Tyreek Hill was drafted as the WR8 entering the 2022 season. That’s not crazy, there were five clear studs who were going in the first round, and nobody was taking Hill ahead of Kupp, Jefferson, Chase, Diggs or Adams in PPR, not after the move to Miami. But the other two names will surprise you. CeeDee Lamb isn’t a ridiculous option, he was drafted as the WR7, and finished as the WR6, so if anything that’s good value. But who was the other guy? The other stud we all grabbed early in the second round, before Tyreek and AJ Brown and those other WR1s? If you had him you know. I didn’t, but I have Google, it was Deebo Samuel. What were we thinking?
Today, we’re having a look back at the wide receivers who turned out to be sleepers (outperformed their ADP) and busts (underperformed their ADP) in the hope that we can learn something for next season. If you haven’t already, also check out my QB and RB articles posted in the last few weeks. For the sake of this article, I’m assuming PPR, with ADP using the FantasyPros consensus and final rankings based on points per game (PPG) from weeks 1 to 17. This is important as the aim of this article is to look for the underlying cause of positional finishes so that we can apply our knowledge next season. Injuries only get in the way of that analysis and PPG mitigates that issue.
Let’s start with the sleepers. We’re looking at players who provided significant return on investment by outperforming their ADP by a large margin. I’ve broken our sleepers into a few categories to help with our analysis:
Early round picks who boomed:
Tyreek Hill – WR3, drafted as WR8 (mid second round)
AJ Brown – WR7, drafted as WR11 (mid third round)
Amon-Ra St Brown – WR9, drafted as WR21 (late fifth round)
Jaylen Waddle – WR13, drafted as WR18 (late fourth round)
Chris Godwin – WR14, drafted as WR23 (early sixth round)
Amari Cooper – WR16, drafted as WR28 (late sixth round)
Mid-round picks who became every-week starters:
Devonta Smith – WR15, drafted as WR37 (late eighth round)
Tyler Lockett – WR19, drafted as WR38 (late eighth round)
Christian Kirk – WR22, drafted as WR39 (early ninth round)
Brandon Aiyuk – WR25, drafted as WR40 (early ninth round)
Chris Olave – WR28, drafted as WR44 (early tenth round)
Late-round gambles who paid off or surprise undrafted guys:
Jakobi Meyers – WR30, drafted as WR56 (late thirteenth round)
Zay Jones – WR31, undrafted
Garrett Wilson – WR32, drafted as WR53 (early twelfth round)
Christian Watson – WR39, undrafted
Curtis Samuel, WR41, undrafted
Rondale Moore, WR42, drafted as WR64 (early sixteenth round)
Jahan Dotson, WR43, drafted as WR62 (late fifteenth round)
Joshua Palmer, WR46, drafted as WR65 (late sixteenth round)
Now let’s look at what caused these sleepers to boom (or at least become feasible starters) and consider what these factors mean for 2023:
- A change is as good as a holiday
Players shifting teams so often find a new lease of life, especially when they’ve been given enough money to guarantee a serious role.
Here is every player given a $10 million+ deal in free-agency:
Christian Kirk (Sleeper), Zay Jones (Sleeper), Marquez Valdes-Scantling (Outperformed ADP), Juju Smith-Schuster (Outperformed ADP, even though it didn’t feel like it), DJ Chark (Injured), Allen Robinson (Bust).
And here’s every player involved in a big trade (involving at least a 4th round pick in value):
That’s right, five massive sleepers, four other ADP outperformers, an injured player who was productive when healthy and Allen Robinson. While Robinson is a serious negative, the other guys massively make up for him, showing the huge potential a big money signing or trade can have. Players changing teams often get dinged due to their uncertainty but that’s a value proposition you can take advantage of. It is worth mentioning that a few other players moved in smaller trades (Robert Woods and Devante Parker for example) but we’re talking about the teams giving up serious money or draft compensation. Look for value in these spots.
- A new play caller is just as good
If you can’t change teams, how about going to a new offensive scheme. Of our early- and mid-round sleepers, the majority moved to new offenses. In most cases this meant a new play-caller though Tyler Lockett and Amari Cooper also benefitted from a new quarterback. It’s no surprise that to drastically miss your ADP, there needs to be some variable and a change in the offense is the biggest opportunity to create that shift. Just remember that this can go both ways of course and plenty of our busts also had a change of play-caller or QB.
- Don’t be scared of the WR2
It’s instinctive to prefer one team’s WR1 over another team’s WR2 but not every team provides the same value to their pass-catchers. Sometimes a talented WR2 can still offer major value for a fraction of the price. Consider guys like Jaylen Waddle, Chris Godwin, Tyler Lockett, Brandon Aiyuk, Chris Olave, Zay Jones, Garrett Wilson, Rondale Moore, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Joshua Palmer. None of these players entered the season as their team’s leading pass-catcher (and in many cases they weren’t during the season either) but due to the effectiveness of their passing offense (or an injury) they often still provided great value for those who took the risk. Picking these players can often be tough but don’t be scared off just because your guy isn’t the top name on the team.
- Rookie receivers starting to pay off
Rookies are always hard to value and they can provide a wide range of outcomes. From 2013-2021, here’s what rookie receivers gave us:
Early 1st rounders: 7 outperformed ADP, 2 had accurate ADP, 8 underperformed ADP
Late 1st rounders: 5 outperformed ADP, 5 had accurate ADP, 6 underperformed ADP
Early 2nd rounders: 9 outperformed ADP, 6 had accurate ADP, 4 underperformed ADP
Note: It’s easy to outperform ADP when undrafted in fantasy, like 7 of the 2nd rounders.
So it’s a bit of a crap shoot. Some boomed massively, some were entirely useless. This year was a good crop though, and that shouldn’t shock anyone as we knew coming in this would be a good draft class for receivers. Three early-rounders were sleepers (Olave, Wilson and Dotson), one had an accurate ADP in London and Jameson Williams was never expected to play. The only late 1st rounder Treylon Burks was disappointing while the second rounders were a bit irrelevant with most undrafted, though Christian Watson and Wan’Dale Robinson provided some value at times. George Pickens was the main guy here, outperforming his ADP strongly, while Skyy Moore was the only true bust.
So what does this tell us? That sleepers always have big upside potential, but you’re taking a risk, so adjust value accordingly. Also keep in mind that the 2023 draft class is weak for wide receivers so you are likely better off avoiding them next year at least, unless great value presents itself.
Now it’s time to look at the guys who disappointed in 2022, the busts. Once again, we’ve broken them into a few categories as follows:
Early rounders who busted:
Mike Evans – WR17, drafted as WR9 (early third round)
Deebo Samuel – WR24, drafted as WR6 (early second round)
Michael Pittman – WR26, drafted as WR13 (late third round)
Terry McLaurin – WR27, drafted as WR15 (early fourth round)
DJ Moore – WR33, drafted as WR14 (mid fourth round)
Diontae Johnson – WR44, drafted as WR16 (mid fourth round)
Courtland Sutton – WR47, drafted as WR22 (mid fifth round)
Brandin Cooks – WR49, drafted as WR20 (mid fifth round)
Allen Robinson – WR67, drafted as WR26 (late fifth round)
Middle rounders who weren’t the reliable performers you expected:
Darnell Mooney – WR58, drafted as WR29 (late sixth round)
Adam Thielen – WR45, drafted as WR30 (early seventh round)
Hunter Renfrow – WR91, drafted as WR34 (late seventh round)
Robert Woods – WR84, drafted as WR41 (mid ninth round)
Chase Claypool – WR79, drafted as WR45 (early tenth round)
Upside gambles who found their downside:
Gabriel Davis – WR35, drafted as WR28 (mid sixth round)
Elijah Moore – WR97, drafted as WR35 (mid eighth round)
Rashod Bateman – WR60, drafted as WR36 (mid eighth round)
So what went wrong? Let’s look at some of the reasons these guys busted.
- The guy throwing the ball
Sometimes receivers just can’t overcome a poor quarterback and that was the case for a lot of our studs who underperformed. In particular, Michael Pittman, Terry McLaurin, DJ Moore, Diontae Johnson, Brandin Cooks, Darnell Mooney, Elijah Moore, Rashod Bateman, Robert Woods, Chase Claypool and Courtland Sutton all suffered from awful passing. That’s the majority of our busted receivers. That’s not to say great receivers can’t overcome mediocre quarterback play, just ask Amari Cooper, Amon-Ra St Brown and Chris Olave, but you need to be a very good, safe underneath target, or to have low initial expectations before that can pay off. Beware the mediocre QB.
- The fake-out (the fake break-out)
Gabriel Davis was immense in the play-offs, remember that 4TD, 201-yard performance? Of course you do! That got everybody salivating about what he could be in 2022. But boom games like that happen for deep threats and we shouldn’t over-react. After all, Davis had previously had two 100+ yard games over the two seasons prior and he had another two this year (including one in the playoffs). That’s who he is. Darnell Mooney is the same. He had four 120+ yard games in 2021 and no other games over 70 yards. That’s who he is. This year, unsurprisingly, he had one boom game and the rest weren’t over 70 yards. The same applies to Rashod Bateman, Chase Claypool and so on and so forth. Some players just get briefly hot and that’s it.
- Too much competition
The most popular food in my area was for a while the local McDonalds. It was always packed! Then they opened a Taco Bell and a KFC across the road with a new strip mall a few stores down and suddenly the McDonalds was barely in business. Competition can kill.
The same applies for receivers. They need volume and if a team brings in the new hotness, you could be in trouble. Take Hunter Renfrow for example. The WR13 in 2021, he suddenly had Davante Adams to worry about. The volume he so badly needed was gone and so was his fantasy value. Deebo Samuel had the same issue, with Christian McCaffrey, a healthy George Kittle and an un-doghoused Brandon Aiyuk all there to steal his opportunities. Terry McLaurin copped Curtis Samuel and Jahan Dotson, Elijah Moore got the Garrett Wilson treatment, the list goes on. Beware the arrival of solid (or especially elite) target competition).
- The big career drop-off
It’s easy for fantasy experts to rank players high because they’ve always performed in the past. But eventually, that drop-off occurs. Take Brandin Cooks for example. Six 1000+ yard seasons to his name and the clear WR1 on his team with a second-year QB who was productive (if unexciting) as a rookie. A recipe for fantasy gold right? Well no, he was the WR49. Adam Thielen also fell off the cliff he had built on massive touchdown counts, with his unsustainable double digit TD run finally ending. Allen Robinson, Julio Jones and Robert Woods are other household names who finally hit that wall. Can they bounce back? Maybe, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
Fantasy football is tough, there’s so many unpredictable metrics that can’t be anticipated or controlled. But we can at least consider these possibilities when drafting players. Check out my rankings at ffdfantasyfootball.com or if you have any thoughts or questions, you can find me @thefantasyfirstdown on Instagram (where I answer all questions) and @fantasyfirstdwn on Twitter. In two weeks, we’ll be looking a WR sleepers and busts from 2022.