Dueling Breakouts: Christian Kirk vs Dante Pettis
Is there anything more gratifying than hitting on a breakout in a fantasy football draft? Getting that early round value from a player you invested a mid to late round pick in is a key ingredient to winning a fantasy championship. Also, everyone wants to look like a genius. The fantasy community is full of hot takes and bold predictions. There is no accountability in these statements usually, but they certainly stir excitement and debate. One such debate is the possible year two breakouts from sophomore wide receivers Christian Kirk and Dante Pettis. Which player should you invest in?
I know what some of you are saying. “Why not both?” Yes, we get it, everyone wants to draft every single player. But we can’t, so humor me in the debate that you can only pick one of these WRs to drive your team to victory. Both Christian Kirk and Dante Pettis showed promise in their rookie campaigns in the NFC West, with both looking at very different landscapes to perform in 2019. Let’s take a look at each of them under a microscope and see who is most likely to take a big leap in fantasy football.
Christian Kirk – College & 2018 Season:
In just three seasons at Texas A&M, Christian Kirk caught 234 passes for 2,856 yards and 26 touchdowns. Even as a freshman in 2015, with veteran players such as Josh Reynolds and Ricky Seals-Jones vying for targets, Kirk caught 80 passes for 1,009 yards with seven touchdowns. He even averaged 24.4 yards per punt returns with two touchdowns, a skill he showcased throughout his entire college career (averaging 21 yards per kick return and 19 yards per punt return in 2017).
The Cardinals selected Kirk in the 2nd round of the 2018 NFL Draft. The 2018 Arizona Cardinals, a situation that would become a wood chipper for opportunity and sanity for any layer it touched, was a tough landing spot for the rookie. An overpaid veteran quarterback (Sam Bradford) and new head coach Steve Wilks, who replaced the then recently retired Bruce Arians, led an abysmal attack that saw just 902 plays run on offense (2nd lowest in the NFL). To say this was not an ideal situation for a rookie to thrive in would be an understatement.
Fortunately, the reign of Sam Bradford lasted just three contests, being replaced by rookie quarterback Josh Rosen. Steve Wilks was ousted midseason as well, amid countless questionable strategic decisions. Yes, let’s call them that.
2018 Stat Line
Despite the dumpster fire surrounding him, Christian Kirk managed to put together a solid rookie season. Kirk finished the year with a respectable 590 yards and three touchdowns. In his rookie campaign, Kirk caught a pass in every game he played in while seeing no less than four targets in a game after the Week One. A broken foot ended Kirk’s season prematurely after just 12 games. He was surprisingly consistent for a rookie on a putrid offense.
The Cardinals were dead last in scoring (14.1 points per game) in the NFL, as well as yards per game (241.6) in 2018. They were also last in yards per play at 4.3. Any bright light that could shine through that situation is amazing.
Christian Kirk posted a target share of 13.8% in 2018, taking into account all games played by the Cardinals. Taking a look at just the 12 games Kirk was active for, his market share was 19%, just shy of the team lead (Larry Fitzgerald 21%). However, Fitzgerald’s production fizzled down the stretch. In fact, during Kirk’s final four games of the season, the two WRs were in a dead split for targets at 21% each. One can reasonably assume this trend will continue into next season as each player follows opposite career trajectories.
Now, Kirk could certainly reach a higher target share in his sophomore season. Maybe even reach 25%? For those wanting a comparison, Thielen/Diggs split a 25/26% share in Minnesota. The thing is, any number over 20% held for an entire season would be very acceptable and result in a breakout.
Christian Kirk finished the 2018 season with an aDOT of 9.6 yards. Is that good? Well, Amari Cooper (9.8 yards) and Adam Thielen (9.5 yards) lived in that range, while guys like Keenan Allen (8.6) and JuJu Smith-Schuster (8.4) were safely behind. So yes, quite acceptable.
Christian Kirk caught 65.3% off targets in 2018, with a 89.6% true catch rate. The 65.3% was higher than Davante Adams (64.5%), Antonio Brown (62.3%), and JuJu Smith-Schuster (61%). There is JuJu again, interesting. Anyways…that is quite the list of wideouts to outperform in any category. The quickest way to develop a rapport with a quarterback is to catch everyone he throws at you. Unfortunately, Josh Rosen will never be given that chance in 2019 under a new and aggressive head coach. Hi Kyler! But, we will get to that.
Dante Pettis – College & 2018 Season:
Over his four-year college career, Dante Pettis proved to be a dynamic Special Teams threat and complimentary wideout for Washington. Pettis looked to take a step forward when he scored 15 touchdowns in 2016 at when opposing defenses were focused on teammate John Ross (Bengals). However, his touchdown total dropped to seven once he became Washington’s top target in 2017. This cemented the opinion of most scouts and prior to the draft, Pettis was generally considered a middle-round talent. Well, Kyle Shanahan did not care about that.
In the 2018 NFL Draft, the 49ers moved up in Round 2 to grab Pettis at No. 44 overall. At the time, this was considered a long term play by San Francisco with many expecting Pettis to be more of a special teams contributor and complimentary wide receiver. But, Kyle Shanahan made it a point to downplay the need for prototypical WR1, like Julio Jones, in interviews. This selection certainly served to back up that opinion. The 49ers moved way up to take the versatile wideout and special team specialist (Pettis returned a record nine punts for TDs over his college career). Many believed this was a long-term play by San Francisco, who would ease Pettis into their system while utilizing him on special teams.
Regardless of the initial plan, the relentless injury bug that struck the 49ers in 2018 thrust Pettis into the spotlight.
2018 Stat Line
In 12 games, sidelined due to various injuries here and there, Pettis ended the year with 27 receptions for 467 yards and five touchdowns. How he got there was a roller coaster, so let’s take a look:
- Week 1: 61 yards and a touchdown
- Week 2: Only two targets
- *Week 3: ZERO targets
- *Jimmy Garropolo injured
Pettis then suffered a knee injury in Week 4, the week after Jimmy Garrolpolo tore his ACL, which cost the rookie the next three games.
- Week 8: One target
- CJ Beathard at QB
- Week 9: ZERO targets
- Week 10: Four catches for 12 yards on 12 targets (Nick Mullens at QB)
After Nick Mullens settled in at quarterback, Pettis saw an uptick in production after the 49ers Week 11 BYE week.
- Weeks 12-15
- Pettis averaged 84.5 yards per game with four touchdowns
- WR3 in standard scoring and WR8 in full-point PPR
- If you include Week 16 (three catches for 21 yards against Chicago), Pettis was still WR8 in standard scoring and WR11 in full-point PPR over the final five weeks.
Dante Pettis missed Week 17 with a sprained MCL, which was obviously the last game for San Francisco last season.
Dante Pettis managed to hold just a 12% market share on the 49ers last season. Even with his production down the stretch, that is not an encouraging number on a team riddled with injuries. George Kittle led the way with a 26% target share, no surprise there. The unfortunate thing is that Pierre Garcon was next at 19%, with Pettis tied Kendrick Bourne and Marquise Goodwin at 12%. In fact, if you take out the games in which Pettis sat out, he falls behind Kendrick Bourne.
So what to make of that? First off, Dante Pettis was a rookie, so everything can be taken with a grain of salt to a degree. However, given the injuries to Goodwin, Garcon, and most of the pass-catching RBs, there was certainly an expectation for Pettis to contribute more. Of course, you can only take advantage of the opportunity you are given, which Pettis did near seasons end. He improved to an 18% market share from Week 12 on. So what should fantasy owners expect once Pettis is back to facing major competition for those targets? We will take a look shortly.
In 2018, Dante Pettis maintained a 60% catch rate with a catchable target rate of 73.3%. One can safely assume that having Jimmy Garroppolo for an entire season would allow for some growth in that area.
It may be important to note that if he had qualified, Pettis 17.3 yards per catch would have been top-five in the league. That would have put him right between Mike Evans (17.7) and Tyreek Hill (17.0). I would call that pretty good company.
Looking Forward to 2019, Who Do You Draft?
Average Draft Position
As you can see, these sophomore wideouts are going quite close to each other in current PPR drafts. The recent “news” of Dante Pettis looking impressive in mini-camp seems to have spiked his ADP recently. So, at least for now, this decision seems like a true coin flip for those that use the average draft position as a guide. Which you should not, but that is a different article altogether.
Market Share & Opportunity
As stated above, Christian Kirk ended the season by carving a fairly large chunk out of the Cardinals target share. The fact that he was neck and neck with Larry Fitzgerald during the final several games speaks volumes to the trust that Arizona had in the progress of Kirk. However, the quarterback and coach that he built that trust with are now gone. Replaced by spread offense guru Kliff Kingsbury and Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray.
Let’s start with the new head coach. I doubt anyone would call this a “negative” for Kirk’s outlook, but it certainly adds another wrinkle of uncertainty. Kliff Kingsbury is an unknown quantity in the NFL. But one thing is for certain, Arizona is going to run a lot more than 902 plays on offense in 2019. In fact, 23 teams ran a minimum of 1000 lays last season, with Baltimore running a league-leading 1,135.
Kingsbury will look to install a spread “air raid” offense, which will aim to be unpredictable and involve more offensive weapons. The air raid offense is known for its heavy emphasis on passing. In fact, passing plays typically account for 65-75% of all plays run per game in the system. The four wide receiver set sometimes involves utilizing a no-huddle or hurry up strategy, in order to tire out the defense. Kingsbury recently was quoted as saying that his wide receivers would not be anchored to running specific routes all the time, and they will be given the freedom to find green grass.” This old school, playground philosophy should make the Cardinals offense explosive and hard to defend.
Daniel Jeremiah was recently on Sirius talking #Cardinals & how different Kliff Kingsbury’s passing game is from NFL norm.
For pass catchers, goal isn’t necessarily to run the best routes. Goal is to find an open spot of green grass & be available to QB.
— Evan Silva (@evansilva) June 20, 2019
The overall impact this new system will have on Kirk should be positive due to the pure added volume of opportunity on offense. There is also the fact that Kirk spent his entire college career under Kevin Sumlin at Texas A & M and should be very familiar with the offense. Even though more personnel will be used in the air raid offense, there should be more targets for everyone. Kirk’s piece of the pie is not getting smaller folks, the entire pie is getting bigger.
Kyler Murray and Rookie Teammates
Rookie QB Murray is a wild card, and it will be hard to tell who he develops a connection with. The smart money is on Kirk, who has all but taken the torch from Larry Fitzgerald as the WR1 on the Cardinals. A near 90% true catch rate, paired with an 85.7% success rate on contested targets (according to Matt Harmon’s Reception Perception) should go a long way with winning over the eye of Kyler Murray.
Kirk does have some added competition that he did not have in 2018. The Cardinals invested draft picks in Andy Isabella and Hakeem Butler to compliment the new air raid offense. Why? Because it is difficult to run a four-wide set without four good wide receivers. The argument has been made that between added draft talent and the presence of David Johnson, there may be too many mouths to feed. However, the increased output in pass attempts combined with the decline of Larry Fitzgerald (below) leaves Christian Kirk as the clear WR1 in an air raid offense. This is a good thing folks.
Our own @FFZinger projects Christian Kirk to haul in 81 receptions on 126 targets for 1,100 yards. This would leave him with 218 PPR points and the WR18. Check out the rest of the Arizona Cardinal projections near the end of this article.
Pettis had an inconsistent rookie season. That is not really up for debate. The real question is whether or not his late-season breakout was the product of a lack of options or a legitimate peak into the future. His 12% season long market share points to a bleak future that could see him lost in the San Francisco offense. However, the 18% market share Pettis drew towards seasons end has many hoping that a full season with Jimmy G at the helm could spell breakout. So what are we to think?
Well, the 18% market share is highly misleading considering there were few full healthy options on the team. During that same span, George Kittle held a near 30% target share, while hardly anyone else on offense, aside from Kendrick Bourne, factored in. The concern with banking on these few games to project Pettis going forward is that you are counting on tow things to continue: the increased market share and a high touchdown rate. So much of Pettis’ late-season value was tied to him finding the end zone. This will prove far more difficult with a healthy offense filled with a multitude of options.
San Francisco made a couple of notable additions this offseason to bolster the offense. The first being the free agent signing of Tevin Coleman. While this may not directly impact Dante Pettis, it’s obvious that a stacked backfield of Coleman, McKinnon, and Breida will factor heavily into the offensive gameplan for the 49ers. All with the ability to carry PPR value on their own, the trio should carve a sizable piece of the pie of available targets in 2019.
The more obvious addition that could threaten Dante Pettis is second-round draft pick, Deebo Samuel. The draft pick was in no way due to a lack of confidence in Pettis, the 49ers needed WR help badly. No one on the 2018 roster cracked 500 yards receiving, with Kendrick Bourne leading the way at 487 (Pettis 467). Still, one would expect Deebo to step into a fairly prominent role quickly as a top receiving option in San Francisco. He is a versatile player who can move all over the field, which fits the mold of what Kyle Shanahan is going for. Versatility.
Smaller, but still noteworthy, additions to the offense are rookie Jalen Hurd and veteran Jordan Matthews. Neither are likely to threaten for a major role on the team in 2019, but both possess the talent to make some noise. Especially Jalen Hurd, who could see some snaps at tight end as well (played WR, TE, and RB in college).
A typical fantasy WR1 may not be in the cards for 2019, but rather a balanced attack that utilizes the talents of everyone on the field. It is likely that Pettis will emerge as the top WR come seasons end, especially in Deebo’s rookie season. But, it would not be difficult to imagine their stat lines looking very close either. Dante Pettis will need to compete with George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, Marquise Goodwin, Tevin Coleman, Jerrick McKinnon, Kendrick Bourne, Jalen Hurd, and Jordan Matthews this upcoming season.
Our own @FFZinger projects Dante Pettis to haul in 59 receptions on 97 targets for 882 yards. This would leave him with 171 PPR points and the WR39. Check out the rest of the San Franciso projections below.
Projections for 2019:
Projections courtesy of Michael Zingone (@FFZinger)
Each wide receiver seems to have their own cheering section within the fantasy football community. However, if you look at the numbers along with each player’s current situation, there is a clear and obvious choice. Christian Kirk.
Kirk held the target share lead in a healthy, albeit flawed Cardinals’ offense down the stretch in his rookie season. The continued decline of Larry Fitzgerald paired with the new explosive spread offense should spell amazing things for the sophomore. Christian seems like a sure thing to lead Arizona in targets this season, and if he can reach the end zone we could be in for a monster breakout season. Expect a solid WR2 and maybe borderline WR1 performance in 2019.
Dante Pettis has some intrigue, there is no doubt. But that intrigue comes with red flags attached at every corner. Was the 18% market share down the stretch a mirage brought on by a lack of competition? Should we expect closer to his 12% season long share with a healthy roster and new additions on offense? The answer likely falls somewhere in between. Even with new toys on offense, Pettis is likely to be the WR1 on the 49ers in 2019. That being said, San Francisco is not going to be passing the ball nearly as often as Arizona. This will leave Dante Pettis with a high WR3, low WR2 ceiling. Doubling last seasons reception and yardage totals seems like a safe bet.
Both teams have several mouths to feed on offense, but the Cardinals are far more likely to support multiple players due to volume. There’s a better than decent chance that Arizona’s air raid offense passes the ball more than any other team in 2019. Therefore, fantasy owners will not need to see more than the 18% market share Kirk commanded down the stretch to be more valuable than many WRs with a 25%+ share. That being said, Kirk increasing his target share this season is a reasonable expectation.
Everything is aligned for Christian Kirk to not only have a breakout season but be one of the bigger steals in redraft leagues. Draft Christian Kirk.
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