Fantasy Football: Will DeVante Parker Finally Break Out in 2018?
Outside of Nelson Agholor's 2017 performance, wide receivers taken in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft have not enjoyed much success in their first three seasons. The oft-injured Kevin White and Breshad Perriman face tough tasks to even make their rosters this season, while very few people are expecting anything from Phillip Dorsett, who is already on his second team in New England.
Parker has come up short of expectations for three straight seasons, but head coach Adam Gase believes that the 25-year-old has "done a great job so far this offseason". The Dolphins are, of course, league leaders in preseason hyperbole, and we've played this game for a couple years now to no avail. But could 2018 finally be the year that Parker puts it all together?
The Story So Far
Parker has missed five games since the 2015 season, but has only started 24 of the 43 games he has played in. Of those starts, 12 came in 2017, a season in which he set career-highs in targets and receptions. In fact, his targets and receptions have increased in each of his three NFL seasons.
Sadly for Parker, as his opportunities have increased his efficiency has gone in the opposite direction. To measure his success, or lack thereof, will be referencing our in-house metric Net Expected Points (NEP). If you're unfamiliar NEP tracks team and player efficiency. A three-yard reception on 3rd-and-2 is wildly different than a three-yard reception on 3rd-and-4, and NEP helps account for that by tracking the expected points players add to their teams' total over the course of a season.
In 2015, Parker's Reception NEP per target was 0.98, the 4th highest out of 86 wide receivers seeing at least 50 targets. A year later, it fell to 0.64, 56th out of 92. Then in 2017, he cratered with 0.55, 66th out of 85 qualifying players.
He benefited little despite playing on the team most committed to the pass. (the Dolphins had a Pass to Run ratio of 1.76, the highest in the NFL). He was not helped by the absence of Ryan Tannehill last season. Of the 3 quarterbacks -- Tannehill, Jay Cutler and Matt Moore -- to target him at least 20 times, Tannehill's 8.22 adjusted yards per attempt tells us that he and Parker's connection is far-and-away the best of Parker's career to date.
Tannehill wasn't the only one to miss games, though.
In addition to missing five games with injury, Parker has shown up on injury reports for a total of 19 weeks over the last 3 seasons, with ailments concerning his feet and ankles accounting for 9 of them. Are these injuries down to bad luck -- as Gase would have us believe -- or a sign of a player that is unwilling or unable to look after himself?
Only Parker really knows. Suffice it to say, the first three years have not been what the Dolphins were looking for from a player taken with the 14th overall selection.
Reasons for Optimism
As disappointing as Parker has been, there are recent instances of players with a similar draft pedigree getting off to slow starts in their NFL careers before eventually rising to the top of their positions. Two such examples are Reggie Wayne (selected 30th overall in 2001) and Roddy White (27th overall in 2005).
The table below shows the per-game numbers of these two players, as well as Parker's. And the similarities through roughly 45 games are quite striking.
Wayne totalled 1,210 yards in his fourth season, marking the first of seven consecutive 1,000-yard campaigns. White, on the other hand, had already started to break out in his third season (despite having to deal with quarterback play from Joey Harrington, Chris Redman and Byron Leftwich), posting his first of six consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, with 1,202 receiving yards.
White ended his career with more than 800 receptions and 10,863 receiving yards. Wayne surpassed these marks, with 1,070 catches for 14,345 yards in what will likely end in a Hall of Fame nod. Clearly, slow starts aren't unheard of, even for first-round wide receivers.
If Parker should be so lucky.
Opportunity and Voume
The Dolphins traded away Jarvis Landry this offseason, sending on his way a player who caught 400 of 570 targets in his 4 seasons with the team, and who tied for the third-most targets among all wide receivers in 2017, with 161. There would seem to be plenty of opportunities for a player like Parker to fill the void. However, the Parker we have seen so far in the NFL has shown that when given a larger slice of the target pie, he invariably does not deliver on expectations.
It should not be ignored that the Dolphins have brought in players who, if the team is looking merely to replace Landry's role, could do a better job than Parker. Danny Amendola and Albert Wilson profile as slot receivers, working nearer to the line of scrimmage, while the team also drafted a receiving tight end in Michael Gesicki.
We have also seen Adam Gase's desire to run the ball when he has Ryan Tannehill in at quarterback. In 2016, from Week 6 on -- coinciding with a 9-2 run -- the Dolphins ran the ball 28 times a game against 29 pass attempts. They finished that season with a 10-6 regular season record, as well as the 6th lowest Pass to Run ratio in the NFL (1.25). That season, the Tannehill-to-Parker AYA was a meager 6.81.
Last season, without Tannehill, the Dolphins went completely the other way and threw the ball, on average, more than any other team. So we have a situation in which Parker could see a bigger share of the volume, but he not only could he fail to be efficient with it he could be held down if the team doesn't want to throw the ball that much. That would be an obvious issue for Parker's potential breakout.
While a slow start does not necessarily mean a player is doomed to obscurity, it can help to have a top tier quarterback to get you the ball as quickly as possible. Sadly, DeVante Parker does not have this luxury. Nor is he presently playing on a team with a system geared to making him a focal point of the offense. These factors, plus an injury history which has to be seen as concerning, make the likelihood of Parker emulating his draft-mate Agholor unlikely in 2018.
Mock drafters would seem to agree to this point in the offseason, as Parker's current average draft position is WR39, according to Fantasy Football Calculator. He's a player to consider around Rounds 8 to 10 as a flyer with the build of an A.J. Green (according to PlayerProfiler). And it's an especially appealing shot to take if you've already locked up two or more receivers by that point. If he pans out, you're a genius for unearthing that hidden gem. If he doesn't, well, it was only an 8th round pick.
Given Parker's track record as a disappointment, don't go jumping up to get him earlier than his current ADP. But if he falls to a reasonable range, all you can do is hope that this is finally the year he lives up to expectations.