What Changed in 2021: Wide Receivers


Our “What Changed” series continues with the wide receiver position. Honestly, I could have discussed so many different wideouts, as a lot did change, especially among superstar receivers. But let’s take a look at three pass-catchers who, in one way or another, were impacted over the course of the 2021 season. 

(Keep up with the rest of the series here: Quarterback | Running Back)

Let’s go.


Cooper Kupp Went to a New Level

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How can we not start with the triple crown winner? Cooper Kupp perhaps put together the greatest season from a wide receiver in the history of football. He caught 145 passes for 1,947 yards and 16 touchdowns, finishing just 18 yards shy of Calvin Johnson’s single-season record (admittedly, he had an extra game). His 145 catches were the second most in the history of the league. If you were facing Kupp in fantasy, it was legitimately terrifying. He averaged over 25 PPR points per game, while scoring at least 20 fantasy points in all but three games. He also recorded 100 receiving yards in 11-of-17 contests, as he and quarterback Matthew Stafford were on the same page throughout the entire season. After years of Davante Adams being the consensus top receiver in fantasy drafts, Kupp may have become the new WR1. 

Tyreek Hill’s Usage

Tyreek Hill’s end-of-season numbers were awesome. He caught 111 balls for 1,239 yards and nine touchdowns. His 111 receptions (third most) and 159 targets (seventh) were both career-highs, but his usage was much different than it had been. 

In the QB article, we discussed how opposing defenses tried to take the huge plays away from this Kansas City offense by playing a ton of two-high safety looks. The Chiefs faced at least two high safeties on over 80% of pass plays during the first nine weeks of the season. During that span, Patrick Mahomes averaged just 7.0 yards per attempt, while his season-long mark of 7.4 was the lowest of his career. This impacted the way Hill was used, as his yards per reception mark (11.2) was the lowest since his rookie season. Hill also averaged just 7.8 yards per target, also the lowest rate since his rookie campaign. He saw way more targets closer to the line of scrimmage, as his 7.2 yards before the catch per reception was easily the lowest of his career, a number that was 71st among all wide receivers. Because of the way teams defended Kansas City, Hill saw a drop in deep targets. In 2020, Hill saw 33 deep targets, but that number dropped to 25 this past season. He only had two touchdown receptions of 20-plus yards, which is just different. 

And while the deep passes weren’t consistently coming his way, the overall targets were. Again, Hill posted a career-high in targets and saw double-digit looks in 10 different games this season. Per FTN’s advanced receiving stats, Hill’s 130 first read targets were good for seventh-most in the NFL. The Chiefs found success running the football against light boxes and if opposing defenses run less Cover 2 shell against them, the game-breaking plays should return for Hill. Regardless, he’ll still remain one of the five best receivers in all of fantasy football. 


DeAndre Hopkins’ Targets

DeAndre Hopkins was a major disappointment in 2021, as he dealt with injuries and, perhaps for the first time in his career, lack of targets. He played just 10 games, hauling in 42 balls for 572 yards. Hopkins did salvage his season a bit with eight touchdowns, but he was truly touchdown-dependent, as he didn’t reach 90 receiving yards in any game. Hopkins finished the season averaging just 6.4 targets per game, easily the lowest mark of his career. Kyler Murray spread the ball around, while also ranking fourth among all quarterbacks in pass attempts off screens (78). It certainly doesn’t help that Hopkins has not moved around the formation since joining the Cardinals and that continued last year. In the 10 games he played in, Hopkins lined up on the left side of the formation on 463 snaps, compared to just 32 snaps on the right side. Meanwhile, he operated out of the slot just 14.9% of the time, which really limits what he can do in this offense. 

Now entering his age-30 season, it is fair to move Hopkins down fantasy wideout rankings. However, the targets have to come up, especially with Christian Kirk likely set to head elsewhere via free agency. 

Darnell Mooney Becomes the WR1 in Chicago

Heading into the season, Darnell Mooney was one of my favorite breakout candidates at the wide receiver position. And I have to say, he did enjoy a bit of a second-year breakout, hauling in 81 passes for 1,055 yards and four touchdowns, finishing as the WR23 in PPR leagues. During his rookie season, I was a huge fan of Mooney’s ability to get open and create separation, especially deep down the field. And while he was fantastic in year two, I did not expect him to become Chicago’s top pass-catcher.

Allen Robinson had arguably the most disappointing season in all of fantasy. And even though Robinson missed some time, Mooney was still the top receiver when both players were on the field last year. Per FTN’s advanced receiving stats, Mooney saw 33% of Chicago’s first read targets this past season, which was the fifth-highest rate among all wide receivers, behind only Justin Jefferson, Davante Adams, DJ Moore and Cooper Kupp. Mooney still averaged nearly eight targets per game in the 12 games Robinson played in, while Robinson averaged just 5.5 targets per game during that stretch. Entering the 2022 campaign, Robinson is fully expected to play elsewhere and while the Bears will certainly be in the market for a wide receiver in both free agency and the draft, Mooney has the opportunity to enter the year as the top pass-catcher. He averaged over nine targets per game in five contests without Robinson last year, while also averaging 78.2 receiving yards and 14.1 PPR points per game.

Mooney will enter his third season in 2022, which is often the year wide receivers truly break out. And with (hopefully) a full season alongside Justin Fields, there is a ton of upside. 

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