Numbers Don’t Lie: Wide Receiver Analysis

This study cuts through the noise and lets the numbers do the talking. To win your fantasy league, you must identify which players are relatively better than the field. Rankings and ADP are technically supposed to do this for you, but obviously, these systems are very imperfect. Identifying imperfections allows us to gain an edge over our league mates.

To that end, I analyzed Wide Receiver’s historical rankings in Targets and Receiving Yards. I wanted to find instances where a player’s yards ranking was better than his target ranking. In other words, did Player X earn more yards (relative to his peers) while also getting fewer targets (relative to his peers)? That would be good.

Before looking at the data, I hypothesized that the guy with the most targets would also have the most yards. Turns out I was correct (Justin Jefferson 2022 & Cooper Kupp 2021). But is it really that simple? Do all players with the most targets also have the most yards? Do some players rank high in yards but low in targets? Those overperformers would probably be the guys I’d want to draft.  Or what about the opposite – do some players rank low in yards but high in targets? I’d probably want to avoid those players.

After analyzing the rankings, I concluded I want wide receivers who outperform their target ranking. Count me in if their yards ranking is better than their target ranking.  To spot this quickly, I calculated the following:  Target Ranking minus Yards Ranking. If the variance is positive, this is good. Why? Because that would mean the player’s Target ranking was a higher number (i.e. a worse ranking) than their Yards ranking.  Remember with rankings, #1 is the best and lowest possible.

Following that process, here are the results. Each number represents below the difference between the player’s Target ranking and his Yard’s ranking.

  • A positive variance means they outperformed their target ranking. We like this very much.
  • A negative variance means they underperformed. Generally, we don’t like this. However, we can overlook it if (1) the variance isn’t worse than -1 or -2, and (2) their target ranking was in the top 10. 
  • A zero variance means their two rankings exactly equaled each other. We like this just fine.

A couple of highlights below that I felt like calling out:

  • Adam Thielen: Appears to be on the decline. In 2021 Thielen ranked 37th in targets and 41st in yards (hence the negative 4 variances in 2021). In 2022, the gap between both rankings widened. In 2022, Thielen ranked 29th in targets but only 42nd in yards (hence the negative 13 variance). In this case, his yards ranking got worse even though his target ranking improved. Not what we want to see.
  • Amari Cooper: Now here’s a guy (Chris Collinsworth voice) who truly “did more with less” just like we want to see. In 2022, Cooper was 16th in targets and 11th in yards (hence the positive 5 variances in 2022). Cooper has outperformed his target ranking in three of the last four seasons. In 2020, his target and yards rankings were identical. In short, I would be fine drafting Amari Cooper.
  • Amon-Ra St. Brown:  His variances are slightly negative but right at our acceptable threshold. The Sun God also passes because his 2022 target ranking was top 10 (8th in targets, 10th in yards).
  • Chris Olave and Christian Kirk: Count me in
  • CeeDee Lamb: In 2021 he ranked 22nd in targets and 14th in yards. In 2022 he ranked 5th in targets and 6th in yards.  What happened? CeeDee already demonstrated good based on his strong +8 ranking variance in 2021. Therefore when Amari Cooper left Dallas and CeeDee’s targets increased, he took full advantage. This is what we like to see. Ideally, we find more situations like this.
  • Corey Davis: If he stays healthy, he could be a steal this year. In each of the last 4 years, his ranking variance has been very positive. And now he gets to play with Aaron Rodgers.
  • Diontae Johnson:  I don’t care how much you talk about his inevitable positive TD regression. I will not draft a guy who ranked 6th in targets (!) but only 27th in yards last year. I am out on Diontae in 2023. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong.  
  • DJ Chark: Remember my comments above on Adam Thielen? Well, look DJ Chark boasts a positive 16 variance last year (80th in targets, 64th in yards). Now he steps into a more prominent role in Carolina. This could be a good exactly what we’re looking for. Hopefully Bryce Young is good enough to make it happen.
  • DJ Moore: I don’t love his negative variances, but I am willing to chalk that up to horrid QB play in Carolina. I am a Chicago Bears homer, but I am tempering expectations for fantasy purposes. 
  • George Pickens, Gabe Davis, Jahan Dotson:  Count me in
  • Jaylen Waddle:  Give me all the Jaylen Waddle. I am super high on him this year. In 2022, my dude ranked 23rd in targets and 7th in yards! If our system here works, then we love Jaylen Waddle. Furthermore, if 29-year-old Tyreek Hill ever pulls a hamstring, Waddle is launching into outer space.
  • Jerry Jeudy: Everything on paper says this guy should explode. But we already saw a full year with Russell Wilson. Drafting him comes down to home much you believe in Sean Payton. 
  • Richie James Jr: I have been pounding the table for this guy. I believe he leads the Chiefs in receiving yards this season. He was second in yards on the Giants last season. This is the guy you want to be drafting. Who are Kadarius Toney and Skyy Moore anyway?

Hope you enjoyed the article, make sure to be following me on Twitter at @Fitz_437 or the podcast at @TheHateful8FF!