News & Analysis

Ranking the top eight rookie wide receivers for dynasty purposes

As I explained in last week's rookie dynasty tight ends piece, a lot of work goes into my fantasy football dynasty rankings. You can find the process and reasoning at that link, but basically I'm trying to focus solely on the objective at this point — a player’s cold, hard, brutally honest college numbers.

These rankings will be updated following the NFL Combine, when I'll parse them through a second model that focuses only on the most predictive Combine events for each position. The actual NFL Draft then has the biggest impact to these rankings, as draft position is the variable with the single-most predictive power at any position. We'll also glean more information from coaching staffs post-draft when they articulate their reasoning behind the picks and their plans for player usage.

In this dynasty series, we’ve been walking you through the first step in our process, breaking down the top tight ends and running backs according to our pre-Combine prospect model. In today’s article, we’ll be focusing on the top wide receivers of the 2020 Draft class.

1. CeeDee Lamb, Oklahoma (Age 20.9)

Where he ranks: The model views him as the second-best wide receiver prospect since 2015, behind only Amari Cooper.

Why he ranks here:
Lamb, like every other top wide receiver prospect, was dominant at an early age. As an 18-year-old freshman — on a team with Marquise Brown (age 20) and Mark Andrews (age 21) — Lamb came within 300 yards of leading the team in receiving. He would improve in each of the next two seasons, totaling 1,158 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2018 and then 1,327 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2019. For perspective, those 2,481 receiving yards and 25 touchdowns both led the nation, as did his 14.0 yards per target average.

As impressive as these numbers are, Oklahoma probably should have targeted Lamb even more often, considering he averaged a near-perfect passer rating when targeted in each of the last two seasons (147.7, 145.2). Both numbers ranked top-six of over 350 qualifying wide receivers.

Of 1,110 qualifying seasons within our database, Lamb’s 2019 season ranked best in depth-adjusted yards per target (+6.89). Part of this was Lamb’s ability to separate and get open, but he was also elite at making defenders miss and creating yards on his own with the ball in his hands. Among all 60-plus-catch Power-5 seasons since 2016, Lamb’s 2019 season ranked best in yards after the catch per reception and second-best in missed tackles forced per reception.

It’s also probably safe to call Lamb the most complete receiver in the class, looking every bit the part of a true WR1. He ran just 30% of his routes from the slot in 2019 (compared to Jerry Jeudy’s 59%) and reached 90-plus yards on eight different routes, which easily led the class.

Bonus Stat: Lamb set the record for the best depth-adjusted yards per target season within the PFF College-era (2014-2019), but he absolutely dominated that metric across his full career. He was the only receiver to rank top-five in multiple seasons, and he did it three times, each with a different quarterback. Unsurprisingly, he’s our all-time leader (of 388 qualifiers) — by a significant margin. For added context, Henry Ruggs (+4.4), Brandon Aiyuk (+3.5) and Jerry Jeudy (+3.5) also rank in the top-10, as does Marquise Brown (+4.7) and A.J. Brown (+3.7).

2. Jerry Jeudy, Alabama (Age: 20.8)

Where he ranks: Jeudy ranks as the sixth-best wide receiver prospect since 2015, behind only Cooper, Lamb, Corey Coleman (whoops), A.J. Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster. Though he ranks second-best in this class, he’s effectively tied with the next four wide receivers on our list.

Why he ranks here:
Like Lamb, Jeudy was dominant at a young age, posting one of the greatest age-19 seasons in college football history. As a sophomore, Jeudy totaled 1,315 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns. Since 2000, only nine other wide receivers have totaled more yards or more touchdowns at an equivalent age: Michael Crabtree, Dez Bryant, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Brandin Cooks, Marquess Wilson, Robert Woods, Keenan Allen and two players yet to declare. Attesting to the value of such a feat, Wilson is the only receiver on the list without a 1,000-yard season in the NFL.

Jeudy also excelled in yards per route run, ranking fifth and seventh among all Power-5 wide receivers over the past two seasons (see above). Over this span, his 2,478 receiving yards was just nine yards shy of the nation-high, which might be his most impressive stat considering he was competing for targets against the best receiving corps in college football (and potentially four other top-50 draft picks). According to our charting data, Jeudy was also the best separator in the class, charted as open on 79% of his downfield targets (targets traveling 10 or more yards through the air) over the past two seasons, which led all draft-eligible receivers.

While Jeudy was in the slot on the majority of his routes (59%) last season, that doesn’t mean he can’t also be effective as an outside receiver in the NFL. Though he spent more time in the slot, he wasn’t dramatically more efficient there (3.39 yards per route run) than outside (3.18). This is similar to what we saw from A.J. Brown in 2018, running 59% of his routes from the slot, with near-equal efficiency from both positions (3.15 vs. 2.82). The following season, as an NFL rookie, Brown eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark while running just 10% of his routes from the slot.

3. Laviska Shenault, Colorado (Age: 21.4)

Where he ranks: Shenault ranks one spot behind and nearly tied with Jeudy, as our seventh-best prospect since 2015.

Why he ranks here:
“Shenault is still more of an offensive weapon than a wide receiver, but he's one deadly weapon, nonetheless.” — Mike Renner (PFF's lead draft analyst)

Shenault, like Jeudy, put together one of the most impressive sophomore seasons in college football history. He totaled 1,011 yards in nine games while ranking second in missed tackles forced (29), third in PFF grade (91.3) and fifth in yards per route run (3.44).

On a per-game basis, it was actually a lot more impressive, as he averaged 112.3 yards per game to Jeudy’s 87.7. This was the eighth-most yards per game by any sophomore wide receiver since 2000 (excluding wide receivers still in school). Of those listed above him, we see another attractive cohort of names: Justin Blackmon, A.J. Brown, Larry Fitzgerald, Marqise Lee, Dez Bryant, Antonio Bryant, and Marquess Wilson. Again, all except for Wilson have found success at the NFL level.

After factoring in quarterback play, Shenault's production was definitely more impressive — and one of the most impressive in recent memory. In 2018, he comprised a whopping 49.7% of the team’s passing yards in games active — the best mark by any Power-5 wide receiver since Demaryius Thomas (2009). Over his final two seasons, Shenault earned a 116.0 passer rating when targeted, nearly double the team’s average when targeting all other receivers (82.3).

All of this being said, there are some concerns frequently cited by draft pundits that our model would miss. He can line up all over the formation, but he may be more of a possession receiver than a true WR1 like Lamb and Jeudy. For instance, 65% of his career targets came on balls thrown short of the sticks, much higher than for Jeudy (48%), Lamb (42%) or Tee Higgins (35%).

He also has a storied injury history (turf toe, torn labrum, core muscle injury) and injury-related concerns heading into the Combine (pubic bone inflammation). By the same token, though, perhaps one of these injuries played a role in his statistically less-impressive 2019 season, which hurt him slightly in our model.

Bonus Stat: Not to be overlooked, throughout his career Shenault totaled 272 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground as a runner (on 41 carries). This may go back to Renner’s point or this may help to highlight Shenault’s talents as a dynamic playmaker with the ball in his hands, or both. Percy Harvin, Randall Cobb, T.Y. Hilton, Mohamed Sanu and Deebo Samuel are a few other wide receivers with at least seven rushing touchdowns to pair with 1,500-plus receiving yards across their respective college careers.

4. Tyler Johnson, Minnesota (Age: 21.5)

Where he ranks: Johnson ranks one spot behind and effectively tied with Shenault as our eighth-best prospect since 2015.

Why he ranks here:
Our model looks only at a player’s hard data — analytics with proven predictive power — while ignoring the subjective, things like “industry consensus” or expectations heading into the Combine. Though that’s true for our model, it won’t be true for our dynasty rankings, which will likely have Johnson a lot lower after he failed to earn an invite to the Senior Bowl (implying little chance of being a Day 1 or Day 2 draft pick). However, if we're looking purely at the objective, and by literally every variable our model finds meaningful, Johnson has the profile of an elite prospect.

Like all of the other wide receivers mentioned thus far, Johnson broke out early. As a 19-year-old sophomore, he caught 45 passes for 677 yards and seven touchdowns. If that doesn’t seem so impressive, please note the team’s next-closest receiver totaled just 132 yards. Across the 10 games Johnson played, he scored an elite dominator rating (62.7%), single-handedly accounting for a whopping 47.5% of his team’s passing yards (not far off Shenault’s mark) along with 77.8% of the passing touchdowns.

Remarkably, he stepped up his game even further over the next two seasons, falling just three yards shy of CeeDee Lamb for the nation-high in receiving yards (2,378). Even more impressive, he led all Power-5 receivers in receptions (165), touchdowns (25), first downs (119), PFF grade (94.6) and yards per route run (3.50). Unlike Lamb or Jeudy, these numbers were reached on a far less prolific offense that Johnson was forced to carry and uplift, which he did so to dramatic effect.

Johnson led the Power-5 in yardage market share over this span, comprising 41.6% of the team’s passing yards along with an impressive 52.1% touchdown share. On his targets, Johnson earned his quarterbacks a 122.5 passer rating, as opposed to their 90.5 passer rating when targeting any other receiver.

The NFL may feel otherwise, but, statistically speaking, Johnson looks every bit the part of a future stud.

5. Bryan Edwards, South Carolina (Age: 21.3)

Where he ranks: In an extremely tight tier with Jeudy, Shenault and Johnson, Edwards ranks as our ninth-best prospect since 2015.

Why he ranks here:
The model loved Edwards for the same datapoint that has all other dynasty analysts drooling — breakout age, a metric I explored in-depth here. He was a four-year starter at South Carolina, but he’s still one of the youngest wide receivers in this class. As a freshman, Edwards posted his first 100-yard-game two months before turning 18-years-old. According to my database, that’s just 12 days shy of the record held by JuJu Smith-Schuster.

At the same time, “breakout” might feel like a slight exaggeration. Edwards exceeded 750 yards in three straight seasons, but he’s never eclipsed 850. Further, he never excelled in yards per route run, one of our most predictive metrics, averaging just 2.19 yards per route run over the past three seasons. For perspective, Tyler Johnson, Tee Higgins, Jerry Jeudy, Laviska Shenault, Jauan Jennings, Ceedee Lamb and Brandon Aiyuk were all above 3.00.

Even so, South Carolina’s quarterback play wasn’t doing him any favors. And, more importantly, he was competing for targets with the third wide receiver selected in the 2019 NFL Draft: Deebo Samuel. Even so, Edwards held his own. In 2018, Samuel averaged just 6.1 more yards per game than Edwards (73.4 to 67.4) when both were active. Keep in mind, Samuel was 23 years old when he was drafted by the 49ers, nearly three years older than Edwards.

Bonus Stat: Among 64 qualifiers, Edwards ranked as our fourth-highest-graded punt returner in 2019. Brandon Aiyuk ranked third, while Ceedee Lamb and KJ Hamler also ranked in the top-15.

6. Tee Higgins, Clemson (Age: 21.1)

Where he ranks: Although Higgins ranks sixth in this class, he also ranks as our 12th-best prospect since 2015, implying that he’d probably be the second- or third-best wide receiver prospect in a typical draft class. This should help highlight how deep and, potentially, historically great this class is.

Why he ranks here:
Although Higgins wasn’t as dominant in market share and didn’t break out as early as some of the players ranking above him, that probably matters a lot less when you’re a five-star recruit joining a stacked Clemson offense. Of course, our model wasn’t aware of that, but it still liked him about as much as the No. 3 prospect on our list thanks to his elite counting stats and efficiency metrics.

Higgins totaled 118 receptions, 2,103 receiving yards and 25 touchdowns over his last two seasons at Clemson. For perspective, only three other Clemson receivers have eclipsed 2,000 receiving yards in their sophomore and junior seasons — DeAndre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins and Mike Williams — and none had as many touchdowns as Higgins. Over this span, Higgins ranked second in PFF grade (92.5), fourth in yards per route run (3.32) and fourth in passer rating when targeted (137.5).

Across his full career, Higgins averaged 3.37 yards per route run, which ranks fourth-best among all 397 qualifying Power-5 wide receivers in our database and second-best in this class. Shenault ranks just above him (3.39), but of the other five wide receivers in the top-10 to already declare, each was taken in the first two rounds of the NFL draft.

7. Justin Jefferson, LSU (Age: 20.7)

Where he ranks: Jefferson ranks as our 18th-best prospect since 2015.

Why he ranks here:
Our model loved that Justin Jefferson is one of the youngest wide receivers in this class and that, in spite of this fact, he’s totaled a whopping 2,415 yards (third-most) and 24 touchdowns (fourth-most) over the past two seasons. When factoring in his age and his level of competition, Jefferson's sophomore and junior seasons appear historically great. However, like with Edwards, our model penalized Jefferson for underwhelming yards per route run numbers.

Digging deeper, maybe some concern is warranted. Jefferson, like Johnson (86%) and Jeudy (59%), ran the majority of his routes from the slot in 2019 (99%), but he wasn’t quite as efficient, averaging just 2.64 yards per route run from the slot (2.64). For perspective, Johnson (3.49), Jeudy (3.39), Jauan Jennings (3.27) and Devin Duvernay (3.02) ranked in the top five. While Jefferson wasn’t too far off, ranking ninth (of 69), that doesn’t look nearly impressive when considering LSU was 34% better in passing yards per dropback than, for instance, Duvernay’s Texas Longhorns.

8. Jalen Reagor, TCU (Age: 21.1)

Where he ranks: Reagor ranks as our 27th-best prospect since 2015, implying a large tier-drop between he and Jefferson.

Why he ranks here:
If you haven’t already noticed the pattern, yes, Reagor also broke out an early age. (Again, last season I explained why this is such an important indicator and accurate predictor of future success.) As an 18-year-old freshman, Reagor led TCU in receiving. As a 19-year-old sophomore, he totaled 1,061 receiving yards and nine touchdowns, or 39% of the team’s total passing yards as well as 50% of its touchdowns. Last year, as a 20-year-old junior, he managed only 611 yards and five touchdowns through 12 games.

That hurt him in our model, but, of course, our model also might have missed some important extenuating details. While some of the other wide receivers on this list may have had to deal with poor quarterback play at some point in their college careers, none compared to Reagor's situation. Over the past two seasons, Reagor had a 13.6 average depth of target on 219 targets. He was charted as being open on 73% of those targets, but only 37% were deemed accurate, which easily ranked worst in the class.

Compare that to the nation’s leading receiver in 2019, Ja’Marr Chase, who had an identical 13.6 average depth of target over the past two seasons (implying the same difficulty of throws). Over this span, Chase was deemed open on just 69% of his targets but 65% of those throws were charted as accurate.

Notes:

• If our model missed badly on any one player (beyond, I suppose, Tyler Johnson), it would be Alabama’s Henry Ruggs, who is being touted as a likely first-round draft pick. He was disadvantaged in this exercise for the same reason his teammate Jeudy was at a disadvantage — his target competition consisted of multiple future NFL talents. While that should be factored in to some degree, it’s also a little alarming he wasn’t even the second-most productive receiver on his team in each of the past two seasons.

• Hamler is a likely Day 2 pick who is enticing for a number of reasons. He’s the only Combine-invite wide receiver younger than Jefferson. Like Reagor, he saw a high percentage of inaccurate targets for much of his career but was productive in spite of it. Like Ruggs (and Reagor, Jeudy, Shenault, etc.), he’s expected to blow up the combine. Although, unlike any other receiver mentioned thus far, drops could be a serious concern — over the past two seasons, he dropped one out of every 10.4 targets, compared to (for instance) Devin Duvernay’s 64.7.

• As a JUCO-transfer, Aiyuk was at a massive disadvantage in our model. His 2018 was also fairly underwhelming, with teammate N’Keal Harry more than doubling his production. Even so, his 2019 popped by a number of important metrics and, like Hamler, he has special teams value and is sure to impress at the Combine.

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