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NFL Exit Interview: Wide receivers keep breaking the game

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Quarterbacks are the glamour boys of the NFL, faces of franchises. Running backs have long been the focus of a fantasy player’s mind and heart, the most discussed and coveted depth players on draft day (no matter if you acquire them proactively or reactively).

But let’s give the wideouts their due. We’re seeing this position collectively dominate in a way that’s fresh to the current game, and if you nailed your receiver picks last summer, there’s a good chance you had a deep fantasy run — and maybe even a victory parade — to show for it last month.

Consider a few facts about fantasy football and wideouts:

Receivers crowned fantasy champs in 2021

Five of the Top 10 “Yahoo MVPs” for fantasy football — the players most commonly rostered on the Top 500 public league teams — were wideouts. Cooper Kupp was easily the most impactful “right answer” — he was rostered on 68.2 percent of those teams. The other four wideouts charting were Deebo Samuel, Ja’Marr Chase, Mike Williams, and Justin Jefferson.

Kupp isn’t going to win the 2021 MVP Award — and it’s not fun to have an endless debate on what the word “valuable” really means — but he’d be my pick in a second.

[Other fantasy exit interviews: Quarterbacks | Tight Ends]

QB/WR pairings are key, but not everything

It’s not mandatory for a star receiver to be tied to a superstar quarterback. Obviously it helps and it’s preferable (Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams can finish each other’s sentences), but you can work around it. Kupp broke football in 2021 despite an erratic year from Matthew Stafford; perhaps all those shared breakfasts led to an unbreakable connection. Jefferson did fine with Kirk Cousins; ping me the next time you hear Cousins mentioned in an MVP discussion. Samuel’s work was mostly tied to the polarizing Jimmy Garoppolo, though Samuel also grabbed a bunch of value through his electric, expanding role in San Francisco’s running game.

Do we want our blue-chip receivers working with great quarterbacks? No doubt. But there are workarounds.

Age factoring into production

Star receiver tend to be in their 20s, but you’ll see a variety of experience levels on any leaderboard. Kupp and Adams ran 1-2 this year as they navigated their late 20s. Samuel exploded in Year 3 — and remember, he missed most of his second season. Chase was this year’s rookie sensation, picking up where Jefferson made his mark two years ago. (Man, I regret not watching every LSU snap on live television back in 2019.)

Thirty is often a line of delineation (and anxiety) for this position, and plenty of name players have to deal with that number next year. For the just-completed season, the 30-somethings didn’t offer a lot. Antonio Brown was eighth in PPR points per-game, but obviously his season was far from dependable. Adam Thielen graded as the No. 15 receiver in per-game production though injuries cost him about a month. The next charting wideout in the 30s was Marvin Jones, a good guy who didn’t move the needle. He was the WR44 in per-game production.

Does an age-30 season make you nervous? Consider the wideouts who head into that age-30 pocket next tear: Adams, Keenan Allen, Robert Woods, Tyler Lockett, DeAndre Hopkins (who was a mild disappointment even before he got hurt), Jarvis Landry, Odell Beckham Jr. The 29 group includes Kupp, Stefon Diggs, Mike Evans, Brandin Cooks, and DeVante Parker.

As Bills QB Josh Allen leans more on emerging NFL talent Gabriel Davis next season, how will it impact Stefon Diggs' fantasy value? (Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
As Bills QB Josh Allen leans more on emerging NFL talent Gabriel Davis next season, how will it impact Stefon Diggs' fantasy value? (Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

The first unbreakable role in fantasy is that there are no unbreakable rules. It always depends. It’s always contextual. If you can identify an outlier, bully for you. We can’t be rigid and dogmatic with our practices and strategies.

That said, here’s my general rule for wideouts looking forward:

— I’d like players still in their mid-20s at the latest. The closer you get to 30, the more nervous I get. I was still open to Kupp and Adams this past season — not that I rostered nearly enough of them — but football becomes more and more of a young-man’s game every year, and I want my roster assembly to reflect that.

— I’d prefer my wideouts be tied to star quarterbacks, but so long as the QB is at least around league average or better, you can still score regularly and consistently. Diontae Johnson was No. 9 in PPR per-game scoring; Ben Roethlisberger targeted Johnson liberally, but otherwise did him few favors.

[Play in Yahoo's NFL DFS $500K Sunday Baller contest]

— It’s always tempting to target a name-brand talent off a disappointing year. I don’t expect a crazy draft discount following D.K. Metcalf, but there’s a case where you bet on the talent and likely give him a pass for what just happened. I’m not dug in on much for 2022 yet, but I suspect I’ll be doubling down on Terry McLaurin, too. That disappointing 2021 year wasn’t his fault.

— Somehow the Cowboys led the league in scoring and I don’t have a clue how to manage their skill talent forward. They’re the NFL’s strangest collection of talent. It’s a shame Jerry Jones’s overwhelming ego won’t allow the organization to hire the type of gravitas coach (and GM) that this franchise is screaming for.

— I’m going to reach for Amon-Ra St. Brown at least once. It’s not my favorite way to play, but I had far too much FOMO with St. Brown late in the year. And he succeeded despite an offense that had little else working or it. Imagine if this unit actually improves.

We’re a long way from the fresh draft season. Here’s my "Way Too Early Receiver Board". Take it for what it is, a conversation piece as we meander through the winter months.

1. Justin Jefferson

2. Cooper Kupp

3. Davante Adams

4. Ja’Marr Chase

5. Tyreek Hill

6. Deebo Samuel

7. A.J. Brown

8. *Chris Godwin

9. Stefon Diggs

10. D.K. Metcalf

11. Mike Evans

12. CeeDee Lamb

13. Diontae Johnson

14. Terry McLaurin

15. Tee Higgins

It’s so early, amigos. This is all written in pencil.

Follow Scott Pianowski on Twitter

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