The 2023 Contingent Upside All-Stars | Part 2: Pass-Catchers

by Shervon Fakhimi · Best Ball Plays & Strategy

The Contingent Upside Advantage

Everyone is looking for an edge in fantasy football. Contingent upside is harder to find at wide receiver and tight end than at running back, but there are pass-catchers who are high-upside plays if things fall right. This contingent upside could come in a myriad of ways. Maybe the starter gets hurt. Perhaps the backup is just straight-up better than the starter. An injury to T.J. Hockenson opened up targets and playing time for Am0n-Ra St. Brown as a rookie and he hasn’t looked back. It happens every year and this year will be no exception. There are plenty of candidates who can be this year’s breakouts from the middle to late rounds. Let’s cast a wide net and break down the situations for these pass-catchers with massive contingent upside.

Every Cincinnati Bengal Wide Receiver

It’s scary to think that Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins have extra hidden upside considering how great they already are in both real life and fantasy, but it’s true. Chase averaged more than 20 PPR points per game last season when you exclude the Week 17 game that was canceled. That would’ve been the fourth-best PPG average in 2022. Higgins was no slouch either. When you account for the Week 17 game and the games that Higgins left early, he averaged 17.88 PPG, which would’ve leapfrogged him above CeeDee Lamb for the seventh-most points per game among receivers. But that’s mostly with all of Chase, Higgins, and Tyler Boyd on the field together. What happens when one of them misses time? 

Below are two charts that show production for the Bengals’ WR trio. The first shows each of Chase, Higgins, and Boyd’s statistical averages since Chase’s arrival in 2021 – when all of them play together.

fantasy wr rankings Chase, Higgins, Boyd together

Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd stats when all play in the same game

The table below shows what happens when one of them misses a game or is forced to leave a game early.

fantasy wr rankings Chase, Higgins, Boyd apart

Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd stats when at least one is out or leaves a game early

Chase’s and Higgins’ numbers soar in those instances. This likely would be the case with other teams that feature two or more star receivers (e.g. the Eagles and Dolphins), but we have proof in the pudding with Cincinnati. Chase has eclipsed over 20 points in three of the five games he’s played with Higgins on the sideline. Higgins has hit that mark in two of the four he’s played without Chase.

While Boyd’s fantasy production has dropped in the games he’s played without Chase or Higgins, Chase and Higgins are just as likely to provide week-winning spike weeks as not. We can’t bank on either of those two missing time, but it’s nice to know that even with how high they are drafted, their ceilings may be even higher.

Jaxon Smith-Njigba – WR, Seattle Seahawks

Much like the Cincinnati situation, you could insert any first-round rookie receiver here. They find themselves competing with established veterans. Jaxon Smith-Njigba is the best prospect in the 2023 rookie class, but the combined duo of DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett is one of the best WR pairs in the NFL – better than Minnesota’s duo of Justin Jefferson and Hockenson, and Los Angeles’ duo of Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. Those offenses are also two of the pass-happiest in the NFL.

Seattle was much more pass-happy than anticipated. Go back to my ‘My Guy’ article highlighting Geno Smith for some info on that. But the Seahawks didn’t use a third receiver all that often. Marquise Goodwin was third among Seattle’s receivers in targets with just 42 (in 13 games, good for 3.23 per game). If Jaxon Smith-Njigba gets only 42 targets in 2023, something terrible must have happened. Even if you took every wide receiver target that didn’t go to DK Metcalf or Tyler Lockett  last season and gave those to JSN, he would only get to 75 targets.

JSN At Cost

That still isn’t enough to justify JSN’s mid-round ADP. Seattle could completely render their tight ends as extra linemen but that would require they be in 11-personnel far more than they did in 2022.

They were in 11-personnel on only 41-percent of their first down plays, which ranked No. 27 in the NFL, according to Luckily for JSN, that seems like an aberration for team offenses helmed by Shane Waldron.

Three Top-24 Options?

It’s a certainty that Seattle will bump back up their usage of 11 personnel to keep an elite prospect like Jaxon Smith-Njigba on the field. He will have a role. The question is how large will his snap and target shares be out the gates? And can Geno sustain three top-24 fantasy receivers? In 2019, no team had a trio of receivers who all landed in the top-36 scoring on a per-game basis in PPR scoring, let alone in the top-24.

In 2020, Tampa Bay sustained three top 24 receivers, and Carolina and Pittsburgh both sustained three top 36 receivers. However, only one of those six receivers on Carolina and Pittsburgh finished inside the top 24 among wide receivers in PPR points per game. Tampa sustained three top-12(!) receivers in 2021 (though Antonio Brown only played in 6.5 games that year before literally peacing out on the NFL). No team pulled off three top 36 receivers in 2022. 

Jaxon Smith-Njigba Advanced Stats & Metrics Profile

Outlier Seasons

That Tampa Bay season looks like an outlier. In those seasons – 2020 and 2021 – they threw the ball 626 and 731 times, respectively. Seattle was at 573 attempts in 2022, and that was considered a miracle considering Pete Carroll’s previous tendencies to establish the run. It seems inevitable that at least one of Metcalf, Lockett and Smith-Njigba fall outside the top 24 and maybe even the top 36. Smith-Njigba would be the most likely to miss the boat, but we also know rookie receivers tend to finish their rookie seasons very strong. Bet on him starting the season slow and then closing with a bang. That’s the likeliest outcome. It’s also possible he never eclipses Metcalf or Lockett and is merely a flex play for all of 2023.

It’s also possible this is the year Tyler Lockett slows down and JSN takes his spot and thrives. If one of Metcalf or Lockett gets hurt, the floodgates open for an elite talent like JSN. His range of outcomes can tilt from one extreme to the other. That’s what makes him a very appealing target in the middle rounds of fantasy drafts.

Calvin Ridley – WR, Jacksonville Jaguars

The last time we saw Calvin Ridley play a full season was 2020. He was awesome that season. Any time you put up a 143-90-1374-9 line, you’re doing something right. But is he that same player in 2023 after playing in just five games the last two seasons? He wasn’t quite as great in 2021 as he was in 2020 while playing alongside a still-explosive Julio Jones. Ridley posted 2.48 Yards Per Route Run in 2020, an elite number that placed him No. 7 among wide receivers. His Yards Per Route Run dropped a full yard in 2021, to 1.47.

There are, of course, extenuating circumstances here. Ridley was not in the best of places with his mental health. Certainly, that would have an effect on a person’s performance no matter their field of work, and no one should cast any judgment. I certainly won’t.

The Law of Conservation of Targets

The fantasy football space is a guessing game. Some situations are easier to parse than others. For example, we know Travis Kelce is elite and likely will be again in 2023. Ridley’s situation is a bit trickier. He hasn’t played in two years. He’s now on a new team without many vacated targets. Marvin Jones’ 81 targets are gone, but that’s about it. Christian Kirk was very good for the Jags last season. Evan Engram had a renaissance season of sorts. It’ll be hard for Zay Jones to get the 121 targets he registered last season, but he’s not going away either. 

Calvin Ridley Advanced Stats & Metrics Profile

The Jags did have a high-volume pass attack last season. They were No. 9 in the NFL in pass attempts with 596. Trevor Lawrence is ready for another leap. When that happens, Ridley and Kirk have the ability to become fantasy forces and outdo their ADPs. But Ridley also has to prove he’s back to being the player he was in 2020. Without that answer, it’s uncertain who will emerge as the target alpha on this team. Ridley is the best bet, but don’t sleep on Kirk, who was No. 22 in Yards Per Route Run (2.14) and No. 23 in Target Rate (25.7-percent) last season. Ridley’s range of outcomes is all over the place. If he returns to form and Lawrence takes another step forward, the upside is limitless.

Brandon Aiyuk – WR and George Kittle – TE, San Francisco 49ers

A true breakout for Brandon Aiyuk is anticipated by many. We have another batch of off-season hype for Aiyuk to become a player whose fantasy production matches his talent. His talent is unquestioned: he ranked No. 24 among wide receivers in Yards Per Route Run in 2022 (2.09), No. 17 in Yards Per Team Pass Attempt (1.98), No. 13 in Route Win Rate (47.8-percent), and third in Target Separation (2.31 yards). Aiyuk can ball. The problem in fantasy has been his target competition.

It isn’t Aiyuk’s fault he has to compete with the likes of Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, and now Christian McCaffrey for targets, with pedestrian quarterback play. Aiyuk has yet to unseat Samuel as the team’s primary target. Even while Samuel was playing through injuries in 2022, he was still the top target at receiver.

However, Aiyuk has started to wrestle targets away from Kittle. When all four – Samuel, Aiyuk, Kittle, and McCaffrey – were on the field, Kittle was the one who was squeezed out.

Kittle played four games without Samuel in 2022. He went nuclear in those games, averaging 20.12 PPR points per game. To put that in context, Travis Kelce averaged 18.5 PPR points per game last year. Kittle was essentially the WR4 on a per-game basis during that stretch. But in his other 11 games, he averaged 10.8 PPR points per game. He goes from clearing Travis Kelce by 1.5 points per game to just above Evan Engram as the TE7 on a per-game basis. Oof.

Here Comes Purdy

What helps both Aiyuk and Kittle is the emergence of Brock Purdy. Trey Lance hasn’t been given a fair shot and should be San Francisco’s quarterback, but Billy Muzio has pointed out for months that this is likely Purdy’s show once he’s healthy from his UCL injury. Reports have been positive regarding his rehab all off-season long. San Francisco still didn’t air it out with Purdy under center. He averaged 27.5 pass attempts per game, which would pace to a 467.5 attempt mark that would’ve ranked No. 28 in the NFL. It’s not likely going to be a heavy-volume passing offense. Samuel’s and McCaffrey’s roles are secure. How much Aiyuk and Kittle can do with what’s left is the question. One (or both?) might need an injury to truly maximize their ceiling.

Kadarius Toney – WR, Kansas City Chiefs

The only thing that’s been able to slow Kadarius Toney down in the NFL is Toney himself. He’s an efficiency king when he’s actually on the field. His 28.9-percent Target Rate ranked No. 7 among receivers in the NFL in 2021, his rookie season. His 2.13 Yards Per Route Run was No. 17. There’s also this stat from J.J. Zachariason’s newsletter before Week 1 of the 2022 season that I can’t get out of my head: “Since 2011, we’ve seen over 100 wide receivers hit 50-plus targets during their first year in the league. Among those players, Toney’s targets per route run rate ranked second-best behind only Tyreek Hill.” And that was before Toney got to play with Patrick Mahomes.

The Availability Hurdle

The problem is Toney hasn’t been able to stay on the field! Of a possible 34 regular season games, he has played in just 19. Of those 19, he’s played more than 50-percent of his team’s snaps in just seven. Yet in those seven games, he averages 7.4 targets, 4.9 receptions, and 55 yards (he did not score). Those averages paced over 17 games equate to 125 targets, 83.3 receptions, and 935 yards. The yardage mark isn’t awesome, but the target and reception numbers are very impressive.

Kadarius Toney Advanced Stats & Metrics Profile

There’s no denying that when Kadarius Toney gets the ball, he is flat-out electric. He now finds himself with the best quarterback in the NFL and 135 vacated targets. He could have a 1,200-yard season provided he can stay on the field. Most players’ contingent upside relies on something happening around them in order to maximize their upside. Kadarius Toney just needs to stay healthy. If he can, he can smash his ADP (75.1 according to FFPC). That is a monstrous “if,” though.

Isaiah Likely – TE, Baltimore Ravens

It isn’t often you find a tight end handcuff with such massive upside, but Isaiah Likely is a worthy exception. Likely’s path to upside is very straight-forward: Mark Andrews needs to be absent. Here are Likely’s statlines in the three games he played without Andrews or filled in for an injured Andrews:

  • 7 targets, 6 receptions, 77 yards, touchdown (19.7 PPR points)
  • 5 targets, 1 reception, 24 yards, touchdown (9.4 PPR points)
  • 13 targets, 8 receptions, 103 yards (18.3 PPR points)

Likely’s advanced numbers back it up, too. He finished No. 8 among tight ends in Target Rate in 2022 at 24.7-percent. Likely was also No. 18 in target share (14.2-percent) and Yards Per Route Run (1.54), and No. 20 in Air Yards Share (11.5-percent) and ADOT (7.1 yards). He was a complete prospect coming out of Coastal Carolina, too.

It’s more than fair to say Likely would be, at minimum, a fringe TE1 if he were a starter elsewhere. Instead, he is, on average, the 202nd pick in FFPC drafts and goes as the TE28 on Underdog. Baltimore’s heavy investments at wide receiver confirm that Isaiah is unlikely (I was bound to make that pun at some point) to get much playing time alongside Andrews. Regardless, you just don’t find tight ends with top-12 upside down in the cellar where Likely gets drafted. In deep leagues, Underdog or Scott Fish Bowl, though, you could do way worse than Likely for a bench stash.


Projections are useful tools to have, but they don’t paint a complete picture for every player. These pass catchers fall into that bucket. Each of them have value to some degree for fantasy purposes, but that value skyrockets if the circumstances break right. That jump in value doesn’t get captured in projections. Recognizing that a jump can take place can provide an edge in your fantasy leagues. Variance is our friend. The more outs we give ourselves and the more we embrace variance to our advantage, the better fantasy teams we will build.