Wide receivers are fun. There are big-name, consistent headliners at the top, steady and reliable value picks in the middle rounds, and, of course, uber-talented, intoxicating sleepers toward the end of drafts. With such a deep pool of talent relative to other positions, it’s important to pinpoint the receivers who have the upside to crush their ADP.
Why the Middle Rounds Matter Most
Grabbing a wide receiver in the first two rounds is tempting. While others snag low-end RB1s, you can have the cream of the crop at wide receiver. Instead of taking pass-catching extraordinaire Austin Ekeler, you can be a part of the Aaron-Rodgers-revenge-tour by drafting Davante Adams. Why take the 8th-best running back when you can have the best wide receiver? Or the 12th-best running back when you can have the 3rd or 4th-best wide receiver in round two? Because after round two, running backs fall off a cliff and receivers stay the course, as is illustrated below:
Since 2018, receivers drafted in rounds three and four are as startable as receivers drafted in rounds one and two. Now, startable is great, but we aren’t targeting WR3 or FLEX options in these rounds. Receivers drafted rounds three and four have finished top-24 more often than receivers drafted in rounds one and two (68% vs 64%). Receivers drafted in rounds one and two finish as WR1’s more often, but consider the wide receiver cliff over the last three years. Whereas running backs fall off after round two, receiver production doesn’t typically nosedive until round five. If you go wide receiver early and find yourself picking from the running backs hanging out at the bottom of the cliff in rounds three and four, you’re limiting your team’s upside.
In another article, I talk about the importance of identifying high-volume running backs. Subsequently, I find myself starting RB-RB, then using later rounds to load up on wide receiver talent. Below, I’ll break down a few of the receivers I believe have the skills and situation to break out from the middle and late rounds.
CeeDee Lamb: ADP – Round 3, Pick 5
Entering year two, CeeDee Lamb is a popular pick to breakout and I’m all aboard the hype train. With Dak Prescott seemingly healthy, the Cowboys offense should be one of the best in the league. Based on the four-plus games that Dak played last year, offensive coordinator Kellen Moore wants to air it out and use his elite weapons on the outside to put up monster numbers. In his time with Dak last year, as a rookie, CeeDee ranked top-16 in targets, receptions, yards, and touchdowns. Unfortunately, in 11 full games without Prescott, Lamb ranked 43rd overall among wide receivers. Although his ADP is only “suppressed” down to the middle of the third round, I believe CeeDee would be going higher had he gotten a full season with his QB. With a full offseason and an extremely strong showing in training camp by all accounts, he’s primed for a big year.
Amari Cooper: ADP – Round 4, Pick 4
Lamb’s teammate should also be in store for a big year. Cooper was even more lethal than his counterpart with a healthy Dak Prescott last year. He ranked top-3 in targets, receptions, yards, and touchdowns over the first four weeks of the season. After Dak went down, Cooper proved to still be a serviceable starter, averaging 5 catches and 65 yards per game with…Ben DiNucci and Andy Dalton…yikes. We know the Cowboys want to air it out, but is it possible to support two elite fantasy wide receivers? History says yes. In the past 10 years, 17 pairs of wide receiver teammates finished top-13 each. The common denominator? High-volume passing offense. Good thing Dak set the NFL record for most passing yards in a four-game span when he was healthy.
Tyler Lockett: ADP – Round 4, Pick 12
So far this year, Tyler Lockett is being drafted as the 20th receiver off the board even though he’s finished no lower than 15th since taking over as a full-time starter in 2018. His week-to-week fluctuation has plagued him and sewn doubt into the minds of anyone who has rostered him. While Lockett can certainly provide aggravatingly quiet weeks, he also provides fantasy euphoria in the form of week-winning explosions. He’s a classic boom-or-bust receiver who has boomed enough to be a high-end WR2 or low-end WR1 each of the last three seasons. With his ADP in the late fourth round, you can grab him as a high-upside WR2 or, if he falls, he can be an incredibly rewarding WR3/FLEX option. Based on past production, and the $69M contract he got this offseason, he should be locked in as a high-end WR2 which means he’s typically available on the cheap this year.
Jerry Jeudy: ADP – Round 6, Pick 4
Jerry Jeudy is one of the best young talents in the NFL despite just 52 receptions in 16 games last year. To be clear, it wasn’t for lack of getting open. Jeudy’s 46% catch rate (200th in NFL) destroyed any opportunity he had at being a difference-maker in fantasy. However, it’s more of an indictment on his quarterback than it is on him. Drew Lock had the highest bad-throw-rate of any quarterback with at least 150 attempts at 22.9%. Teddy Bridgewater, Jeudy’s new quarterback, had the lowest bad-throw-rate in the NFL at 13%. Bridgewater doesn’t push the ball downfield much, but Jeudy is strong after the catch, displayed by his higher YAC-per-reception than Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill, and Justin Jefferson. Now, in 2020, he’ll have a quarterback who can get the ball in his hands. It’s worth noting, too, that Bridgewater supported three top-25 fantasy receivers last year in Carolina, including D.J. Moore, who had one of the league’s highest ADOTs. With Jeudy’s talent, presumed target share, and accurate quarterback, he is my favorite mid-round target at wide receiver.
Russell Gage: ADP – Round 14, Pick 3
Drafting a 14th-round wide receiver is different from shooting for WR1 production in the fourth round. Gage is being drafted as a roster-filler but has the potential to be a WR3 throughout the season. The WR37 last year, Gage’s ADP slots him as the WR70 this year despite Hall-of-Famer Julio Jones’ departure. Julio only played nine games, and rookie tight end Kyle Pitts is likely to command a high target share, but Gage is no slouch. Last year, he hauled in 72 receptions and almost 800 yards on 110 targets. At just 25 years old, he also has the opportunity to build on an already-strong rapport with Matt Ryan. Quarterbacks look for the guys they can trust on third down and in the red zone. Last season, Gage was one of eleven receivers to rank top-20 in third down and red zone fantasy points. The other 10 all finished as top-25 receivers. With a free pick, Gage’s rapport with Matt Ryan and path to higher-than-projected volume make him a worthy flyer.
In contrast to how running backs in the first two rounds prove to be significant separators, wide receivers in the first two rounds prove to be only marginally more dependable than wide receivers drafted in the third and fourth rounds. While receivers beyond the fourth round have similar hit-rates to running backs, it’s easier to identify receivers with a path to a breakout season as late-round running backs typically need an injury or suspension to vault to stardom. Knowing this allows managers to capitalize on undervalued receivers later in drafts. Cashing in on middle and late round receivers can be the difference between a playoff team and a championship team.