Key to finding hidden value at receiver in Fantasy Football drafts

Last year we looked at fantasy wideouts on two measurements. One presaged my ZeroBadQB strategy that I detailed last month. But the main point was this: Let’s judge receivers based on how they performed relative to their team’s other receivers.

That “relative yards per target” model and the related article gave us some hits: Rishard Matthews at 2016 average draft position (ADP) 131 when he ended up a top-20 scoring wideout and Kenny Britt who was usually undrafted and finished 26th. It also firmly endorsed one of last year’s most polarizing WRs, Doug Baldwin (2016 ADP 46).

Of course there were misses as well: Dorial Green-Beckham (prior to the Titans shipping him out) and Torrey Smith. And it also missed on a trio of receivers who ended up injured — Travis Benjamin, Markus Wheaton and Vincent Jackson. And while Terrance Williams was technically a miss, he did dominate in relative yards per target again in 2016 despite rarely being targeted.

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I’ve tried to weight targeting more this year by only assessing receivers with 80-plus times-thrown-to. And I’ve also adjusted for how receivers are deployed by factoring the group average of catching about 62% of targets. This means I won’t punish a receiver like Julian Edelman who is efficient in the way he’s used or reward one like Marvin Jones who does really well in the yardage component but is one of the trailers in efficiency (53%) because his targets are so deep downfield. Plus our downfield model already revealed Jones as a 2017 buy.

A wonky note about methodology: I painstakingly looked at a team’s yards per target to only receivers and calculated how well each team’s wideouts did in comparison to his team’s receiver average excluding the receiver being ranked. All this data is publicly available, though target totals for individuals vary insignificantly at times from site to site. I used Pro Football Reference’s Play Index, which I highly recommend as being subscription-worthy.

Get ready for your Fantasy Football draft.
Get ready for your Fantasy Football draft.
Recommendations based on current ADP

Adam Thielen, Minnesota Vikings (ADP 126): His relative yards per target is 3.46 yards better than his teammates last year (on 92 targets). That’s No. 1 in the league. Only two other wideouts (Britt and Amari Cooper) were within a yard. He’s far better than Stefon Diggs, who goes 2-to-3 rounds higher, on average. Yes, I have concerns about Sam Bradford not throwing deeper routes because, like Alex Smith, he’s overly concerned with completion percentage. But I would be very surprised if Thielen is not at least a solid WR3 this year.

Kenny Britt, Cleveland Browns (ADP 121.8): He’s the only other receiver at over three yards better than his team’s other wideouts last year at plus-3.31 (111 targets). I can’t ding Britt for the possibility of a bad quarterback when he cracked the top 30 last year with the worst quarterback. Britt is underrated the most by the public among receivers. Remember, he crushed this stat in 2015 too. Imagine what Britt could do with 150 targets? I’ll start the bidding at 1,300 yards. Remember, the sabermetric Browns probably know how good Britt has performed.

Marqise Lee, Jacksonville Jaguars (ADP Undrafted): Blake Bortles is likely to be terrible given he’s been that two of the last three seasons. But zeroBadQB like zeroRB is really about not paying significant prices for these limited-upside players. And maybe Bortles somehow sneaks closer to average as the 10th-worst QB. Lee compiled 851 yards on 105 targets last year, or 32 less yards than Allen Robinson created on 46 more passes.

Mike Wallace, Baltimore Ravens (ADP 125.7): A forgotten man post Jeremy Maclin. I would prefer the model didn’t spit his name out but here we are. He was clearly better last year at plus-1.66 yards vs. his team’s other wideouts than Maclin (plus-0.27) was compared with his.

Rishard Matthews, Tennessee Titans (ADP 113.6): Some think Matthews is going to get squeezed out of targets. I don’t see it. He was plus-1.54 last year vs. other Titans wideouts, 14th best in football. That’s just ahead of Doug Baldwin and Terrelle Pryor. Matthews reminds me of Baldwin as a late bloomer who is very likely a lot better than people think. And note this recommendation does not even consider his insane touchdown rate last year (nine on 65 catches). Note I own Matthews ($3), Britt ($3) and Thielen ($5) in the $20K Stopa Law Firm challenge with many Yahoo and Rotowire scribes.

Receivers to avoid at current ADP

Allen Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars (ADP 37.3): We’ve already noted Robinson (53 out of 60 at minus 1.47). At his current draft price, that’s paying to gamble on Bortles not being terrible.

Brandon Marshall, New York Giants (ADP 78.6): He was bad last year and if you want to blame that on intangibles rather than the most obvious answer, declining skills due to advanced age (33), then ask yourself how he is going to handle being the clear No. 2 for the first time in his career. Marshall’s minus-1.44 (52nd) is Jets-adjusted beyond the 788 yards on 128 targets.

Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys (ADP 18.8): This one just breaks my heart. I love Bryant. I hate he’s on this list at all at a 47th-ranked minus-0.44. Unlike similarly ranked Jamison Crowder and Randall Cobb, he can’t blame underneath usage. He only caught 52% of his passes. Yes, he won his league for almost all of his owners who made it to championship week. But I just can’t justify his ADP given these 2016 results.