Fantasy Football 2012: Top 40 Wide Receivers in Standard-Scoring Leagues
The following slideshow details my top 40 wide receivers in standard-scoring leagues—a painfully subjective exercise that reflects the 2012 market for targets-driven and touchdown-happy playmakers.
To repeat, there are some profound differences between this countdown and my listing of top 50 receivers in Points Per Reception leagues.
Please be cognizant of these changes before expressing dismay with certain selections (or omissions).
I'll most likely update the rankings after the third week of NFL preseason games.
Enjoy the show!
40. Mike Williams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2011 Stats: 65 Catches, 711 Yards, 3 TDs, 124 Targets
By any measure, Mike Williams' 2011 stats were a major disappointment from the preceding campaign.
But let's not be hasty in diminishing Williams' prospects for the season ahead.
In just two NFL campaigns, Williams has proven himself to be a healthy lock for 64 catches and 126 targets—numbers befitting of a top-35 receiver.
But to take a step forward, or at least recapture some of the fantasy cachet he had going into last season, Williams must demonstrate tangible improvement with receiving yards and touchdowns.
On the plus side, Williams had 11 games of eight or more targets last year; and his three touchdowns all occurred in the red zone.
On the negative end, Williams didn't have one 100-yard game in 2011, a season that didn't include Vincent Jackson or Doug Martin as major playmakers for Tampa Bay.
Draft target: Mid-to-late Round 11
39. Greg Little, Cleveland Browns
2011 Stats: 61 Catches, 709 Yards, 2 TDs, 120 Targets
It's easy to look past Greg Little's rookie contribution last season, cobbling together just one 100-yard game and only two touchdowns.
But I'm very optimistic about his development with the Browns, a club that boasts three significant additions at quarterback (Brandon Weeden), running back (Trent Richardson) and receiver (supplemental pick Josh Gordon).
From Weeks 4-16 last year (spanning 12 games), Little was a perfect 12-for-12 in collecting six or more targets, and for Week 15, the Browns wideout crushed the Cardinals for five receptions, 131 yards and one touchdown.
Baby steps to fantasy greatness. Let's give Little one more season before shooting for the moon.
Draft target: Mid-to-late Round 12
38. Titus Young, Detroit Lions
2011 Stats: 48 Catches, 607 Yards, 6 TDs, 85 Targets
Like most rookie receivers, the first half of Titus Young's inaugural NFL season with Detroit was awash in inconsistent targets and minimal catches.
But things took shape in the latter half, with Young drawing 57 targets and catching 33 balls for 365 yards and five touchdowns.
Of equal importance, four of Young's six seasonal touchdowns were within 10 yards, demonstrating his effectiveness in the red zone. And yet Young still has the breakaway speed and athleticism to score at least three times from beyond 40 yards.
Bottom line: With opposing defenses forced to worry about all-world receiver Calvin Johnson and the improved backfield of Jahvid Best/Mikel Leshoure, Young has a golden chance to enjoy a breakthrough season with the Lions.
Draft target: Round 12
37. Torrey Smith, Baltimore Ravens
2011 Stats: 50 Catches, 841 Yards, 7 TDs, 95 Targets
In the 92-year history of the NFL, it's quite possible that Torrey Smith enjoyed the greatest starting debut of any receiver in league history, rolling over the Rams for five catches, 152 yards and three touchdowns in Week 3 last year.
In that three-hour time window, Smith significantly raised his seasonal stock; but his prominent standing for 2012 was cemented against the Steelers (Week 9) and Bengals (Week 11), respectively, when the Ravens speedster combined for 11 catches, 236 yards and two touchdowns.
Now, if we could only see more week-to-week consistency from Smith this fall. To grab the No. 1 mantle from teammate Anquan Boldin, he'll need at least five outings of seven or more receptions.
Draft target: Round 10
36. Brandon Lloyd, New England Patriots
2011 Stats: 70 Catches, 966 Yards, 5 TDs, 150 Targets
Of the 40 receivers listed here, Brandon Lloyd's spot in the countdown is the toughest to define.
If he played on a team that didn't already boast all-star talents like Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez—not to mention wideouts Deion Branch and Jabar Gaffney—perhaps Lloyd would have earned a top-20 ranking.
But right now, there are simply too many variables to wade through before establishing a definitive slot for Josh McDaniels' favorite target—in previous stops with Denver and St. Louis.
Come mid-August, there's a decent chance Lloyd will be in the top 30.
Draft target: Round 9
35. Michael Crabtree, San Francisco 49ers
2011 Stats: 72 Catches, 874 Yards, 4 TDs, 114 Targets
For 2011, Michael Crabtree posted noticeable increases in targets, catches and receiving yards from the previous season. The one blemish on his resume: just four touchdowns (three in the red zone).
Including the NFC playoffs, Crabtree tallied six or more targets 11 times, and in those games, he broke the threshold of 70 yards and/or one touchdown six times. Not bad for a talent associated with the word "bust" in previous years.
Bottom line: If the 49ers hadn't added Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and first-round draftee A.J. Jenkins during winter and spring, Crabtree would be a cinch for the top 25.
But with QB Alex Smith flush with options this year, the only recourse for Crabtree is to expect incremental (but not monumental) gains.
Draft target: Round 10
34. Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers
2011 Stats: 69 Catches, 1,108 Yards, 2 TDs, 124 Targets
It's a big "if," but if Antonio Brown could just churn out another three touchdowns per season, he'd instantly garner top-20 recognition amongst receivers.
Instead, that 2-spot from last year has an ugly look to it, especially when prepping for standard-scoring drafts.
In his final 16 games last year (including the Steelers' playoff loss to the Broncos), Brown averaged 4.5 catches, 72.3 yards and 7.63 targets—numbers befitting of a formidable under-25 prospect.
But there's no way around one inescapable truth: To be taken more seriously in fantasy circles, Brown must find the end zone with more regularity in 2012.
Draft target: Late Round 8/early Round 9
33. Sidney Rice, Seattle Seahawks
2011 Stats: 32 Catches, 484 Yards, 2 TDs, 57 Targets
This selection is borne out of loyalty to Sidney Rice (my spot-on breakout prediction of 2009), new Seahawks quarterback Matt Flynn (the Packers' single-game record-holder in passing TDs) and the Seattle offensive coaches—the ones who endorsed QB Tarvaris Jackson for 30-plus passes nine times last season.
But this loyalty will go unrewarded if Rice (missed seven games to injury in 2011) cannot stay on the field for at least 15 games this year.
Bottom line: I loathe the term, but 2012 is genuinely a make-or-break season for Rice in terms of being a No. 1 wideout in the real world...and resembling anything of a top-30 asset in fantasy circles.
Draft target: Mid-to-late Round 8
32. Malcom Floyd, San Diego Chargers
2011 Stats: 43 Catches, 856 Yards, 5 TDs, 70 Targets
This unheralded pick is also a necessity choice, as in, Chargers QB Philip Rivers needs Malcom Floyd, Vincent Brown and/or Robert Meachem to fill the production void of Vincent Jackson (signed with Tampa Bay).
From a size, speed, talent and hands standpoint, Floyd (four games of 100 yards last year) has the makeup of a No. 1 wideout—but that entails staying healthy and being relevant every Sunday.
Draft target: End of Round 9
31. Santonio Holmes, New York Jets
2011 Stats: 51 Catches, 654 Yards, 8 TDs, 101 Targets
I may not be a platinum member of the Santonio Holmes Fan Club (at least in fantasy circles), but I'm smart to enough to recognize his vital standing with the Jets passing offense.
If Mark Sanchez has any chance at replicating last year's 26 passing touchdowns, Holmes must play a major role in the red zone again (or that vicinity).
Fun fact: All eight of Holmes' 2011 touchdowns occurred from 38 yards or less.
Draft target: Middle of Round 9
30: Pierre Garcon, Washington Redskins
2011 Stats: 70 Catches, 947 Yards, 6 TDs, 134 Targets
When discussing Pierre Garcon's 2011 production with Indy, it's clearly a good news/bad news proposition.
On the positive front...of the three times Garcon registered 100-plus receiving yards, he scored two TDs on each occasion.
On the negative end...Garcon (six double-digit efforts in targets) was only one of two wideouts with at least 76 targets to fall short of 1,000 receiving yards.
But I'm going to remain upbeat about Garcon's new role with the Redskins. At just 25 years old, he's the perfect complement to tight end Fred Davis and running backs Roy Helu, Evan Royster and Tim Hightower.
Draft target: Late Round 7/early Round 8
29. Darrius Heyward-Bey, Oakland Raiders
2011 Stats: 64 Catches, 975 Yards, 4 TDs, 115 Targets
Here are four ways to detail my fantasy fascination with Darrius Heyward-Bey:
1. Heyward-Bey racked up seven or more targets in 10 of his 14 games last year, including 17 in the finale against the Chargers. (DHB had nine catches for 130 yards and one TD on that day.)
2. He crossed the PPR-elite threshold of six catches, 100 yards and/or one TD six times, or roughly 43 percent of his games.
3. DHB boasted separate four-game streaks of at least 70 yards (Weeks 4-7/Weeks 13-16).
4. In his six final games, with Carson Palmer as Oakland's quarterback, Heyward-Bey collected 60 targets and three touchdowns.
Bottom line: I have tentative plans for 11 fantasy leagues this fall, and if everything goes right, I'll own DHB in each one. He's the 2012 symbol of middle-round gold.
Draft target: Late Round 8/early Round 9
28. Kenny Britt, Tennessee Titans
2011 Stats: 17 Catches, 289 Yards, 3 TDs, 26 Targets
And now, it's time to analyze the wildest wild card of the bunch in the form of enigmatic receiver Kenny Britt.
At the time of this writing, Britt is just days removed from a drunk-driving arrest at a military camp in Kentucky and a knee scope to clear out loose particles from last September's major knee surgery.
To complicate matters, no one can promise, with total certainty, that Britt will be or won't be dressed in Titans garb for the club's Week 1 home clash with the Patriots, due to injury or suspension.
So, let's break down what we do know: In his first two games last season, Britt totaled 14 catches, 23 targets, 271 yards receiving and three touchdowns. At the time, he was probably the No. 2-ranked receiver in fantasy (behind Calvin Johnson).
And for Weeks 3-7 of the 2010 campaign, Britt had a five-game scoring streak that resulted in 18 catches, 30 targets, 393 yards receiving and seven touchdowns!
In other words, it's a shame that we're talking about whether Britt might suit up on Sept. 9 instead of wondering why he isn't a top-five receiver.
Draft target: Mid-to-late Round 6
27. Demaryius Thomas, Denver Broncos
2011 Stats: 32 Catches, 551 Yards, 4 TDs, 70 Targets
2011 Playoffs: (two games) 10 Catches, 297 Yards, 1 TD, 17 Targets
This time next year, we could be discussing the merits of Demaryius Thomas as a top-15 fantasy receiver. But in the interim, conservative owners have no choice but to let things play out.
As in...let's see if Peyton Manning's surgically repaired neck can be preserved for an entire season. Let's see if Knowshon Moreno or rookie Ronnie Hillman can evolve into Denver's future feature back (say that three times fast).
And let's see if Thomas can trump Eric Decker and Co. for the coveted title of "Peyton's Go-To Target" this year, essentially building off his stellar playoff numbers from January.
Draft target: Middle of Round 6
26. Laurent Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars
2011 Stats: 54 Catches, 858 Yards, 11 TDs, 80 Targets
I find it funny that fantasy owners are happily attaching Round 2 value to Cowboys tailback DeMarco Murray, as a direct nod to his midseason explosion last year (761 rushing yards, two TDs in six-week stretch).
And yet Laurent Robinson is getting the receiva non grata treatment leading up to the August drafts despite enjoying a similar impact with the Dallas offense (625 yards, 11 TDs in the final 10 games).
The above paragraphs weren't intended to compare Cowboys QB Tony Romo to Jaguars QB Blaine Gabbert. At this stage in their respective careers, Romo is clearly the better fantasy talent.
But as a long-standing rule, I never make definitive judgments about rookie quarterbacks, knowing full well that Gabbert (2,214 yards passing, 12 TDs) needs the requisite time to develop into a serviceable NFL starter.
Throw in the fact that neither Robinson (offseason signing), Justin Blackmon (rookie) nor head coach Mike Mularkey were with Jacksonville last year, and it's easy to see why the Jags offense should be vastly improved in 2012.
At the forefront of this success lies a talented, big-play receiver (Robinson) who already has familiarity with Mularkey's scheme.
Draft target: Middle of Round 8
25. Nate Washington, Tennessee Titans
2011 Stats: 74 Catches, 1,023 Yards, 7 TDs, 121 Targets
There's a lot of competition for the 25th spot in this countdown, but Nate Washington gets the pre-training camp nod, thanks to nine games of eight or more targets last year—and a bold finishing kick in the final seven games (35 catches, 522 yards, six TDs).
And with Kenny Britt back in the fold and lightning-fast rookie Kendall Wright vertically stretching the field on every passing play, I love Washington's chances of seldom getting double-teamed on standard down-and-distance situations.
In other words, last year was no fluke.
Draft target: Mid-to-late Round 8
24. DeSean Jackson, Philadelphia Eagles
2011 Stats: 58 Catches, 961 Yards, 4 TDs, 104 Targets
DeSean 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 seemingly happy contributor with Philly, Jackson needs to have a bounce-back season in the vicinity of 66 catches, 1,104 yards and eight touchdowns.
Draft target: Early in Round 7
23. Reggie Wayne, Indianapolis Colts
2011 Stats: 75 Catches, 960 Yards, 4 TDs, 132 Targets
Reggie Wayne may have struggled last year with Indy QBs Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky, but talented wideouts with excellent route-running capabilities don't just vanish off the fantasy radar.
Especially those averaging 8.25 targets from a season that didn't include one Peyton Manning pass.
At age 33, Wayne has the goods for at least two highly productive seasons with Andrew Luck, a potential top-25 quarterback.
In his last six games, when Orlovsky brought some stability at quarterback, Wayne caught 33 balls for 430 yards and three touchdowns for per-game averages of 5.5 catches, 71.7 yards and 0.5 touchdowns.
For good measure, he collected 25 targets in the Colts' final two games.
Draft target: Early-to-mid Round 7
22. Steve Johnson, Buffalo Bills
2011 Stats: 76 Catches, 1,004 Yards, 7 TDs, 134 Targets
Steve Johnson had an across-the-board dip in production last season, compared to his 2010 breakout (82 catches/1,073 yards/10 TDs).
And yet there's still plenty to love about his 2012 prospects:
1. Johnson collected at least five targets in all 16 games. More importantly, he tallied seven or more targets 11 times.
2. The 25-year-old Kentucky product had eight games of at least 66 yards receiving.
3. Johnson registered touchdowns in consecutive games three times last year.
Bottom line: Johnson is a healthy lock for 80 catches, 135 targets, 1,090 yards and eight TDs in his prime—with the understanding that he's a solid WR2 in fantasy circles.
Draft target: Late Round 6/early Round 7
21. Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys
2011 Stats: 63 Catches, 928 Yards, 9 TDs, 103 Targets
The fantasy optimist in me has chosen to ignore that Dez Bryant boasts 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.
Projections: 67 catches, 1,034 yards, eight TDs.
Draft target: Middle of Round 5
20. Jeremy Maclin, Philadelphia Eagles
2011 Stats: 63 Catches, 859 Yards, 5 TDs, 96 Targets
Jeremy Maclin is not a classic No. 1 receiver in standard-scoring or PPR circles.
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.
Extrapolating last year's stats, Maclin's 13-game numbers translated to 78 catches, 1,057 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Tell me you wouldn't take that figure for this season, no questions asked?
Draft target: Mid-to-late Round 6
19. Vincent Jackson, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2011 Stats: 60 Catches, 1,106 Yards, 9 TDs, 115 Targets
Let's start with the bad news regarding Vincent Jackson's final season in San Diego:
1. He had one of the worst catch-per-target ratios of any elite receiver.
2. V-Jax had three games of four targets or less.
3. He crossed the elite-PPR threshold of six catches, 100 yards and/or one TD only six times.
Now, let's focus on the positives that drive Jackson's sturdy ranking for 2012:
1. Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman will finish the season as a top-12 quarterback.
2. Teammate Mike Williams and running back Doug Martin will garner plenty of attention from opposing defenses.
3. V-Jax is a lock for 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns in any healthy season. He also has the capacity to carry fantasy teams to victory at least five times a year.
Draft target: Middle of Round 6
18. Marques Colston, New Orleans Saints
2011 Stats: 80 Catches, 1,143 Yards, 8 TDs, 107 Targets
It's hard to quantify how the Bountygate scandal—and subsequent suspension of head coach Sean Payton—will affect the Drew Brees/Marques Colston dynamic.
In the last three seasons, Colston has averaged 78 catches, 1,080 yards, eight TDs and 148 targets—all thanks to Brees.
And at age 29, this isn't the time to predict that Colston is headed for a seasonal slump or career breakthrough.
He's simply one of the most bankable No. 2 receivers in the marketplace.
Draft target: Early-to-mid Round 6
17. Percy Harvin, Minnesota Vikings
2011 Stats: 87 Catches, 967 Yards, 6 TDs, 120 Targets
The receiving numbers don't tell the whole story here.
Percy Harvin also rushed the ball 52 times for 345 yards and two touchdowns last season, accounting for 1,312 total yards and eight TDs.
Progressing one step further, Harvin averaged seven catches, 79.1 yards, 0.75 TDs and 9.63 targets in his last eight games. That elite-level finish prompted this lofty ranking.
Bottom line: Harvin has enjoyed significant bumps in targets, catches and receiving yards the last two years, and yet he still has much room for growth.
Draft target: Late in Round 4/Early Round 5
16. A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals
2011 Stats: 65 Catches, 1,057 Yards, 7 TDs, 115 Targets
I have three viable reasons for attaching a modest preseason ranking to A.J. Green, one obvious and two that may become abundantly clear to fantasy gurus by October.
For starters, the overall depth at receiver has blossomed to previously unforeseen levels. There isn't a fantasy dog on this list.
In previous seasons, a stud athlete coming off a rookie campaign of four 100-yard games and seven touchdowns would be a top-10 consideration, but in Green's case, it's merely the foundation that guarantees him a spot in the top 16.
Now for the second part: With Jerome Simpson running routes for the Vikings, the Bengals are in dire need of a consistently productive No. 2 receiver, a vacancy that Brandon Tate, Jordan Shipley, Armon Binns and rookie Mohamed Sanu will attempt to fill. In the meantime, Green is bound to see plenty of double teams.
One more thing: The Bengals' 2012 schedule, from the perspective of opposing pass defenses, might be the toughest in the entire NFL. Two dates with the Steelers, Ravens and Browns, followed by clashes with the Redskins, Cowboys, Giants, Eagles, Broncos, Dolphins and Chiefs.
Bottom line: For 2013 and beyond, I love Green's prospects for becoming a top-10 fantasy receiver. But for the upcoming season, I simply prefer 15 other wideouts ahead of him.
Draft target: Late in Round 3
15. Miles Austin, Dallas Cowboys
2011 Stats: 43 Catches, 579 Yards, 7 TDs, 73 Targets
Before his hamstring injuries kicked in last season, Miles Austin pulled down 14 catches for 233 yards and four touchdowns for Weeks 1 and 2. He also averaged 12 targets per game during that stretch.
For the healthy seasons of 2009 and '10, Austin also averaged 75 catches, 1,181 yards, nine touchdowns and 122 targets.
Bottom line: Heading into his age-28 season, it's reasonable to believe Austin's injuries from 2011 were more incidental than anything age-related.
It also helps that Tony Romo (4,184 passing yards, 31 TDs last season) boasts averages of 536 pass attempts and 29.5 passing TDs in his last two healthy campaigns (2009/2011).
Draft target: Mid-to-late Round 4
14. Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons
2011 Stats: 54 Catches, 989 Yards, 8 TDs, 94 Targets
Last year, while sharing the receiving duties with Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez, among others, Julio Jones still drew seven-plus targets seven times.
He even reached double figures three times, including a 17-target explosion against Seattle (11 catches/127 yards).
And in his final six games, Jones racked up 31 catches, 525 yards, six TDs and 51 targets—for per-outing averages of five catches, 87 yards, one TD and 8.5 targets.
Put it all together, and Jones is a prime candidate to take another leap forward in his second season.
It's the natural progression of a skillful athlete who, as a 13-game rookie wideout in 2011, accomplished more than Jerry Rice (1985), Larry Fitzgerald (2004) and Calvin Johnson (2007) in their inaugural NFL seasons.
Draft target: Early-to-mid Round 4
13. Brandon Marshall, Chicago Bears
2011 Stats: 81 Catches, 1,214 Yards, 6 TDs, 141 Targets
Traded to the Bears during the offseason, Brandon Marshall has been reunited with QB Jay Cutler and offensive guru Jeremy Bates.
In 2008 with Denver, Marshall caught 104 balls—and attracted a career-best 182 targets—with Cutler and Bates orchestrating the Broncos offense.
It's a stark contrast from last season. With little help at receiver, Marshall collected eight or more targets 12 times with the Dolphins, but finished with only 81 catches.
Bottom line: I refuse to believe that, heading into his age-28 season, Marshall will never sniff 100 receptions again, and with the Bears' array of talented playmakers (Matt Forte, Michael Bush, Earl Bennett, Devin Hester, Alshon Jeffery), Marshall likely won't encounter a double-team on first down all season.
Draft target: Early-to-mid Round 4
12: Dwayne Bowe, Kansas City Chiefs
2011 Stats: 81 Catches, 1,159 Yards, 5 TDs, 142 Targets
Citing mock drafts and the numerous publications devoted to this fantasy season, I'm sensing a general lack of respect for Dwayne Bowe's talents.
To counter that, I have no dissenting opinions of this supreme talent in his athletic prime. In fact, I may be Bowe's biggest fan among the "guru" circuit.
Last season, Bowe posted 10 games of nine-plus targets despite the club's injury-related problems at quarterback. That figure trumps the targets production of his 15-TD campaign in 2010.
In a four-week span with Matt Cassel at quarterback (Weeks 2-5 last year), Bowe also tallied 21 catches, 403 yards, four touchdowns and 34 targets.
Bottom line: Bowe has been remarkably consistent in targets, catches and receiving yards the last two seasons. The only wild momentum swing lies with touchdowns, and Bowe is a better bet for 15 TDs than five in 2012.
Draft target: Early-to-mid Round 5
11. Hakeem Nicks, New York Giants
2011 Stats: 76 Catches, 1,192 Yards, 7 TDs, 133 Targets
My targets bias shines through with Hakeem Nicks, my No. 4 receiver during the spring, before a broken foot (and subsequent surgery) dropped him seven spots in the countdown.
During the 2011 regular season, Nicks attracted seven-plus targets in 12 games, including six straight from Weeks 11-16. He also crossed the magical threshold of six catches, 100 yards and/or one touchdown 11 times, a golden figure for those in Points Per Reception leagues.
In four playoff games last year, Nicks also tallied 28 catches, 43 targets, 444 yards and four TDs—numbers befitting of a fantasy anchor in standard-scoring and PPR leagues, when healthy.
Draft target: Late in Round 5
10. Greg Jennings, Green Bay Packers
2011 Stats: 67 Catches, 949 Yards, 9 TDs, 101 Targets
If Greg Jennings (13 games played) had been healthy for all 16 games last year, he likely would have matched or eclipsed personal bests in targets (125) and receptions (80).
But in some respects, it didn't matter anyway.
Jennings crossed the PPR-elite threshold of six catches, 100 yards and/or one TD in 12 of 13 games, the best ratio of his stellar career.
He also proffered seven games of eight-plus targets last season, including four outings of double-digit targets.
Bottom line: I would be surprised if Jennings didn't eclipse 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2012. He's the perfect handcuff to Aaron Rodgers in Round 4.
9. Steve Smith, Carolina Panthers
2011 Stats: 79 Catches, 1,394 Yards, 7 TDs, 129 Targets
Steve Smith collected seven or more targets in 14 games last season, tops among all NFL receivers.
He also crossed the magical threshold of six catches, 100 yards and/or one touchdown in 10 games, something he hadn't accomplished in three years prior.
Unlike seasons past, the Panthers' secondary wave of supporting playmakers (Brandon LaFell, Louis Murphy, pass-friendly running back Mike Tolbert) is formidable enough to provide tailbacks Jonathan Stewart/DeAngelo Williams with wider rushing lanes.
Their presence should also help eliminate Smith double-teams during obvious passing downs. The way I see it, that feather in Smith's cap trumps any age-related concerns (he's 33).
Draft target: Early in Round 6
8. Jordy Nelson, Green Bay Packers
2011 Stats: 68 Catches, 1,263 Yards, 15 TDs, 96 Targets
Jordy Nelson crossed the PPR-elite threshold of six catches, 100 yards and/or one touchdown 10 times last season. He also recorded 10 games of six or more receiving targets.
And with four multiple-touchdown games last year, Nelson has a proven track record of carrying fantasy teams to victory in head-to-head matchups.
Bottom line: If Nelson can rack up double-digit touchdowns for back-to-back campaigns, he'll have no problem achieving top-seven status by season's end.
But here's the rub: On the heels of 15 out-of-nowhere TDs, Nelson might have to pay a Victor Cruz-like tax of mild disrespect heading into this season. It's the prudent response for a player who posted five touchdowns of 50-plus yards last year—and yet had only one 10-target game and zero days of 10 or more receptions.
Draft target: Late in Round 4
7. Victor Cruz, New York Giants
2011 Stats: 82 Catches, 1,536 Yards, 9 TDs, 131 Targets
Let's begin with the sobering news: Victor Cruz is a long shot to replicate his 2011 run of five touchdowns from 68 yards or longer.
But there are a handful of positives to derive from, supporting this lofty ranking in the countdown:
1. Cruz posted 12 games of eight targets or more last year—including 10 straight from Weeks 8-17.
2. QB Eli Manning had per-game averages of 36.8 pass attempts last season, a figure that hovered above 40 after Week 4. Unless the Giants have big plans for running Ahmad Bradshaw and rookie David Wilson (in the neighborhood of 40 combined carries), Cruz will again be a major factor in the weekly game plan.
3. If teammate Hakeem Nicks (broken foot) should miss two, four or six games to start the season (via the PUP list), I will buy Cruz's capacity for 82 catches, eight TDs and 131 targets—no strings attached.
Draft target: Mid-to-late Round 3
6. Mike Wallace, Pittsburgh Steelers
2011 Stats: 72 Catches, 1,193 Yards, 8 TDs, 114 Targets
Mike Wallace crossed the PPR-elite threshold of six catches, 100 yards and/or one TD nine times in his first 12 games last year.
(It's no coincidence that Walllace's production dipped after QB Ben Roethlisberger was greatly hindered by a Week 14 leg injury against Cleveland.)
With Pittsburgh's full complement of healthy playmakers, Wallace had per-game averages of five catches, 96.4 yards and 0.6 touchdowns from Weeks 1-9 last season. Of equal importance, he accomplished that on only 7.1 targets per start.
Bottom line: I will be shocked if Wallace (18 TDs from 2010-11) doesn't register double-digit touchdowns this year.
Draft target: Early in Round 3
5. Roddy White, Atlanta Falcons
2011 Stats: 100 Catches, 1,296 Yards, 8 TDs, 179 Targets
Roddy White's per-season averages from 2010-11 are the stuff of PPR legend—108 catches, 1,343 yards, nine touchdowns and an absurdly high, but remarkably consistent 179 targets.
But how does that translate to standard-scoring leagues this season, especially with Julio Jones vaulting up the ranks of NFL receivers?
Including the Falcons' playoff loss to the Giants, White collected nine or more targets 14 times last season—and double-digit targets for six straight games (Weeks 11-16). He also crossed the PPR-elite threshold of six catches, 100 yards and/or one touchdown 11 times.
On the flip side, White had a 17-game streak of nine or less catches from 2010-11, the type of quirky, face-cringing run that gives one temporary pause when conceiving top-five rankings.
Fingers crossed on Roddy keeping up with the fantasy elite for another campaign.
Draft target: Mid-to-late Round 2
4. Andre Johnson, Houston Texans
2011 Stats: 33 Catches, 492 Yards, 2 TDs, 51 Targets
Heading into his age-31 season, Andre Johnson is not on the brink of a steep decline.
Extrapolating his per-game averages over the last two seasons (20 games total), Johnson is in line for 96 catches, 1,366 yards and eight TDs in 2012. That's hardly an out-to-pasture projection for a borderline Hall of Famer.
In his five healthiest games last year (Weeks 1-3/Houston's two playoff games), Johnson also drew 56 targets and caught 34 balls for 517 yards and three touchdowns—with per-game averages of 11.1 targets, 6.9 receptions, 103.4 yards and 0.6 TDs.
So far, so good, huh?
It's not all roses and lollipops when discussing Johnson's situation, though.
The Texans still haven't fielded any significant upgrades at receiver. Kevin Walter, Lestar Jean, DeVier Posey, Keshawn Martin and Jeff Maehl simply won't command the lion's share of targets over Johnson, via QB Matt Schaub.
For once, it would be nice if Johnson had a receiving distraction on the other side of the field.
Draft target: Mid-to-late Round 2
3. Wes Welker, New England Patriots
2011 Stats: 122 Catches, 1,573 Yards, 9 TDs, 173 Targets
I'm on record for saying that Welker won't replicate last year's output in receptions (122) and receiving yards (1,573).
But that isn't a slight toward the Patriots star in any way.
Do you know what it takes to average 122 catches/1,573 yards? That's 7.6 catches and 98.3 yards per game—regardless of weather conditions, game flow or defensive matchups.
Amazingly, Welker caught 122 balls last season despite only three double-digit efforts with receptions. He also collected eight or more targets 14 times, and during the playoffs, Welker had per-game averages of 7.66.
Bottom line: Welker has a long-standing track record of success in one of the NFL's most explosive offenses. At the bare minimum, he's a healthy lock 109 catches, 1,263 yards, seven TDs and 148 targets.
Most big-name wideouts would kill for that kind of "off" season.
Draft target: Early in Round 3
2. Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals
2011 Stats: 80 Catches, 1,411 Yards, 8 TDs, 154 Targets
Barring injury, there is a zero-percent chance that Larry Fitzgerald falls below the 90-catch line in 2012.
Last season was an aberration, spurred on by the chronic uncertainty (and inaccuracy) of quarterbacks Kevin Kolb and John Skelton.
How do I know this? Fitz's 9.63 targets—including six double-digit efforts—scream another 95-reception campaign.
Projections: 92 catches, 1,338 yards and 11 TDs
Draft target: Mid-to-late Round 2
1. Calvin Johnson, Detroit Lions
2011 Stats: 96 Catches, 1,681 Yards, 16 TDs, 158 Targets
Do we really need to list reasons why Calvin is the No. 1 target among receivers, regardless of scoring format? OK, here goes:
1. Calvin passed the PPR-elite threshold of six catches, 100 yards and/or one touchdown 14 times last season—tops among all NFL receivers. And yes, it helped Johnson's cause that he recorded 11 touchdowns in the first eight games, momentarily getting ahead of the pace for Randy Moss's seasonal record of 23 receiving TDs (2007).
2. Johnson led the NFL with eight games of 100-plus receiving yards last season. In fact, for three of the Lions' final four games—including the playoff loss to New Orleans—Calvin ridiculously amassed 200 yards.
3. For what it's worth, Johnson is perhaps the biggest, fastest and strongest receiver in the game today. And heading into his age-27 season, it's scary to think Calvin could dominate in a similar fashion for the next six or seven years.
Draft target: Early-to-mid Round 1
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