2013 wide receivers fantasy preview

Updated: August 27, 2013, 1:48 PM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

Editor's note: This column has been edited to reflect Jeremy Maclin's season-ending injury on July 27.

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 receivers don't usually produce at quite the level of their running back counterparts (especially in terms of Value-Based Drafting), but they just feel so much safer, don't they?

Alas, that might only be a feeling.

Recent history shows that the highest-drafted receivers don't always (or even usually) wind up as the best-performing WRs. Those that would argue the wide receiver position isn't filled with as many minefields as running back need to look at these charts:

The most striking thing here is how amazingly safe the first two RBs off draft boards have been over the past five seasons. Compare that to the first two WRs! And on the whole, when you draft one of the consensus top 10 RBs, about 40 percent of the time you're going to at least get top-10 production. On average, that only happens 10 percent of the time when you select a consensus top-10 WR. (Yes, that math is slightly hinky, and if we look at median rather than average, the results get closer between RB and WR. But in that case, we're still not accounting for positional scarcity or the availability of replacement-level production.)

(By the way, how weirdly cursed is the No. 4 RB every year? Look out, Ray Rice owners.)

What does all of this imply when it comes to drafting WRs? Well, this year I'm hugely skeptical of them in the first round. Let's take a look at this year's WR candidates, and discuss more nuanced strategies thereafter.

The elite

Calvin Johnson is the only receiver I'd consider drafting in the first round, and he's the only WR I've got in the top 10 of my overall ranks. He proved the exception to the unreliability rule last year, parlaying a preseason No. 1 ranking to a single-season receiving yards record. I'd prefer to get a RB in the first round of my draft, but if I can't in a deeper league, Megatron is an acceptable consolation prize. … A.J. Green had 19 end-zone targets in 2012, and caught seven of those for scores. If he has a limitation, it's the guy throwing him the ball: Andy Dalton's arm strength is average, and that shows in his poor deep-completion rate. But that didn't stop Green from finishing in the top 10 in receiving yards last year. … In my personal WR ranks, I have Dez Bryant at No. 2, which I know galls some folks. Bryant spent his first two-plus years teasing fantasy owners with his potential, but ultimately wound up disappointing them. Obviously based on my rank, I think that's changed. I believe in his incredible seven-game stretch to end 2012. … Brandon Marshall's 188 targets were second-most in the NFL last year, and he survived Jay Cutler's erratic play and the Chicago Bears' woeful offensive line to finish as fantasy's No. 2 wideout. There's no reason to think he can't dominate in Marc Trestman's new offense. … Julio Jones played 16 games last year, and finished only 19th in WR targets. He's the league's premier deep threat and also is deadly in the screen game, and his only limitation is the weaponry around him with the Atlanta Falcons. Still, you watch tape of this guy and you see that he's the one defenses truly fear, and with good reason. … Demaryius Thomas could get ensnared in a targets crunch with the Denver Broncos this year, as Peyton Manning will have three accomplished WRs. However, if there's one guy in Denver who should be safest, it's Thomas. His size/speed combo is up there with any player in the NFL.

Not sexy, but they get the job done

[+] EnlargeAndre Johnson
Rick Osentoski/AP PhotoAndre Johnson had 112 catches for a career-best 1,598 yards last season, but scored just four touchdowns.

Roddy White had more targets, catches and receiving yards than Julio Jones last year, plus 19 targets that traveled more than 20 yards in the air, compared to 22 for Jones. So don't believe any noise about how Jones' usage has eclipsed White's. Still, if we're being honest, Jones does have more upside. White is a near-lock to give you a top 10 fantasy season, but he's probably not a real threat to be fantasy's No. 1 WR. Jones is. … Skills-wise, it's patently unfair to call Andre Johnson "unsexy." He's still a giant freight train of a player, and is still open even when he's double-covered. But the Houston Texans are run-oriented in the red zone, and Matt Schaub has looked mediocre at times over the past two seasons, and that's limited AJ's fantasy chops. He finished second in receiving yards and fourth in catches last year but still "only" tied for seventh in fantasy points. He belongs inside your WR top 10, but doesn't look like a threat for the top spot in this offense. … Every year I write this column, and every year Marques Colston and Steve Smith wind up on the "unsexy" list. And then they go out and produce highly fantasy-worthy seasons that make them solid draft-day values. Colston mostly runs out of the slot for the New Orleans Saints but just keeps on trucking, having finished between eighth and 18th in WR fantasy points every year he hasn't gotten injured. And Smith continues not to have viable weapons opposite him, yet just goes out and gets you 1,000 yards every year. Each of these guys is on the wrong side of 30, but that just means you won't have to overpay for them.

Falling down

Mike Wallace heads this list through no fault of his own: When your QB changes from Ben Roethlisberger to Ryan Tannehill, you're going to take a hit. Mr. 60 Minutes is one of the league's fastest players, and as a playcaller, Miami Dolphins coach Joe Philbin will take deep shots. But Wallace already had droughts playing in Pittsburgh. They're likely to be worse in South Beach. … Eric Decker will probably have a fine 2013 season. But history tells us he's not likely to repeat his 13 touchdowns from last year. And given the fact that Wes Welker now also toils for the Broncos, Decker is a candidate to see his weekly target total go down a bit. Again, this isn't a case of the player regressing. But his situation -- and general regression to the mean -- probably means he'll be overvalued on draft day. … James Jones led the NFL with 14 TD catches last year, and like Decker will probably see that total drop precipitously. It's just the way things happen historically. Ask Jordy Nelson, who scored 15 TDs in '11, and followed that up with seven last year. Again, this isn't to say Jones is a bad player or that he's not worth drafting. But beware your league mate who wants to treat him as the No. 15 WR in fantasy, which is where he finished last year. After all, he finished 37th in receiving yards among wideouts. … Greg Jennings moves from Aaron Rodgers to Christian Ponder, which (as is the case with Wallace) means an instant downgrade. I have every expectation that Jennings will dominate the Minnesota Vikings in targets, and could actually produce a very solid PPR season. But I don't expect many explosive plays from Ponder. … The Philadelphia Eagles have ushered in an up-tempo, spread attack under Chip Kelly, but I still can't get too excited about DeSean Jackson. His name is worth more than his game. Jackson bounced back a bit in 2012 and was on pace for a top-25 season before he fractured ribs. But that's faint praise for a guy who once supposedly merited top-10 consideration. He's fast, but he won't go over the middle and averages fewer than four catches per game in his pro career. Jeremy Maclin's ACL injury could mean the Eagles lean on Jackson more, but there's too much uncertainty at quarterback in Philly, and too much of a question whether Kelly's offense will translate to the NFL. I wouldn't rely on Jackson as a regular fantasy starter.

Opportunity Knocks

[+] EnlargeLarry Fitzgerald
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesLarry Fitzgerald has had fewer than 15 yards receiving in a game just seven times in his career; four came last season and three as a rookie in 2004.

Percy Harvin goes from Christian Ponder to Russell Wilson, which should be a major upgrade at QB. Of course, he also goes to a conservative Seattle Seahawks game plan with more talent at WR than the team he left behind, so I understand if you're worried about Harvin's workload. But I'm not. Seattle paid Harvin like a centerpiece, and that's how they'll treat him. He'll run out of the slot, get carries out of the backfield and generally produce even better numbers than he did with the Minnesota Vikings. … Larry Fitzgerald gets zero blame for his disastrous 2012 campaign, because the Arizona Cardinals couldn't find even a league-average QB to throw Fitz the ball. Now Bruce Arians and his aggressive downfield playcalling come to the desert, along with veteran retread Carson Palmer. Do I love Palmer? Hardly. But do I think he's a sizable upgrade from Kevin Kolb, John Skelton and Brian Hoyer? I admit that I do. … I've already mentioned that Welker's presence with the Broncos shakes up the apple cart, creating questions with Thomas and Decker where there probably shouldn't be any, considering each of those guys produced top-10 fantasy seasons in '12. But Welker was simply too tasty for Denver to pass up. It's unlikely that Welker approaches the 174 targets he saw in his final season with the New England Patriots, but I remember Peyton Manning falling in love with slot weapons like Brandon Stokley, Anthony Gonzalez, Dallas Clark and Austin Collie in the past, and none of those guys compares to Welker. … Speaking of Welker's old digs, Danny Amendola's address change instantly boosts his fantasy stock more than any other NFL free agent this winter. Amendola is a bit bigger and has better speed than Welker, so he won't necessarily be entirely limited to slot duty, and that's exciting. But Amendola also has nothing approaching Welker's legendary toughness, as he's missed 21 of his past 32 games. If he stays healthy, though, watch out. … When Michael Crabtree snapped his Achilles in workouts this spring, Anquan Boldin's fantasy stock got a healthy jolt. I'm not convinced that the Super Bowl-contending San Francisco 49ers won't go out and sign another veteran WR (Brandon Lloyd comes to mind), but until they do, Boldin is the clear No. 1 outside weapon by the bay.

Rookie crop

The St. Louis Rams traded up to get Tavon Austin eighth overall in April's draft and will immediately install him as a featured player in their offense. You probably won't see Austin lined up out wide very much in his rookie year, but he'll be everywhere else, much like Randall Cobb in Green Bay. At 5-foot-9 and 174 pounds, featuring 4.34 speed and unbelievable quicks, Austin is a matchup nightmare. He has top 20 potential even as a rookie. … DeAndre Hopkins is a first-round pick with terrific hands and the toughness to run any route, anywhere. Draftniks compare this kid to Roddy White, which is high praise. Andre Johnson obviously gets fed first in the Texans offense, but if Hopkins really is the long-awaited No. 2 WR solution, AJ's life could actually get a little easier. … Robert Woods is a polished player with good hands and great quickness, and already runs pro-level pass routes. He figures to be part of a quick triumvirate in the Buffalo Bills offense (C.J. Spiller and Steve Johnson are the other members), and should make a few highlight reels. But the Bills' QB situation looks shaky, with either Kevin Kolb or rookie E.J. Manuel starting Week 1. … The Patriots drafted Aaron Dobson in the second round of April's draft, and will give him a chance to win a starting job in training camp. Theoretically, that could be a valuable role. But we've seen rookies struggle to get onto the same page with Tom Brady year after year, so we're containing our excitement. He's a big, fast kid, though. … Cordarrelle Patterson was the third WR drafted in April, a first-round pick who figures to be a big part of the Vikings' future. But he played only a single year of major college football, and is extremely raw as a route runner. It's likely Patterson begins the season behind Jennings and Jerome Simpson, while contributing on special teams. … Justin Hunter was Patterson's teammate at Tennessee, and is every bit the same level of physical freak. But his hands are inconsistent and he's not strong enough to get off the line of scrimmage yet. Long term, Hunter has No. 1 WR upside, but I'd be surprised if he starts in 2013. … Keenan Allen dropped in April's draft over concern about a knee injury, and he landed on a cluttered San Diego Chargers depth chart. But I think long term the Chargers might have gotten a steal, because Allen has great hands, runs perfect routes and is tough to tackle. Odds are his rookie contributions will be minimal, but remember the name.

Injury concerns

Hakeem Nicks made the same portion of this column last year, and proceeded to illustrate why: He might have missed only three games, but he was always banged-up. His left knee required a scope this winter, and Nicks has also battled hamstring and foot problems in his NFL career. Healthy, he's a potential top-10 fantasy wideout. But you can't draft him nearly that high, because we've yet to see him truly healthy for an extended period. … Pierre Garcon showed good chemistry with Robert Griffin III in 2012, but a foot injury hobbled him, robbing the Washington Redskins of their deep threat. He's got the kind of elite upside over which fantasy owners drool, but Garcon didn't have surgery this winter and has already said he's not sure whether the troublesome foot will limit him throughout 2013. There's sleeper potential in Garcon, but mind the risk. … Cecil Shorts was a breakout star for the woeful Jacksonville Jaguars in '12, nearly racking up a 1,000-yard season despite the messy combo of Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne under center. A little guy who somehow gets off the line when he's lined up outside, Shorts dealt with concussion problems late last year, which is the kind of thing savvy fantasy owners must keep in mind. With Justin Blackmon suspended for the season's first month, Shorts may shoulder a huge WR load. But just beware the player with multiple recent concussions before you write his name into your lineup in pen. … On pure size, athleticism and talent, Danario Alexander should rank significantly higher than our No. 35 wideout. After all, in 2012 he walked in off the street for the Chargers and scored seven TDs in the season's final 10 games, easily snatching away the team's No. 1 WR job. But DX has had five knee surgeries, and that makes him another dangerous player to count on as a starter. You could hit a home run if Alexander stays healthy again, but don't draft him where last year's numbers say he should go.

PPR monsters

[+] EnlargeRandall Cobb
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesRandall Cobb made a big leap in 2012, and could make another this season with Greg Jennings gone.

Randall Cobb played 84.4 percent of his snaps out of the slot last year and will start there this season, but he'll also run quite a bit out of the Green Bay Packers backfield. Aaron Rodgers considers Cobb an elite skill player who needs the ball in his hands, and I can see that adding up to a 100-reception season, especially with Jennings plying his trade elsewhere. Cobb is useful in any fantasy league under the sun, but in a PPR league you can make an argument he belongs in the WR top five. … Victor Cruz was on pace for a phenomenal campaign through seven weeks last year, but ran out of gas as Eli Manning slumped. As expected, Cruz did play out wide more in 2012 than in 2011, but he also finished second among all NFL WRs in targets out of the slot and third in receptions from the slot, and continued to prove he's a dangerous man after a short pass. A return to health for Nicks might actually benefit Cruz, as it could allow him to see more singled-up looks over the middle. In such a case, I could absolutely see him improving on his 86 grabs from last year. … Reggie Wayne finished third in the NFL in targets, fifth in catches and seventh in receiving yards last year. He did slow down in December (he tied for 23rd among WRs in receptions during that month), and his days as an explosive post-catch playmaker are over. But Wayne is a legit candidate for triple-digit grabs at age 34, especially in the Indianapolis Colts' more West Coast-oriented attack. … Steve Johnson has been remarkably consistent over the past three years, finishing between 76 and 82 catches and 1,004 and 1,073 receiving yards. Under Doug Marrone's new attack, Stevie will see more time than ever out of the slot, which suits his quickness and precise route-running. You're probably not getting more than six or seven TDs out of Johnson this season, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see his short-passing work pick up.

Sleepers

Antonio Brown's 2012 campaign was disappointing, but remember he was dealing with a high-ankle sprain for much of the year. With Mike Wallace in Miami, the Pittsburgh Steelers will look at Brown as a non-traditional No. 1 WR: He's 5-foot-10 and 186 pounds, but he's quick and can get open outside. He's also a great fit for Todd Haley's quick/short passing offense. … The Cleveland Browns have promised to become more aggressive with Rob Chudzinkski and Norv Turner at the offense's helm, and the primary beneficiary may be Josh Gordon. Despite testing positive for marijuana three times in college, Gordon was drama-free in 2012 and led the Browns in receiving yards. Certainly, it's difficult to trust any receiver whose QB is Brandon Weeden, but Gordon has a chance to make a bunch of big plays in 2013. … The Rams will probably give rookie Tavon Austin their most WR touches, but Chris Givens will remain a dangerous target as part of an offense developing an impressive amount of speed. Givens himself is a 4.41 burner who had a five-game stretch in 2012 where he made at least one gain of 50-plus yards. Sam Bradford is another QB with a lot to prove, but Givens could develop into an important cog in St. Louis. … Kendall Wright didn't get a chance to show his true colors in his rookie season. He finished 74th among all WRs in average yards at the catch, third-to-last among qualified receivers, but he's a player who racked up 1,663 yards his final season at Baylor, including eight games where he had a gain of at least 36 yards. Jake Locker must become more reliable (in terms of health and accuracy) for any Tennessee Titans WR to become a fantasy starter, but Wright could be a late-round gamble worth taking. … With both Nicks and Cruz unhappy about their contracts, Rueben Randle got to run as the New York Giants' No. 1 WR in OTAs this spring. He certainly won't occupy that spot once the games start counting, but the experience couldn't hurt. He's a big leaper who doesn't have great speed, but could develop into a red-zone weapon.

Draft strategy

Calvin Johnson parlayed his No. 1 ranking last year into a historic season, as he became the first WR in a decade to finish as his position's top fantasy point-gainer in back-to-back years. As such, he looks about as safe as they come, with the NFL's highest upside. This combo legitimizes him as a top 10 fantasy pick. But I have to be honest: I'm probably not drafting him this year. That's no knock on Megatron, but rather a commentary on the depth at WR.

Let's say I'm picking seventh in a 10-team draft. I can take Megatron in the first round, and then perhaps select a Stevan Ridley at No. 14 overall to be my No. 1 RB. Or I can take C.J. Spiller with my first pick, and wind up with, say, A.J. Green or Dez Bryant as my No. 1 WR. While there are no guarantees in football, the latter combo looks more attractive to me. Even better, I'll grab Spiller with my first pick, Frank Gore with my second, and then ease on by with Vincent Jackson as my No. 1 wideout. It sure seems a lot easier to construct a palatable team when you get those first two RBs out of the way early.

Now, I have a feeling that "draft RBs early and often" will be a theme you'll hear a lot heading into your 2013 draft. Is there a point where it no longer becomes worthwhile to keep drafting RBs, and go against the grain by loading up on elite WRs? Unequivocally: Yes. While I believe we see more variance in the performance of preseason top-10 WRs than we do preseason top-10 RBs, if I'm comparing the No. 7 WR with the No. 19 RB, I trust the WR more. Within reason, I like to zig while the rest of my league mates are zagging. So while I'll almost certainly have a bias away from QBs and WRs early in my drafts this year, I'm open to the possibility of constructing a team that has rock-solid pass throwers and catchers, and then take a whole bunch of lottery-ticket RBs later.

Auction strategy

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.