Searching Rookie Wide Receivers for Upside

Justin Jefferson
Justin Jefferson
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

Even in years when preseason practices and games aren't disrupted by a global pandemic, rookie wide receivers tend to underperform in fantasy. Unlike their rushing counterparts, who have to make the same decisions in the NFL that they did in college (although frequently with smaller holes to run through), receivers have to master a tree of routes and the reads and audibles that adjust them before they can reach their professional potential. Just look at today's best receivers. Michael Thomas enjoyed a seamless transition, but no other member of last year's top 12 in PPR formats came close to that benchmark in his rookie season. And even some of the most obviously talented of that list, such as DeAndre Hopkins and DeVante Parker, struggled or failed to crack the top 50 at the position in their freshmen seasons.

Top 2019 Fantasy Wide Receivers in their Rookie Seasons
Rk Player Team Pts Rookie Year Rookie Pts Rookie Rk
1 Michael Thomas NO 374.6 2016 257.7 7
2 Chris Godwin TB 276.1 2017 92.5 71
3 Julio Jones ATL 274.1 2011 202.5 20
4 Cooper Kupp LAR 270.5 2017 179.2 25
5 DeAndre Hopkins HOU 268.5 2013 143.2 48
6 Keenan Allen LAC 261.5 2013 223.3 18
7 Julian Edelman NE 256.3 2009 78.4 80
8 Allen Robinson CHI 254.9 2014 114.8 68
9 Kenny Golladay DET 248.0 2017 94.6 69
10 Amari Cooper DAL 246.5 2015 214.9 22
11 DeVante Parker MIA 246.2 2015 93.4 79
12 Jarvis Landry CLE 237.4 2014 188.6 30

I expect that trend to continue this season. Playmaker Score and the draft agree that CeeDee Lamb and Jerry Jeudy are on the shortlist of best receiver prospects in a deep 2020 class. But with landing spots that pit them against prolific veteran receivers in Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and Courtland Sutton, Lamb and Jeudy may take longer to reach their potentially higher heights than their talent on its own would suggest.

From one perspective, our KUBIAK projections balance those talent and role considerations for you. If you prefer to keep things simple, simply fire up the web app, input your league's size and scoring rules, and draft in order of the customized rankings it produces to fit your league. However, it might make more sense to treat the rookie receivers as lottery tickets that likely won't help you but could win you a championship if things broke best for them. And KUBIAK can't convey their chances of that in single numbers of projected points scored.

That said, I think KUBIAK can provide that information in one of its components, repurposed to look for short-term upside. I explained in a previous article that KUBIAK estimates each running back's weekly increase or decrease in projected touches based on his growth rate and those of his teammates. Well, receivers have growth rates as well. Theirs don't factor in a proximity to "ideal" size -- I don't think one exists for receivers like it does for running backs in fantasy -- but they similarly combine recent historical usage and efficiency with player prospect-iness to estimate a receiver's chances to boost his target share. KUBIAK already uses those growth rates to gradually change rookie receiver involvement in their offenses over the course of the season. But pulled out and compared in a ratio to the combined rates of his wide receiver and tight end teammates, growth rates should approximate each rookie receiver's breakout chances.

Rookie Wide Receivers with the Highest Growth Ratios, 2020
Player Team Wk 1 ProjTgt% Growth Pts Teammate Pts Growth Ratio
Michael Pittman IND 16.0% 7.0 30.2 23.2%
Justin Jefferson MIN 13.6% 6.9 38.2 18.1%
Chase Claypool PIT 3.5% 7.3 40.4 18.1%
Henry Ruggs LV 17.3% 8.0 48.0 16.7%
Jalen Reagor PHI 0.0% 7.6 45.6 16.7%
Brandon Aiyuk SF 17.6% 7.4 45.1 16.4%
Tee Higgins CIN 10.5% 6.5 40.8 15.9%
Denzel Mims NYJ 14.7% 6.6 47.1 14.0%
CeeDee Lamb DAL 15.9% 7.7 55.3 13.9%
Van Jefferson LAR 4.1% 5.6 42.0 13.3%
Antonio Gandy-Golden WAS 14.0% 5.0 37.8 13.2%
Jerry Jeudy DEN 17.7% 7.7 59.4 13.0%
Laviska Shenault JAX 5.6% 6.3 48.8 12.9%
Devin Duvernay BAL 8.2% 5.5 45.6 12.1%
Bryan Edwards LV 9.9% 5.5 50.5 10.9%
Gabriel Davis BUF 2.5% 5.0 45.9 10.9%
KJ Hamler DEN 9.9% 5.5 61.6 8.9%

Michael Pittman, Indianapolis Colts

I was surprised to see Pittman so clearly at the top of this perspective because he so clearly is not the Colts' No. 1 receiver. T.Y. Hilton has that job as long as he's healthy, and I expect an excellent season from him with his new quarterback Philip Rivers.

That said, Pittman is on track to start on the outside opposite Hilton and with Parris Campbell in the slot. And he offers the size (6-foot-4 and 223 pounds) to make him the red zone weapon that Hilton and Campbell are less likely to be. The easy comparison is to Rivers' former big target Mike Williams. And while Williams did little in an injury-affected rookie season, he scored 10 touchdowns with Rivers as a redshirt freshman in 2018. KUBIAK doesn't project any receiver to reach that touchdown total in his average-case 2020 season, but Pittman does pace his rookie class with 4.5 projected scores.

Justin Jefferson, Minnesota Vikings

I expected Jefferson to be the featured player in this article, and the silver medal isn't too bad. His reputation may not, but Playmaker Score and draft order put him in the company of rookies like Lamb, Jeudy, and Henry Ruggs. And Jefferson has a much easier path to immediate success than at least the former two. Stefon Diggs vacated 94 targets in his move to Buffalo, and sophomore tight end Irv Smith and fellow rookie but fifth-rounder K.J. Osborn are the only other obvious candidates on the Vikings to dramatically overachieve their projections this season.

Smith may be Jefferson's biggest obstacle since his addition motivated the team's bump to a 56% reliance on two-tight end formations in 2019, the second-highest rate in football. The Vikings may leave the slot man Jefferson on the sideline when they play Smith and Kyle Rudolph at the same time this season. Still, Jefferson is already working with the first team in practices. And despite the target share shortfall we project for him (13.6%) relative to Lamb (15.9%) and Jeudy (17.7%) to start the season, lesser team competition pushes Jefferson's full-season PPR projections to similar heights.

Chase Claypool, Pittsburgh Steelers

Claypool is unlikely to start in the early weeks this season with veterans JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, and James Washington staking claim to the three receiver spots in the Steelers' 11 personnel. However, Claypool has better breakout potential than one might assume. He will have a chance at a mulligan with a healthy Ben Roethlisberger, but Smith-Schuster has so far failed to excel out wide the way he did from the slot in his rookie season (59.3% DVOA) when Antonio Brown drew the bulk of the defensive attention. And if Smith-Schuster truly is a slot receiver, he may be more redundant with Johnson (5-foot-10 and 183 pounds with a 10.0-yard rookie aDOT) than Claypool (6-foot-4 and 238 pounds). Despite their depth in the slot with Ryan Switzer and at tight end with Eric Ebron and Vance McDonald, the Steelers have little beyond Claypool to fill in outside. Injuries have likely sabotaged Deon Cain's career prospects -- he has just nine catches in his two professional seasons -- and yet that somehow paces Pittsburgh's wide backups that otherwise include third-round bust Amara Darboh (eight), undrafted junior Saeed Blacknall, XFL standout DeAndre Thompkins, and special teams contributor Ray-Ray McCloud.

Henry Ruggs, Las Vegas Raiders

Just a few days ago, I was giving Ruggs the same competition considerations as I am currently to Lamb and Jeudy. The Tyrell Williams injury should make it easier for Ruggs to make an immediate impact. That said, I don't buy the buzz that Ruggs is going to start in the slot this season. Then-rookie Hunter Renfrow exceled in 2019 with a 9.6% DVOA from the slot on a league-leading 99% slot target rate, and he doesn't have the speed to play on the outside the way that Ruggs does. A likely outside role creates a bit of a playing time logjam for Ruggs with promising players such as Bryan Edwards, Nelson Agholor, and Zay Jones (their words, not mine) in the mix for targets. And that doesn't even mention the team's tight end triumvirate of Darren Waller, Jason Witten, and Foster Moreau (29.6% DVOA in 2019), which may be the best in the league.

Jalen Reagor, Philadelphia Eagles

Reagor was in much better shape to hit his ceiling before a shoulder injury knocked him out for the next month. That would disrupt any rookie's chance to have success in his freshman season, but it might be particularly damaging for Reagor given that he is in a competition for playing time with other young receivers in J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, John Hightower, and Quez Watkins, all of whom are practicing well. Alshon Jeffery may beat Reagor back to the field. And the Eagles will likely have fewer spots for receivers than many teams, assuming they continue to run with two-tight end sets more than any other team in football (57% of the time in 2019).

Brandon Aiyuk, San Francisco 49ers

Aiyuk was poised to land on the other side of the injury spectrum with Deebo Samuel set to miss a few weeks at the start of the season. But now, Samuel is sprinting at full speed, and Aiyuk is missing practices with an apparent hamstring strain. Even without Jalen Hurd, the 49ers are flush with capable backup receivers including Trent Taylor and Dante Pettis. If we learn that Aiyuk will miss the start of the season himself, I suggest you look elsewhere for your rookie lottery tickets.

Tee Higgins, Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals are poised to make dramatic offensive improvements from their No. 29 DVOA version from last season with No. 1 pick Joe Burrow under center. That transition would figure to offer Higgins tremendous upside this season, and he may well have that if his often-injured skills comp A.J. Green misses more time. But as for now, Green and John Ross are healthy and the likely outside starters with Tyler Boyd in the slot. Unlike his division rival Claypool, whom I believe could play his way into the 2020 lineup, Higgins would seem to need a teammate to falter to make him more than a rotational player. And he may not even be the first choice for such a substitution in the early season. Higgins has had a slow start to his camp with a hamstring injury.

Denzel Mims, New York Jets

The Jets don't have nearly the same obvious receiver talent as the Steelers or Bengals, but tight end Chris Herndon offers them a volume upside at tight end that those other teams don't have. Herndon was historically efficient with 12.9 yards per catch as a rookie in 2018 but missed pretty much all of last season with hamstring and chest injuries. With Breshad Perriman (if healthy) and slot receiver Jamison Crowder poised to see heavy target shares at wide receiver, Mims may not have much left even if he cracks their lineup as the second outside receiver. And that is not a given with Mims himself missing most of August with a hamstring injury.

CeeDee Lamb, Dallas Cowboys

Lamb is the most obvious rookie potential victim of the talent around him, and that isn't just because of the Cowboys' top two wideouts Cooper and Gallup. Tight end Blake Jarwin was a positional leader with a 12.1% DVOA last season and could seamlessly replace the departed Witten. Running back Ezekiel Elliott has caught 50-plus balls in back-to-back seasons, and his backup Tony Pollard suggested receiving upside with his standout rookie 25.7% broken tackle rate. By all accounts, Lamb has so far lived up to expectations, and I expect him to be the best receiver in this class in time. That simply may not come all at once this season with so many other talented players around him.

Van Jefferson, Los Angeles Rams

Rams beat reporter Jourdan Rodrigue seems to believe that Jefferson has already passed incumbent Josh Reynolds for target consideration. That makes sense given that Reynolds has barely bested the replacement level with 16 career DYAR. Still, the Rams enjoyed an unexpected breakout from fourth-year tight end Tyler Higbee late last season. His renaissance could motivate an increased reliance on two-tight end formations, which could limit Jefferson even if Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp are the only wide receivers in front of him.

Antonio Gandy-Golden, Washington Football Team

Gandy-Golden is the most obvious injury replacement for Kelvin Harmon, set to miss his entire sophomore season with an ACL tear. Intuitively, that would make him one of the best candidates for this exercise. But Gandy-Golden suffers because of his draft status. As a fourth-round selection, he was the 17th player at his position selected and likely isn't on the same talent level as the Round 1 players. History suggests he is unlikely to excel immediately as a rookie. And subjectively, I'm enamored with undrafted second-year receiver Steven Sims. For me, he's the better Washington breakout candidate this year.

Jerry Jeudy, Denver Broncos

Jeudy may prove to be the best receiver in this class, but he sneakily has a tougher road to immediate success than even Lamb in Dallas. The Broncos have just Sutton as an established passing target, but they followed their Jeudy pick with a second-round selection of slot receiver KJ Hamler. Tight end Noah Fant enjoyed a similarly prolific (66 targets) and efficient (14.1 yards per catch) rookie season as Herndon and doesn't have the same apparent injury risk. Fourth-rounder Albert Okwuegbunam is unlikely to follow in those footsteps, but the team could feature the 6-foot-5, 258-pound tight end in the red zone. Even free-agent running back addition Melvin Gordon has a consistent track record of 40-plus-catch seasons. KUBIAK offers Jeudy a narrow Week 1 target share lead over the rest of his class of rookie receivers, but teammate competition may disqualify him from providing fantasy value since he is among the highest drafted rookie receivers in ADP.


16 comments, Last at 07 Sep 2020, 10:57am

#1 by Aaron Brooks G… // Sep 03, 2020 - 12:20pm

Unlike their rushing counterparts, who have to make the same decisions in the NFL that they did in college (although frequently with smaller holes to run through), receivers have to master a tree of routes and the reads and audibles that adjust them before they can reach their professional potential.

I enjoy the implicit argument that running backs are just better at their jobs in the amateur ranks than WRs and QBs are.

Points: 0

#3 by Scott Spratt // Sep 03, 2020 - 1:06pm

It isn't that they're better, it's just that running backs have more similar jobs between college and the pros than wide receivers and especially quarterbacks and tight ends.  I don't think that's a controversial statement.

Points: 0

#5 by Aaron Brooks G… // Sep 03, 2020 - 1:59pm

In reply to by Scott Spratt

The argument is that college receivers don't know how to run route trees. That's like saying college RBs can't read holes.

Now, there is an argument that college RBs are bad at pass-protect. But knowing what the route tree is seems like a pretty basic element of the WR job. It shouldn't be a foreign language.

Points: 0

#6 by Scott P. // Sep 03, 2020 - 4:05pm

Apart from often learning a completely new playcalling system, the following article explains the difficulties WRs have in transitioning from college to the pros:

Points: 0

#7 by Aaron Brooks G… // Sep 03, 2020 - 5:27pm

Interesting article. It does illustrate the simple basis of Belichick embracing the spread offense his drafted players were playing anyway.

Also: oof, some of those predictions did not age well.

Points: 0

#12 by Joseph // Sep 04, 2020 - 11:13am

Ultimately, I think that it comes down to nuances, since the same is true for QB's. There are many positions where NFL players on average are not very successful in their first year. RB's seem to be the exception to that rule, except in pass protection--because of the nuances of blitz schemes, etc.

Without a lot of RB knowledge, my opinion is that: 1--taking the handoff/pitch is the same at every level, and the defense has no way to realistically stop a RB from getting it (unlike covering a WR). 2--some types of running plays do not require a lot of reads other than "run to daylight" or "hit the hole"--again, pretty much the same at every level. 3--All NFL players have talent--so those who succeed immediately usually fit two categories: either they are great, or they are in a great scheme that they are familiar with or that fits their abilities to a T. Since defenses can't defend the handoff like they can the pass/receiver, the RB can showcase his talents immediately--whereas other positions have to learn the nuances of the pro game to be able to showcase theirs.


Points: 0

#2 by andrew // Sep 03, 2020 - 12:37pm

Stefon Diggs vacated 94 targets in his move to Buffalo, and sophomore tight end Irv Smith and fellow rookie but fifth-rounder K.J. Osborn are the only other obvious candidates on the Vikings

I would kind of think a non injured Thielen would be the most obvious target to fill that void.

That aside reports are Jefferson was unable to beat out Olabisi Johnson for the #2 wr spot.

Points: 0

#4 by Scott Spratt // Sep 03, 2020 - 1:09pm

I don't think Johnson and Jefferson are competing for the same targets with Jefferson a logical fit for a slot role.

Points: 0

#8 by andrew // Sep 03, 2020 - 5:32pm

but Thielen works best from the slot.

Points: 0

#9 by Scott Spratt // Sep 03, 2020 - 5:42pm

You're right that Thielen has tended to line up from the slot on more than 50% of his snaps, but he had 27.1% DVOA out wide in 2017 and 11.6% DVOA out wide in 2018.  I suspect the Vikings plan to move him outside to get their best talent on the field together.  At least some of the time.

Points: 0

#10 by ChrisLong // Sep 03, 2020 - 6:21pm

Legitimate question: how often do a player's tendencies actually reflect the efficiency of that tendency? There's a certain level of confounding/endogeneity in how a particular player is used.

I wonder if instead of looking at only Thielen's target out of slot and his DVOA when targeted of out slot, instead we look at the offense's DVOA overall when Thielen lines up in slot, we might get a better idea of how their usage of him might look moving forward.

Points: 0

#11 by Scott Spratt // Sep 04, 2020 - 10:01am

I think it's a great question.  Right now, it's difficult for us to answer those questions because of limitations with our data and its organization, but we're moving toward a place where we can run all kinds of interesting splits like that.  So hopefully we'll be able to answer that and similar questions pretty easily soon.

Points: 0

#13 by ALauff // Sep 04, 2020 - 12:51pm

Was doing some research for my fantasy draft next week, and I noticed an odd tidbit about the Cowboys' two incumbent starting receivers: neither was targeted especially often within the opposition's 10-yard line, so essentially into or very close to the end zone. Gallup and Cooper combined for just 5 such targets, or 25% of the team's total (for comparison, Golladay tied Kelce for the most with 13 such targets; it's part of the reason why he was able to rank within the top-10 WRs despite relatively modest overall team target share). We know that EZ targets are the single-most-valuable kind of target for receivers, on a point-per-touch basis, along with vertical throws of 20+ yards. Given these facts, along with McCarthy's longstanding use of 11 personnel as his dominant set, I think Lamb has top-20 upside this year. I don't see why he couldn't push for an 18%-20% target share. Keep in mind, Gallup actually had the highest team share (21%) over Cooper (19.9%). In my mind, Cooper is being overdrafted, and Gallup and Lamb under-drafted. (There are also persistent whispers of a mystery Cooper injury.) This is assuming Lamb adjusts to all the rookie complications you cite, but all indications have been positive.       

Points: 0

#14 by Dunleavy // Sep 05, 2020 - 11:57am

IMHO there’s no comments on the player who is going to lead all rookies in yards from scrimmage and TDs 

Points: 0

#15 by speedegg // Sep 05, 2020 - 2:16pm

Dammit! Dammit all to heck!

I noticed using Kubiak + mock drafting apps that Pittman projects really well for a rookie WR. Also, Jefferson while he projects low, has potential due to Playmaker Score and Diggs leaving. And I was hoping someone would foolishly draft Jeudy high, he projects well, but there's a lot of talent around him and questions at quarterback. 

I guess I need to encourage people to drink (heavily) right before the draft. 

But great article and helps with my draft strategy and some thoughts.

Points: 0

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