Trending Up: Wide Receivers
Fantasy football often comes down to matching opportunity with talent and situation. When all three factors click, you are left with a productive contributor. In many situations, opportunity can be a crutch. We see this happen more often at the running back position where timeshares, splits, and passing downs play a role in specializing different players’ roles.
These four wide receivers listed below were effective in 2014, but their opportunity didn’t allow them to be premier fantasy options. However, it is fair to predict that if they can lock in the right situation, they can become consistent fantasy contributors.
In this piece I’ll take a look at what made these players stand out in 2014 and offer an early outlook on what to expect from them in 2015.
From a fantasy football standpoint, Matthews put together a very inconsistent but productive season. The snaps were not always there, and we will get to that later, but he did an excellent job making the most of his opportunities. On 484 snaps in route, Matthews finished with a YPRR (yards per route run) of 1.81—this put him right behind Alshon Jeffrey and Kelvin Benjamin. He also finished with the 23rd-most fantasy points per snap despite the fact that his aDOT (average depth of target) was only 9.4 yards—this put him well below the league average.
I reference his depth of target, because I believe that there’s a strong chance it will rise significantly in 2015. Although there was chatter in the media last offseason surrounding a shift to a more horizontal offense, Chip Kelly took even more vertical shots in 2014. Last season, Nick Foles and Mark Sanchez combined for 96 deep passes (passes that were charted traveling at least 20 yards in the air). The Eagles led the NFL in deep passes. The Colts (88) and the Steelers (79) were next on the list in deep pass attempts.
Matthews only saw 15 of the 96 deep shots while Jeremy Maclin saw 34 and Riley Cooper saw 21. This makes sense considering the fact that Matthews saw most of his work in the slot, but that doesn’t mean that it was the optimal outcome for the Eagles offense. Cooper dropped two of his seven deep targets deemed catchable and Matthews didn’t drop any of them.
2015 Way-Too-Early Outlook: Matthews has the size and straight-line speed to fit in at outside receiver in 2015 where he is likely to see more deep targets. Obviously, these deep shots lead to big plays and fantasy points in Kelly’s offense. Due to the dead money attached to his 2015 salary cap figure, Cooper is unlikely to be released this offseason. However, Kelly doesn’t strike me as a coach who will hesitate to bench someone based on salary. I could easily see a scenario where Josh Huff moves into the slot and Matthews kicks outside on base downs and in 11 personnel groupings. There’s also the fact that Maclin is an unrestricted free agent. If he signs with another team, that’s another 34 deep targets to go around. Matthews’ arrow is certainly pointing up.
Bryant entered the draft with a size and speed combination that you just can’t teach and he was paired up with a quarterback who can buy time and deliver the deep ball on target. Let’s not discredit his leaping ability (39-inch vertical) and explosion (124-inch broad jump) either. Bryant and his elite athleticism didn’t shine at Clemson, but he found his niche late in the 2014 season with the Steelers.
He finished with the third-most YPPR (2.75)—slotting him in an elite class just behind Demaryius Thomas and ahead of Odell Beckham Jr. He ran just 200 snaps in route, but turned his 48 targets into 549 receiving yards. He also bested all wide receivers in PPO (fantasy points per opportunity) and PPS (fantasy points per snap). 20 of his 48 total targets were deep passes and he turned seven catchable targets into seven receptions for 369 yards and four touchdowns.
2015 Way-Too-Early Outlook: 87 wide receivers ran more snaps in route than Bryant in 2014. His teammate, Markus Wheaton, ran 283 more snaps in route than Bryant. With another year of experience in Todd Haley’s offense, I expect the receivers to see their roles reverse. Even if the two players end up splitting snaps, Bryant should see almost 150 more snaps in 2015. Bryant is an ideal breakout candidate and someone you should target in all drafts at his current ADP.
Although his shine was shaded by the meteoric rise of Odell Beckham Jr., Rueben Randle showed more promise over 2014’s final two games than he had in his entire career with the Giants up until that point. Now I know what you’re thinking—it was just two games, right? Well just two games before these final two, Randle found himself in Coughlin’s doghouse and was even benched at one point. After the benching, Randle came back a focused man—even Beckham Jr. took notice. He finished those last two games with 12 catches for 290 yards and a touchdown.
But what I noticed specifically was how the evolution of the offense directly impacted Randle’s production. Just one week prior to his breakout, Manning admitted that he was still in the process of learning Ben McAdoo’s offense, but also that he felt like he may have made a breakthrough. Over those final two games, Manning was less hesitant to take the deep shot on post patterns and nine routes. Although Randle was knocked for his straight-line speed coming out of LSU, his skill set is much better suited for vertical routes rather than the underneath in-breaking routes that the Giants had used him for during the majority of the 2014 season. Randle is deceptive on his vertical stem and uses his big frame to shield the defender on contested deep passes. This is what led NFL Films guru Greg Cosell to heap praise on him back in 2012.
2015 Way-Too-Early Outlook: Victor Cruz is uncertain to regain full form after tearing up his knee, and GM Jerry Reese is not counting on him. Now that the Giants have a better idea of how to utilize Randle within McAdoo’s offense, he could be a post post-hype sleeper candidate. With defenses’ attention shifted toward Beckham Jr. Randle should have an opportunity to see a lot of one-on-one coverage on the outside. This is where he can win—as long as the Giants realize where he wins best.
Stills was not as wildly productive on a per snap basis as he was in 2013, but he still made the most of his opportunities. Stills finished with the 21st-most YPRR (2.03) and he didn’t see major snaps until Brandin Cooks was placed on injured reserve. He was targeted on just 14 deep passes, but he turned nine out of 10 catchable passes into 370 yards and two touchdowns. Stills didn’t score as many touchdowns as he did in 2013, but he set a new career high with 931 yards receiving and as we know, touchdowns tend to regress in both directions.
Following the injury to Cooks, Stills was asked to fill a new role within the offense. Drew Brees raved about how Stills had improved his route tree during training camp, and he was able to put it on display in 2014. He saw his aDOT drop from 17.1 in 2013 to 12.8 in 2014, and despite the drop in average depth of target, Stills scored .29 fantasy points per snap compared to just .19 in 2013.
2015 Way-Too-Early Outlook: The Saints are in a world of trouble from a salary cap standpoint. Marques Colston carries a heavy cap hit, and the Saints can clear a lot of cap space by releasing him. He has made it clear that he wants to remain a Saint, but it just doesn’t seem possible from a financial standpoint. If Colston leaves, Stills is another breakout candidate heading into his third season in the NFL.
Dan Schneier is a staff writer at PFF Fantasy but also writes about real football for FOX Sports. You can find him on Twitter @DanSchneierNFL. You can also add him to your network on Google+ to find all of his past material.