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Fantasy Football WR Exit Interview: New stars rise, others fade at loaded position

In Sports
January 25, 2024

For several years, I’ve been a huge proponent of building fantasy rosters through the wide receiver position. I want to attack this position early and often, and I want to leave the draft with one of the strongest wideout rooms in the league — ideally the very best. It’s a position where waiver wire help is often hard to find, and in many years the star receivers hold up better than the star running backs.

Did this strategy work in 2023? I suppose it depends on who you picked. And while some of that is standard in this game we play — any good strategy can fail if you pick the wrong players, and any silly strategy can work if you land on the right players — the 2023 wideout landscape had a lot of quirkiness to it.

Consider some of the stories of the year at this position:

Injuries (and injured teammates) were a major problem

Consensus No. 1 overall pick Justin Jefferson missed seven games with a hamstring injury, though he still had a remarkable 1,074 yards in just 10 games played. Ja’Marr Chase missed Week 16 and battled a shoulder injury other weeks, while his quarterback, Joe Burrow, had a washout season. Cooper Kupp, Jaylen Waddle, Tee Higgins and Christian Watson missed significant time. Garrett Wilson’s upside evaporated on opening night, when Aaron Rodgers was injured in the first series.

Several stars had major slumps

Stefon Diggs didn’t see 100 yards after mid-October, and he had just one touchdown in his final 10 games, including the playoffs. A.J. Brown lost his way down the stretch, like the entire Philadelphia offense. Of course, he was also playing hurt. Calvin Ridley had some major scoring droughts. The Pittsburgh passing game was a mess until Mason Rudolph saved the day late in the year — perhaps too late to salvage fantasy seasons. Davante Adams had his worst yards per target in eight years.

The rookies outplayed the second-year receivers

Part of this was skewed by Puka Nacua, the wide receiver story of the year. He finished as the WR6 (half-point PPR scoring, excluding Week 18) and was a waiver-wire bonanza for anyone who paid up after Week 1.

It was funny how the rookie receivers crushed the second-year receivers this year (and most rookies were cheap). Using half-point PPR and ignoring Week 18, Rashee Rice (WR22), Jordan Addison (WR23), Jayden Reed (WR25), Zay Flowers (WR27) and Tank Dell (WR36) all provided nice returns, especially when you factor in the acquisition cost.

The sophomores were a tough watch at times. George Pickens eventually rose to WR20, but most of it came towards the end of the year, when it was too late for fantasy managers. Chris Olave (WR21) was held back by Derek Carr. Wilson’s WR30 finish was all about his lousy quarterbacks. Romeo Doubs (WR35) was OK, nothing special. Anyone who went after Drake London (WR40), Jahan Dotson (WR55) or Christian Watson (WR61) felt the sting.

So who were the right WR answers? Glad you asked.

CeeDee Lamb finished the year as the WR1, dominating the final two months when the Cowboys fully steered the offense into him. He’s still a pup, entering his age-25 season next year.

Tyreek Hill tailed off slightly after a ballistic start, but he’s still an uncoverable freak and the star of the Mike McDaniel offense.

Amon-Ra St. Brown was remarkably consistent, a target hog who clicks with QB Jared Goff and OC Ben Johnson. The Sun God is also on the escalator, set for his age-25 campaign next year.

Mike Evans had a long touchdown drought in the final Tom Brady season, but OC Dave Canales and new QB Baker Mayfield got Evans back on track in 2023. The Evans HOF ticket has probably been secured already. Now Tampa Bay needs to find a way to keep him.

Nacua was more NFL-ready than anyone expected, and took full advantage of Cooper Kupp’s injury absence and skill deterioration. Apparently you should eat breakfast and talk football with Matthew Stafford any time he asks.

DJ Moore (WR7) clicked with Justin Fields, and although the production wasn’t always consistent, the highs were glorious.

Any skill player you drafted on the Niners made you happy, which obviously includes Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk. San Francisco was the fantasy offense of the year, nothing else remotely close.

Amari Cooper was a league-tilter later in the year, as the Browns discovered that dusty veteran QB Joe Flacco could still press the ball deep.

C.J. Stroud was more ready to play than anyone expected, and that led to a breakout year from Nico Collins (WR17) and a useful one from Dell as a rookie.

I wouldn’t call Michael Pittman Jr. or Adam Thielen league winners, but they easily beat their ADPs. And as mentioned above, several rookies provided an ADP profit or validation for FAB funds dispersed.

Courtland Sutton beat his seasonal projection despite modest volume because he excelled around the goal line, making several outstanding boundary catches. Sometimes we go too far with rate regression; Sutton’s high TD rate was a feature, not a bug.

What’s the receiver plan for 2024?

I’m still going to draft this position very proactively in the early rounds. Although the 2023 rookie class made the waiver wire more fruitful than usual at this position, I think it’s a mistake to start thinking we can soft-pedal the wideout spot and find free stuff later. It’s great when it happens, but it will often not. When I look for a free-agent wideout, my expectations are usually very modest.

I’m going to give a lot of star receivers an injury pass (or a teammate injury pass) and draft them aggressively yet again. I suppose that’s probably a universal strategy when it comes to Jefferson, Chase and Wilson (who’s actual proaction was comically lower than what he probably earned; you could not find a more screaming “buy” for 2024).

I will likely be reactive, not proactive, though, with the 30-something receivers. Perhaps Hill is an exception; he’s been a unicorn his entire career. But I’ll have to really like the ADP on Allen, Diggs, Ridley (a sneaky 30 next year) or Tyler Lockett before I punch the ticket. And I hate to say it, but with an ADP correction likely coming on Evans, I’ll be cautious there, too. I’m pretty sure I’m done drafting DeAndre Hopkins.

Although it might be unrealistic for the 2024 rookie class to match the production the 2023 kids just produced, I will be more open-minded to potentially taking first-year receivers in redraft leagues, depending, of course, on what teams they land with.

I might be a little more play-caller sensitive when I compose my ranks and draft strategies. So many right answers from 2023 were tied to the best play-callers in the league, no coincidence. It’s common to be especially quarterback-sensitive as we build our receiver rooms, but we also need to give a second look to who’s designing the plays and calling them on Sunday.

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