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Fantasy Football: Youth is Served at Wide Receiver

Justin Jefferson, Minnesota Vikings

Justin Jefferson was a top-10 fantasy wide receiver last season as a rookie

While in the past there was always a threat of a young receiver so talented that he blew up the NFL, very rarely did that threat actually pay off, especially when it came to fantasy football. Even among the all-time greats, for every Randy Moss 17-touchdown explosion, there’s a Calvin Johnson 756-yard, four-touchdown season. DeAndre Hopkins struggled through a fairly slow 802-yard, two-touchdown season in 2013 for a last-place Texans team that was throwing the ball a ton.

Related: WR Rankings for 2021

As the passing revolution has hit colleges thoroughly and teams have more properly utilized the geometry of the field, receiver play, as a general rule, has been getting better and better. What happened last season is that Justin Jefferson, a rookie who started only 14 games, finished sixth in the NFL in PPR fantasy points among wideouts. In 2019, A.J. Brown hauled in 1,051 yards and eight touchdowns … despite totaling just 129 receiving yards through his first three games. Brown wasn’t even a first-round pick! CeeDee Lamb is a great “What If?” of last year from a fantasy football perspective — he finished with 935 yards and five touchdowns but was averaging 86.6 yards per game before Dak Prescott got hurt and Andy Dalton took over.

Related: WR Tiers for 2021

Rookie wideout classes are getting deeper and stronger, and NFL offenses are drafting receivers and instantly putting them into positions where they can win rather than trying to develop them into something they aren’t. This has changed the game in a few major ways:

1. Wide receivers from a dynasty and depth perspective are becoming easier to find

Will Fuller V finished with 879 yards and eight touchdowns in 11 games last year; he’s one of the great teases in recent NFL history because he catches touchdowns in bushels when healthy. He’s going to an offense with a young quarterback in Tua Tagovailoa who has shown some promise.

After the Dolphins drafted Jaylen Waddle, Fuller’s ADP and draft stock plummeted. If he stays healthy in Miami, Fuller can produce at an elite level. But you might find him in the sixth or seventh round anyway because wideout depth has grown, and several people have ridden the Fuller injury (and last year, suspension) roller coaster and are sick of it. DeVante Parker, on the other hand, is the only receiver in Miami’s top three with experience with Tagovailoa, and his ADP has fallen even lower than Fuller’s!

The fact that there is all this extra depth and flash has a) made it easier to take a swing and miss on a guy like Fuller and b) pushed a solid receiver (Parker) with a top-12 PPR wideout season two years ago into play much, much later in the draft. That is something you need to factor in when filling out roster depth and dynasty lists because it is one of the main forces driving first-round running back selections. Even if they’re not as plentiful as quarterbacks, elite wideouts are becoming much easier to find than they were even five years ago.

2. When rookie receivers flash loudly: Run, don’t walk, to the waiver wire for them

Jefferson’s first two games of the year were forgettable — two catches for 26 yards, three catches for 44 yards — and even though he might have been drafted in your league, he also very well may have been waived after that stretch. In Week 3, Jefferson torched the Titans for 175 yards and a touchdown. It was easy to dismiss as an outlier: The Titans had a bad pass defense, the Vikings had to throw a lot to catch up, Jefferson was still a No. 2 option on a run-first offense, etc.

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Then, next week, he caught 103 yards on five targets against the Texans, and it was only better from there. All those in-the-moment excuses not to claim him were true: He did finish with fewer targets than Adam Thielen often over the next few weeks, the Vikings did run plenty and game scripts did keep overall targets down. It also didn’t matter! The Vikings discovered that Jefferson was the kind of player they should be building their game plan around, and they adjusted more and more over the last month of the season. Thielen had 32 targets over the last five games of the season; Jefferson had 53.

When I think about rookie receivers blowing up early, one of my lasting scars is Eddie Royal. Royal caught nine balls for 146 yards against the Raiders in Week 1 of the 2008 season. He had two other 100-yard games all year, and while he was involved with the offense (and even was a high fantasy pick in 2009), time proved that the performance was a massive fluke. It’s easy to remember situations like that and apply them to waiver wire thinking. The regression analysis industry is always going to look at the game Jefferson had against the Titans and see the reasons it felt fluky. But Jefferson was a high draft pick in a great wideout class for a reason, too. That performance felt too good to be true, but it was quite true. The lesson: Take chances on rookies who may appear to be too good to be true.

3. This year’s wideout class is just as stacked as 2019’s and 2020’s

Joe Burrow went over 300 passing yards five times in his first seven games as a pro before his offensive line met Pittsburgh and Washington and he was sent to IR with a torn ACL. Even that hides some of the potential production that was spent on A.J. Green, who didn’t look like the same player he was in his prime. Ja’Marr Chase is in an excellent spot to replicate Jefferson’s production.

Related: 6 Tips to Build a Dynasty Team

DeVonta Smith looks to be playing for a rebuilding Eagles team that has a first-year, first-time head coach and a first-year, first-time defensive coordinator. That defense has not done a lot to shore things up, signing Anthony Harris and Eric Wilson and not much else, and it didn’t add any first- or second-round picks. There’s a very real chance that Jalen Hurts could be playing heroball on negative game scripts with Smith all season, and nobody else but Jalen Reagor really has any deep history of success at wideout on the depth chart.

Waddle, of course, has his Tyreek Hill-esque speed as a drawing card. Kadarius Toney could be the kind of short threat that Daniel Jones could thrive with. Rashod Bateman had phenomenal college production at Minnesota and wins in the middle of the field, which Lamar Jackson targets often. It wouldn’t be surprising if we even had a second-round success story. What’s to keep Rondale Moore from succeeding lining up next to Hopkins, Christian Kirk and Green? He’ll have single coverage all day and a stellar young quarterback feeding him in an Air Raid scheme. Terrace Marshall Jr. has a clean fit into his old LSU offense under Carolina offensive coordinator Joe Brady, and provided that Sam Darnold is salvageable, that’s a spot where Curtis Samuel amassed 851 receiving yards last year — and added an additional 200 rushing yards — with a stopgap quarterback.

Over the last five years alone, we’ve had JuJu Smith-Schuster’s phenomenal rookie season (917 yards, seven touchdowns) under the cover of Antonio Brown, Michael Thomas’ wild rookie season (92-1,137-9) for the Saints and Jefferson’s for the Vikings. Chase Claypool put up 873 and nine touchdowns last year as a second-round rookie. Terry McLaurin had 919 and seven touchdowns as a third-round rookie in 2019. Calvin Ridley did 821 yards and 10 touchdowns in Year 1.

As passing concepts from college become more established in the NFL, it has become more and more viable for rookies to provide massive value at wide receiver. This is a year when I legitimately feel like there are people I haven’t mentioned in this article who could pop off for 900 yards and six touchdowns. That’s the depth of the class and the way that things have manifested.

While it was never right to say that rookie wideouts couldn’t produce, it has also never been easier for them to do so than it is today. And that has ramifications that hit every inch of the fantasy landscape. Don’t let the wisdom of the past control the future when it comes to your board. Don’t be afraid to put your season in the hands of a rookie. And, of course, let the fact that we now have a flood of quality NFL receivers from a fantasy perspective guide you to the best values you can find on your board.

— Written by Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) for Athlon Sports' 2021 Fantasy Football magazine.