2014 wide receiver fantasy preview

Updated: July 16, 2014, 4:32 PM ET
By KC Joyner | ESPN.com

Over the past five seasons, it has become steadily easier to find a wide receiver who can average double-digit points per game over the course of an entire season.

Number of wide receivers scoring 160 or more fantasy points:

2009: 10
2010: 9
2011: 10
2012: 13
2013: 12

There are many elements that point toward this number potentially moving even higher this season, including the development of young stars and a strong rookie class, but don't let those trends lead to a thought that quality wide receivers are a dime a dozen. This is one position where even the best players have question marks, so it pays to stock up with quality depth. Keeping that in mind, let's take a look at multiple tiers of wideouts to get the lay of the land as to where they should be valued in most draft rooms.

Elite

Calvin Johnson notched 106 receiving yards per game and 12 touchdowns last season despite being slowed by knee and finger injuries that both required offseason surgery. A healthy Megatron is easily the top WR1 in fantasy football.

[+] EnlargeDemaryius Thomas
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesExpect another big campaign out of Demaryius Thomas.
Demaryius Thomas has top-flight long pass skills, but his 96 fantasy points on vertical targets (aerials thrown 11 or more yards downfield) actually finished second on his team (Eric Decker had 114 vertical points). Thomas led the league in fantasy points on short passes (115 points on aerials thrown fewer than 10 yards), so he's apt to produce regardless of how the Denver Broncos' offense decides to utilize him. ... A.J. Green posted the most targets in the NFL last year (178) and ranked first in stretch vertical fantasy points (94 points on passes thrown 20 or more yards downfield). The concern here is former Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is now in Washington and his replacement, Hue Jackson, is more run-oriented. ... Julio Jones was on pace to notch a 208-point season before an injury ended his season after only five weeks. Missing 14 games in his three-year career does show he has some experience being bitten by the injury bug, so there is some risk in picking him as a WR1. ... Dez Bryant was hurt by the Dallas Cowboys scaling back their downfield passing attack, and it led to his ranking tied for 19th in fantasy points on vertical passes (74). Moving Scott Linehan into the playcalling role could lead to more long pass targets to Bryant and give him a shot at contending for top-three wide receiver status.

The Next Tier

Brandon Marshall is a rare bell-cow wide receiver. Over the past two seasons, he has tallied more targets (355) than any other wideout. He also ranked second in vertical targets (173) and third in fantasy points (408). For week-to-week consistency, it might be hard to beat Marshall. ... Jordy Nelson is something of a one-trick pony. He does great on vertical throws (118 points, ranked fourth among WRs) but stagnates on short passes (47 points, ranked tied for 31st). This is why he scored 123 points in nine games with Aaron Rodgers and only 49 points in games where Rodgers wasn't in the lineup. As long as A-Rod is under center, all should be well, but Nelson's drop-off will be steep if Rodgers misses time this year. ... The Houston Texans' quarterback carousel should have crushed Andre Johnson's chances at producing big numbers, but he bucked those odds by finishing 12th in fantasy points (161). He did this despite posting his lowest yards per reception total since 2006 (12.9). That number and his fantasy totals could both go up if the Texans' quarterback play improves. ... The Pittsburgh Steelers asked Antonio Brown to step up after the departure of downfield threat Mike Wallace and he did just that by ranking fourth in the league in vertical receptions by a wide receiver (37). He is an absolute master at running the route tree and can do whatever Pittsburgh's offensive game plan asks of him. ... DeSean Jackson racked up more vertical receiving yards last year (905) than both of Washington's top two receivers combined (Pierre Garcon and Aldrick Robinson, 813). He is a perfect fit for Jay Gruden's passing attack and could vie for top-five fantasy WR status if he stays healthy.

WR2 options with WR1 potential

Alshon Jeffery morphed into a dangerous counterpunch to Brandon Marshall, but most of that occurred when Josh McCown was under center. Jeffery tallied 12.3 fantasy points per game with McCown, numbers that were much higher than the 8.1 PPG he posted when Jay Cutler threw him the ball. It's possible Jeffery will reach the double-digit PPG total with Cutler but the fact that it didn't happen last year is a bit of a concern. ... The facts are speaking loud and clear that Larry Fitzgerald is no longer a WR1 in fantasy football. Last year, he ranked 16th in WR fantasy points (146) and over the past two years his 7.66 fantasy PPG ranks 36th among wideouts. There are too many other high-quality options out there to even consider valuing him as a WR1. ... From Weeks 2-17, Michael Floyd racked up nearly as many fantasy PPG as Fitzgerald (8.4 for Fitzgerald, 8.0 for Floyd). He may be on the verge of taking over as the top wide receiver in Arizona and therefore is likely to provide most his fantasy owners with a higher return on investment than Fitzgerald owners will receive.

[+] EnlargeVincent Jackson
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsSurrounded by new faces in the receiving corps, and at QB, Vincent Jackson continues to be valuable.
Vincent Jackson is part of what could turn into a dominant receiving trio in Tampa Bay, as Mike Evans had great metrics (see the rookie section for more details) and Austin Seferian-Jenkins looked at times during his college career like he was the next Tony Gonzalez. VJax also has Josh McCown under center, and McCown posted great numbers in Chicago. Trouble is Jackson has a history of moving from double-digit games to near goose eggs and the additional receiving talent could keep that trend going. ... Keenan Allen does next to nothing on stretch vertical passes (only 65 receiving yards at that depth level), but his 981 yards at the other depth levels ranked seventh among WRs last year. That makes him a great fit for Mike McCoy's offense and a superb WR2. ... Pierre Garcon will serve as a short-pass counterpunch to DeSean Jackson. This is a perfect role for Garcon's receiving skill set, as his 795 short-pass receiving yards last year was tops among WRs. ... Fantasy football's version of the best pound-for-pound fighter has to be Randall Cobb. He ranked ninth among WRs in points per start last season (11.8). The risk in drafting Cobb is that, according to ESPN Stats & Information, he has been on the field for only 37.7 percent of the Packers' offensive snaps during his three-year career. ... Super Bowl XLVIII offered a perfect illustration of the talents that Percy Harvin brings to the table. He returned a kickoff for a touchdown and was the leading rusher in that game. Fantasy owners looking for a full season worth of that caliber of performance should note he has never posted 1,000 receiving yards in a single campaign or been on the field for 600 snaps in a season. ... Last year could have been the fantasy point-scoring floor for Victor Cruz, yet consider the positives. He ended the season ranked among the top 25 WRs in yards (998), targets (121) and receptions (73). Cruz looks to be a good fit for the New York Giants' new west coast passing scheme and thus could move into top 20 or higher production levels. ... Michael Crabtree is the centerpiece of a vastly improved San Francisco 49ers receiving corps. His 11 receptions of 10 or more yards during the 2013 postseason illustrated just how impactful he can be (the last play against Richard Sherman notwithstanding).

WR3 options with strong starter potential

T.Y. Hilton may be the most hit-or-miss wideout in fantasy football. Last year, he scored 56 points in two games against Seattle and Houston and racked up 76 points in the other 14 games combined. This could get worse, as he now has added target competition in the form of Hakeem Nicks and Donte Moncrief. ... Torrey Smith had the third highest yards per reception among wideouts with 50 or more receptions (17.4). The only receivers in front of him on that list? Josh Gordon (18.9) and Calvin Johnson (17.8). All he needs is a higher target volume to move up to WR2 status. ... Let's not ask whose bright idea it was to get Cordarrelle Patterson a meager 1.53 vertical targets per game, a total that ranked 92nd among WRs. Instead, let's consider just how much higher that number could be with Norv Turner calling the Vikings plays. ... Wes Welker and Reggie Wayne both got out of the gates quickly in 2013. Welker started the year with 103 fantasy points in Weeks 1-8 (ranked fourth among WRs) and Wayne averaged 8.7 PPG through Week 7. An injury ended Wayne's season at that point, and physical ailments held Welker to a mere 27 points in Weeks 9-17. They both have difficult roads to return to their former production levels, as the Broncos offense could be better this year but has a very difficult schedule, and the Colts have added wideouts capable of taking some of Wayne's target volume. ... Eric Decker may be the most undervalued fantasy WR prospect. Last year he had more vertical yards than Demaryius Thomas (842 to 744) and more short pass yards than Wes Welker (446 to 431). The New York Jets' quarterback situation is unsettled, but the team doesn't lack QB talent and whichever passer is under center is going to lean on Decker. ... A sports hernia injury and bad quarterback play held Cecil Shorts back last season, but he still ended up ranked 23nd in WR vertical targets per game (3.54). A repeat of that downfield target volume with a healthy Shorts could equal WR2-caliber production. ... New Miami offensive coordinator Bill Lazor is going all out to find ways to get the ball to Mike Wallace. This probably won't vault Wallace to his halcyon days when he was posting Calvin Johnson-like numbers but the potential for WR1 totals is the ceiling if this experiment pans out.

Rookie crop

This could be the deepest fantasy football WR rookie crop ever.

[+] EnlargeSammy Watkins
AP Photo/Bill WippertSammy Watkins' numbers as a Clemson Tiger were simply dominant.
In 11 years of breaking down wide receiver metrics, I have never seen someone post numbers anywhere close to as dominant as the ones Sammy Watkins tallied last season. For those thinking his numbers were posted via run after catch on screen passes, think again. Watkins' vertical and stretch vertical yards per attempt (YPA) metrics were off the charts (28.3 vertical YPA, 36.1 stretch vertical YPA), as was his YPA when being covered by a cornerback or a safety (25.0). The Buffalo Bills offense could be a hindrance, but Watkins' skill set makes selecting him well worth the risk. ... Midway through last season, there was a case to be made that Mike Evans was a more valuable player to Texas A&M than Johnny Manziel. Landing with a Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense that has Vincent Jackson, Josh McCown and Austin Seferian-Jenkins won't hurt his chances of year-one success. ... Marqise Lee has worked in a pro-style offense and posted terrific college numbers despite sometimes being slowed by a playcalling style that leaned too heavily on dink and dunk throws. ... Jordan Matthews could be considered this year's rookie sleeper. The case could be made that he and Jordan Rodgers were the best WR/QB combination in the SEC following the 2011 season. Chip Kelly knows how to properly utilize his players' talents and will go all out to take full advantage of Matthews' size (6-foot-3, 212 pounds) and speed (4.46 second time in the 40-yard dash). ... Brandin Cooks is a speedster (4.33 seconds in the 40-yard dash) with rare workhorse durability (13.3 targets per game last year). The New Orleans Saints offense will find ways to highlight these skills. ... New York Giants general manager Jerry Reese said Odell Beckham was one of the few college players who could score in three different ways. This means Beckham likely won't lack for scoring opportunities.

PPR insurance policies

One of the advantages to building a team in a point-per-reception (PPR) league is that it is relatively easier to find insurance policy players.

Insurance policy players are those bench candidates whom a fantasy owner can feel comfortable about putting into the lineup when the situation calls more for avoiding a goose egg than getting a big fantasy day. This type of players can be especially difficult to find during bye weeks, so having insurance policy players to fill those starting roster gaps can help eliminate that potential headache.

Marques Colston is something of an odd fit here because, unlike most PPR insurance policies, he draws his value from vertical passes. His 104 PPR points on vertical throws last year ranked 16th in the league. ... Anquan Boldin ranked eighth in PPR fantasy points on short passes (143), which is why he posted double-digit PPR points in 10 games last year. ... Brian Hartline has posted consecutive seasons of 1,000 receiving yards and 70 or more catches. He also placed tied for 19th in targets last year (130). He doesn't score touchdowns (11 scores in 76 career games) but it's hard to pass up this type of overall consistency from a backup plan perspective. ... Julian Edelman had been considered the poor man's Wes Welker, but he looked like Welker 2.0 in the Patriots' offense last year. He finished third among WRs in short-pass fantasy points (95) and second in short-pass PPR fantasy points (181). ... Kendall Wright had more short-pass PPR fantasy points last year (155) than Antonio Brown, Wes Welker, Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson, Brandon Marshall, A.J. Green or Josh Gordon. The Tennessee Titans' offense isn't exactly reassuring, but that number is and it makes Wright worth the investment.

Sleepers

It's hard to figure where to put Josh Gordon on this list because it's possible he will be suspended for the entire 2014 season. That he scored the most fantasy wide receiver points despite missing two games last year says all one needs to know about his skill level and illustrates why he will be a possible draft-day risk some owner will take unless and until his suspension status is clarified. ... Golden Tate had the highest vertical air yards per target (26.2) last year and placed second in vertical yards per reception (31.0). Detroit's downfield passing game needed an upgrade (10.1 vertical YPA, ranked 19th), and Tate fits that bill quite well.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Maclin
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezIn 2012, Jeremy Maclin generated more yardage on vertical passes than DeSean Jackson.
One reason the Philadelphia Eagles might have been willing to part ways with DeSean Jackson is the return of Jeremy Maclin. In 2012, Maclin had more vertical receiving yards than Jackson (540 for Maclin, 449 for Jackson). The Eagles are sure to be very motivated to show that Jackson's departure won't hurt this offense, and Maclin will be at the forefront of those efforts. ... The league's leading receiver on a yards-per-reception basis last year was Kenny Stills (20.0). That number was posted on a mere 49 targets and 32 receptions, but if those two totals move up significantly, which is a good possibility in Stills' second year in the Saints offense, he could quickly move to starter-caliber status.

Draft/auction strategy

It isn't much of an overstatement to say that one cannot stockpile enough quality wide receivers in fantasy football. It might seem like a top-flight WR1/WR2 pairing would be enough to win with, but the combination of bye weeks for the top two starting wide receivers, flex starts and injuries mean that the WR3-WR6 positions can easily be expected to generate a full season's worth of starting roster opportunities over the course of a fantasy football campaign.

Having noted this, there really isn't a need to overpay for this depth. No wideout is worth first-round consideration (outside of PPR leagues) and most owners should be able to select two of the top 20 wide receivers in the first four rounds. Even in the case where an owner picks a quarterback or tight end plus two running backs in the first three rounds, getting a top-10 WR along with a top-25 WR to serve as the team's WR1 and WR2 is a viable goal.

In choosing players for the WR3-WR6 spots, the primary goal should be to pick wide receivers who will see a lot of targets. After that, vertical threats should win out over dink-and-dunk receivers, and durable players should rate higher than those with injury question marks.

For those aiming for upside, try to identify three or four wide receivers you would feel comfortable taking a risk on at the right price. Figure this price out before the draft and don't budge off that price point, no matter how tempting it might be. The best percentage play is to have only one of these players on the WR depth chart, but it is OK to pick two if the rest of the wideout roster consists of highly durable players.

For auction leagues, as a rule of thumb it is a good idea to keep the overall wide receiver cost to around $80. In most cases it will cost at least $50 to lock down the first two wideouts, but aim to not have that cost go any higher than $60. Again, depth is the key and too much money invested in the top two picks means not enough money will be left to fill the roster with an ample volume of quality backups.

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