Every February I start building a set of rankings for the incoming class of rookies and continue to adjust it up until the draft. Once the draft hits, I start over from scratch. Athletic measurables and my original evaluations will always play a role, but all too often landing spot becomes the biggest factor. Early last season I had Leonte Carroo ahead of Michael Thomas (it feels gross just typing that), but of course, after the draft I quickly switched the two receivers.
Not only is team landing spot important, but so too is where in the draft they are selected. As our own Tyler Loechner displayed a week ago, the higher a player is drafted, the more likely they are 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 my favorite landing spots for the top wide receivers selected. (Note: We already touched on the running backs and tight ends earlier in the week.)
Corey Davis (first round, Tennessee Titans)
Despite coming from a small school and missing the NFL combine with an ankle injury, the Titans selected Davis as the first wide receiver off the board at pick No. 5. Davis made sense here as the top-rated wide receiver in our 2017 Draft Guide and landing on a team with a need at the position. From Davis’ perspective, I’m not sure it could have ended up much better than with Tennessee. From Marcus Mariota’s perspective, I’m sure he’s ecstatic, considering the wide receiver talent he’s been forced to play with throughout his career:
Statistically, Davis gave us everything you’d want to see from a highly drafted small-school wide receiver: he dominated the lower-level of competition. He was the focal point of his team’s offense last season, ranking top-five in target market share, team yardage market share, and touchdown market share. Among all wide receivers with at least 50 targets, Davis ranked top-10 in yards per route run each year he’s been in the league. He was also one of our top-10-graded wide receiver in each of his three college seasons.
The only flaws I could find, outside of a weaker strength of schedule compared to the other first-round wide receivers, was that he struggled with drops last season, ranking 10th-worst in drop rate among all 63 wide receivers with at least 100 targets. Also, 41.2 percent of his targets came from the slot last season, behind only Cooper Kupp among the top-15 wide receivers off the board. This wasn’t very alarming until the Titans selected Taywan Taylor (who profiles as a slot-only wide receiver at the NFL level) in the third round. This, as well as the weaker Mid Atlantic Conference competition, could make it harder for him to adjust to NFL-level cornerbacks early on in his career.
Rishard Matthews was highly effective for the Titans in the second half of last season, ranking 10th in fantasy points per game among wide receivers after Week 8. Still, given Davis’ statistical production and the draft capital spent on the pick, Davis has a decent chance to push for the team lead in targets as soon as next year. Davis, who led all wide receivers in touchdowns last season, should also immediately contribute in the red zone. Since entering the league, no quarterback has posted a better red-zone passer rating than Mariota.
As it stands, Davis is my top wide receiver in rookie drafts and might be my top player overall.
Mike Williams (first round, Los Angeles Chargers)
During the Los Angeles’ Day 1 press conference, GM Tom Telesco said of Williams, “He’s highly athletic, at 6-4 and 220 pounds, he still ran 4.49 and 4.50 for us.” Compared to wide receivers who ran the 40 at the combine, this would have given Williams the seventh-best weight-adjusted 40 time in the class, of the 52 who ran. This is particularly intriguing considering Williams’ athleticism was frequently knocked during the draft process, as was his production.
The latter point doesn’t make much sense to me either. Against some of the toughest competition in Division 1 football, Williams reached 1,000 yards and graded out top-12 in both 2014 and 2016. In 2015, Williams played just 12 snaps before suffering a season-ending neck injury. Among 1,000-yard wide receivers, Williams ranked sixth-best in yards after the catch per reception in 2014 and fifth-best in missed tackles forced per reception in 2016.
As much praise as the Chargers front office was heaping on Williams, none of it compares to what his former head coach at Clemson, Dabo Swinney, said, “We had the ‘Mike Williams rule.’ If there’s only one [defensive back] on him, he’s wide open. If there’s two, they better be real tight on him in coverage. He’s a handful, and definitely NFL ready.” He would also add that Williams was “the most complete wide receiver” he’s had since he began coaching the team. That’s incredible praise, considering he also coached DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins at Clemson.
Despite the many reasons to get excited about Williams’ talent, one immediate concern is the amount of target competition Williams expects to see early on. The Chargers boast one of the league’s best and most-complete stable of playmakers with Keenan Allen, Tyrell Williams, Dontrelle Inman, Antonio Gates, and Hunter Henry all being capable pass-catchers. Adding two of our top-three-rated guards with their next two picks, their offensive line – which ranked second-worst in pass-blocking efficiency last year – should improve as well. He’s unlikely to see a wealth of targets if Allen (who will move to the slot next season) stays healthy, but the efficiency should be there to keep him on our fantasy radar as soon as this year.
John Ross (first round, Cincinnati Bengals)
The first thing people think of when they hear Ross’ name is the 4.22 40 time he ran at the combine to break Chris Johnson’s record. Game-breaking straight-line speed is absolutely a major component to Ross’ game, but he may also get underrated as a red-zone threat despite his diminutive size. He scored the third-most touchdowns last season (17), with only seven of them coming on deep targets.
A.J. Green is cemented as the top target in Cincinnati, but Ross will begin to push Brandon LaFell or Tyler Boyd for targets as soon as year one. While his upside is capped as long as Green remains healthy (he did miss six games last season), the WR2-role in Cincinnati could mean fantasy viability in deep leagues as soon as this season. Since Andy Dalton’s rookie season, the Bengals’ WR2 (by fantasy points per game) has averaged 10.9 fantasy points per game, which would have ranked 47th-best last year. The WR3 has averaged 6.8.
It’s unclear whether the Bengals project Ross to immediately supplant Boyd and start off in the slot (88.6 percent of his routes from the slot last year) or as the outside receiver replacing LaFell. Given his dynamic play-making ability and deep speed, I like Ross most in best-ball leagues, such as MyFantasyLeague’s MFL10s. It’ll be hard to predict when he goes off, but he will have a high weekly ceiling.
Zay Jones (second round, Buffalo Bills)
On Day 2, Buffalo traded up to reunite Jones with his former wide receivers coach Phil McGeoghan currently serving in the same position with the Bills. During the press conference following the selection, Bills head coach Sean McDermott continually talked up the importance of completions to an offense and the importance of adding a dependable receiver. That’s exactly what Jones projects to be at the NFL level, and exactly what he was in college – a dependable possession wide receiver. Jones became the Division I single-season record-holder in receptions last season with 158, which was 21 more than the next-closest receiver last year. He also posted a 3.7 percent drop rate in 2016, which was the best rate among all drafted wide receivers.
Hand-picked by a first-year head coach as the fourth wide receiver off the board, I like Jones’ potential in this offense. There’s limited competition for targets outside of the oft-injured Sammy Watkins. Outside of Watkins, no other wide receiver on the team has ever reached 50 receptions in a single season. While this still projects to be a run-first offense, it’s safe to assume something closer to a normal balance following Rex Ryan’s departure. Throughout his coaching career, on average, a Ryan-led offense ran the ball 49.2 percent of the time. The new Bills offensive coordinator, Rick Dennison, has been much closer to the 2016 league average (41.1 percent), at 43.3 percent.
Taywan Taylor (third round, Tennessee Titans)
Taylor was a statistical monster throughout his collegiate career. Among all wide receivers with at least 75 targets, he has ranked among the top-three wide receivers in yards per route run over each of the past two seasons. Western Kentucky passers averaged a near-perfect 144.5 passer rating when targeting Taylor throughout his career. Although much of this can be explained away by the unique nature of the offense and the level of competition he faced, Taylor projects to earn playing time quickly on an offense previously lacking in wide receiver talent (as highlighted above).
At the NFL level, Taylor profiles as a shifty (12th-best three-cone by a wide receiver at the combine since 2000) slot receiver who can also serve as a more-than-capable deep-threat. Last season, Taylor led the league in yardage (948) and touchdowns (11) on balls thrown 20-plus yards through the air. For perspective, this was more than 200 yards more than the next-closest receiver. While I don’t think Taylor will wind up on our radar for redraft leagues this season, this selection does provide another boost for Mariota’s draft stock. Since entering the league, Mariota has averaged a passer rating of 66.6 (sixth-worst) on deep targets, among all 32 quarterbacks with at least 40 deep targets over this stretch. After watching over-the-hill players like Harry Douglas and Andre Johnson as well as pedestrian talents such as Justin Hunter and Dorial Green-Beckham take up space on the field the past two seasons, the addition of Taylor can only help.
ArDarius Stewart (third round, New York Jets)
Heading into the draft, Stewart was one of my favorite lesser-talked about wide receivers. Landing in an offense without much competition at the wide receiver position – especially if the Jets do intend to move on from Eric Decker – has me excited about Stewart’s immediate prospects despite obvious quarterback concerns.
Decker is recovering from hip and shoulder injuries and may not be ready for the start of training camp. Quincy Enunwa was our seventh-worst-graded wide receiver in 2015 (of 119 qualifying) and dropped 17.1 percent of his catchable targets last season (third-worst among all wide receivers with at least 50 targets). 23-year-old Robby Anderson was our ninth-worst-graded wide receiver last year (again, of 119 qualifying).
Stewart was used in a multitude of ways during his time at Alabama, but was electric with the ball in his hands. Last season, Stewart led all 150 wide receivers with at least 75 targets in yards after the catch per reception. As it stands, I’m much higher on Stewart than my peers – ranking him sixth at the position in rookie drafts.
Carlos Henderson (third round, Denver Broncos)
Like Stewart, Henderson was another wide receiver I was excited about pre-draft, and even more so post-draft. Last year, with Louisiana Tech, he led the league in touchdowns and ranked sixth in receiving yards. Among all 62 wide receivers to see at least 100 targets last season, Henderson ranked behind only DeDe Westbrook in yards after the catch per reception, and paced the entire league in missed tackles forced per reception.
The landing spot for Henderson seems far from ideal at first glance, but I’m optimistic he will be able to carve out a role that should grow with time. Denver has two well-stablished wide receivers in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders who are both signed through 2019. If we expected similar roles for Thomas and Sanders, both of whom ranked top-10 in target market share last year, it should be hard to find room for Henderson. Over the last two seasons, Sanders and Thomas each saw at least 130 targets, with the next-closest receiver coming away with less than 35. Still, with a new offensive coordinator under helm, there’s room for immediate optimism.
Mike McCoy replaces Rick Dennison as offensive coordinator in Denver. Throughout his career as offensive coordinator, Dennison’s WR3 (by fantasy points per game) averaged only 4.3 fantasy points per game, while McCoy’s WR3 averaged 7.4. Henderson is unlikely to find his way on any of my teams in year one, but makes for a strong stash-and-hold in dynasty leagues.