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Player Evaluations: Unveiling Sleeper Wide Receivers


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As the NFL continues to evolve, we are constantly searching for reoccurring trends that can be applied to the upcoming season. Examining each of the three “major positions” (quarterback, running back and wide receiver), we find wide receivers have the highest percentage of players drafted in the seventh round or later, finishing inside the Top 25, thus emerging to become every week starters by season’s end. Over the past five years that list includes:

2007 – Braylon Edwards, T.J. Houshmenzadeh, Brandon Marshall, Greg Jennings, Roddy White and Bobby Engram.  

2008 - Antonio Bryant, Lance Moore, Brandon Marshall, DeSean Jackson and Bernard Berrian.

2009 – Sidney Rice, Mike Sims-Walker, Miles Austin, Santana Moss, Brandon Marshall and Steve Smith (New York Giants).  

2010 – Johnny Knox, Mike Wallace, Hakeem Nicks, Kenny Britt, Santana Moss (again), Percy Harvin and Stevie Johnson.  

2011 – Jordy Nelson, Steve Smith, Victor Cruz, Percy Harvin, A.J. Green, Nate Washington, Laurent Robinson and even Pierre Garcon.

No player better epitomized this trend than the emergence of Denver Broncos wide receiver Brandon Lloyd in 2010. Lloyd proceeded to go undrafted in every fantasy football league worldwide, but managed to finish the year ranked first in fantasy point production amongst all wide receivers (from the outhouse to the penthouse).  

I recognize others have made the same discovery declaring this trend as “a repercussion of the league-wide movement of a more pass-oriented NFL,” and they are correct. But, as we dig deeper to unveil the root cause of this phenomenon, we stumble across a reoccurring trend that rivals any in fantasy football, a theory I like to call the emerging WR1.   

By definition, a team’s WR1 is the player who ends the season leading his team in “targets” (for those new to fantasy football, targets are a statistic found in the box score quantifying the number of pass attempts a wide receiver receives from his quarterback). By this reasoning, if Donald Trump led the Dallas Cowboys in targets, he has become the Cowboys’ WR1. For the sake of our wide receiver evaluations, targets equate to “opportunity.” The more opportunity a player is provided the greater his production. Each of the wide receivers listed above all entered our league draft as relative unknowns, but emerged as a valuable fantasy commodity because they led their team in opportunity.  

Please notice we are not highlighting the “Stud WR1.” Players such as Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson, DeSean Jackson, Mike Wallace and Roddy White are easily identifiable as their team’s respective WR1, and fully expected to produce at a high level throughout the upcoming season. The class of player we are attempting to locate is and “underrated” wide receiver entering our league draft, having a chance to “emerge” as his team’s No. 1 targeted player. These players make for excellent use of our mid-to-late round draft selections capable of becoming a major contributor on our team’s journey to “Title Town.”

To aid us in correctly identifying the Emerging WR1, we are attempting to locate 1-of-4 possible team criteria.  

1) The first situation are those teams who lack an incumbent WR1 capable of producing at a high level (injury prone, lack of talent, doesn’t fit the offensive system, has an attitude problem, etc.). My favorite example came in 2009 when Miles Austin exploded past incumbent WR1 Roy Williams. Austin began the season as the Cowboys’ WR2, going undrafted in every fantasy football league. Austin wasn’t promoted until Week 6, but still managed to finish the season ranked third in wide receiver scoring on his way to becoming a beast fantasy wide receiver. Owners who recognized Williams’ ineffectiveness identified Austin as am emerging WR1 and capitalized on the situation propelling their fantasy team from competitive to dominant.

2) The second scenario is any team transforming to a passing offensive system. Typically the results of a coaching change (coaching staff = offensive system = opportunity = production = success). This is the exact circumstance that propelled undrafted Brandon Lloyd (mentioned above) into fantasy football folklore. You may recall the Denver Broncos hired for New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who immediately implemented the Patriots’ high-powered vertical passing attack, thus providing Lloyd the opportunity to “emerge” and become fantasy super stud. It just so happens each of the teams in my two highly competitive leagues both took home our league championship with Lloyd on their roster. I only remember because they beat me.

3) An emerging WR1 could also be the result of an upgrade at the quarterback position (can you say the 2012 Denver Broncos?). Quarterbacks are the player directly responsible for a wide receiver’s production, also becoming a limiting factor. In 2010, with Jimmy Clausen under center, perennial Pro Bowl wide receiver Steve Smith all but disappeared. The Panthers rectified the problem acquiring Cam Newton in the 2011 NFL Draft (combined with the aforementioned coaching change). Newton’s physical ability to throw the deep ball played right into the strengths of Smith, causing a resurgence to fantasy stardom.

4) By far and away the most common scenario is a young wide receiver emerging from the “developmental stage” to lead his team in targets. This trend is closely assimilated with another popular fantasy football theory commonly referred to as the “third-year-wide receiver” (although the recent evolution of the NFL no longer requires a player be entering his third season). When a young player’s physical and mental development reaches a high level, opportunity and production will follow. For example, in 2011, the Cincinnati Bengals drafted A.J. Green as the replacement of Chad Ochocinco. As a rookie, Green managed to finish the season ranked 16th in wide receiver production due to raw talent combined with Cincinnati’s coaching change. Any young player capable of leading his team in targets should be upgraded when completing our player evaluations.

By observing this trend I’m not suggesting that every team in the NFL has a player capable of becoming an emerging WR1. Low-level NFL teams will struggle with numerous deficiencies, and the development of a WR1 may be the least of their concerns – the 2010 and 2011 Jacksonville Jaguars come to mind. We should avoid those teams utilizing a run-first offensive system, lacking a solid quarterback and/or simply do not roster a viable WR1.

The question then becomes - who are the emerging WR1 in 2012 being drafted after the sixth round? Of course the preseason will aid us tremendously, as we could begin monitoring closely the development of Chad Ochocinco, Torrey Smith, Greg Little, Lance Moore, Kevin Walter, Reggie Wayne and Brian Quick. Wide receivers battling a teammate to become their team’s emerging WR1 include Doug Baldwin or Sidney Rice (Seattle), Justin Blackmon or Laurent Robinson (Jacksonville), Robert Meachem or Vincent Brown (San Diego), Eric Decker or Demaryius Thomas (Denver), Pierre Garcon or Santana Moss (Washington), Kendell Wright or Nate Washington (Tennessee), Randy Moss or Michael Crabtree (San Francisco) and Darrius Heyward-Bey or Denarius Moore (Oakland).

Entering the upcoming season, most of our “top-tier fantasy wide receivers” will be front and center after being heavily publicized in the media (Larry Fitzgerald, Roddy White, Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson, etc.). However, in a typical 12-team league, averaging five wide receivers per team, roughly 60 wide receivers will be selected on draft day. Correctly identifying an emerging WR1, capable of producing at a high level, is a powerful theory to maximizing the value from our later-round selections, providing a considerable advantage throughout the upcoming season.