By Neil Dutton, Player Profiler
Special to Yahoo Sports
If you read the comments on Matt Kelley’s piece last week on late-round slot receivers, you’ll notice a theme. Fantasy gamers often fixate on the early-round players.
Will Todd Gurley go first overall, or will it be Le’Veon Bell? How many receivers will go in the first round? How early is too early to take Rob Gronkowski (SPOILER ALERT: it’s never too early to Gronk)?
High profile players command attention. Fortunately, new advanced stats and metrics help to cancel out the narrative and focus on the numbers that predict performance. More specifically, football analytics are best applied in the later rounds of fantasy drafts when the more obscure league-winners, such as Adam Thielen in 2017, are vacuumed up by metrics heads like myself.
With this in mind, these three wideouts have easy paths to No. 1 receiver roles on their respective offenses, and if things break right, they could be this year’s Adam Thielen and the key to unlocking a fantasy championship.
Kenny Stills in prime position with Dolphins
Stills is perpetually undervalued in fantasy football. Despite two highly efficient years in one of the more inconsistent offenses in the NFL, Stills often goes in Round 12 of 12-team leagues, after at least 50 other receivers have been selected. While the Dolphins coaching staff have spent countless hours proclaiming to the world that DeVante Parker “could” be great, there is no reason to blow smoke on Stills. He just delivers.
In the last two seasons, 45 receivers have caught more passes than the 100 Stills has reeled in. But Stills has been the WR28 in PPR scoring over this period, thanks in no small part to his 15.7 yards per reception. 25 wideouts have seen at least 175 targets in this time, and only six receivers have a higher yards per catch.
With Jarvis Landry now in Cleveland, 160 targets are up for grabs in the Miami offense. While many think the Dolphins slot role was strictly the purview of Landry, it should be noted that Stills did play in the slot on 36.4-percent of his snaps in 2017. He averaged an astronomical 15.6 yards per reception from the slot, compared to Landry’s 9.2 slot YPR last season.
There is also a history of production between Ryan Tannehill and Stills. In 2016, the last time we saw Tannehill, he averaged 7.41 Adjusted Yards Per Attempt (AY/A) when targeting Stills.
While we should never pay too much attention to what the Dolphins say about their players, we should note what they do with their money. They didn’t want to pay Landry, so they shipped him to Cleveland. But thanks to his new contract last season, no offensive player will earn more in base salary in 2018 than Stills. Given the strong financial commitment, a history of production, and his knack for being on the field (he played on 92.7 percent of his available snaps in 2017) the Dolphins will feature him, ideally in the slot. As Miami’s “real” No. 1 receiver, Stills is a screaming value in all fantasy football formats.
Finally the year for Tyler Lockett with Seahawks
Entering his fourth season in the NFL, it’s fair to say that the world is still waiting for the Lockett breakout. He certainly tantalized fantasy gamers after his rookie season, in which he caught 51 passes for 664 yards, along with six touchdowns. Zooming out further, Lockett was a college mega-producer who compiled 22 touchdowns at Kansas State using a combination of 4.40 speed and elite quickness, evidenced by his 10.96 Agility Score on PlayerProfiler.com.
Lockett has enjoyed the best offseason by an NFL receiver. It started when the Seahawks refused to re-sign Jimmy Graham and Paul Richardson and vacated 276 targets from last season’s offense. The lack of any serious competition for Lockett behind Doug Baldwin means that Lockett should easily see a career high in targets and operate as Russell Wilson’s go-to deep threat. The Lockett-Wilson pairing is an ideal skill match as no quarterback attempted more deep pass attempts per game than Wilson in 2017. Beyond deep shots, after finishing outside the top-70 in red zone target share in 2017, Lockett should also receive a higher red zone target share this season in the absence of Graham’s target hogging in the paint.
Game flow will also work in Lockett’s favor, because, the Seahawks offense attempted the fourteenth most passes in the NFL last season, but after the dismantling of the “Legion of Boom,” Seattle will likely be forced to rely on Wilson more than ever to win games.
Lockett’s path is Thielen-level usage hinges on the health of Baldwin’s balky knee. If Baldwin is forced to miss serious time with injury, Lockett should absorb a significant share of Baldwin’s copious targets. If the Seahawks simply implode as a team this season (shhhhhhhhhh), Lockett would benefit most, likely earn a massive payday in 2019, and lead thousands of fantasy gamers to championships in spite of the team’s struggles.
Anthony Miller could make immediate impact in Chicago
No teams made more coaching and personnel improvements than the Chicago Bears this offseason. Only the Cincinnati Bengals averaged fewer plays per game than the Bears 58.3, while Chicago was 30th in points per drive with 1.34. The Bears also attempted the fewest passes per game in the NFL last season, which new head coach Matt Nagy will likely reverse.
Beyond leadership changes, the Bears took significant steps towards improving the talent around young quarterback Mitch Trubisky heading into his second year. The Bears signed Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Trey Burton in free agency before selecting Anthony Miller in the second round of the draft. Miller is an intriguing prospect, and one certainly worthy of late-round consideration.
Bears WR coach on Anthony Miller: ‘I don’t even know where he’s going half the time’: Chicago Bears rookie wide receiver Anthony Miller has been the star of training camp. He’s routinely making plays against the Bears’ starting corners and flashing what… https://t.co/hivLMjhNzE pic.twitter.com/oGuoYTWXdo
— Yahoo Sports (@YahooSportsUS) August 8, 2018
An astounding 46.9-percent of the Bears 2017 targets went to players no longer on the roster, so with these targets up for grabs along with an expected increase in overall pass attempts from a year ago, Miller could see enough volume to make him fantasy relevant on a weekly basis.
A comprehensive review of Miller’s advanced prospect profile reveals an impressive college résumé. He had back to back 1,400-yard seasons to close out his college career and averaged 15.1 yards per reception during his time at Memphis. He tested very well at the agility drills at the NFL Scouting Combine and offers a tantalizing mix between athlete and college producer. He also comes from something of a “pro-style” college offense, which could make his transition to the NFL easier than most.
While he is pegged to man the slot for the Bears, he has been moved around the formation during training camp. This is due in part to his versatility, but of late also due to Robinson’s ongoing ACL recovery and Gabriel’s recent foot injury. Like Lockett, Miller has been playing the No. 1 WR role throughout camp and is an injury setback away from ascending to the top of his team’s target hierarchy. Of this year’s rookie receivers, Miller is best-equipped to eclipse Cooper Kupp’s impressive 2017 rookie season. And it gets better… Miller’s 11th round ADP in 12-team leagues offers the ultimate low-risk, high-reward option in fantasy drafts.