Who is most likely to finish as fantasy football's top WR in 2021?

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I predicted that Davante Adams would be the WR1 overall in fantasy football last year (shoutout to me) when Michael Thomas was the universal first guy off the board. That reasoning was based on a confluence of events that took place for Thomas in 2019. Those events must occur for a receiver to finish at the top of fantasy charts.

It can be distilled into three pillars:

  • Must own a dominant target share in their offense

  • Must be tethered to an efficient quarterback/offense

  • Must be verifiably great at football

Time to spin forward. So, using those pillars, let’s take a look at my Tier 1 and 2 receivers to examine how clean their path is to potentially push for the WR1 overall title in 2021.

Stefon Diggs, Buffalo Bills

Target share pillar: Yes

Diggs was third in the NFL last year with a 29 percent share of the Bills’ targets. There’s little reason to expect that to decrease at all in 2021. The only significant move the Bills made to their passing game was a one-for-one swap of John Brown for Emmanuel Sanders.

Efficient offense/QB pillar: Yes

Josh Allen’s ascension up the quarterback ranks was no fluke. He honed his craft to the point where he could take advantage of his enormous skill set. Allen was the No. 5 quarterback in EPA per play last year. That’s efficiency. Even better, the Bills were one of the most pass-heavy offenses in the NFL. They threw the ball at a 58 percent rate when they led by three-plus scores, the second-highest mark in the league.

Verifiably great at football pillar: Yes

Stefon Diggs is the best route-runner in the NFL and an excellent deep-ball winner. He’s a complete receiver. Last year’s output when finally paired with a top quarterback cemented his status among the elite.

Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers

Target share pillar: Yes

Davante Adams maintained a near 30 percent target share for the Packers last year. Green Bay brought in guys like Amari Rodgers and Randall Cobb to chip in for slot reps but no one to realistically threaten Adams’ workload.

Efficient offense/QB pillar: Yes

Adams gets to catch passes from the 2020 league MVP. Aaron Rodgers enjoyed one of his best pro seasons last year when he led the NFL in touchdown rate and adjusted yards per attempt.

Verifiably great at football pillar: Yes

Adams has scratched and clawed his way out of the league’s basement to become one of the best receivers in the game. What he’s done, the player he has become — it’s unprecedented. He’s a route-running savant who wins at all levels.

Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs

Target share pillar: Yes

Unlike Diggs and Adams, Tyreek Hill splits the top of his team’s passing totem pole with another All-Star. Still, despite the presence of Travis Kelce, Hill maintained a 22.1 percent target share of the Chiefs offense. You could argue that has room to grow unless Mecole Hardman steps up as a steady, full-season starter.

Efficient offense/QB pillar: Yes

Patrick Mahomes is the best quarterback on planet Earth. Hill was already one of the most efficient receivers in the game when Alex Smith was starting. Together, Mahomes-Hill is simply unfair.

Verifiably great at football pillar: Yes

I’d venture to guess Hill strikes more fear into opposing defensive coaches than any other player in the game. His speed, separation ability, and physicality both after the reception and at the catch point are just unreal.

Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill
Defenses tremble when they see Tyreek Hill in the open field. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

Calvin Ridley, Atlanta Falcons

Target share pillar: Yes

Calvin Ridley already led the league in air yards share (39.9 percent) last year with Julio Jones in the mix. The Falcons pass-catcher depth chart is Ridley, rookie Kyle Pitts and nothing special behind them. Ridley's volume potential is truly outrageous. We should be zero percent surprised if he ends up leading the league in targets.

Efficient offense/QB pillar: Maybe

Matt Ryan ranked 18th in adjusted yards per attempt last year but we know he’s capable of big seasons in the right offense. If Ryan hits the ground running in Arthur Smith’s offense, he could be good enough to vault Ridley to the WR1 overall status.

Verifiably great at football pillar: Yes

Ridley has been a big-time route-runner since he entered the NFL. His Year 3 season showed he was capable of being a team’s alpha receiver. We have no questions about this player. He's my favorite pick outside the obvious top three.

A.J. Brown, Tennessee Titans

Target share pillar: Probably not

If Julio Jones had never signed with the Titans, Brown would have been a slam-dunk yes here. In that scenario, I would have been tempted to place him in Tier 1. As we know, Jones is in Tennessee and that is going to prevent Brown from pushing for a 27-30% target share. Jones is still good enough to command beefy volume when he’s healthy. There’s the catch though; If Jones does miss time or operate in a decoy role while injured — as he’s wont to do — that'll bring Brown’s elite target share upside back onto the table. You just can’t project that in this current moment.

Efficient offense/QB pillar: Yes

He isn’t spoken about in this fashion but Ryan Tannehill has been uber-efficient in Tennessee, ranking top-five in both touchdown rate and adjusted yards per attempt in back-to-back seasons. Some of that might be on the offensive design, and that’s a small question-mark with Arthur Smith gone to Atlanta. Nevertheless, it would be strange if the Titans altered their approach much.

Verifiably great at football pillar: Yes

Brown is a monster. He obliterates man coverage, is a wrecking ball after the catch, and wins with physicality at the catch point. He’s been one of the most explosive receivers in the league since he entered it. With Jones in the mix, the Titans enjoy the rare treat of having two true No. 1 wideouts.

DeAndre Hopkins, Arizona Cardinals

Target share pillar: Yes

DeAndre Hopkins trailed only Davante Adams in target share after seeing 29.4% of Arizona’s looks. While the Cardinals added guys like A.J. Green and Rondale Moore this offseason, they aren’t the type of guys to threaten the workload of a Hopkins-level receiver. I don’t expect him to lose much of any of his 160 targets from 2020.

Efficient offense/QB pillar: Almost

Kyler Murray’s outrageous fantasy value primarily comes from his unique scrambling ability. He still has some room to grow as a passer. Murray was outside the top-15 in a variety of efficiency metrics. Some of that may be due to Kliff Kingsbury’s offense, but we shouldn’t rule out Murray making a big leap statistically in his third year.

Verifiably great at football pillar: Yes

Hopkins has been at the top level of the wide receiver pantheon for some time. He’s still at the top of his game.

Justin Jefferson, Minnesota Vikings

Target share pillar: Almost

Justin Jefferson ranked sixth in the NFL with a 25.8% share of the Vikings targets. The problem? That amounted to only 125 targets. Minnesota’s run-heavy ways could keep Jefferson locked out of the type of raw target total he’d need to finish as the WR1 overall. It might take an Adam Theilen decline/injury or some real chaos for Jefferson to approach 150 targets.

Efficient offense/QB pillar: Yes

It might be the fakest fake-news production of all time but Kirk Cousins does put up numbers. He’s ranked inside the top-six in touchdown rate and adjusted yards per attempt in each of the last two seasons. The efficiency is absolutely there for members of this passing game, Jefferson chief among them.

Verifiably great at football pillar: Yes

Justin Jefferson is no fluke. The record-breaking rookie gets open at will and is ultra explosive. He essentially had Odell Beckham Jr.’s 2014 elite rookie season from a route-running and efficiency perspective — just without the wild hype that comes with being an NFC East team member and making that catch.

DK Metcalf, Seattle Seahawks

Target share pillar: Yes

Despite playing alongside another excellent receiver in Tyler Lockett, we have no doubts about DK Metcalf’s target total. Those two basically own half of the passing game to themselves. Metcalf’s 24% target share was barely bested by Lockett’s 24.6%. If the Seahawks call smarter, not necessarily more, passing plays in 2021 under Shane Waldron, both of them can soar.

Efficient offense/QB pillar: Yes

Even if he didn’t play up to his usual standards to end last season, Russell Wilson is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Wilson’s eye-popping efficiency is the reason he routinely finishes as a high-level fantasy quarterback.

Verifiably great at football pillar: Yes

Metcalf is a truly outlier-level physical specimen. What’s more, he’s a detailed technician who has layered those gifts with excellent craft at the position. He can do it all. If you’re still making three-cone or “can’t run routes” jokes, you need to wake up.

Allen Robinson, Chicago Bears

Target share pillar: Yes

Allen Robinson has recorded 150-plus targets in back-to-back years with the Bears. He ranked inside the top-10 receivers with a 25% target share. While we like Darnell Mooney’s potential, he won’t dig into Robinson’s overall, or team-context, volume levels.

Efficient offense/QB pillar: Probably not

Even if he is the best quarterback Robinson’s ever played with (sigh), Andy Dalton isn’t the guy for this gig. Perhaps Justin Fields can be but saying he will be right away is a stretch. We have seen some rookies jump in and immediately post the type of efficiency numbers we’re craving to be paired with Robinson. But it remains an aggressive Year 1 projection. Either way, we can hope that Fields will boost the deep-ball and red-zone target potential that Robinson needs to re-access his ceiling after operating at his floor in 2019 and 2020.

Verifiably great at football pillar: Yes

Allen Robinson is an elite receiver in the NFL. Once a dangerous downfield ball-winner, he’s developed the type of route chops to become a complete player. How many other receivers could have produced in the chaos of the Bears' offenses the last two years? Robinson is a star.

Keenan Allen, Los Angeles Chargers

Target share pillar: Yes

Keenan Allen turned right back into a volume monster when Justin Herbert took over. He finished the year with 147 targets in just 14 games. He averaged over 12 looks per game in non-injury shortened contests with Herbert. The Chargers have Allen, Austin Ekeler, and Mike Williams as the lone established above-average players in the offense. Allen’s target share ceiling is quite high. He could push for 30%.

Efficient offense/QB pillar: Yes

Justin Herbert finished 10th in the NFL in touchdown passes and fourth in yards per game. He flashed true upside as a top passer during his rookie season. Allen could get some of the most efficient downfield passes he’s seen in years if Herbert takes yet another step.

Verifiably great at football pillar: Yes

No questions here. Allen is a top-five route-runner in football and can win at all levels. I don’t care for one second that he averaged 9.9 yards per catch last year. Again, Herbert could get even more out of him downfield if the offensive line is better. He could even push north of his 11.9 career average. Allen has a much cleaner path to a WR1 overall finish than I initially thought.

Terry McLaurin, Washington Football Team

Target share pillar: Most likely

Terry McLaurin ranked 14th with a 24.4% target share in 2020, good for 134 in total. Washington did add a good bit of talent around McLaurin this offseason. Curtis Samuel and Logan Thomas will compete for serious volume. We expect Antonio Gibson to get a receiving bump. Dyami Brown and even Adam Humphries are much better than the dregs of Washington's lower depth chart last year.

Nevertheless, true alpha receivers never really cede volume. I’d be stunned if McLaurin dips below 130 targets this year, especially since Scott Turner is routinely top-15 in neutral game script passing rate.

Efficient offense/QB pillar: Maybe

Ryan Fitzpatrick has been an above-average quarterback the last two years and much steadier than his reputation would suggest. He ranked 17th in touchdown rate and adjusted yards per attempt last year. But while he’s clearly the best quarterback McLaurin has ever played with, is he good enough to post the type of efficiency we’d need to get the receiver to WR1 overall status? That’d be a stretch. But there’s no question Fitzpatrick’s aggressive nature will make this an outrageously fun fantasy offense.

Verifiably great at football pillar: Yes

Terry McLaurin is the NFL's next superstar No. 1 receiver that the national stage isn’t all the way hip to yet. He’s a full-field separator who can win the 50/50 ball as well. Putting up 87 catches and 1,118 yards in Washington’s busted 2020 offense was a miracle. He’ll be regarded as a fringe Top-10 real-life NFL receiver by the end of the year.

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