Gabriel Davis needs to take a huge step forward in his statistical production in order to truly shine as the No. 2 receiver in a potent Buffalo Bills offense. Last season, Davis had 35 receptions for 549 yards and six touchdowns in 16 games, four of them starts, despite playing on only 47.7% of the offensive snaps. A full 29 of those 35 receptions resulted in first downs. For his career, 80% of his catches (56 out of 70) have moved the chains.
Fantasy managers fondly remember his epic performance in Week 15, when Davis finished as the overall WR4 with 25.5 fantasy points. He then had a superb performance in Buffalo's playoff loss to the Kansas City Chiefs with eight receptions, 201 receiving yards and an NFL-playoff-record four touchdowns. The performance was so exceptional that his hometown of Sanford, Florida, gave him a key to the city and named Jan. 23 as "Gabriel Davis Day."
Davis has since been hailed as a solid sleeper candidate for 2022, reflected in his steadily rising average draft position (ADP). For Davis to achieve a third-year breakout, two areas he must improve are his catch rate and drop rate. Over his first two seasons in the league, Davis has managed a catch rate of just 56% and a drop rate of 6.4%. With Josh Allen as his quarterback, this simply won't cut it. In 2020, Allen ranked fourth in the league with a completion percentage of 69.2%. Last season, he ranked 24th at 63.3%.
Davis, 23, will now have every opportunity to build on his breakout year in 2022. After Brian Daboll became head coach of the New York Giants, the Bills promoted quarterback coach Ken Dorsey to offensive coordinator, who will keep much of the same playbook and terminology, which is great for continuity. Davis enters training camp as the Bills' undisputed No. 2 receiver behind Stefon Diggs who, since joining the Bills in 2020 has racked up big numbers, ranking in the league's top 10 in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.
Following the departures of Emmanuel Sanders and Cole Beasley, there are now 199 targets and 1,820 air yards "up for grabs" in Buffalo. Prior to last season, Sanders signed a one-year deal with the team. In his 14 games, he caught 42 of 72 targets for 626 yards and four touchdowns. In 2021, Beasley caught 82 of 112 targets for 693 yards and one touchdown in 16 games. Together, the pair of Sanders and Beasley actually combined for more top-12 fantasy finishes than Diggs.
Davante Adams and Cooper Kupp are the only players with more receptions than Diggs since the start of the 2020 season. Since arriving in Buffalo, Diggs has also set career highs in targets. It is expected that these trends will continue in 2022 and, considering the additions made by the Bills this offseason, Davis might not actually end up with as many targets as fantasy managers expect.
In addition to the newly signed Jamison Crowder, the Bills drafted Khalil Shakir from Boise State in the fifth round to fight for targets behind Diggs, whom my colleague and projections maestro Mike Clay forecasts for 141 targets. Crowder is a high-volume slot outlet with the ability to find soft spots in zone defenses. He has a legitimate chance to surprise fantasy managers by playing alongside Diggs and Davis as part of an offense led by Allen.
Despite playing with below-average quarterbacks for most of his career, Crowder has accumulated a ton of targets and has a career catch rate of 66%. The quarterbacks with whom he has played have a combined QBR of 74.1. Imagine how productive he can be catching passes from Allen! In the Bills' offense, Crowder and Isaiah McKenzie, who recently signed a two-year deal, will be able to handle the slot role. Unless injuries open up opportunities, Shakir is unlikely to become a legitimate receiving asset.
You might not realize how important the slot receiver is in the Bills offense. Over the past two seasons, Buffalo has run 1,534 plays with exactly three wide receivers -- fifth most in the league. (Throw in four-receiver sets and the Bills have run more than 100 plays of this nature than any other team in the league.) Since 2020, Allen has targeted his slot receiver 389 times, with only Patrick Mahomes (408) doing it more frequently. Plus, only Aaron Rodgers (94.7) had a higher QBR when targeting the slot than Allen (90.0).
So, despite the Davis hype, Crowder and McKenzie are the players who should garner a lot of those "up-for-grabs" targets from Josh Allen. In 2020, Crowder averaged 14.3 fantasy points per game (12 games) while averaging 7.4 targets in a poor offense. Back in 2019, he caught 78 of 122 targets for 833 yards and six touchdowns in 16 games. Meanwhile, over the past two regular and postseasons, only 39 of the 145 targets sent toward Davis were in the slot. There's no doubt Davis is a vertically oriented receiver, since 592 of his 1,148 career receiving yards have come from vertical routes.
From a historical perspective, since 2010, there have been only seven wide receivers who had been selected in the fourth round (like Davis) who ended up accumulating more than 500 yards in their third season. Only four of those players saw 100-plus targets, and only five from that group ended up with 50-plus receptions. As a seven-player group, these third year "success stories" averaged 15.3 games played, 95.5 targets, 56 receptions and 696 receiving yards. So, at best, this is approximately what you should expect from Davis as he enters his third NFL campaign.
As far as where Davis is being drafted for 2022 leagues, he has come off the board as early as the fourth round and as late as the ninth round in 12-team formats. Among the other wide receivers with a similar ADP to Davis I'd prioritize taking are Jerry Jeudy, Courtland Sutton and Darnell Mooney. Yes, Davis plays for a Bills offense that averaged the fifth-most total yards per game (389.3) last season and has a solid quarterback leading the way. However, he carries more risk (given where you're likely to have to draft him) than you might think. Be careful!