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From James P. McCoy, Buffalo News

What Happens When Star Receivers Move, Part Two

Last week we began a series looking at what happens when receivers switch teams, inspired by the Julio Jones situation. As of right now, Jones has not moved yet, but his list of desired teams has shrunken a bit, and a move still seems on the cards eventually. So far, the results have been ridiculously even, with 33% each of guys improving, staying the same and regressing when they move on. Even when looking at Julio Jones age group, three improved, one stayed the same and two regressed. That was for 2012-2016 though. Let’s take a look if the numbers change at all with the receivers from 2017-2020. 

(Data taken from FantasyPros.com. Draft data taken from FantasyData.com)

2017

Cooks switched from the Saints to the Patriots in 2017, a surprising move.

Brandin Cooks, New Orleans Saints to the New England Patriots

Cooks was a rare example of a young receiver that was traded after breaking 1100 yards back-to-back. Cooks nearly repeated that feat in his first year with the Patriots, going for 1082/7 on 65 catches. It was worse than his Saints days, but not significantly so and he finished WR 13 despite the move.

Sammy Watkins, Buffalo Bills to the Los Angeles Rams

Watkins had an injury plagued 2016 which probably contributed to the Bills decision to deal him to the Rams. Prior to that though Watkins was a fantasy asset in 2014 and 2015 (finished WR 25 and 26 respectively), but he missed the mark badly in his first year with the Rams. Even though he stayed healthy enough to start 14 games, he only magned 39 catches and 593 yards. He did have eight touchdowns, but it wasn’t nearly enough. 

Jordan Matthews, Philadelphia Eagles to the Buffalo Bills

Matthews went over 800 yards in all three of his first years and was a reliable target for the Eagles. His peak was a WR 20 finish in 2015. That did not last and his first year in Buffalo was a disaster. Besides not staying healthy, Matthews wasn’t effective when he was in, catching just 25 balls for 282 yards and one score.

Kelvin Benjamin, Carolina Panthers to the Buffalo Bills

Benjamin is a weird case. He was great his rookie year going for 1008 yards and nine touchdowns. He missed his sophomore season due to injury, and then mostly picked up where he left off in 2016, going for 941 yards and seven scores. Not amazing, but still a somewhat serviceable WR 37. His young age and presumed chemistry with Cam Newton led fantasy owners to take him as WR 18 in 2017 still. That means hopes were still high for Benjamin. He started the season on the Panthers, and in eight starts posted a pedestrian 32/475/2 line, which comes out to 4/59/.25 per game. 

The Panthers dealt him to the Bills for this lackluster performance, who were perhaps looking to make up for the bust that was Jordan Mathews. Unfortunately this one didn’t work out either, as he was even worse with the Bills. Benjamin played six games and had just 16 catches, 217 yards and one touchdown. To be fair, Benjamin was on the decline before he moved teams, but it seemed to accelerate once he left Carolina.

Terrelle Pryor, Cleveland Browns to the Washington Football Team

Pryor wasn’t really a star per se, but the QB-turned-WR posted a pretty solid season with the Browns, catching 77 balls for 1007 yards and four scores in 2016. He got signed by the WFT in 2017 expecting to be their WR 1, and he was on average the 15th WR taken in fantasy drafts. Pryor wound up being one of the biggest busts in recent memory, as he only played in nine games (started two) and had just 20 catches for 240 yards and one touchdown. 

Alshon Jeffery, Chicago Bears to the Philadelphia Eagles

The talented but oft-injured receiver moved on to the Eagles and was good for what they needed. The Eagles won the Super Bowl that year after all. Jeffery didn’t reach the heights of his early Bears days, but he managed to stay relatively healthy and start all 16 games for the Birds, which led to a solid stat line of 57 catches, 789 yards and most importantly nine touchdowns. This carried him to a WR 17 finish, which is where he was drafted as well. One could easily argue that Jeffery did decline quite a bit once he got to Philly considering his 49.3 yards per game was by far his lowest since his rookie year, the decent fantasy placing that was in line with his 2016 ranking has him stay the same for me.

Desean Jackson, Washington Football Team to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Jackson broke 1000 yards in 2016 but his relatively low catches and touchdowns dropped him to a fairly unplayable WR 38. He was drafted in 2017 at about that number (WR 35) as he took a move to Tampa, and despite theoretically being a good match for Jameis Winston’s YOLO approach and big arm the chemistry never manifested. Despite playing in 14 games which is high for Jackson, he only ended up with 668 yards and three touchdowns and his 47.7 yards per game was the lowest of his career until 2020. 

Brandon Marshall, New York Jets to the New York Giants

Marshall was clearly on the downswing of his career at this point, as he posted just a 59/788/3 line in 2016 with the Jets. However, he posted a similar line in 2014 in his last year with the Chicago Bears and then popped off in his age 31 season with the Jets. Fantasy players clearly thought a similar resurgence could happen and drafted him as WR 27. He did not come close to living up to that. He did only manage to play five games, but even in those five games he was not producing, only catching 18 balls for 154 yards and zero touchdowns. 

A ton of receivers were on the move in 2017, perhaps making up for a lackluster 2016. This was also one of the worst years for WR’s changing teams, with only Cooks and Jeffery (debatably) not getting worse in their first year with new teams. Six guys declined in a major way. Two were over the age of 30, (Jackson and Marshall) with the rest being pretty early into their careers. Some fringe cases include Eric Decker who did get much worse, and Pierre Garcon who had a decent first season with the 49ers that got cut short due to injury.

2018

Jarvis Landry, Miami Dolphins to the Cleveland Browns

Landry was a productive player for the Dolphins in his first four years there, going over 1000 yards twice and going over 110 catches twice. He did basically the same thing for the Browns in his first year, catching 81 passes for 976 yards and four scores, finishing WR 21. That was his lowest placing fantasy-wise since his rookie year, but his first year in Cleveland lined up pretty closely to his career averages.

Brandin Cooks, New England Patriots to the Los Angeles Rams

Cooks keeps getting dealt and he keeps on producing. He had his fourth straight 1000+ yard season to go along with 80 catches and five touchdowns. That was enough to place him WR 16 on the season. Cooks has seen move after move, but keeps doing pretty well, and this is not his last time on the list.

Demaryius Thomas, Denver Broncos to the Houston Texans

The mid-season trades are always a bit awkward to judge, and they probably don’t apply to Julio, but it’s good data anyways. Thomas was one of the best WRs in the NFL for a five year stretch, and he finally dropped below 1000 yards in 2017. Still, he was just 30, and he caught 83 balls for 949 yards and five scores, placing him at WR 20. This led him to get drafted as WR 21 this year, but Thomas failed to live up to that. He was okay in eight games with Denver, hauling in 36 passes for 402 yards and three scores. His seven games with Houston were much worse though, as he went for a 23/375/2 stat line, and overall finished WR 33 after the move. 

Golden Tate, Detroit Lions to the Philadelphia Eagles

Tate had gone over 1000 yards in three of his past four seasons and caught 90 or more balls in all four before being dealt to the Eagles halfway through 2018. The first half of the year he spent in Detroit was pretty much like the rest of his years. In his seven games he averaged six catches and 73.9 yards per game. Over the course of a season that’s 1182 yards on 99 catches. That’s a pretty good year. Unfortunately he came nowhere near to replicating that with the Eagles. Despite playing in eight games in Philly versus seven in Detroit, Tate had much less catches, yards, and touchdowns in the City of Brotherly Love.

Amari Cooper, Las Vegas Raiders to the Dallas Cowboys

Cooper had a fantastic start to his career, going over 1000 yards in his first two scenes. His third season was extremely underwhelming however, and he started 2018 slow, averaging just 46.7 yards per game and scoring just once. This led to him getting dealt to the Cowboys, and he immediately found his form. In just nine games with the Cowboys, Cooper amassed 53 catches, 725 yards, and six touchdowns. In his time with the Cowboys, Cooper was WR 6. 

Allen Robinson II, Jacksonville Jaguars to the Chicago Bears

Robinson exploded onto the scene in his second season in 2015, going for 1400 yards and 14 scores. He never managed to reach those heights again though. In 2016 he posted an okay 73/883/6 line (WR 29) and in 2017 he missed almost the entire year. His first year with the Bears was similar to his average third year with the Jaguars as he went 55/754/4 in 13 games played. Robinson has played much better since then, but that’s the point of this article. Is there anything about the first year specifically that could forewarn us about guys that have moved THIS year, like Nelson Agholor or potentially Julio Jones? 

Just one free agent move in this batch, Allen Robinson, who mostly stayed the same with the Bears as he left with the Jaguars. There were three midseason trades of notable wide receivers, which is incredibly rare and honestly could be the case for Julio, although most signs point to a deal happening soon. Of the traded guys, Landry and Cooks stayed the same, Tate and Thomas got worse and Cooper got better.

2019

Odell Beckham Jr, New York Giants to the Cleveland Browns. 

OBJ’s first three years in the league are as good as anyone in history. In all three seasons OBJ had 90+ catches, double digit touchdowns and over 1300 yards. It was a ridiculous streak. Since then health has really limited him. He only played four games in 2017, and 12 games in 2018. His 2018 was shaping up to be as good as his first three years though, so expectations were high for a healthy OBJ in Cleveland. He failed to meet those expectations spectacularly. Despite playing 16 games, he only managed a disappointing 74 catches for 1035 yards and four scores. He was drafted WR 6 but finished WR 29. 

Antonio Brown is not listed here because he played just one game in 2019 due to off-field issues. That isn’t likely to happen to Jones, so it’s not a relevant data point. 

Just one name on the list for 2019, and it was OBJ who had his worst year as a professional upon switching teams. Of course, he would go on to beat that ignominious record in 2020, but that’s not important to this study. 

2020

DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans to the Arizona Cardinals

One of the most maligned trades in NFL history proved everyone right as Hopkins, one of the NFL’s best receivers, continued to be one of the NFL’s best receivers post-Texans move. Even though he had a stellar year with 115 catches, 1407 yards, and six touchdowns, that’s honestly pretty par for the course for Hopkins, so he gets a “stayed the same” rating.

Stefon Diggs, Minnesota Vikings to the Buffalo Bills

The other high-profile WR trade in 2020, Diggs did have an absolute massive increase in production upon leaving Minnesota. He shattered his previous highs in catches (127!) and yards (1535!) while still chipping in eight touchdowns, finishing a fantastic WR 3 on the year.

Brandin Cooks, Los Angeles Rams to the Houston Texans

Cooks finally had a bad season in 2019, but four straight 1000+ yard seasons don’t lie. He returned to form on a new team again, catching the second most balls of his career (81) to go along with 1150 yards and six touchdowns. Since he did play most of 2019 and was pretty bad, he’ll get counted as a player that improved upon moving, although arguments can be made he stayed pretty much the same as his career numbers. 

Antonio Brown, New England Patriots to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Brown makes the list, but won’t be counted due to how many extenuating factors there are. Browns 2013-2018 six year stretch is one of the greatest of all time for a wide receiver, but he also missed all of 2019 and much of 2020. When he finally was allowed to play he was actually pretty good though, showing he’s still got something left in the tank. 

He played in eight games and had 45 catches for 483 yards and four scores. Extrapolated over a full 16 game season and that’s 90 catches, 966 yards and eight touchdowns. That’s 234.6 points in a full PPR which would have made him WR 16. Considering he didn’t play for a whole year that’s pretty incredible. 

2020 had three star wide receivers move teams, and none of them got worse. Diggs took his game to a whole new level, while Cooks proved his 2019 was a fluke by improving his numbers dramatically across the board. Hopkins on the other hand continued being absolutely elite. 

Conclusions

This time we have four years to look at, with most of the moves coming in 2017 and 2018. In total, 19 of the best wide receivers took their talents elsewhere in the four year span. Unlike the previous years however, the results were much worse for receivers on the move. Only three guys truly improved on their previous season, while six stayed the same and a whopping nine clearly got worse. Not only that, but all four guys (Jackson and Marshall in 2017, Thomas and Tate in 2018) that were above the age of 30 and moved teams were on the declining side. 

If we add up the numbers from the first part of the article, we now have 37 wide receivers (36 since Brown is not included). 15 declined, 12 stayed about the same and nine improved upon switching teams. For the above 30 crowd, three improved, one stayed the same and six regressed. If taking these percentages as law (and you shouldn’t do that due to sample size and tons of other factors, but I digress) that’s a 40% chance at a major drop-off for Jones overall, and 60% if looking only at guys that are above 30. 

That may sound concerning, but none of those guys were close to Jones athletically, and Jones was having a good season in 2020 if he didn’t suffer constant injury. His 85.7 yards per game (which includes two games where he barely played) were way above any of the other 30+ guys in their seasons before decline. Jones should be fine barring injury, but there is some historical precedent that makes Jones a cautionary tale if he does end up on the move.