It has been a brutal three-game stretch for Nuk Hopkins: Averaging just 49 yards per game and having more interceptions, one, than touchdowns, zero. It is the “Not great, Bob” GIF personified.
Doubly disturbing is the fact that the volume hasn’t been there either. Hopkins has averaged just 7.6 targets and 82 air yards per game over his last three games. We’re talking about a guy that usually averaged north of 10 targets per game with about 116 air yards per contest as well in 2018.
Deshaun Watson is throwing about as often as he was last year and completing passes at a similar rate, so it’s tough to say what is ailing this offense right now, other than the usual Bill O’Brien setbacks of course.
I’ll go back to matchups to help explain Nuk’s slow start. His last three games have included dates against Jalen Ramsey, Casey Hayward, and James Bradberry. All three are considered high-end corners.
Now he should get back on track over the next month as he sees the Falcons, Chiefs, Colts, and Raiders over the next four weeks. But after that, the schedule looks brutal with the Jags, Ravens, Patriots, Broncos, and Titans sprinkled in throughout the back half of his season.
You might as well see what the price is to acquire his services. Maybe a manager is 1-3 and desperate, you never know. But if you’re going to get him, you have to think this is his absolute rock-bottom low point. Given his schedule, don’t be surprised to see him explode in the coming weeks.
JUJU ON THAT BEAT AND MOVE ON
JuJu tallied just 3 catches for 15 yards on Monday night, a massive disappointment following a solid start to his season when he averaged 4.7 receptions and 81 yards per game.
We all kind of figured to lower expectations for him once Ben Roethlisberger went down with injury. But what we saw in WK4 should have JuJu managers absolutely shook.
After starting the season 0-3, the coaching staff clearly came in and decided to reconfigure the offense.
Averaging just six air yards per pass attempt, according to Next Gen Stats, Mason Rudolph owns the third-lowest mark among qualified quarterbacks. This stat measures how far the ball is going through the air. So a 50-yard bomb to the end zone is 50 air yards. The bigger the number the more likely receivers are to catching and making big plays.
As you can tell from the passing chart below, the vast majority of Rudolph’s throws are around the line of scrimmage. Now he did hit on one big play but generally speaking, he’s not going to get to see the crummy Cincy defense every week.
A low air yards per pass attempt figure means there is a real cap on the number of big plays that will be available. Read: JuJu won’t see a lot of big-play opportunities.
We saw that the Steeler offense also emphasized the use of multiple running backs and an emphasis on creating short lay-up throws for their young quarterback. The ball was being spread around meaning JuJu won’t likely see that massive target share we got used to seeing in 2018.
So to recap, it appears JuJu could see a significant reduction in air yards moving forward and could also see fewer targets. Other than that, everything's coming up roses. So yeah, look to sell — and do it quickly.
WHAT TO DO WITH OBJ?
It was a nightmare stat line for Odell Beckham Jr. fantasy managers last week. Just two catches for 20 yards. A stat line made doubly worse by the fact that Baker Mayfield threw for 342 yards.
Normally I would say no big deal; it’s a one-game anomaly, but I’m just not sure. There will certainly be games where OBJ pops off a big number. But in terms of volume, targets and air yards, will Baker force the ball to him as opposed to going to his second and third reads?
Jarvis Landry was CLEARLY his best receiver last year and at the end of the day, Landry averaged 9.25 targets per game. That’s about what Odell is seeing right now through the first four weeks of the season.
He’s also averaging 97.5 air yards per contest after averaging more than 113 air yards per game last year with noodle-armed Eli Manning.
The volume stats would indicate that OBJ is a solid top-10 receiver but barring a massive uptick in touchdowns, isn’t in the class of the truly elite fantasy receivers from a strictly volume-based standpoint.
This obviously could change as the season progresses but as of now, I’d be in a holding pattern with Odell. You’re obviously playing him every week but I wouldn’t move him or sell him for pennies on the dollar.
ONE FOR THE ROAD ...
Marquise Brown isn’t a huge name but his stock is relatively low given that he’s only averaged 52 receiving yards per game with no touchdowns over his last three contests.
That being said, Hollywood has seen his snap share increase each and every week. Just an 18% snap share in WK1, that number climbed to 80% by WK4. As a result, he’s also seeing extremely healthy volume as well.
Over the last three weeks, he’s averaged 9.7 targets and an outrageous 137 air yards per contest as well. He’s seen the third-most air yards in the NFL over the past three weeks. That’s elite-level volume.
So even though he’s done nothing for you recently, chase the volume … I think he pops off for a big number this week — and beyond.
James Koh is a fantasy football analyst and an award-winning journalist. He’s probably wrong, but you never know. Follow him on Twitter @JamesDKoh.