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Talented Pass Catchers Being Underutilized

Production in the fantasy game, as well as the real-life gridiron, is largely dependent upon the situation presented to the player.

As the old adage goes, talent plus opportunity equals fantasy production. However, a player can not produce in the fantasy game, if he is not met with the adequate opportunity to do so.

The following article will analyze some of the most talented pass catchers who have been severely limited by the opportunity presented to them at the NFL level, and highlight their path to fantasy stardom.

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Calvin Ridley (WR, ATL)

The 26th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft is poised for a huge breakout year in 2020. Ridley is a burner and a polished route runner. His 4.43 40-yard dash time ranks in the 86th percentile among wide receivers, while his precision as a route runner made Ridley a premiere talent coming out of college.

The 2019 season was a tale of two halves for Calvin Ridley. In the seven games prior to the trade of Mohamed Sanu, Ridley averaged 6.28 targets and 12.9 fantasy points per game in a full PPR. In the five and a half games following the trade of Sanu, Ridley averaged 8.9 targets and 19.4 fantasy points per game, before sustaining a season ending abdominal injury in the third quarter of week 14.

As Ridley's workload increased, his fantasy production boomed. An increase of nearly three targets per game resulted in a 50% jump in fantasy production. Extrapolated over a full season, Ridley's 19.4 fantasy points per game would have ranked third among all wide receivers. Ridley demonstrated the ability to produce at a truly elite level when granted the opportunity last season.

Now the question becomes whether Ridley's increased role in the offense is sustainable. The Atlanta Falcons did nothing in the offseason to add to their offensive attack. The additions of Todd Gurley II and Hayden Hurst were simple replacements for the departed Devonta Freeman and Austin Hooper. Ridley's amplified role in the Atlanta passing attack should be secured over the course of the 2020 season as a result.

Julio Jones remains the focal point of the Falcons' offense, but Ridley stands to benefit from lining up opposite of the future Hall of Famer. As defenses focus on shutting down Jones, Ridley will face lesser competition from opposing corners. It is safe to assume that opposing defenses will attack Jones with their best corners, safeties and double-teams the majority of the time. This development will create plenty of mismatches for Ridley and allow him the opportunity to feast on weak defenders.

Ridley's prominent role in a high-scoring, pass-heavy offense will lend itself to superstar production out of the third-year Alabama receiver in 2020. Ridley is currently being drafted as the number 20 wide receiver off the board in the NFFC, but the Atlanta pass catcher is poised for a top-15 season in 2020, with upside for more. Ridley is the ideal WR2 target in drafts, as he boasts the desired combination of a high floor and huge ceiling.

 

Mike Williams (WR, LAC)

Mike Williams is another talented pass catcher who has been granted limited opportunities at the NFL level. His production could severely increase with a change in role. The Clemson wide out was drafted seventh overall by the Chargers in the 2017 NFL Draft. Williams possesses the prototypical combination of size and speed for a number one NFL wide receiver, standing at 6’4” with 4.59 speed.

Williams is a playmaker and a major offensive weapon. He is a downfield threat, posting an average depth per target of 17.3 yards in 2019 and pacing the entire NFL. He is a home run hitter and a threat to score any time he touches the field. Williams’s size also renders him a huge weapon in the red zone, but he largely struggled to capitalize on opportunities in 2019-2020. Williams caught three of sixteen red zone targets, an unsustainably low rate of 18.75%. In the previous season, Williams caught eight of 15 targets in the red zone, a rate of 53.33%. If Williams can come close to replicating his previous success in the red zone, he could once again eclipse the double-digit touchdown mark.

In the 2019-2020 season, Williams suffered from Philip Rivers’ emphasis on short passes and an low completion percentage in the red zone. Last season, Rivers threw over 65% of his passes to Keenan Allen, running backs and tight ends. Allen posted an average of eight yards per target, a relatively weak mark for the wide receiver position. Rivers’s 7.8 yards per attempt ranked middle of the pack among NFL quarterbacks, but this average was heavily inflated by one man. And that man is Mike Williams.

Williams’s path to fantasy stardom relies on the development of rookie quarterback Justin Herbert and a slight shift in the Chargers’ offensive attack. Herbert’s cannon arm opens up the offense and should grant Williams additional downfield opportunities as the Oregon product learns to play at the NFL level. Assuming Herbert claims the starting role over Tyrod Taylor, his development could cause the Chargers to shift focus away from the overemphasis of completing short passes and allow the talented Herbert to work downfield.

Williams may have to wait until Herbert’s sophomore season in 2021 to fully break out into a fantasy star, as his value is so closely tied to the quarterback. Williams should be a useful flex option in the upcoming season, but the primary appeal here is his dynasty value. Fantasy owners should look to swing a deal for Williams in dynasty/keeper leagues and bank on the former number seven overall pick turning into the star he was drafted to be next season.

 

O.J. Howard (TE, TB)

The 2017 first-round pick out of Alabama has exhibited limited runs of success in the NFL, but has not secured the consistent role necessary to produce over the course of a full season. Howard is a physical freak. The 25-year-old stands at 6’6” and weighs in at 215 pounds. Along with premier size, Howard demonstrates elite speed. His 4.51 40-yard dash ranks in the 97th percentile of tight ends and is comparable to the marks posted by star wide receivers like Michael Thomas and Davante Adams.

Howard possesses an elite ability to move downfield, but his fantasy production has suffered from inconsistent usage over his NFL career. In 2019-2020, Howard demonstrated an average depth of 9.6 yards per target, good for fifth among qualified tight ends. In eight games where Howard accrued at least four targets, he accumulated 29 catches for 406 yards.

Extrapolated over a full season, Howard would have respectively ranked ninth and sixth at the position in those marks. O.J. Howard is a physical specimen who has shown an elite ability to move downfield and catch passes. So what’s the problem here? The problem is the lack of opportunity on an absolutely loaded Tampa Bay offense.

Last season, Howard ranked fifth on his own team with a dismal 8.4% target share. Chris Godwin, Mike Evans, Breshad Perriman, and even fellow tight end Cameron Brate all had more passes thrown their way. His target share ranked 38th among tight ends, effectively demonstrating the severe lack of chances granted to the Alabama product.

The offseason acquisition of Rob Gronkowski will likely suppress any chance for Howard to break out in the 2020 NFL season. He is a name to keep an eye on, but should only be held in deep dynasty leagues at the moment. However, an injury to Gronk or a trade of Howard to a tight end needy team would immediately vault Howard into the TE1 discussion with elite upside. In such an event, Howard would become an immediate waiver wire priority. Fantasy owners should monitor the news, identifying opportunities to buy Howard at a discounted price.

O.J. Howard is like the fantasy football version of Dave Grohl. Howard’s primary use as a blocker has prevented him from reaching fantasy stardom, while Grohl’s role as the drummer of Nirvana prevented him from breaking out as a frontman rock star. Hopefully, O.J. Howard will not have to wait long to “front his own band.”

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