2014 Fantasy Football Draft Guide: Eric Mack's WR Blueprint
There is no doubt the NFL is a passing league. Even the Seattle Seahawks' Legion of Boom-led Super Bowl blowout won't change that.
All you have to do is look at fantasy drafts now versus those 10 years ago. Wide receivers are populating the first-round spots now more than ever.
Is this right? Should we all jump on the bandwagon with two feet?
This complex position requires a thorough investigation, which is exactly what we give you in this slideshow. It has all of the rankings, tiers, rookies, position battles, injury-risk assessments, breakouts, busts, sleepers, contract-year targets and overall strategies to handle the passing fancy.
Wide Receiver Rankings and Tiers: This Is Easily the Deepest Position in Fantasy
Before we dissect the wide receiver position piece by piece, the deepest spot in all of fantasy football, take a look at our complete rankings from Nos. 1 through 120 below. If you need them further broken down into tiers, they can be like so:
Tier I: Round 1 Candidates
1. Calvin Johnson to No. 5 Brandon Marshall
Megatron is the only certain first-round receiver, but we have seen as many as these five go in early drafts. This group has the fewest question marks with regard to health, consistency, system or supporting cast.
Tier II: Fantasy No. 1s
This is the select group you will start every week without being concerned of the matchup. Consider it the Legion of Boom test. If you can see sitting a receiver when they are facing a premium opponent, you shouldn't be selecting him as a top-12 wideout in fantasy. You have to be ready to start these guys no matter what.
Tier III: Regular Starters
No. 13 Larry Fitzgerald to No. 25 Michael Floyd
These guys are starters, but you cannot warrant the Tier II criteria. You can see sitting them against Richard Sherman, but perhaps only him. This is where the last of the true 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown threats dry up for us.
Tier IV: Potential Flex Starters
Everyone in this group will spend time as starters for their fantasy owners, but you won't be able to count on them for week-to-week consistency. It won't be predicated on the matchup either. Some weeks the matchup will look irresistible and they will still be held to four catches for 36 yards and no touchdowns. It should stop you from loading up on these guys as depth in the middle round, though.
Tier V: Draftable Wideouts
No. 41 Reggie Wayne to No. 70 Brandon LaFell
There are wide-ranging ceilings on wideouts in this group. Even if they have warts due to injury, supporting cast or other reasons, they are worth drafting and plugging into your lineups at least during the bye season. Save for the elite talent that is Sammy Watkins, all of the rookie wideouts belong in this tier.
Tier VI: Everybody Else
Some dominoes need to fall for these guys to even be drafted in standard leagues. There are some wideouts starting for NFL teams in this group, albeit with low ceilings or bad situations. The news needs to improve in the coming weeks, but invariably some big fantasy surprises will shake out of here, so don't ignore these names entirely.
|Rank||Wide Receivers||Team||ECR||vs. ECR|
Rookie WR Rankings: Potentially Legendary Class Adds Levels of Depth
- Sammy Watkins, Buffalo Bills
- Kelvin Benjamin, Carolina Panthers
- Brandin Cooks, New Orleans Saints
- Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- Odell Beckham Jr., New York Giants
- Jordan Matthews, Philadelphia Eagles
- Cody Latimer, Denver Broncos
- Donte Moncrief, Indianapolis Colts
- Marqise Lee, Jacksonville Jaguars
- Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers
- John Brown, Arizona Cardinals
- Josh Huff, Philadelphia Eagles
- Paul Richardson, Seattle Seahawks
- Allen Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars
- Jalen Saunders, New York Jets
By most accounts, this was one of the best wide receiver classes of the fantasy football era. That doesn't mean we have future Hall of Famers in this group, but we definitely added a great deal of depth to an already loaded position for fantasy owners.
Throw in the fact the NFL is trending to be as pass-happy as ever and the league promises to crack down on its oft-ignored illegal contact downfield, holding and pass interference calls, these guys can be impact players right away.
Still, there are a lot of veterans ahead of them and oozing talent from this class will be available to us at a reasonable rate later in the draft. It might be enough to get you to consider reaching for the top of this group and merely taking fliers on the middle of them in the latter rounds of your draft.
If drafts were held today, here is a rough representation of how the top 15 rookie wide receivers should go off the board:
Long-term, receivers can be difficult to project. The top five guys are pretty sure to be highly sought in long-term keeper leagues and emerge as 1,000-yard guys annually. The next five have nearly as high of ceilings but a much wider range of fantasy potential because they are less of sure things.
Preseason is a great time to watch these guys battle, especially since they could get a lot of snaps in the exhibition action while the veteran receivers rest up the legs for the real thing in September.
WR Position Battles: Hidden Value Will Surface from the Depths of Depth Charts
- Carolina Panthers Nos. 1-4: Cam Newton needs a career-running...err, receiving...mate. Steve Smith is gone and the likes of Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood just don't cut it. We fully expect rookie Kelvin Benjamin to be the No. 1, but he is raw and might struggle with drops initially, which can get him put into a Greg Little-like doghouse quickly. A veteran can emerge fantasy-viable out of the very late rounds here.
- New Orleans Saints No. 2: They use Jimmy Graham as a wide receiver, honestly, but Marques Colston is aged and injury prone, so Kenny Stills and Brandin Cooks are locked in a training camp battle that could really turn fantasy on its ear. Both prospects are solid sleepers, perhaps even breakouts, but one has to step forward over the other in these next few weeks.
- Philadelphia Eagles No. 3: Jeremy Maclin is taking DeSean Jackson's spot and Riley Cooper should remain a favorite target of Nick Foles, but the third wideout here is going to get a lot of plays in the offense that might run the most of them in the NFL. Rookies Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff are must-watch guys this preseason.
- New England Patriots Nos. 2-4: The receiver issues that put a frustrated Tom Brady all over the media last fall are a thing of the past. The Pats grew stronger from their cultivating of Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce as rookies. Julian Edelman is very clearly No. 1 and Danny Amendola can have a much better second year in New England, but there is room for one more fantasy gem. Add big target Brandon LaFell to the mix here, too. Brady is going to make all of these guys draftable in deeper leagues, perhaps.
- St. Louis Rams Nos. 1-4: Sam Bradford hasn't proved to be a game-changer in the NFL, partially because he plays in a run-heavy offense, in the best division of defenses in the NFL and can't stay healthy. His receiving corps has some talent in Tavon Austin, Brian Quick, Chris Givens and Stedman Bailey, but Kenny Britt is likely a starter over all of them. There isn't a huge sleeper here, but there are a number of them to consider late.
- New York Giants No. 2: We loved Odell Beckham coming out of the draft, working in a new Giants West Coast scheme. His hamstring isn't loving us back. Rueben Randle has all but won No. 2 duties in camp, while Beckham will need to be brought along slowly. Mario Manningham is in the mix, too, for some value, but he needs to prove he's healthy and make the team first.
- Indianapolis Colts: This was going to be a lot more interesting when LaVon Brazill wasn't suspended for the season and subsequently released. Reggie Wayne will work out of the slot as a possession guy while Hakeem Nicks and T.Y. Hilton press the edges. Third-rounder Donte Moncrief has emerged over Da'Rick Rogers as the No. 4 guy. There will be a lot of targets to go around if Andrew Luck becomes the statistical monster we expect he will be in his third season.
There are a lot of things the wide receiver position just has more of in fantasy than the other spots. Depth is one—breakout candidates, potential busts and sleepers also.
Prominent position battles is not one.
Who cares if so-and-so wide receiver is starting? As long as they are in their team's top three, they are going to see a lot of snaps and plenty of targets, especially in those real wide-open systems in Denver, Green Bay, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Chicago, Indianapolis, Detroit, Atlanta, New England, et al.
Still, there is some fantasy value we can scrape out of winners of receiver position battles this preseason. Here are the top battles to watch for potential draft-day bargains:
You have some homework to do. These battles don't grab the headlines of those at quarterback or running back, but knowing the camp winners here can net you some fantasy sleepers.
Injury Risks: Receivers 30 Years or Older Are Ones to Be Wary Of
Because, as we said, wide receiver in the deepest position in fantasy, injuries at the position don't have to be devastating, unless you burn a premium pick in a Julio Jones (foot) or an aging Roddy White (hamstring). Then your your fantasy hopes and dreams can be crushed.
Wide receivers are steadily rising into the earlier picks in this pass-happy NFL, even penetrating the first round that has been owned by running backs for decades. That makes managing the risk with those elite wideouts far more important than ever.
Here's a tip: Don't reach up for a wide receiver that has injury questions. You are already skipping out on the thinner positions early to take a wideout, you don't want to compound that by taking a risky one.
As we did with running backs, we will start the risk discussion with the old guys. They are the first candidates to come down with injury and/or be hampered by them the longest.
Also, like our running backs blueprint at Bleacher Report, we will reference back to a pair of statistical studies done this winter by @ESPNNFL (yards vs. age) and @bpilzner (fantasy points vs. age). Both scatter plots show a decline of receivers after the age of 30.
Age-Related Injury Risks
We cut this list off right there as a piece of editorial strategery. Look at Austin and Jennings. And laugh. Now, have a brief conversation with their fantasy owners from last season. Those people aren't laughing. They're seeing red.
See, Austin and Jennings fell apart as they approached 30, just like those graphs above. Sure, there are receivers that hold up at advanced ages. Jackson has, along with the Texans' Johnson.
The point here is any receiver you pick that is older than 29, you risk the ultimate indignity of us saying we...err, world history and Father Time...told you so. Downgrade any of these 30-something wide receivers in your drafts because of the added age-related injury risks.
Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons
We have to revisit the player we opened this slide by casting pejoratively on, Jones. Few could have seen Jones' 2013 bust campaign coming. Jake Davidow of SportsInjuryPredictor.com did with the help of historical injury data and advanced analytics.
We asked him about Jones going forward, and Davidow said:
Our algorithm looks at fractured metatarsals along with surgery at a macro level, and from our vantage point of having hundreds of foot-related injuries at the wide receiver position, we are confident in saying Julio Jones has a very high likelihood of getting injured in 2014. We're not saying avoid at all costs but his current ADP puts him at 1.11, which is way too high for a player with this level of risk.
I have a comfort level of Jones as a second-round pick, especially because his ceiling is so darn high. Heck, everyone in football is one injury away from your fantasy ire.
Percy Harvin, Seattle Seahawks
Here is an injury risk who needs no debate. Everyone knows the risk and reward of Harvin. The question is whether you are willing to assume the risk all over again. Five times bitten, 100 times as shy?
Davidow collected this NFL injury history for us:
- 2013—Tore labrum in his hip, requiring surgery and resulting in him missing 15 games
- 2012—Tore ligaments in his left ankle, resulting in surgery and IR
- 2012—Needed surgery on his shoulder in the offseason to repair AC joint
- 2011—Fractured ribs
- 2010—Migraines and ankle injuries caused him to leave a few games early and held him out of two games
If it is not one thing, it is another for the wide receiver Glass Joe. He is third, behind the Falcons' Jones and the Jacksonville Jaguars' Cecil Shorts (somewhat surprisingly), as the third-most likely receiver to get hurt in 2014.
Frankly, he is our No. 1 on historical fantasy ire. Bid with extreme caution.
Wes Welker, Denver Broncos
Instead of featuring Shorts here—we don't care if he gets hurt because he has bigger issues with his shaky quarterback that downgrade his draft position for us—we go with the oft-concussed Welker. He can hang on to great numbers in the twilight of his career, so we have to accept some risk here in fantasy. After all, Eric Decker is gone and there will be targets to be sucked up in Peyton Manning's record-setting offense.
Welker is just one blow to the head from hanging up his cleats for good. Isn't everyone? Yes, but multiple concussion woes are watched more closely than ever. Welker is going to take a shot running over the middle like he always does, it guarantees bad, bad news for his fantasy owners.
Instead of picking Welker, we give you the advice of playing your hand on those guys behind him. Emmanuel Sanders as a field-stretcher and Cody Latimer as a raw, developmental rookie can really surprise us in fantasy this year. Those are the most likely beneficiaries of Decker's departure and the pending Welker misfortune.
Breakouts: This Trio Is Going to Smash Through Even Optimistic Expectations
Every preseason, a fantasy analyst looks for a player that defines him to the masses in that given year. Jeremy Maclin is that guy for us.
He is the leading middle-round breakout candidate who can become a fantasy superstar. He was going to be featured in the previous slide about injuries, but there are just too many reasons to love him at his draft position to not make him the fantasy 2014 breakthrough player of the year—or comeback player of the year for that matter.
There are dozens of receivers who can emerge as 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown threats. We outline three of the best candidates here.
Jeremy Maclin, Philadelphia Eagles
He is coming off a major knee reconstruction, never a sure thing at a position that requires so much quick cutting, but he is also more than a year removed from the surgery. If you give repaired knee ligaments the proper time to heal nowadays, we can accept much of the risk of a recurrence.
Maclin takes over for DeSean Jackson as the go-to man for Chip Kelly and Nick Foles' offense. That can mean berserker numbers on the level of 1,500 yards and 12-plus touchdowns. Yes, Maclin is an injury risk, but the fact he missed all of last season is already negotiated into his reduced draft-day price.
We would have said 1,200-12 is possible even if Jackson was still on the Eagles. With Jackson gone and Foles coming off 27 touchdowns to just two interceptions, Maclin's 2014 ceiling can be arguably higher than even the once-incomparable Calvin Johnson.
Michael Crabtree, San Francisco 49ers
Crabtree "a sorry receiver?" Richard Sherman needs to get some knowledge.
Sure, Sherman is a smart Stanford guy. Perhaps even a smarter human than I. But his brain is clouded by his arrogance. Crabtree is anything but sorry.
In his draft class, Crabtree was the next Calvin Johnson. You could make a case Sherman was the next never-will-be in his. If Crabtree was picked by, say, the Denver Broncos, we could be telling you to pick Crabtree over Megatron right now.
Instead, Crabtree was stuck with the 49ers, a run-heavy team still searching for a franchise quarterback. They were going to finally unleash one as a full-year starter, Colin Kaepernick, for the first time in 2013, but Crabtree suffered the misfortune of a torn Achilles in OTAs. Just the fact Crabtree made it back at all last season is a medal of honor on his chest.
Crabtree has some work to do to reach his once limitless potential, but he has spent the entire offseason biting his cheek and working hard to prove Sherman to be the egg-headed fool he is. Crabtree is going to crush his modest draft position with a surprising 1,200-12 campaign, working with the emerging Kaepernick to become one of the most lethal combos in the NFL.
Randall Cobb, Green Bay Packers
You might be surprised to know Cobb hasn't already reached 1,000-10 as a receiver. With a full season of health for himself and quarterback Aaron Rodgers—particularly with Greg Jennings, James Jones, et al out of the way for the first time—a Cobb year of 1,000-10 might be the baseline expectation.
Certainly when you make him a top-10 fantasy wideout like everyone is doing this summer, you have to expect those numbers. Expecting those numbers and getting them are still two different beasts.
Cobb remains an injury risk because of his size (5'10", 192 pounds) and workload, but he is just so talented, and in the right system, he is going to go fantasy beast this year. The problem is that belief is so widely accepted, unlike with our two breakout candidates above.
Busts: All the Warning Signs Are Flashing on Houston Texans' Andre Johnson
We cannot believe the fantasy analysts are not projecting it. We are shocked even the drafting public is fooled.
Andre Johnson is a train heading in the wrong direction. That is, either off the track or into never-never land.
First, he has never been a sure thing with injury. Second, he is 33. We have already beaten that age-related risk topic to death in a previous slide. Finally, Ryan Fitzpatrick is his quarterback and, arguably most important, Johnson is unhappy about that.
There are just too many reasons to hate having Johnson as one of your starting wide receivers in fantasy this season. Yet, FantasyPros.com's consensus rankings slot him at No. 13 at the position. Then, the drafting public is picking him precisely there on average, according to FantasyPros.com.
And we just laugh, and laugh. Johnson is one of fantasy's easiest busts to see coming, so much so we even debated not calling him one.
We will revert you back to the injury risks slideshow and the age-production discussion if you are looking for our picks for busts outside of the obvious like Johnson. We didn't want to have to repeat ourselves here.
Sleepers: If You Want Them, They're Available in Droves at Wide Receiver
- Eric Decker, New York Jets (yes, even him, because his team has downgraded him to a reasonable level)
- Percy Harvin, Seattle Seahawks (injury-risk sleeper)
- Cordarrelle Patterson, Minnesota Vikings (only if he falls out of the top 25—the hype is so high, he might not)
- Kendall Wright, Tennessee Titans (third-year receiver)
- Terrance Williams, Dallas Cowboys (overlooked sophomore)
- Hakeem Nicks, Indianapolis Colts (downgrade due to injury risk, contract year and new face in a new place)
- Emmanuel Sanders, Denver Broncos (new face in new place)
- Tavon Austin, St. Louis Rams (overlooked sophomore)
- Danny Amendola, New England Patriots (second year in a new home)
- Rueben Randle, New York Giants (third-year receiver)
- Stevie Johnson, San Francisco 49ers (new face in new place)
- Aaron Dobson, New England Patriots (overlooked sophomore)
- Kenny Stills, New Orleans Saints (overlooked sophomore)
- Mohamed Sanu, Cincinnati Bengals (third-year receiver)
- Marvin Jones, Cincinnati Bengals (third-year receiver)
We giggled when we stumbled across a fantasy column on the Internet this week: "30 sleepers at wide receiver." We will save the website and writer the embarrassment of linking out to that balderdash.
So, what you're saying is, after the top 25 fantasy starting wideouts, the entire remainder of the receiver draft pool can be called sleepers. Uh, brilliant. Well, maybe not so much.
This anecdote does tell a story about sleepers at this position that we agree with, though. There are a lot of candidates to outperform their draft position. It is a reason we love the idea of shotgun shatter-shooting the position hard late in drafts. You increase your odds on catching the next big thing.
Here are some of our favorite candidates outside of the top 25 receivers who can outperform their modest draft position—which is the definition of a sleeper to us. Since we already touched on the rookie wideouts and tend to believe they're overvalued as a rule, we leave them out of the discussion entirely:
OK, so we didn't do much better, cutting our sleepers list at receiver to just 15. But we did give you some common categories to distinguish them from each other:
- Third-year receiver: We dealt with this phenomenon at Bleacher Report this spring. Catch up on it here.
- Overlooked sophomores: Because, as we said, we see rookie wideouts as being overrated and disappointing, there is some value to be regathered in that second year. We saw them as rookies and might not be impressed enough to pick them as high, but they will be better now.
- New face in a new place: A player joining just the right situation, or merely starting for the first time can surprise us.
- Second year in a new home: And, an offshoot of the previous category and related to the second one above, that first year isn't always all that it was cracked up to be. That second year the value can come back to us.
- Injury-risk sleeper: Injury stigma can drag down a player's draft position, but by some good graces of fate, said player who finally proves healthy and productive for a full season.
- Prime-timer: Age can have a high correlation with production at the skill positions, as proved in the injury slide. Those players just entering their prime (roughly age 24-27) can prove to be invaluable picks.
Contract Years: Monster Free-Agent Receiver Class Is Upon Us and the NFL
- Demaryius Thomas, Denver Broncos
- Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys
- Randall Cobb, Green Bay Packers
- Jeremy Maclin, Philadelphia Eagles (see Breakouts slide)
- Michael Crabtree, San Francisco 49ers
- Torrey Smith, Baltimore Ravens
- Cecil Shorts, Jacksonville Jaguars
- Hakeem Nicks, Indianapolis Colts
- Kenny Britt, St. Louis Rams
- Vincent Brown, San Diego Chargers
Wide receiver isn't quite degraded in free agency like the running back position at this point, but it is moving in that direction. A prime-aged star, DeSean Jackson, was released this winter to sign with a division rival for nary anything more than salary-cap relief. Additionally, the impressive draft prospects make for far less hoarding of the veterans as irreplaceable pieces.
Still, with the NFL-wide divas at wide receiver, you can see it being a position a contract year can motivate a player for a monster campaign. Just look at the names below. They are causing the lump in the throat of front-office types, especially those with their noses in the financials and salary cap.
We take a look at the top 10 players set for a big year due free agency at the end of the season (group compiled from Spotrac.com's 2015 free-agent list):
There are some big-time stars on that list that can blow the top off defenses and fantasy football. There are also some potential sleepers.
If there is any position we would advise you to reach up a round on a contract-year player, it is at wide receiver this year. This winter's free-agent class could be legendary and NFL teams don't mind paying the high bounty for special talents like these.
Draft-Day Strategies: Ways to Beat the Rush for the Receiving Fad
The record-setting passing influx the past decade has made wide receiver more and more enticing to fantasy owners, particularly in the early rounds. It has even changed the way we play and score fantasy, making PPR (points-per-reception) leagues, along with three wideouts and a flex, more of the norm.
It has all added dynamics in how to handle the shopper's rush for the receiver items on the shelf.
We break down some of the potential ways to manage it all here:
- In PPR leagues, get two WRs in first four rounds: It used to be you had to pound the running back position early. Now, you have to do it with the premium wideouts. You need to get at least one of the top 12 and a second that fits in the top 25. They tend to be off the board by Round 5.
- Hone in on the elite quarterbacks: What the? A strategy for handling the rush on receivers is to pick a quarterback in Round 2? Yeah, when the sheep are all walking in the same direction, you can get a better route going around them. Pick a quarterback and use the middle rounds to take copious fliers on the next wave of fantasy receiving gems. There are surprises in this group every year and you could serendipitously snag one. Also, the elite quarterbacks make the third and fourth receivers into fantasy sleepers. You can hone in on them that way, too, to help you fill your receiver depth.
- Target third-year receivers: As discussed previously in this slideshow, it can take some time for fantasy value to show itself at an artful position like this one.
- Buy into receivers younger than 29: As we said in the age-related injury risks, you want guys that can outperform their draft position, not disappoint from it.
- Max out your reserve spots: Many leagues restrict the number of receivers you can roster. If you miss out on the mad early rush for the elite wideouts, you will want to make sure you attack the fad-like position in volume. Increase your odds of catching a breakout and sleeper by maxing out on your receiver fliers.
Eric Mack, one of the giants among fantasy writers, is the Fantasy Football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, where you can ask him endless questions about your team, rip him for his content and even challenge him to a head-to-head fantasy game.