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From John Autey, Pioneer Press

Rookie Wide Receivers Report: The Studs

The last two weeks we looked at the rookie running backs. It was a pretty fantastic year for those guys, with a high amount of fantasy relevant running backs breaking out, and many of them will be top picks next year. It was a similar story for the wide receivers. Traditionally rookie wide receivers need a year or two before really popping off. But this year and the last that script has flipped a little bit.

2020 was projected to be one of the best wide receiver classes of all time. There were six wide receivers drafted in the first round, and seven more in the 2nd. 2019 saw just two wide receivers in the first, but it did have seven in the 2nd as well. 2018 was a similar story. Two receivers in the 1st, and six in the 2nd. So you can see 2020 was something special. But was it the same in fantasy?

Headlined by Justin Jefferson who broke the rookie wide receiver yards record, there were a good amount of guys that really showed out. In total, there were five rookie wide receivers that landed in the top 36. The aforementioned Jefferson, Ceedee Lamb, Tee Higgins, Brandon Aiyuk and Chase Claypool. Why 36? Well in a 12 team league you have 24 starters, but standard leagues have a flex. More often than not these flexes are wide receivers, so generally up to 36 wide receivers receive play. 

The Past

Let’s take a look at how that compares historically. 2019 saw rookie wide receivers make it into the top 36 (Darius Slayton comes in at 37). However, if you go by points per game two drop out. That’s not the case for the 2020 guys, who all stay in the top 36 when switching to points per game. It also wasn’t quite as top heavy. 2020 featured four guys in the 20’s and up (Jefferson in the top 10), while 2019 had WR 35,36 and 37. 2018 had just one, Calvin Ridley. That may sound low, but that’s pretty standard besides these past two years. 2017 had two, 2016 had three, but just two by PPR. So we see again 2020 was a special year for rookie wideouts in every way.

Let’s take a look at each receiver now. 

Justin Jefferson: ADP 129, WR 48. Actual WR 8, PPG WR 11.

A league winner for many fantasy owners out there, Jefferson was one of the stories of the season. A lot of people had high hopes for Jefferson given his high real life draft pick, but clearly no one expected this type of popoff given his fantasy draft position. He was incredible at LSU in 2019, but that was his only real stand out year, and that whole LSU team was unbelievably stacked, so reservations about the guy are understandable. Jefferson smashed any expectations though. He filled in seamlessly for Stefon Diggs, one of the best wide receivers in the league.

His early season he was more of a boom bust guy. In his first eight games Jefferson was under double digits five times, but he was also over 30 twice. After that though, Jefferson was consistent excellence. He didn’t go under double digits again (well he scored 9.9 in week 14) and averaged 19.3 points per game. He was fourth in the whole league in yards, and broke Anquan Boldin and Randy Moss’ record for receiving yards by a rookie. That’s some great company to be in.

Jefferson did his damage in multitudes of ways. He caught 88 balls, a great number, but also averaged 15.9 yards per reception, the second highest out of the top twenty wide receivers in yards. Jefferson also didn’t need a ton of touchdowns (which are often quite variable) to do his damage. Seven touchdowns is easily repeatable given his volume. Jefferson is going to need a very high pick next year, and he’ll deserve everything you spend on him.

Ceedee Lamb: ADP 96, WR 38. Actual WR 20, PPG 28. 

A guy that proved less is more isn’t necessarily true at all, Lamb managed to still thrive despite the roster turmoil in Dallas. He walked into a crowded receiver room, with a top 10 fantasy guy in Amari Cooper and a top 30 guy in Michael Gallup. Luckily for Lamb owners, he managed to supersede Gallup as the WR 2 in that team. All of this with losing his starting QB in Dak Prescott. 

That does bring a looming question. If Prescott does end up being the Cowboys quarterback next season, how does Lamb fit in with him? The good news, it went pretty well. He went over double digits all five games with Prescott, something neither of the other wide receivers did. The last two games with Prescott he scored 45.6 points, easily the most of the three as well. Despite being a rookie, he seems firmly entrenched in that number two spot.

That doesn’t fully resolve the issue that the room is crowded. Even with Prescott back, there are just so many weapons in Dallas. Michael Gallup is still around and he will have his good games, which will cut into Lamb every once in a while. Cooper is the number one guy, Dalton Schultz comes into play like Gallup and maybe the Cowboys will want to revert back to their identity as a running team with Ezekiel Elliot. The Cowboys had the second most pass attempts in the league this year. The other four years with Prescott they haven’t been higher than 10th.

Still, Lamb is supremely talented, and went over double digits 11 out of his 15 games. He still had 111 targets, a strong number, and his five touchdowns could see an improvement next year. It’s just hard to put all your eggs in the basket of a wide receiver two. He also only went over 100 yards twice. I’m not sure what Lamb’s ADP is looking like, but he might have a lower ceiling than others drafted around him if it’s a really early round. The floor looks there however, and if Lamb can grab the number one job (not impossible with how darn good he is) he could be next year’s D.K. Metcalf. 

Tee Higgins ADP Undrafted. Actual WR 24, PPG 33. 

Higgins wasn’t a sexy player, but he was a fantasy asset in just his rookie year. The hype for him coming into the league was rather low after a rather disappointing end to his college career. He also walked into an awkward situation, with a rookie QB and two guys (maybe three) clearly ahead of him on the depth chart. Despite all this, Higgins performed. He quickly overtook A.J. Green as the number two target in Cincinnati. His 108 targets were just two behind Tyler Boyd and he actually led the team in receiving yards and touchdowns. 

Higgins had a fantastic middle of the year stretch between weeks 3-10 where he was always over double digits and was over 15 fantasy points four times. That is incredibly encouraging because that is basically the entire stretch he played with Burrows. Higgins barely played week 1, and Burrows was hurt in week 11. He showed a lot of chemistry with the Bengals franchise QB for the foreseeable future. 

Higgins also has one less target to compete with next year with the departure of A.J. Green. However, Joe Mixon was absent for most of the year, as was tight end C.J. Uzomah who could demand more touches in that offense. Regardless, Higgins probably won’t cost you an arm and a leg in a fantasy draft, and he has a lot of potential. In the past, year two and three are where wide receivers really start to bloom. Higgins has already shown talent to stay in the league, and a strong rapport with Joe Burrows. He probably won’t supplant Boyd, but most offenses can support two wide receivers for fantasy. If 2020 was Higgins’ baseline, he may just be the steal of your draft in 2021. 

Chase Claypool ADP Undrafted. Actual WR 25, PPG 34.

Claypool was the definition of a boom or bust player in 2020. He had eight games over 10 points, which means he had seven under. In PPR, a wide receiver being under ten is a disaster. In his eight games over ten though, he had six over 15 points, including a 42.6 point bomb in week five. While that is a nice game for this year, it’s not a great thing that 21% of his total fantasy points came in one week. 

Unfortunately that means Claypool is in a strange spot. He’s a rather distant third on the wide receiver depth chart behind Diontae Johnson and JuJu Smith-Schuster. Claypool still got a very healthy amount of targets at 109 because the Steelers led the league in passing attempts, but he only caught 62 of them for a questionable catch rate of 56.9%. 

He’s way more of a big play threat than the other two but sustainability is a problem. He rushed for two touchdowns on just 10 attempts and he only gained 16 total yards on his tries. Scoring two touchdowns on that type of stat line is not going to happen again for Claypool. Nine receiving touchdowns on just 62 catches is also a pretty high rate. 

On a points per game basis Claypool was just barely usable. He doesn’t project to see more targets, and his touchdowns are most likely due for regression. Of course, the caveat is that Claypool is a rookie. Like I’ve said many times, wide receivers usually breakout after that first year. If he improves on his rookie season like most do, Claypool is in line for a big season. The problem is I just don’t know if improvement is realistic. Ben Roethlisberger is only getting older, the other two receivers aren’t going anywhere and knock a couple of touchdowns off of Claypool and he’s no longer worth using in fantasy. If you’re drafting Claypool expecting an every week starter, I’d consider rethinking that strategy. 

Brandon Aiyuk ADP 181, WR 61. Actual WR 31, PPG WR 17.

The San Francisco 49ers were one of the most injured teams in the league, which really ruined their chances of a repeat performance from 2019. However a couple people benefitted from the rash of injuries the 49ers suffered, none more than Aiyuk. With injuries to the 49er’s main pass catchers in George Kittle and Deebo Samuel, Aiyuk stepped up in a big way. While dealing with injuries himself, he had a fantastic stretch between week 7-15. The six games he played in that stretch he averaged 94.7 yards per game, and scored four times. Perhaps more startling, he got 11.5 targets per game over that stretch. Aiyuk proved to be a reliable number one option, able to consistently get open for chunk plays on a lot of work. He led the 49ers in every receiving category, targets, receptions, yards and touchdowns. 

That’s the good news. The bad news is the circumstances that led to his large volume likely won’t happen again. Once George Kittle returned in week 16 he was the star of the receiving show while Aiyuk went ignored. That was without Deebo Samuel. Also the 49ers don’t want to throw the ball much unless they have to. They want to be a run first and defense team. They were 16th in pass attempts this year and went 6-10. The 49ers were 29th last year and were Super Bowl runners up. It’s very clear which direction they want to be in. 

Aiyuk proved himself a capable receiver when given the opportunity. His stellar player could also have earned him more looks. But I just don’t think he’ll get enough. He’ll go from the first option for half of this year to possibly the number four option behind Kittle, Samuel and the run game. Maybe he’s earned a role over Samuel. We also don’t know who the QB will be for the 49ers. Aiyuk was most successful with Nick Mullens, but the chances that he’s a long term solution for the 49ers is minimal. It’ll most likely be Jimmy Garoppolo or another guy the 49ers bring in. 

It’s too early to know where people are going in the 2021 fantasy draft, but Aiyuk is a risky pick. His ceiling is fairly limited by the fact that Kittle exists and the 49ers want to be a running team. He also has the lowest floor. He could easily get his targets cut in half. Producing useful fantasy numbers on 50 targets is impossible. So I don’t end on a negative, Aiyuk does have proven ability. We know he can produce when given enough targets, and it can be argued his top stretch was better than anyone on this list.