One Alpha is Not Enough
As noted in this previous Wide Receiver Tandems article, not all Alpha Wide Receivers are created equal. Not all wide receiver tandems are created equal, either. Some NFL teams rely heavily on one Alpha receiver. See the 2022 Vikings (Justin Jefferson), Bills (Stefon Diggs), Cowboys (CeeDee Lamb), Raiders (Davante Adams), and Rams (Cooper Kupp). All employed just a single Alpha, and the secondary option was a far cry from Alpha status. These Clear Alpha-Beta offenses faltered and were not as strong as some other teams with multiple Alpha Receivers like the Bengals, Dolphins, and Eagles. Those teams invested significant capital to make sure they had two elite receiving threats prior to the 2022 season. One Alpha is not enough in the NFL. Here we drill down on Single- and Double-Alpha configurations and how elite WR tandems are assembled.
In this Alpha Wide Receiver article, we identified the different kinds of Alpha profiles: Clear Alphas (“1As”), Secondary Alphas (“1Bs”), Ambiguous Alphas, and Weak Alphas. There are multiple Team WR configurations, then:
- Clear Alpha-Beta
- Clear Alpha-Secondary Alpha (Double Alpha)
- Ambiguous Alphas
- Weak Alpha-Beta
- Betas (No real Alpha)
In this article, we are going to compare Clear Alpha-Beta teams with Clear Alpha-Secondary Alpha teams and draw out some resulting fantasy implications.
Single Alpha Wide Receiver Tandems
Teams end up with a lone Alpha receiver when they fail to invest significant resources into acquiring a secondary receiver option. Teams with just one Clear Alpha suffered in 2022. The Bills, Cowboys, and Vikings came up short in their postseason runs. The Raiders and Rams did not make the playoffs. Teams with two Alpha Receivers like the Eagles and Bengals, on the other hand, had more productive passing games and made deeper postseason runs.
Below are the five Clear Alpha-Beta teams from 2022, and their underwhelming attempts to add an elite secondary receiving option prior to the season.
Gabriel Davis was a fourth-round draft pick from the 2020 draft and registered as a Beta in 2021 when he recorded only one game over 16 fantasy points. Davis was hyped up at the beginning of 2022, but this turned out to be purely based on optimism for the Josh Allen-fueled Bills’ offense.
#Bills Offseason Questions Series starts in Sunday's paper. Part 1 online — Does Gabe Davis merit another chance to be No. 2 receiver?
(A dive into the numbers, a look at three of his games, how they can get him more involved.)https://t.co/u6sjcrgTfw
— Ryan O'Halloran (@ryanohalloran) February 17, 2023
The Bills also signed veteran Betas Jamison Crowder and Isaiah McKenzie (re-signed), as well as drafted 2022 fifth-rounder, Khalil Shakir. Those three recorded just three 16-plus point outings between them in 2022. Buffalo also brought in 33-year-old Cole Beasley to try to fill out their receiving room with an effective second option. None were really productive.
The ‘Boys traded away Amari Cooper during the 2022 offseason, leaving CeeDee Lamb as the solitary Alpha in the Big D. They did acquire Jalen Tolbert during the 2022 draft, but Tolbert was just a third-round pick (3.24). Tolbert joined Michael Gallup, another third-rounder (3.17) from the 2018 draft. Gallup was a Beta in his best season (2020), recording 16+ points in only 3 out of 15 games that season. Neither did much to offset the loss of Cooper.
Vegas relied on Hunter Renfrow as their secondary option alongside Davante Adams in 2022. Renfrow was the Raiders’ Alpha most of 2021 after Henry Ruggs‘ arrest, and he recorded 103 total catches (6.1 per game) that season. He came back to earth in 2022 while behind Adams, recording only 36 receptions in 10 games (3.6 per game). Those catch numbers for Renfrow matched the 3.6 receptions he averaged in his first two seasons (2019-2020). The Raiders also signed free agent Mack Hollins, a career-long Beta who never recorded even one 16+ point fantasy performance before 2022.
The Rams signed Allen Robinson in the 2022 offseason, revealing their need to find a secondary receiving option behind Cooper Kupp. Robinson was meant to plug the hole left by Odell Beckham, who was decently productive during their 2021 Super Bowl run. The problem was that Robinson did not perform the year previous, never hitting the 16+ PPR point mark in a single game in 2021. The Rams drafted Van Jefferson and Tutu Atwell late in the second round in 2020 and 2021, respectively. That Beta duo has been less than productive.
The Vikings relied quite heavily on Justin Jefferson in 2022. Veteran Adam Thielen flanked Jefferson after putting up Alpha-like production in 2021. Thielen turned 32 years old at the beginning of the 2022 season, however, and his performance tapered off accordingly. K.J. Osborn was the only other receiving threat in Minnesota. Osborn put up some solid games the previous season (2021) as the Vikings’ third option but was a fifth-round draft pick leftover from the 2020 draft.
Clear Alpha-Secondary Alpha Wide Receiver Tandems
Clear Alpha-Secondary Alpha teams invested significant capital (a top 50 pick and/or a substantial contract) to acquire and retain their top two WR options. Below are the teams who boasted a Clear Alpha-Secondary Alpha twosome in 2022. They are listed with the capital their teams invested to secure them as well as their PPR performances from the previous season (2021).
- Ja’Marr Chase
- Investment: drafted 1.05 in 2021
- PPG finish in 2021: WR6
- Tee Higgins
- Investment: drafted 2.01 in 2020
- PPG finish in 2021: WR14
- Mike Williams
- Investment: three-year, $60 million dollar contract signed in 2022 offseason
- PPG finish in 2021: WR23
- Keenan Allen
- Investment: four-year, $80.1 million dollar extension signed in 2020
- PPG finish in 2021: WR12
- Tyreek Hill
- Investment: traded 2022 first-rounder, second-rounder, fourth-rounder, 2023 fourth-rounder, and sixth-rounder; four-year, $120 million dollar extension signed in 2022 offseason
- PPG finish in 2021: WR7
Tyreek was arguably offensive player of the year and Waddle had his best season. https://t.co/OSFscd3Emu pic.twitter.com/d5CeldyPzt
— Eric (@EIizondo) February 18, 2023
- Jaylen Waddle
- Investment: drafted 1.06 in 2021
- PPG finish in 2021: WR15
- A.J. Brown
- Investment: traded 2023 first-rounder and fourth-rounder; four-year $100 million contract signed in 2022
- PPG finish in 2021: WR29
- Devonta Smith
- Investment: drafted 1.10 in 2021
- PPG finish in 2021: WR43
As you can see, these Clear Alpha-Secondary Alpha teams invested heavily in establishing a dual receiving threat. Their passing attacks flourished with two Alphas.
Capitalizing on Ambiguity
The ambiguity present in these two-alpha configurations can lead us to find some draft values. Tyreek Hill was going in the second round in fantasy drafts because of the uncertainty surrounding his profile entering the 2022 season. He had been traded away from Patrick Mahomes and some were projecting Jaylen Waddle would really out-Alpha Hill in Miami. Hill’s performance in 2022 was anything but shaky, however.
He finished WR3 in PPG behind only Justin Jefferson and Cooper Kupp. A.J. Brown was going in the third round of drafts because of the uncertainty created by his being traded to Philadelphia. Like Hill, Brown also significantly outperformed his draft capital, finishing as PPG WR7 after being drafted at WR11. Mike Williams was being drafted in the fourth round entering 2022, widely seen as the secondary option behind Keenan Allen. Williams hit 16-plus points in half of his twelve games.
Some Situations are More Ambiguous than Others
Although the Dolphins and Bengals each have two Alphas – a Clear Alpha and a Secondary Alpha – Tyreek Hill and Ja’Marr Chase are really the unquestioned Alphas on their respective teams. They outdid their counterparts Jaylen Waddle and Tee Higgins in targets and fantasy points a vast majority of the time in 2022 when both team WRs were on the field at the same time. Hill had more targets than Waddle in 12 out of the 16 games when that duo played together (they tied once with nine targets each). Hill also outscored Waddle in fantasy points in 14 out of 16 contests played together. Ja’Marr Chase out-targeted and outscored Tee Higgins in fantasy in eight out of their 11 games played together (tying once in targets with ten each).
Nick Sirianni wearing Dynamic Duo shirt with AJ Brown and DeVonta Smith pic.twitter.com/g5rO6qU7O6
— John Clark (@JClarkNBCS) January 25, 2023
The Chargers’ and Eagles’ combos were more ambiguous. Keenan Allen out-targeted Mike Williams four-to-two in the duo’s games played together in 2022. Allen also out-scored Williams in fantasy just four to three. The most ambiguous situation was the Eagles’ WR pair, however. A.J. Brown and Devonta Smith out-targeted and outscored the other in fantasy eight times each when lined up across from one another. What’s more, Smith was within three points of achieving Clear Alpha status by hitting 16-plus PPR points in half his games. If he had done so, we would have been talking about the Eagles’ WR duo as the only Double Clear Alpha Receiver tandem in the NFL. Smith, drafted in the eighth round in fantasy, was the greatest draft value of the Double Alpha bunch.
The QB-WR-WR Battery
In future Wide Receiver Tandems articles, we will examine closer the Ambiguous Alphas in Washington and Seattle as well as the Weak Alpha situations across the rest of the league. The goal is to tease out which of these duos are likely to improve year over year and become heavy-hitting one-two punches like the Double Alpha duos above. It is no surprise the most effective passing attacks are facilitated by competent quarterback play. Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa took big leaps forward with two quality receiver options. These quarterbacks’ performances were brought along by the strength of their receiving units as much as they facilitated the receivers’ success. The battery of QB-WR-WR is one of the most powerful, self-perpetuating structures in NFL offenses, enabling premium fantasy production. Identifying elite WR tandems based on teams’ offseason moves at the position and a capable QB makes fantasy magic.