One of the most misleading pieces of information used by essentially everyone, including myself, in the fantasy football community is a player’s end of season ranking. Carson Palmer was the “fifth-best” quarterback. Todd Gurley was the “seventh-best” running back. Doug Baldwin was the “ninth-best” wide receiver. We use these designations because they are easily attained and understood, but in a weekly game like fantasy football, they are often misleading.
We can better understand how a player performed from week to week by looking at how often they posted starter-level games. Some analysts do this by looking at weekly finishes, which is a valuable method with plenty of strengths. I prefer to use statistical benchmarks to judge weekly performances because it helps remove variability from the equation.
A player may finish a given week inside the top 10 with an average score because it was a down week while another player may finish outside the top 10 in a higher-scoring week despite posting a good score. Does that mean the player who finished in the top 10 had a better game? I do not think so. The performance of a player as compared to others at the same position is important, which is why the weekly-finish method of analysis is valid and useful, but the benchmark method gives a better overview of week-to-week performance.
For wide receivers, the benchmarks over the last three seasons in a half-point per reception scoring format are 23 points for an elite (top five) performance, 18.66 points for a WR1 (top 10) performance, 13.68 points for a WR2 (top 20) performance, 10.83 points for a FLEX (top 30) performance and 8.45 points for a passable (top 40) performance.
Antonio Brown had an interesting season from a consistency perspective, recording elite performances in 43.75 percent of his games and dud performances in 25 percent. Much of that instability had to do with the availability of Ben Roethlisberger, who played in just 12 games due to a sprained MCL. Brown was lights out with Big Ben under center, averaging 23.5 points per contest and putting up seven (58.3%) elite performances. Recent history tells us Ben’s health cannot be taken for granted, but Brown has proven he is the elite of the elite whenever Roethlisberger is in the lineup. He should be the first receiver off the board in all formats this summer.
The Denver wide receivers present an interesting problem moving forward. Demaryius Thomas put together a solid season looking at total numbers, but he did not have any elite performances and was a WR1 only a quarter of the time. Emmanuel Sanders put up more big games, but he also struggled to be anything more than a FLEX play most weeks. With Peyton Manning likely out the door, it appears as if Thomas and Sanders will be catching passes from Brock Osweiler in 2016, although it remains a possibility Osweiler bolts in free agency. In six full games with Osweiler last season, Thomas managed one WR1 week and two other WR2-level performances. Sanders played just five full games with Brock, putting up one elite performance and two other WR2 weeks. Unless the offense opens up, it is difficult to envision either player as anything more than a WR2.
Alshon Jeffery, Sammy Watkins, and Keenan Allen did not manage full slates, but the performance of all three while on the field was impressive. Jeffery was on the field for nine games, managing elite performances in 11.1 percent of those contests and WR1 scores in 44.4 percent. Allen managed just eight games, but he was elite in a quarter of those and posted at least a WR2-level score in half of his contests. Watkins was also elite in a quarter of his 12 outings and posted WR2 numbers in 58.3 percent of his active games. Allen’s injury was just a freak accident, but all three players have a checkered medical past. Even so, all three could fall further than they should in drafts this summer.
One of the most useful things about consistency analysis is it allows for the comparison of players who on the surface appeared to have vastly different seasons. Allen Robinson and Brandin Cooks are good examples. Robinson finished sixth in total scoring on the back of 14 touchdowns and is locked in as a WR1 in early rankings. Cooks finished 14th in total scoring and is ranked in a similar position on most lists. When looking at their consistency, however, Robinson was not that much better week to week than Cooks. Both finished with elite performances 18.75 percent of the time, and Cooks posted WR1 numbers at a higher clip than Robinson. Robinson fared better in WR2, FLEX, and passable starts, but that advantage began to disappear down the stretch. None of this is to say Cooks is a better fantasy option than Robinson, but with Robinson’s touchdowns likely to regress and Cooks the clear focal point of the offense moving forward, the gap between the two might be overstated.
Amari Cooper burst on the scene with two WR1 games in the first five weeks, but he almost completely faded down the stretch, posting just two passable games in his last seven contests. One of those games was a dreadful 0-for-8 outing against the Broncos in Week 14. Rookies have been known to hit the wall, and Cooper did manage FLEX numbers in five of his first nine games. Still, it remains likely he is overvalued this draft season.
Golden Tate’s overall numbers last season were solidly in the WR3 range. With Calvin Johnson set to retire, he could see a big bump in 2016. Johnson played in all 16 games last season, but Tate exploded for 337 yards and two scores in the three games Johnson missed in 2014, posting one elite performance and one WR2 week over that stretch. It is unlikely Tate becomes anything more than a low-end WR2, but he could be undervalued.
Pierre Garcon may not be worth talking about, but his name value still appeared to be strong last season despite being a replacement-level fantasy option. Even with DeSean Jackson missing much of the year, Garcon posted zero WR1-level games and only managed WR2 performances 12.5 percent of the time. He has proven to be an extremely low-upside player, and that is not the kind of option I am looking for in my FLEX spot.
Finally, the free agent class for wide receivers is not impressive, but there are some interesting players heading into the market. Travis Benjamin is likely headed back to the Browns where he should play second fiddle to Josh Gordon, but he could be interesting if he escapes Cleveland. Benjamin posted FLEX numbers in half of his game despite playing in quarterback purgatory. Marvin Jones struggled with consistency, as he is wont to do, but he could land in a better target situation. Rishard Matthews posted WR2 numbers in over half of his games despite being the No. 2 option in a dysfunctional offense. If he finds a bigger role, he could be a sleeper. Jermaine Kearse, Rueben Randle, Brian Quick, Mohamed Sanu and Andre Holmes are all names to watch as well. Randle is terrible, but the rest could end up as nice fliers if they find the right situation.