Next Man Up: Wide Receivers

John DiBari

Anyone who has played fantasy football for some time is familiar with the concept of handcuffing your players. In this series, I’m going to take a look at some of the more overlooked backups who could become league winners if the players ahead of them fall victim to injury during the season.

READ: Next Man Up: Quarterbacks | Running Backs

This year, more than any, with a limited off-season and a global pandemic, it sure seems like we may see more backups see significant snaps than we have seen in recent memory. Omitting the obvious targets, I wanted to look at some of the more overlooked reserves who could be league winners if they are forced into action.

In earlier editions, looking at quarterbacks, you can find some overlooked gems. At running back, there are clear-cut handcuffs who need to be owned and plenty of players waiting in the wings who could lead you to fantasy championships. Here, looking at wide receivers, we start taking on more of a deep dive approach. In today’s NFL, many teams go three-wide often, and we are seeing more and more four-wide sets nowadays too. As a result, every single team’s top two receivers are well known in fantasy circles.

Rashard Higgins, WR CLE

Over the last two years, Higgins has played 17 games with Baker Mayfield. In those games, he has totaled 37 receptions on 54 targets, for 542 yards and five touchdowns. Over the course of a full season, that roughly equates to 115 fantasy points, good enough for a WR5 finish.

Over the off-season, starting wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr and Jarvis Landry underwent core muscle surgery and hip surgery, respectively. Landry opened camp on the PUP list but has since been activated. Should they be slow to recover or miss any time, Higgins should see his role increase. A 35-520-5 stat line might be his floor for 2020. For a player entirely off the fantasy radar who has gone undrafted more often than he’s been drafted, you could do a lot worse throwing a dart with your final pick in a startup draft.

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Joe Reed, WR LAC

Virginia’s Joe Reed was one of my favorite rookie sleepers this off-season. Once the NFL draft wrapped up and Reed found himself with the Chargers, I couldn’t be happier. Seemingly already locked in as the Chargers’ WR3 behind Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, Reed might see more snaps than we initially think. Williams has missed seven games over his three-year career, and Allen has missed 26 games over seven seasons.

More importantly, Reed’s kick-return prowess should ensure he’s dressed and ready to go on game days. According to, “Reed finished his Virginia career as the program’s all-time leader in kick return yards (3,042), kickoff returns (106), kick returns for touchdowns (five) and longest return (100 yards, tied for first). He is the only player in FBS history with 3,000-plus career kick return yards and a career return average of 28-plus yards.”

Many players have seen their offensive roles expand after they blossom on special teams.

Tajae Sharpe, WR MIN

It’s hard to get excited over Sharpe, but he is a sneaky, underrated option for those of you in super-deep leagues. In the off-season, the Vikings brought in Sharpe as a free agent on a one-year, one million dollar deal. Over Sharpe’s three seasons in the NFL, he averaged 31 catches, 397 yards, and three touchdowns. It is not an amazing stat line, but the point here is to target overlooked players who could excel if players ahead of them go down.

Ahead of Sharpe is the soon-to-be 30 Adam Thielen and the recently drafted Justin Jefferson, who is already on the COVID-19 reserve list. 23-year old sophomore Olabisi Johnson is in the mix too, but I slightly lean towards the veteran Sharpe, who is still only 25-years old himself. Over the last four seasons, the Vikings’ WR1 has averaged 87 receptions, 1170 yards, and five scores, while their WR2 averaged 66 catches, 813 yards, and seven scores. There is plenty of fantasy goodness to be had if Sharpe finds himself in a starting role at any point during the season, and he is going entirely undrafted.

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Kendrick Bourne, WR SF

Back in 2018, Bourne was second on the 49ers in both targets and receptions while leading the team in snaps at the position. He finished the year as WR67. In 2019, Bourne was only fourth in targets and third in snaps, but he tied for the team lead in touchdowns. He ended the year as WR68. Currently, Bourne is being selected 235th overall, as the 96th wide receiver off the board.

The departure of Emmanuel Sanders and injury to Deebo Samuel should lead to more work for Bourne, even with the addition of rookie Brandon Aiyuk. That potential additional opportunity, plus an established relationship with Jimmy Garappolo, should see Bourne excel early, especially with this weird off-season. Bourne looks to be in-line for another mid-60s finish, outperforming his positional ADP by at least 30 spots.

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Damiere Byrd, WR NE

How deep down the wide-receiver-depth-chart-rabbit-hole do you want to go? With Marqise Lee opting out, Byrd looks to be the Pats’ WR4 right now. Julian Edelman and N’Keal Harry seem to be the team’s one-two punch at receiver while James White is likely the third option in the passing game coming out of the backfield. There are no known commodities at tight end, and 30-year old veteran Mohamed Sanu seems to be the team’s WR3.

I give Byrd a leg up over sleeper darlings Jeff Thomas and Jakobi Meyers because he spent three seasons in Carolina playing alongside Patriots’ new signal-caller Cam Newton. In 17 games with Newton, Byrd recorded 12 receptions, 129 yards, and a pair of touchdowns. Those are not world-beating numbers, but if things play out in Byrd’s favor, he could have a decent ceiling as the Patriot’s third-leading receiver.

Most teams’ top receiving option is well established, and many have an entrenched number two as well. In a year with opt-outs and a nation-wide illness to go along with the normal bumps, bruises, and trips to the IR, you’re going to need to scour the depths of the waiver wire at some point. However, you can get a head start on your league-mates if you target some of the above players before the season even starts.

Dig through depth charts, read the reports coming out of training camps, and if you can stomach it, listen to the coach-speak. Let the information guide you towards the players who are waiting in the wings and may take the next step up when called upon to win you a fantasy championship.

john dibari