2011 Fantasy Football WR Preview
History isn't necessarily kind to wide receivers taken in the first round
Oh, Randy Moss. Why must you vex us?
Moss' disastrous '10 campaign serves as a warning. The moment you think you've figured out which running backs are too risky to take in the first round of your fantasy draft, the moment you say to yourself, "Ah-hah, I'm going to do the smart thing and take one of the safest players imaginable at a different position," Mr. Moss talks his way out of two different NFL cities and winds up a second-stringer on a pedestrian passing offense trying to catch passes from Rusty Smith.
It's a scary game to play. I think it's widely assumed that the best wide receivers perform with more year-to-year consistency and stability than the top-drafted RBs, so even though having the best RB is more valuable than having the best WR, you're more likely not to completely whiff if you take the "guaranteed" points from the WR. But is this assumption true? Take a look at the top 10 WRs by average draft position (ADP) over the past three seasons, and how they wound up ranking in WR fantasy points:
Does drafting a tippety-top WR seem safe to you? Frankly, grabbing the consensus No. 1 overall receiver where you'd typically have to take him -- mid-to-late first round -- flat out looks like a losing proposition, doesn't it? The past three years, that supposed top guy has finished ranked an average of about eighth among wideouts. That's not disastrous, to be sure, but it's not a great return on investment, either.
Let's take a look at the receiving landscape for 2011, and then come back to the strategy implications for these disturbing trends.
Andre Johnson entered the '10 season having led the league in receiving yards in back-to-back years, and on a per-game basis he continued his excellence: His 93.5 yards per game led the NFL. But AJ's ankle bugged him all year and he missed three games when it mattered most, in the fantasy playoffs. Hey, if a "bad" season for this guy is finishing eighth in fantasy points among WRs, you could do a lot worse. I expect Johnson will be a first-round pick in most leagues this summer, and while I have questions about that strategy, I can't argue strongly against this player. Before the Atlanta Falcons drafted Julio Jones in April, I personally ranked Roddy White as my No. 3 fantasy receiver; when they drafted Jones, I bumped Roddy down to No. 5. But my ESPN cohorts have no such compunction: They love White's season-to-season consistency (he's finished with between 1,153 and 1,389 yards and six and 11 TDs in each of the past four seasons), as well as the fact he's never missed a pro game due to injury, and they make him their No. 2 wideout. The reason I'm just a tad lower on Rowdy Roddy is targets: Much of White's '10 value came from leading the NFL in targets (with 179) and receptions (with 115). While I don't think Jones suddenly becomes a superstar, I do think the Falcons will try to get him more involved than, say, Michael Jenkins (73 targets, 41 catches) was last year. Greg Jennings shrugged off his subpar '09 season and tied White as fantasy's No. 3 WR last year. Donald Driver is no longer a major drain on the other side of the Green Bay Packers' offensive formations, and Jennings is a deadly combination of downfield ability and after-the-catch menace. In '10, he tied for third in receptions of at least 20 yards and had four TD grabs of 30 yards or longer. Plus, he had 17 red-zone targets and seven red-zone scores. Speaking of great red-zone targets, Hakeem Nicks has established himself among the elites: Despite missing three games last season, he had 15 targets inside an opponent's 20 and converted seven of them for TDs. He also had nearly 10 overall targets per game, which placed him in lofty company. He battled compartment syndrome in his leg and broke a toe late in the season, so there are injury risks with Nicks. But they're worth taking. I was surprised at how relatively little love Calvin Johnson got from the ESPN panel at this year's rankings summit. I have Megatron No. 2 among WRs, but among the rest of the crowd he was a near-unanimous No. 5. I guess it's the combination of Matthew Stafford's continued shoulder problems and Johnson's own injury history that scares folks, but I don't care. I want the 6-foot-5, 236-pound guy who runs a 4.35 40. Megatron and Andre Johnson are birds of a feather, and for me, they should be the first two pass-catchers off the board.
ESPN Group Rankings: WR (by tier)
A top-10 receiver despite playing in only 13 games, Andre Johnson is a stud you can build a team around.
10. DeSean Jackson, PHI
11. Dez Bryant, DAL
12. Dwayne Bowe, KC
13. Mike Williams, TB
14. Jeremy Maclin, PHI
15. Marques Colston, NO
16. Brandon Lloyd, DEN
17. Santonio Holmes, NYJ
18. Kenny Britt, TEN
19. Reggie Wayne, IND
20. Steve Johnson, BUF
21. Percy Harvin, MIN
22. Wes Welker, NE
23. Mario Manningham, NYG
24. Anquan Boldin, BAL
25. Brandon Marshall, MIA
26. Sidney Rice, SEA
27. Santana Moss, WAS
28. Steve Smith, CAR
29. A.J. Green, CIN
30. Johnny Knox, CHI
31. Malcom Floyd, SD
32. Austin Collie, IND
33. Mike Thomas, JAC
34. Chad Ochocinco, NE
35. Lance Moore, NO
36. Jordy Nelson, GB
37. Roy Williams, CHI
38. Robert Meachem, NO
39. Pierre Garcon, IND
39. Braylon Edwards, SF
41. Julio Jones, ATL
42. James Jones, GB
43. Lee Evans, BAL
44. Plaxico Burress, NYJ
45. Jacoby Ford, OAK
46. Jerome Simpson, CIN
47. Michael Crabtree, SF
48. Mike Williams, SEA
49. Deion Branch, NE
50. Hines Ward, PIT
51. Davone Bess, MIA
52. Mike Sims-Walker, STL
53. Donald Driver, GB
54. Derrick Mason, NYJ
55. Steve Breaston, KC
56. Jacoby Jones, HOU
57. Nate Burleson, DET
58. Danny Amendola, STL
59. Danario Alexander, STL
60. Kevin Walter, HOU
61. Emmanuel Sanders, PIT
62. Jason Hill, JAC
63. Bernard Berrian, MIN
64. Andre Roberts, ARI
65. Anthony Armstrong, WAS
66. Greg Little, CLE
67. Antonio Brown, PIT
68. Roscoe Parrish, BUF
69. Earl Bennett, CHI
70. Nate Washington, TEN
Not sexy, but they get the job done
It's kind of weird to proclaim that Vincent Jackson is "steady" and "unsexy," considering he's been a contract holdout, an injury risk and an elite deep threat over the past 12 months. So maybe this isn't the optimal category for him. Still, the contract drama with V-Jax is about over; he'll be the San Diego Chargers' clear No. 1 receiver beginning in Week 1. And for all his upside with downfield maven Philip Rivers slinging him the rock, Jackson has only two 1,000-yard receiving seasons and a career high of "only" 1,167 yards, plus has never scored double-digit TDs. Heck, he's never caught more than 68 passes in a season. Part of the explanation for this is Antonio Gates' dominance, but also there always seems to be something going on with Jackson that winds up being a constraining factor. He's not a candidate for an elite number of catches or TDs, though his yardage should be tasty. He's shy of elite, but he'll be a fantasy starter in all leagues. Reggie Wayne has finished among the NFL's top 10 WRs in receiving yards for five straight seasons and set a career high with 111 catches in '10. However, at age 32, some of Wayne's explosiveness appears to be ebbing. His 12.2 yards per catch was the lowest average of his career, and he got only five red-zone targets last season, after getting 15 such looks in '09. He also dropped a whopping 12 passes, and scuffled with a knee injury for the second straight year. He's still very, very good, but he's on the decline, and doesn't belong among fantasy's elite any longer. Last year, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Mike Williams submitted the best rookie WR season since Moss in '98. After vexing football officials at Syracuse with immature behavior, Williams was a complete pro on the field in '10, running polished routes and becoming one of defensive backs' least-fun players to tackle in the open field. He's not a particularly great deep threat, it's true, but he makes up for it by being a wonderful red-zone guy. His TDs might drop from last year's 11, but I'm guessing his yardage also takes a leap up from 964. He's a solid every-week fantasy play. I like Jeremy Maclin just fine, and on a different team (i.e., one that doesn't have DeSean Jackson) I'd like him even more. In Philly, he's a prototypical No. 2 wideout, doing dirty work on underneath stuff and benefiting when defenses fear that Jackson will get open deep. I was surprised to hear several ESPN folks actually rank Maclin ahead of Jackson: I would take Jackson over Maclin 10 times out of 10 because, well, I think Jackson is the fastest player in the NFL and the single most explosive week-to-week factor. Maclin had basically the same 2010 season as Tampa's Mike Williams, but I'd say Maclin's 10 TDs are even less repeatable than Williams' scores, considering the presence of Jackson and Michael Vick. As I say, I like Maclin fine. I just wouldn't consider him as my No. 1 receiver in fantasy. Wes Welker produced a surprisingly good 2010 season, considering he tore an ACL late in '09: 86 catches, 848 yards and seven TDs. But he also led the entire NFL in drops with 13, and posted the lowest yards-per-catch and yards-after-the-catch averages of his four-year New England Patriots career. Part of that, certainly, can be chalked up to his knee. But part may also be a shift in the Patriots' offense, where suddenly tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez get lots of work in the middle of the field, and where there isn't a significant deep threat to open up Welker's work out of the slot. He'll still be very good, and is an underappreciated red-zone threat. But I don't think he'll catch 100 balls for the Pats again.
Dwayne Bowe came within a whisker of winning the WR fantasy points title last season, but we have him rated outside the top 10 at his position for the upcoming season. What gives? After all, Bowe finally proved he's a grown-up in '10, knocking off the silly behavior and becoming one of the NFL's best red-zone targets. His 15 receiving TDs were three more than anyone else in the league, and he cut back dramatically on the drops that made him such a tease in previous seasons. Unfortunately, I just don't trust Matt Cassel very much. The Kansas City Chiefs benefited from a shockingly easy schedule for three months last year, and when winter came and the opposing defenses got tougher, Cassel struggled and Bowe had just 14 catches in his final six games. I'd feel most comfortable with him as a high-upside No. 2 receiver, but I've got a feeling he'll be drafted as a No. 1 in many leagues. Speaking of guys whose '10 seasons are going underappreciated, how about the Denver Broncos' Brandon Lloyd, the man Bowe lost the fantasy points title to last season? He led the league in receiving yards, had 11 TDs, plus nobody with at least 40 grabs in '10 came near his 15.9 yards-at-the-catch average. But a few major factors will work against Lloyd this year. First, he won't have Josh McDaniels calling plays for him any longer; John Fox's conservative regime is running things in Denver, and the downfield stuff will likely abate. Next, Tim Tebow eventually will see time at quarterback, and his ability to get the ball deep is very much in question. And finally, Lloyd has the whiff of a one-year wonder about him, considering he nearly doubled his career-best single-season marks in yards and TDs (and he'd played seven years before '10). I'll be honest: I have a hard time even considering Lloyd a top-20 receiving option this season. Brandon Marshall's descent to South Beach started with great anticipation, as most everyone considered him at worst a top-10 fantasy wideout (and at best significantly higher than that) heading into the '10 season. But Chad Henne's mediocrity and Marshall's own petulance quickly submarined those hopes, and he finished the year tied for 28th in fantasy points by a wideout. He also tied for third in the NFL in drops, and scored just three TDs. The Miami Dolphins haven't upgraded under center (unless you consider Matt Moore an upgrade) and Marshall had well-publicized personal troubles off the field this winter, so you're probably best off staying away until we see signs of life from the talented wideout. It wasn't long ago that the Carolina Panthers' Steve Smith was in the conversation as the No. 1 receiver in fantasy. Alas, last year he finished No. 74. He's only 32, but things have stagnated for him with the Panthers. A combination of Cam Newton and Jimmy Clausen will likely be throwing him the rock this year (unless Derek Anderson wins the job in camp), which sounds just awful. I'd like to say he's a bounce-back candidate, but I don't see it. Santana Moss submitted a top-20 fantasy season among receivers last year, but few folks envision a repeat. Moss was excellent out of the slot, setting a career high with 93 receptions. But Donovan McNabb is gone from D.C. and some combination of John Beck and Rex Grossman will be firing it Moss' way this year. Yikes. The only type of league I want to own the 32-year-old Moss in this year is a PPR.
I made Mike Wallace one of my biggest sleepers last year and he conclusively proved he's not merely a "go-long" kind of player. Yes, he's got elite speed, but he started running better patterns and earning Ben Roethlisberger's trust. Of course, the speed doesn't hurt: Last year, he led the league in plays of 20-plus and 40-plus yards, and scored nine times from 29 yards out or farther. Hines Ward faded further back into the periphery of the Pittsburgh Steelers' game plan last year and that process will continue in '11, as Wallace takes on a role as a true No. 1 receiver. I'm guessing his yards per catch comes down, but that the Steelers start using him in the red zone a bit more, too. To my eyes, the Dallas Cowboys hit a home run drafting Dez Bryant in '10, and before he broke his leg early in December, he was starting to "get it." Of course, Miles Austin "got it" a couple of years ago, and together Austin and Bryant make a deadly combination. They'll each be considered fantasy starters in all leagues this season as Tony Romo tries to stay healthy for an entire year. I'm not put off by Bryant's supposed off-field maturity issues, and I'm betting he makes strides as a route-runner in '11. He belongs in the Andre Johnson/Calvin Johnson category of open-field physical freaks. Last season, Buffalo Bills nominally handed over the No. 1 receiving job to Steve Johnson. Johnson isn't a burner, but he's a physical player who's very quick out of his breaks; he might not ever be a big-play threat, but he'll be the guy opposing defenses key on from Week 1 forward. I know Johnson finished 10th in WR fantasy points last season, but keep your expectations in check: He still has Ryan Fitzpatrick throwing him the ball. Nevertheless, if there's one skill-position player in Buffalo you want to own, it's Johnson. Kenny Britt keeps doing stupid things off the field, but he's a menace on the field, too. He finished fourth in the NFL last season in yards-at-the-catch average, making him a true downfield threat, and his 6-foot-3 frame and strong jumping ability indicate he can eventually be a scary red-zone guy, too. Matt Hasselbeck will begin the year as the Tennessee Titans' starting QB with Jake Locker waiting in the wings, but that's no reason to completely shy away from Britt. He needs better health (he missed five games because of a badly injured hamstring last season) and to stay out of legal trouble, but Britt is a big-play machine who can win fantasy weeks by himself. I'm highly skeptical that Chad Ochocinco will be a valuable fantasy commodity this year, but it would be foolish to proclaim that a late-career opportunity isn't knocking. The Ocho leaves the mayhem in Cincinnati, where Carson Palmer is evidently retired and some combination of Bruce Gradkowski and Andy Dalton will be under center in '11, for the relative tranquility of an offense run by Tom Brady. But don't mistake Ocho for Randy Moss. Ocho's deep speed has apparently left him, and last year I saw too many cases of alligator arms over the middle for my liking. The Patriots spread the ball around almost compulsively, so I see Ocho as "just another guy" in that offense, which should be good for 800 yards and six TDs, but not a massive resurgence. Still, he's more valuable than he was in Cincy.
Terrell Owens and Ochocinco are gone from Cincinnati, giving April's No. 4 overall pick, A.J. Green, a chance at leading the Bengals in receptions and receiving yards as a rookie. He scored 23 TDs in 27 collegiate starts, is big and fast and has exceptional hands. His biggest limitation may be whoever Cincy puts under center: Neither Gradkowski nor Dalton inspire confidence. The Falcons gave up a king's ransom to trade up to get Julio Jones with the No. 6 overall pick this April, but don't assume that means they're set on making him a top target right away. Roddy White is among the elite at this position and Tony Gonzalez is still hanging around, so Jones will wait his turn for looks. The Falcons are counting on Jones to be an improvement over Michael Jenkins, at least in the distraction department: They want White to see fewer double-teams. Jones has great career potential, but he doesn't have much upside right away. Leonard Hankerson broke several of Michael Irvin's records at the University of Miami, and landed with the Redskins, a team in need of playmakers. Hankerson has as much athletic upside as any rookie receiver taken this April, but fell a bit in the draft because of concerns about his hands. With Santana Moss returning to D.C., Hankerson's value is somewhat capped, but it doesn't mean he won't start. Moss runs mostly out of the slot for the Redskins, so there's a place for Hankerson among lesser lights such as Anthony Armstrong, Jabar Gaffney, Donte' Stallworth, et al. The draftee that most mock drafts got right this spring was Torrey Smith to the Baltimore Ravens. Smith is a University of Maryland kid who's reputed to be a high-character person, plus has the element most missing from the Ravens attack: Pure, blazing speed. At 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, he runs a 4.4 40. However, with the team trading for Lee Evansto provide the deep threat and Anquan Boldin entrenched in the middle of the field, it may take a year or two for Smith to contribute and become, well, a younger version of Lee Evans. In Cleveland, Greg Little has the benefit of perhaps the NFL's least-impressive group of veteran receiver competition, and as a converted running back, he's got open-field potential you don't usually see in a wideout. I think Little will be draftable in all formats as a high-upside sleeper; Pat Shurmur is bringing his dink-and-dunk attack to the Browns, and Colt McCoy is the kind of accurate passer who could get Little the ball in open spaces, and let him run. You sometimes hear Tampa Bay's Mike Williams as a comparison for Little, but that's aiming a bit high for my tastes. Titus Young and Randall Cobb are similar players who'll likely do their most damage this season on special teams. They're slot-sized guys with fair speed but insane quickness, and they each may help open up their respective offenses (Young with the Lions, Cobb with the Packers) for more heralded veteran teammates. Percy Harvin isn't a bad comparison for either player, though I don't envision either Young or Cobb having nearly as big a role as Harvin did in his rookie campaign. The Chiefs grabbed Jonathan Baldwin in the first round of April's draft with the idea of deflecting defensive attention away from Dwayne Bowe, but Baldwin comes to the NFL with baggage that reminds me of what people used to say about Bowe: He's selfish, he's immature, he's not a hard worker. On the field, Baldwin is a specimen, though he isn't as quick out of his breaks as he needs to be, nor is he particularly ferocious to the ball. I expect a pretty severe learning curve for this kid at first.
As of this writing, Michael Crabtree was on the 49ers' training camp PUP list with a foot injury that's reportedly been bothering him all summer. This is the same foot on which Crabtree had surgery in '09, which put his draft stock into question, so this might be bad, indeed. There's been speculation among 49ers beat reporters that Crabtree could miss all of training camp and might even miss multiple regular-season games. That could set up recently signed Braylon Edwards as San Francisco's No. 1 receiver, though Josh Morgan is also still on hand. With Alex Smith back under center, you wouldn't call any of these guys enticing from a fantasy perspective. But Crabtree is often mentioned as a potential breakout player, and right now that breakout is broken. He can't be anywhere near your Week 1 starting lineup. Per usual, Marques Colston is the most valuable Saints receiver, but who comes next? Sean Payton seemingly will feature his usual jumble. Lance Moore was terrific last season (catching eight TDs) and re-signed with New Orleans, and he'd probably barely beat out Robert Meachem on my list. Devery Henderson is also still around to steal longer looks. You know these names, and you can expect the same week-to-week frustration these guys always purvey. I and several other experts were all set to consider Jordy Nelson a terrific sleeper in all leagues, but then James Jones re-signed with the Packers, throwing that deep receiving corps into a Saints-like swivet.Greg Jennings will always come first in Green Bay, but Donald Driver faded badly last year (at least in part to an injured quad) leaving many targets to be divided between Nelson and Jones. If one of those guys could get those looks all to himself, that would be something. But until an injury strikes, it appears that won't happen. Roy Williams was a head case and a distraction during his two-plus seasons in Dallas, and he'll seek to make a fresh start while being reunited with his old offensive coordinator Mike Martz in Chicago. But the Bears already have Johnny Knox on hand, and Earl Bennett was touted as potentially earning a more significant role catching passes from Jay Cutler this year. Knox is still the one I'd prefer to own here, but it's far less clear-cut than when Devin Hester was the main competition. Williams is inconsistent, but when properly focused and motivated can produce big efforts, especially in the red zone. & Pass-happy offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has come to St. Louis, and the Rams already have Sam Bradford coming off a terrific rookie year, so you have to believe at least one Rams wideout is due for a fantasy breakout. But jeez, which one? Let's count the bodies who are in camp: Danario Alexander, Mike Sims-Walker, Danny Amendola, Donnie Avery, Brandon Gibson, Mardy Gilyard and rookies Greg Salas and Austin Pettis. Plus, Mark Clayton has been rumored to be a possibility, though his injured knee reportedly isn't healed yet. Forced to make a preseason bet, I'd pick Alexander, but honestly you probably can't draft any of these guys until we get some clarity. Just be ready to pounce on the free-agent wire once it comes clear whom McDaniels prefers.
Marques Colston just had a third surgery on his right knee in a 12-month span, and this time it was of the microfracture variety. Considering he's also had that same serious procedure on his left knee, you have to be concerned that one of these days the gravy train could grind to a halt. Colston has led the Saints in wideout targets in four of the past five seasons, and has been at least seventh in the NFL in red zone targets in three of the past four campaigns. But as I mentioned above, being a Saints receiver can be frustrating, because the week-to-week game plan fluctuations can be extreme. Despite talent enough to be a No. 1 fantasy receiver, Colston is best suited to be a No. 2, and only on teams whose owners have a strong stomach for risk. Austin Collie played spectacularly well when he wasn't hurt last year, but he suffered as many as three concussions in the '10 season. Collie claims he's symptom-free and ready to roll for '11, and when he combines with Dallas Clark out of the slot, the Colts are an offensive handful to say the least. On sheer ability and opportunity, I'd rate Collie well within my top 20 fantasy wideouts. But no matter what Collie says, nobody will be shocked if his next big hit lands him on injured reserve. As a result, if you wind up relying on him this season, there's a chance for greatness but there's also a chance to get burned. As I just mentioned, Danario Alexander has breakout potential. He's a big, willowy, leaping receiver. But he's got an extreme history of knee injuries. Even if he breaks out as Bradford's favorite target, you never know when another knee problem will rear its head. The New York Giants' Steve Smith tore a pectoral muscle in '10 and missed four games, then when he returned, he severely tore knee cartilage that required microfracture surgery. As of this writing, he's still a free agent, though he's been in close contact with the Giants. Multiple reports indicate he almost certainly won't be ready to start Week 1, making him a candidate for the PUP list.
Because Smith's health is such a major question mark, Mario Manningham may wind up a hot commodity in fantasy drafts this summer. Manningham ended last year with three straight games of 100 yards receiving and at least one TD. Super Mario is also a big-play guy: Eight of his nine TDs in '10 were 25 yards or longer, and three were 50 yards or longer. He's a prototypical split end who can stretch the field, and get Hakeem Nicks open over the middle or down the seam. Drafting him involves the risk that Smith will return to effectiveness sooner than expected, but I think it'll be a risk worth taking. The Bengals took A.J. Green early in April's draft, which means Jerome Simpson is probably never headed for No. 1 receiver status in Cincinnati, but he proved how much potential he really has in last season's final three games, when he amassed 20 catches for 277 yards and three TDs. The team's QB situation looks messy in the short term, and Green will fight to get on the field right away. However, Simpson's good speed and amazing jumping ability might play very well if defenses decide to focus on the rookie star. I could consider him as a high-upside late-round pick. But I might actually take a chance on the Steelers' Emmanuel Sanders first. Hines Ward may have won "Dancing With the Stars," but he slowed down in '10, handing the No. 1 receiving gig over to Mike Wallace and watching Sanders begin to infringe on his targets late in the season. Sanders runs a 4.4 40 and is ultra-quick out of the slot; considering how many three-wide sets the Steelers run, I think Sanders will be on the field much more often than he's not this season. He probably won't eclipse Ward's target total quite yet, but I predict he'll do substantially more than Hines on a per-play basis. Note, however, that Sanders needed offseason foot surgery and re-injured the same foot early in training camp. I guess Jacoby Ford isn't just another track guy. He ran a 4.28 40 at the '10 combine but was considered too raw as a football player to have an immediate impact. While he didn't catch a single pass in the Oakland Raiders' first six games, Ford wound up scoring seven all-purpose TDs, looking a lot like DeSean Jackson in the open field. Ford and Louis Murphy should be the Raiders' starting wideouts this year, but the organization has a lot invested in Darrius Heyward-Bey, and will probably give him a lot of looks, as well. As a result, Ford probably won't get enough overall targets to be a reliable fantasy starter. He'll probably have a few very big games surrounded by many mediocre ones, assuming he returns from the broken hand he suffered early in training camp. I liked Jason Hill a lot at Washington State and never thought he got a fair shake from the San Francisco 49ers. But in the final two games of the '10 season, the Jacksonville Jaguars gave Hill a look as a starter, and he produced seven grabs for 145 yards. The Jaguars drafted fourth-rounder Cecil Shorts in April, but he's really raw, and I don't think either Tiquan Underwood or Jarett Dillard is a threat to start (and Mike Sims-Walker won't be back). By default, that might leave Hill opposite Mike Thomas. He's a great athlete and potentially a valuable red zone threat opposite the shorter, speedier Thomas.
So should you consider taking an Andre Johnson or Roddy White at the tail end of the first round? Are those guys more "bankable" than the RBs you'd be likely to get in that same position? Let's do some analysis. Except for Randy Moss' unbelievable meltdown as a borderline first-rounder last year, those receivers whose average draft position put them at least in the mix for first-round consideration haven't tended to crush their fantasy teams. Here's a list of the WRs whose ADP has been inside the overall top 15 in the past five years, and how they wound up finishing among their wideout brethren:
There aren't enough "ones" or "twos" in that right-most column to proclaim the strategy of grabbing the consensus top couple of WRs late in the first or early in the second a complete success, but if you take out Moss' implosion, that's an average of getting the seventh-best fantasy wideout: Not elite points, but not disastrous. Even with Moss figured in, the average receiver in this group would've been the 13th-best fantasy wideout.
For comparison's sake, I performed a similar task with RBs: I took all RBs from the past five seasons whose ADPs were between sixth and 15th overall (since on average no WR has gone inside the top five, I'll ignore those elite RBs whom we all know will get drafted earliest), and evaluated how they stacked up compared to their RB brethren. It's a much longer list that I won't bother showing in full here, but on average, RBs drafted between sixth and 15th overall performed as the 19th-best fantasy running back.
However, to be fair, the fantasy world has gotten sharper about not drafting a RB "no matter what" from the middle of the first round on. In the three seasons from '08 to '10, 14 running backs had an overall ADP between No. 6 and No. 15; in just '06 and '07 combined, that number was 17. If we look only at the past three seasons, the average RB drafted between sixth and 15th overall performed as the 13th-best fantasy running back. And because of the principles of Value-Based Drafting, the 13th-best RB tends to be relatively more valuable than even the seventh-best WR, which leads me to believe that on average you're probably better off taking the RB over the WR, provided there hasn't been an extreme run on RBs.
Wide receiver stars tend to go for a bit less money than their counterparts at quarterback and running back, simply because there's less scarcity at this position. Still, with a $200 budget, you'll probably have to spend on the order of $30 to $35 to get your No. 1 receiver. In general, I'll budget around $60 or $70 for my entire wide receiver stable, which means my No. 2 receiver might go for between $15 to $25, and everyone else will be straight from the bargain bin. If you try a "studs and duds" strategy, you'd better be darned sure about the guys you've earmarked as your studs, because dud receivers often contribute absolutely nothing. It's worth noting that because there are so many decent receivers with upside in the NFL, this position tends to be a favorite for "hiding" a player, and hoping no one nominates him in your auction until most of the money is gone.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy.
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2011 Fantasy Football Draft Kit
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