Wide receiver (WR) is the most volatile position in both fantasy and real life. Outside of the top 5 or so receivers, the 50th ranked WR could out-produce the 7th ranked wide receiver. In 2011, the top 5 receivers in fantasy were Calvin Johnson, Wes Welker, Victor Cruz, Larry Fitzgerald, and Roddy White. In 2012 it was Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Andre Johnson, Dez Bryant, A.J. Green. In other words, outside of the top name, the names changed for 2-5. If you look at 6-10, you will see the same thing. I’m not saying you won’t see some of the same names from year to year, just stating a fact that receiver is ever-changing, and very unpredictable. A smart fantasy owner would realize that receiver is the deepest position, as every team starts three WRs, and all could put up stats in any game. Thus, if you don’t grab one in the 1st round, you are still fine. You can easily grab a receiver like Andre Johnson, Wes Welker, Roddy White, or Julio Jones in the 2nd, and have a solid basis for you team going forward. I’ll admit, I usually draft my first receiver in the late 2nd or early 3rd, depending on settings, number of teams, and who is available at running back or wide receiver.
The rankings below, like as in my previous rankings for QB and TE, are based upon various factors, namely the team, opportunity, past success, upside, and to a greater or lesser extent, consistency of the quarterback of the team.
Tier 1.a.: Next best thing to Jerry Rice receiver-wise
1. Calvin Johnson – AKA Megatron, this man is on a mission: 2,000 receiving yards in a season. Yes, this should be the season he does it. It shouldn’t matter what his QB, Matthew Stafford, does this season, as Megatron is mad and is going to get 2,000 yards. Only two things could keep Megatron from this feat: Stafford goes down, and his replacement is Kevin Kolb-esque or worse, or Johnson himself gets injured and misses significant time. If you have any opportunity to grab him towards the end of the first round of any draft, especially points per reception leagues (PPR), do so.
Tier 1.b.: The rest of the elite
2. A.J. Green – There are 3 guys who could eventually dream of merely sniffing Calvin Johnson territory, and Green is one of them. He is likely the more raw of the 3, but also less of an injury concern. In just his second season in 2012, Green was targeted (T) a whopping 164 times, had 97 receptions (RCEP), 1,350 receiving yards (REC YD) and 11 touchdowns (TD). This season, expect bigger things out of the UGA graduate. His QB, Andy Dalton, is slowly making maturity and accuracy adjustments, and as he does so, Green’s stats should only continue their upward trajectory. Aggressively, yet safely, expect over 100 RCEPs, 1,450 REC YDs, 12 TDs on 175 or so Ts. Draft with confidence.
3. Brandon Marshall – While I do not expect him to repeat last season’s stats, at the same time, it wouldn’t be surprising, as he is the only reliable receiver Chicago has. As long as Jay Cutler can stand up for two seconds in the pocket, he should be able to get the ball to Marshall. With a new offensive coordinator, the passes will likely be shorter, curbing Marshall’s stats, but that shouldn’t keep him from 1,250 REC YDs, 105 RCEPs, and 9 TDs on 180+ Ts. If Cutler gets injured again, which is feasible, given the Bears offensive line woes, knock those numbers, as well as this ranking.
4. Dez Bryant – The 2nd of the three names of guys who could sniff Johnson territory, and the WR with the biggest upside. As long as he doesn’t slap his momma or do anything else stupid off the field, and stays healthy, he is a surefire top 5 WR. The problem is, while he seems to be passed his troubles, he seems to either show up for games or not show up. If you look at his 1st half versus 2nd half stats, you will see that phenomena. In the 1st half of the season, Dez had a total of two touchdowns, but starting week 10, he went bonkers, grabbing 10 scores in 8 games. That week 9 game where he had one catch for 15 yards, evidently woke him up in a big way. Now that he has finally showed up, he looks as if he is here to stay, and could be higher on this list if he remains consistent. The only stat that could keep him from the next level is his number of receptions. He has yet to post a 100 RCEP season, but I’d bet on this being the season where he finally does. Put him down for 100 RCEPs, 1,500 REC YDs, and 11 TDs on 150 Ts, but those numbers could easily be higher if he taps further into his potential. If you drafted him as the top receiver after Megatron, no one would blame you.
5. Julio Jones – Might be the best deep threat in the NFL today, and still very raw. The 3rd name who could eventually sniff Johnson ground. His problems are durability, and Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez. He should be the team’s WR1 this season, and completely breakout, but needs to stay healthy to justify this ranking. He posted a ridiculous 1,198 receiving yards on 79 receptions last season, but also played injured. Assuming he stays healthy, continues to be arguably the top deep threat in the NFL, and sees more targets from Matt Ryan, I see nothing keeping Jones from 90 receptions, 1,500 receiving yards, and potentially 14 TDs. His health controls how great he could be.
6. Andre Johnson – Will the REAL Andre Johnson please stand up? After two seasons in which he battled injuries and mediocrity (2010, 2011), he showed fantasy owners what they thought they would get when drafting him: a perennial top 7 WR. When healthy and on the field, he is the next closest thing to a lock for 1,500 REC YDs as any WR, including a career high in yards last season with 1,598. He may never produce double digit TDs in a season (career high was 9 in 2009), but his overall production is very useful. The addition of DeAndre Hopkins should help take double teams away from him in the passing game, which could lead to more scores. Assuming he stays healthy, Johnson will produce another 105 RCP, 1,550 REC YD, 8 TD season, on around 150 Ts. Draft based upon his consistency in the late second to mid-third round.
7.) Randall Cobb – By far the shortest player on the list so far, but size doesn’t always matter. At 5’10”, Cobb is a shrub amongst trees, but he compares nicely to Percy Harvin. The Packers use him in a variety of ways and offensive packages, and while he’ll start in the slot, money says he breaks out this season. He looked like Aaron Rodgers’ favorite target at times last season, and as the most explosive pure playmaker on the Packers, Cobb should easily be Rodgers’ favorite target again this season. His other assets will be discussed in a later post, as calling him just a WR would be totally wrong and inaccurate, but for this season he’ll go 95/1,200/10 receiving wise. Book it. Easily one of the most intriguing WRs, and should be drafted earlier than you think he would, as no way he makes it past the middle of the 3rd round.
8. Percy Harvin – Had he not injured his ankle after week 9, Harvin would have easily been a top 10 WR. The top “hybrid” WR, Harvin is a nightmare to game plan for, with 4.38 speed. You never know where this guy is going to hit you from, and by the time you realize where he’s coming from, he’s already 20 yards downfield. Add him to a West Coast offense and a run-heavy offense (yes, he would be a nice short-term backer), and you don’t know what to do with yourself if you’re a defensive player trying to keep up with him. Gaining a better QB in Russell Wilson, Harvin should have no problems topping 1,000 yards on his way to a likely 1,150 REC YD, 90 RCEP, 8 TD season receiving-wise. Throw in another 250 running yards and 2 TDs on 35 or so designed run plays, and you see why he should be considered a top 10 WR.
9.) Roddy White – Apparently he never got the memo that he was supposed to slow down with Julio Jones in town. If anything, even playing through various ailments, Roddy White actually had a better statistical season in 2012 than 2011. He had a better yards/reception average (14.7 vs 13.0), and had more yards, receptions, and targets than Julio. There is a reason for that: Teams are more scared of Julio than White. Last season, teams were more willing to give up the big play of 20 or more yards to White than Julio, knowing once Julio slips past the main line of defense, he is likely gone. Should this trend of White out yard-gaining, out receiving, and out targeting Jones continue? No. If he stays fully healthy, it isn’t going to matter what teams throw at Jones, as he is too explosive to contain. At the same time, Atlanta has proven they can have two stud WRs and a stud TE in the same offense, so expect another Roddy White type season of 90 RCEPS, around 1,320 REC YDS, and 8 TDs. White is one of the best WR2s in the game, and a solid draft pick in the mid-late 3rd round, if he even lasts that long.
10. Demaryius Thomas – He’ll likely outplay this ranking, but until we get a sense of the game-by-game target breakdown in Denver this season, Thomas drops a few slots. If Denver had not signed Wes Welker, Thomas would be in the top 7, but Welker, plus the presence of Eric Decker (a younger Wes Welker), muddies the fantasy impact of all 3. That doesn’t mean Denver won’t churn out at least 1 or 2 fantasy studs, as Denver showed they can churn out 2 stud WRs (Thomas, Decker; 2012), but 3 is highly unlikely. As WR1 and best deep threat in Denver, Thomas will lead Denver in yards, receptions, and possibly touchdowns, but curb expectations on Thomas, at least for this season. 80 RCEP/1,200 REC YD/9 TDs is still likely his stat line unless he gets injured again, but I don’t see that happening.
11.) Larry Fitzgerald – His demeanor needs to be “give me the damn ball.” That is the only way Arizona will do anything for fantasy owners this season. There is no excuse for his paltry 798 receiving yard/71 reception/4 touchdown performance last season. Granted, Arizona’s QB play was no better than lame British porn, but the bottom line is elite players make plays, and Fitzgerald did not do that. Carson Palmer is a slight upgrade at QB, but is still a scatter-shot, aging QB, who is no better than a shell of his old self. With all that said, it’s hard to imagine any other receiver doing much more than Fitzgerald did with the QB situation last season, so fantasy owners will give him a break. Expect a rebound to 1,400 REC YDs/95 RCEP/9 TDs, as Palmer will be more efficient than Kolb/Skelton at getting Fitzgerald the ball, but then again, almost any fantasy owner could. See if he’s available in the 4th round, as he is likely to fall on draft day after last season, but is far from falling from the “elite” category for one bad season.
12.) Victor Cruz – An aggressive ranking here, but his upside is hard to ignore. He’ll never be a Julio Jones/A.J. Green type receiver, but should consistently be a top 15 WR who produces. With Mario Manningham gone to San Francisco and Hakeem Nicks coming off a knee injury from last season, Cruz should continue to see plenty of opportunities, despite Nicks still being WR1 in Gotham. If Nicks is truly healthy, then that opens up the potential for Cruz to get more big plays and not just get short to medium length passes. As fantasy owners, just hope that Eli Manning doesn’t hit another slump like he did last season, or Cruz’s numbers could really suffer, since his game is based upon the home run hitting plays, and not possession routes. Expect Cruz’s numbers to rebound from a down season last year where he only had 10 plays for 25 or more yards, compared to 2011, when he led the league with 17 such plays. He will be boom or bust most weeks, but still expect a 80 RCEP/1,400 REC YD/9 TD season from Cruz. Solid 3rd or 4th round selection.
Tier 3: Borderline elite, WR1 material
13.) Vincent Jackson – Looking at his stats, one could make the argument that he needs to be in the elite category, but closer inspection leads you to see that his entire game is based on the big play. If Josh Freeman continues his maturation process, then absolutely Jackson is a top 10 receiver, but if Freeman slumps again, Jackson’s numbers will fall drastically. The key words with Freeman are consistency and accuracy. For as strong as his arm is, you never know where the ball will go when it leaves his hand, thus the term scattershot to describe his arm. In the final season of his rookie contract, Freeman will make or break Jackson’s fantasy stock. If you believe Freeman continues the maturation process, draft him higher, if you think he regresses, drop Jackson a little more from this slot. Personally, I’m buying Jackson, but skeptical. It is safe to expect 66/1,150/6 from Jackson this season, but he could absolutely be better or worse. The smartest thing to do would be to sell high on him if you can get a Cruz, Fitzgerald, or other more steady, consistent receiver.
14.) Jordy Nelson – Same thing applies to him as with Demaryius Thomas, Randall Cobb, Roddy White, and Julio Jones. Teams with 2 or more elite WRs have the potential to produce two or more elite, or very close to elite receivers, but someone always has to get the short straw. Playing in Green Bay with Cobb and James Jones is great in real life, but frustrating fantasy wise, unless you have all 3 Packers receivers. Any of the three receivers could bring in receptions, yards, and scores any given week. The good news for Nelson is, that despite a hamstring injury and various other injuries that hobbled him from week 7 on last season (missing 4 games entirely), Nelson looks healthy now, and is still Aaron Rodgers’ burner in the offense. He won’t lead the Packers in receptions (Cobb likely will), but Nelson could very well lead the team in touchdowns. See 2011. 70/1,350/11 seems about right for Nelson.
15.) Mike Wallace – My sleeper to break into the elite category this season. Wallace might be the fastest receiver in the NFL, but how often will quarterback Ryan Tannehill get him the rock? If Tannehill, despite having a cannon for an arm, doesn’t improve upon his paltry 12 TD/13 INT season from last year, Wallace could be in for a long season, but any strides in maturity and reading the defense would equate to greater stats for Wallace. The other problem facing Wallace: The rest of Miami’s receiving core is suspect at best, with Brian Hartine the next best option. Wallace will truly be boom or bust every week, but could only take one reception to win you a matchup any given week. 75/1,350/7 is playing it safe with him. Would be ideal for any team that can cancel out his boom/bust play with a PPR monster like Roddy White, Andre Johnson, or even Wes Welker.
16.) Marques Colston – Yes, he is slowing down, but he still is as explosive as anything coming out of the slot in New Orleans. Undoubtedly the top receiver in N.O., Colston just has to make sure his legs are healthy and he’ll be good to go. He is über consistent, and a virtual lock for 83 RCEPs, 1,150 REC YDs, and 10 TDs with Brees as his quarterback. He may not have much upside left, but what fantasy owners look for in receivers in the middle rounds, more than anything, is consistency. Draft with confidence anywhere in the 4th round.
17.) Reggie Wayne – Long gone are his top 5 WR days, but this guy is still a solid option, and will be a top 20 WR again this season. He will be a points per reception monster once more, and could see an uptick in touchdowns, thanks to the continuing emergence of Andrew Luck into a future fantasy stud at QB. He has shown us he still has plenty left in the tank, and put him down for 105 RCEPS, 1,350 REC YDs, and 7 TDs. If I play in any of your leagues, I guarantee one thing, I’ll be the one reaping the rewards from drafting Reggie Wayne. Easily a 4th or very early 5th round pick, but could go in the 3rd round, as well.
18.) Wes Welker – The move from New England to Denver saps his fantasy appeal, but not entirely, as he should still be a serviceable WR2 in most leagues. His competition in Denver is very stiff: Thomas is unquestionably the deep man, and Decker seemed to develop fine chemistry with Peyton as the possession receiver. This leaves Welker as the slot receiver, but, oh wait, didn’t Stokley see 57 targets in the same capacity last season? Yep. If Stokley saw 57 targets, then Welker should be a lock to see at least 100 targets in a pass first offense. Temper expectations, but still expect Welker to be a good PPR option, while posting 85 receptions,1,050 receiving yards, and 7 touchdowns.
19.) Danny Amendola – Taking over Wes Welker’s old role is going to be a monumental task for Amendola, coming over from St. Louis and Sam Bradford as quarterback, but he could live up to the position, health permitting.The difference between Welker and Amendola is younger, bigger, and quicker. This bodes well for him, and Brady, but he needs to get on the same page with Brady before we put him solidly in the top 20. Add into the mix that Rob Gronkowski is likely starting the season on the shelf, and Amendola could be a steal for where you can get him. Assuming he stays healthy for an entire season (hasn’t lasted an entire season since 2010; had his clavicle pop in towards trachea and aorta last season), Amendola could easily post a 105 reception, 1,250 receiving yard, 9 TD season, on 160+ targets. Key word: Health. Draft in the early-mid 3rd round, but have a solid backup should he go down again.
20.) Steve Johnson – Coming off three straight seasons of 1,000+ yard receiving campaigns with Ryan Fitzpatrick as QB, Johnson has earned his spot in the top 20 receivers. Playing out of the slot with any combination of E.J. Manuel (my favorite to win starting gig)/Kevin Kolb at QB will still lead to consistent week to week yardage, but touchdowns will be hard to come by. His upside is higher with Manuel as QB, as he is by far more mobile and better at extending the play than Kolb, but has yet to throw an NFL pass. Both newly drafted Robert Woods (starting flanker) and fourth year running back C.J. Spiller should keep double teams away from Johnson, which may lead to slightly more yardage this season for him. Draft Johnson around round 4, and look for Johnson to post an 80 reception, 1,100 receiving yards, 5 touchdown campaign, with potential for more if Manuel starts early and proves he can be at least semi-consistent.
21.) Steve Smith – A bit like Steve Johnson stats wise, he will get a ton of yards and receptions, but find paydirt only a handful of times, partly due to Carolina being one of the most run heavy teams in the league. The difference between the 2 receivers is Steve Smith is shorter (5’9″), faster, and nastier. By nastier I mean he will punch you if you get up in his face, as he has been suspended twice for such actions. Suspensions aside, Smith has been generally healthy, but has also battled injuries, but missed very few games (he did miss 15 games in 2004 for a broken leg). Going into this season, Smith is healthy, but coming off a four touchdown season. The main reason for this is nobody has stepped up opposite Smith since 2008, and the Panthers can’t throw to Smith 50 times a game, then run the ball 60 times per game, as Smith already sees enough corner-safety doubles. This season, expect Smith to continue his aggressive playing style where he will demand the ball, but very seldom score. He will be a solid WR2 around the 5th or 6th rounds in almost all formats, and is good for 75 receptions, 1,200 receiving yards, and 5 touchdowns on 135 targets.
Tier 4: Huge upside, names that could be huge surprises
22.) Tavon Austin – This is an incredibly aggressive ranking, but he has the potential to be a top 25 WR in his first season, and is the best receiver coming out of the 2013 NFL draft, so I’ll place him here. Tavon’s skill set and usage will be very similar to Randall Cobb’s, but the difference is a world of a quarterback in Aaron Rodgers. Tavon’s success rests not in the hands of Sam Bradford, but the offensive line. If the line can hold up long enough for Sam Bradford to get Austin the ball, Austin could be rookie of the year, but if the offensive line continues to struggle and let Bradford get hit, Austin’s numbers will suffer. The Rams offense will play fast this season, which plays well into Austin’s skill set, so the threat for the home run ball to Austin will be present every game. I’ll put my money where my mouth is and project 70 receptions and 950 receiving yards for 7 touchdowns for Tavon, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he got closer to 1,000 receiving yards if the Rams offensive line is improved. Target him early, around the 5th or 6th round, and earlier in dynasty leagues, and see what he produces.
23.) James Jones – The third of the receiver trio in Green Bay, Jones is likely the least known. The concern with him heading into last season was drops, but he only dropped the ball 3 times on 64 receptions, while scoring 14 times. Questions answered. So where does he fit in Green Bay this season with a healthy Jordy Nelson? Slot receiver. Not a burner like Nelson, and not the explosive playmaker that Cobb is, Jones will fill the same role that Welker will in Denver. Add in that he may have solidified his stake to a healthy number of red zone targets, and he could be a nice value. Yielding 80/900/8, he will look nice on any fantasy team as a WR2 or high-end WR3.
24.) Dwayne Bowe – If the money to be the 4th highest paid WR wasn’t enough incentive to get this guy to play better, then the Chiefs just wasted a ton of cap. His athleticism is a huge plus, as is an upgrade at QB in Alex Smith, but unless he gets his head in the game, he’ll never again be anything more than a WR2 or high-end WR3 in most leagues. Personally, I’m not going to draft him, as I’m a little fed up with his mediocre play, but can’t blame others for drafting him. I see him producing a better line than last season’s 59/801/3 line, but 70/1,000/5 is his ceiling for this season with the Chiefs line still in disarray, and his questionable work ethic.
25.) Pierre Garçon – I keep flipping him and the name right after him, as they are very similar players, but the edge goes to Garçon for now, because his quarterback is more explosive and an up and coming stud in the NFL. If Garçon is at least at 90-95 percent, he could form one of the best deep threat tandems with Robert Griffin III, but Garçon must stay healthy (has only 1 full season of play in 5 full seasons). Assuming he stays healthy, his upside is 75/1,000/8. Draft him when you already have 2 reliable receivers, or you have one of Megatron, Julio, A.J., or another bona fide stud status, and wanna gamble here. Huge upside.
26.) Antonio Brown – He steps into the departed Mike Wallace’s role as WR1 in Pittsburgh, and is a very similar player. Sleeper alert! Despite failing to live up to expectations last season (due to high ankle sprain), he is completely healthy this season, and once he catches the ball, he is a nightmare to catch. Expect an 80/1,000/7 season from him, with upside for over 1,100 yards.
27.) Cecil Shorts – I pegged him as a sleeper last season, what now ESPN? Shorts (55/979/7), who compares to Steve Smith of the Panthers, was one of the very few bright spots on a disastrous 2012 season on the whole for the Jaguars, with Blaine Gabbert/Chad Henne at QB. If Jacksonville fixes the mess under center, Shorts could easily be a top 15 WR, the key word there being IF. Shorts is a name to draft around the 6th/7th round, or later, and to expect a 60 reception, 1,100 receiving yard, 8 TD season from as a baseline.
28.) Danario Alexander – Five knee surgeries and three fantasy season’s worth of teases later, Alexander finally lived up to his billing as a WR1, posting 658 receiving yards and 7 touchdowns in 10 games with San Diego. Now the trick: keep the knees healthy. He does that, his value skyrockets and he threatens top 15, if not top 12 territory. Should he play a full season, 16 games, as San Diego’s WR1, book him for 70 RCEPs/1,000 REC YDs/9 TDs, with a ton more upside if Rivers can at least have a small resurgence from the falling cliff he’s on.
29.) Torrey Smith – Smith is the type of receiver who you boast about when he shows up, but then shut up when he disappears. He needs to find a level of consistency as Baltimore’s now WR1 and Flacco’s favorite target. Chances are he shows up more than he doesn’t this season, but still has a couple of games where he lays an absolute goose egg. Nab him in the 8-10 round range, and don’t be surprised if he posts a 66 reception, 950 receiving yard, 8 TD season. The explosiveness and ability are there, just a matter of putting his game together.
30.) Hakeem Nicks – By far the riskiest name to draft on the list, due to left knee issues that squashed a good chunk of his 2012 campaign. Let’s not forget that he is still WR1 in Gotham, and if healthy, his size/open field toughness combo is potential top 10 material. There will be no in between season for Nicks, he will either be the monster he was in 2010, when he posted 10 touchdowns, or he will continue to succumb to injuries, and post another meager 700 receiving yard/4 touchdown season, reminiscent of 2012. Draft, but approach cautiously, and make sure he is healthy every week. If so, huge dividends could be in order. Cruz may well get more touchdowns due to the big play, but Nicks will post better reception numbers, and approach 10 TDs if truly healthy. 90/1,250/11 if he stays healthy.