With the NFL becoming more of a passing league, the fantasy statistics of quarterbacks exploded in 2011. The common assumption is that the fantasy value of the league’s wide receivers has risen alongside that of quarterbacks.
However, in this situation, the common adage that a rising tide lifts all boats is only partially true.
In 2011, the production of the league’s top 10 fantasy wide receivers increased by an average of eight points. However, the average production of the 11th to 20th ranked receivers increased just one point and there was a two point increase for receivers ranked 21st to 30th.
What that means is that additional production in the passing game is going to running backs, tight ends and lower tier receivers (oftentimes, those not useful for fantasy purposes other than in the deepest leagues).
If you’re looking for how this translates into a strategy at your fantasy auction, the takeaway is that it makes sense to grab an upper tier wide receiver early in your draft but use two of your first three picks on the position is likely not the best option. One of those picks needs to be for a running back and the other should go towards an elite quarterback, another running back or perhaps one of the top two tight ends.
With the first wave of free agency over, here are my initial 2012 fantasy football wide receiver rankings:
The Top 30
1. Calvin Johnson, Lions – If anybody else was here, you would quit reading.
2. Andre Johnson, Texans – The last two seasons have proven that Johnson isn’t getting any younger but his talent and the lack of talent amongst Houston’s other receivers land him at number two.
3. Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals – With perhaps the second worst quarterback play in the league last season, Fitzgerald still managed 80 receptions for 1,411 yards and 8 touchdowns. Just imagine if the Cards would have landed Peyton Manning.
4. Roddy White, Falcons – These days, everybody likes the shiny, new gadget. In Atlanta, I like the old gadget and look no further than his performance from Week 11 to 17 last season (733 yards and five touchdowns).
5. Greg Jennings, Packers – Jordy Nelson put up better numbers but Jennings remains the Big Dog in the Packers receiving corps.
6. Hakeem Nicks, Giants – See above, remove Jordy Nelson, insert Victor Cruz.
7. Wes Welker, Patriots – Sorry Patriots fans, but the presence of Brandon Lloyd means more shots down the field and fewer opportunities for Welker.
8. A.J. Green, Bengals – If there was one reason to watch the Bengals last year, A.J. Green was it. If Andy Dalton keeps improving, Green is destined to be a top 5 fantasy wide receiver by 2013 at the latest.
9. Marques Colston, Saints – Over his last 11 games, Colston put up 985 receiving yards and eight touchdowns, making him the 3rd ranked wide receiver over that period. He then put up 256 receiving yards and a score in two playoff games. Also doesn’t hurt that Robert Meachem left town.
10. Mike Wallace, Steelers – With Rashard Mendenhall out, Wallace figures to be featured even more in 2012.
11. Jordy Nelson, Packers – This guy will prove that his 2011 production (1,263 yards and 15 touchdowns on just 68 receptions) was no fluke. Expect an increase on the 96 targets he had last season.
12. Percy Harvin, Vikings – Harvin was unstoppable over the Vikings final nine games, putting up 691 receiving yards, 176 rushing yard and eight touchdowns. With Adrian Peterson coming off a torn ACL, Harvin should be solid once again in 2012.
13. Brandon Marshall, Bears – Will being reunited with Jay Cutler make Marshall a top 10 fantasy wide receiver once again? Not quite.
14. Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs – Quarterback Matt Cassel was lost in Week 10. Prior to that, Bowe was the 7th ranked fantasy wide receiver. Yes, Tyler Palko killed his fantasy value.
15. Julio Jones, Falcons – This kid is dynamite but his hammies cause me some concern.
16. Dez Bryant, Cowboys – Let’s face it. This guy has top five potential but he’s not going to get there with the 6.9 targets per game he had last year.
17. Vincent Jackson, Buccaneers – The Chargers offense is better than the Bucs and Josh Freeman is no match for Philip Rivers.
18. Steve Smith, Panthers – Smith had a renaissance season in 2011, catching 79 passes for 1,394 yards and 7 touchdowns. However, he will be 33 years old on opening day and the Panthers passing attack won’t surprise anybody in 2012.
19. Miles Austin, Cowboys – Just 27 years old, Austin is entering his 7th season in the league. He remains wonderfully talented but he couldn’t stay healthy last season and might not be the top dog on his own team.
20. DeSean Jackson, Eagles – He’s risky and wildly inconsistent but there’s no way he can be as bad he was last year.
21. Victor Cruz, Giants – I keep reading his stat line (1,536 yards and nine touchdowns) and I keep pinching myself. No, I don’t quite believe and I’m having a hard time putting him here.
22. Steve Johnson, Bills – It doesn’t feel right putting him this low but he has benefited from a lot of targets and the production opposite him can’t be as bad as it was last year. Or can it?
23. Kenny Britt, Titans – If it weren’t for injury, brain cramps and quarterback concerns, Britt would be much higher.
24. Jeremy Maclin, Eagles – I’m making the call that the ten touchdowns he scored as part of the Eagles high-flying 2010 offense were an aberration.
25. Demaryius Thomas, Broncos – I read that Thomas is the most physically gifted wide receiver that Peyton Manning has ever played with. Unfortunately, he’s not the best receiver that Manning ever played with. And the injury history cannot be ignored.
26. Michael Crabtree, 49ers – Over the season’s final 11 games, Crabtree caught 61 passes for 742 yards and four touchdowns. Projected over an entire season, that would make him a mid-tier WR2 but that won’t happen with Mario Manningham and Randy Moss in San Francisco.
27. Antonio Brown, Steelers – Breakout season in 2011 but lack of touchdowns hurts his fantasy value. Doesn’t help that Emmanuel Sanders figures to be healthy for 2012.
28. Brandon Lloyd, Patriots – You see a player being reunited with the offensive guru who help propel him to a career-year. I see a player who is his team’s fourth option in the passing game.
29. Torrey Smith, Ravens – Meet Baltimore’s new number one receiver.
30. Reggie Wayne, Colts – Repeat after me. Top wide receiver on a doormat that will have to throw plenty. Garbage time production, folks.
On the outside looking in: Darrius Heyward-Bey, Anquan Boldin, Sidney Rice, Robert Meachem, Malcom Floyd, Lance Moore, Pierre Garcon, Santonio Holmes, Eric Decker, Nate Washington, Laurent Robinson and Mario Manningham.