Most NFL fans aren’t going to feel sorry for the Patriots or the Eagles. New England’s become the villain of the league — winning too much, with a bunch of controversies attached — and Philly is just two years removed from its parade.
But I’ll offer a sympathizer shoulder for these fan bases. After all, they had to accept N’Keal Harry and JJ Arcega-Whiteside, rare bricks in a glorious 2019 rookie receiver class.
The pass-catching kids of 2019 were easy to spot, making weekly splash plays and piling up production. A.J. Brown turned into a second-half league winner. Terry McLaurin overcame his mediocre quarterbacks. DK Metcalf became a downfield monster, most notably in a playoff win at Philadelphia. Deebo Samuel can do everything — catch, run, block, compete. Darius Slayton found a way to score eight touchdowns, somewhere in the swamps of Jersey.
We could rhapsodize about this list all day. Mecole Hardman is too fast for this game (he led the league in yards per target; Brown was second). Hollywood Brown had some moments. Hunter Renfrow was useful in Oakland.
For most of my fantasy days, I’ve been trained to ignore the rookie buzz. Tune out the combine. Don’t get caught up in familiarity bias; just because you’ve studied something extensively doesn’t mean there has to be some meaning, some importance to it.
Sure, in 2014, the rookie crop crushed and I was mostly left behind. But I also picked up Mike Evans in the middle of that season, which makes me wonder if the hook is: Be open to rookie WRs — but wait until they acquire some seasoning.
This wait-to-add angle would have proven useful in 2019. Grading from the second half of the season, you’ll see Brown as WR4, Samuel at WR12, Slayton the WR18. All of these players spent part of the year on the fantasy waiver wire.
Perhaps the 2019 class was mostly an unexpected bonanza of talent, the right players at the right time. But I suspect something greater is going on here. The gap between college and pro scheming has never been as narrow as it is today, and coaches are getting better at making their raw receivers functional as rookies. The Seahawks knew Metcalf came into the NFL green and inexperienced, but they quickly figured out what he could do well. The best coaches work talent to scheme, not the other way around.
The 2020 class looks to be receiver-rich again, and if these guys are proactive ADP picks in the summer, I’ll portably have to fade them. I have trouble attaching expectant prices on this type of player. But at some point in the NFL calendar — probably somewhere in the Week 4-8 range — I’ll start to wonder if it’s time for rookie wideouts to start playing like veterans. Intuitively, it makes some sense. Much like backfield handcuffs, it’s a matter of finding the right timing pocket.
The future doesn’t have to be forever bleak for Harry and Whiteside, either. DeVante Parker finally figured it out this year. Tyler Boyd has grown into a bankable stud. Breshad Perriman was a late-season star in 2019. The learning curve is different for everybody.
Exit Notes — 2019 Wide Receivers
• Michael Thomas — Produced with everyone, which is important, because Drew Brees steps into his age-41 season.
• Chris Godwin — A regular-season hero, though the late-injury left a mark. The pro case for Godwin before the year was obvious; the name that launched a thousand victory laps.
• Julio Jones — Touchdown counts generally a pain, and you have to deal with the visual agony of Hobbling Julio. Jones and Edelman were the only 30-somethings in the PPR Top 20.
• Cooper Kupp — One of just three players to catch 10-plus touchdown passes in 2019; that stat is probably a mix of fluke tied to the ever-widening usage trees.
• DeAndre Hopkins — Even in a minor off-year, he still checks in at WR5 and made All-Pro (they only name two of those, kids). He and Deshaun Watson can overcome Bill O’Brien. It’s lovely when your first-round pick hits a home run, but floor seasons are fine with me, too.
• Keenan Allen — Three straight years and almost identical production. There’s something to be said for knowing what you’re getting.
• Julian Edelman — A good time to get off the bus; headed for age-34 season and quarterback uncertainty. The Pats will never stop featuring Edelman, but he did lead the league in drops.
• Allen Robinson — Stepped up in his second Chicago year, despite his quarterback falling apart. Usage tree proved more narrow than expected.
• Kenny Golladay — Touchdowns were plentiful and evenly dispersed, no matter that Stafford got hurt; that distribution is descriptive and not predictive, but lovely when it occurs.
• Amari Cooper — Given that he was hurt all year, the production was fine. But maybe he’s destined to be a B+ receiver, not a true No. 1.
• DeVante Parker — No one misses Adam Gase in Miami.
• Jarvis Landry — Was Cleveland’s most-dependable receiver all year. Wants to maximize his ability, and that’s half the battle. Been underrated his entire career.
• Tyler Lockett — No one could repeat his 2018 efficiency (perfect QB rating, for crying out loud), but Lockett’s efficiency numbers dipped more than I expected. As much as we all rail about Seattle’s play-calling, Lockett did get a 40-target bump.
• Robert Woods — Terrific in the middle of the field, unlucky with touchdowns. An easy go-get-him for 2020.
• Mike Evans — The Godwin emergence was held against Evans too much — why can’t we love them both? This list is ordered by cumulative PPR points; if we switch to a per-game model, Evans climbs to WR3.
• DJ Moore — No one got good quarterback play in Carolina, but Moore unquestionably left summer darling Curtis Samuel in the dust. But for 2020, maybe it’s another case of “just love them both.”
• DJ Chark — Breakout signs came early and they were legitimate.
• Tyler Boyd — The old-school cycle; busted out in Year 3, validated in Year 4.
• Courtland Sutton — Very good with a quarterback drain; imagine if they improve that position.
• John Brown — Old-school Brown was all boom-and-bust; oddly turned into a low-upside, high-floor guy in Buffalo.
Notables Outside The Top 20
• Davante Adams — Turf toe is a bitch; only rest really heals it. I’ll still rank him optimistically.
• Tyreek Hill — Only injury kept him down; WR10 on per-game basis.
• Stefon Diggs — The most boom-or-bust you could get in 2019.
• Odell Beckham Jr. — Curious cat, bad HC, erratic quarterback — how did it ever go wrong?
• Marvin Jones — Late injury stung, but he’s been constantly underrated.
• JuJu Smith-Schuster — Everyone in Pittsburgh deserves a mulligan.
• Christian Kirk — All of his touchdowns came in one game. Arizona’s offense wasn’t nearly as fun as I expected.
• Jamison Crowder — Maybe it’s damning with false praise, but he was the most consistent Jet.
• Brandin Cooks — Always looks better far away than he does up close.
• Sammy Watkins — Opened with a monster game, then turned into the sucker play of the year. The opposite of Jarvis Landry; overrated every year since his rookie season.
Pianow’s Way Too Early 2020 Receiver Board
1. Michael Thomas
2. DeAndre Hopkins
3. Davante Adams
4. Tyreek Hill
5. Julio Jones
6. Mike Evans
7. Chris Godwin
8. Kenny Golladay
9. DJ Moore
10. Keenan Allen
11. A.J. Brown
12. JuJu Smith-Schuster
13. Allen Robinson
14. Courtland Sutton