Expectations for the Rams' Wide Receivers
When Cooper Kupp was on the field last season, the Los Angeles Rams' offense was nothing short of otherworldly. In the seven full games that Kupp was healthy, the Rams averaged 34.9 points per game and 7.5 yards per play. Without him, they averaged “only” 31.4 points per game and 5.6 yards per play. Through the first 10 weeks of the season (before Kupp tore his ACL), all three Rams starting wide receivers were in the top 18 at the position in PPR: Robert Woods was WR9, Brandin Cooks WR10, and Kupp WR18. Let’s dig into their 2018 numbers to see what we can expect from them in 2019.
Narrow Target Distribution
Between the wide receiver trio and Todd Gurley, there were a lot of mouths to feed last year, but an unusually narrow target distribution allowed all of them to be productive at the same time. ESPN’s Mike Clay noted that Cooks, Woods, and Kupp combined for 69% of the Rams' targets in the seven full games they played together last season. For reference, the Buccaneers led the league in wide receiver target share at 68.1%.
That’s right: When Cooks, Woods, and Kupp played together, they saw a higher target share than any other team’s entire wide receiver depth chart. It would be almost impossible for any other team to support three fantasy-relevant wide receivers, but the Rams were able to do it because of how much they centered their passing attack around those three guys.
This narrow target distribution was made possible in part because of how often the Rams lined up in 11 (3WR) personnel. According to Sharp Football Stats, the Rams used 11 personnel 96% of the time when Kupp was healthy. Their end-of-season 11 personnel rate was 90%, tops in the NFL and well above the league average of 65%.
The Greatest Show on Turf (New and Improved!)
Jared Goff (with the help of head coach Sean McVay) did his best Kurt Warner impression in 2018, as the Rams finished fourth in the league in touchdowns per game (3.2) and first in touchdowns plus field goals attempted - also known as scoring opportunities - per game (5.8). According to Clay, there were 36 offenses to score at least 3.0 touchdowns per game between 2009 and 2017. Those 36 offenses averaged 2.7 touchdowns per game in the following season, still above the league average of 2.3, and 13 of them hit the 3.0 mark again.
When Kupp was healthy, the Rams averaged 4.1 touchdowns per game, which would have been the highest per-game average of the last 10 seasons. Furthermore, a McVay-led offense has finished top five in the league in scoring opportunities in each of the last three seasons, Washington in 2016 and Los Angeles in 2017 and 2018. It seems likely that the Rams will have one of the best offenses in the league again next year, and that bodes well for their wide receivers.
Since targets are the name of the game in fantasy, you would think that Cooks and Woods got even better after Kupp’s injury, right?
Nope. In fact, both Cooks and Woods were significantly more productive when Kupp was on the field. Cooks averaged more targets, receptions, yards, and fantasy points per game when Kupp played. He also saw a higher target share (26% vs. 19%) with Kupp, and his air yards share stayed the same (32%). The only stat he improved in without Kupp was touchdowns.
Woods’ splits tell a similar story, except his targets increased (barely) after Kupp’s injury. However, like Cooks he averaged more receptions, yards, and fantasy points per game with Kupp on the field. Woods saw similar volume with and without Kupp, but his efficiency dropped off dramatically after Kupp's injury.
Clearly, Kupp’s injury negatively impacted his fellow wideouts. Thankfully for Cooks and Woods, he is expected back for the start of the 2019 season.
Regression Toward the Mean
Kupp made his money last year by scoring touchdowns. He found the end zone six times in seven games, which placed him second among wide receivers in touchdowns per game. According to Player Profiler, Kupp scored 2.6 more touchdowns than expected (expected touchdowns calculates how many touchdowns the average player would score based on the game situation and field location of a player’s targets).
But given that the Rams' offense was really, really good, it makes sense that Kupp scored more touchdowns than a stat based only on volume would suggest. The Rams generated a lot of scoring opportunities, and Kupp was able to capitalize and turn them into touchdowns. Still, even factoring in the strength of the Rams offense, Kupp probably capitalized a little too much last year. He ranked ninth out of 107 wide receivers (minimum 30 targets) in touchdown rate. Touchdown rate is very unstable year-over-year (r-squared of 0.14), so there is a strong chance Kupp experiences some regression in that area.
Woods and Cooks scored touchdowns at a much more sustainable rate last season. According to Player Profiler, Woods scored 1.3 more touchdowns than expected, and Cooks scored 0.6 more touchdowns than expected. We can attribute the difference between expected touchdowns and actual touchdowns to the strength of the Rams' offense and the fact that they are both more talented than the average player. Curiously, both Woods and Cooks were below league average in touchdown rate despite playing in such a high-powered offense.
In the seven full games that Kupp played last year, Cooks led the team in target share and weighted opportunity rating (WOPR), Woods led in air yards share, and Kupp finished second or third in all three categories. They all achieved a target share of 22% or higher and averaged at least 7.7 targets per game.
Woods was more involved when Kupp did not play, and he ended up leading the Rams in target share and WOPR at the end of the season.
Currently, Cooks is being drafted as the WR15 in DRAFT Best Ball leagues (half-PPR), and Woods and Kupp are right next to each other at WR18 and WR19, respectively. Of the three, Kupp stands out as the riskiest pick considering his so-so volume and expected regression. Kupp’s 0.48 WOPR in the seven full games he played would have placed him 33rd among wide receivers in 2018, but the 16.3 fantasy points he averaged per game would have ranked sixth at the position.
It’s unlikely that he will outperform his volume by so much again in 2019, but regression is already baked into his cost. Kupp doesn’t have to repeat what he did last year to live up to his WR19 ADP. He’s fine as a low-end WR2, but fantasy owners shouldn’t expect him to be as efficient as last season. Personally, Kupp is someone I am okay ending up with in drafts, but I’m not specifically targeting him because he doesn’t get as much volume as Cooks or Woods.
Based on the volume he got last year, Woods looks like the best value of the three right now; after all, he was the team leader in target share, WOPR, and fantasy points at the end of the season.
Cooks has been a top 15 wide receiver for four consecutive seasons, hasn’t missed a regular season game due to injury since 2014, and was the most involved last year when all three Rams receivers were healthy, so it makes sense that his ADP is the highest. Like Woods, I am targeting Cooks at his current ADP because he is being drafted below where he finished last year even though Kupp’s return will only help him. Cooks was getting WR1 volume last year when Kupp was healthy, so I am all over him at his current ADP.