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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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