Josh Gordon Is Back: Where Should You Draft Him in Fantasy Football?

Gordon is back in business after a four-game suspension is served. Where should he be valued for your fantasy football draft?

There's been a lot of unfortunate NFL player news over the last week, but finally, something positive happened.

Finally. Finally we all get to watch Josh Gordon on a football field again. Finally we get to see him stretch defenses and make stupid-good plays down the field.

Finally, we get to discuss where to draft him in fantasy football.

The obvious issue is that it's not a very cut-and-dried situation. Not only is Gordon suspended for the first four games of the season, but there's interesting upside and downside involved, too. On one hand, if he does anything wrong, things could go south quickly. On the other, Gordon is really, really good at football.

So how should we approach him in fantasy drafts?

Learning From History

Let's first get this out of the way: Gordon had -- perhaps still has -- the opportunity to be a once-in-a-decade type of receiver. In case you forgot, Gordon's first two years in the league were probably better than Calvin Johnson's.

Unfortunately, some off-the-field stuff got in the way of Gordon continuing his pace.

If you recall, Gordon was suspended for part of the season just a couple of years ago, where he ended up playing in five games. That came after his breakout 2013 campaign.

During that 2014 season, Gordon's numbers were anything but inspiring.

Week Targets Recs Yards TDs PPR Points Weekly Rank
12 16 8 120 0 20 11th
13 13 7 75 0 14.5 31st
14 7 2 15 0 3.5 87th
15 7 4 45 0 8.5 58th
16 4 3 48 0 7.8 52nd

He finished as a start-worthy fantasy football wide receiver (top-24, or one that would be usable in a 12-team league that starts two wide receivers) in just one game in 2014, while reaching WR3 status just twice.

This isn't to say Gordon is toast, being nothing more than a low-end WR3 in fantasy football. Instead, it's a reminder that Josh Gordon isn't some mythical fantasy football being who only posts Antonio Brown-like numbers each week he's on the football field.

Well, mostly.

Gordon's 2014 was completely different than his 2013, where he finished as a top-14 wide receiver in every single fantasy-relevant contest he played in.

Week Targets Rec Yds TD Fantasy Points Weekly Rank
3 19 10 146 1 32.8 2nd
5 6 4 86 1 18.6 14th
6 9 7 126 0 19.6 11th
8 10 5 132 1 24.2 6th
11 15 5 125 1 23.5 6th
12 17 14 237 1 43.7 1st
13 15 10 261 2 48.1 3rd
14 10 7 151 1 31.5 2nd
16 16 6 97 0 17.9 11th

And here lies our problem.

Peak Josh Gordon -- or, at least, the peak we've seen so far in his NFL career -- is just about as usable as any other wide receiver in the game. For reference, Antonio Brown's top-15 hit rate (the percentage of games where he finished in the top 15 at the wide receiver position) was 50% last year. Gordon did that in every game in 2013. Every. Single. One.

So solely using 2014 numbers to project Gordon's 2016 isn't totally fair considering how monstrous his 2013 was. And predicting how this year will go based on 2013 isn't desirable, either, when you think about the fact that he hasn't played that way in three freaking years.

What the hell should we do?

Working Out the Math

The issue with suspensions in football and fantasy football is that teams who own these suspended players aren't taking zeroes while the guys are out. A Tom Brady owner this year will have some quarterback in his lineup while Brady is sidelined, just like you wouldn't leave a wide receiver slot empty on your roster while Gordon stays away from his team.

We have to think of this on a weekly basis. (And, really, these exercises should be done more often given fantasy football is a weekly game.)

Optimistically, we're looking at 11 games from Gordon -- we're excluding Week 17 because it doesn't matter for fantasy football. If he were to finish with, let's say, a top-24 performance in each and every one of those games -- something that's not probable at all, but work with me here -- then we're looking at a wide receiver who would've finished with more top-24 games last year than all but three players.

On the flip side, if Gordon kept his usable wide receiver rate that he did in 2014 -- 20% -- then he'd finish 2016 with just a little over two top-24 performances. As you'd probably guess, a lot of wide receivers accomplished that last year -- 76 of them.

Somewhere in the middle is 50% to 60%, a similar mark seen by A.J. Green last year. If we were to assume that rate, then we'd see about 5 to 6 usable weeks from Gordon, which are WR3 numbers.

But let's dig a little deeper.

When Gordon played in 2014, he ended up seeing 27.6% of Cleveland's targets per game. In 2015 during contests where Gordon was active, that number was 28.7%. Those are pretty high market share numbers, but that's what happens when you're a good wide receiver.

If we were to be aggressive and assume he hits the 27% mark when he's back this season -- and that he ends up playing 12 games after his suspension -- then he'd see a 20.25% market share across the entire season (counting games he missed). That would give him -- based on overall pass attempt projections -- roughly 115 targets over 12 contests.

Projecting him out, he'd end up in WR3 territory given the team's quarterback situation. And that includes games where he'd be taking zeroes.

The problem is that Gordon's market share was partially so massive because there wasn't much competition when he was there before. A 23% share across an entire season (instead of 27%), for instance, would lead us to about 100 targets and WR4 numbers. That also seems a little more realistic at this time given he missed all of last season, his most recent campaign showed a dip in production, and the team has a host of better weapons than they did back in 2013 and 2014 with Duke Johnson, Corey Coleman, and a revived Gary Barnidge.

Where Should You Draft Him?

What does this all mean, then?

Well, projecting WR4 numbers across the season for a guy who's going to miss four games isn't a bad thing at all. It means that you should probably treat him as a WR3 on your team -- especially based on the "usable week" exercise above -- with upside. Why only upside? Because, at the end of the day, you're not exactly drafting your WR3 -- depending on where you take him -- to simply live up to WR3 expectations. You need that upside if you want to win your league, and Gordon can certainly give you that.

Ideally, though, if you go wide receiver-heavy, you can snag Gordon as your WR4. And if he ends up being the 2013 version and not the 2014 one, you'll be able to ride him to the fantasy football promised land.