Since joining RotoViz in July, I’ve published two long-form article series1 that examine fantasy football from a macro perspective. The first of those series focused on how the NFL passing revolution has changed the fantasy football landscape. The second series explored how season-long game script affects running back PPR production.
In the conclusion to my Passing Revolution series, I provided an early-round draft day overview that focused heavily on roster construction dynamics and draft flow. Last week, I channeled the spirit of that series conclusion to formulate Fantasy RB Tiers Based On My Passing Revolution And Game Script Studies.
In this article, which serves as a companion to my RB Tiers piece, I will shift my focus to the wide receiver position. And, in similar fashion, my main point of emphasis is how fantasy WRs fit into a competitive roster construction in PPR redraft leagues.
My Rankings Methods
I integrated my findings from both series in order to provide WR tiers for the upcoming fantasy football season. What follows is a crude approximation of how I utilized my research to build these tiers:
- My Passing Revolution research serves as a mental roadmap in devising my general draft philosophy. I studied historical trends for each fantasy position and intersections between positional values. As a result, that large body of research forms the basis for my roster construction.
- I used RotoViz’s Projections and Composite Redraft Rankings as a baseline evaluation for all fantasy players. I also leaned heavily on Blair Andrews’ Win The Flex Tool, Dave Caban’s NFL Projection Machine, and our new Range of Outcomes App in order to evaluate players’ upside potential, downside risk, and draft equity.
- If I may provide an extended metaphor, my rankings methods may be likened to a sailboat. If my Passing Revolution series is the ship’s hull, and RotoViz’s bevy of tools and projections are the sails, then my Game Script series serves as the rudder.
- My game script research highlights which backfield situations are most impervious to seasonal volatility and which players may suffer greatly from their team’s season-long game script. Thus, in situations where two RBs boast similar statistical profiles, projections, and draft capital investment, I lean on my game script research to break the tie.
- In multiple instances, this game script research also “breaks the tie” between targeting a RB or WR in a particular round. Because WR is the most reliable fantasy position, RBs with game script concerns get bumped down, and WRs with similar ADPs earn the benefit of the doubt.
How to Interpret Each WR Tier
Unlike typical tier-based articles, I will not be reporting player rankings and tier breaks in a vacuum. Instead, I will move sequentially through the draft round-by-round in order to discuss how specific players fit (or don’t fit) into your ideal roster construction.2
General position rankings are helpful, but they do not provide a clear path to identify when to select certain players and why. By focusing on draft flow in this piece, I hope to highlight the different “phases” of the draft, thereby helping you discern when it’s appropriate to reach and when it’s advisable to stay your hand.
I will also share my personal 2019 WR Rankings in a summary table at the bottom of this article. Those rankings reinforce which players I’m higher or lower on than the public.
Round 1: Your First Pick Carries Downstream Consequences
DeAndre Hopkins, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Julio Jones, Davante Adams
The top four players on my big board are Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, Alvin Kamara, and David Johnson. If I draw a top-four draft position, I will take any of those four running backs before I consider a WR.
I imagine that the first three players listed are also the top-three on your big board. However, my selection of Johnson at 1.04 — rather than Hopkins — may be more controversial. So, allow me to explain my reasoning.
My Argument Against Drafting Hopkins at 1.04
The decision to take Johnson at 1.04 is almost entirely about “downstream” roster construction. Through hundreds of offseason mock drafts and best ball drafts, I have consistently found the 1.04 spot the most limiting in the first three rounds. That draft position enables me to easily select an elite TE in Round 2 (which I almost always do), but I often sacrifice high-upside RB1 value in the process. Moreover, around the 2.08 draft spot, the WR position also experiences a substantial tier break after Mike Evans.
So, if I go with Hopkins at 1.04 — and I follow that up with, say, George Kittle at 2.08 — then, in Round 3, I’m usually left deciding between fringe WR1s and questionable high-end RB2s. Typically, few of the players in this range amplify a strong Zero-RB start (which is not my preferred draft philosophy to begin with).
Instead, if I draft Johnson, then I can freely bolster my roster with the highest-value player on the board at 3.04, rather than feeling hamstrung by any particular philosophy. That flexibility is important to me, because breaking news on Melvin Gordon, Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley, Antonio Brown, or Amari Cooper could result in major shifts in Round 2 selections.
Moreover, given the rich depth of WR value in Rounds 4 to 6 (which I will explore a bit later), I feel comfortable passing at WR in this range if I need to.
1.05 to 1.09
Because I prefer Johnson over both Hopkins and Elliott, I’m comfortable drafting Johnson as my first pick from 1.04 to 1.06. Nonetheless, if I draw a mid-round draft slot and Johnson is unavailable, I will happily draft Hopkins instead.
However, after Johnson and Hopkins, Round 1 starts to get a bit murky. If I’m drafting today, Elliott’s contract holdout makes me skittish. So, my tendency is to target elite WRs.
Smith-Schuster is my No. 2-ranked WR this season, and I have taken him as high as 1.06 in recent drafts. Nonetheless, his ADP is pretty firmly entrenched early in Round 2. So, occasionally I’ll roll the dice that he will still be available around 2.04 or 2.05 (depending on the league in which I’m drafting). In those instances, I pivot to Jones or Adams and pray that Smith-Schuster falls to Round 2.
1.10 to 1.12
If I draw a late-round draft position, I often target Travis Kelce in Round 1. To be clear: I do not like drafting a TE with my first pick. Nonetheless, Kelce does offer significantly more expected value than Kittle or Zach Ertz. But, perhaps more importantly, if I pass on Kelce at the turn, there’s no chance for me to snag a top-three tight end in Round 3. Kittle and Ertz never fall that far.
If I pull the trigger on Kelce in Round 1, then I’m almost assured to have Smith-Schuster, Jones, Michael Thomas, or Beckham Jr. available early in Round 2. I’m relatively low on Gurley and Nick Chubb, and Dalvin Cook is too much of a reach at that spot. So, I feel good about a TE/WR start at the Round 1/2 turn.
Round 2: My Final Appeal For “Early-TE”
Michael Thomas, Tyreek Hill, Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans
In my Round 1 discussion, I already addressed my approach to Round 2 at the turn: Pair Kelce with an elite WR1 (Smith-Schuster, if possible).
Similarly, at the end of Round 2, I also target TE. In Part 5 of my Passing Revolution series, I firmly planted my flag in the “Early-TE” camp. So, if I draw an early draft slot, I invariably select Kittle or Ertz late in Round 2.
But, if I’m drafting in the middle of Round 2, I often feel a strong tension between accepting elite WR1 value and reaching for a top-three TE. Both of these groups stand out as high-priorities for me early in the draft, and I present strong arguments for each in my Passing Revolution series.
On WR1s, from Part 1:
“In 2018, WR1 set nine-year highs for PPR (Rec.) share difference over WR2, WR3 and WR4. Last season’s group of WR1s boasted a 3.5% share edge over WR2s, a 5.1% lead over WR3s and a 6.2% advantage over WR4s. That means that WR1s were more valuable relative to their position in 2018 than at any time over the last nine years, a trend that supports a roster construction we’ve been recommending.”
On top-three TEs, from Part 5:
“This group of players is so elite compared to its peers that “Early-TE” should be the niche strategy of 2019. The drop off from TE1-TE3 to TE4-TE6 is massive statistically. In fact, the difference between these two tiers is unrivaled at any other fantasy position.”
Both groups offer immense value relative to their positional cohorts. And, neither position offers meaningful replaceability via waivers during the season. So, I’m torn.
Nonetheless, TE usually wins. I have “reached” for Kittle as early as 2.04.
Hill is the most dynamic playmaker in the NFL, and Evans may offer overall WR1 upside. Passing on either of them is always difficult, but passing on TE in Round 2 often results in dire consequences in later rounds.
In theory, I ideally want to pivot to O.J. Howard or Evan Engram in Round 5. However, Howard’s and Engram’s ADP conflicts too much with other high-priority targets in that same range. Rounds 4 to 6 offer the richest pool of undervalued WRs in the draft, and targeting TE in this range always feels like a major sacrifice.
Round 3: Avoid RB Landmines
Keenan Allen, Antonio Brown, Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, Brandin Cooks
I reiterated my love for Kerryon Johnson in my RB Tiers article. So, as you might expect, I target him aggressively early in Round 3. However, if any WR from the Round 2 Tier happens to fall to me early in Round 3, it’s game-over for Johnson. I will not make the mistake of passing on that tier twice.
But, most often, Hill and Evans are gone by 2.07, and Allen and Brown quickly follow them late in Round 2. If Johnson is unavailable, then I execute my easiest pivot of the entire draft by snagging Diggs. I detest most of the Round 3 RBs, so I instead opt for the value play with Diggs, Thielen, or Cooks. The only RB for whom I occasionally make an exception is Devonta Freeman. If Freeman falls to the end of Round 3, I’m willing to eschew WR value in order to draft him.
Round 4: Value, Value, Value
Robert Woods, Amari Cooper, D.J. Moore, T.Y. Hilton
This is the spot in the draft when WR really begins to shine. Nearly all of the RBs in this range3 report rush-heavy PPR splits, which severely caps their upside. With the possible exception of David Montgomery, there are basically no RBs in this round that I’m actively targeting.
Meanwhile, WR upside abounds. And, for the first time, draft slot really doesn’t make a huge difference in your available player pool. While everyone else is targeting low-upside bruising RBs, I gleefully pivot to guys like Woods, Moore, and Hilton.
Hilton’s ADP may continue to fall following the news of Andrew Luck’s retirement. And, if it does, that may offer a fantastic window to buyback on Hilton. Woods remains one of the most severely undervalued fantasy WRs this season and could reasonably reproduce WR2 production this season.
And, of course, we have RotoViz darling D.J. Moore. We’ve been all over Moore this offseason, perhaps most notably with Curtis Patrick’s excellent analysis on the “3 and 10” rule for WR breakouts. Moore’s early-age breakout is a huge indicator for his sophomore year ascension, and I’ve been drafting him aggressively in this range all offseason.
Round 5: WR Oasis
Calvin Ridley, Jarvis Landry, Tyler Boyd, Kenny Golladay, Chris Godwin, Tyler Lockett
Round 4 was just a foretaste of WR value to come. Welcome to the juiciest round for WR upside in the entire draft.
The strength of the WRs in this tier often compels me to “reach” for Moore in Round 4 — a full round higher than his current ADP. But, with this much WR value on the board in Round 5, I want to maximize my opportunities to target WR aggressively. On top of that, some of the WRs in this range even sometimes fall to the beginning of Round 6. Landry stands out as one such player, whom I’ve targeted after the turn in Round 6 over and over again all offseason.
Ridley headlines this group as a strong breakout candidate with huge TD upside. Matt Jones explains why the sky’s the limit for Lockett this season, and Cort Smith highlights Boyd as an underpriced arbitrage version of Amari Cooper.
Godwin and Golladay are already public darlings entering 2019, so they’re rarely available in this range. Nonetheless, if either falls to you, it’s hard to pass up on Godwin’s projected volume and Golladay’s freak profile.
Of course, the availability of high-upside RBs like James White and David Montgomery complicates things in this round. But, roster construction usually settles that debate rather quickly. If I’ve opted for a Zero-RB construction entering Round 5, I feel comfortable drafting White or Montgomery if either is available. Some WRs in this range fall into Round 6, which has its own share of high-upside WR plays, so the opportunity cost is minimal.
However, if I instead have a balanced roster entering Round 5, I simply can’t pass up these WRs. I know I can find juicy RB value from Rounds 7 to 10, so I can’t resist drafting as many of these WRs as I can.
Round 6: RB Resurgence
Round 6 is typically a pivot round for me. Williams, Kupp, and Edelman offer excellent value if you’re looking for WR depth, but those three players are rarely available in this range. But, that’s okay, because this is also the point in the draft when RB value mounts a resurgence.
If I’ve stuck to the game plan so far, I typically only roster one RB (two if Kerryon Johnson is available in Round 3), I’ve secured a top-three TE, and I’ve loaded up on three high-upside WRs. That balance liberates me to accept RB value in this range.
Duke Johnson, Miles Sanders, Tarik Cohen, Austin Ekeler, and Kenyan Drake headline my RB targets here. Each of them offers RB1 upside if things break right for them, and at least one of them should be available no matter what draft slot you draw. Alternatively, if you’re still in the market for WR value, it’s perfectly acceptable to dip your toe into the Round 7 tier a bit early. In fact, I’ve drafted Christian Kirk in Round 6 often in sharp expert drafts.
Round 7: WR is Not Deep
Will Fuller, Allen Robinson, Christian Kirk, Corey Davis, Sammy Watkins
This is a prime spot for Zero-RB drafters to pivot to RB with high-leverage players like Johnson, Ekeler, and Royce Freeman potentially still on the board.
However, for the rest of us, WR is still likely the play. Several of the draft’s premier upside plays are still on the board, and WR begins to dry up quickly beginning in the next round.
If Kirk falls here, I smash the draft button as quickly as I can. Fuller’s connection with QB Deshaun Watson offers immense upside in the high-powered Texans offense, and former-WR1 Robinson could return to form in Year 2 with Matt Nagy in Chicago.
Round 8: Prepare to Pivot
Josh Gordon, Curtis Samuel, Dede Westbrook, Alshon Jeffery
Jeffery grades out in this range for me, but I’m rather low on him in general this season. As a result, he’s usually drafted two to three rounds ahead of this spot. However, Gordon, Samuel, and Westbrook each offer increasingly-scarce upside before the WR pool dries up entirely.
Importantly, this is the range when we begin to see RBs like Tony Pollard, Darwin Thompson, and Jaylen Samuels come off the board. I personally love targeting high-risk/high-reward RBs in this range (and in Round 9, for that matter). Nonetheless, that kind of risk isn’t for everyone.
Among the WR options in this tier, Samuel stands out due to his athleticism, late-year charge in 2018, and the leverage he provides over Moore-drafters. Gordon offers similar leverage and upside, but he also has a wide range of outcomes.
Round 9: A Fork In the Road
Robby Anderson, Sterling Shepard, A.J. Green, Dante Pettis, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Keke Coutee
In the previous few rounds, there’s been enough RB and WR value to enable most drafters to be flexible. But, in Round 9, we hit a glaring fork in the road in terms of roster construction.
From experience, this round can go one of two ways for me:
Option 1: High-Risk/High-Reward Barbell Strategy at RB
Having already committed to RBs like Pollard or Thompson in Round 8, I double-down by continuing to draft these high-upside RBs. In this range, my key targets include each of the three RBs mentioned in Round 8, plus Kalen Ballage and Nyheim Hines.
If I choose this path, I will necessarily miss out on the final crop of starting-caliber WRs in Rounds 9 and 10. Instead, I will spend Rounds 11 to 14 sweeping up as much young WR value as I can. Players like D.K. Metcalf, Mecole Hardman, Tre’Quan Smith, Andy Isabella, N’Keal Harry, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, and Parris Campbell offer low floor projections but high upside. By hoarding as many of them as I can, I’m likely to hit on at least one of them, especially since rookie WR breakouts have become increasingly common in recent years.
This is a high-risk/high-reward strategy, and it also creates some complications in Rounds 10 to 12 when priority late-round QB targets avail themselves. This particular path is a tricky one to navigate, but it nonetheless offers bountiful rewards if you accept the challenge.
Option 2: Be Patient, And Accept WR Value As It Falls
In Part 7 of my Passing Revolution series, I earnestly advocated for this philosophy. WRs like Anderson, Valdes-Scantling, Pettis, and Coutee offer mid-to-late-round value due to their polarizing projections. This division in public opinion offers us an excellent window to accept value when WRs fall to us in this range.
Furthermore, Shepard may not provide the same upside as Anderson, but he likely offers a more secure floor projection as a target-hog in the Giants offense. Cort Smith advocates for Shepard as a Corey Davis-clone for precisely this reason.
By accepting this kind of WR value now, you can raise your team’s fantasy floor, insulate yourself from injury risk, and reinforce your squad’s season-long viability. On top of that, if we peek into the late rounds of the draft, we can clearly see excellent RB handcuffs and value plays that are available to us essentially for free.
Chase Edmonds (Round 14) boasts an ideal 50-50 PPR distribution, which telegraphs his upside if David Johnson were to suffer an injury setback. Accordingly, he’s my top handcuff option this season, and TJ Calkins agrees.
Jamaal Williams (Round 16) offers underrated upside in an uncertain backfield committee and has demonstrated excellent skills as a pass-catcher in his two years in Green Bay. Like Edmonds, he would inherit an ideal distribution of touches if Aaron Jones were to miss time. Williams has produced RB2-plus numbers in the past when Jones has been sidelined due to injury or suspension.
As you can see, if we’re patient, we can still sweep up RB value (albeit somewhat lesser than in Rounds 8 to 10) and improve our fantasy floor with WR depth. In most cases, this is the wisest course to follow.
Round 10 and Beyond: Throw Out All Median and Floor Projections
As I explained at length in the previous section, Rounds 8 and 9 really determine how you approach the later rounds of the draft. As a result, I’m providing little commentary on WRs in these tiers, because this article is about roster construction — not player evaluation. By Round 10, you’ve either achieved a competitive roster construct, or you’ve failed. Whatever you do in the late rounds is not going to fix an unbalanced roster from the previous nine rounds.
Moreover, you likely also need to draft a DEF/ST and K, and two late-round QBs (unless you took a top-tier QB in the middle rounds) before your draft is done. This severely limits your ability to target every player you want over the next six-plus rounds.
Nonetheless, no matter what approach you choose for your late-draft, it is important to target upside. This is precisely why the high-risk/high-reward RB barbell strategy is a viable one. Sure, you miss out on steady WR value, but you also avoid potential WR landmines. Players like Jamison Crowder, Adam Humphries, Mohamed Sanu, or Kenny Stills may outperform their ADP in this range, but how frequently do you believe you’ll actually start them in redraft? In best ball, I get it. But in redraft, most of the conservative WR picks in this range won’t sniff starting status outside of bye-week rotations.
Instead, use your cheap draft capital near the end of the draft to throw as many darts as you can … but do so responsibly. Young potential breakout players like Robert Foster or DaeSean Hamilton make sense due to their teams’ depth chart situations. N’Keal Harry and Deebo Samuel, by contrast, face a steeper uphill climb to securing a large team target share. That’s not to say you shouldn’t target Harry or Samuel; instead, I’m simply advising discretion based on the strength of your WR corps entering the later rounds.
And, as always, choose the players you want. Life is too short — and projections are too fragile — to strictly adhere to a preset plan this deep into the draft. Hold on loosely to your convictions, but act on them nonetheless. There’s no such thing as “reaching” after Round 12.
Happy drafting, everyone. Cheers.
My 2019 WR Position Rankings
ADP reported based on fantasy drafts from Aug. 25, 2019 to Aug. 28, 2019.
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Image Credit: Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Jarvis Landry.
- Long-form may be an understatement. Combined, the 13 articles from those series amount to 28,529 words, which is longer than The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. I highly advise that you read those articles as a basis for understanding these fantasy WR tiers, but know that it is not quick reading. (back)
- I assumed PPR scoring and roster settings — 1-QB, 2-RB, 3-WR, 1-TE, 1-Flex — drafting in a 12-team league. (back)
- Including: Chris Carson, Marlon Mack, Derrick Henry, Sony Michel, and Mark Ingram (back)