Wide receiver is one of the most volatile positions in fantasy football. The term “boom or bust” is thrown around liberally, as is the term “it only takes one” -- meaning a receiver can get shut down all game, but one 30-yard touchdown catch in the 4th quarter salvages everything.
Consistency is an issue for all but the very best receivers, and because of this, the key to drafting this position is to find at least two elite or almost-elite receivers early, then give yourself options with a bunch of high-upside picks throughout the rest of your draft.
Let's break down this year's best bets.
Much like Adrian Peterson with running backs, Calvin Johnson is the unquestioned No. 1 WR on draft day. Even though his record-setting 1,964 receiving yards from last year might come down, his five touchdowns are sure to go up.
After Johnson, fantasy owners have some tough choices between A.J. Green, Brandon Marshall, Demaryius Thomas, Dez Bryant and Julio Jones (my order). Marshall is the best choice in PPR leagues, but in standard leagues, it's basically a coin flip. Bryant might have the most upside considering he finished third among fantasy WRs last year despite getting just 138 targets (66 fewer than Johnson and 55 fewer than Marshall). Thomas and Jones have to share with other talented receivers, but they're still elite options. Green gets my vote because of one important stat: he led all receivers last year with 14 targets inside the 10-yard line. He's the best bet for touchdowns and yards.
Draft tip: All of these receivers will likely be off the board by the end of Round 2 -- possibly by pick No. 20 -- in a 12-team standard league, but only Johnson is going in the first round of most mocks. If you have pick 10 or 11 and you really want Green or Marshall (or whoever), you might as well get them in Round 1 and sort through the leftovers at RB in Round 2.
THE ALMOST ELITE
This is where we truly enter “flip-a-coin” territory. The next 20 receivers could all easily finish the year as a WR1, and they should certainly do the job as WR2s. Sure, Andre Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald seem much more attractive on draft day than, say, Dwayne Bowe or Torrey Smith, but all four could go within 20 picks of each other, so fantasy owners will have to choose wisely.
Johnson and Fitzgerald have the most name-value in this group, and both should be excellent, especially with Fitzgerald getting better QB play from Carson Palmer in Arizona. Their high volume of targets is what separates them from the pack. Victor Cruz, Roddy White, Vincent Jackson and Reggie Wayne aren't far behind in that regard. Bowe (new pass-happy coach), Torrey Smith (no Anquan Boldin or Dennis Pitta), Mike Wallace (new team), Greg Jennings (new team), Randall Cobb (no Jennings, Jordy Nelson ailing), Antonio Brown (no Wallace) and Danny Amendola (new pass-happy team) should also see a lot of throws given their “new” situations. When in doubt, go with the targets.
One of the “safest” players in this tier is Marques Colston, who's produced at least 1,023 yards and seven TDs in each of the past four seasons. You also “know what you're getting” with Steve Smith. Hakeem Nicks (injuries) and DeSean Jackson (inconsistent, new offense) have as much upside as any of the players listed above, but they come with the biggest risks.
Draft tip: Wes Welker was the king of targets while with the Patriots, but now with the Broncos, fantasy owners are worried about both him and Eric Decker losing looks. Peyton Manning has quarterbacked a team with three 1,000-yard receivers before (the Colts in 2004), so he knows how to spread the ball around. It's unlikely that both Welker and Decker will be top-12 receivers like they were last year, but both should be off the board by the end of the fourth round. Don't be afraid to grab either.
At this point in your draft, likely the fifth or sixth round, receivers will be coming off the board a little more slowly. These are still important guys, though, as the hope is that they'll be every-week starters all season long. Pierre Garcon, Cecil Shorts, Stevie Johnson, Anquan Boldin, Mike Williams, Miles Austin, James Jones,
Despite a new offensive system that figures to emphasize the run, Johnson is likely the safest choice. He's been remarkably consistent the past three years (between 1,004 and 1,076 yards with at least six TDs) and will get a lot of targets. Garcon (foot) and Austin (hamstrings) are major injury risks, but Garcon played through his current injury over the final six weeks of last season and averaged 11.1 fantasy points per game and saw 52 targets. Boldin should see plenty of targets in San Francisco with Michael Crabtree (Achilles') out, but his upside is limited by his lack of explosiveness. Jones could see a bump if Jordy Nelson misses time in the regular season, but he's always been extremely inconsistent. Williams has also been inconsistent throughout his career, but he seems to have found a nice niche in Tampa's offense. He's being undervalued in mocks. The same is true for Moore, who's averaged a shade over seven TDs the past three seasons and broke out last year with his first 1,000-yard campaign.
The true breakout candidates here are Shorts, Hilton and Givens. Shorts was quietly one of the most consistent WRs after Week 6 last year, scoring at least 11.6 fantasy points in all but two of the games he played in. With Justin Blackmon suspended for the first four games of this season, Shorts should see plenty of targets. Hilton is reportedly fighting with Darrius Heyward-Bey for the Colts' No. 2 receiver job, but he's more talented and should eventually win out. He thrives on big plays, and the Colts' loss of offensive coordinator Bruce Arians might result in less shots downfield. That's a strike against Hilton. Givens will have
Draft tip: If you draft three WRs early, don't be afraid to bump Blackmon and Josh Gordon into this group. Both are suspended to start the year (Gordon for two games), which is why they're ranked low on most websites. But if you're drafting them as backups, throw those rankings out the window. Blackmon, who's also nursing a groin injury right now, averaged 12.5 fantasy points over his final seven games last year. Gordon also has some upside in Cleveland's revamped offense.
THE HIGH-UPSIDE SLEEPERS
As stated before, the WR position is all about options, and when you're drafting backups, you might as well go for the fences. Tavon Austin fits this edict perfectly. He could be inconsistent, as most rookie receivers are, but he also has big-time potential because of his versatility. Fellow first-round rookies DeAndre Hopkins in Houston and Cordarrelle Patterson in Minnesota looked good in their preseason debuts, but both are less likely than Austin to have an impact right away.
Kenny Britt is a perennial injury (and suspension) risk, but he claims his knee feels better than ever, and we know he can put up elite numbers when healthy. If you're getting him as a backup, it's worth the trouble. Golden Tate might not sound exciting, but he had seven TDs last year and figures to see just as many, if not more, targets with Percy Harvin (hip) out and Sidney Rice (knee) ailing. Both Heyward-Bey and former teammate Denarius Moore are big-time boom-or-bust candidates, but their respective explosiveness makes them worth fliers. The same is true for San Diego's Malcom Floyd, who will try to stay healthy and fill the void left by Danario Alexander (knee). Emmanuel Sanders should finally see more targets in Pittsburgh with Wallace gone, and Alshon Jeffery, Mohamed Sanu and Brandon LaFell will look to break out opposite No. 1's Brandon Marshall, A.J. Green and Steve Smith, respectively.
Draft Tip: Even when you're looking for home-run hitters in this tier, it's still best to follow the targets, and both Arizona's Michael Floyd and Detroit's Ryan Broyles figure to see a lot of them. Broyles is coming back from his second torn ACL, but he's expected to be ready for the season. The Lions set an NFL record for pass attempts last year, and with no clear No. 2 after Calvin Johnson, Broyles, who set the NCAA record for career receptions at Oklahoma, is the logical choice. Floyd is in somewhat of a similar position in Arizona, though he's not coming off an injury. He's also playing opposite one of the league's best receivers (Fitzgerald), and his new coach, Bruce Arians, called the shots for a Colts team that tied for the fifth-most pass attempts last year.
THE ROSTER FILLERS
When you get to the final five rounds of your draft, receivers are almost always going to look like the best options on the board. The alternatives are real-life backup RBs or QBs and TEs that you have little interest in drafting. Some might view this as a reason to wait on backup WRs, but the choices are decidedly less appealing than the players mentioned above.
There are still some worthwhile names, like Santonio Holmes (foot) if he can get healthy or Santana Moss, but the majority of the remaining players will have higher value in PPR leagues. San Diego's Vincent Brown, Tennessee's Kendall Wright, Miami's Brian Hartline and Cleveland's Greg Little are the best examples.
You could take a flier on a rookie like Pittsburgh's Markus Wheaton or Buffalo's Robert Woods, or try to guess how the Patriots' WR situation will play out (Julian Edelman, Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins are all in competition). Either way, it's going to be tough to find someone in this tier who will be on your team all season.
Draft tip: Try looking at this group as you would “handcuffs” for RBs. Drafting someone like the Giants' Rueben Randle if you have Nicks or Arizona's Andre Roberts if you have Fitzgerald is a way to hopefully protect your high-round investments, especially if they're injury prone. Detroit's Nate Burleson, Kansas City's Jonathan Baldwin, New Orleans' Kenny Stills and Dallas' Terrance Williams also could serve this purpose.
Matt Lutovsky is a fantasy football writer for Sporting News' Fantasy Source. You can read more of his work on the Fantasy Source football homepage.