Fantasy football is an interesting animal right now. There is a real philosophical battle waging between those who prefer the tried and true methodology of going running backs early and often, as well as the radical Zero RB approach, a term coined by Shawn Siegele that emphasizes creating an anti-fragile roster full of contributors at every position, while identifying late-round RB targets to shore up potential weaknesses. My approach, as currently constituted, relies on taking a wide receiver in the first, hopefully Rob Gronkowski in the 2nd, and then identifying the best values as the draft proceeds. Justin Bailey gives us three WRs to target later in drafts, but my focus will be in between the 7th and 10th rounds. There will most certainly be overlap between these players and Siegele’s Breakout Wide Receivers You Must Own, but I’m going to narrow the lens and go a bit further in depth. These three WRs are crucial targets of mine, tying teams together and giving them championship upside.
Justin Hunter, Tennesee Titans
Hunter had what I would call an atypical rookie season. The only other rookie WR 6’4” or taller in the last 15 years to grab four touchdowns while having less than 20 receptions was someone by the name of Tyrone Calico and Hunter outgained him by 60 yards. If I remove the receptions cap from my PFR query and just make it rookies 6’4” or taller who snatched four or more TDs, the list gets populated with names like A.J. Green, Mike Clayton, Julio Jones, Marques Colston, Sidney Rice, Calvin Johnson, and Josh Gordon. Not a bad list, but the reason those players didn’t show up as comps for Hunter as a prospect was his lackluster weight of 196 pounds. Weight actually correlates more to TD scoring prowess than height, although I believe both are important as 74 percent of double-digit TD seasons the last five years have came from players 6’2” or taller. Fortunately, one of the big parts of Hunter’s offseason regimen has been to add weight, deciding to score more TDs. If Hunter is able to add even 10 pounds to his frame, it should make a big difference in his ability on the field.
I’m particularly bullish on Hunter’s former teammate Da’Rick Rodgers, but I actually think Hunter is probably a much safer bet for redraft production this season. His competition for targets, and more importantly redzone work, is Kendall Wright, an ancient Nate Washington, Delanie Walker and Bishop Sankey/Shone Green. I just don’t think very much of Wright as player and I think that his production is mostly target dependent and if Hunter begins playing starters snaps, he will score far more fantasy points. Walker is probably a decent RZ weapon (29% conversion rate last year to Hunter’s 25% on only 4 targets), but give me Hunter over any of those guys in terms of ability to convert looks, which will encourage future targets. At the danger of being anecdotal, it’s worth nothing that his quarterback has never had a completion percentage over 60% at any level and Hunter sort of fits the mold of classic bad ball WR. He’s tall, fast and has a catch radius that would make Kendall Wright blush. It certainly helps that the Titans coaching staff has been talking him up as his teammate called him a “young Randy Moss” and his WR coached stated that Hunter could be the difference in whether or not the Titans make the playoffs. Hunter currently sits in my rankings at WR27 while carrying a WR44 ADP on MyFantasyLeague. If I had to choose just one player out of this group to make the metaphorical leap, it would definitely be Hunter.
DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans
If you’re a loyal RotoViz reader, you probably had a pretty good idea that he was going to end up on this list. We have a long history of being a fan of the former Clemson stud and he offers a pretty awesome value proposition right now. One of the most popular articles we’ve ever had in the history of the site was Coleman Kelly’s Alshon Jeffery, DeAndre Hopkins and Rookie Derangement Syndrome which was about why it’s silly to trust rookie WRs and that it creates a situation where second-year WRs are often wildly devalued. Hopkins was actually pretty good as a rookie, recording only the 17th 800-yard, 50-catch, two-TD season since the year 2000, so his comp group moving forward is pretty optimistic.
The fantasy football market might be becoming more efficient but it can’t shake off RDS as Sammy Watkins is going AHEAD of Hopkin’s WR43 tag from last season, per MFL data. Watkins, who was comparable to Hopkins as a prospect, is going off the board at WR24. I honestly cannot tell you how insane that is, as Watkins is simply an arbitrary superstar. Hopkins is going nine picks later at WR33 and will not only be a better value than Watkins, but will simply score more raw fantasy points. Take a look at Hopkins’ plot graph, generated by his Sim Scores.
There are a bunch of super intriguing comps on that list but the one that is going to stick out is Gordon. Like Hopkins, Gordon played on a bad football team without a great QB and only one other receiving threat (Greg Little in Gordon’s rookie year, Andre Johnson for Hopkins) but got great pass volume and was efficient on the touches he did get. It’s pretty easy to make fun of Ryan Fitzpatrick but he’s been a serviceable QB, both for real football teams and for getting fantasy points for his WRs. I’m pretty down on the Texans rushing offense as I don’t think Arian Foster stays healthy, which makes Andre Brown a very deep sleeper but should give Hopkins a chance to do his thing. Rookie wideouts are normally a losing proposition for fantasy, see marked improvements in their second season, and because Hopkins was so good as a prospect as well as performing well in a dumpster fire of a season as a rookie, he needs to find his way on to your teams in 2014.
Eric Decker, New York Jets
OK, so this is kind of cheating. Depending on which websites ADP you use and who you are drafting with, Decker can go as high as the 5th round (if you’re drafting with smart people) or as low as the ninth round. That sounds insane, but I’ve seen it happen in several of my own drafts. Decker also isn’t in the mold of of the other two WRs on this list in that he has already broken out . . . three times. Hopkins and Hunter have shown promise at the NFL level but aren’t guaranteed commodities the way Decker is. Name one other WR in history who can post two straight WR1 seasons, both with double-digit TDs, and then receive a six-round discount on his production. For example, Keenan Allen had 300 less yards and three fewer TDs than Decker and is being drafted in the second round. There’s obviously the idea that Decker was somehow “made by Peyton Manning.” Except if you look at what Decker has been able to do with any sort of quarterbacking, he has an eight-year history of scoring TDs at an above average rate.
Going back to his freshmen season in a pitiful Minnesota football program, Decker scored a TD a third of the time when thrown the football in the red zone. There is a reason it’s called The Eric Decker Test. In Decker’s NFL career, he has converted 40 percent of his red zone targets into TDs, a better rate than Demaryius Thomas.
“Better than Demaryius? Surely, Davis, you jest!”
Nay, kind sir, I jest not. Decker is one of the 15-to-20 most physically talented pass catchers in all of football, but he’ll never be priced that way in dynasty or redraft because he is a white guy. Go back to last offseason when Decker was going behind Wes Welker in the same offense even though it was a mortal lock that Decker would score more TDs. The fact that we take an evidenced-based approach here at RotoViz creates a situation where Decker will be undervalued every single year. Think about this: when Peyton retires, Thomas is still going to be a first-round pick in fantasy, unquestionably. Tim Tebow could be throwing him the ball and people would cape up for him like they have for Larry Fitzgerald for years. In the last two seasons with Manning, DT and Decker have the exact same number of TD receptions (24) and Decker has done so on 30 fewer targets.
So concerns of the Jets offensive quagmire and Geno Smith being awful are overblown. In fact, in eight games last year, Smith was kind of amazing. So why all the fuss? The collective group think over the offseason was that Decker was a product of Manning, that he was terrible with Tebow and Orton (he wasn’t), and that he would be lost forever once signing with New York. There have already been some excellent pieces on RotoViz explaining why that isn’t true. Justin Winn says that Decker is the TD machine that keeps giving, James Todd ran the Jets offense through the Projection Machine and found that Decker’s volume in the pass game is being understated.
One of the frequent arguments I hear for selecting not very efficient (read: good) WRs like Antonio Brown or Kendall Wright with higher selections than I am comfortable with is pass volume. Ben Rothliesberger is a good QB, sure, but he isn’t having a Manning-esque influence on stats that should boost Brown to the second round. Brown did finish as a top 5 WR last season but in my mind is one of the most likely regression candidates as he only scored 1 redzone touchdown and doesn’t profile as a WR who will get any better in that regard. Wright isn’t even in the best WR on his own team. On the other hand, Decker is clearly the No. 1 on his team except he actually profiles as an excellent athlete and has consistently proven his ability to score, with and without Manning. If there is one player who could make a Zero WR approach work, it’s Decker as a high-end WR2 available after the sixth-round of most drafts. When I make a bet on volume at the WR position, I want to make sure that the player is good, not just, you know, a player.