Fantasy Football: Can Elite Receivers Justify Their Cost?

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Josh Gordon

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no great secret that fantasy football owners spend far too much time fretting about which top-end players they’ll draft in the weeks before the NFL season kicks off.

It’s critically important not to flub those first few picks, ensuring you snag foundational players with provably high fantasy floors. I once drafted Steve Slaton instead of Chris Johnson, just before Johnson became CJ2K, so I know the mind-bending pain and agony of crapping the proverbial bed with those precious first and second round picks.

The first rounds of a draft is not where most titles are won, however. Winners dominate the middle and late rounds, finding massive equity where others don’t.

Josh Gordon in 2013 might’ve been the ultimate example of how draft day equity can arm you with a blow torch with which you can burn down your fantasy league. Gordon, who finished the year as fantasy No. 1 receiver in standard leagues, was the 35th wideout taken in fantasy drafts. That gave you the chance to draft the statistical equivalent of Calvin Johnson in the middle of the eighth round.

Enjoy your stats, indeed.

We’ve already taken a look at some of the most undervalued — and equity-filled — wide receivers outside of the top-20 pass catchers taken in mock drafts. Guys like Cecil Shorts, Brian Hartline, and Golden Tate offer plenty of upside with very little risk.

Why did I only explore the maximum projections of those receivers? Put simply, I think it makes more sense to examine the best-case scenario for those late-round options because if they fail to realize that rosy outlook, you haven’t lost a whole lot (unless their ADPs rise significantly over the next four months).

You’re not going to find equity in most of the top-15 wide receivers taken in drafts, so this exercise is more about seeing who can justify their upper echelon average draft positions. It’s useful, at the very least, as a way of understanding who has the potential to exceed their draft day cost.

I’ve used rotoViz’s similarity score app — a tool I highly recommend — with a few tweaks to generate these median and maximum 2014 projections.

The app, for the uninitiated, takes a player’s closest comparables and gives us the result of what those similar players did the year after the season in question — this being 2013 with an eye to 2014.

Calvin Johnson, DET
Current ADP: WR1
High projection: 344.5 (WR1)
Median projection: 307.2 (WR4)

Nothing to see here. It’s the same old same old for Megatron, who likely would’ve once again been fantasy’s top receiver in 2013 had he played all 16 games. Even his low projection puts him on the cusp of a top-10 season, which would be disappointing, but far from disastrous for fantasy owners.

A.J. Green, CIN
Current ADP: WR2
High projection: 301.1 (WR7)
Median projection: 262 (WR12)

No high-end receiver raised as many red flags as Green, who finished third among receivers in 2013, just ahead of Megatron, who missed two games. Shawn Siegele has already (rightfully) pointed out that Green might not fit as well as we once thought in the elite receiver tier. Median projections will sometimes be a tad frightening, but when max projections are well below a guy’s ADP, we should be alarmed.

Josh Gordon, CLE
Current ADP: WR3
High projection: 358 (WR1)
Median projection: 326.9 (WR1)

If these numbers didn’t make you black out at first glance, try again. Gordon’s high projections would put him neck and neck with Calvin’s miraculous 2011 campaign (1,685 yards and 16 touchdowns on 96 receptions). Perhaps most terrifying for anyone who sees 2013 as an aberration for Gordon is that the third-year receiver was objectively bad in the red zone last season. Gordon is pretty clearly fantasy’s safest bet in 2014.

Demaryius Thomas, DEN
Current ADP: WR4
High projection: 335.4 (WR1)
Median projection: 277.2 (WR12)

Perhaps the departure of Eric Decker will leave even more opportunity for Thomas, who saw 138 footballs come his way in 2013 (9th most among receivers). There’s some concern in that median projection, but it’s worth noting that Thomas posted nice efficiency numbers in 2012 and 2013, on par with Dez Bryant and Brandon Marshall. He’s most certainly a safe re-draft investment with Peyton Manning at the helm for at least one more year. Few elite fantasy producers have such a wide range between high and median projections though.

Dez Bryant, DAL
Current ADP: WR5
High projection: 303 (WR5)
Median projection: 255.1 (WR14)

Bryant, in short, could conceivably justify his 2014 draft spot if he hits his maximum projections, or something close to that. A red zone beast like Dez will always have WR1 well within his range of outcomes, though the median numbers should give us some pause if we have to draft Bryant as a top-4 or top-5 receiver come August. I don’t think Dez is nearly as safe as Thomas, Megatron, and Gordon. He finished as a top-7 receivers in 2013 despite the Cowboys’ fantasy producers becoming victims of game flow nightmares in which opponents would drain the clock by gashing Dallas’ soft front seven.

C.D. Carter is a reporter, author of zombie stories, writer for The Fake Football and XN Sports. Fantasy Sports Writers Association member. His work  has been featured in the New York Times.