- Christopher Harris, Fantasy
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The logic seems so right. As the number of elite fantasy running backs seems to diminish, weakened by platoons, injuries and pass-heavy offenses, why wouldn't we all consider loading up on wide receivers in the first, second and/or third rounds of our drafts? Sure, the best WRs don't usually produce at quite the level of their RB counterparts (especially in terms of Value-Based Drafting), but they just feel so much safer don't they?
Alas, that may only be a feeling.
Recent history shows that the highest-drafted WRs don't always (or even usually) wind up being the best-performing WRs. Those who would argue the WR position isn't filled with as many minefields as RB need to look at these charts:
Preseason Top 10 WRs, Final Points Ranks Since 2008
Preseason Top 10 RBs, Final Points Ranks Since 2008
Sorry, but even in the apparent RB miasma of '11, it was probably slightly safer to own one of the top 10 RBs than the top 10 WRs. Of course, that's not to say RBs themselves are absolutely safe. I just want to inject a bit of realism into the argument that the sick feeling in your stomach brought on by the idea of drafting a first-round RB can automatically be cleared up by taking a WR. Heck, if these charts illustrate anything, it's that the first few RBs selected in any given fantasy season are almost certain to be safer than any WR.
Of course, we're not only looking for safety when we make our early-round picks. We're also looking for upside. Let's take a look at this season's WR candidates and discuss strategies thereafter.
Calvin Johnson led all WRs in receiving yards, TDs, first downs and catches of more than 25 yards in '11. He hasn't always been the most durable guy, and he does have the occasional game where defenses scheme to remove him to such an extent that Matthew Stafford doesn't look his way. (Megatron had seven targets or fewer in five of 16 regular-season games last season.) But his speed and physicality can't be matched in today's NFL. He should be the first WR off the draft board -- and a first-round fantasy pick -- in all leagues. In Kurt Warner's final two seasons with the Arizona Cardinals ('08 and '09), Larry Fitzgerald scored a combined 25 TDs; in the two seasons since, he's scored 14. That reflects the QB problems that dog the Cardinals. Kevin Kolb is the presumptive starter now (with John Skelton waiting in the wings), which isn't exactly inspiring, but the Cardinals have done what they can to keep Fitz's production high: His yards-at-the-catch (Y@C) average has been higher than ever over these past two seasons. Don't expect elite TDs, but the yards should be there. Andre Johnson was a fantasy killer in '11, tearing a hamstring in Week 4 and playing in only three regular-season games thereafter. AJ is big, he's a burner and he's got elite ball skills, but his fantasy effectiveness comes down to a bet on his health. Johnson has missed multiple games in four of the past seven seasons. Roddy White has been a top-seven fantasy WR in each of the past four seasons without missing a single game; that kind of stability and upside is what makes the other ESPN experts love him so. I'm concerned that Julio Jones may already be a more explosive player, and if Jones stays healthy and eats into Roddy's red-zone looks, we could see a passing of the torch in the Atlanta Falcons receiving corps as soon as this year. So personally, I rate White outside the "elite" fantasy wideouts, but my ESPN brethren do not, and I understand why. White led the NFL in targets and was second in receptions in '11. Greg Jennings didn't eclipse 1,000 yards receiving last season and finished second in fantasy points among WRs on his own team (Jordy Nelson was better), but I'm still buying him as a no-doubt No. 1 fantasy wideout. He basically missed the entire final month of the '11 regular season with a sprained knee, the first time he's missed games since '07. Jennings was on pace for a career-high 87 grabs for 1,239 yards and 12 TDs, which would've put him fifth among fantasy WRs last season. It's a stat line I expect him to approach in '12. Mike Wallace is unhappy with his contract and could miss some training camp time, but it's fair to expect that he'll be there for the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 1. The best news for Wallace in '11 was that he finished tied for ninth in fantasy points among WRs despite finishing 35th in average yards at the catch, meaning he's no longer just a downfield burner. The Steelers use Wallace all over the field, even on short passes, though he's also one of the truly elite deep threats in the NFL. Wallace's fate is very much tied to the health of Ben Roethlisberger, but I'm still a believer.
Not Sexy, But They Get The Job Done
Wes Welker definitely is sexy to fantasy owners. It's easy to argue he should be a No. 1 fantasy WR this season; after all, he led the NFL in receptions and finished second in receiving yards. But there's no question he's a nontraditional fantasy stud: a guy who runs exclusively out of the slot who averaged 12.9 yards per catch (52nd among WRs) and 6.7 yards at the catch (68th among WRs). Welker's business is volume, and if anything ever gets in the way of that volume, he'll be a fantasy bust. But I'm not buying that the New England Patriots will feed Welker any less in '12, despite his contract issues, and despite Tom Brady's other enticing targets. Welker will continue to get his. Marques Colston is another guy who operates mostly out of the slot, though he's got at least seven inches and 40 pounds on Welker, and runs much farther down the field on his pass patterns. I daresay Colston is flat-out slow, but he's a precise route-runner whose post route is one of the league's prettiest. Drew Brees trusts him, which means for as long as he's healthy -- not always a sure thing for a guy with very creaky knees -- Colston's floor is very high. But the New Orleans Saints spread the ball all over the place, meaning Colston will never be near the league lead in targets. Steve Smith finally found a competent QB in Cam Newton and bounced back in '12, finishing fifth among WRs in receiving yards and sixth in fantasy points. That kind of performance harkened back to '08, when Smitty had just finished a run of three top-10 WR seasons in four years. Smith is 33 now but still has playmaking skills, and when Newton is on, Smith is the prime beneficiary. Alas, if and when Newton struggles throwing the ball, as he did often in the second half of '11, Smith will be held hostage. He and Colston are probably best-suited to be No. 2 fantasy wideouts. I like Dwayne Bowe's potential this season more than my ESPN brethren; they rated him 21st among WRs this season, and I have him 15th. Bowe's dropoff from 15 TDs in '10 to five in '11 was eminently predictable, and with Matt Cassel throwing it to him, I can't say I forecast a huge rebound in that category. In addition, Bowe is upset with the Kansas City Chiefs' franchise tag and is a possible training camp holdout. But despite his massive drop in TDs, Bowe's catch and yardage numbers stayed basically the same year over year. He's a high-usage, highly athletic player with excellent red zone chops. If he's pretty much locked in as an 80-catch, 1,150-yard player whose TDs will range somewhere from five to 10? That's a fantasy starter in my book.
Vincent Jackson has never had more than 68 catches, 1,167 yards or nine TDs in a season, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers gave him $26 million guaranteed this winter. Certainly, Jackson's size and relatively good speed make him a premier downfield threat, but we're still waiting for a true breakout season. Now that he's away from Philip Rivers and under the thumb of shaky Josh Freeman, it's fair to finally rank V-Jax as an interesting No. 2 fantasy WR, rather than a potential-laden No. 1. He's still a fantasy starter, but don't take him in the first four rounds of your draft. Before both the '10 and '11 seasons, DeSean Jackson was a consensus top-10 fantasy wideout. Not anymore. It's reductive to say Jackson loses his luster only because he played so inconsistently last season while whining about his contract, though anyone who suffered through his four-TD season is probably still bitter. No, the biggest change in Jackson seems to be that since a nasty concussion he suffered in Week 6 of '10 while going over the middle, he's lost some courage. D-Jax is still as fast as they come going down the field, but his route-running isn't varied, so defenses know if they play a loose zone on him, they can take him out of the Philadelphia Eagles' game plan. No question Jackson has crazy upside because he can bust open games with long TDs. But that didn't happen enough in '11, and I'm not convinced it'll suddenly be the norm just because Jackson got paid. Mark Sanchez finished as fantasy's No. 10 QB last season, which on the face of it should've meant good things for Santonio Holmes. Not so much. Sanchez was only passable as a fantasy entity in '11 because of six rushing TDs; without them, he'd have finished 16th, which helps explain why Holmes was only 33rd in fantasy points among WRs. I believe Holmes is one of the 10 fastest wideouts in the game, but the New York Jets don't take much advantage, and woe betide Holmes' fantasy owners if Tim Tebow takes the QB reins. Reggie Wayne finished 29th in fantasy points among WRs last season, with only three 100-yard games, and I know it's tempting to dismiss such a poor effort because the likes of Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky were throwing him the rock. But game tape doesn't lie, and Wayne looked slow and disinterested through much of '11. It's a surprise that he signed back up for a rebuilding effort with the Indianapolis Colts, but maybe that's the most telling factor of all: No other team seemed to want him as a free agent. Andrew Luck's career will be rosy, but I'm skeptical Wayne will take advantage. Long a deep-sleeper favorite of mine, Laurent Robinson finally exploded onto the fantasy scene with the Dallas Cowboys last season, taking advantage of injuries to start four games, catch 54 passes and score 11 TDs. As a result, Robinson finished tied for 14th in fantasy points among WRs. But he's not in Dallas anymore. The Jacksonville Jaguars, possessors of one of the NFL's most anemic pass attacks, gave Robinson nearly $14 million guaranteed and then traded up to No. 5 overall in April's draft to take Justin Blackmon. The fact that Blackmon is the No. 1 WR of the future and that Blaine Gabbert is the starter should combine to crush Robinson's fantasy value.
A.J. Green is a great prospect, and I view him as a No. 1 fantasy WR this year. But that's not to say he's Calvin Johnson. He's not that big, nor is he that fast. But his ball skills are amazing and his situation is enviable. The Cincinnati Bengals have no other proven wideouts and no proven rushers, so I daresay the Bengals' offense runs through Green. Barring injury, he seems guaranteed to finish in the top 10 in WR targets. I'm on the record saying I'm not crazy about Cincy this season; I don't love Andy Dalton, and I believe the team will play games as close to the vest as it can, so Green's TD ceiling may be lower than some others'. But if he's a 1,200-yard, eight-TD guy, well, that should put him in the back half of the top 10. And if I'm wrong about the Bengals, and they're ready to get aggressive, there's a chance Green produces much more than that. Victor Cruz went from an undrafted free agent to fantasy's No. 3 WR in just two years, and now he figures to become an even bigger part of the New York Giants' offense. Mario Manningham left Gotham, meaning Cruz is at least the team's No. 2 wideout, and he's not coming off the field in two-receiver sets any longer. Of course, whether or not you believe Cruz is due for a repeat comes down to how many big plays he can make, and whether he'll still make them while playing in the slot on a smaller percentage of his plays. My fellow ESPN rankers trust Cruz more than I do; they put him No. 9 among wideouts for the '12 season, while I put him No. 20. I saw five long (possibly fluky) scoring plays by Cruz either on short passes that he broke or against wildly blown coverages that I worry won't repeat. But surely the chance is there for more greatness from Cruz. Brandon Marshall has maturity questions galore, but he also escapes the rogues' gallery of poor QBs in Miami and joins the Chicago Bears and his old pal Jay Cutler. In each of the past five seasons, Marshall has finished between ninth and 13th in fantasy points among WRs, so that's about where I put him for '12. The Bears tend to be a conservative offense and Marshall's personal behavior is always a concern, so I think banking on him to be your No. 1 fantasy wideout is overly optimistic. He's rock-solid as a No. 2, though. Brandon Lloyd's opportunity is probably a mixed blessing: It makes him a candidate for a Super Bowl ring with the New England Patriots, but it almost certainly reduces his per-game usage. The Pats needed a deep threat like Lloyd, and will make use of him that way. But it's hard to imagine their new wideout coming near the 20 red zone targets he got the last time Josh McDaniels was his offensive coordinator for a full season (in Denver). In the past two years, Lloyd has averaged nearly 10 overall targets per game, but no New England WR other than Welker exceeded six per game last season. Long scores will be there from time to time to keep defenses honest, but I'm concerned Lloyd could put up a few doughnuts along the way. Robert Meachem moves from a Saints offense that spreads the wealth to a San Diego Chargers attack looking to replace Vincent Jackson, its main deep threat. But Meachem has never proved he's an elite player, and indeed has never posted more than 45 catches in a season. He's got a size/speed combo that could put him among the elites at his position if he takes advantage of his new gig. But we've all been waiting for this former first-rounder to produce on a grand scale for years. Pierre Garcon had seven TDs of 30-plus yards in the past two seasons combined while in Indy, and now he'll try and be a deep playmaker for the Washington Redskins, who gave him $20.5 million guaranteed this winter. Two problems. First, he'll be catching passes from a rookie, Robert Griffin III, and that often isn't a recipe for success. More importantly, while Garcon is terrific in one-on-one situations, he's not physical, he struggles against safety help and he doesn't run great routes or have great hands.
Justin Blackmon went No. 5 overall in April's draft, but he went to a Jaguars team that features Blaine Gabbert and/or Chad Henne under center. I remain unconvinced that Blackmon has the size or speed to be a true No. 1 WR in the NFL anyway, and in these circumstances, I'd be utterly shocked if he winds up as a fantasy starter in his rookie campaign. And that's to say nothing of legal troubles this offseason that could land him with a suspension. The Giants lost Manningham to free agency and replaced him with Rueben Randle, a physical player with good leaping ability who could add another red zone weapon into Eli Manning's arsenal. This team threw a whopping 413 passes when three receivers or more were on the field last season, so while relying on rookie wideouts to be fantasy starters is often folly, Randle has that kind of upside. If Michael Floyd can work his way into the Cardinals' starting lineup as a first-year player, he could see enough single coverage to be interesting for fantasy. Combined, Early Doucet and Andre Roberts posted 105 catches and 1,275 yards last year even with Kevin Kolb and John Skelton throwing the ball. That's what happens when you run opposite Larry Fitzgerald. And Floyd runs 4.47 at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds. Other than Blackmon, the rookie WR who landed with a team most in need of a No. 1 WR was Brian Quick of the St. Louis Rams. The Rams have spent several draft picks in previous years taking wideouts with non-elite size and speed; Quick finally may break that mold on both counts, so there's an opportunity for him to be a high-impact player right away. His drawbacks? Quick played at Appalachian State, so he's never really run against elite defensive backs. Whether or not he can rise to that level will determine his '12 fate, because if he's ready, the opportunity is there. Kendall Wright is a lightning rod. On the one hand, he was nearly impossible to stop catching passes from Robert Griffin III at Baylor last year. On the other hand, it's certainly possible he was feasting on fairly lame Big 12 defenses in a gimmicky spread offense. The Tennessee Titans believe, and took Wright No. 20 overall in April's draft. He should at least be in the mix for slot looks and multi-receiver sets, and if injuries linger ahead of him on the depth chart, it's possible Wright breaks out. Alshon Jeffery was once considered a possible top-10 overall pick, but his final collegiate year was marked by weight gain and a decline in production. Simply put, some scouts believe there is "diva" potential all over Jeffery, and landing on a team with Brandon Marshall, the king diva, may not be positive. But Jeffery does have size (6-foot-3, 216 pounds) and fantastic hands, so if he's ready sooner than I expect, Jay Cutler may have himself another viable weapon. Could the Jets really be ready to enter the '12 campaign with Stephen Hill starting opposite Santonio Holmes? Starting rookie WRs is already a dicey proposition; starting one who never caught more than 28 passes in a single collegiate season just seems nuts. Hill was the workout freak who helped himself most at February's scouting combine, running a 4.36 40 at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, and nobody's doubting there's some excellent long-term potential here. But coming out of Georgia Tech's triple option, Hill has never run anything close to a full complement of pro-style routes. I have to believe he'll wind up being a reserve this year when all is said and done.
Dez Bryant and Miles Austin are the Dallas Cowboys' top two receivers, but neither guy has lived up to his hype in recent years. Bryant has physical tools that compare with any WR in the league (non-Megatron division), but never exceeded 90 receiving yards in a single game last season. Austin flamed out in '10 after Tony Romo's injury, then hurt his own hamstring last season and missed six games. Romo is a reliable second-tier fantasy QB who throws it enough to support a top-10 fantasy wideout, and I slightly prefer Bryant's ability over Austin's. But on a weekly basis, I'm not sure how this plays out. And that's to say nothing of the No. 3 WR mystery, where Laurent Robinson provided such value in '11; Kevin Ogletree, Dwayne Harris and Andre Holmes are possibilities. Peyton Manning coming to the Denver Broncos puts new names in play as possible elite WRs. Demaryius Thomas, previously best known for his overtime playoff heroics against the Steelers last season, is a tremendous athlete who hasn't yet proven he runs disciplined routes. Eric Decker is the more precise player with only slightly fewer athletic gifts, but he's been prone to injuries. Those two guys figure to benefit most if Peyton regains his Indy form, but I can't promise you which guy would be the better fantasy asset. (I preliminarily have Thomas as my No. 21 WR and Decker at No. 25.) In addition, we've seen Manning dominate when he's got a reliable slot receiver, so especially in PPR leagues I'd love to know how that position battle will shake out: Andre Caldwell versus Brandon Stokley. Randy Moss has gotten rave reviews from his new San Francisco 49ers teammates in minicamp. He and Mario Manningham join Michael Crabtree in the Niners' WR corps, creating a weird mishmash of vague pass-catching disappointment. The simple fact is that Alex Smith didn't throw it with enough frequency or deep enough in '11 to impart fantasy value on any of his WRs, and with extra ones in the mix in '12, I'm skeptical that will change. Forced to choose from among them, I'll still take Crabtree, the flanker type with terrific hands and body control. While he's a better deep threat, Manningham seems to be a knee injury waiting to happen and (his Super Bowl heroics notwithstanding) hasn't always featured the best set of hands. And as for Moss? I just can't see him returning after sitting out a year, at age 35, and suddenly convincing the arch-conservative Niners to fling it down the field enough to make Moss a fantasy star again.
In last year's terrific playoff run, Hakeem Nicks showed what he's capable of: 28 catches, 444 yards and four TDs in four games. He's not a burner, but he's one of the NFL's scariest guys to tackle in the open field and is a red zone nightmare. But he just can't stay healthy. In his three-year pro career, he's battled numerous leg injuries, a shoulder problem and a concussion, and during minicamp this spring he broke a bone in his foot while running a route. Nicks is expected to need three months of rehabilitation from surgery, which should put him on schedule to be ready Week 1, but there are no guarantees. There are also no guarantees that he won't turn around and break something else. Kenny Britt appears to have matured off the field, but he's yet to show he can stay healthy on it. Britt tore an ACL in Week 3 last season, and needed a "cleanup" procedure on the knee this spring, which freaks me out. I was prepared to make Britt a top-20 WR before this latest surgery, but now it just seems impossible. When the guy plays, he's one of the NFL's most dangerous deep threats, and if his fantasy owners luck out, Britt could literally wind up the No. 1 WR in fantasy. But there's just so much risk. Sidney Rice produced that one amazing season for the Minnesota Vikings back in '09, but he's been a wreck since then. He's suffered three concussions in the past year, plus needed surgery on both of his shoulders over the winter. No question the Seattle Seahawks are paying Rice to be their top dog in the receiving game, and he's a talented athlete. But I wouldn't touch him as a fantasy starter in any-sized league.
Denarius Moore finished fourth among WRs last year in average yards at the catch, illustrating that when he's healthy (he battled ankle and foot injuries in '11) he's got the potential to be an elite deep threat. I see similarities between Moore and Mike Wallace, though I'm not sure I trust Carson Palmer's arm to be consistent on the deep ball. Nevertheless, I'll say Moore has Wallace-like upside in '12. I believe that Titus Young will bypass Nate Burleson and become the Lions' No. 2 WR behind Megatron this season. He's not a burner, but he's ultra-quick and entering his second season has become a more polished route-runner. In addition, despite a lack of elite size (Young is only 5-foot-11 and 174 pounds), he scored four times from inside an opponent's 10 last season. There's a lot of Percy Harvin in Young, and the Detroit offense is one where receiving weaponry gets used. Jonathan Baldwin needs to prove he's matured after a rookie season that saw him break a bone in his hand while punching former teammate Thomas Jones, but in terms of raw ability, we're talking about a potentially elite guy. The questions for '12 are twofold: Will Dwayne Bowe hold out because of his contract and thus leave a glimmer of daylight for Baldwin to work as the Chiefs' No. 1, and will the team use Baldwin mostly out of the slot, as they did last year? Greg Little clearly stands apart as the only Cleveland Browns WR worth drafting, and if rookie QB Brandon Weeden proves ready to be even a league-average passer in '12, Little figures to be the prime beneficiary. He's physical and tough in the open field, and he has precious little competition. But Little also must improve his concentration, a lack of which last season led to double-digit drops. The Panthers have been looking for a No. 2 behind Steve Smith for years, and may have finally found one in Brandon LaFell. LaFell was slow to adapt to the pro game, failing to earn a starting role on a less-than-impressive depth chart throughout his rookie campaign, but the opening is there once again, with only David Gettis (recovering from a torn ACL) as competition. I always found LaFell to be an interesting red zone weapon at LSU, and he showed some occasional open-field chops last season. Jerome Simpson will be suspended for the Vikings' first three games of '12 because of felony drug charges, so factor that into the equation, but the man does have athletic ability. Heck, just watch that one ridiculous play on which he front-flipped over a would-be tackler last year with the Bengals, and scored a TD. Minnesota desperately needed an outside playmaker to complement Harvin, and I can't believe someone like Michael Jenkins will stand in Simpson's way once he returns.
I wish I could promise all the analysis above is perfect, but the past few seasons have proven that the top preseason WRs are no more a safe haven for early fantasy picks than are the top preseason RBs. In the past two seasons, a consensus No. 1 and No. 2 receiver has burned first-round draftees big-time, something you can't say about No. 1 and No. 2 running backs. That said, if you're picking in the back half of your first round, taking the No. 1 or No. 2 RB isn't an option. You're choosing, say, the No. 6 RB or the No. 1 or 2 WR. That's where it gets tricky.
I've always been the biggest Calvin Johnson fan around, but even I admit his hype is a bit out of control (And this has nothing to do with the Madden Curse. Please.) Megatron has missed only four games in his five-year pro career, but anyone who's owned him knows that until last season, he's regularly been questionable with all manner of nicks and scrapes, and it's often shown in his play. So let's not sell Mega as entirely bulletproof. That said, he's my No. 5 overall player, the only wideout I'd take in the first round of a 10-team draft.
After Johnson, I find a lot of similar, very good players, each of whom carries quite a bit of risk. I have four WRs (Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson, Jennings and Wallace) ranked as second-rounders, but it's easy to poke holes in each of them. I don't believe this is a year where a precious few receivers will stand head-and-shoulders above the rest, and furthermore, while I can find plenty of guys whose upsides I'm excited about, I can't find anyone beside Megatron (OK, and maybe Fitz) whose downside isn't glaring and frightening. I can see the argument for taking the super-elite QBs early -- earlier, even, than any WR but Calvin -- as bastions of fantasy point safety. But you shouldn't be any more inclined than in previous years to take WRs early.
Wide receiver stars tend to go for a bit less money than their counterparts at QB and RB, 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. (And this year in the case of Megatron, perhaps quite a bit more than that.) In general, I'll budget around $70 for $80 for my entire wide receiver stable, which means my No. 2 receiver might go for between $20 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 (and as we've seen, that can be mighty hard to do), 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.
16hEthan Sherwood Strauss