Fantasy Football: 3 veteran WRs due for a bounce-back season

2NHC88H CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 18: Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson (18) during an NFL football game between the Pittsburg Steelers and the Carolina Panthers on December 18, 2022 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C. (Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire) (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

• WR Diontae Johnson, Carolina Panthers: Johnson should dominate intermediate-depth targets operating as Carolina’s No. 1 wide receiver.

• WR Marquise Brown, Kansas City Chiefs: Brown will bounce back as a top 36 wide receiver, dominating the downfield role in Kansas City’s offense.

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Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes

Frustrating fantasy football seasonal results often lead to inappropriately depressed average draft positions (ADP) the following season, even when the player at hand is not at fault. Identifying which NFL veterans are due for bounce-back seasons gives fantasy managers in both half-PPR (half-points-per-reception) and PPR scoring formats edges on draft day. The article below details three NFL wide receivers due for bouncebacks in 2024. 

WR Diontae Johnson, Carolina Panthers 

Wide receiver Diontae Johnson finished as the WR50 in both half-PPR and PPR scoring formats last year thanks in part to a four-game injury-induced absence. Fantasy managers should expect Johnson to bounce back in good health this year, dominating his inferior target competition via borderline top-12 positional metrics. Johnson’s 79.1 PFF receiving grade ranks 22nd among 44 NFL wide receivers with at least 90 targets.

As detailed in “Most overvalued players in Rounds 11-20 on Underdog Fantasy and “3 second-year wide receivers who are unlikely to advance to the next tier in fantasy scoring,” respectively, rookie wide receiver Xavier Legette and second-year wide receiver Jonathan Mingo are likely to finish 2024 as fantasy football afterthoughts. Legette’s 86.9 PFF receiving grade ranks 10th among 31 Power Five wide receivers with at least 95 targets, and Mingo’s 52.6 PFF receiving grade ranks 64th among 64 NFL wide receivers with at least 65 targets. Neither player is a threat to Johnson’s target volume. 

Carolina No. 2 wide receiver Adam Thielen should earn a decent target share coming off his 28th-ranked 21.3% target rate, which ranked among 64 NFL wide receivers with at least 65 targets. Thielen enters his age-33 NFL season with four consecutive sub-1.90 yards per route run (YPRR) seasons in tow. He is best suited to a sidekick role in his twilight years.

Carolina head coach Dave Canales has long coached wide receiver tandems featuring one plus-sized alpha wide receiver and one mid-size route running technician. The dynamic is detailed in the latter article linked above. When Seattle’s offense lacked an established big-bodied X-wide receiver, Canales coached up inside/outside wide receiver Doug Baldwin to handle No. 1 pass catcher duties–a remarkable accomplishment given Baldwin’s status as a 2011 undrafted free agent. Baldwin led the team in targets from 2014-17, thrice operating primarily as an intermediate-depth weapon with average depths of target (aDot) ranging from 9.1-to-10.2 seasonally. Canales’ experience with Baldwin factors heavily here; Johnson dominates the intermediate realm, producing 8.8-to-10.7-yard aDots in four-of-five NFL seasons. 

Johnson has earned 139-plus regular season targets in three-of-five seasons and remains efficient on a per-route basis despite the extraordinary volume, maintaining a 22.8% target rate throughout his career and twice besting 26.4%. Among 33 NFL wide receivers with at least 105 targets, a theoretical 26.5% target rate ranks ninth, while 139 regular season targets rank 12th. 

Johnson suffers routine knicks and bruises but is typically available on gameday, missing just six games since 2019. While Johnson has suffered one concussion, all recorded sprains and strains are listed as Grade 1 or better.

Fantasy managers should expect Johnson to bounce back as a borderline WR1/2. 

WR Marquise Brown, Kansas City Chiefs 

Playing through injury for the Arizona Cardinals last year, the Kansas City Chiefs‘ new field-stretching wide receiver Marquise Brown delivered half-PPR and PPR WR5 results in both season-long and per-game scoring. Fantasy managers should expect Brown to bounce back via positional top-36 results operating as Kansas City’s largely uncontested deep threat. 

Kansas City coaches attempted to replace their former field-stretching wide receiver Tyreek Hill by ineffectively rotating inconsistent speedsters in and out of the lineup. Journeymen wide receivers Justin Watson (38.7% deep-target rate) and Marquez Valdes-Scantling (36.5% deep-target rate) handled the role for much of the 2023 NFL season but their shared sub-56.0% catch rates and sub-1.20 yards per route run (YPRR) averages prompted the team to trade for former Kansas City wide receiver Mecole Hardman (25.9% deep-target rate and an 8.0-yard aDot), who was allowed to walk in free agency due to inconsistent play in the four years prior. Among Kansas City pass catchers with at least 25 targets, only Watson (17.9-yard aDot) and Valdes-Scantling (17.8-yard aDot) were the only players able who produced aDots deeper than 9.3 yards, accurately reflecting the team’s desperate need for a competent downfield threat. Hill’s 93.8 PFF receiving grade ranks No. 1 among 33 NFL wide receivers with at least 105 targets

The front office spent a late-first-round draft pick on former Texas wide receiver Xavier Worthy, who ran a record-setting 4.21-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine. Worthy’s 2022 17.6-yard aDot, first among 28 Power Five wide receivers with at least 95 targets, coupled with his 27th-ranked 52.5% catch rate and 22nd-ranked 10.1% drop rate led to a significantly altered usage and mildly improved results in 2023. Among 31 Power Five wide receivers with at least 95 targets in 2023, Worthy ranks 18th in aDot (10.3), 24th in catch rate (63.0%) and 14th in drop rate (5.8%). He delivered mixed pass-catching results early in organized team activities (OTAs) and before straining his hamstring. Should Worthy deliver consistently in 2024 he is likely best suited to a primarily intermediate-depth role, keeping Brown’s deep-field role intact.

Brown has efficiently earned high-volume target totals in each of the last four years despite regularly running routes past the sticks. His catch rates leave some to be desired but his 2023 down year inaccurately reflects his moderate surehandedness. Among 34 NFL wide receivers with at least 280 targets from 2020-to-2022, Brown’s 64.5% catch rate ranks 25th.

Tight end Travis Kelce’s 2023 aDot settled at 7.0 yards, continuing its annual decline for the sixth consecutive season. He is more so a threat to second-year wide receiver Rashee Rice, who played very well as a short-area weapon, producing a 5.0-yard aDot and a 5.3% deep-target rate. Rice also faces a potential early-season suspension, helpfully reducing Brown’s overall target competition. 

Brown’s downfield successes from 2020-to-2023:
Marquise Brown Receiving 2020-2023 2023 2022 2021 2020
PFF Receiving Grade 68.1 69.6 68.7 74.6
Targets 94 103 139 110
aDot 12.7 11.7 12.0 14.0
Target Rate 20.4% 20.9% 22.0% 21.0%
Deep-Target Rate 22.3% 22.3% 21.6% 28.2%
Catch Rate 54.3% 65.0% 65.5% 62.7%

Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes is a notable upgrade on Brown’s former starting quarterbacks, Baltimore Ravens Lamar Jackson and Arizona Cardinals Kyler Murray. Mahomes’ 94.0 PFF career passing grade, 5.2% big-time-throw rate, 78.1% adjusted completion rate and 7.9 yards per passing attempt best both Jackson’s 81.5 PFF career passing grade, 4.9% big-time-throw rate, 74.4% adjusted completion rate and 7.5 yards per passing attempt and Murray’s 77.2 PFF career passing grade, 4.6% big-time-throw rate, 75.7% adjusted completion rate and 6.9 yards per passing attempt.

Fantasy managers should expect Brown to bounce back as a WR3 or better in 2024. 

WR DeAndre Hopkins, Tennessee Titans

Tennessee Titans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins enters his 12th NFL season primed for a bounce-back, following three chaotic NFL seasons. Hamstring and knee injuries held him to mid-to-low half-PPR and PPR WR2 per-game production in 2021 and a six-game 2022 suspension reduced his low-end WR1 per-game production to a finish outside the position’s top 36. Tennessee’s low-volume 2023 passing attack obfuscates Hopkins’ efficiency renaissance and his high-end WR3 finish further depresses his 2024 ADP. Hopkins’ bounce back to high-end WR2 productivity is years in the making and can be had at a high-end WR4 ADP cost in both formats. Hopkins’ 82.3 PFF receiving grade ties for 16th among 33 NFL wide receivers with at least 105 targets.

Tennessee’s former head coach Mike Vrabel called passing plays at the league’s eighth-lowest rate (59.2%), rarely testing defenses aerially on first and second down. His 51.9% early-down passing rate holds the fifth-lowest spot among NFL teams, tying for the league’s second-lowest regular season passing attempt sum, 494. 

Tennessee’s new offensive coach and former Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan antithetically called pass plays at both the league’s second-highest rate (67.2%) and early-down passing rate (62.5%) while totaling the league’s seventh-most passing attempts (616) despite starting a backup quarterback under center for the season’s final seven weeks. 

Callahan’s entry gives Hopkins decent odds of surpassing his prior 133 regular season target total but even a stagnation would yield improved efficiency against the run-defense personnel packages frequently utilized on first and second down. 

Hopkins’ 26.3% target rate in his age-32 2023 season is the third-best rate of his career, trying for ninth among 33 NFL wide receivers with at least 105 targets. His 14.8-yard aDot (his career-best) and 14.1 yards per reception (his career-fourth-best) rank second and 12th, respectively. He likewise maintained his explosive-play ability, trying for the 15th most explosive pass plays (29) via the 10th-best explosive pass play rate (38.7%).

Hopkins’ new 29-year-old teammate, wide receiver Calvin Ridley is being drafted as a back-end WR3 in both formats despite producing an inferior target rate (20.4%), YPRR average (1.57), aDot (13.9), yards per reception (13.4) and explosive pass play rate (31.6%). Ridley’s fantasy-unfriendly perimeter role as a 2023 Jacksonville Jaguar is fair to note but both Hopkins’ superior efficiency and Callahan’s addition offset concerns over Hopkins’ potential target volume. Ridley’s 72.2 PFF receiving grade ranks 32nd among 33 NFL wide receivers with at least 105 targets.

Hopkins should return to high-end WR2 form at worst. 


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