Pierre Garcon should see far more targets in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Wide receivers continue to gain importance in fantasy football, and with more and more leagues switching to point-per-reception, or PPR, scoring, that should remain the case for the foreseeable future.

It has become critical, therefore, to not only select wide receivers early in the draft but to find diamonds in the rough that could blossom during the upcoming season.

Luckily, this is a simple process. A receiver’s primary responsibility is to run a precise route with enough separation from his defender to prompt his quarterback to try to get him the ball. The more often a wideout accomplishes this task, the more opportunities he will get on passing plays. And since targets are the lifeblood of fantasy scoring, more targets typically result in stronger fantasy football performances.

Since 2012, 99 of the 120 (82.5 percent) wide receivers finishing in the top 24 at the position had 120 targets or more during the season, with the average top-24 wideout accumulating 147 targets per campaign. And, no surprise, an increase in targets a receiver saw resulted in a corresponding rise in the average PPR points scored.

And don’t bother with any receiver that isn’t No. 1 or No. 2 on the depth chart. Despite more teams using three-receiver sets in games, the No. 3 option is usually too dependent on touchdowns for their fantasy points, making them too risky to rely on week in and week out. Over the past three seasons, the most targets a No. 3 receiver has seen over the course of a season is 104, well below the threshold of the average top-24 wideout.

Depth chart Average targets Most targets Average PPR FPts
No. 1 WR 128 203 222
No. 2 WR 91 141 154
No. 3 WR 60 104 96

Instead, you’d be wise to target these wide receivers who are being underdrafted and could provide big seasons.

Pierre Garcon, San Francisco 49ers, 7.03 ADP

Garcon caught 79 of 114 targets for 1,041 yards and three touchdowns for the Washington Redskins last season, but signed a $47.5 million ($20 million guaranteed and a $12 million signing bonus), five-year deal with the San Francisco 49ers this summer, reuniting him with Kyle Shanahan, Washington’s offensive coordinator from 2010 to 2013.

During that time, only Santana Moss was targeted more often in the passing game, indicating Garcon should see a heavy volume for San Francisco, especially considering the lack of competition he’ll have on the Niners. In 2016, San Francisco’s receivers had a success rate that was 6.6 percent below average, significantly worse than Garcon’s success rate (plus-10.9 percent) with the Redskins.

Part of that above-average success by Garcon could be a function of playing alongside Pro Bowl quarterback Kirk Cousins, but don’t discount Garcon’s ability to get open when running his routes — his 2.66 average yards of separation from his defender in 2016 ranked seventh among No. 2 wideouts last season.

The 49ers also are not expected to be very good next season, which will also benefit Garcon. Early win projections from Football Outsiders have San Francisco winning five games in 2017, which implies being outscored by an average of five to six points per game using data from the past five seasons. If we see the same play calling from Shanahan during his years with Washington and the Atlanta Falcons, the 49ers will be throwing between 55 and 58 percent of the time when they are trailing by five points or more, compared to a 42 to 45 percent pass rate in all other situations. That should lead to an uptick in fantasy production for Garcon over past seasons.

Marvin Jones, Detroit Lions, 9.12 ADP

Jones started out hot and you could argue that constituted a breakout. But a late-season fade makes him more viable in 2017.

Just as targets are key to predicting PPR performance, air yards — the total number of yards thrown toward a receiver on a play in which he is targeted, both complete and incomplete — can also indicate which receivers should be on the rise.

Jones caught 55 of his 103 targets last season for 930 yards and four touchdowns, but his 13.9 air yards per target ranked him 12th in the league among receivers last season. And that was despite dealing with a foot strain and a hamstring strain during the season.

Jones is now healthy and fresh from his offseason conditioning program with future Hall of Fame wide receiver Randy Moss in North Carolina, and Lions quarterback Matt Stafford is going to want to get him the ball more often. Jones produced a first down or touchdown on 44 percent of his targets in 2016, higher than Golden Tate (37 percent), who was targeted 32 more times during the course of the season.

Corey Coleman, Cleveland Browns, 10.07 ADP

A broken hand suffered in Week 3 limited Coleman to just 10 games as a rookie in 2016, but he did catch 33 of 73 passes thrown his way for 413 yards and three touchdowns when he took the field.

The most encouraging aspect of his first year in the pros was his ability to work downfield (13.9 air yards per target, significantly higher than the league average of 8.7) and gain separation from his defenders (2.75 yards on average) — skills that will become more critical in 2017 with the loss of wide receivers Terrelle Pryor, Andrew Hawkins and tight end Gary Barnidge.

And just because the Browns might not win many games in 2017, doesn’t mean Coleman can’t get 120 or more targets as the team’s top receiver on the depth chart. Over the past four seasons, Cleveland’s most-targeted wideout has received an average of 134 targets with a high of 150, more than enough volume to push Coleman into the position’s top echelon.

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