When I look at the best NFL wide receivers from 2011, it is hard to dismiss them as flukes or see huge drop-offs in production. But if you look to the past, you know there will be both flukes and drop-offs.
It is inevitable that some of the top players will have poor fantasy years, either due to injury or just plain not-goodness (we see you Chris Johnson!!).
So, how do we figure out who those players will be? That is a good and almost impossible question to answer, but it's at least worth taking a closer look.
There are some factors that, in hindsight, most often mean a decrease in production. Some of those factors are injuries, teammate injuries, coaching changes, touchdown "luck," team personnel changes, fumble-itis, contract status, mysterious illnesses, migraines and a whole host of other factors that we probably can't even fathom.
And when you look at the numbers, the odds of a player repeating a great season are slim. I decided to take a look at players with high-touchdown seasons between 2000 and 2010 for wide receivers to see how those players fared the following season. Here's what I found.
Wide receivers with 10-plus total touchdowns: 81
Wide receivers with an increase in touchdowns the following season: 10 (12 percent)
Wide receivers with a decrease in touchdowns the following season: 70 (86 percent)
Wide receivers with the same number of touchdowns the following season: 1 (1 percent)
So, if the receiver you are choosing in this year's draft had 10 or more touchdowns, the odds of him having less touchdowns this season are 86 percent. Does that mean he has a poor season? Of course not. One less touchdown does not make for a bad year, but if you are banking on the same exact numbers, you will most likely be disappointed.
Last season was a poor one for 10-plus touchdown receptions from wide receivers, with only three hitting that number, while there were 10, six, six, 10, five and seven 10-plus touchdown years from 2000 to 2005. This shows you just how volatile touchdown numbers are for wide receivers, which is problematic in fantasy football, because touchdowns are king, especially in non-points-per-reception leagues.
Since it was a down year for individual touchdown totals, I'm going to take a look at the receivers who caught nine or more last year and do some magic voodoo predictions for this year.
Calvin Johnson: Megatron was a beast last season, especially in the first four games when he caught two touchdowns per game. He finished the season with 16 touchdowns. Only 12 other wide receivers have caught 16 or more touchdowns in a season, so that isn't a small feat.
Last year was also the first year Calvin Johnson had Matthew Stafford as his quarterback for 16 full games. The Lions also lost their two starting running backs in Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure, so they passed the ball 65 percent of the time, which led the NFL.
So, the real questions here are, will Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson stay healthy, and will the Lions throw the ball as much as they did in 2012?
Of course, health is impossible to predict with much accuracy, but the fact that Johnson has had two healthy seasons in a row and Stafford finally has a healthy season under his belt (while throwing over 40 times a game) is promising. I don't see any reason to knock them down in my rankings for health.
The more concerning aspect is the possible health of both Leshoure and Best. If they can stay on the field, there is a good chance the Lions won't throw the ball as much as they did in 2010. But even if they run the ball more and pass the ball less, does that mean Johnson gets less receptions, yards and touchdowns? The answer is most likely yes, but not by much.
When you look at elite wide receivers since 2000, like Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Larry Fitzgerald, Marvin Harrison and Calvin Johnson, you are looking at that 12 percent who are able to buck the touchdown-regression numbers.
So, I see no reason Megatron shouldn't once again be ranked as the No. 1 receiver this season. Just don't get greedy and expect the exact same numbers or higher.
Jordy Nelson: Like many, I believe Jordy Nelson will have trouble coming close to his 15 touchdowns from last season. But mainly because I hate anyone named Jordy. A Jordy once ate cereal in front of me and smacked the whole time with his mouth open.
But there are other reasons. Take, for instance, his 4.5 receptions per touchdown last season. Those are Randy Moss-in-a good-year numbers (Moss' touchdown rate was 4.3 when he caught the record 23 touchdowns). Before last year, Nelson's touchdown rate was 16.7.
Then look at Mr. Gregory Jennings and the last three games of the season he missed due to injury. During the last two games, Nelson scored five of his 15 touchdowns, had two of his top-three yardage games, saw 22 of his 95 targets and caught 15 of his 68 receptions.
If you massage his numbers to an average touchdown rate and cut some of his stats off from those last two huge games, you still have an insanely awesome season, especially for someone who in his first three NFL seasons had never topped two touchdowns. So who is the real Jordy Nelson?
I believe the real Jordy Nelson is whoever Aaron Rodgers makes of him. Rodgers is one of the best quarterbacks at surveying the field and distributing the ball, even on the run. This allows Nelson, who is the Packers' deep threat, to get open deep. But deep threats are often the most inconsistent fantasy options from week to week, when they aren't catching touchdowns every four receptions.
He will remain a fixture in the Packers' offense, and another 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown season is a very real possibility, but I'm not going to count on another huge touchdown season.
Laurent Robinson: The last 10 games of 2011 were very kind to Laurent Robinson. In that span, he had 40 receptions and 11 touchdowns for a touchdown rate of 3.6. That's quite a bit better than his 25.75 touchdown rate in the 104 receptions before that. What changed?
Well, Miles Austin hurt his hamstring and Tony Romo became his quarterback. It was a perfect storm that led to him getting a lucrative contract from the Jacksonville Jaguars. Thank goodness Mr. Robinson has some money to count while Blaine Gabbert helps him push that touchdown rate back up into the 20s.
Wes Welker: Welker had his best season ever in 2011. His 1,575 yards beat his previous best by 225 yards. His nine touchdowns were his career high by one. He also topped his best yards per reception stat by almost two yards. And that is all coming after some pretty big seasons.
In the first eight games of the year, Welker already had 960 yards receiving and six touchdowns, which made him the second-ranked fantasy receiver midway through.
In the final eight games, Welker trailed off in production somewhat, with 609 yards receiving and three touchdowns, ranking him as the 13th-best fantasy receiver during that time. Also, during those last eight games, we saw the rise of Rob Gronkowski. Gronk had 12 of his 18 touchdowns in the last eight games, while Welker only hauled in the three.
With the addition of Brandon Lloyd to the touchdown carousel, it is going to be difficult for Welker to come close to nine touchdowns again. Stopping Mr. Welker from getting 100 receptions is another story entirely. It can't be done by mortal man.
Greg Jennings: Jennings had nine touchdowns in 13 games before spraining his MCL. Of course, in those three games he missed, his compatriot, Jordy Nelson, caught five touchdowns.
Jennings was coming off a 12-touchdown campaign in 2010 and was on his way to double-digit touchdowns once again. He is still the Packers' No. 1 receiver and Aaron Rodgers' favorite red-zone target, with 17 targets inside the 20 before Week 14, while Jordy Nelson had 11 and Jermichael Finley had 13.
He is set up for another great season with Rodgers at the helm.
Dez Bryant: Bryant was consistent last season, but not in the way you want. He never topped 100 yards in any game, but did get into the end zone nine times.
The good news is that his touchdown rate, though very good at seven receptions per touchdown, remained consistent from the previous year's. So he seems to be adept at getting into the end zone, but just needs more receptions.
Unfortunately, his reception problem looks to be his fault more than the coaches' or Tony Romo's. It seems his focus and work ethic hasn't been up to par. Laurent Robinson's departure could help him fill some of that touchdown void, but we are taking a leap of faith that he will up his game to his potential.
I, for one, am going to take the leap. He's shown the ability, and I would rather take a player with potential than a player who has already reached his ceiling.
Victor Cruz: Cruz came onto the scene in a big way. It looked like the Giants really wanted Mario Manningham to step up, but he had injury trouble and Cruz simply outplayed him. Cruz's touchdown rate was a solid 9.2, but not so great that it would inevitably sky-rocket.
His main competition for targets, Hakeem Nicks, had similar target numbers, but his catch rate was 57 percent compared to Cruz's 62 percent. His touchdown rate was also slightly worse at 10.2.
But these numbers could easily move back into Nicks' favor with just a little more attention paid to Cruz by the defense, in which case Nicks could get his catch rate back up to 62 percent, which it was in 2010.
All in all, I like Cruz a lot. He's going to get plenty of targets, and we've seen what he can do with them. It will be a bit of a balancing act trying to predict who will come out statistically on top week to week between him and Hicks, but in the end, they will both be top fantasy receivers.
Vincent Jackson: This will be Vincent Jackson's first season without Philip Rivers. That leaves a lot of unknowns that won't become knowns until after we draft our fake teams.
His new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, also have a new coach in Greg Schiano, who, as the Rutgers head coach, ran the ball much more than he threw the ball. Does this mean he will do the same in Tampa Bay?
They also hired the New York Giants' quarterbacks coach, Mike Sullivan, to be their offensive coordinator. Eli Manning threw the ball 589 times, the fourth most in the league in 2010, and they went on to win the Super Bowl.
To add to the changes, the Bucs also drafted a new running back who should help in the receiving game, unlike LeGarrette Blount.
So, now it's all clear as mud. It seems that Tampa Bay will most likely need to throw the ball, at the very least, to come from behind. Last season, they gave up over 30 points per game, and both the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons look poised to improve, while the New Orleans Saints will once again score at will.
That brings us back to Vincent Jackson. Josh Freeman is still a very young 24 years old and coming into his third season after a sophomore slump. He has a new receiving running back and a new deep threat in Jackson.
They will be playing from behind, and no matter how much their coach might want to pound the ball and play great defense, the games most likely won't allow that. Jackson will have trouble with all the changes, no doubt, but to say he is going to fall off a cliff is too drastic.
As far as his value goes in fantasy, it will depend on where you can get him. I've seen him going in the fifth round, which is decent, but I would feel happier if I could squeak him into the sixth.
All of these players will face an uphill battle if they want to return to their 2010 form. The obstacles are many, and most will pop up after we draft our fantasy teams. So good luck in choosing.