Predicting the Target Leader on Every Team AFC
In this two-part series, we'll look at every team and give a quick rundown of the betting favorite to lead the team in targets plus one darkhorse who has a chance of usurping the leader. The darkhorse might not be the second-most-likely player to lead the team in targets. They're simply the player that is being slept on the most to take the throne.
This isn't just predictions for the sake of making them. Use this as a way to find inefficiencies in markets (season-long drafts, Week 1 DFS, and prop-betting) by checking our notions of which players are actually locked in as their team's top option and which may be getting too much credit from the public. Each team will fall into a tier of how confident we can be that their target leader is who we think it will be.
Injuries aside, there's simply no reason to even imagine scenarios that would see these players fall short of their target expectations. Davante Adams and Michael Thomas occupy the No Doubters + tier in the NFC but no one from the AFC is quite as dominant over there teammates as those two.
Favorite: A.J. Brown
A.J. Brown buried any remaining Corey Davis truthers with 1,051 yards on just 52 receptions last year. That's the third-fewest receptions for a receiver to hit the millennium mark in the past quarter-century. A reasonable amount of regression will be offset by more volume as Brown continues his ascension in year two.
Darkhorse: Corey Davis
Like a zombie reaching its hand through the dirt, Corey Davis believers will rise again this year and there's, unfortunately, no other wideout in Tennessee worth examining outside of the former first-rounder. Three collegiate seasons of 1,400 plus yards do indicate that he still has the potential to be a competent second option.
New England Patriots
Favorite: Julian Edelman
Julian Edelman has led New Egland in targets four times in the past seven seasons and could have done so a few more times had injuries not plagued him. With James White as his biggest (not literally) competition for targets, the path is set for another 100-reception season from Edelman, even if he does so with middling efficiency.
Darkhorse: N'Keal Harry
The Patriots' unparalleled misfortune when drafting receivers seems to have continued with N'Keal Harry. The first-round rookie struggled to even get on the field in his rookie season as he posted just 12 catches for 105 yards. With a Breakout Age under 19 and two prolific seasons at Arizona State to his name, there's still hope for Harry. The hurdles to him locking down the No. 2 receiver job in Foxborough are wildly inefficient Mohamed Sanu and UDFA Jakobi Meyers.
Favorite: Keenan Allen
There were a lot of good options to choose from for darkhorse but only Keenan Allen qualified as a true favorite. He's led the Chargers in targets for the past four and a half seasons he's played. His low average depth of target (10.1) should mesh perfectly with Tyrod Taylor's conservative passing style as well.
Darkhorse: Hunter Henry
Process of elimination makes Hunter Henry a very enticing candidate as the Chargers' darkhorse. Mike Williams's role of sprinting straight down the field doesn't necessarily align with Taylor's throwing philosophy and Austin Ekeler plays a position that rarely leads its team in targets. Henry, on the other hand, has been inching toward elite status at his position for years. His receptions per game and yards per game have each increased in every one of his three seasons so one final leap should surprise no one.
These teams all have a clear top option but there are reasons to question that player's exact role.
Favorite: DeVante Parker
DeVante Parker was top-15 among receivers with 128 targets and his 1,798 air yards were good for top-five. The only thing holding him back from reaching a higher tier is how the darkhorse on this team affected Parker's performance.
Darkhorse: Preston Williams
Dolphins UDFA wideout Preston Williams played the first eight games of the season before suffering a torn ACL that cost him the rest of the season. Williams saw eight more targets and 50 more air yards in those games. Parker's gaudy numbers from the second half of the season were impressive but the caveat that Williams was out shouldn't be understated.
Favorite: Mark Andrews
With little competition from Baltimore's wide receivers, Mark Andrews was one of just three tight ends to crest 1,000 air yards last year and led all players at the position with 10 scores. His 852 receiving yards were 268 more than the second-best option in Baltimore.
Darkhorse: Marvin Jones
The Ravens drafted Marquise Brown with the 25th overall pick last year and, despite a foot injury ailing him during the offseason, he opened his NFL career with jaw-dropping 147 yards. His burner skillset proved to work in tandem with Lamar Jackson's cannon of an arm. However, at 5'9" and 166 pounds, there are no current comparisons for Brown that lead their team in targets.
Favorite: D.J. Chark
After a non-existent rookie campaign, Chark came back with a vengeance in his second year with the Jags. Even while Jacksonville was rotating between Nick Foles and Gardner Minshew, Chark managed to secure 73 balls for 1,008 yards and eight scores. His raw athleticism was on full display and unlike Parker, there's no serious threat returning from 2019.
Darkhorse: Laviska Shenault
Laviska Shenault is facing an uphill battle to be prepared for the 2020 season as he was unable to do much at the combine due to an abdominal injury and now enters a young team with no real offseason. If he can overcome these obstacles, his above-average College Dominator and Breakout Age give him the track record of a player who could dethrone Chark.
Favorite: Juju Smith-Schuster
Before 2019 Juju was on a historic path. Only Josh Gordon and Randy Moss had posted more yards at the age of 22. After a season marred by injury and awful quarterback play sidetracked the phenom receiver, seven receivers in NFL history have posted more yards at the same age. The record books say Juju is still on a warpath and an offensive turnaround is just what he needs.
Darkhorse: James Washington
James Washington led Pittsburgh with 735 yards and did so by averaging 1.8 more yards per target than Diontae Johnson. There should be little to no disparity in markets between the two but Washington goes many rounds later in drafts. Enjoy your profits after saving on Pittsburgh's true No. 2.
Is There a Favorite Here?
One player has the inside track to lead each of these teams in targets but their grip on that role is tenuous at best...
Favorite: T.Y. Hilton
T.Y. Hilton dropped 1,270 yards with Andrew Luck at the helm two years ago. Last year, the veteran speedster suffered multiple lower-body injuries costing him six games and most of the speed he normally uses to separate from defenders. Coming up on 31 years old, it's reasonable to ask what Hilton has left in the tank.
Darkhorse: Michael Pittman
The opposite of Hilton, Colts rookie Michael Pittman is built like a true alpha receiver at 6'4" and 223 points. His team's first selection in the 2020 draft, Pittman has the speed to outrun slower defenders and the size to physically dominate small corners. He's a nightmare matchup and Hilton's days as the top dog in Indy are nearing an end.
Favorite: Courtland Sutton
Courtland Sutton's second year in Denver was a smashing success as he recorded 1,112 receiving yards on 72 catches. His rare combination of size, speed, and agility was often impossible to defend, even when quality quarterback play was not on his side.
Darkhorse: Jerry Jeudy
Few players could threaten Sutton's status as a top receiver but the Broncos managed to find one of them via the draft. Jerry Jeudy was heaped with praise for his route running while data fiends lauded him for an 82nd-percentile Breakout Age. Many had him as the top receiving prospect in the stacked 2020 draft and that is enough to push Sutton down into his current tier.
Favorite: Darren Waller
After failing to do anything for a few years in Baltimore, Darren Waller was sought out by Jon Gruden and the outspoken coach clearly knew what he was doing in this case. Waller's freaky speed for a tight end and his ability to generate yards after the catch-he finished second in the metric among tight ends-made it easy for him to blow past the weak receiving option in Oakland. He was poised to do so again prior to the draft.
Darkhorse: Henry Ruggs
Henry Ruggs was unable to record a breakout at Alabama and his 4.27 wheels would seem to align better with a gunslinger QB, not check-down champ Derek Carr. On the other hand, he was taken with the 12th overall pick and will likely own a starting role from Week 1. He'll have more of a chance to upend the leading receiver than most rookies in 2020.
There are two obvious choices but picking between them isn't easy.
Kansas City Chiefs
Favorite: Travis Kelce
The 2019 season saw Kansas City lose Patrick Mahomes for a brief stretch and Tyreek Hill for four games plus most of a fifth. With the whole squad healthy, 2018 gives us a much better representation of what the split between Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill should look like. The best tight end in the league held a 16 target lead over Hill after 16 weeks.
Darkhorse: Tyreek Hill
Despite the predictable target disparity, Hill owns a massive advantage in air yards. Unsurprisingly, having 4.34 speed and Mahomes at quarterback not only gave Hill the edge over Kelce in air yards but it also put him ahead of all but five receivers in the entire league. Regardless of target totals, buying players attached to Mahomes is the correct strategy.
Favorite: Jarvis Landry
Jarvis Landry has led his team in receptions in every one of his NFL seasons. He's also led his team in targets and yards in every season after his first. His first season with Odell Beckham Jr. since college did not change that. Even in their shared final season at LSU, Landry was still getting the better of him. While he may not be the flashiest player in the league, Landry has a target gravity that is nearly undefeated.
Darkhorse: Odell Beckham Jr.
Landry may have Odell's number but there should be no doubt as to which of these players adds more value as a receiver. OBJ's career yards per target is 1.6 yards better than Landry's and he has as many 1,300-yard seasons as Landry has 1,100-yard seasons. Baker Mayfield's meltdown funneled targets to Landry's shallow slot routes but if he improves as a passer, OBJ will once again dominate his teammates in targets.
Favorite: Stefon Diggs
Stefon Diggs is one of the most gifted route-runners in the league but that has rarely converted into team-leading volume. Between nagging injuries and being outplayed by Adam Thielen, Diggs has only finished first on his team in targets twice. Diggs is an incredible player but often gets pigeonholed as the deep threat. With John Brown already occupying that role, Diggs may finally post back-to-back seasons as his team's target leader.
Darkhorse: John Brown
Brown has established rapport with Josh Allen already and the deep threat role could be the target-leader role as well based on Allen's propensity to launch the football. Diggs also faces the uphill battle of switching teams in a truncated offseason. Crazier things have happened than an elite receiver switching teams only to fall flat, just ask Cleveland's darkhorse.
What is Even Going on Here?
Anyone who tells you they can predict the target-leader on these teams with any degree is a liar and you should cease communications with them at once. They will betray you sooner rather than later.
Favorite: Will Fuller
Will Fuller is easily the most gifted receiver currently on the Texans roster. Deshaun Watson has thrown 30 or more passes to 12 different players in his entire NFL career so far and Fullers leads the pack with a 10.9 adjusted yards per attempt when targeted. His 53.7 PPR points versus Atlanta last year are the 18th-most in the history of the league. His production may be spotty and his lower body is certainly not as durable as other receivers but banking on his talent is a +EV bet.
Darkhorse: Randall Cobb
Brandin Cooks may be the popular answer here but he's suffered five known concussions in the past five seasons and that is an injury that tends to worsen and happen repeatedly. He's been subject to multiple ankle sprains. Last season, at the age of 26, Cooks appeared to be out of gas from the start while Cobb managed 828 receiving yards while competing with Michael Gallup and Amari Cooper for looks. Cobb finishing as the second option on this team is far less likely than most fantasy players will believe.
New York Jets
Favorite: Jamison Crowder
Jamison Crowder probably deserves to be in a higher tier because he led the Jets in targets in his first season with the team. He dropped an admirable 78-833-6 line in the face of weak quarterback play and those marks were all team-highs. Now the team has replaced his biggest competition in Robby Anderson with Denzel Mims and Breshad Perriman, a rookie and a first-round bust looking for a home on his fourth team. However, Crowder's career 7.7 yards per target and minuscule average depth of target makes him a particularly weak No. 1 option. Even lesser competition poses a reasonable threat.
Darkhorse: Chris Herndon
Chris Herndon was a non-factor in 2019 after serving a four-game suspension only to immediately succumb to hamstring and rib injuries. He played one game. His rookie season was a different story. Since 2000, only seven tight ends have recorded 500 receiving yards in a season before the age of 23. Herndon and Noah Fant are on the upswing and four of the other five would go on to record at least one season as a TE1. Playing tight end is extremely difficult for young players. The ones who excel early in their career tend to get even better as the years pass.
Favorite: Tyler Boyd
Tyler Boyd is the ideal receiver for Joe Burrow, the Bengals No. 1 overall pick and franchise savior. He's a bigger slot receiver (6'1" and played over half of his snaps from the slot last year) who can beat his opponents with route-running and then turn upfield to generate yards after the catch (10th in YAC in 2019). After leading the Bengals in target two years in a row, this is his job to lose.
Darkhorse: A.J. Green
A.J. Green is an easy choice here but he's 32 years old and coming off a lost season due to a foot injury. He once had an argument as the best wideout in the league but he's missed 29 games in the past four seasons and posted two of his three worst seasons by yards per game in 2018 (77.1) and 2017 (67.4). There's a lot of room for Tee Higgins or John Ross to sneak up on Green.