Fantasy Football: Do Wide Receivers Who Change Teams Live Up to the Hype?
In fantasy football, we want to access every edge we can get.
Drafting a super team is the dream. That's why we spend so much time figuring out trends and projecting usage. Finding shortcuts can certainly help. Rules of thumb can go a long way. There's waiting to draft a kicker and defense. There's waiting to draft even a quarterback and tight end.
There's the running back wall (around age 30) to consider, as well.
Another possible route to go is examining receivers who changed teams in the offseason. There's a notion floating around that wideouts on new squads underperform in their first year. Well, at numberFire, we want to see if that assumption is true.
So, here we are.
I went back to the 2000 season to find wideouts who had at least 50 targets, who then changed teams for the 2001 season and also had at least 50 targets with their new squad.
For fantasy football purposes, we're interested in players we project for large roles. If we expect a player to see fewer than 50 targets this upcoming season, odds are that the fantasy community isn't expecting much.
Further, a low-usage option swapping teams doesn't generally move the needle, unless the hype train gets out of hand or we're hoping for an injury or suspension bounce-back, which is outside the bounds of what we can somewhat accurately measure.
Not included in the sample are players who played for multiple teams in either year. We're focusing on a transition from Team A to Team B with a normal offseason in between.
So we're left with 144 receivers fitting the criteria. What can we learn from their performances?
We'll dig into more specifics later, but as for the whole sample, there is a slight decline in performance in a player's first season with the new team.
The median drop in yards per game for these receivers was 5.05 yards, which is pretty minimal, and their median yards per target mark differential is -0.25. The median difference in PPR points per game is -1.04, and 73 of the 144 receivers (more than half) dropped by at least a full PPR point per game.
So, it's common for a receiver on a new team to fall short of last year's fantasy points per game rate.
By contrast, 44 receivers added at least a full PPR point to their per-game average with their new team, which amounts to around 30% of the sample. It's not a given that these receivers all tank, but it's more likely than not -- when removing context about situations and just looking at performance -- that these receivers take a step back in the PPR points per game department.
If we narrow our scope and look at those receivers truly expected to excel, do things change? For that cutoff, we'll say an average draft position (ADP) of WR16 or sooner, via MyFantasyLeague.
Of the 16 receivers with a top-16 ADP since 2001, just 4 have increased their PPR points per game with their new team. Those were David Boston in 2003 (+3.1), Terrell Owens in 2004 (+3.8), Brandon Marshall in 2012 (+6.0), and Randy Moss in 2007 (+15.2).
Another two in the sample came up half a PPR point short of the prior year's average. The other 10 dropped at least 1.8 PPR points per game, and half of the 16 lost at least 2.0 PPR points per game with their new team.
So, half of the receivers we still believe in enough to take inside the top 16 at the position have fallen at least two points shy in their PPR-point-per-game average in that first year with the new team.
Unsurprisingly, then, banking on top-16 receivers to outperform their ADP after changing teams hasn't been a good bet.
There's some obviousness to this table. Outperforming ADP is harder as your ADP inches closer to the top, and getting a WR20 season from the WR16 in ADP isn't the end of the world. On a similar note, only one of these top-16 picks finished outside the top-28 in PPR scoring with their new team.
No, that's not a win at their cost, but they don't fall off the earth entirely, so we shouldn't treat these receivers like the plague.
Danny Amendola played 12 games and had only 83 targets in his WR55 season (in 2013). The other 15 receivers here topped 100 targets, and 10 of them saw at least 120 targets with their new team. That type of volume is almost guaranteed to net a top-30 season. That's not awful, especially if the ADPs start creeping into the low- or mid-20s.
But to be clear: it's not common to get value from these highly drafted receivers on new teams.
If we open it up to the 38 receivers with a top-30 ADP entering the first season with a new team, we see that just 12 (less than a third) outperformed their ADP in their first year with the new team. One met his ADP.
That leaves 25 of 38 receivers drafted inside the top 30 at their position falling short of their draft cost.
If we pan out even wider, we get 78 receivers with a top-50 ADP who changed teams in our 16-season sample.
Just 25 of them posted a top-24 PPR season, though roughy half (38) were the WR36 or better. Problematically, an additional 30 receivers with a top-50 ADP were worse than the WR50, about 38% of the sample.
These players can still rely on volume to have a top-36 (a WR3) season, but they don't often return elite debut seasons.
Takeaways and Applications in 2018
As of mid-July, five receivers who changed teams this offseason are being drafted inside the top 36 receivers, via MyFantasyLeague's ADP for PPR leagues.
Jarvis Landry (Miami Dolphins to Cleveland Browns) is the WR21, and Sammy Watkins (Rams to Kansas City Chiefs) is the WR27. And a bit farther down the list is Michael Crabtree (Oakland Raiders to Baltimore Ravens) at WR34.
The overarching trend since the turn of the century suggests that one or two of these players may outperform their ADP.
Our projections actually like Landry (WR18 in PPR formats) and Crabtree (WR24) to do it, while Robinson (WR20), Cooks (WR22), and Watkins (WR41) are projected to fall shy, either by a little or a lot.
Again, that still pits four of the five inside the top 30, which has been the norm for high-drafted receivers on new teams. The volume can drive them to usable seasons.
However, if you're trying to gain a lot of value from an early-round receiver, you may want to look elsewhere as the production doesn't usually justify the price.