Anatomy of a 'Better in Best Ball' WR

Jun 10, 2024
Anatomy of a 'Better in Best Ball' WR

If you’re reading this best ball article in June, you’ve almost certainly heard of wide receivers that are ‘better in best ball’. These are the most frustrating players in managed leagues. They underperform in your starting lineup and spike on your bench. Best ball solves this by automatically starting your best-performing players.

The spike week potential of these wide receivers makes them ideal targets in the later rounds of best ball drafts. We only want later-round picks to enter our starting lineups when they’ve put up huge statistical performances. A player who consistently earns seven points is useless. But it’s taken as a given that we can identify the ‘better in best ball’ players. With that in mind, the two main topics for today are:

1. Is variability in weekly fantasy scoring consistent year-over-year?

2. And if that is consistent, what is the player archetype in the later rounds of best ball drafts that is more likely to give you a spike week?


If we can’t predict which WRs are more likely to provide spike weeks then the idea of a ‘better in best ball’ player isn’t useful. Fortunately, we have a strong correlation of weekly fantasy point variance between seasons. Each dot in the graph below represents two consecutive seasons for an individual WR. The x-axis shows the standard deviation of their weekly fantasy points in the first season, while the y-axis shows that same measure for the second season. The data goes back to 2016 and only includes WRs that played at least eight games in a season.

You’ll notice a strong correlation between seasons. If a WR’s fantasy points were very inconsistent by week last year, they’ll likely remain inconsistent this year. With that in mind, we should focus on the green-dotted players on the graph. The weekly fantasy point scoring of these players fluctuated at an above-average rate in two consecutive seasons. Let’s dig into what elements these players have in common.

Markers of a ‘Better in Best Ball’ WR

Players who had consistent, large fluctuations in weekly scoring have four factors in common:

1. Elevated average depth of target (aDoT)

2. Strong tackle avoidance

3. High TD rate

4. Low slot rate

On the surface, none of these are especially surprising. Taken together, we’re looking for WRs that are big-play merchants. They line up outside, run routes deep down the field, and earn a large portion of their fantasy points from long TDs. The list of players who meet all four conditions includes a lot of stud WRs. Think Tyreek Hill, D.J. Moore, and Brandon Aiyuk. These names aren’t particularly actionable because you’re already drafting these players in the first three rounds of best ball drafts. Where I’d like to focus is on WRs further down the draft board. The first name in particular I didn’t expect to see.

'Better in Best Ball' WRs
Player aDoT Tackle Avoidance TD Rate Slot Rate
Diontae Johnson 12.7 24.90% 9.80% 21.70%
Jameson Williams 16 66.70% 8.30% 35.20%
Gabe Davis 15.6 34.70% 15.60% 16.70%
Demarcus Robinson 13.2 50.80% 15.40% 23.60%
NFL Average 2016-2023 10.9 10.90% 7.00% 40.40%

Diontae Johnson, Panthers (UD ADP: 78.2, WR45)

I’ve long thought of Diontae Johnson as an underrated wide receiver. But I’ve viewed him as a player who dominated by getting open from the slot quickly and earning consistent fantasy points. That wasn’t the case in 2023. Diontae spent less than a quarter of his time in the slot, had a 12.7-year aDoT, and a very high 10% touchdown rate.

Moreover, I found that focusing on WRs who get open in the later rounds of best ball drafts is a great strategy. Underdog drafters that did this in 2023 hit a playoff advance rate nearly 3% above the rest of the field. And Johnson has dominated ESPN Analytics’ open score for years. With an Underdog ADP of 78.2, the former Steeler is one of my favorite selections in the seventh round. Let’s just hope his catchable target rate increases from the absolute doldrums last year.

Jameson Williams, Lions (UD ADP: 85.1, WR48)

Meanwhile, I’ve selected Jameson Williams a grand total of zero times. In my opinion, Jameson’s ADP has completely jumped the shark. Based on his performance last year, my machine-learning model would peg him as a 16th-round pick in Underdog drafts. This assumes that his situation hasn’t changed since last season.

On a positive note, Jameson did improve substantially in the last few games of the season according to Reception Perception. But, while the departure of Josh Reynolds does open up some opportunities, it’s difficult to see Williams as anything more than the fifth option to get the ball for the Lions. I’d argue a reasonable outcome for fantasy managers and the Detroit Lions alike is for him to turn in a Gabe Davis-like season. But we get to select Davis 50 picks after Williams on Underdog.

Gabe Davis, Jaguars (UD ADP: 135.7, WR64)

I doubt anyone reading this is surprised to see Gabe Davis pop up on a ‘better in best ball’ list. But for perhaps the first time in his career, I’d argue Gabe is fairly priced in fantasy drafts. He’s a perfectly fine selection this year on any team where you’ve drafted Trevor Lawrence or are looking for a Week 17 game stack with your Titans players. Having said this, I do think he fills a similar role to what Brian Thomas Jr. is expected to play in the NFL. So, Davis' outlook is partially dependent upon how well Thomas performs in his rookie season. The benefit to the veteran is you get to select him five full rounds after Thomas.

Demarcus Robinson, Rams (UD ADP: 185.4, WR81)

Unlike Willams and Davis, Demarcus Robinson is a player I’ve been targeting in Underdog drafts. He had a surprisingly strong open score in ESPN Analytics’ numbers in 2023. There’s been essentially no additional competition added to the Rams’ wide receiver room in the offseason, plus he earned 10 targets in two games last season, something that is incredibly difficult to find in the 16th round of best ball drafts. He’s a priority for me at that price as I think he should go almost a full round ahead of his current ADP.

Bottom Line

  • There is a strong correlation in weekly fantasy point fluctuations for wide receivers between seasons.
  • Players that match this archetype tend to have elevated aDoTs, strong tackle avoidance, high TD rates, and low slot rates.
  • We should be targeting these player archetypes in the later rounds of best ball drafts to increase our weekly upside.
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