Evaluating the fantasy landing spots of the top-drafted wide receivers
Every February, fantasy analysts start building out a set of rankings for the incoming class of rookies and continue to adjust it up until the draft. Once the draft hits, those ranking become dangerously wrong. While original evaluations should always play a major role in rankings, landing spot becomes the biggest factor.
Not only is team landing spot important, but so too is where in the draft a player is selected. As our own Tyler Loechner showed last year, the higher a player is drafted, the more likely he is to achieve fantasy success. It makes sense in theory too — teams have more invested in these players, and thus, are more invested in seeing them succeed.
Taking these two factors into account, here is a look at the prognoses for the 2018 draft’s most notable fantasy wide receivers. Keep in mind, unlike running backs (which we discussed earlier this week), wide receivers tend not to be especially productive in year one.
D.J. Moore, Carolina Panthers (1.24)
In college, Moore was a shifty and elusive target-hog who exceled at creating “layup throws,” although this is also an area of the field Christian McCaffrey already occupies and isn’t one Cam Newton is especially efficient when targeting.
In 2017, Moore led all receivers in target market share (41.6 percent) and yardage market share (50.3 percent). Among all drafted wide receivers from the Power-5 conferences with at least 100 career receptions, he leads in missed tackles forced per reception (0.27). He struggled against tougher competition in college, however, catching just two of his 16 career targets (for 18 yards) against cornerbacks already in the NFL, though this may speak more toward the atrocious levels of quarterback play he was saddled with while at Maryland.
In Carolina’s press conference following the selection, head coach Ron Rivera said, “[He] has the ability to play all three of our wide receiver positions. [He] has an opportunity to come in and contribute right away. We traditionally have found ways to play our No. 1 picks. He will get every opportunity…”
While Moore is likely going to see the field immediately in Carolina, he’ll probably start off fourth in the pecking order for targets, behind Devin Funchess, Greg Olsen, and McCaffrey. Still, given the high draft capital investment, college production, and promise of an immediate role, there’s a strong case for Moore as a top-five rookie pick and possibly the first wide receiver off the board.
Calvin Ridley, Atlanta Falcons (1.26)
Ridley didn’t really pop in any of the efficiency metrics I typically look at from college wide receivers, but this was mostly a function of poor quarterback play on a run-first offense. He did stand out at the combine (4.43-second 40-yard dash) and pop on tape, however. As PFF’s Sam Monson put it, “Ridley showed the best route-running in the draft class and an ability to get open without needing to lean on pure explosion.”
In Atlanta’s Day 1 post-draft press conference, both GM Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Dan Quinn said “he can play both inside and out” for the Falcons. However, it’s more than likely Mohamed Sanu will continue operating out of the slot, which is where he ran 68 percent of his routes last season. I suspect Ridley will start outside opposite Julio Jones in Week 1, serving in a better version of the Taylor Gabriel role. It’s not a very valuable role, on the run-first Falcons, but it could grow into something better.
Based mostly on draft capital and our predraft analysis, Ridley is my No. 2 wide receiver in rookie drafts.
Courtland Sutton, Denver Broncos (2.40)
Sutton is one of only four wide receivers to grade out top-25 (via the pass) in each of the past two seasons, and also offers WR1 size at 6-3 and 218 pounds.
It will be tough for Sutton to see meaningful targets right away. Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders both rank top-15 in team target market share over the past three seasons, while the No. 3 wide receiver in Denver has totaled just 54, 32, and 32 targets in each of these seasons, respectively. Still, Denver thinks Sutton can contribute right away, and speaking toward his dynasty value, with Thomas and Sanders both at least 30 years of age and at the tail end of their contracts, the team feels he can eventually be a No. 1 wide receiver for them.
In their post-draft press conference following the selection, GM John Elway said, “We’re excited he was still there. Third wide receiver was important to us, and a guy that you can develop and eventually, maybe, become a No. 1.” Head coach Vance Joseph added, “[H]is skillset translates to being the No. 1 guy, he’s got No. 1 traits as a receiver. Obviously, he’ll come in and compete for the third spot, but John [Elway] said it, in the future he can be our No. 1 guy.”
Due to draft capital and Denver’s lofty expectations, for me, Sutton ranks behind only Moore and Ridley among wide receivers in rookie drafts.
Dante Pettis, San Francisco 49ers (2.44)
Pettis didn’t really jump out in any of the statistics I typically look at, though GM John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan were both effusive in praise during their Day 2 post-draft press conference, after swapping a third-round pick for a fifth to move up and grab him.
Shanahan said, “He fills a lot of spots for us. We’re happy with our group. We can use them all differently. We think Pettis does a little bit of everything. I think we can use him similar to how we use Marquise [Goodwin] if need be. I think we can use him inside similar to how we use Trent [Taylor] if need be. I think he’s got the hands and toughness, we can use him similar to Pierre [Garcon].” They also spent quite a bit of time on his abilities on special teams.
The slot role seems like his easiest avenue for playing time in year one, but Pettis ran just 13.7 percent of his career routes from the slot in Washington. Due to the log-jam in front of him, and without a clear role, I suspect I’m lower on Pettis than most of my peers.
Christian Kirk, Arizona Cardinals (2.47)
Kirk ran 95 percent of his routes from the slot in college, so his immediate fit in Arizona is troubling. Larry Fitzgerald ran 62.0 percent of his routes from the slot last season and that shouldn’t diminish at all next year, though retirement could come as early as next offseason. Arizona may see Kirk as the inevitable heir to Fitzgerald (in the slot), or they might try him outside, due to the lack of competition there (J.J. Nelson, Brice Butler, and Chad Williams). Still, I’m pessimistic he’ll be as productive outside. We’ve seen Nelson Agholor, for instance, struggle to make the switch outside – he was our single-worst-graded wide receiver in both 2015 and 2016 but ranked 24th-best in 2017 when moved back into the slot.
Kirk’s production and efficiency numbers in college were a little underwhelming, and Arizona’s Day 2 post-draft press conference did little to deter my pessimism. Unlike with the other wide receivers in this article, head coach Steve Wilks and GM Steve Keim spent little time praising Kirk’s talents as a receiver, choosing instead to harp on off-the-field intangibles (personality and intelligence), the value he brings to the return game, and the fact that he was a home-grown talent.
Although he has draft capital on his side, and there’s little competition for targets in Arizona, I suspect I’m much lower on Kirk than most fantasy analysts.
Anthony Miller, Chicago Bears (2.51)
Unlike the more recent receivers we’ve discussed, Miller was glaringly efficient in college, leading the class in career WR Rating (passer rating when targeted) at 131.4. Throughout his career, Memphis averaged a passer rating of 109.1 when targeting all other receivers. Miller also led all wide receivers in touchdowns last season (19), and in showing the ability to handle a large workload, also led in targets (285) and receptions (191) over the past two seasons. He was also equally strong after the catch, leading all Day 1 and Day 2 wide receivers in career yards after the catch per reception (7.38).
Miller has 10-inch hands (same as Odell Beckham Jr.), and was complimented by GM Ryan Pace after the draft selection, for route quickness, run-after-the-catch ability, burst, acceleration, and being able to run the full route tree. Pace acknowledged this wasn’t a need-based selection, so the team must have felt highly of him, trading up to grab him in the second round.
Although Pace implied wide receiver wasn’t a need, competition seems light opposite Allen Robinson. I suspect Robinson and Trey Burton out-target him in year one, but I wouldn’t be shocked if he solidifies himself as the No. 3 receiver over names like Tarik Cohen, Taylor Gabriel, Kevin White, and Bennie Fowler.
James Washington, Pittsburgh Steelers (2.60)
PFF had Washington as our No. 2 wide receiver in our draft guide, and I suspect, like PFF, I’m higher on Washington than most. Washington won the Biletnikoff Award in 2017 after leading the league in receiving yards in each of the past two seasons. Washington was also one of our most productive and efficient wide receivers on deep passes, recording 2,318 yards (402 more than next-closest) and a 115.3 WR Rating on 139 career deep targets (second-most, behind Sutton).
He easily slides into the Martavis Bryant role (84 targets in 2017) in Pittsburgh, with Bryant now in Oakland. I have high hopes for Washington, both from a dynasty perspective and for redraft leagues. Pittsburgh saw immediate success from recent wide receiver draft picks in JuJu Smith-Schuster (11th in fantasy points per game last year) and Bryant (28th in fantasy points per game in 2014). Washington will have trouble reaching fantasy stardom behind Antonio Brown and Smith-Schuster, but should, at least, immediately see the field.
Head coach Mike Tomlin echoed these sentiments in a recent interview, “Similarly to JuJu, we just loved his overall game, his physicality, his sure hands, his strong hands, his running ability after the catch. His resume speaks for itself… [H]e’s gonna be an early contributor for us.”
I think there’s a strong case to be made for Washington as the No. 3 wide receiver in dynasty rookie drafts.
DJ Chark, Jacksonville Jaguars (2.61)
Chark dominated the 2018 NFL Combine, running a 4.34 40-yard dash (best), posting a 40-inch vertical jump (best by 1.5 inches), and recording a 129.0-inch broad jump (third-best). He led the class in career yards per target (11.8), but was used almost entirely as a deep threat, recording a whopping 71.5 percent of his career receiving yards on deep passes.
Jacksonville was clearly high on Chark. Executive VP of Football Operations Tom Coughlin told him over the phone they had him as a first-rounder.
Chark joins a crowded wide receiver room in Jacksonville, but one with little star power. With Jacksonville reportedly souring on Dede Westbrook, Chark could be in competition with Donte Moncrief, Keelan Cole, and Austin Seferian-Jenkins for the No. 2 or No. 3 receiver role in the offense, behind (presumably) Marqise Lee. Still, on the run-first Jaguars, he’s a borderline late second-/early third-round pick for me in rookie drafts.
Michael Gallup, Dallas Cowboys (3.81)
Gallup was a PFF favorite, coming in as the No. 5 wide receiver in our draft guide. Like the site I write for, I was (and am) much higher on Gallup than most analysts. Last year, he finished as our highest-graded wide receiver via the pass and also dominated by a number of different statistics throughout his career.
Among 391 qualifying wide receivers to run at least 600 routes since 2014, Gallup ranks third in career yards per route run (my favorite metric for evaluating wide receivers) with 3.64, which ranks best in the class (and one spot ahead of Corey Davis). Gallup’s 2016 season ranked second-best in yards per route run (4.34), among 1,274 qualifying wide receiver seasons since 2014, and all other wide receiver seasons in the top-10 came from wide receivers already in the NFL. Among combine-invite wide receivers, he also ranks top-five in career WR Rating (121.9) and missed tackles forced per reception (0.21). Gallup was also a target-hog over the past two seasons, ranking behind only Miller in targets (275).
GM Jerry Jones told reporters he thought Gallup could play immediately in 2018, and I think he’d need to with Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, and Brice Butler leaving behind 242 targets, for only Allen Hurns, Rico Gathers, Cole Beasley, Deonte Thompson, and Terrance Williams to soak up.
I suspect Gallup has as good of a chance as anyone to finish as the highest-scoring rookie wide receiver for fantasy in 2018, but I like his long-term prospects quite a bit as well.
Keke Coutee, Houston Texans (4.103)
Rather than highlight Tre’Quan Smith here, who was drafted ahead of Coutee and projects to be the eventual Ted Ginn heir in New Orleans, I’m actually a little bit more optimistic about Coutee. Coutee ran a 4.43 40-yard dash at the combine and dominated statistically in college.
Among 103 receivers to see at least 75 targets last season, Coutee ranked first in yards after the catch per reception (9.0), third in WR Rating (139.7), and sixth in yards per target (11.7). That yards-per-target ranking looks all the more impressive when considering he ranked 19th-lowest (of 103) in average depth of target (8.5). Across his career, he also led all combine-invite WRs in yards after the catch per reception (8.8), ranked second in WR Rating (125.0), and ranked fourth in missed tackles forced per reception (0.24).
Over the past two seasons, Coutee also leads the 2018 draft class in yards per route run from the slot (2.89). After running 79.5 percent of his routes from the slot in college, that’s likely where Houston envisions him playing. I suspect he’ll play immediately in the offense, over last year’s slot starter Bruce Ellington, who ranked 97th of 116-graded wide receivers.
The upside is high for Coutee in Houston’s offense – amazingly, DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller ranked first and second in fantasy points per game among wide receivers prior to Deshaun Watson‘s injury – but Coutee is still probably at best an early third-round rookie draft pick and a very late-round (or undrafted) redraft pick.