Michael Thomas set the standard for wide receiver play in the NFL last season. Leading the league in targets (185), Thomas went on to break Marvin Harrison’s long-standing receptions record. Thomas’ 149 catches topped Harrison’s 143, set all the way back in 2002.
Thomas was obviously dominant compared to the rest of the league. He was also the engine of his team’s passing offense. Thomas’ league-high 1,725 receiving yards led the Saints by a massive gap. Jared Cook finished second on the team with 705, over 1,000 shy of Thomas. The only other player to finish with over 500 yards was running back Alvin Kamara.
The Saints were a highly efficient offense while funneling everything through Michael Thomas. New Orleans ranked fourth in overall offensive DVOA and third as a passing attack. From more of a raw numbers perspective, they were sixth in yards per play and third in points. You can’t argue that Thomas as the engine of this team’s offense was anything but a net positive.
We could spend the rest of this digital real estate continuing to heap deserved praise on Michael Thomas for his work in 2019 — but this is about looking forward, not backward. We want to know who could do what he did last year, next season.
The receiver who could lead the NFL in targets, catches, receiving yards, etc. The receiver who will be the clear engine of a productive offense that pushes for the playoffs. The receiver who will be the best at the position in fantasy football, despite not being taken first in the vast majority of drafts. The receiver who will be in a position to break records.
That player was Michael Thomas in 2019. If we play football in 2020, that receiver will be Davante Adams.
Davante Adams should be 2020’s WR1
Let’s start at the player level. There’s no question Thomas has a superior resume. He’s cleared 1,000 yards all four years of his playing career and gone over 100 catches in each of the three. Adams, on the other hand, has just a single 1,000-yard season as a pro.
Adams didn’t get off to a hot start as a pro the way Thomas did; we know that. After a middling rookie year, Adams flopped in his second season as a full-time starter. Jordy Nelson’s preseason injury vaulted Adams into a role he wasn’t ready for. The second-year wideout was a mess in 2015, averaging fewer than 10 yards per catch and dropping passes at a high rate. All that is ancient history now.
The last two seasons have shown Adams fully blossom into an elite receiver. As Reception Perception shows, he went from being one of the literal worst to one of the very best wideouts in the league:
In 2014, Davante Adams finished with a 47% success rate vs. man coverage (2nd percentile).
In 2018, he finished at the 99th percentile and the 96th in 2019.
No WR has improved more dramatically in #ReceptionPerception. From one of the worst to one of the best. pic.twitter.com/uVdJe1PtOi
— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) July 14, 2020
There hasn’t been a receiver to make a more dramatic improvement than Adams over the last five years. We’re at the point where Adams is now one of the five best players at the position.
Had Adams played 16 games in 2017 and 2019, we’d likely be looking at a player coming off three-straight 1,000-yard seasons with double-digit touchdowns in at least three of his last four campaigns. As it is, Adams’ box score is nothing to sneeze at. The truth is, his route-running prowess and on-film play is far more impressive and foretells of a much higher ceiling yet unreached.
Adams already has a WR3 overall finish on his resume (2018) and Reception Perception shows he clearly has the ability to take the top spot. Of course, talent doesn’t score you fantasy points. You aren’t awarded anything for running some of the best routes in the league, separating at all levels and dictating coverages as Adams does. The receiver needs the same confluence of events that took place for Michael Thomas in 2019 to take down the WR1 overall spot in any given year.
Those are in place for Adams now.
Thomas paced all wide receivers with a 30 percent share of his team’s targets. When Adams was on the field, he wasn’t far behind. His 29 percent share of the Packers’ looks was third among wideouts, trailing only Thomas and DeAndre Hopkins. It’s perfectly reasonable to project Adams to clear the 30 percent mark this year, especially when you consider he played through a few games in 2019 while still dealing with that toe injury.
Adams’ target pace last year would total out to 169 over a full season. That would have been good for second last year behind Thomas as it is. He could easily take the crown next season.
The Packers depth chart is far more barren behind Adams than the Saints’ behind Thomas. While New Orleans boasts solid veteran talents like Jared Cook and Emmanuel Sanders along with one of the best catching backs in the league in Alvin Kamara, Green Bay’s cupboard is near barren.
Running back Aaron Jones finished second behind Adams last year with a whopping 68 targets and is their only other proven pass-catching threat. The wide receiver and tight end positions were weak spots for the 2019 Packers. Progress-stoppers like Jimmy Graham and Geronimo Allison were not retained in free agency. And even with glaring holes at both spots, the Packers did nothing in the 2020 NFL Draft to add competition. Reclamation project Devin Funchess was their only consequential addition in free agency.
As things stand heading into camp, Rodgers-favorite Allen Lazard looks like he’ll take the No. 2 receiver spot with Funchess and Marquez Valdes-Scantling battling behind him. Jace Sternberger should replace Jimmy Graham as the pass-catching tight end. That’s about as uninspiring as it gets on paper. Lazard flashed potential while finishing last year but remains unproven. You can keep a candle lit for Valdes-Scantling’s upside but he whiffed in his chance to seize the No. 2 gig last year. Funchess is coming off a lost year in Indianapolis and Sternberger’s next catch will be the first of his NFL career.
With what’s behind him and what we know about how important trust in his pass-catchers is to Rodgers, it’s entirely conceivable that the future Hall of Famer could lock into Adams more than ever next season.
There’s no question the 2019 Saints were a better offensive environment than the most likely version of the 2020 Packers. Sean Payton is one of the best offensive minds in the league. We’re, at best, not sure if Matt LaFleur is capable of replicating such an ecosystem. His Titans stint along with his first year in Green Bay don’t provide much evidence to suggest it.
What could help offset some of the drop-off in the offensive ecosystem from New Orleans to Green Bay is a boost in overall passing volume for the Packers. Last year, the Packers were 16th in pass attempts and 13th in plays run. Don’t be surprised if both of those figures go up next year.
The Packers played above their heads last year as a 13-3 outfit. They went 6-1 in one-score games, which could easily regress next year. Their point differential from 2019 was more fitting of a 10- to 9-win team. A defense that was barrelled over in the NFC Championship game and generally fell flat whenever Preston and Z’Darius Smith couldn’t pressure passers will largely run back the same cast. The embattled Mike Pettine will have to hope swapping in Christian Kirksey at inside linebacker and some improvement from young players in the secondary is enough to keep his job. It’s a big gamble.
Green Bay is not a bad team but if their defense continues to flounder, they’ll be placed in more fantasy-friendly passing scripts. All this is a huge plus in Adams’ case to push for 180-plus targets.
Adams is still squarely in his prime and Aaron Rodgers, while declining, is still good enough to be the efficient passer the receiver will need to top fantasy-receiver scoring next season. The veteran quarterback should be even more comfortable in LaFleur’s offense in addition to being eager to stave off any discussion of Jordan Love. As he looks to have a career renaissance, his best hope to pad his stat portfolio is Adams.
All eyes will be on Rodgers given the Packers draft choices this offseason. By association, they’ll be on Adams as he looks to take the next step in his own career. Rodgers will certainly be one of the key characters in the story of the season but if he doesn’t have Adams operating at the height of his powers, his hopes to write a compelling chapter are over before they begin.
All the factors that were present for Michael Thomas’ record-breaking and elite fantasy season in 2019 are on the table for Davante Adams now. That’s why he’s my WR1 overall for this year.