Ascending Offenses and Fantasy ADP | Anticipating Breakout Wide Receivers

by Joel Ybarra · NFL

Fantasy ADP Is Wrong

Fantasy ADP is a foundational weapon we have to help us dominate in drafts. It is a commonly held view that we should trust the wisdom of the crowd and avoid reaching too far beyond consensus. It is also common knowledge, however, that ADP and rankings are just a place to start. There will be BIG HITS – players drafted in middle and late rounds who defy ADP and far outdo what was expected from them entering the season. Fantasy drafting is about understanding what forces act upon ADP and produce these meteoric rises. It’s great to draft players in round one or two that live up to expectations. It’s even better to draft players in round three and beyond who dust their ADPs by several rounds.

Fantasy ADP in 3-D

Fantasy ADP is linear. The big innovation in manipulating ADP is tiered ranking. Tiers are still linear, however. As long as we are looking at drafting players in a linear way, we fail to capture all the real-world forces at play. Looking at NFL teams’ roster-building moves and how those forces act upon ADP helps us broaden our lens. As an example, if we had known everything was going to come together for the Eagles as an NFL franchise last season, we would not have been drafting A.J. Brown in the third round, Jalen Hurts at the end of the fifth, and Devonta Smith in the seventh. But we did know. The Eagles were one of the teams we identified as an Ascending Offense projected to take a big step last season.

Understanding NFL team-building is one way we get outside linear player evaluations and see ADP in 3-D. The more color we give to the context around a player, the more we understand what impacts his success. Finding the big hits involves more than just assessing a player’s individual talent and ability. An ascending organization and offense are the rising tide that raises all the boats.

Wide Receivers in Ascending Offenses

When we identify Ascending Offenses, we are looking for the high-flying ones. We want the units that run the most plays, pile up the most yards and score the most points. Typically, those are the offenses who have put together a dynamic battery of quarterback and pass-catchers. Wide receivers are the biggest beneficiaries of these high-flying offenses.

Last season, the Ascending Offenses we identified were the Lions, Dolphins, Eagles and Jets. All of those offenses hit except the Jets (though the Jets still produced a top-36 receiver). Those Ascending Offenses produced several Ascending Receivers – receivers who beat their ADP by at least three spots in points per game (PPG). For example, Tyreek Hill was being drafted as WR8 at the end of the second-round last season. He finished as WR3 in PPG, so he beat his ADP by five.

When Drafting Feels Easy

Identifying the Ascending Offenses was a cheat code last season. There were 16 of the top 36 PPG scoring wide receivers who beat their ADPs by at least three. Six of those 16 – Tyreek Hill, A.J. Brown, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Jaylen Waddle, Devonta Smith and Garrett Wilson – were from Ascending Offenses, including the top three hits (Hill, Brown and St. Brown) and five of the top seven (those three plus Waddle and Smith). Basically, all of the top receivers from the Ascending Offenses hit, except Elijah Moore. If you just chose wide receivers from these rising offenses, you could have acquired five of the top 15 receivers from 2022, and you could have drafted them anywhere from round two to round eight.

Fantasy ADP WR Risers

2022 Ascending WRs (based on Underdog ADP August ’22; Ascending Offense WRs in green)

If this sounds like a list of the best WRs in the NFL, that’s because they were in Ascending Offenses in 2022 and now they are being highly drafted. Before last season, though, most of them were being drafted in the middle and late rounds. That’s why it is so important to identify Ascending Offenses before the season – while others are uncertain about their capability to hit their ceilings. Here’s where each of these Ascending Receivers were being drafted before last season and how they reached their current heights.

Ascending Wide Receivers vs. Fantasy ADP

Tyreek Hill – ADP WR8 (23 Overall), Finished WR3

Hill’s value was pushed down in last year’s drafts because of doubts about Tua Tagovailoa’s arm strength, and the fact that Hill was going from Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense to Tua and the Dolphins. It turns out the step down was not as steep as we thought. The Dolphins’ offense was one of the most explosive in the NFL last season.

Looking back now, it seems obvious the Dolphins were due to explode, but at the time, Mike McDaniel was a first-year head coach and drafters were uncertain how the offense would look with Waddle and Hill competing for Tua targets. Hill is a perennial WR1 who can thrive wherever he is placed. It was a no-brainer to draft him at the end of the second round last season, especially in this Ascending Offense.

AJ Brown – ADP WR10 (25 Overall), Finished WR7

Brown was another receiver whose value was diminished because he changed teams in the offseason. The tone with fantasy analysts was that the Eagles were going to continue their run-heavy approach and would not have the pass volume to support one, let alone two, high-scoring wide receivers. That turned out to be unwarranted skepticism. The Eagles’ top two wideouts both finished in the top 15 at the position (D.J. Moore, anyone?). We predicted the Eagles would go soaring based on their offseason moves: drafting Smith in the first round of the 2021 Draft, then trading aggressively for Brown during the 2022 Draft. Jalen Hurts established his floor in 2021 and with two talented receivers last season, approached his ceiling.

Amon-Ra St. Brown – ADP WR31 (53 Overall), Finished WR9

After his breakout rookie season when he finished WR26 in PPG, St. Brown was still being drafted outside the top 30 receivers in August 2022. Drafters did not believe in a Lions’ offense that was about to ascend, going from no. 29 in Offensive DVOA in 2021 to no. 5 in the league in one season’s time. St. Brown was not highly drafted by the NFL, but he was the most dynamic weapon in the Lions’ offense last season – one we identified as an ascending asset to acquire. Be warned: the Lions are again one of the Ascending Offenses in 2023. They will take another step forward in the coming season.

Jaylen Waddle – ADP WR17 (38 Overall), Finished WR13

Like St. Brown, Waddle was a second year receiver whose value should have been higher based on his year-one production. Drafters were deterred by the presence of Hill and the uncertainty about Tua’s ability to facilitate a high-powered offense. Waddle is part of one of the two Double Alpha Duos in this Ascending Receiver group (Dolphins and Eagles). The most potent offenses can support two highly productive receivers. The ambiguity inherent with two highly drafted receivers in one offense is an edge we can leverage in drafts.

Devonta Smith – ADP WR39 (77 Overall), Finished WR15

Smith is part of the Eagles’ Double Alpha Duo with Brown. He is the biggest riser of this Ascending Receiver bunch, beating his ADP by 24 spots. He had a decent rookie season, accruing over 900 yards, but his second year is proof that adding another elite receiver (Brown) to the same offense raises the ceiling for the whole unit. Brown was seen as a target hog that would suppress Smith’s ability to produce. Instead, the whole offense took flight and Hurts, Brown and Smith all beat their ADPs. Instead of shying away from the ambiguity in these supercharged offenses, just get all the pieces you can.

Garrett Wilson, ADP WR54 (119 Overall), Finished WR32

The Jets’ offense was held back by its quarterback play, but Wilson is a top-tier talent. He overcame the the limitations at QB and racked up over 1100 yards. Wilson would have been even more highly productive with better quarterback play. He is one more example of a highly-drafted rookie receiver making a big splash in his freshman outing. Taking stabs at rookie receivers in late rounds is an efficient investment.

On to the Next Ones

The first two rounds of fantasy drafts are filled with players who have already ascended. Drafters should take some sure bets in those early rounds and then mine the middle and late rounds for players from offenses that will ascend in the coming season. Because of their Ascending Offenses, the above players’ values are all now commensurate with their production. In fact, all of the above six receivers are now being drafted in the first two rounds on Underdog. The coming season will reveal some new offenses whose receivers will produce at high levels. We have already started identifying the offenses that are going to rise up in 2023. You can read about them below and anticipate which receivers will go soaring on the wings of their Ascending Offenses.

The Burgeoning Bears

Jacksonville Jaguars Ascending

Ravens Are Ready to Rise

The Detroit Lions Take the Next Step

New York Giants and Daniel Jones Ascending