Recently, I discussed the second-year wide receivers I am most excited about for dynasty leagues heading into 2023 – some in absolute terms and some against cost. In the minds of many readers, the list had a few glaring omissions they gleefully pointed out. Those reactions inspired this article.
I have been a proponent to varying degrees of most of the following players at one time or another. At a cheaper cost, I might happily buy in on all of these profiles. But as it stands, all appear grossly mispriced today. In each blurb, I draw a comparison to at least one other player – at similar or lower cost – I much prefer.
George Pickens, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
Dynasty (DLF) ADP: Round 5, WR28
George Pickens ranked 60th of 105 qualifying WRs with 1.44 YPRR last year – below all qualifying rookies in his class, save for Alec Pierce, Tyquan Thornton, and David Bell. We make fun of Diontae Johnson for being inefficient, but Pickens was actually worse than him in this stat, largely because he was vastly inferior at commanding targets – Johnson was targeted on 25% of his routes while Pickens was targeted on just 15% (ranking 89th of 105). For perspective, Pickens was targeted on a lower percentage of his routes than Allen Robinson, K.J. Osborn, and DeVante Parker. He was essentially tied with wind-sprint king Marquez Valdes-Scantling.
Of course, rookies usually improve in Year 2. But the history of rookies who were as bad as Pickens at earning targets isn’t great. In 2021, the only rookie WRs with over 200 routes who recorded a lower TPRR than Pickens were Antoine Wesley, Dyami Brown, and Terrace Marshall. Josh Palmer and Nico Collins were better. The only rookie “hits” in this range that PFF has data on going all the way back to 2007 are DeAndre Hopkins, Marvin Jones, and, I guess, Jakobi Meyers? But those three hits live in a sea of misses.
Self-accountability time – I’ve been known to like Jahan Dotson this offseason, who was only slightly better than Pickens in these per-route stats, and who is only about a round cheaper in startups. What’s the difference?
Here’s a trade secret – generally, rookies will improve as the season goes on. You can make almost any rookie look good using a six-week split. From Weeks 13 to 18, Pickens improved his YPRR to 1.74 (39th) and “improved” his TPRR to… 15% (87th). In comparison, the finally-healthy Dotson was top-15 in YPRR and top-24 in TPRR during that split, besting teammate Terry McLaurin in both. You won’t find any split where Pickens was out alpha-ing Johnson – Pickens never once led his team in targets! Johnson led him in 15 of 17 games while Pat Freiermuth led him in the other two.
Even in depth-adjusted yards per target – a stat that measures how efficient a receiver is given that they are targeted (while controlling for target depth so as to be superior to raw YPT), Pickens was just 42nd. If a player is 42nd in a stat tailor-made to filter out their biggest weakness, I see that as a problem.
More concerning, Pickens ranked 100th out of 105 qualifying WRs in yards after the catch per reception – he was the catch-and-fall-down WR that your friends make fun of. Pickens has always been this player – his 3.1 YAC/reception for Georgia in 2020 was 2,989th of 3,416 qualifying FBS WR seasons since 2014 (13th percentile). To make this style of play work in the NFL, a player must command a large number of targets, a la Hopkins or Diontae. I would bet against Pickens becoming one of those players while the other is dominating him in target share.
Bottom-8 WRs in YAC/reception, 2022— Ryan Heath (@QBLRyan) April 9, 2023
98. A.J. Green - 2.5
99. Allen Robinson - 2.4
100. GEORGE PICKENS - 2.3
101. Marvin Jones - 2.3
102. Adam Thielen - 2.2
103. Courtland Sutton - 2.1
104. Keelan Cole - 2.1
105. Van Jefferson - 1.5
Luckily he did this, so you can sell for a 1st pic.twitter.com/CsnjA0GGk8
It seems Pickens simply has trouble getting open – 28.2% of his targets were contested, a top-10 mark last year that doesn’t place him in great company:
Top-10 WRs by Contested Target Rate, 2022— Ryan Heath (@QBLRyan) April 15, 2023
1. DeVante Parker (38%)
2. Terrace Marshall (36%)
3. D.K. Metcalf (33%)
4. Nick Westbrook-Ikhine (32%)
5. Michael Gallup (30%)
6. Corey Davis (30%)
7. Alec Pierce (29%)
8. Keelan Cole (29%)
9. Gabe Davis (28%)
10. George Pickens (28%)
This playstyle definitely leads to lots of highlight-reel catches (a stat Pickens trailed only Mike Williams in last year, per Fantasy Points Data), but it doesn’t always lend itself to significant fantasy production. Pickens still has dynasty value because he made that catch last September. It’s probably time to re-roll for that late Rookie 1st.
Treylon Burks, WR, Tennessee Titans
DLF ADP: Round 4, WR23
Treylon Burks was fine in his rookie year. His 1.83 YPRR ranked 36th among qualifying WRs, and his 22% TPRR also ranked 36th. Unlike Pickens, Burks offered utility after the ball arrived, finishing top-20 in YAC/reception.
Burks even somewhat dispelled two large concerns with his prospect profile – route tree and ability to play outside. 56% of Burks’ receiving yards in his final year of college came on screens and go routes, but just 9.7% of his yards and 13.2% of his targets came on screens as a rookie in the NFL. Both numbers are top-45 among rookie WRs since 2007, but aren’t so elevated as to concern me given the success of players like Dez Bryant, Marquise Brown, CeeDee Lamb, Jaylen Waddle, and Doug Baldwin, who ranked higher in one or both stats as rookies.
Burks also put to rest any concerns he’d be a slot-only player in the NFL by running 78.4% of his routes from outside. Granted, he had a much harder time out there (1.75 YPRR, 44th) than inside (2.04 YPRR, 24th), but again, not to any degree that raises alarms. If Burks cleared up all of his red flags, why is he in this column?
For starters, the history of Round 1 picks who produced as few receiving yards per game in Year 1 as Burks did isn’t great. Burks’ 40.4 YPG ranks 32nd of 50 Round 1 WRs since 2010. Only four of the 18 players ranking below him have ever achieved even a 1000-yard season, while Mike Williams and Demaryius Thomas were the only ones to do it multiple times.
Round 1 NFL Draft picks are usually given every opportunity to produce, so if they do not do so immediately, it usually means trouble. Since I’m referencing him constantly in this article, Jahan Dotson was 26th in YPG among that group of rookies, but is drafted two full rounds later than Burks in startups.
It really does all come down to price. Christian Watson is priced similarly, and while he does share some red flags with Burks — namely, relatively small samples of routes, lackluster route participation early on, and uncertainty at the QB position — the bet on Watson has a much higher potential payoff. Watson bested or blew out Burks in every efficiency stat (2.49 to 1.83 YPRR, 27% to 22% TPRR, 0.5 to 0.0 depth-adjusted yards per target, 6.8 to 5.2 YAC/reception). He also earned more valuable opportunities – Watson was the WR22 in XFP/game in the second half of the season, while Burks ranked as the WR47. Some of this reflects differences in offensive playcalling and QB play, but examining the other players within the Titans’ offense raises another unflattering comparison…
Did Chig Okonkwo really have more yards than Treylon Burks last year on 82 less routes? pic.twitter.com/mWcWgAUJp6— Ryan Heath (@QBLRyan) April 7, 2023
That’s right: Chigoziem Okonkwo, a 4th-round rookie TE, gained eight additional yards on 82 fewer routes than Burks. Okonkwo impressively accomplished this on a lower aDOT (7.7 to Burks’ 11.6), and while creating more than Burks after the catch (8.0 YAC/rec to Burks’ 5.2). It was clearly not impossible to be hyper-efficient in the Tennessee offense.
Yes, 29% of Okonkwo’s yards came on just three plays. But we can play that game with Burks as well – his three longest plays contributed 33% of his total receiving yards on the year. I am not arguing that Okonkwo’s production is more repeatable than Burks’. Both had under 500 receiving yards – we don’t want that to repeat! But Okonkwo’s efficiency ought to dampen how seriously we are willing to excuse away Burks’ middling season as a product of his situation.
I do not hate Burks. I believe he has upside in the NFL. If he were one or two rounds cheaper in dynasty startups, I would be happy to overlook most of what I’ve laid out. But as of now, he’s solidly in the sell column for me, as his production and peripherals do not measure up to players with similar risk profiles around his ADP.
Rachaad White, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
DLF ADP: Round 6, RB20
Anybody reading fantasy football Twitter through most of last season would have come away with the impression that Rachaad White was a hyper-efficient and explosive playmaker tragically blocked from playing time by the NFL gerontocracy. But there was scarcely little evidence that White outplayed Leonard Fournette (who is currently unemployed) in any area.
On the ground, White was only slightly better in explosive play percentage (52nd of 67 qualifying RBs) compared to Fournette (61st). Fournette’s .12 missed tackles per attempt also ranked a lowly 61st, but it was better than White’s .09 (62nd). White and Fournette were stuffed the 12th-most and 15th-most often. White’s 2.54 yards after contact per attempt (57th) was only just better than Fournette’s 2.26 (65th).
Yes, the Buccaneers had lackluster run blocking in 2022 – they ranked 23rd in rushing yards before contact and 31st in ESPN’s run block win rate. But White was no more capable of overcoming his blocking than Fournette.
What about the passing game? Fournette’s 1.4 YPRR (21st among RBs with 50+ routes) topped White’s 1.2 (32nd). White was targeted on 24% of his routes to Fournette’s 23%, but did much less when he received the ball. White’s 6.5 YAC/reception ranked just 61st of 84 qualifiers, significantly below Fournette’s 8.1 (31st). If White is an explosive athlete, it certainly didn’t show on the field at any point.
Receiving was supposed to be White’s calling card entering the league. So why would we expect him to fend off an incoming rookie RB if his efficiency is comparable to that of Michael Carter and Dare Ogunbowale? Even recent arrival Chase Edmonds had similar marks in YPRR and YAC/reception last year and could significantly cut into White’s workload through the air. A Day 2 pick at the position could have us discussing White in the same breath as those three before long – limited third-down specialists who don’t even perform their specific role particularly well. White was 72nd in PFF’s pass block grade, suggesting he’s unlikely to hold off a rookie like Zach Charbonnet or Roschon Johnson for any real length of time.
I’ve also yet to mention that the offensive environment in Tampa Bay is likely to change dramatically. The Buccaneers just averaged 44.2 pass attempts per game, the 2nd-most of any team since 2010. Of the top-10, those teams threw an average of 6.0 less times per game the following year. Add in that Tom Brady is now retired, leaving Baker Mayfield and his career 31.4 PA/gm sitting atop the depth chart, and it becomes quickly apparent that White needs to massively step up his efficiency while monopolizing early-down and goal-line work to keep up.
Much of White’s allure as a prospect rested on his college production, but in hindsight it appears less impressive. Xazavian Valladay transferred to Arizona State as a 5th-year senior and proceeded to approximate White’s senior-year production:
Arizona State RBs— Ryan Heath (@QBLRyan) April 15, 2023
Xazavien Valladay (2022): 252 touches, 1,481 yards from scrimmage, 18TDs
Rachaad White (2021): 225 touches, 1,456 YFS, 16 TDs
Valladay is projected to go undrafted. It at least makes you wonder how legitimate White's production was.
Healthier and slightly cheaper alternatives to White’s age and risk profile include RB27 Cam Akers and RB30 James Cook. Akers flashed bell-cow abilities in the final six weeks of the season, ranking top-5 in total touches and backfield opportunity share while showing off his elusiveness by ranking top-3 at the position in missed tackles forced per touch (0.31, min. 50 touches). Cook ranked top-3 on the season among 100+ touch RBs in yards per touch (behind only D’Andre Swift and Jerick McKinnon) and 2nd in explosive play rate. The pair is perhaps just as likely to receive competition as White, but at least they’ve flashed actual difference-making ability in one phase or another.
Deebo Samuel, WR, San Francisco 49ers
DLF ADP: Round 3, WR19
While not as egregiously overvalued as he was last offseason, Deebo Samuel remains an incredibly fragile asset. Though undoubtedly talented, the opportunity required for Samuel to be a difference-making producer appears unlikely to materialize.
His 13.9 XFP/game was 24th among WRs last year, which felt disappointing to those who rostered him. But that was technically an improvement compared to his 12.3 XFP/game (32nd) in the 2nd half of 2021, when Samuel began taking on his hybrid rushing/receiving role. Few fantasy managers noticed the issue then, but only because he happened to average a mind-blowing, league-leading, and unsustainable 7.7 fantasy points per game over expected, largely driven by his averaging an insane 1.0 touchdowns per game. Fast-forward to 2022, when Deebo’s scoring came down to earth, and he averaged 0.7 fantasy points per game under expectation.
The only point during Samuel’s career in which he has seen anything resembling the volume of a top-12 WR was in the first half of 2021, when he saw 17.8 XFP/game (WR7). This came at a moment in time when Jimmy Garoppolo was the QB and Brandon Aiyuk was in Kyle Shanahan’s doghouse, running a route on just 69.0% of dropbacks to Samuel’s 88.6%. Since Week 9 of 2021, Aiyuk has averaged 2.18 YPRR and 28.9 routes/game to Samuel’s 2.03 YPRR and 27.3 routes/game.
Samuel’s rushing volume (which, as demonstrated by XFP, did not make up for lost targets anyway) also came at a moment in time. He averaged just over 5.0 rushing attempts per game from Week 9 of 2021 to Week 6 of 2022. Christian McCaffrey made his 49ers debut in Week 7, and from then on, Samuel averaged just 2.7 rushing attempts/gm and received only one attempt inside the 10-yard line. He missed some games due to injury in this period, but it’s not as if that’s uncommon for him.
In other words, Deebo has not been set up for fantasy success since a time when the 49ers’ offensive personnel was drastically different. He’s two years older than Aiyuk and was outproduced by him last year, yet Samuel is somehow still drafted nearly two full rounds earlier. And Trey Lance could start a significant number of games this year, likely only further cratering this offense’s pass volume.
Samuel is currently the only player age 27 or older being drafted among the top-24 WRs who did not produce top-24 numbers last year. There are so many routes (Lance winning the job, Aiyuk improving further, injury, or just aging out) to Samuel never sniffing top-24 dynasty WR value again.
D’Andre Swift, RB, Detroit Lions
DLF ADP: Round 4, RB14
I have been a D’Andre Swift believer since he entered the league. But he is now an incredibly unstable dynasty asset.
Swift had just a 34% backfield opportunity share last year in games he was active. Of course, healthy and active are two different things, but that ranked 53rd among all running backs, well below Jamaal Williams (47.6%) and in line with players like Damien Harris and Kenyan Drake. The Lions also utilized Justin Jackson (14.9%) far more than Swift enthusiasts should be comfortable with.
Season-level opportunity share doesn’t tell us everything; Swift’s opportunities are mostly targets (which are about twice as valuable as carries), and the season-long numbers could be skewed by the games in which Swift was not at full health. We can solve both problems by looking at XFP on a week-by-week basis.
Of the 14 games both Swift and Williams were active together, Swift had more XFP in just five (Weeks 2, 12, 13, 14, and 15). Swift got in three full practices during Weeks 1, 8, 11, 12, 13, 15, 16, 17, and 18. In other words, Williams received more valuable opportunities than Swift even during six of the nine weeks that Swift was healthy enough to practice fully every day.
The knock on Swift was supposed to be that he isn’t a great rusher. That said, why wouldn’t the Lions play him over Williams, who had just 1.5% of his carries go for over 20 yards (50th, Swift was 24th), forced a missed tackle on just 12% of his carries (60th, Swift was 9th), and averaged just 2.7 yards after contact per attempt (49th, Swift was 9th)? It seems ludicrous at first glance.
Getting to the bottom of this is (in my opinion) fairly complicated, but it provides a great demonstration of how powerful Fantasy Points Data is. If you’re too pressed for time to read the rest of this blurb, just know that Swift’s per-touch efficiency doesn’t really matter if his team refuses to use him in the red zone, hates his lack of durability, and insists on paying $18 million to David Montgomery (who just led the league in missed tackles forced per attempt).
The Lions loved running man/duo concepts last year, especially in the red zone. This is a gap concept with no pulling lineman that forces the RB to be disciplined in hitting the correct point of attack – Swift seems to struggle here. Man/duo with Jamaal Williams was the single most common call by the team, making up 16% of their rush attempts…but a whopping 32% of the team’s expected TDs came on these runs. Williams compiled 8 TDs (as well as 26% of his carries and 33% of his rushing XFP) on them.
Detroit didn’t allow Swift to run man/duo very often, making up just 11% of his carries (50th). When Swift did run the concept, he averaged just 0.36 yards before contact, ranking 55th of 56 qualifying RBs. His success rate on these carries ranked 45th. In 2021, Swift’s man/duo success rate was 64th of 65 qualifying RBs. These aren’t huge sample sizes, but the fact that the Lions rarely call Swift’s number on these plays is evidence in itself that they don’t like what he brings to the table for them.
Why use yards before contact? This stat normally says a lot more about offensive line play than the RB, but when that’s controlled for (like when comparing players running behind the same offensive line, or comparing how the same player performs on different run concepts), it can become an indicator of how well the RB sees and hits the gaps. In general, the stat says good things about Swift – he was 10th among RBs in overall YBC/attempt and better than Williams on several other concepts last year. But the difference between them on man/duo concepts was glaring.
Williams averaged 1.12 YBC/attempt on man/duo (36th) – still below the league average of 1.43 YBC/attempt but significantly better than Swift. Williams’ success rate on man/duo runs was also middle of the road (35th), but the sheer number of times he was asked to do it (5th-most) suggests the Lions’ coaching staff much preferred him in those situations as a more dependable downhill runner.
Enter David Montgomery, who has something of a reputation for being a dependable, downhill runner. Now, technically, Montgomery was not much better than Swift on duo concepts last year – he averaged just 0.65 YBC/attempt and was actually worse than Swift by success rate – though that was on three times as many attempts and behind a Bears offensive line that ranked 20th in overall non-QB YBC/attempt as opposed to Detroit’s that ranked 3rd.
The bull’s case for Swift is that he stays healthy while improving in the ways the Lions’ staff wants him to enough that they see the light. The bear’s case (and, I believe, the much more likely outcome) is that Montgomery slots right into the Jamaal Williams role, while (unlike with Williams) Montgomery’s 1.5 YPRR (19th) and 0.32 missed tackles/reception (16th) from last year become a real threat to Swift’s receiving work. Now, if the coaching staff sours on him or his durability, they can turn to Montgomery for average play at worst on all downs.
Don’t get me wrong. Swift is still a hyper-efficient player – he was top-10 in yards after contact per touch and top-5 in explosive plays per touch last year. But these stats include receiving plays, and they heavily weigh big-play ability. We care about those attributes for fantasy football, but NFL coaches do not always, for better or for worse.
For all of these reasons, Swift’s value is fragile. RB16 Tony Pollard is a cheaper alternative with similar job security concerns who has provided higher-end production more recently (though, of course, is coming off a serious injury). For more stability, I would look to pay up to the RB9 Jahmyr Gibbs, who offers a similar skill set as one of the most efficient college receiving backs in recent memory, is three years younger, and still has the possibility of being a lead back in the NFL. Worst-case, Gibbs will likely retain some dynasty value if he’s deployed as a mere change-of-pace back this year. Swift will not.