Simon Bruty/SI
By Michael Beller
August 05, 2014

The fantasy football world was thrown in flux a few years ago with a two-front attack on the time-tested sacrosanct strategy of drafting running backs early. First was the rise in running-back timeshares that whittled away at the number of true workhorse runners in the league. Second was the increase in pass-first offenses that increased the value of wide receivers. Last year, the transition was completed. Receivers are today what running backs were 10 years ago.

FANTASY FOOTBALL POSITION RANKINGS AND PROJECTIONS:

How does that transition manifest itself in drafts and auctions? It means savvy owners will be investing early picks in receivers where they used to grab running backs. Let’s take a look at a few names and numbers to justify this point. According to Fantasy Football Calculator, the top-10 running backs by average draft position in 2013 were Adrian Peterson, Doug Martin, Jamaal Charles, Arian Foster, C.J. Spiller, Marshawn Lynch, LeSean McCoy, Trent Richardson, Ray Rice and Alfred Morris. Half of those guys were outright busts.

By contrast, the top-10 receivers were Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant, A.J. Green, Julio Jones, Brandon Marshall, Demaryius Thomas, Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson, Randall Cobb and Roddy White. Five of those guys (Calvin Johnson, Bryant, Green, Marshall and Thomas) finished in the top six at the position, and two more (Andre Johnson, Fitzgerald) were in the top 16. Meanwhile, Jones and Cobb only went bust because of significant injury. In other words, wide receivers have become more reliable than running backs.

POSITION PRIMERS:
QB | RB | WR | TE | K | DST

It isn’t just the top-tier receivers that are safer investments, though. The trend holds all the way through both positions. Last year, 23 receivers had at least 1,000 yards. Just 13 running backs reached that level. Twenty receivers had at least eight touchdowns last season. Again, only 13 running backs could say the same. Among the running backs with at least 1,000 rushing yards and eight touchdowns were Eddie Lacy, Frank Gore, DeMarco Murray and Knowshon Moreno, all of whom ranked 19th or worse among running backs in ADP. Fellow sub-19-ADP backs Reggie Bush, Ryan Mathews, Zac Stacy and Le’Veon Bell just missed the 1,000-yard/eight-score combo. Owners can find value in running backs late. They can hit home runs with receivers early.

Times have changed, and you don’t want to be behind the curve. Expect 10 receivers to come off the board within your draft’s first 25 picks. You want at least one of those 10. All hail wide receivers.

Elite 

Jordy Nelson, Green Bay Packers -- Nelson is not the No. 1 receiver on the SI.com board, but he’s in this spot here to make a point. Everyone knows Calvin Johnson, Demaryius Thomas, Brandon Marshall, A.J. Green, Dez Bryant and Julio Jones are elite receivers. Well, Nelson deserves inclusion in that group. In the eight games Aaron Rodgers started and finished last year, Nelson had 49 receptions for 810 yards and seven touchdowns. At 6-foot-3 and 217 pounds, he has the size to bully corners, yet he also has the kind of speed that lets him take the top off the defense. There also isn’t a better back-shoulder throw combo than him and Rodgers.

Reach 

Percy Harvin, Seattle Seahawks -- Harvin certainly is a gamebreaking receiver who will be Russell Wilson’s top target in Seattle. He also has played just 10 games in the last two years, and has a serious hip injury in his past. That isn’t a good thing for a receiver whose top asset is his speed. Harvin definitely has as much upside as any similarly ranked receiver, but the risk inherent in taking him makes it awfully hard to call his name when guys like Roddy White, Michael Floyd, DeSean Jackson and Torrey Smith could also be available.

Steal

Jeremy Maclin, Philadelphia Eagles -- Maclin has a reputation for being a major injury risk, but, before last year, he had missed just five games in four years in the league. In those four years, he averaged 64.5 receptions for 863 yards and 6.5 touchdowns. That translates to about 8.5 fantasy points per game in standard-scoring leagues for his career, which would have made Maclin the No. 28 receiver last year. Of course, none of those years were under Chip Kelly. Maclin will be tasked with taking of the No. 1 receiver role in the hyper-charged Philadelphia offense, and DeSean Jackson already showed last year how lucrative that can be. Maclin will be a WR2 in 2014.

Injury-risk 

Wes Welker, Denver Broncos -- It’s not just Welker’s size that makes him an injury risk. After all, he’s been the same size his entire career, and has played at least 15 games in all but two seasons. However, the role he inhabits in the Denver offense exposes him to a lot of hits in the middle of the field. On top of that, he is entering his age-33 season, and it simply has to be more of a challenge for a player to continue bouncing back as he approaches his mid-30s. Welker’s mid-fourth-round ADP is appropriate, but understand the risk you are taking when grabbing him for your team.

Rookie

Brandin Cooks, New Orleans Saints -- With apologies to Sammy Watkins of the Bills and Mike Evans of the Buccaneers, Cooks is the best rookie receiver to target in 2014. He’s third on the depth chart behind Marques Colston and Kenny Stills, but that doesn’t really matter on a team that runs so many three- and four-wide sets. Cooks is a 5-foot-10 burner who can bring an element to the Saints that they lost when Darren Sproles left for Philadelphia. Remember, explosion on offense wasn’t exactly a need for the Saints, and they still used a first-round pick to grab Cooks out of Oregon State. With a late-eighth/early-ninth round ADP, he could be a huge bargain.

Tier Explanations

All stats below represent projections for the 2014 season.

First tier -- There is an argument to be made that Calvin Johnson belongs in a tier of his own, but the receivers ranked two through seven are grouped very close together. You want one of these players.

REC

REC Yards

TDs

BYE

Value

92

1,621

13

9

$50

REC

REC Yards

TDs

BYE

Value

93

1,534

13

4

$42

REC

REC Yards

TDs

BYE

Value

96

1,225

13

9

$39

REC

REC Yards

TDs

BYE

Value

95

1,342

11

4

$38

REC

REC Yards

TDs

BYE

Value

90

1,289

12

11

$38

REC

REC Yards

TDs

BYE

Value

88

1,414

10

9

$37

REC

REC Yards

TDs

BYE

Value

84

1,345

11

9

$37

Second tier -- Alshon Jeffery, Antonio Brown and Randall Cobb should all be WR1s, but are comfortably behind the top tier. Still, they should be off the board within the first 25 picks of a typical draft.

REC

REC Yards

TDs

BYE

Value

81

1,362

9

9

$34

REC

REC Yards

TDs

BYE

Value

95

1,421

7

12

$33

REC

REC Yards

TDs

BYE

Value

89

1,254

8

9

$31

Third tier -- A few of these guys could end up breaking into the WR1 class, but you should think of them all as WR2s when you’re sitting around your draft table.

Fourth tier -- The fourth group of receivers includes a lot of intriguing players who have WR1 potential. They’ll all likely end up with a fourth- or fifth-round average draft position.

Fifth tier -- If one of these guys is your second receiver, you’ll be happy. If he’s your third, you’ll be thrilled. If he’s your first, you’ll probably be trying to make a trade very early in the season.

Sixth tier -- From T.Y. Hilton on down to Hakeem Nicks, the sixth tier has players who are rock-solid WR3s, though their ceilings are not much higher.

Seventh -- Here’s where we start getting into speculative territory. The seventh tier also includes the first group of players who can honestly be considered sleepers. Chief among them are DeAndre Hopkins, Brandin Cooks and Justin Hunter.

Eighth tier -- This is likely where you’ll take your last receiver in most leagues. At this point, you should be shooting for high-upside guys like Jordan Matthews and Cody Latimer.

Ninth tier -- Lottery tickets. If you take one of these players, you either really have a hunch on him, or you’re in a very deep league.

Tenth tier -- Lottery tickets, part two. If you’re in a position to be drafting a player from this group, Marquess Wilson and Jerrel Jernigan should stand out.

 

Player

team

bye

VALUE

REC

REC yds

TDs

tier

1

Calvin Johnson

DET

9

$50

92

1,621

13

1

2

Demaryius Thomas

DEN

4

$42

93

1,534

13

1

3

Brandon Marshall

CHI

9

$39

96

1,225

13

1

4

A.J. Green

CIN

4

$38

95

1,324

11

1

5

Dez Bryant

DAL

11

$38

90

1,289

12

1

6

Julio Jones

ATL

9

$37

88

1,414

10

1

7

Jordy Nelson

GB

9

$37

84

1,345

11

1

8

Alshon Jeffery

CHI

9

$34

81

1,362

9

2

9

Antonio Brown

PIT

12

$33

95

1,421

7

2

10

Randall Cobb

GB

9

$31

89

1,254

8

2

11

Vincent Jackson

TB

7

$28

77

1,223

8

3

12

Larry Fitzgerald

ARI

4

$28

88

1,144

9

3

13

Pierre Garcon

WAS

10

$26

89

1,189

8

3

14

Keenan Allen

SD

10

$24

84

1,224

7

3

15

Andre Johnson

HOU

10

$24

85

1,210

7

3

16

Wes Welker

DEN

4

$20

90

1,027

8

4

17

Victor Cruz

NYG

8

$19

86

1,203

7

4

18

Michael Crabtree

SF

8

$17

80

1,183

7

4

19

Roddy White

ATL

9

$17

82

1,153

7

4

20

DeSean Jackson

WAS

10

$16

70

1,089

7

4

21

Kendall Wright

TEN

9

$14

90

1,146

6

4

22

Torrey Smith

BAL

11

$13

73

1,080

7

4

23

Percy Harvin

SEA

4

$11

68

1,052

7

5

24

Jeremy Maclin

PHI

7

$10

72

1,010

7

5

25

Michael Floyd

ARI

4

$9

78

1,121

6

5

26

Julian Edelman

NE

10

$8

80

920

7

5

27

Cordarrelle Patterson

MIN

10

$7

65

994

6

5

28

Marques Colston

NO

6

$7

77

955

7

5

29

Mike Wallace

MIA

5

$7

74

1,009

6

5

30

Reggie Wayne

IND

10

$7

80

1,024

6

5

31

Emmanuel Sanders

DEN

4

$7

68

943

7

5

32

T.Y. Hilton

IND

10

$6

80

1,013

6

6

33

Eric Decker

NYJ

11

$6

84

1,002

6

6

34

Terrance Williams

DAL

11

$5

65

950

7

6

35

Cecil Shorts

JAC

11

$5

77

933

6

6

36

Sammy Watkins

BUF

9

$5

55

917

6

6

37

Golden Tate

DET

9

$5

70

985

5

6

38

Hakeem Nicks

IND

10

$5

59

901

6

6

39

DeAndre Hopkins

HOU

10

$4

63

888

6

7

40

Riley Cooper

PHI

7

$3

54

845

6

7

41

Brandin Cooks

NO

6

$3

67

856

5

7

42

James Jones

OAK

5

$3

61

824

5

7

43

Mike Evans

TB

7

$3

64

817

6

7

44

Dwayne Bowe

KC

6

$3

62

884

5

7

45

Anquan Boldin

SF

8

$3

68

833

6

7

46

Justin Hunter

TEN

9

$3

58

789

7

7

47

Josh Gordon

CLE

4

$3

60

990

5

7

48

Jarrett Boykin

GB

9

$2

57

784

7

7

49

Marvin Jones

CIN

4

$2

53

732

7

7

50

Greg Jennings

MIN

10

$2

68

832

5

7

51

Brian Hartline

MIA

5

$2

70

983

4

7

52

Markus Wheaton

PIT

12

$2

60

743

6

7

53

Kenny Stills

NO

6

$2

54

844

5

7

54

Tavon Austin

STL

4

$2

50

730

5

7

55

Rueben Randle

NYG

8

$2

54

770

5

7

56

Kelvin Benjamin

CAR

12

$2

60

742

5

8

57

Jordan Matthews

PHI

7

$2

54

756

5

8

58

Danny Amendola

NE

10

$2

60

742

5

8

59

Steve Smith

BAL

11

$2

58

730

5

8

60

Steve Johnson

SF

8

$2

55

761

4

8

61

Aaron Dobson

NE

10

$2

58

813

4

8

62

Cody Latimer

DEN

4

$2

49

740

5

8

63

Odell Beckham Jr.

NYG

8

$2

44

727

4

8

64

Rod Streater

OAK

5

$2

50

700

5

8

65

Brandon LaFell

NE

10

$2

52

716

4

8

66

Robert Woods

BUF

9

$2

60

746

4

8

67

Miles Austin

CLE

4

$2

46

712

4

8

68

Denarius Moore

OAK

5

$1

45

695

4

9

69

Harry Douglas

ATL

9

$1

53

672

4

9

70

Doug Baldwin

SEA

4

$1

45

700

4

9

71

Marqise Lee

JAC

11

$1

42

750

3

9

72

Andrew Hawkins

CLE

4

$1

53

634

4

9

73

Dexter McCluster

TEN

9

$1

40

627

3

9

74

Mike Williams

BUF

9

$1

50

670

4

9

75

Kenbrell Thompkins

NE

10

$1

44

435

5

9

76

Jerricho Cotchery

CAR

12

$1

50

750

2

9

77

Malcom Floyd

SD

10

$1

45

668

3

10

78

Kenny Britt

STL

4

$1

40

622

3

10

79

Nate Washington

TEN

9

$1

40

700

2

10

80

Marlon Brown

BAL

11

$1

43

422

4

10

81

Chris Givens

STL

4

$1

46

600

2

10

82

Jeremy Kerley

NYJ

9

$1

38

507

3

10

83

Jerick McKinnon

MIN

10

$1

45

559

3

10

84

Jerrel Jernigan

NYG

8

$1

39

427

3

10

85

Da'Rick Rogers

IND

10

$1

29

342

2

10

86

Andre Roberts

WAS

10

$1

40

357

4

10

87

Jermaine Kearse

SEA

4

$1

50

534

4

10

88

Davante Adams

GB

9

$1

30

329

3

10

89

Nate Burleson

CLE

4

$1

45

472

3

10

90

Donnie Avery

KC

6

$1

47

439

4

10

91

Eddie Royal

SD

10

$1

38

417

3

10

92

Mohamed Sanu

CIN

4

$1

48

423

4

10

93

Darrius Heyward-Bey

PIT

12

$1

23

260

2

10

94

Lance Moore

PIT

12

$1

23

260

2

10

95

Martavis Bryant

PIT

12

$1

25

325

2

10

96

Allen Robinson

JAC

11

$1

22

289

2

10

97

Jacoby Jones

BAL

11

$1

37

400

1

10

98

Brian Quick

STL

4

$1

24

311

2

10

99

Ace Sanders

JAC

11

$1

25

305

2

10

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