The goal of this study is to highlight important wide receivers who have changed teams to find out how they do in their first year in comparison to the year before. Which players made the biggest impact — from both a real football and daily fantasy sports perspective — in their new homes?
The movement of important wide receivers should affect the offenses they left, but what does the data say? Did these teams see an increase or decrease in offensive points scored per game?
Important Historical Wide Receiver Movement
To qualify for this study, a WR must hit the following benchmarks:
- Moved teams from 2009-2017.
- Must be a top-50 DraftKings points per game (PPG) player in the season prior to movement.
Here are the most-important wide receivers who have changed teams (over the past eight offseasons) and how they fared in key data points with their new team in comparison to the year before:
A lot of this data should be approached with caution and on a case-by-case basis. The study doesn’t really account for talent level or how involved a guy should be in the next team’s offense. For example, if Julio Jones moved teams, it’s likely he would be much more featured than a WR in a tier below him. Still, there are some useful long term trends here when viewed from a macro perspective.
On average, important wide receivers who changed teams saw a -0.49 change in receptions per game, -5.36 change in yards per game, and -1.4 change in DraftKings points per game. Catch rate and yards per reception appear to be less affected than volume.
Emmanuel Sanders (2015) saw the largest increase in DraftKings points per game (+7.4), but he also fell into a fantastic situation. The Broncos were desperate to replace Wes Welker after an injury-plagued season, and the Peyton Manning-led squad was coming off a nice 13-3 campaign.
The biggest decrease in production belonged to (the other) Steve Smith, but, to be fair, the entire 2010 free agent class was awful: Braylon Edwards, Derrick Mason, and Steve Breaston all struggled with their new teams.
Of players who were in the top-50 in DraftKings PPG before they changed teams, 31.25 percent failed to achieve such success the following season. Overall, we may underrate the volatility of these players in their first season.
How did wide receiver movement affect the offenses they left? The following chart shows these same situations in terms of the change in offensive points scored for both teams in the following season:
Surprisingly, there doesn’t seem to be a notable trend on a large scale, but a few individual situations stand out.
The aforementioned Welker left a Patriots team that scored considerably less points without him, and the Broncos went on to post an NFL-record 37.9 points per game in 2014.
I was surprised to see DeSean Jackson had a neutral impact on raw PPG, but we do know that he has a sizable impact on quarterback performance (via Ian Hartitz):
Johnson definitely did his part to drag down the Colts offense in 2015. He saw 77 targets that season, and the Colts averaged their fewest PPG (20.8) in the Andrew Luck era (though Luck started just seven games).
Last Year’s Class
Let’s dig a bit deeper into last year’s class, but this time from a DFS perspective using our Trends tool.
Marvin Jones, Travis Benjamin, Anquan Boldin, and Rishard Matthews were very strong daily fantasy plays over the course of the 2015 season. All four performed well above their salary-based expectations on DraftKings, posting high Consistency levels and low ownership. The following year, only Matthews improved from a value perspective, and Jones and Benjamin saw a significant decrease in Consistency with their new roles.
What stands out the most from the above chart is ownership. Whether people were chasing his hot start to the year for far too long or not, Jones saw over three times the ownership in 2016 than he did in 2015.
Boldin was deployed in a very similar role in the red zone in Detroit as he was in San Francisco. He had over a 25 percent target market share both seasons inside the 20-yard line; maintaining that role was a huge part of the consistency he showed changing teams.
This Year’s Class
It’s been a rough start to the season for most of this year’s free agent wide receivers, even in comparison to the past eight years. Here are the same three charts from before:
*Note: Eric Decker’s “Team #1” season is 2015 as he missed most of last season due to injury.
Terrelle Pryor: He’s dropped from 24th to 47th in DraftKings PPG, and his only notable increase has been his yards per reception mark, which ranks 26th among players with 20-plus receptions in 2017. Despite the lack of chemistry he has showed with Kirk Cousins so far, perhaps this decrease in volume should have been more obvious. Per our Redskins Fantasy Preview, Cousins has never been someone to lock onto a receiver under Jay Gruden. Here’s how he’s targeted his three top receivers on a per-game basis over the last three years:
- Jordan Reed (28 games): 7.86
- Pierre Garcon (38): 7.00
- DeSean Jackson (30): 6.23
Alshon Jeffery: In hindsight, it probably wasn’t wise to assume Carson Wentz would feed Jeffery similarly to how Jay Cutler had in the past. That said, Jeffery has had some brutal matchups to start the season, so even though both Zach Ertz and Nelson Agholor have more red zone targets through five weeks, there are reasons for optimism. His 33.0 percent target market share of air yards leads the team and is top-20 in the NFL. The offense has improved more than any other in this sample, although that likely has a lot to do with Wentz’s play in his sophomore campaign.
Pierre Garcon: He was familiar with Kyle Shanahan’s offense coming into the season and is the only player in this class to see a positive increase in receptions or significant increase in DraftKings PPG. In this case, scheme, reliability, and familiarity matter. Perhaps we should put more weight on those factors going forward in these situations.
Jeremy Maclin: Coming into the season, Maclin was joining a team whose 65.99 pass percentage was the highest mark in the league. It should have been a great spot, as Maclin ran 39.8 percent of his snaps last year in the slot, and the departed Steve Smith and Dennis Pitta left behind 222 targets. The problem has been Joe Flacco, whose quarterback rating (71) is the worst of his entire 10-year career, and through five weeks the Ravens’ 51.43 pass percentage makes them the third-most run-heavy team in the league.
Eric Decker: His former consistency came from his ability to dominate near the goal line, as he converted 10 of his 25 targets inside the 10-yard line into touchdowns with the Jets. Even with a similar role — he owns a 33.3 percent target share in the red zone this season — he’s failed to score a touchdown in 2017. He’s averaging roughly two receptions and 40 yards less than in 2015 with the Jets. His -11.1 DraftKings PPG differential is easily the largest drop-off we’ve seen from this year’s class.
DeSean Jackson: He has a top-10 target market share of air yards through four games and has seen less than seven targets only once. Although he may not directly impact a team’s PPG, the coverage he has drawn away from other options like Mike Evans, Cameron Brate, and Adam Humphries cannot go understated.
Kenny Britt: Jeff Fisher probably deserves more of the blame than Britt for holding back the Rams offense; they have scored 16.4 PPG more so far this season under new head coach Sean McVay. That said, Britt has been bad enough in Cleveland to find the dog house on one of the NFL’s least talented teams.
Historically, free agent WRs see a decrease in average production, but these situations should be dissected on a case-by-case basis. Overall, their depth of receptions or catch rates typically stay consistent, but a decrease in volume has caused a significant number of players to fall out of the top-50 in DraftKings PPG the following season. Free agent WRs see a spike in ownership as well, so there could be value in fading them early until we receive more information regarding their new role. The 2017 class has been quite bad, but at least for a few of them there are reasons for optimism going forward.