This isn't your older sibling’s game where running backs reigned supreme as the dominant position. As the NFL continues to evolve into a league driven by passing, wide receivers play just as big of a role as running backs in determining your fantasy football team’s success.
Although top receivers can now tally as many points as halfbacks, especially in point-per-reception leagues, they often don’t receive the advantage of guaranteed touches every week. A high-upside player like Percy Harvin or Kenny Britt may win you one or two matchups with a groundbreaking performance, but a successful fantasy team should also feature some dependable options that are safer bets for weekly production.
These guys may not break open the contest, but they should contribute to your hunt for a victory on a weekly basis.
Brandon Marshall can hardly be described as reliable off the field, but he continues to produce as one of the most consistent wide receivers in the NFL. Nobody will blame you for disliking Marshall, who was accused of striking a woman outside a nightclub, but unless he is proven guilty, this should not affect his fantasy ranking considering he is unlikely to face any charges.
Fantasy participants who owned Marshall last year can appreciate that he always provided them with at least some production. Besides a five-yard stinker against the Bills in Week 11, Marshall’s worst statistical outing was a four-catch, 43-yard performance that netted most managers at least a few points.
Most receivers aspire to catch 81 passes, but those receptions stand as his lowest total since his rookie season in 2006. Now reunited with former teammate Jay Cutler in Chicago, Marshall finds himself in a better position than his former situation in Miami that should enable him to re-emerge as a top 10 wide receiver.
DeSean Jackson often steals the spotlight with his blazing speed and big-play ability, but don’t be surprised if Jeremy Maclin usurps his teammate as Philadelphia’s top wide receiver.
On the surface, Maclin’s season of 63 catches, 859 yards and five touchdowns may not give anyone reason to jump to draft him as one of their starting wideouts, but he achieved those numbers in 13 games. Early in the season, Maclin dealt with an illness that doctors thought could have been lymphoma, limiting the young receiver in the preseason. Now that Maclin has a clean bill of health and a full training camp to prepare for the upcoming season, he looks stronger than ever.
If Maclin can maintain his 66.1 yards per game average from last year, he will eclipse the 1,000-yard plateau and likely score closer to his 10-touchdown total from 2010.
Fresh off a 204-yard performance capped off by an 80-yard touchdown catch to upset the Steelers in an overtime playoff win, Demaryius Thomas will get all the attention heading into the 2012 season.
While Thomas will thrive in Denver after the Broncos acquired Peyton Manning, Eric Decker could emerge as the prime benefactor. In the first four games last season, Decker caught 20 passes for 270 yards and four touchdowns with Kyle Orton under center. He spent the rest of the season struggling to form any rapport with Tim Tebow, whose inaccuracy diminished Decker’s fantasy value.
With Manning operating Denver’s offense, they will drop the run-heavy offense implemented last year to protect Tebow and open up their passing attack. This puts Decker in excellent position to see a dramatic increase in targets and become a steady weekly option in fantasy leagues.
Drafters commonly get burned when they put too much stock into touchdowns. Players’ trips to the end zone often fluctuate yearly, as witnessed last year by Tampa Bay’s Mike Williams sinking from 11 scores in 2010 to three last year.
One guy who will get overlooked due to his lack of appearances inside the pylons is Antonio Brown, who quietly broke out alongside Mike Wallace last year. Brown caught 69 balls for 1108 yards, but he didn't aid fantasy players as much with only two touchdowns. Don’t count on that total to stay that low this year.
Ben Roethlisberger targeted Brown 123 times last year, 10 more passes than Wallace saw. While Brown is small, the Steelers don’t have a large receiver to target in the red zone, so chances are Brown will happen to see a few more footballs thrown his way near the end zone.
If he can just score five or six times, he’ll serve as a viable fantasy option. While other streakier receivers drafted in the later rounds will give you the occasional goose-egg, Brown can pile up yards every week.
In his four-year tenure with the Saints, Robert Meachem was the type of receiver to avoid. He occasionally supplied his owners with a big week, but his inconsistency made him undependable.
Basically, all of Meachem’s value rode on whether he would score since he never caught more than five passes in a game last year. Now that he signed with the Chargers in the offseason, it’s time to give him a closer look.
In a crowded New Orleans offense that succeeded by spreading the wealth, all of their receivers after Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham struggled to earn consistent touches. Meachem, who played every game last season as he has for the past three years, received 61 targets, tied for 52nd in the NFC with Ben Obomanu and running back Jonathan Stewart. Now he will suit up for the Chargers, who pass just as much as the Saints but feature significantly less options.
With Vincent Jackson in Tampa Bay, Meachem could debut as Phillip Rivers’ No. 1 wide receiver.
The Giants hope to have Nicks back by the start of the season, but we can never be sure about Nicks, who seems to be a game-time decision every week anyway. New York drafted Rueben Randle to replace Mario Manningham, but the rookie could be forced to fill bigger shoes (and much bigger hands) if Nicks misses any time. Like Nicks, Randle is a big target and a solid route-runner who should play a big role in Big Blue's offense, with or without Nicks.
Even if Nicks is ready for opening night against the Cowboys, Eli Manning might go to the young receiver, like he did with Manningham during the game-winning drive in Super Bowl XLVI, often with defenders devoting all their attention to Nicks and Victor Cruz. Randle could receive plenty of looks in a potent Giants offense that finally seemed to accept their new identity as a pass-first team last season.