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Fantasy Football: Reaping What Top Quarterbacks Sow

C.D. Carter looks at the wideouts poised to capitalize on their quarterbacks’ production and blossom into steals come fantasy football draft time.

Fantasy Football

If you fancy a quarterback as a producer of high-end fantasy numbers, then, by necessity, you must also fancy that signal caller’s pass catchers.

It makes sense on the most basic of levels: if one projects a quarterback to make hay through the air, then someone is going to reap what that guy has sown. Somebody — a wide receiver or two, even a tight end or running back — is going to soak up that quarterback’s production and become a reliable fantasy force in their own right.

This doesn’t quite hold true for quarterbacks who post elite numbers thanks to unholy rushing production. If Russell Wilson was going to be an elite fantasy quarterback in 2014, he was going to do so in a decidedly nontraditional way — similar to how Robert Griffin III did for most of his rookie campaign.

We know that the quarterback sponge effect is real, and that top-10 quarterbacks over the past seven seasons have produced precisely half of all top-24 fantasy receivers. Many of those wideouts have the elite quarterback sponge effect built into their average draft positions — guys like Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb in Green Bay, or Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders in Denver.

And lest we forget: big receivers can post big seasons despite their quarterbacks, not because of them, while undersized wideouts almost exclusively have elite signal callers throwing passes their way.

There are quite a few receivers — and yes, I realize it’s April — whose ADP does not yet reflect their quarterback’s potential for top-end fantasy production. That’s not to say that if you simply draft receivers attached to top-10 quarterbacks, you’ll have a top-24 receiver on your roster, but I think the sponge effect could help improve our process, if only marginally.

Below are receivers whose ADPs do not reflect the potential for sponging off the game’s best signal callers, or those who could quite easily rise to elite levels in 2015.

 Teddy Bridgewater, MIN

Charles Johnson: If you’re into Bridgewater as a top-10 quarterback in 2015 — and that’s not exactly bold — then you must be into Johnson as one of fantasy’s top receiver values. Johnson, a metrics freak and a heavy, tall wideout who was banished from Cleveland before catching on with Minnesota, was the Vikings’ unquestioned No. 1 receiver once he was inserted into the starting lineup. Johnson caught 26 passes for 415 yards and two scores over the season’s final six games, is being drafted as the 40th receiver off the board. Bridgewater targeted Johnson 6.1 times per game over the season’s final month and a half, and with Vikings coaches talking up Johnson this off-season, we could (should) see that opportunity increase. I think Johnson’s season-long floor is somewhere around WR24. We’ll have a better idea when 2015 fantasy equity scores come out in June.

Mike Wallace: The receiver for whom the word mercurial was made for could also sponge off the production of a top-10 Bridgewater campaign in 2015. Wallace’s deep-ball prowess made him a top-12 (WR1) option in Pittsburgh even without Ben Roethlisberger posting top-10 numbers or Wallace being the sort of big receiver who can be elite without a top-end signal caller at the helm. The great Pro Football Focus writer Pat Thorman has already pointed out that Bridgewater presents a better situation for Wallace than Ryan Tannehill did, and that Wallace’s ADP (WR29) makes him an increasingly tempting target in 2015. In short, Bridgewater represents a much better deep ball tosser than Tanny, who was among the NFL’s least accurate deep ball passers in 2013 and 2014.

 

Ryan Tannehill, MIA

Kenny Stills: Tannehill truthers, of which there are many, had a pretty good 2014, with their guy putting up QB8 numbers, thanks in part to 309 yards and a score on the ground. Tanny in 2014 notched just 1.8 fantasy points per game less than Peyton Manning. That might make you break out in hives if you took Peyton in the first round. If Tannehill simply produces at 2014 levels, Stills should be a major beneficiary, and at a price that screams value at the moment. He’s the 41st receiver off the draft board, going well after some receivers who will be the No. 3 target in their respective offense. Only 13 receivers notched more fantasy points than Stills from Week 11-17, as Stills posted a silly 83 percent catch rate over that span. He didn’t benefit from an unrepeatable touchdown rate either: Stills scored just twice in those seven weeks. Tannehill once again producing like a top fantasy quarterback likely means that, at worst, Stills will be capable of a top-24 season in Miami. But if you have reason to believe Tannehill will regress in 2015, Stills may be nothing more than a draft day flier.

Jarvis Landry: Tanny’s favorite target over the season’s latter half, Landry saw an encouraging 7.8 targets per contest from Weeks 7-17. The vast majority of those looks were of the rather short variety, as Landry’s average depth of target (aDOT) was a paltry 5.2 over that stretch, per PFF. Only Tavon Austin posted a smaller aDOT. I suppose, with Tanny putting up top-10 fantasy stats, Landry could be a PPR maven — perhaps something akin to a poor man’s Julian Edelman, whose aDOT in 2014 was 7.6. Landry getting 125 targets from Tannehill could make him tough to avoid if his ADP of WR28 remains steady over the next couple months. I see Stills as a vastly better option at the current price point, but Landry should have some equity built into his ADP barring a summer hype campaign that pushes him inside the top-24 receivers off the draft board.

 

Eli Manning, NYG

Rueben Randle: The perennial big wide receiver tease, Randle was a total and complete disaster in 2014 until he decided he wanted to, you know, play football. New York offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo — whose route-running system, in theory, fits Randle well — had Randle running consistent routes over the season’s final two weeks, and it paid off. Randle went ballistic, piling up 12 receptions for 291 yards and a touchdown against Philadelphia and St. Louis. Double and triple coverage on Odell Beckham, Jr. freed up Randle in a veritable parade of one-on-one opportunities. If you see Eli as a top-10 fantasy quarterback in 2015 — and I certainly do — then Randle makes perfect sense as a beneficiary of Eli’s coming top-end production. It’s all about the OBJ Effect here: Eli was fantasy’s QB5 over the season’s final nine weeks as OBJ emerged, and another year in McAdoo’s system (and the assumption that Randle won’t find himself in the doghouse once more) means that projecting the younger Manning for an elite campaign leaves Randle as a potential steal in 2015. Sixty-four receivers are going before Randle right now. His ADP will certainly rise in the next 90 days, and his opportunity will hinge on the role — and availability — of veteran Victor Cruz, who is no sure bet to start the season in Big Blue’s lineup.

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