News & Analysis

The season that was: Fantasy WR lessons from 2017

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 14: DeAndre Hopkins #10 of the Houston Texans runs the ball in the second half against the New England Patriots during the AFC Divisional Playoff Game at Gillette Stadium on January 14, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

The present-day NFL may still be a passing league, but the 2017 season was a down one for fantasy wide receivers. In fact, there were just 13 1,000-yard receivers, down from 23 in 2016. Only DeAndre Hopkins and Davante Adams caught double-digit touchdowns, compared to five WRs with 10-plus scores a year ago. And while it may seem intuitive that running backs have made a comeback in fantasy, the top-12 RBs actually scored 20 fewer TDs compared to 2016.

Last week in examining the fantasy lessons learned from the quarterback position, I noted the ways in which 2017 was a down year for QBs. Naturally, that trend also carried over to wide receivers. Check out the averages of the top-12 PPR WRs from each of the past five years, broken down per-game, per-snap, per-opportunity, and per-route:

While the per-game numbers dipped, the WR1s from this season remained on par in terms of production per snap, per opportunity, and per route run. It’s not that the elite fantasy WRs are doing considerably less with their opportunities, it’s simply that the sheer volume in the passing game has dropped off from the peak years of 2014-15. The top 12 fantasy WRs from the past two seasons have averaged 1,222 receiving yards, down from 1,405 yards in 2014-15. Glancing at the heat map above, we can see that touchdowns have also had a noticeable drop.

Whereas the deep QB landscape across the league lends itself to more out-of-nowhere fantasy seasons — and hence, why streaming QBs is such a popular strategy — nearly all of the WR1s in a given year were among the first 24 WRs off the board in fantasy drafts that year. Our Scott Spratt recently compiled the five facets of highly successful receivers, and it’s certainly worth bookmarking for your 2018 prep.

To help understand what sets the elite receivers apart, let’s dig into the WR1s from the 2017 fantasy season.

WR12 – Golden Tate, Detroit Lions

That’s now four straight seasons with 90-plus catches for Tate, who has emerged as a rock-solid WR2 in PPR formats. Tate ran 79 percent of his routes from the slot, where he saw 69.2 percent of his targets and all five of his touchdowns. While there are a handful of mouths to feed in the Lions’ offense, Tate has solidified his role as one of the most trusted targets for Matthew Stafford, who has somewhat quietly become one of the steadier QB1s in fantasy in recent years.

WR11 – Marvin Jones, Detroit Lions

Picking up on the above point about Stafford, Jones joined teammate Tate as a WR1 in fantasy this season. After a somewhat disappointing first year in Detroit, Jones crossed the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his career, finishing with 1,101 yards and a league-best 18.0 yards per catch. He also finished with nine touchdowns, which was more than his previous two seasons combined. Jones’ 110.9 passer rating when targeted was sixth-best among qualified WRs. He was also third out of 59 WRs with 599 yards on deep passes (20-plus yards downfield), ranking fourth with a 51.6-percent catch rate.

WR10 – A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals

Green notched his sixth 1,000-yard receiving campaign in seven seasons as a pro – the exception being last year’s 964-yard season in just 10 games – although fantasy owners would have liked a bit more consistency. Green averaged a career-worst 67.4 YPG with only three 100-yard games, and he was held without a touchdown over the course of the fantasy playoffs. Still, he finished eighth in yards per route run (2.09) and was fed 134 targets. Dynasty owners are nearing the end of the trade window for Green, who will turn 30 in July.

WR8 — Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs

Coming off one of the top fantasy seasons by a rookie in the past decade, Hill took a considerable step forward in Year 2, just about doubling his receiving yardage, from 593 to 1,183. Hill’s 130.5 passer rating when targeted was tops among 45 wideouts. Alex Smith was actually one of the most effective deep-ball passers this season, and Hill was a big beneficiary. He led all qualified WRs with a 54.2-percent catch rate on deep targets (20-plus yards downfield), as no other receiver matched his 628 yards on deep passes.

WR8 – Adam Thielen, Minnesota Vikings

Thielen proved that his breakout 2016 season was no outlier. The fourth-year pro earned a Pro Bowl nod in 2017 with career-highs in targets (135), receptions (91), and receiving yards (1,276). Vikings’ QBs had a 104.4 rating when targeting Thielen, who finished seventh in yards per route run (2.33). He also hauled in 45.5 percent of his deep targets, which tied for eighth-best among receivers.

WR7 – Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons

Mr. Consistency, Jones was the YPRR leader for the third straight season. Jones also earned PFF’s top overall WR grade, landing in the top three for the third straight year. Only Antonio Brown averaged more fantasy points per opportunity (0.54). We can debate who the Alpha is among fantasy WRs, but Jones is unquestionably in the top-five.

WR6 – Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints

Perhaps posting a 104.8 passer rating is not such a big deal when the guy throwing the passes has a 103.9 rating. But after posting the third-best fantasy season by a rookie in the past decade, Thomas was even better in Year 2. With only two drops on 106 catchable targets, his 1.9-percent drop rate was the second-best out of 45 qualified receivers. A present-day Marques Colston, 40.5 percent of Thomas’ targets were from the slot, where he was far and away the league leader with an average of 3.63 yards per route run. Overall, he posted PFF’s fourth-best WR grade in 2017.

WR5 – Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals

The ageless wonder continues to get it done for fantasy owners. Fitzgerald also just turned in his third straight top-12 fantasy season despite being drafted no higher than 24th among WRs in each of the last three years. A perennial “All-Hands” team member, Fitzgerald just posted the league’s sixth-best drop rate, as only four out of 113 catchable targets hit the ground. He was also top-10 in yards per route run from the slot (1.93), trailing only Jarvis Landry with 109 receptions.

WR4 – Jarvis Landry, Miami Dolphins

Landry may have come up just a few yards short from turning in a third straight 1,000-yard season, although he led the league with 112 catches and scored nine touchdowns, which was more TDs than his previous two seasons combined. A PPR owner’s dream, Landry sported an average draft position as the WR29 going into the season, according to Fantasy Football Calculator. Don’t count on getting that kind of draft value again in 2018.

WR3 – Keenan Allen, Los Angeles Chargers

Philip Rivers had a 107.3 passer rating when throwing Allen’s way, hence Allen’s career-high 147 targets despite 11 drops. Only 7.5 percent of his targets were 20-plus yards downfield, but he ranked in the top-10 with a 45.5-percent catch rate on those throws. An all-around threat, Allen also finished in the top-five in yards per route run (2.55), YPRR from the slot (2.11), and blocking grade. The threat of Mike Williams never materialized, while Tyrell Williams saw 43 fewer targets than he did during last season’s breakout.

WR2 – Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers

Brown saw 155 targets, leading the position with 1,533 receiving yards and 0.57 fantasy points per opportunity in his age-29 season. He also finished second with 2.87 yards per route. Having posted his fourth straight top-two fantasy WR season (and fifth straight in the top-five), Brown simply continues to deliver. He’ll turn 30 in July, but there’s just no reason to believe he won’t continue to produce at an elite level.

WR1 – DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans

To see just how dominant Hopkins has been despite the carousel of mediocre Texans’ QBs since 2014, check out this tweet from our Scott Barrett. Hopkins had a league-high 164 targets and 13 receiving touchdowns in 2017, a season that teased us with six games of what looks like a no-doubt-about-it franchise QB in Deshaun Watson. Even with that massive volume and suspect quarterback play after the rookie’s injury, Hopkins still wound up tied for fourth in yards per route run (2.39).

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