Editor’s Note: This analysis is the first contribution by Member Corner Author, Bob Moztis.
Why are secondary WR’s on their own teams WR1’s in Fantasy?
The 2011 season produced the most glaring evidence of a trend we have been seeing in the NFL for the past few years; Wide Receivers who are not even considered the top option on their own NFL team are putting up WR1 fantasy numbers. Why is this happening? Is it a trend that we can expect to continue going forward and can we use this to our advantage in Dynasty leagues?
For the purposes of this article I will be referencing standard non-PPR scoring, but I’d have to believe the same lessons apply to PPR as well. For the entire 2011 season, Jordy Nelson ranked as the #2 Fantasy WR and Victor Cruz finished #4. If we only look at Week 7 through the end of the year (admittedly a cherry picked starting point, but I am doing so because certain players didn’t define their roles until later in the season), we see Nelson and Cruz still hold strong at #2 and #3 respectively, and also see Laurent Robinson at #6 and Antonio Brown at #13 (Roddy White and Julio Jones show up at #8 and #9 also, but I am not sure that either of them fits as a WR2). None of these players are even considered the best WR on their NFL team, but they are the guys who would have helped you win fantasy championships this year.
The first question I want to tackle is, “Why is this happening?” I think the reason is two-fold. One is that these players are on teams that have multiple weapons that defenses have to account for, including a “WR1” who would theoretically draw the top corner or even a double team from opposing defenses. However, that has always been the case in the NFL. It isn’t a new trend that the best cornerback matches up with a team’s best WR, or that some teams have a lot of weapons. So while I think that part of it is definitely important, on its own it wouldn’t allow for the results we have seen.
The second reason is the explosion of passing games in general recently in the NFL. We saw Drew Brees, Tom Brady (these 2 guys don’t apply to the topic of this article as much because they utilize their Tight Ends so often), Matt Stafford, and the Aaron Rodgers/Matt Flynn-combination all throw for over 5,000 yards this season. Then on top of that, Eli Manning, Phillip Rivers, Tony Romo, Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger, and Cam Newton all threw for over 4,000 yards. That is 10 teams who produced over 4,000 yards through the air, with 4 of them over 5,000, which means there are a lot more yards (and fantasy points) to go around now then there ever were before. In the past, the 2nd WR option may have had the advantage of single coverage, but there simply wasn’t enough opportunity for yards for him put up WR1 numbers. Now however, the combination of these two situations makes it possible.
So now that we know the underlying phenomena occurring that are allowing these secondary WR’s to thrive, we have to decide whether we think those phenomena are sustainable or simply a blip on the radar. Since primary WRs will always draw the top coverage, and that shouldn’t be as likely to change, I want to focus on whether passing games will continue to flourish. Many have mentioned the rule changes as a reason passing games are succeeding, whether it has been an emphasis on pass interference, illegal contact, or defenseless receiver penalties. However, one rule change that I believe may have had as big an effect as any other is the decision to move kick-offs up to the 35 yard line. As a result of all the extra touchbacks occurring, the average starting field position this year was the 22.1 yard line in 2011, approximately 5 yards behind where it had been the previous three seasons. Each team averaged 189 possessions this season, which means that there were an additional 888 yards to be gained per team over the course of the season. (Reference: http://espn.go.com/blog/statsinfo/post/_/id/35597/kickoff-rule-change-has-big-effect-on-nfl ). Now obviously not every team is going to be able to take advantage of these additional yards as much as others, but the top QB’s in the league are certainly now going to throw for a lot more yards, which generates a lot more opportunities for the secondary WR’s to take advantage of their weaker coverage matchups.
Now how can we use this information to help us in Dynasty Leagues? I believe there are a couple of key things to look at, in both a macro and micro sense. The biggest macro issue is any rule changes or points of emphasis in the NFL. If, for example, you see that kick-offs are being moved back to the 30 yard line, expect total passing yards to decline and opportunities for secondary wide receivers to score fantasy points to go down as well. If you hear that officials are being told to let more bumping go on down the field without pass interference, realize again that passing games will decline. Everyone will of course see these news stories at the same time, but hopefully you will realize what they mean to the fantasy football landscape more than other owners in your league.
In a micro sense though, look specifically for teams where the right player can take advantage of the current rules. One thing I haven’t mentioned yet in this article is the talent level of the guys who are performing so well as secondary receivers. It is my belief that Jordy Nelson, Victor Cruz, Antonio Brown, and Laurent Robinson are all very talented players who are able to take advantage of the opportunities that have come their way. Not all of the high-yardage passing teams in the league have these types of talented second WRs yet though, or maybe some are just too young and haven’t bloomed yet. If you believe guys like Titus Young, Vincent Brown, or Brandon LaFell have the talent to make a leap forward, they are in the ideal situations to break out. If you don’t believe in those players’ talents, be sure to keep an eye on any free agent or rookie acquisitions by Detroit, San Diego, or Carolina, and they seem like the best situations for a WR2 to become the next Nelson or Cruz.
In conclusion, based on the evidence I presented above, I don’t see these types of seasons by secondary Wide Receivers to be flukes (with the caveat that the players remain in their current situations). I think there will certainly be regression in Jordy Nelson’s touchdowns and Victor Cruz’s yards, but I still believe these guys are players to target if their owner thinks that their great seasons were random occurrences. The combination of the current environment in the NFL and each of these player’s specific team situations is going to allow these players to shine, and they have enough talent to take advantage of their opportunities. I’d much rather own a guy like Cruz than a primary WR on a bad passing team. Situation matters in fantasy football, and now more than ever, it applies to the Wide Receivers.
– Bob Mozitis can be found posting under the name bobbytheo3 on the DLF Forum.