The first of my weekly CFF columns for Fantrax focuses on hunting for breakout CFF wide receivers. Receiver is the position that every CFF owner loses sleep over in the lead up to draft day. It’s fairly simple to predict the pass attempts of most college quarterbacks or even come close to predicting the percentage of running back touches in murkier CFF backfields.
However, with the mass proliferation of pass-friendly offenses, there are several FBS teams that can support two, three, and even four relevant CFF wideouts. Identifying breakout wide receivers is one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of CFF, sifting through 130 depth charts containing 8-10 wideouts of all shapes, sizes and graduation classes, looking for the breakout candidates is a daunting task.
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Identifying Breakout CFF Wide Receivers
The key is HOW to identify breakout CFF wide receivers given the constantly improving analytics tools that are employed by collegiate and NFL front offices alike. I watched a recent interview with PFF’s Steve Palazzolo who revealed that he knows for a fact all 32 NFL teams and around 90 FBS teams currently use PFF for pro and college player evaluations. The best college fantasy football players use PFF data, as well, along with advanced datahubs like Football Outsiders and Billy Connelly’s SP+ system.
When analyzing CFF wide receivers in the preseason we’re looking for metrics that can point to a particular player deserving a more prominent role. Catch Percentage, Forced Tackles Missed, Yards Per Route Run, Drop Percentage, and Yards After Catch are useful analytic tools that simply weren’t available a decade ago. Yet with all the technological advancements we’ve seen in that time frame, the most simple and effective way to determine if a player will record 1,000+ yards receiving is target volume.
- In 2019, 58 WR received 100+ targets. In 2018, the number of 100+ target wideouts was 54
- In 2019, 39 WR recorded 1,000+ receiving yards. 37 WR tallied 1,000+ yards in 2018
- Of those 39, 1,000+ yard receiving seasons, 29 of those 39 players received 100+ targets.
- 33 of the 37, 1,000 yard receiving seasons reached the century mark in targets in 2018.
- Meaning of the 76, 1,000 yards seasons in the last two years, only 14 receivers who recorded 1,000+ yards did not receive 100+ targets
- The minimum targets needed to record 1,000 yards was 84 targets in 2019 (Dyami Brown) and 89 targets in 2018 (Lamb)
- 31 WR received 110+ targets in 2019, 20 of them recorded 1,000+ yard seasons.
- In 2018 there were also exactly 31 WR with 110+ targets, 25 of those WR reached the 1,000 mark.
- Of the 62 WR with over 110 targets the past two seasons, 45 had 1,000+ yard seasons
- All of the 13 players who received 126+ targets in 2019 reached the 1,000 yard mark.
- In 2018, all 18 WR who received 125+ targets recorded a 1,000 yard season.
- Last year each WR with 126 targets posted at least 72 receptions and 1,101 yards
- Only 12 players have received 140+ targets in the last 2 years combined, with James Proche leading the way in 2019 with 163 targets and Preston Williams leading in 2018 with 166 targets
When I begin the CFF wide receiver evaluation process each summer, I like to initially focus my attention on pass-heavy teams that throw at least 450 passes per season and have produced multiple 100+ targets wide receivers. Here are the 11 teams that produced at least two 100+ target wide receivers in 2019 and how their wide receiver rooms are shaping up heading into 2020.
HC Nick Rolovich’s Run & Shoot offense produced an unprecedented four wideouts who received a ridiculous 115+ targets each (Byrd/Ward/Sharsh/Smart). Of this talented group, only Smart returns for new HC Todd Graham and former CFF star OC G.J. Kinne, however Rico Bussey just transferred in so there is a credible 1/2 punch still in place here. Please keep in mind Rolovich and his staff are now at Wazzou and though Kinne is a former Tulsa QB running an up-tempo scheme, it’s unlikely the Rainbow Warriors put the ball in the air another 635 times in 2020. Cal transfer Melquise Stovall returns from suspension as the favorite for the WR3 spot, while Lincoln Victor and Nick Marden round out the top of the depth chart.
Bussey broke out in 2018, but was plagued by poor hands having dropped 12-of-his-73 catch opportunities over the last two seasons at North Texas. I view him as a questionable option to take over the Hawaii top receiver role and feel he’s being overvalued as a top-30 WR. Smart is likely the safer pick in my eyes. Even then I would feel more comfortable about the investment if it were closer to WR40 then WR25-30, as I am concerned about how cohesive this Graham/Kinne offense will be in year one and how the receiving roles will be defined.
HC Bronco Mendenhall’s Cavaliers quietly trotted out three high-volume 100+ target wide receivers in Terrell Jana, Joe Reed and Hasise Dubois last season. UVA threw 520 passes, which was good for 5th most in the FBS so there is plenty of opportunity for whoever is replacing Reed and Dubois’ 212 vacated targets. Billy Kemp (5’9/175) caught 75% of his targets in 2019 (34/47), while showcasing his elusiveness by forcing 10 missed tackles in only 34 touches. Kemp’s impressive work in a small sample size is enough for him to be my pre-camp favorite to occupy the starting slot position.
OC Robert Anae will have multiple contenders vying for the WR3 role, including Junior Tavares Kelly and second-year wideout Dorien Goddard and Dontavyion Wicks. Jana caught 73% of his targets (74 receptions/102 targets/886 yds/3 TD) while only dropping one pass all season and boasting a PFF hands grade of 91.7, one of the top marks in the country. He is a solid low-floor option that is being drafted in the WR90-100 range. I like him closer to WR70-75 since he will likely surpass 102 targets this year and have better touchdown luck.
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With a pair of proven starting QB’s in Logan Bonner and Layne Hatcher facing off in one of the hottest QB battles in the country, HC Blake Anderson has the Red Wolves’ passing game humming. ASU finished tenth in the nation in passing yards per game with a 312 YPG average. Just as importantly for CFF purposes HC Anderson pounded his top three WR with catch opportunities. As Omar Bayless, Kirk Merritt and Jonathan Adams Jr. all received 100+ passes thrown their way, finishing with 342 targets between them. Adams Jr. is clearly the most experienced returner and possesses major upside. He received a whopping 41 targets in ASU’s first three games last season before Omar Bayless established himself as the WR1 and received the lion’s share from week 4 onward. If Adams receives a similarly heavy target share to open 2020, watch out.
Brandon Bowling and Dahu Green the early favorites to claim the two open starting spots caused by the departures of Bayless and Merritt. I like Green to handle the WR2 role in this offense and has major sleeper potential if he sees a 100 target load. Adams is rightfully being selected in the WR10-15 range, while Dahu Green is hovering in the WR85-90 ballpark and possesses solid upside.
OC Graham Harrell is a former CFF Icon who formerly tore up Big 12 offenses under Texas Tech Air Raid aficionado Mike Leach. It’s no surprise that Harrell now operates one of the most fantasy-friendly offenses in the country that saw Tyler Vaughns, Amon-Ra St. Brown and Michael Pittman amass 344 targets between them. The graduated Pittman’s 133 targets led the team which are now up for grabs among USC’s ascendant young receiver corps. With 514 passes and 336 passing yards per game distributed through OC Harrell’s offense in 2019, there is plenty of opportunity for highly-touted underclassmen Drake London, Bru McCoy, and 247Sports’ 10th ranked incoming freshman wide receiver, Gary Bryant Jr, to make an impact.
Vaughns (74 recs/108 targets/912/6) and St. Brown (77 recs/103 targets/1,042/6) form one of the elite 1-2 wide receiver combos in CFF and play in one of the most pass friendly offenses in the country. The pair should be prioritized in the WR15-25 range. London is line for the WR3 role and should be viewed as a speculative pick at his WR62 with major upside if St. Brown or Vaughns were to miss time.
OC Mark Whipple made a name for himself at UMASS when his quick-hit passing offense made a star out of former Minuteman WR Andy Isabella who received 146 targets for 101 receptions, 1,696 yards and 13 TD in 2018. Last year as the play caller at Pitt, Whipple focused his passing attack around dynamic all-purpose weapon Maurice Ffrench (96 recs/123 targets/849/4) and sideline threat Taysir Mack (63 recs/111 targets/734/3 TD). Fast-twitch, shifty slot receivers thrive in this system. When Ffrench missed two games last season, playmaker Shocky Jacques-Lewis handled Ffrench’s role in the offense.
In addition to being a shoo-in for my Best Name All-American Team, SJL will likely get first crack in the highly desirable slot role but will have to tighten up the 5 drops he had in 2019. I think Mack is slightly overvalued given his current WR69 ADP given his lack of efficiency last season. SJL is a worthwhile stab in PPR formats anywhere after WR90 in hopes that he locks down the slot.
Easop Winston Jr. and Brandon Arconado each received 104 targets last season, while Dezmon Patmon received another 90 looks for HC Mike Leach’s FBS leading passing attack that unleashed 710 throws last season. All three target leaders depart and new HC Nick Rolovich imports his Run & Shoot offense in what should be a fairly smooth schematic transition from the Air Raid. Unlike Leach, Rolovich and the OC combo of Brian Smith and Craig Stutzmann don’t substitute their WR group like a hockey coach changing lines. So instead of the scatter-shot approach where 8 WR’s cycle through a rotation, Rolo picks his preferred 3-4 starting WR’s and assaults them with pass catching opportunities.
It’s hard to know who Rolo prefers since he hasn’t been on campus to evaluate the position yet, but Renard Bell (54 recs/72 targets/579/6 – 10 AVT/1 drop) and Tay Martin (43 recs/69 targets/564/4 – 9 AVT/3 drops) appear to be the wideouts best positioned to secure a starting role in the new offense. Bell is being ranked appropriately given the potential heavy target load in the WR30-35 range while Martin is hovering around WR70-75. Travell Harris and Kassidy Woods are the next most attractive options from a talent standpoint, but their roles remain up in the air until we get some camp news to chew on. The summer depth chart releases in Pullman this summer will be standing room only affairs.
Along with Hawaii, LSU was the only other FBS school to produce two wide receivers with 120 or more targets. Justin Jefferson (111 catches on 134 targets) and Biletnikoff winner Jamar Chase (84 recs/121 targets) hogged the lion’s share of targets from the greatest quarterbacking performance in history, courtesy of the incomparable Joe Burrow. Terrace Marshall caught 13 touchdowns while receiving the third most targets (46 recs/67 targets) and had six touchdowns in the first four games before sustaining a foot injury he would not return from until week 9. Even upon his return, Marshall was lightly featured until the SEC Championship game where he caught 5-of-7 passes for 89 yards and two touchdowns against Georgia.
Schematically, passing game coordinator Joe Brady departs for greener NFL pastures while OC Steve Ensminger still remains and is joined by new passing game coordinator, and former NFL HC, Scott Linehan. He brings 17 years of NFL experience including 13 spent as an offensive coordinator. Both Linehan and Ensminger have stated the offensive philosophy from 2019 will remain in place. Chase is a top-10 NFL draft selection and Terrace Marshall should inherit enough of Jefferson’s vacated looks to clear the century mark.
Baking in an understandable regression from LSU’s 48 PPG showing of 2019, there should still be room for a third fantasy relevant option to emerge. Listening to a recent interview with LSU wide receivers coach Mickey Joseph, he specifically mentioned Racey McMath as the lead candidate for the WR3 role, while also praising incoming tight end and 247Sports number five overall recruit Arik Gilbert as having the potential to play right away. LSU should remain a premier passing outfit, but matching last year’s school-record 401 passing yards per game is not realistic. Chase is my WR1 in CFF or C2C leagues. Marshall represents a solid value at his recent ADP of WR30. I have him ranked as WR22, which in some drafts means you can save 1-2 rounds of draft capital and still acquire him. He’s a strong buy for me.
San Jose State
SJSU HC Brent Brennan and OC Kevin McGiven have quietly installed a potent air-raid passing system that produced 338 passing yards per game in 2019, good for the 4th highest mark in the nation. Spartan wide receivers Tre Walker (79 recs/116 targets/2 TD) and Bailey Gaither (52/100) both hit the century mark in targets and return in 2020. However Gaither’s poor catch percentage and his inability to corral the many deep ball opportunities he received (9 recs/34 deep targets = 26%) meant he only produced 812 yards despite his high usage. To make it worse, Gaither suffered 8 drops in 60 catch opportunities, a 13.5 percent drop rate, and only managed to force one missed tackle all season.
In comparison, WR3 Isaiah Hamilton caught 42-of-63 targets with a superb 2.70 Yards Per Route Run average that places him in the top 20 of all returning FBS wide receivers in that metric. Hamilton’s line of 43/718/16.7/4 in his first season screams upside. I can’t see Brennan and McGiven continuing to use Bailey Gaither as often in 2020 with promising talents like Isaiah Hamilton and Isaiah Holiness (15 recs/16 targets) in the WR room. To do so would be sacrificing the Spartans’ offensive productivity.
With 498 passes thrown by SJSU in 2019, and a former P5 QB starter in Nick Starkel expected to take the reins from departed QB Josh Love, there’s plenty of CFF value to be found in the late-rounds from this WR corps. Tre Walker is being selected in the WR20 range in recent drafts and is worth the asking price. I intend to prioritize Hamilton over Gaither in later rounds since Gaither requires a too rich for my blood WR90 range investment.
Quez Watkins missed two games but still hit the century mark (63/102) and the underrated Tim Jones (73 recs/103 targets) caught 70% of his passes while forcing 21 missed tackles which is the second-highest mark among returning FBS wide receivers. The offense was pass-heavy, throwing for 290 yards per game while rushing for a paltry 117 YPG. the components of the coaching staff remained in place, i’d be touting USM as a potential haven for sleeper wide receivers this season. However, while HC Jay Hopson returns, OC Buster Faulkner departs for an analyst position at UGA.
USM has a new OC in former ULM offensive coordinator Matt Kubik, who led a Warhawk offense that averaged 253 passing yards and 207 rushing yards per game in 2019. Kubik has shown a propensity for prioritizing the run to a much greater extent than we saw last year at USM, as such this WR group is in a state of uncertainty and hard to recommend beyond the talented Tim Jones (ADP – WR59).
The price was right for The Rod Carey Show to roll into Pennsylvania from his former digs at NIU. System-wise, the Owls weren’t an imposing passing offense last season, throwing for a respectable 255 YPG and scoring a pedestrian 26.3 PPG. However, what Temple OC and longtime Carey Lieutenant Mike Uremovich’s offense lacks in CFF firepower, it makes up with consistency. Jadan Blue (95 recs/144 targets/1,067 yards/4 TD) received more targets in 2019 than any other returning FBS wide receiver in 2020. Branden Mack (59 recs/115 targets) ranks 10th on the list of most returning 2019 targets and serves as the team’s primary deep threat, catching 11-of-32 deep targets and finishing with 904 yards and seven touchdowns.
Third WR and return specialist Isaiah Wright caught 47 passes and now departs. The fourth and fifth leading receivers were departed transfer TE Kenny Yeboah and RB Re’Mahn Davis. This wide receiver pecking order is clearly established and will likely once again garner 100+ targets for both Mack (ADP – WR66) and Blue (ADP – WR40) in 2020. Both are buys at their current draft position with the hope that Temple can reach the 30 PPG plateau.
Perhaps the least intimidating offense of all the teams on this list, HC Tyson Helton’s Hilltoppers accounted for only 25.4 PPG, 128 rushing yards and 259 passing yards per game in 2019. WKU retains Co-OC Bryan Ellis and brings in Co-OC Ryan Aplin, himself a former CFF star and two-time Sun Belt Player of the Year at Arkansas St, from North Alabama where he helmed a pass-heavy offense that threw for 285 YPG last season. Lucky Jackson (94 recs/126 targets/1,136/4) earned the bulk of WKU’s 469 passes last season, which ranks as the 22nd most in the country, and departs. Jahcour Pearson (76 recs/106 targets/809/7) was the clear number two and heir apparent to the graduating Jackson’s workload.
Jacquez Sloan is the most likely receiver to get the second highest workload. Though diminutive at 5’9/170, Sloan (34 recs/50 targets/292/1) has the fast-twitch burst to thrive in WKU’s pass-heavy system, but he will need to be more consistently productive on a week-to-week basis, as he recorded only one catch or less in his last 4 games. His 8.7 YPC leaves much to be desired as well, but he caught 70% of his passes, so he’s at least dependable when called upon. There are no obvious lead candidates to assume the WR3 role beyond Xavier Lane’s 8 career receptions and a pair of JUCO transfers.
Pearson is properly ranked in the WR25-30 range, while Sloan’s on the outside of being selected in most 12-Team formats and being selected in the WR150 range in deeper CFF drafts. Sloan deserves attention in 20-team+ leagues as 100+ targets in PPR have low-floor appeal. I could justify reaching to around WR125 in an attempt to tap his target potential.
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