With each passing year, wide receivers as a whole continue to gain ground among all fantasy positions, becoming ever more important to fantasy leagues. Last season, three running backs scored more points than top receiver Antonio Brown, but nine receivers reached 190 points in standard-scoring leagues. Only eight running backs crossed that same threshold. It was the first season ever that more receivers hit the 190-point mark than running backs.
The fantasy community is in for more of the same this season. More than half of the first 15 picks in your draft this season could very well be pass catchers, and they likely should be. Brown, Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas have been three of the most consistently elite players, regardless of position, over the last two seasons (three seasons, in Bryant’s and Thomas’s case). Receivers as prolific as Golden Tate, who had 99 catches and 1,331 yards in 2015, and DeSean Jackson, who has averaged 1,250.5 yards and 7.5 touchdowns over the last two seasons, are outside the top 20 by average draft position. It’s a golden age for receivers in the NFL.
There are plenty of different ways to attack at receiver, but make sure you strike. You do not want to be left behind in fantasy football’s most reliably bankable position.
Elite: Dez Bryant, Cowboys
You could make an argument for at least four receivers in the top spot this season. I’d actually extend it to seven, but everyone can envision Bryant, Brown, Thomas or Odell Beckham Jr. finishing the season on top of the impressive group. For my money, Bryant enters the season as the best of arguably the most star-studded bunch in recent fantasy memory.
Why Bryant and not one of the other elite guys at the position, you ask? It’s all about touchdowns. Receiving scores can be volatile. After all, Andre Johnson, who will be in Canton when his career is over, has never had 10 scores in a season. Bryant has seemed to unlock the secret to making consistent trips to the end zone from the receiver position. Over the last three years, Bryant has 41 touchdowns, good for .91 per game, the highest per-game rate in the league. Bryant has also missed just one game in total over the last four seasons. He’s extremely durable, and that’s something you need in a first-round pick. Brown, Thomas, Beckham, Jordy Nelson, Calvin Johnson and Julio Jones are all great in their own right, but Bryant is as much of a sure thing as it gets. Not only is he the top receiver, he’s a worthy top-five overall pick.
Breakout: Michael Floyd, Cardinals
Wait, wait, wait. Before you cancel out of this tab, just hear me out on Floyd. I know he left a lot of you jilted at the altar last season. Believe me, I was right there with you, watching my Julia Roberts run back down the aisle, dropping passes along the way. Floyd may not have had the breakout year so many of us were expecting in 2014, but don’t let that turn you against him this time around. As bad as Floyd’s season was last year—and make no mistake, it was atrocious, especially when compared to preseason expectations—he still had 841 yards and six touchdowns, finishing as the No. 32 receiver in standard-scoring leagues. He also hauled in 13 passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air for 482 yards and five scores. That made him sixth in catches, seventh in yards and fourth in touchdowns on deep passes.
Floyd is still a premier deep threat, and with his 6’3”, 220-pound frame, he should be a significant weapon in the red zone for Carson Palmer. All the tools that made Floyd an intriguing pick last year are still present. This is the season he becomes a top-20 receiver.
Steal: Victor Cruz, Giants
Given Cruz’s consensus WR49 ranking on FantasyPros, behind guys like Davante Adams, John Brown and Breshad Perriman, you’d think he was still rehabbing his knee off the field. The only thing is, Cruz is already practicing in pads, albeit on what the Giants are calling a pitch count. There’s no doubt that he still has work to do to get back to the receiver he was before last season’s gruesome knee injury, but the fact that he’s already participating in practice says a lot about where he is in the process.
The Giants have all the ingredients to have one of the most dangerous aerial attacks in the league, yet Cruz’s ADP languishes behind players who, while serviceable, don’t have anywhere near his ceiling. Assuming Cruz’s knee plays at somewhere in the neighborhood of 90% for the entire season, there’s no way he finishes outside the top 30 at the position. He’s too good and there’s too much potency in the Giants’ passing game for him to do any worse than that. Cruz had his two best seasons when Hakeem Nicks was occupying attention on the other side of the field, and Beckham is already 10 times the receiver Nicks ever was. Cruz will provide one of the greatest returns on investment at receiver this year.
Reach: Brandin Cooks, Saints
There’s plenty of reason to be excited about Cooks this season. He was already one of the top options in the New Orleans passing game before a broken thumb ended his season in mid-November. With Jimmy Graham in Seattle and Kenny Stills in Miami, there should be more targets to go around this season. Cooks, however, is going to need a huge percentage of those targets to justify his 35.6 ADP, which makes him the 14th receiver off the board in a typical draft. The second-year man out of Oregon State had 550 yards on 70 targets last year, an average of 7.86 yards per target. Just four of his 53 receptions went for at least 20 yards. Only one receiver with a minimum of 50 catches, Harry Douglas, had fewer for 20-plus yards. Some players who had more 20-yard receptions were Fred Jackson (six), Mychal Rivera (six) and Riley Cooper (five). Marques Colston remains one of Drew Brees’s favorite receivers, and the Saints brought in C.J. Spiller to be their latest pass-catching threat out of the backfield. Unless Cooks take an unforeseen step in the deep-ball department, he’s not going to justify his ADP.
Injury Risk: Julio Jones, Falcons
Let’s first be clear before we get into the meat of this section: Jones is one of the best receivers in the league and can be the No. 1 overall player at the position. I wouldn’t even consider someone as good as Alshon Jeffery or Randall Cobb over him because of injury questions. Jones should be, at worst, the sixth receiver off the board in your draft. The point, though, is that Jones carries a greater injury risk than most of his fellow elite receivers. We already covered how durable Bryant is. The Packers’ Nelson hasn’t missed a game since 2012. The same is true for Pittsburgh’s Brown. Demaryius Thomas has played every game in the last three seasons. Johnson and Beckham both have general injury concerns at the start of 2015, as well, but Jones is the only one who has missed more than four games in an individual season.
The Falcons’ superstar has dealt with injury problems in three of his four seasons in the league, and while he missed just one game last year, a balky ankle had him at less than 100 percent for a few games in the middle of the season. Jones’s heightened injury risk is why I’d take Bryant, Brown, Thomas, Beckham and Nelson ahead of him this year.
Rookie To Watch: Amari Cooper, Raiders
Last year’s wide receiver class was quite the act for this season’s group to follow, almost guaranteeing that they’ll feel like a bit of a letdown. From Beckham to Mike Evans to Kelvin Benjamin to Martavis Bryant, last year’s group was truly special and would be nearly impossible for any class to match. If one guy could spearhead an encore, however, Cooper would be it. The Alabama product was dominant in his final season in Tuscaloosa, hauling in 124 balls for 1,727 yards and 16 touchdowns. Cooper won the Biletnikoff Award, was a unanimous All-American and finished third in the Heisman voting behind Marcus Mariota and Melvin Gordon.
While he landed in a less-than-ideal spot with the Raiders, few players with his talent end up with great teams in their rookie year. Evans proved last year, though, that a rookie receiver doesn’t need an All-Pro quarterback throwing him the ball to have a monster season. Cooper has the look of a top-10 receiver in the future. He’s not going to reach those heights this season, but he already has WR2 upside as a first-year player.
Lottery ticket: Brian Quick, Rams
Through his first two years in St. Louis, Quick has failed to live up to the billing. Remember, the Rams used the first pick of the second round, on Quick in 2012. The Appalachian State product caught all of 29 passes in his first two seasons in the league and looked like a bust at age 25. All that started to change for him in year three, which can often be a transformative season for receivers.
In the Rams’ first four games last year, Quick had 21 catches for 322 yards and three touchdowns, which comes out to 12.55 fantasy points per game in standard-scoring leagues. Three weeks later, he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. Quick is still working his way back from that surgery, but all indications point to him being 100% by the start of the season. Quick’s not going to cost you more than one of your final picks in a draft, or a buck or two in an auction, yet he appeared on his way to a breakout campaign last season before the shoulder injury. Make certain that he’s on your radar on draft day.
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