Finding Adam Thielen: These 5 wide receivers are hugely undervalued in fantasy football leagues

by John Miller ·

Every year, there are wide receivers that wildly outperform their average draft positions and give fantasy football owners familiar with advanced stats, metrics, and analytics a huge advantage. DeAndre Hopkins and Adam Thielen come to mind from last season. Which wide receivers look undervalued heading into 2018?

T.Y. Hilton, Indianapolis Colts

T.Y. Hilton is only one year removed from leading the NFL in receiving yards. Fortunately for savvy fantasy owners, Hilton’s 2017 season with Jacoby Brissett has soured the public’s opinion and made him drop into the third round of fantasy football drafts. While Hilton’s production last year disappointed fantasy owners who spent a premium on him, it’s also understandable why his production took a big hit. Brissett was traded from the New England Patriots to the Colts with less than a week until the season began and had almost no time to develop chemistry with his wide receivers or an understanding of the playbook before being thrown into the fire.

Heading into 2018, Andrew Luck is expected to be the Colts’ starter for week one, and that means it’s wheels up for his No. 1 wideout. Luck has thrown a football – in fact, he was in Stanford, California recently redeveloping chemistry with his receiving corps and will play in week one of the preseason – and has stated that he believes he will be ready for the first week of the season. Furthermore, general manager Chris Ballard has said numerous times that the Colts are pleased with Luck’s recovery, and Ballard made the ultimate move of trust by trading down from the third overall pick to the sixth overall pick and foregoing his chance at selecting one of this year’s top quarterback prospects.

T.Y. Hilton Advanced Stats & Metrics Profile

With all that in mind, it’s likely Andrew Luck will be back this season, which means Hilton is a bargain at his current FFPC ADP of 30.34. In the last three seasons Andrew Luck has played 15 or more games, Hilton has averaged 16.0 PPR fantasy points per game and an end-of-year stat line of 85 receptions for 1,292 yards and six touchdowns. The general public is scared by Hilton’s lackluster production with Brissett at quarterback last year, but he will bounce back in 2018 with Luck calling the shots.

Randall Cobb, Green Bay Packers

In the three seasons in which both Randall Cobb and Aaron Rodgers have been healthy all season, Cobb has finished as the WR6, WR19, and WR31. Now, Jordy Nelson is off to Oakland, leaving Cobb as the No. 2 wide receiver in Green Bay. In the six games Rodgers started and finished last season, Cobb averaged eight targets, 5.5 receptions, 55 yards, and 0.2 touchdowns per game. Extrapolated over an entire season, those numbers would have placed Cobb at WR21 in 2017. 4for4’s John Paulsen notes that Cobb has averaged 5.1 catches on 7.3 targets for 56 yards and 0.4 touchdowns per game in his last 21 games with Rodgers at the helm. 

Jordy Nelson’s release means Cobb could be in line for even more targets. In fact, the only other wide receivers on the team after Davante Adams and Cobb are Geronimo Allison, J’Mon Moore, Equanimeous St. Brown, and Marquez Valdes-Scantling – none of whom have proven themselves in the NFL.

The Packers signed Jimmy Graham in free agency, but Graham’s efficiency fell off in a big way last season – his yards per target and fantasy points per target both fell from 2016 to 2017 – and he was largely dependent on touchdowns, as 35-percent of his fantasy points came from touchdowns. Cobb is one of Aaron Rodgers’ favorite targets, and that rapport should prove fruitful for Cobb in 2018. Cobb’s current FFPC ADP is 90.34, which is a bargain for the No. 2 target in arguably the most potent offense in the NFL. In the eight seasons Rodgers has played at least 15 games, his WR2 has finished as a top 30 receiver 7 times and a top-24 receiver 6 times. Cobb is the Packers No. 2 wide receiver, and yet is being drafted in the eighth round. This is what value looks like. 

Chris Hogan, New England Patriots

Chris Hogan is a starting wide receiver on an offense that has finished in the top three in scoring for seven consecutive seasons. In fact, with Julian Edelman suspended for the first four games of the season, Hogan is Tom Brady’s No. 1 target for a quarter of the season.

Hogan was the WR10 in PPR before his injury last season despite competing with Brandin Cooks for deep targets. While Edelman will almost certainly command a significant target share once he returns from suspension, the two can operate concurrently. Hogan’s 2017 average target distance was 13.2 yards, meanwhile Edelman’s average career target distance is 7.80. With Brandin Cooks on the team, Hogan had competition for deep targets in 2017. Cooks is now in Los Angeles, so Hogan is the lone deep threat for a quarterback who ranked third in the league in deep passing attempts in 2017.

Furthermore, Hogan is the secondary option in the red zone behind Rob Gronkowski for New England – he saw 24.0-percent of the Patriots’ red zone targets and 34.8-percent of the Patriots’ end zone targets last season. That kind of volume in the red zone is super valuable for a wideout whose quarterback led the NFL in red zone pass attempts last year. Getting a top target in one of the league’s best aerial attacks is a steal at Hogan’s current FFPC ADP of 73.85.

Emmanuel Sanders, Denver Broncos

Too often, fantasy football gamers are overly reactionary to one season of data. This looks to be the case with Denver Broncos’ wideout Emmanuel Sanders, who is coming off his worst season since 2011 after struggling with injuries and poor quarterback play all season. Sanders totaled 47 catches for 555 yards and two touchdowns in 2017, way down from his 2014-2016 three-year average of 85.3 receptions for 1,190.3 yards and 6.3 touchdowns. While those numbers are propped up by Peyton Manning’s historic 2014 campaign, Sanders still had three consecutive years with 130 or more targets and 1,000 or more yards prior to 2017.

The Broncos should have improved quarterback play this season after signing Case Keenum to a two-year deal during free agency. While Keenum’s efficiency will likely regress from his breakout campaign in Minnesota, he’s still a clear upgrade over the Trevor Siemian and Brock Osweiler combination the Broncos trotted out last year.

Sanders’ efficiency has declined over the last few seasons – his yards per target has fallen for three consecutive seasons, including a 6.0 average in 2017 that ranked 91st among wideouts – and his age is a concern. However, he still finished 17th in targets per game last season and is the clear #2 wideout in Denver, despite the Broncos drafting both Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton in the 2018 NFL Draft. Chase the surefire volume with Sanders, and be happy with low-end WR2 production at his current FFPC ADP of 79.02.

Rishard Matthews, Tennessee Titans

Rishard Matthews has finished as a top 40 WR in each of the last three seasons – including a WR21 finish in 2016 – yet his FFPC ADP is 133.66 (WR50). The arrival of Corey Davis pushed Matthews down on fantasy football draft boards. Davis still hasn’t proven much in the NFL yet, and Matthews was more the productive receiver in 2017, although Davis struggled with a nagging injury for most of the season.

Check out Emmanuel Sanders & Rishard Matthews on PlayerProfiler’s “World Famous” Draft Kit:

The Tennessee passing offense should experience positive regression toward the mean in 2018, as Mariota’s 2.9-percent touchdown rate ranked No. 27 amongst qualified quarterbacks and well below the NFL average of 4.3-percent. Davis is going rounds ahead of Matthews in fantasy football drafts, but Matthews is the only wide receiver on the team who has proven himself against NFL defenses. The Tennessee offense will almost certainly be better than last year, and Matthews is entrenched as a starting wideout. His ADP of WR50 makes little sense, especially since he hasn’t finished that low in fantasy football in years.