Moore, Palmer, St. Brown Top Rookie Sleeper WRs

Arizona Cardinals WR Rondale Moore
Arizona Cardinals WR Rondale Moore
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

Rookie receivers have entered the league in recent years readier than ever to contribute early, but it's not always as easy as following the NFL draft order to find the best fantasy sleepers. Last year, most analysts agreed that Henry Ruggs, Jerry Jeudy, and CeeDee Lamb were the best receiver prospects in some order. But they landed in target logjams in Las Vegas, Denver, and Dallas that likely limited their fantasy potential. In contrast, Justin Jefferson and Chase Claypool found two of the three best situations for immediate production, and they ended the year as tremendous values as the sixth and 23rd scoring receivers in PPR formats.

This year, things should be easier for fantasy players. Following the same exercise I did last year, top picks Ja'Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle, and DeVonta Smith have three of the four easiest paths to immediate fantasy success. But their good fortunes do not preclude their later-drafted classmates from striking gold. Growth ratios identify a handful of rookie receiver sleepers that you can select at the end of even your deeper fantasy drafts.

As a reminder, a player's growth ratio is a fraction of his growth points and the cumulative total of those of his receiver teammates. Growth points are what KUBIAK uses to project changes in player target shares throughout the season. They estimate player potential based on recent usage, projected efficiency, and prospect-iness as judged by draft status and NFL experience. KUBIAK does that work behind the scenes to produce projections and rankings for players that reflect our expectations for what is likeliest to happen this season. The growth ratio is a way to hedge in case those average expectations prove incorrect. It is a proxy for breakout potential.

Rookie Wide Receivers with the Highest Growth Ratios, 2021
Player Team Wk 1 ProjTgt% Growth Pts Teammate Pts Growth Ratio
Ja'Marr Chase CIN 20.1% 9.0 42.0 21.4%
Rashod Bateman BAL 0.0% 8.1 47.7 17.0%
DeVonta Smith PHI 20.0% 8.0 50.6 15.8%
Jaylen Waddle MIA 18.3% 10.4 66.8 15.6%
Rondale Moore ARI 13.3% 5.7 37.2 15.3%
Kadarius Toney NYG 7.6% 7.7 52.6 14.6%
Josh Palmer LAC 7.0% 6.5 47.3 13.7%
Amon-Ra St. Brown DET 11.5% 5.2 38.4 13.5%
D'Wayne Eskridge SEA 5.5% 6.7 51.7 13.0%
Terrace Marshall Jr. CAR 13.6% 6.8 53.3 12.8%
Elijah Moore NYJ 17.6% 6.7 53.2 12.6%
Nico Collins HOU 12.4% 5.9 49.7 11.9%
Tutu Atwell LAR 2.0% 6.4 57.7 11.1%
Dez Fitzpatrick TEN 0.0% 5.9 53.6 11.0%
Tylan Wallace BAL 11.7% 5.3 50.5 10.5%
Dyami Brown WAS 3.5% 5.9 56.4 10.5%
Amari Rodgers GB 3.0% 6.0 60.0 10.0%
Anthony Schwartz CLE 0.0% 5.8 64.6 9.0%
Jaelon Darden TB 0.0% 4.3 48.2 8.9%

Ja'Marr Chase, Cincinnati Bengals

Reporters had tepid reviews of Chase's start to training camp. And since he sat out all of his 2020 season at LSU, I was compelled to lower our bullish initial projection of his Week 1 target share to a 20.1% rate. While still the highest of all rookie receivers, that is close to our projections for the other top rookies and well short of the leading veteran targets across the league.

Since then, Jay Morrison of The Athletic reported that both Chase and his quarterback and former LSU teammate Joe Burrow have turned a corner, the latter in his recovery from a torn ACL that prematurely ended his rookie season. I think it's fair to assume a modest start to Chase's rookie season and then a steeper improvement than those of his rookie classmates. That's what KUBIAK projects, but that also undersells Chase's ceiling as a top-five wideout, the league's first since 2017. It would not be shocking for Chase to shoot past his also-promising teammate Tee Higgins and assert himself as a No. 1 receiver.

Rashod Bateman, Baltimore Ravens

If I told that a team with a recent MVP-winning quarterback drafted a new No. 1 receiver in the first round, you would likely be excited for that wideout's short-term fantasy prospects. Bateman doesn't spark that blanket optimism for three reasons. First, he played in a college offense at Minnesota that did little to highlight his talent. Second, his new MVP quarterback is Lamar Jackson, who so far in his career has contributed more to his team's success as a runner than as a passer. And third, Bateman just had core-muscle surgery and may not return to the field before October. I can't help you with the latter point other than to say that his rookie teammate Tylan Wallace could benefit at the start of the season. But for the former points, Bateman may provide the size and skills at the release point to offer Jackson his first prototypical outside receiver star. Marquise Brown has exceptional deep speed, but his difficulties against press coverage may have as much to do with Jackson's tunnel vision in the middle of the field as the quarterback's limitations as a passer.

DeVonta Smith, Philadelphia Eagles

Smith has dealt with his own preseason injury, an MCL sprain, but that should not keep him out of the regular-season opener and has not dampened our Week 1 projection for his target share. No, the modesty of that latter projection reflects an expectation that the Eagles could be conservative with their rookie's initial target volume, both because of his lack of size and because the team has veteran receiving options in Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert even if they aren't specifically wide receivers. But Smith has always been more than the sum of his parts. If he translates to a league with bigger and faster defenders, then he has few obstacles between him and a No. 1 role on his team.

Jaylen Waddle, Miami Dolphins

Waddle has more name-brand teammates than the rookies in front of him in Will Fuller, DeVante Parker, and Mike Gesicki. But unless you believe the preseason reports that Albert Wilson has returned from his opt-out season with an eye on a starting role with the team, the Dolphins have little in the way of promising depth to slow-start his career. None of Mack Hollins, Jakeem Grant, Preston Williams, Lynn Bowden, Isaiah Ford, Robert Foster, or Kirk Merritt was a first- or second-round draft pick, and none has exceeded 60 targets in his peak target season.

Rondale Moore, Arizona Cardinals

I opened OTAs with pessimism for Moore because of a fear that Larry Fitzgerald could return to the Cardinals for another season. Cryptic Fitzgerald Sr. tweets aside, I do not expect that to happen this late in the preseason. (The younger Fitzgerald has also indicated that no return is imminent.) And that makes a tremendous opportunity for Moore to contribute early from the slot. Fitzgerald led receivers with 50 or more targets with a 96% slot rate in 2020. DeAndre Hopkins (29%), Christian Kirk (26%), and A.J. Green (24%) were three of just eight such receivers with a slot rate below 30%. Meanwhile, Moore has impressed in camp and saw a heavy volume of five touches on just 23 snaps in his first preseason game.

Kadarius Toney, New York Giants

Toney is difficult to recommend in redraft formats. I opened the offseason skeptical because of his unusual college trajectory—he had just 50 catches in his first three seasons at Florida before catching 70 in his breakout senior year. Since then, he has skipped OTAs because of a contract dispute, missed the start of camp because of a positive COVID test, and sat out the Giants' first preseason game because of a mysterious injury.. That said, Toney is another Kenny Golladay hamstring injury—which may already have happened—away from fighting for targets with Sterling Shepard, Darius Slayton, and John Ross, players with skill sets that complement rather than replace a true No. 1 receiver.

Josh Palmer, Los Angeles Chargers

As a third-round pick with a lesser Playmaker Score, Palmer was off my fantasy radar before he paced the Chargers with six receptions in Week 1 of the preseason with normal starters Keenan Allen and Mike Williams on the sidelines. Williams has struggled to stay on the field in his first four seasons and may not be in the team's long-term plans. Meanwhile, veteran backups Jalen Guyton and Tyron Johnson may do their best work as field-stretchers. Palmer is bigger at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds and perhaps could handle a broader route tree. For me, that makes him an enticing sleeper pick with Justin Herbert having a chance to join the elite class of quarterbacks in his second season.

Amon-Ra St. Brown, Detroit Lions

St. Brown was the rookie receiver I had in mind when I started this exercise. And while he lacks the same first-round pedigree as last year's featured rookie, Justin Jefferson, St. Brown is just as easy to envision as his team's top wide receiver. Presumed outside starters Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman played just 12 games between them because of shoulder and ankle injuries in 2020. And at 29 and 27 years old and on modest one-year contracts, neither veteran seems like more than a Lions placeholder. St. Brown isn't a perfect skill set comp for Cooper Kupp, but he has the versatility to play from the slot, where Kupp contributed 869 yards and five touchdowns as a rookie with Jared Goff under center. That makes him unique among Detroit's top receiver candidates. Frankly, I'm a little surprised he isn't higher on the list. But it is worth considering that the Lions have unusual receiving talent in D'Andre Swift and T.J. Hockenson at running back and tight end. The team's wide receivers will likely see fewer targets because of it.

D'Wayne Eskridge, Seattle Seahawks

Eskridge has spent most of his preseason on the PUP list and has understandably tumbled from fantasy consideration. Now that he's healthy, I would reconsider. He was a major Playmaker Score sleeper and a second-round draft pick, and he has the best passing quarterback of anyone on this list so far barring jumps from sophomores Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert. DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett are formidable veterans to try to fight for targets, but Lockett is likely older than you expect, on the verge of his 29th birthday in September, and the Seahawks have little depth behind their top three wideouts. Freddie Swain is the next-most accomplished veteran wideout on the team, and he's a former sixth-rounder with 12 career catches.

Terrace Marshall Jr., Carolina Panthers

It's tempting to assign departed free agent Curtis Samuel's 97 vacated targets to the second-rounder Marshall. I won't deny that ceiling, but Marshall has better competition than the receiver he is replacing, even if his top two receiver teammates, Robby Anderson and DJ Moore, are the same. Slot receiver David Moore averaged 50 targets in his two healthy seasons with the Seahawks and is a sleeper for more since new Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer made a point of bringing him from his old team to his new one. Tight end Dan Arnold has been efficient on a small volume at his former stops in Arizona and New Orleans. Midround rookie Tommy Tremble has George Kittle testing results even if he rarely caught passes as primarily a blocker at Notre Dame. And Christian McCaffrey accounted for more than 100 catches in each of 2018 and 2019 before myriad injuries limited him to three games last season. For me, Marshall is the first player on this list whose excitement seems likely to outpace his chances at meaningful fantasy production as a rookie.

Elijah Moore, New York Jets

Sam Darnold would likely scoff at growth points suggesting that the Panthers and Jets have similar skill talent competing with their rookie receiver for targets, but the sad truth for Darnold is the Jets were never as well positioned to support him as they are their new rookie Zach Wilson. Corey Davis may have fallen short of the expectations of his top-five draft selection, but he is a professional receiver coming off a 92-target season. Denzel Mims is a second-round sophomore with a lot of promise, even if a bout of food poisoning put him behind the eight ball this preseason. Jamison Crowder was underqualified as a No. 1 receiver, but he would be a compelling third target and plays in the slot where the 5-foot-9, 184-pound Moore makes the most sense. Even Keelan Cole and Braxton Berrios could have roles in the offense. Moore should eventually pass all of his teammates for a No. 1 role, and we have him starting with the fourth-biggest Week 1 target share of his class. But his road may be a bit more difficult than one would expect for a rebuilding Jets team, especially after he injured his quad last week and lost a lot of important practice time.

Nico Collins, Houston Texans

The Texans have descended into punchline status, and I suspect that will overwhelm the fantasy impulse one might have to draft Collins as a sleeper on the theory that someone will have to catch passes for the team. That's probably for the best. Deshaun Watson may have been capable of turning Keke Coutee and Chad Hansen into flex options, but Tyrod Taylor and Davis Mills will likely have a more difficult time. Anthony Miller could miss multiple months if not the full season after dislocating his shoulder, but the Texans also added some unsexy pass-catching veterans such as Chris Conley and Rex Burkhead to pair with No. 1 option Brandin Cooks and make a competition of things for the rookie receiver.

Tutu Atwell, Los Angeles Rams

Atwell seems unlikely to have had rookie breakout potential no matter his landing spot, unless he added significant weight to his 165-pound frame. And the Rams should be one of the harder starting lineups to crack with capable veterans such as Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, and Tyler Higbee and a prospect ahead of Atwell in his development in Van Jefferson. That said, the player directly between Atwell and a role as a deep specialist is DeSean Jackson, who has played 16 games just twice in his career and most recently in 2013. Atwell could make sense as a deeper best-ball fantasy pick.

Dez Fitzpatrick, Tennessee Titans

After his draft selection, Fitzpatrick looked like he had the easiest path to immediate playing time since he had so little competition for a top-three receiver job in Tennessee. The Julio Jones trade changed that in a major way. And then, more quietly. Marcus Johnson and Anthony Firkser have exceled in camp to push for some of the targets vacated by departing free agents Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith. Fitzpatrick himself has done little to stem the tide pushing against him. At this point, he makes little sense as a redraft selection.

Dyami Brown, Washington Football Team

Washington was desperate for a receiving prospect of Brown's caliber last season after expected starter Kelvin Harmon tore his ACL, leaving the likes of Cam Sims, Steven Sims, and Day 3 rookie Antonio Gandy-Golden to compete for the team's No. 2 receiver role. Things have changed dramatically in the last year. First, converted quarterback Logan Thomas transformed into one of the game's best pass-catching tight ends. Then Antonio Gibson outperformed his third-round draft status to become part of one of the best receiving running back tandems in the game with teammate J.D. McKissic. Finally, this offseason the Football Team added a free agent receiver in Curtis Samuel with experience from Carolina with current Washington offensive coordinator Scott Turner. Now the third-rounder Brown can come along slowly, perhaps contributing first as a deep specialist before he develops into a more complete receiver a year or two into his career. Unlike his predecessors in Washington, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is willing and able to throw deep; perhaps he can accelerate things. Still, Brown seems like a better choice for dynasty formats than redraft ones.

Amari Rodgers, Green Bay Packers

Lost in the noise of Aaron Rodgers' trade demands, the receiver Rodgers looked like an incredible fantasy sleeper before the Packers placated their quarterback with a trade for veteran Randall Cobb, likely to play in the slot ahead of the rookie. But even those pre-Cobb dreams may have been optimistic. None of the receivers behind Davante Adams has been a fantasy success, but most of them have been efficient contributors. Allen Lazard (28.3% DVOA) and Marquez Valdes-Scantling (8.5%) had top-30 DVOAs among wideouts with 45 or more targets last season. Meanwhile, Aaron Jones and Robert Tonyan picked up any wide receiver slack with their outsized contributions from the running back and tight end positions. Now it is difficult to imagine a path to first-year fantasy success for Rodgers that does not involve multiple injuries ahead of him.


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