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Who will be the top receiver in fantasy football this season?

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Using all kinds of data to figure out which of the top wide receivers in 2019 can be considered ‘opposition proof’.

USA TODAY/Pete Rogers Illustrations

When it comes to the best players in fantasy football, the margins between the top tier players can be extremely fine and who to draft can be a matter of personal preference rather than based on any particular analysis. With this is mind, I wanted to see if there were any edges to be had based on historical matchups and who could be considered “opponent proof”. For an initial foray into this line of thinking, I’ve looked at the current top-12 receivers according to ADP from fantasyfootballcalculator.com and looked back at their last three year PPR scores and grouped those scores against a ranked pass defense from each of those seasons.

The Current Top 12 PPR Receivers by ADP

Player Team WR ADP Rank Overall ADP
Player Team WR ADP Rank Overall ADP
DeAndre Hopkins HOU 1 1.07
Davante Adams GB 2 1.08
Michael Thomas NO 3 1.1
Julio Jones ATL 4 1.11
Odell Beckham CLE 5 2.01
JuJu Smith-Schuster PIT 6 2.03
Antonio Brown OAK 7 2.06
Mike Evans TB 8 2.08
Adam Thielen MIN 9 2.11
Keenan Allen LAC 10 3.01
TY Hilton IND 11 3.01
Amari Cooper DAL 12 3.03

The pass defense rankings are my own system that I have developed over the past few years, and I have ranked each team by season all the way back to 2007. The rankings are derived from a formula I’ve created that is loosely based on an inverse passer rating calculation, but with some additional metrics included to account for pass rush and yards after catch. The pass defense rankings for the 2016-2018 seasons are below:

Now that we know the players and the defenses, how have these sorted themselves out when clashed together? Taking the last 3 seasons, the below graph shows the average points per game achieved by each of the top 12 players against the top 10, middle 12 and bottom 12 pass defenses from each of those seasons.

So what can we learn? It’s probably no surprise that over the past 3 years, Antonio Brown has been the most productive receiver against all defensive groups, and only becomes more productive as the level of opponent decreases. Brown has also faced the highest proportion of top 10 pass defenses over the past 3 years, with 39% of his competition against top tier opponents, compared to an average of 30% for the top 10 as a whole.

It’s worth noting that though Odell Beckham does have the highest points per game production against top tier pass defenses over the past three years, he has only faced these in 19% of his starts (6 of 32), the lowest percentage by far of any of this elite group. Beckham has also faced the highest proportion of bottom 10 pass defenses with 44%, and he averages 0.52 fewer points per game against the bottom 10 defenses (18.68) compared to the top 10 (19.20), and only the 4th most ppg overall against these opponents.

Outside of Antonio Brown, only three other players in the top 12 see a production increase as the level of defense decreases, JuJu Smith Schuster, Keenan Allen and TY Hilton. Smith-Schuster and Hilton were the two players who were the least productive against the top 10 pass defenses, averaging just 12.04 (JSS) and 12.14 (TYH) points per game against the best opponents. For JuJu, this could be driven by both his short career to date and being behind Antonio Brown as the number 2 in Pittsburgh, though in his second season in 2018 he had 166 targets, the 4th most in the league. For Hilton, health has always been a concern despite only missing two games in three seasons, and he did spend most of last season on the injury report with high and low ankle sprains. His ADP is also probably a little rich based on his production as he only ranks 15th in PPR points per game over the past 3 years.

Adam Thielen is perhaps surprisingly the third most productive receiver against top 10 pass defenses, averaging 16.84 ppg over the past 3 years. For his strong play against the top teams, Thielen was the least productive against the mid tier defenses and 9th against the lowest rated teams.

2019 Schedule

Now we know how these elite players have contributed over the past 3 years, the next step is to look at what might happen in the coming season and how it could affect your decision making in your drafts. I have taken my projected pass defense rankings for 2019 and applied that to the top 12 players’ schedule to see who has the best and worst chances of success next season.

Top 12 Wide Receiver 2019 Schedule Breakdown

Player Team WR ADP Rank Top 10 Mid 12 Bottom 10
Player Team WR ADP Rank Top 10 Mid 12 Bottom 10
DeAndre Hopkins HOU 1 5 7 4
Davante Adams GB 2 6 3 7
Michael Thomas NO 3 4 6 6
Julio Jones ATL 4 5 4 7
Odell Beckham CLE 5 5 8 3
JuJu Smith-Schuster PIT 6 4 9 3
Antonio Brown OAK 7 6 7 3
Mike Evans TB 8 4 7 5
Adam Thielen MIN 9 4 6 6
Keenan Allen LAC 10 5 5 6
TY Hilton IND 11 7 4 5
Amari Cooper DAL 12 4 5 7

What immediately jumps out is that TY Hilton faces the toughest schedules of pass defenses in 2019, with 7 of his 16 opponents forecasting to finish as a top 10 pass defense, though he only faces one in the first 5 weeks (Chargers Week 1). Add to that, he faces additional competition for targets with the Colts’ addition of Devin Funchess in free agency, Parris Campbell in the draft, plus a pair of healthy tight ends in Jack Doyle and Eric Ebron. Hilton has the highest chance of any of the top 10 receivers to underperform his current ADP, based on opponent and opportunity.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are 5 players who are set to face just four top 10 pass defenses in their 2019 schedule: Michael Thomas, Juju Smith-Schuster, Mike Evans, Adam Thielen and Amari Cooper. Its Evans and Thielen who face the softest opening schedules, as the Bucs and Vikings are only set to face one top 10 pass defense once in the first 9 weeks of the season. This has implications not just for Evans and Thielen, but also fellow receivers Stefon Diggs and Chris Godwin (the WR16 and WR25 at current ADP), plus quarterbacks Kirk Cousins and Jameis Winston (the QB19 and QB13 at current ADP). Smith-Schuster faces only a slightly tougher schedule with two top 10 opponents in his first 6 weeks but then not another until Week 14. Michael Thomas by contrast faces all four of his top 10 opponents within the first 7 weeks of the season, so is a candidate to score heavily down the stretch. Amari Cooper also has a favorable early schedule with just two top 10 opponents in his first 11 games before back to back top 10 defenses right in the middle of the fantasy playoffs (Bills and Bears weeks 13 & 14).

Of the rest of the top 12 receivers, Deandre Hopkins faces the toughest start of any receiver, facing off against top 10 pass defenses in each of his first 3 weeks, but then only two more the rest of the season. The schedule points to a potential boom or bust start for Davante Adams. The current WR2 by ADP faces a friendly five bottom 10 opponents in the Packers’ first 10 games, but also four top 10 opponents over the same stretch. Julio Jones, along with Adams, faces the most bottom 10 defenses with 7 on the schedule and faces five of those teams over the first 11 weeks, with only 3 top 10 opponents. Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham face the fewest bottom 10 defenses with three apiece, with Beckham facing just one in his opening 10 games compared to Brown’s two, but also facing one fewer Top 10 defense than Brown with three over the same period. Finally Keenan Allen faces the most balanced schedule in terms of number of opponents in each bracket, though he also faces back to back top tier defenses during the fantasy playoffs (Jaguars and Vikings weeks 14 & 15) before finishing with my last ranked pass defense of 2019 in the Raiders in fantasy finals week 16.

Conclusions

The big takeaway from all this is that TY Hilton is being overvalued at his current ADP based on both the match ups and the competition for targets in the Colts’ offense this season. I also worry about JuJu Smith-Schuster as he transitions to the number 1 receiver in Pittsburgh. The volume is there, but how he will cope as the top dog with coverages planned against him has me projecting him down on his current WR6 ADP. I am leaning the same with Odell Beckham in a new offense with lots of targets to share out in a loaded offense, despite his star talent.

Julio Jones and Davante Adams have the best opportunity to finish as the WR1 with the softest schedules, and Amari Cooper is also in line to overachieve his current WR12 ADP, especially if he can continue his form from the end of the 2018 season. I also remain an Antonio Brown truther and despite his off-field shenanigans and transition to the new offense in Oakland, you don’t just stop being one of the best receivers ever, especially when there are all the targets up for grabs at the Raiders.

Paddi’s 2019 Elite Receiver Ranks

Player Team Current WR ADP Rank My Rank
Player Team Current WR ADP Rank My Rank
Davante Adams GB 2 1
Julio Jones ATL 4 2
DeAndre Hopkins HOU 1 3
Antonio Brown OAK 7 4
Michael Thomas NO 3 5
Mike Evans TB 8 6
Amari Cooper DAL 12 7
Odell Beckham CLE 5 8
JuJu Smith-Schuster PIT 6 9
Keenan Allen LAC 10 10
Adam Thielen MIN 9 11
TY Hilton IND 11 12

Next up, I’ll be looking at the elite running backs ahead of the 2019 season. You can find me on Twitter @PaddiCooper.