Eric Mack: Fantasy football 2012 WR preview - Sports Illustrated

Fantasy football 2012 WR preview

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You can't raise the bar on quarterback play in the NFL without jacking up the profile of the wide receivers catching the balls on the other end. That is just what happened a year ago. And this year the wideout position in fantasy is as deep and strong as it has ever been.

But save for one season of Randy Moss and a record 23 touchdowns (2007), there hasn't been one imposing figure standing alone at the top of the receiver mountain. Until now: the Lions' Calvin Johnson is the only player in fantasy that is in his own tier among his peers.

Check that, he has no peer -- no matter how strong and deep the next group of fantasy options here has become.

Johnson, 26, is making a legendary combination with emerging star quarterback Matthew Stafford and might be a threat to win the receiver triple crown, leading in receptions, yards and TDs. The man-child seemingly without a weakness is appropriately known as Megatron, the antagonist from the Transformers fable.

Megatron is a one-man villain to your fellow fantasy owners now and for years to come.

We break down the rest of the crowded wide receiver position in depth here, including the top 95 potential draft picks by tiers below:

Julio Jones, Falcons -- It doesn't take a scout or analyst to notice the talent that is the Falcons' Jones. He's physical, fast and nearly cracked 1,000 yards and 10 TDs as a rookie, despite missing three games and getting limited action in three others. That is almost a 100-yards-and-a-score average in the 10 other games. Impressive stuff. Assuming the Falcons can get a full season out of him in a more pass-friendly offense, his numbers may explode with Matt Ryan and opposite Roddy White. This is a candidate we could see challenging Megatron for honors as the best receiver in fantasy.

Demaryius Thomas, Broncos -- If you're anything like this fantasy analyst you saw Thomas streaking through the Steelers defense in overtime of last January's playoff game and thought: This is the third-year wide receiver breakout of 2012. With Peyton Manning now in the mix the hype has really taken off. Thomas missed the first five games of last season and came on strong late with a limited Tim Tebow getting him the ball in a run-heavy scheme. With Manning, 1,000 yards and 10 TDs might be the basement for the numbers if Thomas can stay healthy for 16 games.

Torrey Smith, Ravens -- He wasn't a consistent threat as a rookie, but he was, at times, a dominant fantasy option. Owners just had to guess when his big games were going to come; they came without notice. A second year in the offense and an improving Joe Flacco should help Smith prove more consistent in Year 2. He might not have the best situation of the potential breakouts above, since the Ravens figure to remain a run-oriented offense, but his talent is on the level of anyone near his draft position.

Brandon Marshall, Bears -- Marshall, 28, lost his 100-catch mojo in Miami, but it figures there is the potential he gets it back, reconnecting with his former Denver quarterback, Jay Cutler, in Chicago. The Bears are a defensive and running team, but Cutler has proved to play favorites with his primary receiver and that should keep Marshall among the leaders in targets on a game-to-game basis. At least that's what many people think. The questions here revolve around his chronic issues with drops, a lack of a receiver opposite him to keep him from being double covered, and most important of all, his own psychological instability. Marshall was dealt to the Bears shortly have an alleged night club incident that might have drawn a suspension. That situation has taken care of itself, but history suggests another one may not be far away. For so many years, Marshall has been his own worst enemy. He is getting a lot of love in early drafts, but by no means is he a sure thing.

Steve Smith, Panthers -- A record-setting rookie QB revived Smith a year ago, but 33-year-old receivers weighing retirement generally do not generate career years. Smith started all 16 games for only the second time in his career -- and the first since 2005 -- so there clearly are durability questions. Also, is it possible Cam Newton regresses after such a smashing rookie year? That's a strong possibility. While some might see Newton as a monster only ticking up and Smith capable of staving off Father Time for at least one more year, there's this: Smith only caught four passes in the red zone a year ago. He just isn't a touchdown threat, so you could be paying a premium for a 75-catch, 1,000-year receiver who just fails to live up to the hype because of a low TD total. Without the touchdowns, Smith just won't be worth his lofty draft position.

Vincent Jackson, Buccaneers -- The 29-year-old Northern Colorado product had arguably his best season in 2011 while heading into free agency. That landed him in Tampa Bay. But as good as last season was, Jackson still was a shaky fantasy option week-to-week because of remarkably frustrating inconsistency. Despite fairly consistent targets, he had numerous weeks (10) with low reception totals (less than four catches per game). In fact, he had just five weeks with greater than that number. That was with a potential fantasy MVP Philip Rivers getting him the ball down field. Now with the still-developing Josh Freeman, Jackson should no longer be considered an elite fantasy option. You shouldn't draft him as a starter in two-receiver formats. He could be a 50-catch, 750-yard, five-TD disappointment.

Titus Young, Lions -- The Boise State rookie didn't have big numbers in his first year, mostly because Megatron was just so heavily used on the other side. But he made a big enough of an impact to be considered for a breakthrough in Year 2. Stafford looks capable of racking up yardage and TDs with the elite of fantasy, and Young figures to be a large part of that. This is a receiver that might not get picked in the top 35 or 40 at his position, but he can sneak up for 1,000 yards and 10 TDs, which is top 10-15 production.

Darrius Heyward-Bey, Raiders -- He has finally progressed from early first-round pick to viable starter for the Raiders and maybe even a fantasy starter for owners. Three of his four TDs came in the final month of the season, and the Raiders passing game has potential to offer more with the vertical attack of Carson Palmer for a full season. A full offseason and training camp with Palmer should do wonders for DHB's timing and status as the Raiders' go-to man. Denarius Moore can make a case as that, too, but Palmer targeted DHB in the final game of last season 17 times and the rookie Moore just six.

Vincent Brown, Chargers -- He hardly made a dent as a rookie, but the departure of Vincent Jackson and the additions of Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal make Philip Rivers' best option on the outside a bit up in the air. Tight end Antonio Gates draws a lot of coverage underneath and down the seam, so Brown can be used as a home-run hitter on the outside. This is a good time to buy low on a potential breakthrough talent playing in a potentially potent offense, particularly if Rivers cuts the turnovers back and steps back into the elite.

1. League of his own -- Megatron has his own tier because he has so many of the variables you want in a leading fantasy receiver: A wide-open offense, an emerging star QB, solid options opposite him to take the pressure off, consistency, durability (finally) and stands to be his team's primary red-zone threat. No one is close.

2. Rest of the No. 1s -- It won't matter the format, these guys are rock-solid front-men for your fantasy receiving corps.

3. Rest of the must-starts -- There is a lot of potential in this group, so you should feel confident enough in these guys to not worry about having to sit them in unfavorable matchups.

4. Starter-quality options -- Depending on how many receivers your format calls for, you should feel good about slotting these guys as starters. Save for a few here, they are their team's clear No. 1 wideout.

5. Flex candidates -- With this pass-happy NFL, this group probably warrants a look as a starter in formats. They have some flaws, though, so you will want to consider the matchups with them.

6. Bye-week replacements -- These are the late-round picks you will feel better if you didn't have to slot them as options to start out of the gate.

7. Roster-fillers -- This large final group contains the remaining options you should consider in the late rounds on draft day. They need some injuries, or a number of things to go right, to have true fantasy value this year.