Finding the Next WR1 in Fantasy Football: Stefon Diggs

by Robert Lorge · Draft Strategy

Cooper Kupp. Justin Jefferson. Ja’Marr Chase. Any fantasy football enthusiast knows these three receivers are going to finish somewhere near the top of the leaderboard in 2022. It’s those guys and the rest of the field with a solid drop-off behind them. What if I were to tell you there’s a fourth receiver who has a good a chance at finishing as the No. 1 fantasy football receiver who isn’t named Kupp, Jefferson, or Chase? His name is Stefon Diggs.

Go on. Get the laughter and the snide comments out of the way now. That way we can get to the why of this whole discussion because fantasy managers are massively sleeping on Diggs. He is deserving of having his name spoken with that same tier of elite receivers after what he’s done in his first two seasons in Buffalo. In his first season with the Bills in 2020, Diggs finished as the WR3 in half-PPR. He experienced a bit of a dip last year and fell all the way down to a lowly WR7.

Diggs’ Accolades

Diggs has posted back-to-back seasons of 160+ targets and 100+ catches and back-to-back seasons with 1,225+ yards and eight+ touchdowns. His quarterback is Josh Allen, and he plays in one of the most pass-heavy offenses in the NFL. None of that is new information. Diggs is still not spoken of in that tippy-top tier, but what if I were to write he’s one of the best candidates for positive regression and that his 2022 season could be even better than the last two? It’s true and its why Diggs could be the No. 1 overall fantasy receiver this season. He’s an exceptional value at the backend of first-round drafts and especially into the early second.

There’s no denying Diggs’ talent at this point as he’s put it on full display for us. If there were questions about just how good he was in Minnesota, those have since been put to bed. To make my case for why Diggs will be the No. 1 receiver in fantasy this season becomes a two-fold, arguably four-fold debate. It’s not just about Diggs. It’s about Kupp, Jefferson, and Chase too, so let’s start there.

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Cooper Kupp Will Not Repeat his No. 1 Overall Ranking

Cooper Kupp is fresh off the greatest receiver season the world has ever seen. Why can’t he do it again? Well, because lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice, but okay, I hear you – Kupp had a big enough lead against the field that lightning wouldn’t need to strike the exact same area, just close enough. In theory, that would be correct.

Kupp has enough of a margin where his 2021 production could drop 18-percent and he’d still be the No. 1 receiver in 2022. That sounds a lot easier in theory, but history isn’t nearly as kind as our general sense of optimism. In fact, in the last 20 years, only two receivers have repeated as the No. 1 receiver – Antonio Brown in 2014-2015 and Calvin Johnson in 2011-2012. How have other receivers fared after coming off the best receiving seasons the league has ever seen? Let’s take a stroll down memory lane, shall we?

History Tends to Repeat Itself

We all know that Kupp bested Jerry Rice‘s 1995 season when he racked up 122, receptions, 1,848 yards, 15 touchdowns, and finished with 353 half-PPR points. In 1996, he had 237.1, a 33-percent decrease from 1995’s epic season. Who can forget Randy Moss‘s 2003 campaign with Daunte Culpepper when he finished with north of 1,600 yards, 17 touchdowns, and 320.5 points? 2004 wasn’t nearly as kind, however. He finished with 176.7 points, partly due to missed time, but even using his points per game average won’t do the trick. Without using the points per game average, his fantasy production dropped by 45-percent, and with it, still a 23-percent decline. Staying with Moss after his 2007 season with Tom Brady, and his NFL record 23 receiving touchdowns, his production fell by 41-percent in 2008. It’s not even that these guys fell off of the proverbial cliff.

In 2015, Julio Jones had per game averages of 8.5 receptions, 117 yards, and 0.50 touchdowns. He missed two games in 2016, but his per game averages didn’t fall off a cliff. He still had ridiculous per game averages of 5.93 receptions, 101 yards, and 0.43 touchdowns. Jones missed two games but was on pace for 95 receptions, 1,616 yards, and 7 touchdowns. His fantasy production, even using his points per game average, still fell by 19-percent.

More on Kupp

Looking at Kupp’s 2021 season vs his first four seasons in the league should sound the regression alarm bells in every fantasy manager’s head. Do not misconstrue this to mean Kupp is not an elite fantasy asset because he most certainly is and should undoubtedly be drafted as a top-four receiver, no questions asked. However, we cannot ignore the fact his targets per game jumped by 25-percent compared to his highest average prior. His receptions per game saw a 28-percent increase and his yards per game went up by almost 37-percent compared to the highest averages from his previous four seasons. The incoming regression isn’t so much a question of if, but rather of how much?

There’s no reason to think Allen Robinson is a threat to Kupp’s top-dog status in Los Angeles, but after Robinson’s years in Chicago he could take a bigger piece of the pie in 2022 than Woods and Beckham did. Kupp will be a major fantasy asset once again in 2022, but he won’t be No. 1 again. Let’s move on to our next candidate.

Ja’Marr Chase Won’t Be the No. 1 Overall WR

Chase and his college quarterback, Joe Burrow, wasted no time taking the league by storm. While there’s no denying his superstar status, Chase – like Kupp – could be in line for some negative regression in 2022.

Chase scored 13 times as a rookie and the fact that they came from an average of 38.7 yards out is absurd. He ended up scoring on 14.8-percent of his touches as a rookie, which was the No. 4-highest rate in the NFL. He managed to score at such a ridiculously high rate despite only 12 red zone targets, which ranked No. 35. Chase’s touchdown numbers aren’t the only one’s fantasy managers should be expecting to regress in 2022.

Chase averaged 18 yards per reception last season. There were only three receivers in the NFL who had more than 100+ targets and still averaged at least 16.0 yards per reception in 2021. Since 2012, there have been 348 receivers who have registered 100 targets in any one season. Only 38 have registered 100 targets and a 16 yard per reception average. Only eight of them did it in back-to-back years.

Will Chase be Targeted More in 2022?

Certainly, the argument of, but “Chase is just different” holds water here as there’s no denying the fact he’s one the most insanely talented receivers to enter the league in quite some time. Being a No. 1 caliber fantasy receiver in back-to-back seasons is incredibly rare. Even for all of Chase’s greatness, the likelihood of him doing it again is slim. That doesn’t mean Chase is doomed as a fantasy receiver – far from it. The dude’s an absolute stud.

The obvious counter argument to Chase’s regression is that he’ll make up the difference with increased volume. Despite being a rookie, the LSU standout generated 128 targets and finished with a 23.7-percent target share. There’s room for that to go up, no doubt, but with Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd also in Cincinnati is there room for it to make up for the incoming regression? That’s the question. On a pure efficiency level, Chase had one of the best seasons for a receiver of all time. The rookie will most certainly see more volume in 2022 – he’ll earn that – but it won’t be enough to offset the efficiency regression that is most certainly incoming.

Justin Jefferson is the Biggest Threat to Stefon Diggs

This brings us to Justin Jefferson who is the greatest threat to a No. 1 overall finish for Diggs. Unlike Kupp and Chase who will be competing with other alpha-like receivers such as Robinson and Higgins, Jefferson’s competition for targets is far less intimidating. Making a case against Jefferson becomes insanely difficult because his new head coach is the old offensive coordinator for the LA Rams and Kupp, but there’s way more to like about Jefferson in regard to his quest to be 2022’s best fantasy receiver.

Jefferson also has the benefit of playing in a dome, which will shield him from some of the inclement weather the Buffalo Bills are sure to encounter at some point during the new season, but there’s more. He finished 2021 with the most air yards (1,996), deep targets (34), and the highest air yards share (43.9-percent) in the NFL. The former LSU star received highly valuable targets, but he was peppered with targets too. He averaged 9.8 targets per game, which was the No. 4-highest. He also had the No. 3-highest target share and the No. 9-best target rate. The two-time Pro Bowler was also credited with 23 red zone targets (No. 8-most) and was No. 2 in end zone targets with 17. Jefferson truly gave fantasy managers the best of both worlds – tons of targets that were also incredibly valuable.

So why wouldn’t he finish No. 1? Because someone has to lose. Sometimes a fantasy manager needs to pick a side. If that’s Jefferson for you, I respect it. Let me tell why Diggs will reign supreme.

Stefon Diggs’ Case for the No. 1 WR Spot

Chase and Kupp are in line for some negative regression. Diggs on the other hand is in line for some of the positive regression variety. That’s true even despite his incredibly impressive season which resulted in 164 targets, 103 receptions, 1,225 yards, and 10 touchdowns. and I’m here to say it could’ve been even better.

Receiver Fantasy PPG Differential Fantasy Points per Target Expecting Receiving TDs Receiving TDs Expected Receiving Yards Receiving Yards
Stefon Diggs -1.47 1.74 11.8 10 1,783 1,225
Justin Jefferson 1.11 1.98 8.6 10 1,504 1,616
Cooper Kupp 0.9 2.3 14.7 16 1,379 1,947
Ja’Marr Chase 1.42 2.34 7.7 13 1,259 1,455

As you look at the graph above, Diggs stands out as the only receiver out of these four who underperformed in 2021. While Kupp, Jefferson, and Kupp all had positive fantasy points per game differentials, Diggs did not. He was also the only receiver who finished with touchdowns and receiving yards below what was expected.

Last season, Diggs had a 62.8-percent catch rate. This ranked No. 55 among receivers. In his first season with the Bills, he finished No. 8 in that category with a catch rate of 76.5-percent. Looking back at Diggs’ career, we find that he hasn’t had a catch percentage below 67-percent since his rookie season all the way back in 2015. That’s a 4.2-percent difference from his 2021 season to the worst catch rate in his career, excluding his rookie season.

His career catch percentage is 68.9-percent, which falls in line with his two-year average in Buffalo of 69.7-percent – now we’re talking about a 6-7-percent increase from last year.
Part of his low catch percentage ties into his 923 unrealized air yards, which ranked No. 2 in the NFL. These two categories are tied to each other, but with Allen behind center and a 2021 catch percentage that stands out as an outlier compared to the rest of his career, there’s plenty of reason to believe some of those unrealized air yards actually end up in Diggs’ hands this upcoming season.  This will no doubt boost his reception and receiving totals from last season. He finished tied for No. 2 with the most uncatchable targets of 2021 with 46 – more signs of positive regression coming.

Wait, There’s More

While the former Terrapin has never been an elite touchdown scorer, it’s also fair to say he was never used in Minnesota the way Buffalo is using him now. Last season he had the No. 2-most red zone targets (34) and the most end zone targets (22). He finished with 10 touchdowns, which was tied for No. 6. However, that kind of red zone utilization could have resulted in a much higher touchdown total. This brings us back to that catch percentage we started at earlier. A higher catch percentage won’t only increase his receptions and yards, but his touchdowns as well. In 2020, Diggs racked up 127 receptions and had 1,535 yards, both led the league. His targets virtually stayed the same – 167 in 2020 and 164 in 2021. However, his receptions dropped by 19-percent and his yardage dropped by 20-percent.

However, Diggs’ underlying utilization metrics were outstanding. He had the No. 8-highest target rate of 28.9-percent and the No. 2-most air yards with 1,828. He also generated 28 deep targets, which were the No. 7-most. Diggs, like Jefferson, has the utilization to be the No. 1 receiver. The targets he does get are extremely valuable. He’s being targeted down the field at a high rate. He’s one of the most heavily targeted players in the NFL when his team gets into scoring range. In back to back seasons, Diggs has earned 164+ targets. That type of volume isn’t a fluke.

There’s no question Diggs has been the alpha from day one in Buffalo. The depth chart behind him in 2022 seems to be filled with more questions than in the two previous seasons. While in theory, Jamison Crowder is not very much different than Cole Beasley as they’re both strictly slot receivers, Beasley had chemistry with Allen and was in the offense before. Even though Diggs certainly bucked the trend of receivers struggling in Year 1 with their team, the reality is we generally see some growing pains. Will Allen and Crowder experience that? They certainly could.

Gabriel Davis appears to be the receiver who will start opposite Diggs. His efficiency stats paint a picture of promise and potential, but Davis has never had a target share above 11-percent. All of this is to say – could Diggs actually be targeted more in 2022?

Stefon Diggs – A True Alpha

It’s something fantasy managers cannot entirely rule out. There’s no debate that Diggs’ target competition of Davis, Crowder, and Knox is far less intimidating than anything Kupp, Chase, or even Jefferson is up against. Out of these four colossal receivers, Diggs may have the best claim to a “Kupp-like” target total in 2022.

We also know that Diggs already led the league in receptions and yards two years ago. The only thing that stopped him from being the No. 1 receiver was the fact he only scored eight touchdowns. He received just 15 red zone targets that season but scored on 6.3-percent of his total touches. Despite more than doubling his red zone targets in 2021, he ended up only raising his touchdown rate 3.4-percent.

The lack of target competition in Buffalo, combined with his role in the Bills’ offense will result in Diggs being this year’s No. 1 fantasy receiver. He’s not only one of the most heavily targeted players in the league, but the targets he receives are immensely valuable. They are down the field and near the end zone. With his catch percentage likely to climb back up towards the mean, turning those unrealized air yards into actual yards, Diggs could once again lead the league in receptions and yards. With better luck in the touchdown department than he had in 2020, coupled with the increased usage we saw in that part of the field last year, Diggs is my bet to best the field and finish on top this season.