Fantasy Football: Beware those wide receivers in ... 'The QB Wilderness'

The “QB Wilderness” is a phrase I throw around on podcasts when outlining high-end starting wide receivers who are paired with questionable-to-poor quarterback play. Essentially, think of the QB Wilderness as the Allen Robinson career territory. Clearly great No. 1 alpha or quality 1B receivers are held back by quarterback play and while they can still put up good stats, their talent rates much higher than the actual output.

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Usually, when one guy exits the wilderness via a veteran quarterback addition, one or more players left behind head down the on-ramp into the wilderness. Then there are some guys left wandering the wilderness for years, à la Robinson, never quite finding a home with an above-average starter to maximize their production.

Below I’ll outline my state of the QB Wilderness in 2023; who is exiting, entering and still stuck wandering … for now.

WRs exiting QB Wilderness

Garrett Wilson, New York Jets

You can’t have this list without mentioning the second-year wideout. Wilson is one of many young Jets players who openly pined for Aaron Rodgers when it became likely New York was one of the top — or only — logical next homes for the future Hall of Fame passer.

While you can certainly argue that Rodgers took a step back last season, he was still a teammate-elevator. Rodgers got quality moments out of two rookies; a Day 3, non-separation receiver in Romeo Doubs and Christian Watson, who is a freakshow of an athlete but still a technically raw player.

Some of Wilson’s best routes are in-breaking patterns and he’s a physical and slippery player after the catch. Some of those Davante Adams layup routes Rodgers loved to throw from 2020 to 2021 will perfectly overlap with Wilson’s game.

A few weeks into the 2023 season and the horror memories of the Jets' 2022 quarterback play will be a mere distant memory for the uber-talented receiver. Let's also hope his recent, apparent injury in practice is nothing more than a tweak.

Brandin Cooks, Dallas Cowboys

It’s hard to feel too much sympathy for Cooks after his early career run of quarterback play going from Drew Brees to Tom Brady to Jared Goff during the peak Rams’ years and then landing with Deshaun Watson in Houston. That’s about as good of a run as you can go on for a receiver.

However, there is no doubt Cooks spent the last two years wandering the wilderness with the mess Houston was in at quarterback in the post-Watson era.

With his trade to Dallas, Cooks is back in the quality ranks at the quarterback position with Dak Prescott. He won’t be the top target — Cooks will split with Michael Gallup for looks behind ascending star CeeDee Lamb — but he’s back with a timing-based passer who can pin the ball on him in the deep game.

Chris Olave, New Orleans Saints

Any time you attempt to put Olave on a list like this someone “smarter than you” on Twitter will instantly hit you with some oddly impressive Andy Dalton advanced passing stats from last year. Perhaps Dalton only shined in such metrics because he was primarily throwing to a wide receiver who was almost always open last year?

Those stats tell you more about Olave than they do about Dalton.

The entire premise of the QB Wilderness is that even if a receiver has his moments with some vagabond veteran, his quarterback’s play can slip through the trap door at any moment. Recall Dalton’s play the previous two years in Dallas and Chicago when he averaged 5.9 adjusted yards per attempt with a 3.0% interception rate. That trap door was waiting to drag Olave to the depths at any moment.

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Derek Carr at least brings some stability to the equation for Olave over the next few years. He’s not a top-10 quarterback and there’s a ceiling on your team with him at the controls, but he can deliver the ball in an efficient fashion to a star receiver as we saw last year with Davante Adams. He also had his best season quite recently, ranking 11th in completion percentage over expectation in 2021 despite averaging 8.2 air yards per attempt or not being paired with a star pass-catcher. Some of those intermediate targets Carr and Adams were firing off together last season will fit perfectly with Olave’s game.

Michael Pittman Jr., Indianapolis Colts

Obviously, Pittman’s exit from the wilderness is a bit of a projection since we don’t know if Anthony Richardson will be a good NFL quarterback. Even if he hits as a player, it’s reasonable to not expect his prime passing season to come until well after his rookie year.

However, Pittman has been through the ringer with declining veterans through his first three NFL campaigns. He got the last gasp of Philip Rivers’ career, then survived the Carson Wentz mess before ultimately being paired with Matt Ryan last year in a disaster season. No offense spent more time with a roof over its head than the Colts last year. Pittman essentially spent the whole year adjusting and extending outside his frame to catch seven-yard wobblers.

By catching 99 passes with Ryan and going for over 1,000 yards in a chaotic vertical shot offense with Wentz, we’ve seen Pittman have a complete game and he can play with multiple types of quarterbacks. If Richardson can hack it at the NFL level, Pittman will punch his ticket out of one of the strangest QB Wilderness voyages. At least there’s hope now.

WRs entering QB Wilderness

Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The QB Wilderness comes for us all. And no pair of receivers is set to experience a harsher case of whiplash than the Bucs duo. Tom Brady gave Evans and Godwin the best quarterback play of their careers by a long shot. No matter how the Kyle Trask vs. Baker Mayfield battle sorts out, it’s not going to be good for the passing ecosystem in Tampa Bay.

This is going to be one of the most difficult duos to project this season. It’s also troubling that neither is coming off their best season individually. Godwin came back slowly from an ACL tear and Evans showed some signs of slight decline while being overused as a vertical receiver.

These two can bounce back as they’re proven No. 1-level wideouts. But even if their individual play is better … what does that amount to in a Mayfield- or Trask-led offense?

Of course, last year I would have told you that DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett were entering the QB Wilderness. That turned out not to be the case as Geno Smith turned in an out-of-nowhere revival campaign. There will be some ready to invoke that situation for the Tampa Bay duo and Mayfield. I’d note that the Seahawks duo wasn’t coming off a down year like Evans and Godwin nor does Tampa Bay have a Pete Carroll-like program builder in town. Either way, I likely won’t bet on catching lightning in a bottle twice.

Christian Watson, Green Bay Packers

Whatever you think of what Rodgers has left or of his play in the final season with the Packers, watching him walk out the door brings some concern to the receivers left behind.

Watson showed a ton of promise in Year 1 by breaking out in the second half. He was a raw receiver coming into the league from a small program and while he was a limited application player — he mostly separates on deep routes, has roller coaster ball skills and wins after the catch — we know he’s a good receiver.

It’s fair to wonder if an even slightly diminished but ultra-confident Hall of Fame quarterback like Rodgers is the best type of player to get the most out of a good but volatile receiver like this one. Jordan Love in his first starting season may not unlock Watson in the same way, although it’s worth noting he dialed in on Watson in his injury-relief action against the Eagles last year. I’m open to taking Watson off the QB Wilderness list as early as September if Love is good, but for now, he at least needs to set up camp on the outer edges of the forest.

Marquise Brown, Arizona Cardinals

This situation could also get tricky if the Cardinals are deep into the season with one of the worst records in football. There would be little incentive for Murray to return to the field for this team if they’re on a heat-seeking path to the No. 1 overall pick and he’s not 100% healthy. By that time, Arizona might already be thinking about resetting the quarterback clock with a top prospect next April.

Hopkins has seen the wilderness before during his Houston days. It makes no sense for him to even be on this roster at this stage. Brown, however, has to wonder if he’s about to spend his first season as a pro wandering without a proven quarterback.

WRs stuck in QB wilderness … for now

Terry McLaurin and Jahan Dotson, Washington Commanders

You think you know the QB Wilderness? Terry McLaurin was born in it, consumed by it, built for it. McLaurin is on the Allen Robinson career path of playing with questionable quarterbacks throughout the course of his prime with no end in sight.

His running mate Dotson showed immense promise as a rookie receiver. This could be one of the best route-running duos in the NFL as soon as this season. Washington just doesn’t have a clear plan at quarterback.

Perhaps Sam Howell has some magical breakout season after being a Round 5 pick last year. Maybe Jacoby Brissett strings together the same steady, efficient play he did with the Browns prior to Deshaun Watson’s return for a full year with Washington. I’m open to dreaming but we’re still grounded in reality here in May. It’s likely McLaurin and Dotson traverse the wilderness together for yet another campaign.

DJ Moore, Chicago Bears

Perhaps the most controversial placing on the list. There is no doubt Moore has lived in the QB Wilderness. He’s spent the first chapter of his career with declining Cam Newton (and the reboot version from 2021), Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield, Teddy Bridgewater and P.J. Walker. He’s gunning for that Allen Robinson/Terry McLaurin club.

It wouldn’t be a high bar to clear for Justin Fields to be the best quarterback Moore has ever played with. But he’s still not a proven, above-average starter at the position. Even if you want to put him in that tier, it’s not yet because of his passing prowess.

I view this trade for the Bears as a possible light-beer version of the A.J. Brown trade for the Eagles, where a No. 1 receiver elevated a talented but unproven starter in Jalen Hurts. Moore is not as good as Brown and I think it would be a monumental achievement if Fields is grouped in the same ranks as Hurts by the end of 2023.

If Fields returns on his promise, Moore is obviously out of the QB Wilderness. For now, he must remain on this list.

Jerry Jeudy, Denver Broncos

You thought Russell Wilson was going to be Jeudy’s guide out of the wilderness. That didn’t go so well in Year 1 of the Wilson experience and really all bets are off at this point.

The Broncos picked up Jeudy’s fifth-year option and at this point, he’s the lone Broncos veteran receiver that actually has the potential to live up to the high hopes many others had for this group in 2022. I just don’t know if Wilson is going to live up to his end of the bargain based on his play.

One thing is for sure: If we’re a few months into the season and it’s not working with Wilson, Sean Payton will be ready and have full autonomy to hand-pick his next quarterback. Perhaps that guy will get Jeudy off one of the rougher rides through the wilderness in recent years.

Drake London, Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons rookie receiver has spent one year in the QB Wilderness — but it was one for the ages. Marcus Mariota was the worst non-Zach Wilson long-term starting quarterback in the NFL last year. London consistently got open over the middle only for Mariota to sail passes right over his head or skip the ball to him … on the occasions he actually saw him open.

Desmond Ridder and London connected for some solid games to end their rookie seasons. Ridder’s still an unproven commodity but he demonstrated he could be functional as a starting option.

That said, “could be functional” is still grounds for the QB Wilderness. London is such a massive talent, I hope Ridder way outkicks those limits so the rest of the world knows it.