by Dave Hartman “The Pigskin Papers”
Welcome to the second season of Fantasy Football coverage from the Pigskin Papers! Over the next 3 months, we’ll post lots of great (and free) content to help you prepare for fantasy drafts. Bookmark the site and check back often.
We’re kicking things off with a look at the 2022 rookie class of WRs. Rookie receivers have been a big factor in fantasy the past 2 seasons, and we think that trend will continue. It wasn’t always this way. Let me take you back 19 years, to September 7, 2003. It’s Week 1 of the 2003 NFL season and you can feel the anticipation and excitement, as fantasy players plug in lineups for the first time in 9 months. As always, a few things will go down in Week 1 that take fantasy managers by surprise. Perhaps the biggest one this time around is the astonishing performance of Arizona rookie WR Anquan Boldin. Facing the Lions, Boldin erupts for 10 catches, 217 yards and 2 TDs. This out-of-nowhere, record setting NFL debut leads to an all-out waiver wire stampede, as you might imagine. You see, Boldin isn’t on many rosters in redraft leagues. First off, he’s a rookie, and back then, the expectations for rookie WRs in Year 1 were modest at best. Also, he suffered an ACL tear during college, and ran slow at the combine (4.71). He fell to the 2nd Round and wasn’t even the first WR the Cardinals drafted that year. But his debut wasn’t a fluke. Boldin finished the year with a stat line of 101-1,377-8, on an astounding 165 targets. If it wasn’t for what Randy Moss did 5 years prior (69-1,313-17), it would’ve gone down as the greatest season by a rookie WR in the Super Bowl era. As it was, he set modern-day rookie records for catches and yards.
For many years, the conventional wisdom was that while RBs could be expected to step in and produce right away, receivers needed time to adjust and Year 3 was the most likely time for a WR breakout. The WR piece of that wisdom has been put to rest. The pro and college games both have evolved significantly in the decades since Moss and Boldin came into the league, and the college ranks are producing more and more pro-ready WRs who can quickly acclimate at the next level. Not only that, these receivers are coming in a wide range of size, speed, athleticism, and skill set combinations, and franchises are finding players that can fill the various receiver roles that the modern NFL game demands. Moss, Boldin, and Odell Beckham, Jr. in 2014 all put up WR1 fantasy campaigns as rookies and that made them outliers for the time. For many years the conventional wisdom mostly held, and fantasy players drafted accordingly.
Again, that was then and this is now, and fantasy managers need to keep adjusting. Justin Jefferson broke Boldin’s rookie yardage record in 2020 (and finished the year as the WR6 in Half PPR), only to see his college teammate Ja’Marr Chase break his mark in 2021, while posting a whopping 18 YPC and 13 TDs and finishing the season as the WR4 in Half PPR. Boldin’s rookie catch record fell last year too, to Miami’s Jaylen Waddle, who caught 104 balls. And it wasn’t just Chase and Waddle who lit it up last season. Over the final 7 weeks, only Cooper Kupp scored more fantasy points among WRs than Detroit rookie (and 4th Round pick) Amon-Ra St. Brown. And over a 6 week stretch in the middle of the season (before he got hurt), 2nd Round pick Elijah Moore of the Jets was a top 5 fantasy WR. Waddle was solid all year and finished as the WR14 in Full PPR. And going back to 2020, rookies CeeDee Lamb and Chase Claypool didn’t have monster seasons like Jefferson did, but both finished just inside the Top 20 in Half PPR.
For fantasy managers, rostering a breakout rookie receiver can be the difference between making the playoffs and going home. You know what a lot of 2020 league winners had in common? They either took a late flier on Jefferson, or more likely, grabbed him off the waiver wire after he went off in Week 3. And those who ignored the reports that Chase was dropping balls left and right in training camp and drafted him anyway (his ADP was around Round 6) ended up with a top 5 WR at a massive discount.
It’s not just fantasy players who are noticing that receivers can contribute early. So are NFL teams, who are similarly motivated to try to get tremendous value – in their case, the value that a stud receiver on a rookie deal can bring to a franchise. Continuing a trend that shows no sign of slowing down, NFL franchises selected 6 WRs in the first 18 picks of the 2022 NFL Draft. Seven more WRs went in Round 2, plus 4 more in Round 3. For fantasy managers, this gives us a lot of names to think about as we try to unearth the next Chase, Jefferson, Waddle or St. Brown in 2022 redraft leagues.
Before we start dissecting the 2022 rookies, it’s worth noting that the top guys don’t compare to the top prospects from a year ago. Chase was the highest rated WR prospect to come along in a while, and he, Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith all would’ve been the first WR taken if they were in this class. Still, the 2022 group is talented and deep, with plenty of players who could be relevant – or more – in fantasy this year. As is always the case with rookies, some players will emerge as legit fantasy starters as the season progresses, and when that happens they’ll be waiver wire priority adds who get gobbled up quickly. This is what happened with Moore and St. Brown in 2021. So that’s the first piece of advice: you’ll want to keep a close eye on the rookie receivers early in the season, paying particular attention to these 3 stats that you won’t find in a traditional box score: snap shares, routes run, and target shares. You’ll want to pounce before it’s too late. Our weekly Waiver Wire column will be helpful with this.
So who should fantasy managers target in drafts this summer, and keep on their waiver wire watch list? Let’s approach this strategically. Rookie WRs are hard to project. At the extremes, we can expect a couple of them to be breakout players who you can eventually start with confidence, while others won’t even be rosterable. Most will fall somewhere in the middle and will have their moments, but they’ll be hard to trust on a weekly basis. So let’s identify the factors that’ll help us try to figure out which rookie receivers have the most breakout potential. I think the 3 biggest ones to focus on are (1) talent, (2) target opportunities, and (3) landing spot/situation. This third factor combines QB play, coaching, style and productivity of the offense, and fit. But looking at those sub-factors can be deceiving. Neither St. Brown nor Moore would’ve gotten high marks for landing spot/situation in 2021. But they had this in common – they played on teams that sported a bottom-2 defense, meaning the offense constantly had to chase points. So when looking at landing spot, let’s factor that in as well.
With these criteria in mind, here are my favorite rookie WR targets for 2022 in redraft leagues (note – ADPs listed are current and will change over the summer, and things like injuries, signings and cuts, camp reports and more will have an impact – so take the ADPs with a grain of salt and I’ll update this column in August):
- Treylon Burks. The Titans took the Arkansas product with the 18th pick in the Draft, meaning 5 WRs went before him. But for this season, I like him best. Why? Because for me, he does the best job of checking all 3 boxes. A.J. Brown is gone, and Burks is a big, strong, and somewhat explosive target who has some of the same attributes as Brown. He has lots of experience operating from the slot, but the Titans figure to use him in a multitude of ways. What I really like is the opportunity, as he’s likely to have less competition for targets than other rookies. The Titans don’t have a single returning player who caught 40 balls last year. The top 2 receivers figure to be Burks and former Ram Robert Woods, who is also new to the team and is coming off a season-ending ACL tear in November. And finally, I like the landing spot. Yes, the Titans run the ball a lot, but they’re a highly productive offense that scores plenty. Ryan Tannehill is a master at play action, and talented receivers can thrive in this system. I think Burks offers a decently high ceiling with a solid floor for a rookie. Apparently, so do others, as he’s got the top ADP of the rookie WRs (WR33, #78 overall in Half PPR). At that ADP he’s a late 7th Rounder and I think that’s a fair price to pay for his upside, which could be difference-making. Sign me up.
- Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. I’m not lumping these 2 together because they were college teammates at OSU. I’m doing it because after Burks, I think they offer the best combo of talent, opportunity, and landing spot. Both should see plenty of playing time right away, and both are on offenses that should throw a decent amount. In the case of Olave, I love the smoothness of his game (his size, speed, and route-running reminds me a little of Chris Godwin, who had a tremendous season with Jameis Winston in 2019) and he might be the most NFL-ready of the rookies. I also like his opportunity. Michael Thomas’s health is hard to trust, Jarvis Landry is more like a tight end at this stage of his career, and the rest of the receiver/TE room is ho-hum. I don’t expect Olave to be an automatic start, but he should have good flex appeal and the same is true for Wilson, who also has plenty of game and steps in alongside Elijah Moore and Corey Davis in what should be an improved offense. I don’t know what to expect from Zach Wilson, but the Jets figure once again be playing a lot of catch-up. Olave’s ADP is 105, while Wilson’s is 85. I’m more comfortable with Olave in Round 10 than Wilson in Round 8, but I think both will see plenty of targets and are good upside picks as your 3rd or ideally 4th receiver.
- Skyy Moore. Patrick Mahomes. That’s who’ll be throwing balls to Skyy Moore, and Tyreek Hill is gone. I could probably stop there. The Chiefs did bring in JuJu and MVS, and Travis Kelce figures to lead the team in targets. But Moore is a polished route runner with lots of experience working out of the slot and I can see him carving out a nice role on this great and creative offense, sooner rather than later. Moore’s current ADP of 164 makes him a guy you can take in the late rounds as your 4th or 5th WR, and I love the dart throw on him at that price.
- Christian Watson. Aaron Rodgers. Davante Adams. See above. Similar to KC, the Packers traded away their top wideout, drafted a WR in Round 2, and there’s a huge target share up for grabs in an elite passing offense. The WR room in Green Bay is crowded right now but none of the names are awe-inspiring. Aaron Jones might lead this team in targets. Watson has a rare size-speed combo, but he’s a little raw and didn’t face top competition in college. So this could take time and I like him more as a second half of the season guy. Still, the Packers moved up to get him at the top of Round 2 and he’s got a high ceiling. And Rodgers has a history fo turning second round picks into fantasy studs. At a current ADP of 147, Watson will only cost you a 12th or 13th Round pick – I’m in on that upside value play all day.
- Jameson Williams. If Williams hadn’t torn his ACL in January, he likely would’ve been the first receiver taken in April. I don’t know if he’ll be ready when the season starts, but once he’s 100%, he should have a great opportunity in the passing game alongside St. Brown, Hockenson and Swift. The Detroit defense should be improved, but I still expect them to need to throw a lot, and Williams is a home run hitter. Say what you want about Jared Goff, but he’s made some WRs very worthwhile in fantasy, including St. Brown last season. I think Williams is a nice stash in the later rounds, and like Watson, could really help fantasy managers in the latter part of the season.
- Drake London. A quick word on London, the first WR taken in the draft. Yes, the WR group in Atlanta is very weak. But I’m worried about this offense struggling in its first year post-Matt Ryan. I expect inconsistent QB play and a lot of low scoring efforts. I like the talent and especially his size, but I’m not looking to have many shares of London.
- Waiver Wire Watch. Any prominent rookie receiver who doesn’t get taken in your fantasy draft should be on your waivers watchlist, together with those who get dropped early by impatient owners. I’d especially keep my eye on David Bell (Cle), Alec Pierce (Ind), George Pickens (Pit), and John Metchie, III (Hou). I think the talent-opportunity-landing spot combo for all of them is good, and that they all fit nicely in their new offense. I’m fine with taking a flier on these players towards the end of the draft. Any of them could be this year’s St. Brown.