Fantasy Football 2012: Top 25 Wide Receivers
It's hard to recall an NFL offseason when the landscape of wide receivers changed so much.
Vincent Jackson went to Tampa Bay. Mario Manningham (and some guy named Randy Moss) migrated to San Francisco. Brandon Marshall was handed a one-way ticket to Chicago. And in three surprising twists, DeSean Jackson, Reggie Wayne and Mike Wallace still call Philadelphia, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh home, respectively.
Now that the game of musical chairs has ended, here is my post-free agency, pre-draft look at the Top 25 wide receivers right now (standard-scoring leagues).
If you're looking for points-per-reception validation, check back here in July.
No. 25: Malcom Floyd, Chargers
This leap-of-faith pick is also a necessity choice, as in Chargers QB Philip Rivers needs Floyd, Vincent Brown or Robert Meachem to fill the production void of Vincent Jackson.
From a size, speed, talent and hands standpoint, Floyd (four games of 100 yards last year) has the makeup of a No. 1 wide receiver—but that entails staying healthy and being relevant every Sunday.
No. 24: Nate Washington, Titans
There's a lot of competition for this spot in the countdown, but Washington gets the springtime nod, thanks to nine games of eight or more targets last year—and bold finishing kick in the final seven games (35 catches, 522 yards, six TDs).
And with Kenny Britt back in the fold, Washington won't attract double-coverage on 3rd-and-long.
No. 23: Dez Bryant, Cowboys
The fantasy optimist in me has chosen to ignore that Bryant has only one 100-yard receiving game in his career, or that he posted six games of three catches or less in 2011.
Instead, I'll focus on his good hands, short-field dominance (eight TDs from within 34 yards last year) and prominent place in one of the NFL's most progressive offenses.
Targets: 70 catches, 1,074 yards, eight TDs.
No. 22: Reggie Wayne, Colts
Wayne (75 catches, four TDs) struggled last year with backups Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky, but talented wideouts with excellent route-running capabilities don't just vanish off the fantasy radar.
At age 33, Wayne has the goods for at least two more highly productive seasons with Andrew Luck, a potential top-25 quarterback, depending on how the Colts fare in the draft.
Targets: 89 catches, 1,177 yards, seven TDs.
No. 21: DeSean Jackson, Eagles
Jackson may have a new contract, but can he recapture the old production of 2008-09 (125 catches, 2,079 yards, 11 TDs)?
After all, QB Michael Vick averaged 34.8 passes last year and should have no trouble finding 8.5 targets in the weekly budget for D-Jax, right?
As a healthy and happy contributor with Philly, Jackson needs to have a bounce-back season—in the vicinity of 66 catches, 1,179 yards and nine touchdowns.
No. 20: Percy Harvin, Vikings
Harvin had a superb finishing kick last season (50 catches, 481 yards, six TDs in seven games), the same stretch when the Vikings were platooning QBs Christian Ponder and Joe Webb.
With a season free of migraines, quarterback headaches and questions as to why Minnesota passed on a big receiving talent in the draft, Harvin could flirt with 90 catches and six TDs again in 2012.
No. 19: Jeremy Maclin, Eagles
Maclin is not a classic No. 1 receiver in today's fantasy-driven world.
He rarely collects nine targets or seven catches per game, and yet there are enough tangibles to believe a Year 4 breakout will occur.
Here's a big caveat, though—this pre-draft ranking will have little significance if Maclin doesn't tally at least seven touchdowns.
Targets: 66 catches, 1,018 yards, eight TDs.
No. 18: Steve Johnson, Bills
Johnson had an across-the-board dip in production last season, compared to his breakout 2010 campaign.
Still, there's plenty to like about his 2012 outlook.
The 25-year-old Kentucky product is a virtual lock for 80 catches, 135 targets, 1,090 yards and eight TDs in his prime—with the tacit understanding that he's a WR2 in fantasy circles.
No. 17: Marques Colston, Saints
From the Bountygate scandal fallout to Drew Brees' future plans amidst a contentious franchise-tag scrum, it's hard to project Colston's numbers for the season ahead.
Just three weeks ago, Colston looked like a top-12 receiver and a safe bet for 86 catches, 1,200 yards and seven TDs.
But those expectations have been temporarily flagged, kind of like everything else the Saints have done in the last three months.
No. 16: Julio Jones, Falcons
A closer look at Jones's rookie numbers (54 catches, 959 yards) lend credence to a Year 2 breakout—three games of 10 or more targets, five 100-yard efforts, all nine touchdowns coming in the season's second half.
It also helps that Jones has off-the-charts athleticism but won't see many double-teams with Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez on the field.
The only wild card: How will Atlanta's passing offense respond to a change in coordinators?
Mike Mularkey for Dirk Koetter is an interesting swap.
No. 15: Brandon Marshall, Bears
The days of Marshall being a certifiable lock for 100 catches might be over, but his numbers with targets, yardage and touchdowns remain strong—just in time for Marshall to reunite with QB Jay Cutler and passing-game guru Jeremy Bates in Chicago, after getting traded to the Bears.
In 2008, the last time Marshall, Cutler and Bates worked together in Denver, Marshall rolled for 104 receptions, 1,265 yards, six TDs and 182 targets.
Four years later, I expect Marshall to eclipse those numbers on two fronts.
No. 14: Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs
Aside from the predictable plunge in touchdowns (15 to 5), Bowe actually had better numbers last year than his All-Pro campaign of 2010.
This bodes well for the upcoming season, assuming Matt Cassel and Jamaal Charles can stay on the field—and Brady Quinn, Ricky Stanzi and the ghost of Tyler Palko stay off it.
Targets: 83 catches, 1,164 yards, nine TDs.
No. 13: Miles Austin, Cowboys
I have two vivid memories of Austin's touch-and-go campaign from last year—Tony Romo barely overthrowing him on a potential game-clinching, season-defining play against the Giants in Week 14, and Austin dismantling the 49ers' soon-to-be-vaunted defense with nine catches, 143 yards and three TDs in Week 2, before leaving with a hamstring injury.
Both plays tell me that Austin, healthy hammies and all, should recapture his Pro Bowl form in 2012.
No. 12: Vincent Jackson, Buccaneers
I'll wait until after the NFL draft to make a definitive judgment about Jackson's 2012 prospects with the Bucs, a club that spent big offseason money on V-Jax, cornerback Eric Wright and All-Pro guard Carl Nicks.
(As a possible coup de grace, Tampa Bay may land Alabama running back Trent Richardson in the draft with the No. 5 overall pick.)
Regarding the Buccaneers' talent upgrade, Jackson will play a major role in the team's potential rise back to the NFC playoffs.
Targets: 63 receptions, 1,179 yards and eight TDs.
No. 11: A.J. Green, Bengals
Here's why Green warrants a higher ranking than Vincent Jackson:
At this point, I have no idea which supporting talents will yield big contributions to the Bengals offense, whereas V-Jax will be part of a loaded group in Tampa Bay that hopefully includes Trent Richardson.
OK, so Cincinnati has BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Jermaine Gresham, Brandon Tate and Jordan Shipley in the fold, but the club will likely live and die on the success of QB Andy Dalton and Green (65 catches, 1,057 yards, seven TDs as a rookie).
Green will have to shoulder a heavy load in Year 2.
No. 10: Greg Jennings, Packers
This ranking seems a tad low, given that Jennings (67 catches, 949 yards, nine TDs) only had three irrelevant games last season, fantasy-wise, but such is life when you're trying to nitpick a listing of the top 10 receivers—or why Packers QB Aaron Rodgers probably won't throw 45 touchdowns in back-to-back seasons.
Targets: 74 catches, 1,178 yards, eight TDs.
No. 9: Victor Cruz, Giants
Without a doubt, Cruz had an amazing 2011 season (82 catches, 1,536 yards, nine TDs).
But he also has little chance of replicating two major stats—nine games of 98 or more receiving yards and five touchdowns of 68 or more yards.
This is the best rationalization one could give for assigning such a middling March ranking to someone of Cruz's caliber.
Targets: 84 catches, 1,274 yards, seven TDs.
No. 8: Steve Smith, Panthers
No fantasy expert saw Smith's 2011 resurgence (79 catches, 1,394 yards, seven TDs) coming last summer, just like no one should expect a drop-off in production this season, barring injury.
That's the confidence that comes with having Cam Newton at quarterback and Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert running the ball.
Simply put, the Panthers are stacked for 2012, but not loaded enough to where they won't rely on Smith for at least 75 catches, 1,200 yards and eight TDs.
No. 7: Jordy Nelson, Packers
Nelson's breakout campaign in 2011 (15 TDs) came out of nowhere.
Now, he must pay a Victor Cruz-like tax of mild disrespect heading into this season.
That's the prudent response for a player who posted five touchdowns of 50-plus yards last year—and yet, he had only one 10-target game and zero days of 10 or more receptions.
Odd numbers that will likely balance out in 2012.
Targets: 66 catches, 1,205 yards, nine TDs.
No. 6: Mike Wallace, Steelers
If Wallace is truly serious about wanting/getting Larry Fitzgerald-type money as an unrestricted free agent in 2013, he'll have to do better than last year's respectable but hardly all-world numbers (72 catches, 1,193 yards, eight TDs).
He also needs to reverse a deflating trend of catching less than 50 percent of his targets once every three Sundays.
Targets: 76 catches, 1,238 yards, 10 TDs.
No. 5a: Roddy White, Falcons
Yes, White finished with 100 catches, 1,296 yards and eight touchdowns last year—arguably the second-greatest fantasy season of his career.
But he also had a 17-game streak of nine or less catches from 2010-11, the type of quirky, face-cringing run that gives one pause when conceiving top-five rankings.
How's this for a compromise? Roddy will share the No. 5 spotlight with another 30-something, 100-catch wunderkind, Wes Welker.
No. 5: Wes Welker, Patriots
In PPR leagues, Welker would give Calvin Johnson a run for the No. 1 wide receiver slot.
But in standard-scoring countdowns, like this one, we must assume that Welker will fall short of duplicating last year's 122 catches, 1,573 yards and nine touchdowns.
These regressions are typical for players in their 30s.
That said, Welker is still a WR1 and solid Round 4 pick in any scoring league.
No. 4: Hakeem Nicks, Giants
My "targets" bias come shining through with the No. 4 pick.
In four playoff games last year, Nicks tallied 28 catches, 43 targets, 444 yards and four TDs—numbers befitting of a Round 3 selection and fantasy anchor in standard-scoring and PPR leagues.
Targets: 85 catches, 1,241 yards and 10 TDs.
No. 3: Andre Johnson, Texans
Johnson has accrued enough fantasy currency through the years to have his mediocre 2011 removed from our memory banks.
Of course, we shouldn't forget about his inability to play 16 games in three of the last five seasons.
Heading into his age-31 season, that's a big factor in determining whether AJ can recapture his pre-Arian Foster-breakout form of 100-plus catches, 1,400 yards and nine touchdowns.
No. 2: Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals
If the Cardinals had signed Peyton Manning two weeks ago, Fitzgerald's ranking would not have changed.
Sure, he'd be a bigger lock for 90 catches or 11 touchdowns, but whether it's Manning, Kevin Kolb or John Skelton as Arizona's quarterback, Fitzgerald will always be the most bankable receiver in fantasy.
Targets: 92 catches, 1,338 yards and 11 TDs.
No. 1: Calvin Johnson, Lions
Johnson pulled down 96 catches for 1,681 yards and 16 touchdowns last season, the type of Jerry Rice-esque numbers that suggest Calvin's era of reckoning is just beginning.
After all, neither he nor QB Matthew Stafford (5,038 yards, 41 TDs in 2011) will receive a Happy 30th Birthday cake for another three years, and defensive coordinators have yet to find solutions to the Stafford-to-Johnson alley-oop passes in the end zone.
Targets: 88 catches, 1,438 yards, 15 TDs.