Fantasy Football: Which WRs could be held back, lost in The QB Wilderness in 2024?

The trade-rumor mongers and aggregators lose while sanity wins in Minnesota as the Vikings and Justin Jefferson agreed to a mega-deal to keep the All-Pro wideout in the fold. Jefferson was given the unique type of deal his play on the field has earned since he arrived in the NFL.

When a player of Jefferson's caliber is discovered, the only logical step is to reward him and secure his place on the team for as long as possible. This decision sparks a fascinating discussion on the escalating value of wide receivers in the NFL, particularly considering the significant contracts they are now commanding, even though seemingly every year, we get a strong crop of new wideouts from the NFL Draft.

But the reality is that while there is a wealth of quality wide receivers entering the league annually, it remains rare that you get a transformative difference-maker who is elite at every part of playing the position and wins at X-receiver but can do it from any alignment. That’s who Justin Jefferson is and that’s why this contract was a no-brainer.

You may be able to recreate his production in the aggregate but you can cobble together the impact wideouts like this have on their offense. The word transformative is the correct distinction. The conversation gets a bit more interesting the further down you go the league rankings but players like CeeDee Lamb and Brandon Aiyuk, who are next in line for extensions, have arguments — based on their film — that they share some of those same descriptors we just assigned to Jefferson.

The bottom line is that you need at least three good receivers to be a dangerous offense in today’s game. That’s why teams are hesitant to let guys even a tier or two down from Jefferson walk out the door.

The concept that this deal brings to the forefront of my mind is one I’ve often discussed: "The QB Wilderness." It's a term that refers to the situation where great wideouts, no matter how talented, can’t excel without a quality quarterback. They need several factors to align for a healthy offensive environment, but the most significant is a quarterback who can match their level of play. Those without such a passer are left to wander The Wilderness — searching for, at the very least, a glimmer of hope.

Jefferson makes for an odd conversation this year because he cuts both directions. He’s set to play without Kirk Cousins as the Week 1 starter in Minnesota for the first time in his career. That would typically qualify a player for The QB Wilderness, not that Jefferson is a “normal” wide receiver.

Even if Jefferson were heading for The Wilderness, there would be no reason to downgrade him significantly because he’s a unique talent capable of having some degree of success with any passer. However, he also doesn’t really qualify for The Wilderness as it is because, again, we’re merely looking for the hope of an oasis in the desert. And first-round rookie quarterbacks do qualify for such optimism of a respite.

We don’t know how good J.J. McCarthy will be in the NFL. There’s a chance at some point early in his rookie contract we realize the hope of an oasis was a mirage and Jefferson has been wandering The Wilderness all along. That’s how it works with the tricky rookie quarterback pairings. Yet, in this particular situation, the bar is low for McCarthy to be good enough to simply support Jefferson. Perhaps we’re left wanting more in a few seasons but for now, no one should be downgrading the elite wideout and he avoids The Wilderness.

With that in mind, let’s look at some 2024 wide receivers taking the on-ramp to The Wilderness, those still stuck out there and who might finally be escaping after offseason changes.

But this time, we mean it!

After spending his rookie season on a particularly harrowing but relatively brief stint in The Wilderness, 2023 was supposed to be a grand exit for Wilson. Fate was cruel instead, as Aaron Rodgers was ruled out for the season after just four snaps.

I’ve watched so many great wideouts playing alongside miserable quarterbacks on broken offenses in the decade I’ve spent charting receivers. The gap between Wilson’s play and his passers was one of the biggest I can remember. It was an unspeakably bad situation.

The hope is that Rodgers can give it another run this year and offer up solid to strong play. It’s a risky bet, given he’s 40 and coming off an Achilles tear. Yet, the hope is alive for Wilson to enjoy some years in the sun.

Brown is a tricky candidate because he’s played with good quarterbacks before like Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray. However, he never really lined up his healthy games with Murray last season and I think you can consider a majority of the season spent with Joshua Dobbs and Clayton Tune a stint in The Wilderness.

Brown isn’t a No. 1 receiver and has holes in his game. Still, he’s a speedy player with a real knack for separating on critical routes over the middle. It doesn’t take much work to outline why he’s the wide receiver on this roster who is most capable of handling significant volume on intermediate routes.

We’ve discussed this one extensively over the last few months, but yes, Drake London is the most obvious quarterback Wilderness exit candidate.

London is in an enviable position of having multiple pathways off and possible years-long insurance against ever seeing The Wilderness again. Kirk Cousins is the perfect candidate to pluck a promising young wideout out of the misery of the Falcons quarterback situation the last few years.

If he doesn’t work out or is a mere band-aid solution, the Falcons also now have Michael Penix waiting in the wings. Think whatever you want about the draft pick, but it was good news for London. The two quarterbacks are quite different, but both of their styles map well to different parts of London’s game.

Terry McLaurin has amassed a long list of middling to poor quarterback running mates over his NFL career. Jahan Dotson isn’t on the same level as McLaurin but he hasn’t enjoyed a healthy offensive environment at any point during his two years in the league.

Enter Jayden Daniels.

The LSU product’s biggest flares and fantasy impact may well come from his rushing ability as a rookie but he showed in college that he can attack defenses down the field. Both of these Commanders wideouts can win in the same areas Daniels enjoyed.

Daniels threw well to a vertical X in Brian Thomas Jr. at LSU and that’s McLaurin’s position. Dotson could be further maximized by running vertical routes from the slot, as Malik Nabers did with Daniels in college.

DJ Moore can duke it out with McLaurin for the rights to be crowned “The Next Allen Robinson” as the king of The QB Wilderness. Moore enjoyed what was likely the best quarterback play of his career last season in Justin Fields — and Fields is not even penciled in for a Week 1 starting job in Pittsburgh. That tells you what you need to know.

Caleb Williams was a great prospect with a near-universal approval rating as the first overall pick. If he hits his ceiling Moore will be a clear exit candidate. The only question in Chicago is how the targets will split out between these three great receivers.

I’m actually open to Will Levis developing into the type of passer who doesn’t put wideouts in The Wilderness but he’s still a relative unknown.

Ridley has played with strong starting quarterbacks throughout his career, with Matt Ryan in Atlanta and Trevor Lawrence in Jacksonville. Levis has the arm talent to compete with those guys but will need some development with his timing, anticipation and overall feel of the game — a few of those aspects even Lawrence struggled with last year. If Levis gets there, Ridley is the type of separator who makes a young quarterback’s life easy. But he’ll also be competing with DeAndre Hopkins for targets, which makes this a tough fantasy ranking to crack.

Diontae Johnson’s move from Pittsburgh to Carolina didn’t come with a ticket out of The Wilderness.

Bryce Young’s rookie season efficiency metrics put him among some troubling historic company at the position. I’m open to most of that being the fault of a horrid situation with receivers who couldn’t separate but it’s no lock that Young is a league-average starter. Still, given the fact that Johnson is the type of separator Carolina sorely lacked in 2023 and in line for a high target share, he could still present a value outside of the top 40 fantasy receivers this year.

George Pickens’ game as a straight-line press/man-beating vertical X-receiver maps well to the theoretical strengths of the new quarterbacks the Steelers acquired. And there’s no question the team upgraded the position after Kenny Pickett flamed out.

However, unless either Russell Wilson or Justin Fields is a much-improved version of the players they’ve been the last two seasons, they’re still QB Wilderness options.

Pickens will offer spike weeks in 2024 and every season going forward. He has real downfield ability that is near trump-card status. He’ll also dominate the target share in Pittsburgh given the rest of its receiver room but that may still only equate to 115 to 120 targets in a low-volume passing game. The Steelers will establish the run and attempt to hide their passers this season.

Sadly, the final prime years of Davante Adams’ career appear destined to be spent wandering The Wilderness. Never tie your fortunes to Josh McDaniels. Jakobi Meyers showed last year he’s a quality receiver who deserves better. He’s one of the more underrated wideouts in the game.

This duo will likely see a little of both Aidan O’Connell and Gardner Minshew this season. My bet is that Minshew wins the job in training camp but at some point, because of the hard ceiling he puts on a unit, O’Connell will get some looks. Minshew is what he is at this point of his career while O’Connell is at least a bit more of an unknown.

Still, I can’t shake the feeling that this is the lowest-ceiling quarterback battle in recent memory.