The rookie wide receiver you draft in your dynasty league is going to disappoint you. That sucks right? Right now you’re probably thinking something along the lines of “no he won’t” or “shut up”. But, for a lot of these rookie wide receivers, that’s undoubtedly true. So the next thing you might wonder is “how do I prevent that?” And the answer to that question might surprise you - you shouldn’t. You should embrace it.
Thanks in part to the condensed wonders of Fantasy Twitter, we like to simplify things down to easily digestible phrases. Zero RB. Late round QB. Split backfield. But here’s another one that comes up all the time - third year breakout. We don’t really question it, we just kind of accept that it’s true. Chris Godwin , Demaryius Thomas , Terrell Owens. Third year comes and boom - rocket ship. That’s just how it works.
But, for a lot of guys, there is actually a very specific reason why it happens that way. And that actually stems from one of the very basic rules of the game of football. One that applies to every level going back to Pop Warner or Peewee or whatever your sweet little country bumpkin town called it. We all know this rule but we rarely think about how it affects us in fantasy football. So let’s discuss.
The specific rule I’m talking about is the rule that requires you to have seven guys tethered to the line of scrimmage on every play. The two widest guys are eligible to catch passes and the other five are ineligible (or as I like to call them, “big fat losers”). Just kidding - we don’t make fun of the linemen because they are all pretty much multi-millionaire athletes plus Mekhi Becton could rip my face off at any given moment, if he so chooses.
Anyway, the word “tethered” in this instance means they need to be up “on the line” with at least one foot or hand right behind the line of scrimmage. The other pass catchers line up at least a yard behind the line of scrimmage giving them a small buffer between them and the defender. The untethered guys can go in motion whenever but, if the tethered player wants to go in motion, he needs to step back while another player simultaneously steps forward. And then he can go in motion.
The tethered players are known either as tight ends if they are in “tight” on the line next to the tackles or split ends if they are wide. In general, if you are the wide receiver that lines up a step back from the line outside the tight end, you are a flanker and, if you are off the line either in between the tight end and the flanker or in between the split end and a tackle, you are in the “slot” (labeled as SB in the picture below). There are many different formations but this is the most basic one called “single back”.
Why does this matter?
Well, I’m glad that I hypothetically made you ask! Due to the nature of the split end position, being stuck up on the line of scrimmage with no buffer and no way to go in motion, it makes you highly susceptible to the jam (when a cornerback lines up right across from you and physically tries to slow you down). If you are within five yards of the line of scrimmage, the defensive players can rough you up as much as they want. There is a reason that tight ends and split ends are often much larger than the other players and that’s because it’s a physical position. A guy like T.Y. Hilton at 5’10” ~180 pounds would have a difficult time playing split end so what the Colts have done for years is use two tight ends so he can play flanker. Now they have the 6’4” 223 pound Michael Pittman to play split end so they can use Pittman, one tight end, and Hilton if they want.
Look back at the single back formation image above. Let’s say the team wants to use a fullback for a play. Who comes out of the game? Not the linemen, QB, or RB. And you need the tight end and split end tethered. So that essentially leaves either the flanker or the slot. Same goes for bringing in a second running back for “pro formation” or another tight end. Sometimes only one WR stays out there. Being able to lineup out wide and beat a prospective jam is not for everyone so it’s typically your best WRs that stay out there in one or two wide sets and it’s usually the guys that are best at beating man to man press coverage on the outside.
With a team like the Cowboys last year, it was the rookie that came out for two wide sets. CeeDee Lamb was picked at 17 overall so your first thought would be that he’s obviously going to be featured in the offense right away. But the reality was that, as a rookie at least, he was the slot guy. He played 94% of his snaps from the slot with Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup playing on the outside as the split end and flanker. However, in two wide receiver sets, they decided to use Cooper and Gallup. So Ceedee, being the “third guy” only played 64% of the overall snaps. He’s good enough that he still managed to have a decent season but he didn’t have an absurd breakout season like Justin Jefferson. And that’s because “elite slot guys” as we know them really aren’t quite that. Guys like JuJu Smith-Schuster may play slot in three wide sets but they play flanker in two wide sets. That’s the key.
There are no good slot receivers in fantasy football. Only flankers that play slot in three WR sets.— Andrew Cooper (@CoopAFiasco) May 3, 2021
For example - we already mentioned classic third year breakout Chris Godwin . When Godwin arrived, they had Mike Evans at split end, DeSean Jackson at flanker, and Adam Humphries at slot. Godwin was competing with Humphries so he didn’t do much as a rookie - started two games. In his second season he wrestled some snaps from Humphries and started five games but he wasn’t quite a star - it was still Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson in two wide sets. Then, in the third year, they let DeSean Jackson and Adam Humphries walk. And what happened? Laser show.
Godwin went from a slot guy playing a 64% snap share in 2018 (sound familiar?) to being THE guy opposite Mike Evans in two WR sets, playing ~90% of the snaps in the games he was healthy in 2019 And he was a top three WR in just about every format. THAT’s why he broke out in his third year - not because he needed to learn a few more hand-checking techniques or his routes weren’t crisp enough. In this league, first you get the snaps. Then you get the targets. Then you get the catches. Then you get the khakis. Then you get the girls.
So what do I do to avoid that?
Nothing. You are drafting these guys in your dynasty league because you BELIEVE IN THE TALENT. Not because you think there are some vacated targets on a last place team that is actively TRYING to lose in a year when they traded their QB and are burning dead cap while they collect compensatory picks and roll money into the future. If you aren’t sure, I’m talking about Amon-Ra St. Brown.
Now, some of these guys will take one of the top two spots in their offense as rookies and run with it like Terry McLaurin or Justin Jefferson. And they may just be amazing. Some won’t be amazing but will get a top spot early due to a talent void and those are the guys you want to trade right away if possible (cough, Preston Williams, cough). A LOT of these other rookie WRs will have to wait for their spot and earn it. Keelan Cole had a top two role as a rookie and ran 495 routes - more than any other rookie WR in 2017. Chris Godwin , like a LOSER only ran 274 routes as a rookie. But look at them now. Aren’t you glad you didn’t panic?
So, don’t be surprised when Nico Collins earns the starting split end role on a dilapidated Houston Texans offense and finishes as one of the better rookie wide receivers in fantasy. And don’t be surprised when Corey Davis and Denzel Mims (who are both 6’3”) are the guys out there in two wide receiver sets for the Jets instead of Elijah Moore (who is a half foot shorter than both of them). Or if Terrace Marshall is behind DJ Moore, Robby Anderson , and CMC as a rookie. This is dynasty, not redraft. You drafted them because you believe that the cream will rise to the top. You weren’t really about to panic and sell a guy if he didn’t blow up in his rookie year right? Right??