This was, without question, the most difficult position to sort through. Perennial superstars are at risk of being overtaken by an impressive group of up-and-comers, and big-time personnel shuffling has caused certain stocks to skyrocket or plummet. For these reasons, expect broad discrepancies as you compare different wide receiver rankings—starting here, of course.
At least there's one guy we can all agree on...
1. Calvin Johnson (DET) — Calvin Johnson regularly beat double- and triple-teams last season, averaging over 100 yards and a touchdown per game. In his final four contests he compiled a staggering stat line: 52 targets, 36 catches, 771 yards and six touchdowns. To put that in perspective, Johnson's final four games would have ranked No. 32 overall for the entire season. The most un-coverable receiver in the history of the league, Johnson is a surefire top-five pick in any format.
- TIER BREAK -
Megatron is on his own planet. The chaos begins immediately at No. 2. A case could be made for at least a dozen guys here, some of whom won't even make this top-10 list.
2. Larry Fitzgerald (ARI) — Due to wretched quarterbacking, Larry Fitzgerald may not finish this high, but he's simply the safest pick in this spot. Fitz hasn't missed a game in four years, he's been one of the most targeted (a loose term in Arizona) receivers in the league his entire career, and despite all the misfires he still managed to crack 1,400 yards and score eight times last season. Rookie Michael Floyd should allow John Skelton to find Fitz more easily, but if Kevin Kolb wins the job, go ahead and drop Larry right out of the top 10.
3. Brandon Marshall (CHI) — I thought I was really going out on a limb here, but current ADP data shows Brandon Marshall being drafted as the fifth receiver off the board. And for good reason. His reunion with Jay Cutler forces us to look back to his 2007/2008 averages of 103 catches,1295 yards and 6.5 touchdowns. Sure, the scoring was a bit light, but six games against the fantasy pass defenses of the NFC North (No. 31 Green Bay, No. 30 Minnesota and No. 27 Detroit) should take care of that. Marshall is a jackass, and drafting him as a WR1 is not for the faint of heart, but the reward could be huge.
4. Mike Wallace (PIT) — It was a tale of two halves for the league's premier deep threat in 2011. In his first nine games, Mike Wallace averaged 5.2 catches for 96.4 yards and .67 touchdowns. In his last eight games, Ben Roethlisberger got dinged up and defenses failed to adjust to the emergence of Antonio Brown, resulting in an average of 3.5 catches for 43.9 yards and .25 touchdowns. I expect more of the former than the latter in 2012. Big Ben is healthy, Rashard Mendenhall is not, the offensive line is improved, opposing defenses have tape of Antonio Brown and Todd Haley is expected to open things up. Currently being drafted as WR11, there's a lot of value to be had here.
5. Hakeem Nicks (NYG) — Although Victor Cruz stole his thunder in the regular season, the real Hakeem Nicks stood up in a four-game playoff binge that yielded an average of 7.0 catches for 111 yards and 1.0 touchdown. After finishing with a flourish in 2011, Nicks may start slow in 2012 as he recovers from a foot injury, but when healthy he has as much upside as anybody this side of Calvin Johnson.
6. Andre Johnson (HOU) — I like Andre Johnson as much as the next guy, and we all know that he has the ability to lead the league in catches and yards in any given year. My issue is that he'll turn 31 this summer, and has battled troubling injuries in each of the last two seasons. Is he breaking down? I don't know. What I do know is that he's still never recorded double-digit touchdowns and that there are much safer options out there.
7. Jordy Nelson (GB) — On the strength of 15 touchdowns, Jordy Nelson finished second to Calvin Johnson among wide receivers in standard scoring last season. Sure, his 22 percent touchdown rate was a bit flukey, but his career trajectory puts him on pace for another uptick in receptions (he had 68 in 2011). In a potent passing offense in which defenses will always focus on Greg Jennings and Jermichael Finley, I expect Aaron Rodgers to continue to exploit lesser defensive backs with Nelson's athleticism and catch radius.
8. Julio Jones (ATL) — The law of gravity (or something like that) says that things as big as Julio Jones aren't supposed to move that fast. The 6'3", 220-lb. sophomore has stupid potential, which he flashed by cracking the century mark five times and notching multiple touchdowns three times in his rookie season. After compiling 457 yards and six scores in his final five games, he's set to surpass counterpart Roddy White.
9. Greg Jennings (GB) — Atop the depth chart in an explosive offense, there's virtually no chance of Greg Jennings busting. However, we know what we're getting, and he's not someone with the unlimited upside of some of the other guys on this list (he's never topped 80 catches, 1,300 yards or 12 touchdowns). As Jordy Nelson emerged, Jennings was merely a decoy down the stretch, averaging 44.6 yards and .6 touchdowns per contest over his final seven games.
10. A.J. Green (CIN) — There's no denying A.J. Green's freakish talent, but a few situational factors cap his ceiling in my eyes. Unlike other guys on this list, Green won't be playing in a high-flying aerial attack. That depressed weekly upside is evidenced by the fact that, despite an impressive 65/1,057/7 rookie campaign, he only cracked 90 yards and scored in the same game once all season. Moreover, he never scored multiple touchdowns in a game. A twig-thin receiver in a black-and-blue division that boasted three of the top-five fantasy pass defenses in 2011, I just can't justify a higher ranking.
To further illustrate the ridiculous depth of this position, I'll touch on a handful of other guys with top-five potential.
While I expect Julio Jones to overtake Roddy White, the veteran has averaged 100/1,279/10 over the last three seasons.
As bullish as I was on Peyton Manning in these rankings, I'm even more excited about Demaryius Thomas. The third-year specimen closed out the final seven games of the season by scoring five times and averaging 106.4 yards per contest, despite fielding ducks from a left-handed running back.
The addition of Brandon Lloyd is one more mouth to feed in New England, and it's put a sizable dent in Wes Welker's stock, but the slot sensation is a Brady favorite who's reeled in a league-best 555 passes over the last five years.
Victor Cruz's improbable breakout season was no fluke, and dynamos Percy Harvin and Steve Smith certainly warrant mention here as well.
There's no clear break between Tier 2 and Tier 3, as guys like Jeremy Maclin, Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, Vincent Jackson, Dwayne Bowe, Marques Colston and Kenny Britt are all contenders for WR1 production.