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Fantasy football wide receiver primer: Everything to know heading into 2016

Can you win your league without an elite WR? Which mid-round pick has the best chance to crack the top 10? Those questions and more, plus full rankings, in our WR primer.

We’re no longer in the throes of the receiver revolution. It finally ended last year, with the receivers emerging triumphant. Primacy in the fantasy world is now the purview of the wide receiver position.

The first three picks in a typical fantasy draft this season will be receivers. They could make up more than half of your league’s first and second rounds. That’s not simply a reaction to last year, but to a seasons-long trend brought on by rules and style changes that have made the forward pass more lucrative than ever.

Last year, six receivers scored 200 or more fantasy points in standard-scoring leagues. Only two running backs, Devonta Freeman and Adrian Peterson, crossed that threshold. Four receivers—Julio Jones, Antonio Brown, DeAndre Hopkins and Brandon Marshall—had more receiving yards than Peterson, the league’s leading rusher, had on the ground. That happened four times combined from 2007 through ’14.

Receivers may not be the undisputed kings of the fantasy game, but if fantasy football were governed by a parliamentary system, they would certainly have more seats. Get a full overview of the position with our 2016 wide receiver primer. My complete receiver rankings, along with fellow fantasy writer Pat Fitzmaurice's, can be found at the bottom of the story.

Burning questions

Who’s No. 4?

Reasonable people can disagree about the exact order of the top three receivers, but most everyone has Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham and Julio Jones leading the position. Receiver rankings start to get interesting at No. 4, where, in my estimation, you could argue for as many as six different receivers. I originally tabbed Jordy Nelson as my No. 4 receiver, but the 31-year-old, who’s coming back from a torn right ACL, added left knee tendinitis to his list of ailments at training camp. DeAndre Hopkins finished third in the NFL in yards and receptions last year and is clearly one of the best young receivers in the league. Allen Robinson, too, is in that group after hauling in 80 passes for 1,400 yards and a league-leading 14 receiving touchdowns last season. Mike Evans is also on the ascent, a fact that’s as plain as day if you understand that receiving touchdowns are one of the most volatile stats in football. Forget about his three scores last year and give more credence to his new career highs in receptions, yards and yards per catch. Dez Bryant suffered through a lost season thanks to his own injury, as well as Tony Romo’s twice-broken collarbone, but he averaged 1,311 yards and 13 touchdowns—rounding down to the nearest whole number—from 2012–14.

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All five of those guys could rightly be the No. 4 receiver on draft day, but for my money, the honor belongs to A.J. Green. The sixth-year player out of Georgia has somehow turned into one of the most underappreciated receivers in the league, despite the fact that he has averaged 81.2 yards and 0.59 touchdowns per game in his career. That comes out to 1,299.2 yards and 9.44 touchdowns in a full season, or 11.66 fantasy points per game. With Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu out of Cincinnati, Green could be looking at a new career high in targets this year. He has always been a complete receiver, combining an ability to get deep with efficiency in the red zone that is nearly unmatched. Remember, the early rounds of your draft are about locking in high floors. If that same high-floor player brings elite upside to the table as well, that’s all the better. Green doesn’t quite have the ceiling of Hopkins or Bryant, but he has the highest floor at the position, after the big three.

Can you win your league without an elite receiver?

It used to be that you needed one of the best backs in the league to win your fantasy championship. Over the last few seasons, receivers have, at the very least, wrested an equal share of that fantasy spotlight, as evidenced by the top of 2016 draft boards. Just like the previous focus on backs created buying opportunities at receiver early in drafts, so, too, does the newfound love of the passing game make top-tier backs more attractive from the standpoint of relative value. But can a fantasy owner win by fading receivers in the first few rounds with the way passing dominates today’s NFL?

Understand while you’re doing your draft prep that almost any strategy can win you a fantasy title. Building a championship-caliber team in a draft or auction is less about hewing to some predetermined strategy and more about having fully formulated thoughts on all the fantasy-relevant players, and then making the necessary adjustments in midstream as the draft or auction takes shape. The short answer is yes, you can absolutely still win your league if you don’t get a receiver early. There are two primary reasons why that is the case.

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First, consider a player like Lamar Miller. He’s coming off consecutive top-10 seasons, rushing for 4.81 yards per carry while catching 85 passes and scoring 19 total touchdowns the last two years. He’s 25 years old and now part of a Houston team that will feature him in a way Miami never did. Five years ago, Miller would have been an easy top-five pick. In the new fantasy football regime, you can reliably get him at the end of the first round. Just as a receiver like Calvin Johnson was undervalued at the end of last decade, backs like Miller are now undervalued because of the receiver craze.

Second, lax passing rules and a league-wide love affair with three- and four-receiver sets hasn’t only benefited receivers at the top of the food chain. Those in the middle, and even late, rounds are eating better than ever before. Consider Eric Decker, who had 1,027 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, but has a fifth-round ADP. Or Golden Tate, who’s coming off two straight 90-catch seasons, in which he totaled 2,144 yards and 10 touchdowns, and is now the No. 1 receiver in Detroit. You can get him at the end of the fourth round in a typical draft. Randall Cobb and Julian Edelman are also fourth-round picks. Michael Floyd and Jeremy Maclin are fifth-round picks. Forty receivers come off the board in an average draft before Markus Wheaton, who’s likely to start in Pittsburgh, and Torrey Smith, who has four top-25 seasons in his first five years in the league.

Receivers are all the rage in the fantasy game, and with good reason. Don’t let that obscure the fact that now, as always, securing excess value relative to your league’s specific draft-day market is the key to building a winning fantasy roster.

Which mid-round receiver has the best shot to crack the top 10?

In each of the last three seasons, at least one receiver has jumped from the sixth round or later into the top 10 at the position by season’s end. We’ve seen veterans do it, like Maclin in 2014 and Brown in ’13. We’ve seen popular breakout picks, such as Robinson last year, make the leap. We’ve seen rookies pull it off, too, highlighted by Beckham and Evans two seasons ago. It’s safe to say someone, and more likely at least two receivers, will do it this year. The hard part is determining who it will be.

DeVante Parker has an early-seventh-round ADP, and while that could climb higher over the next few weeks, he’ll almost certainly be, at best, a late fifth-rounder. You’ll want to be sure to have his name at the top of your mind, because he has all the makings of a breakout player. In fact, he could easily be in the breakout section later in the column, but he’s the perfect fit for this question.

One of the many failings of the previous regime in Miami was the total disregard for what Parker could do immediately upon stepping on an NFL field. To be fair, he was coming off foot surgery that slowed him in training camp and early in the season, but he played more than 30% of the team’s snaps twice before Week 12. From that point forward, he played 91% of Miami’s snaps and, to the shock of no one other than perhaps Joe Philbin and Dan Campbell, he was excellent. Parker caught 22 passes for 445 yards and three touchdowns in those six games, averaging 10.42 points per game in standard-scoring leagues. Had he maintained that pace all year, he would’ve been the No. 13 receiver, sandwiched between Brandin Cooks and Demaryius Thomas.

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Adam Gase is not going to make the mistakes of his predecessors in Miami. Parker was the 14th overall pick last year for a reason, and he’s going to be heavily featured in the Dolphins offense this season. If Gase can get the same growth out of Ryan Tannehill that he did from Jay Cutler last year, there’s no telling what Parker’s second year in the league could look like. There is a strong chance, though, that it ends with him in the top 10 at the position.

Who’s the position’s ultimate boom-or-bust pick?

Kevin White was the seventh overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft, but we’ve yet to see him play a snap in the league. We know he has the talent and pedigree to be a top-10 pick in real life, and yet he hasn’t played a meaningful football game since West Virginia’s 45–37 loss to Texas A&M in the 2014 Liberty Bowl. That’s the definition of a boom-or-bust pick.

White is fully healthy after missing all of last season with a shin injury. He was a full participant at all of Chicago’s off-season workouts, from mini-camp to OTAs, and has been alongside Alshon Jeffery in the first-team offense at training camp. He’s going to start and have a large role in a Bears offense in which there is no sure thing, outside of Cutler and Jeffery. Opportunity is not going to be an issue for White. It’s up to him to prove he can capitalize on it.

The 24-year-old starred in his final season in Morgantown, catching 109 passes for 1,447 yards and 10 touchdowns. At 6' 3" and 215 pounds, he gives Cutler another big, physical receiver who can win jump balls—one of Cutler’s favorite throws, as we all know—and make tough catches in tight spots, especially in the red zone. While Jeffery makes his way with incredible body control and one of the best sets of hands in the league, White brings more speed to the table, which could very well turn him into Chicago’s top deep threat this year.

You won’t have to pay much to make the bet on White. His ADP places him at the end of the seventh round. That’s an appropriate price for a player with a sky-high ceiling who hasn’t played a down in 20 months.

Which late-round lottery ticket has the best chance of turning into fantasy gold?

There are a few strong candidates here, including Sammie Coates, Josh Doctson, Will Fuller and Rishard Matthews. None of them, however, has the upside of Michael Thomas.

The Saints selected Thomas, an Ohio State product, in the second round with the 47th overall pick in this year’s draft. He had a strong career in Columbus, catching a total of 110 balls for 1,580 yards and 18 touchdowns in his final two seasons. He may not have been the first receiver taken, but he arguably landed in the best spot, giving him a chance to make a significant impact as a rookie.

Thomas, who stands 6' 3" and checks in at 212 pounds, is already impressing in training camp. He’s likely to start opposite Cooks and be on the field in nearly all of the Saints’ many three-receiver sets. He gives Drew Brees something he lacked last year, an explosive, big receiver outside the numbers, essentially stepping into the spot vacated by Marques Colston. It’s never a bad idea to invest in an offense led by Brees, and Thomas lets you do so at a cheap price. The upside here is enormous.


Wide Receiver Categories

Elite: Antonio Brown, Steelers

Beckham or Jones could easily be in this spot, but, if you’ve read any of our other primers, you know that we prize consistency and track record even more highly than explosive, week-winning ability. There isn’t a player at any position who has been more consistent over the last three seasons than Brown.

Just read these averages, which would seem impossible to fathom if we hadn’t all watched it happen. From 2013 through last year, Brown has posted 125 receptions, 1,677 yards and 10.3 touchdowns in an average season. He has gone north of 1,600 yards twice, and would have been the first 2,000-yard receiver in NFL history last year if Ben Roethlisberger didn’t get hurt. In the last three years with Roethlisberger under center, Brown has averaged 14.42 fantasy points per game, which translates to 230.68 points over a full season. Going back to 2000, that would have made him no worse than the No. 3 receiver in any season, and the top receiver four times. Beckham and Jones are not far behind, but Brown is the best you can do. He’s not only the top receiver, but should also be the No. 1 overall pick in all fantasy formats.

Breakout: Sammy Watkins, Bills

This is the year for Watkins to take his place among the league’s best receivers. He has shown flashes of greatness in his first two seasons but hasn’t truly broken out, thanks in part to injuries and a Buffalo offense that has left something to be desired, both in terms of efficiency and potency. Everything has aligned, though, for Watkins to take the leap this season.

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First of all, while Watkins has perhaps fallen a bit shy of expectations thus far in his career, he still had 60 catches for 1,047 yards and nine touchdowns last season. In Tyrod Taylor, Watkins has a promising, young quarterback with whom he has already built a strong rapport and can continue to grow. Despite the fact that this will be his third season in the league, Watkins turned just 23 in June. Not only is he getting better by way of experience, but he’s also improving organically as he moves toward his physical prime.

Watkins finished last year with a bang, catching 35 passes for 679 yards and six touchdowns over his last six games, putting up 17.32 points in an average contest. He had at least one touchdown or 80 yards in all six games and topped 100 yards four times, showing the consistency that is the hallmark of an elite receiver. He opened camp on the physically unable to perform list because of a broken bone in his foot that required surgery in the off-season, but his status for Week 1 is not in jeopardy. Watkins is set for a monster season, bringing top-five upside, and a top-20 floor, at a low-end WR2 price.

Value: Demaryius Thomas, Broncos

Thomas’s ADP is just higher than Watkins’s, placing him at the end of the third round of a typical 12-team draft. That matches up with his FantasyPros consensus ranking, where he’s 16th among receivers and 29th overall. Given the state of Denver’s quarterback situation, it’s understandable why a player like Thomas is slipping to the end of the third round. It also greatly undersells his individual talent.

There’s no reason for me to go over all of Thomas’s accomplishments, like his three straight 1,400-yard seasons from 2012–14, or the fact that he was the only receiver in the league to finish in the top five in fantasy points all of those years. You already know that. Instead, let’s focus on what he did last season, when Peyton Manning became an ineffectual quarterback and Brock Osweiler started seven games. Those two combined for 19 touchdowns, 23 interceptions and 6.96 yards per attempt.

Somehow, in those terrible conditions, Thomas caught 105 passes for 1,304 yards and six scores, finishing as fantasy’s No. 13 receiver. He was seventh in receptions and yards, making him one of five receivers in the top seven in both categories. If you want to believe that he’s going to fall to mid-to-low WR2 status simply because Mark Sanchez is under center, feel free. I’ll happily take one of this season’s biggest draft-day bargains on all of my teams.

Reach: Kelvin Benjamin, Panthers

Here’s someone with an ADP slightly higher than Thomas’s that just does not stand up to any serious scrutiny. The case for Benjmain as a safe WR2 and mid third-round pick seems logical. He had 73 receptions for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns as a rookie, and was widely viewed as a high-end WR2 last year before tearing his ACL in training camp. Cam Newton is coming off a unanimous MVP season in which he legitimized his pure quarterbacking bona fides for a lot of previous doubters. Put Benjamin back in that offense, and he should thrive. Or so the thinking goes.

There are just a few problems with that. First, returning from a torn ACL isn’t as simple as cracking your knuckles and getting back on the field. Benjamin undoubtedly put in the work, but there remain a lot of unknowns for any player returning from such a devastating injury. If he’s a step slower, lost even a hint of explosiveness or just needs a few games to shake off the rust, that’s going to hurt his bottom line.

Second, as good as Newton was throwing the ball last season, this is still a team that butters its bread with the run game, especially in the red zone. Only the Bills ran more often—as a percentage of total plays—than the Panthers last season. Carolina led the league with 109 rushing plays inside the red zone. Cincinnati was second with 86, meaning there was a larger gap between the Panthers and Bengals than between the Bengals and Cardinals, who were eighth. The Panthers ran the ball on 60.2% of their red-zone plays, second to only the Vikings (63.8%).

Benjamin will change the dynamic of the Carolina offense, but not to the degree that so many in the fantasy community seem to expect. I’d feel a lot better about him a round or round and a half later than his ADP.

Michael Beller’s WR Rankings

2016 Fantasy Football Rankings powered by FantasyProsECR ™ - Expert Consensus Rankings, ADP - Average Draft Position

Pat Fitzmaurice's WR Rankings

Fantasy Football Rankings powered by FantasyPros