Wide Receiver Tiers
By Sigmund Bloom and Jene Bramel
August 31st, 2011

Whether you do a full set of projections to compare players or put your rank lists together by gut feel, every cheat sheet can be broken out into tiers. The process is simple and its rewards are many. Breaking your rankings into tiers forces you to crystallize your opinions on players. It will help you make good strategic decisions during your draft, by keeping you on the right side of runs or highlighting positions that may be sloughed a round longer than you thought or that you should target early than you expected. Testing your tiers in a few mock drafts will leave you prepared for every contingency during your draft and keep you from scrambling when you're on the clock in those all-important middle rounds.

This series will walk you through our tiering process position by position, including the major defensive position, and offer our strategic insights along the way. We'll have thoughts on whether you should go with a top quarterback or QBBC, whether you should target a top TE over your RB3 or WR3, whether you should prioritize DL over LB and whether there are any defensive backs worth drafting early.

Previously covered installments

  • Quarterback
  • Running Back
  • Defensive Line
  • Linebacker
  • In this installment, we'll cover our WR tiers. Our tiers vary in the middle ranks again, but our philosophy seems to be the same. Even moreso than last season, you should strongly consider an upper tier WR as your WR3 this year, particularly in PPR leagues. While there are lots of upside targets in the back half of fantasy drafts, the list of wide receivers that won't give you a headache when deciding whether to start them every week is short. It's yet another example of how a strategic drafting plan jumps off the page after carefully breaking your rankings into tiers.

    Sigmund Bloom

    Platinum

  • Andre Johnson
  • Calvin Johnson
  • Larry Fitzgerald
  • Hakeem Nicks
  • Roddy White
  • This group should be the top five off the board in every format, every draft. Andre Johnson is the #1 in most drafts, but no one should be surprised if Calvin Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald finish #1 this year, all they need is their young QBs to stay healthy. Nicks isn't in the top three because of his propensity to get hurt, and White because he probably won't be leaned on as heavily as he was last year, but they are still a cut above the rest of the WR1 pack.

    Jene Bramel

    I think these are the safest five wide receivers on the board this year. I think Fitzgerald rebounds well this year and I'm not concerned about Eli Manning's preseason struggles. But though they aren't as safe, I think Vincent Jackson deserves mention in this tier. Outside of the top 3-4 picks this year, I've been leaning very strongly toward taking two wide receivers. Generally that means one of these five in the first round, and if I can't get another in the early-mid second, then hoping to get Jackson. I think Jackson cruises to a career best in catches this year, with or without Gates racking up targets between the hashmarks.

    Sigmund Bloom

    24K Gold

  • Vincent Jackson
  • Wes Welker (PPR)
  • Miles Austin
  • Greg Jennings
  • Reggie Wayne
  • Brandon Marshall (PPR)
  • Santonio Holmes
  • Dez Bryant
  • Brandon Lloyd
  • This is a big enough group to make going RB easy in the second round. Some of these guys are lasting until the fourth round even though these are all bonafide WR1s. Holmes and Lloyd are the most underrated of the group, and Bryant has the potential to be this year's Nicks. Marshall and Welker should be PPR studs and both are looking like they are in top form. Jackson, Austin, Jennings, and Wayne aren't nearly the values the rest represent at their ADP.

    Jene Bramel

    Not surprisingly, since we've been frustrating each other in drafts all summer, I'm mostly in agreement here, too. I don't like Austin quite as much and wouldn't put Welker this high, but I think Holmes is a top ten receiver this year and I'm willing to pay a late third - mid fourth round price to make sure I get him. I think he's an elite talent who clicked well with Sanchez last year and see 80-1400-10 upside this year. I have Bryant in this tier, too, but ahead of Austin. That feels a bit too bold, but I'm willing to take the risk that he'll be this year's Nicks-like breakout.

    Strategically, unless I get a top four pick, I'm generally avoiding RBs until the mid-third at the earliest. I think "reaching" for Holmes or Bryant as a WR3 in the third or fourth round is a great idea this year, if you don't get a look at a surprising QB or RB value. As Bloom will show soon, there are some interesting prospects in the next couple of tiers, but the clarity at this position gets shady quickly.

    Sigmund Bloom

    Gold of uncertain purity

  • Mike Wallace
  • Mike Williams (TB)
  • Anquan Boldin
  • Austin Collie
  • Dwayne Bowe
  • Percy Harvin
  • Santana Moss
  • Mario Manningham
  • Stevie Johnson
  • Kenny Britt
  • DeSean Jackson
  • Marques Colston
  • You can tell a story for any of this group that puts them in the 24K tier. Wallace , Johnson, and Williams build on their breakout 2010 campaigns. Boldin returns to prominence with a quality #2 that can draw coverage in Lee Evans. Collie, Colston, and Britt stay on the field. Bowe shows 2010 wasn't a fluke. McNabb zeroes in on Harvin as his #1 target. Moss carries over his hot finish to 2010 with a QB at the helm that will be an extension of the Shanahans. Manningham produces at the rate he did once Steve Smith was out last year. Jackson regains his pre-concussion form. The names here stretch into the fifth, and even sixth round because of underrated commodities like Collie, Britt and Moss. They are all WR2s with WR1 upside that you should be able to get as WR3s. I'm ending up with Moss and Collie on a lot of teams. Wallace, Jackson and Williams seem to be the most overrated of the tier.

    Jene Bramel

    Bloom has combined parts of three of my tiers into one here. I think Bowe, Williams and Colston belong in a higher tier. All three have high floor WR2 with potential WR1 upside value. I'd rather have Colston as a WR3, but I'd be very happy with Bowe and Williams at WR2 if I found it impossible to pass up a top tier RB or QB prospect in the second round.

    The uncertain purity label fits here, though. I think Collie, Manningham, Britt and Johnson are a half tier better than Boldin, Harvin and Moss but it's not an easy argument to make. And I'm generally avoiding Wallace and Jackson this year. I'm not buying that Wallace can increase his reception count and/or maintain his YPC average enough to make him a clear WR1. Since there are others I like better as my WR2, they probably won't be on my rosters. If you can handle the weekly variance of high upside deep threats (or think that Wallace will get enough intermediate route looks), they're clearly the best of the group.

    Sigmund Bloom

    In the Alchemist Lab

  • Julio Jones
  • A.J. Green
  • Pierre Garcon
  • Jacoby Ford
  • Part of the reason that it is important to get at least two, if not three RBs in the first six rounds is that RB drops off a cliff around the seventh round. In the meantime, potential gems like the ubertalented rooks, the forgotten Peyton target, and the new incarnation of Stevonne Smith sit there in the seventh or later in some cases. Ford has lost some buzz because he has been sidelined with a broken hand, but he'll be fine for the start of the regular season. Garcon is remembered best for his drops and inconsistency, but he really came on late in 2010, and he is still developing as a small school stud who is finally coming into his own. This tier is full of upside and you don't have draft these guys as more than flex plays.

    Jene Bramel

    And now you see why I want to get three wide receivers rostered as quickly as possible. There are lots of guys in this tier and below with striking potential and upside, but I don't feel good about relying on any of them as my week-in, week-out WR3. Even if you include guys like Maclin, Jones and Green as reasonably safe, as I do, we're not yet through 30 receivers. Meanwhile, at QB, you can get Tony Romo (or Peyton Manning) at QB7 or Matthew Stafford after that. You can get Felix Jones or Legarrette Blount or Mark Ingram well into the RB2 tier, with still more value after that. Again, I'm not passing on Rashard Mendenhall or Darren McFadden or Aaron Rodgers in the mid-second, but I strongly recommend you stock up with WR early this year, particularly in PPR leagues.

    Sigmund Bloom

    White Gold

  • Lance Moore
  • Steve Smith (CAR)
  • Jeremy Maclin
  • Mike Thomas (PPR)
  • Nate Burleson
  • Lee Evans
  • These guys are your classic value plays who should outproduce their ADP, the only question is by how much. Moore was looking like possibly the top target in New Orleans until groin issues stopped his momentum, but he is a very trusted target for Brees and he just got a new contract. Smith should bounce back some with Cam Newton, and he could make a surprise return to the top 20 if Newton develops over the course of the year. With Maclin, it is all about conditioning and how much the other Steve Smith takes away from him. To be honest, I thought he didn't play up to the level his numbers would have you believe he did last year. Thomas will be a perfect PPR flex, but the big games will be few and far between. Burleson will be like Thomas with a better QB, and if the preseason is any indication, a ton of red zone love. Evans finally has a QB and WR partner to get his latent big play ability unleashed and he could be one of the steals of the draft at WR this year as long as this mysterious ankle /foot issue clears up.

    Jene Bramel

    I'll look at Maclin, Thomas and Moore as a WR4, but I'm not buying Steve Smith this year anywhere near his ADP. Unfortunately, I agree that he belongs in this range on rank lists. You can say much the same of any of the next 20-25 players. I'd much rather risk Robert Meachem, Sidney Rice, Greg Little, James Jones, or Plaxico Burress as a high upside, risk-reward weekly play than Lee Evans. His preseason efforts haven't been nearly as impressive as the box scores suggest. He's beating slow-footed rookie corners and doesn't seem to have the same burst in the first ten yards.

    Sigmund Bloom

    Silver

  • Danny Amendola (PPR)
  • Hines Ward
  • Malcom Floyd
  • Mike Sims-Walker
  • Earl Bennett (PPR)
  • Davone Bess (PPR)
  • These are bench receivers with limited upside, but they are terrific injury/bye week fill-ins. Amendola and Bess will give you that cheap 8-10 points with potential for more in PPR leagues. Ward is resurgent and could be in the newest elite passing attack in the NFL. Sims-Walker has a chance to be Brandon Lloyd lite in the McDaniels-crafted Rams offense. The #3 target in the Chargers offense hasn't been consistently productive, but you know Floyd is good in the red zone and good for occasional big plays. Bennett is my best bet to lead the Bears in receptions and he is by far the most underrated group of this tier.

    Jene Bramel

    I think Chad Ochocinco and Braylon Edwards deserve mention in this range (or higher). I generally agree with the sentiment here, though, which is that I'd rather take a risk on guys with higher weekly matchup upside or the potential young breakout targets below than hope for a renaissance season from Donald Driver, Derrick Mason, Deion Branch, etc. This is also the time to consider rolling the dice on a player like Steve Smith (PHI) or Big Mike Williams or Sims-Walker if you see WR3 value.

    Sigmund Bloom

    Upside Plays

  • Jordy Nelson
  • Robert Meachem
  • Antonio Brown
  • Johnny Knox
  • Greg Little
  • Jason Hill
  • Denarius Moore
  • Dezmon Briscoe
  • Emmanuel Sanders
  • Andre Roberts
  • Marcus Easley
  • Eddie Royal/Eric Decker
  • These are the receivers that should be filling your final bench slots. They all have WR3/WR4 upside if things break right: Nelson, if Driver's ankle issue linger, Meachem, if Colston's knee continues to be balky, Brown, if he can hold off Sanders and the Steelers continue to run a lot of three-wide sets (alternatively Sanders could be a great play), Knox, if he regains his starter spot, Little, if he can be consistent enough to start, Hill, if he steps up a bit and gets good QB play, Moore, if he can start and carry over his amazing camp momentum, Briscoe, if he can start over Benn and hold him off through September, building on his chemistry with Josh Freeman, and Royal, who was a borderline #1 fantasy wideout not that long ago and appears to have a starting job in Denver. Roberts, Easley, and Decker are all potential #2s for their team who are very young and talented. You draft one or two, see if they start hot, and if they don't, move on to someone else who has.

    Jene Bramel

    I like Little and Meachem much higher than this and I have a few of the guys Sig will mention below in the tiers above, but I'm not going to belabor those small differences - again, attack the top tiers as early as possible or suffer the consequences. Since I'm drafting WR early and looking at a risk-reward WR4/WR5, this is the tier that has my attention for the later rounds. Unfortunately, this is the tier that bugs me the most this year. I want to back a breakout Pittsburgh WR or St. Louis WR or Tampa Bay WR, but I can't decide who to choose. I know who I liked before the season (Emmanuel Sanders, Mark Clayton and Arrelious Benn) but all of them look like much poorer bets now than a month ago. I'd like to be comfortable with an Arizona WR or Houston WR or Denver WR but I'm not. Thankfully, I'm looking at this tier as WR5 or WR6 or have them highlighted in Technicolor as immediate waiver grabs if the early season targets show a legitimate trend. For now, I'm prioritizing Sanders (narrowly over Brown, who's next on the list), Knox, Moore, Roberts and Benn (narrowly over Briscoe). The Sanders/Benn decisions are based on an expectation that talent wins out when healthy and I'd rather have the player more likely to stick through Week 14-16.

    Sigmund Bloom

    So you're saying there's a chance?

  • Sidney Rice
  • Chad Ochocinco
  • Plaxico Burress
  • Deion Branch
  • Braylon Edwards
  • Michael Crabtree
  • More unlikely players have ended up being solid receivers, and a lot of the members of this group have past success to point to as reasons to draft them. Still, it's hard to picture any of them being worth sure starts or carrying for the long haul. Rice is the surprising name here, but both the QB play and pass protection by the offensive line have been brutal in Seattle. I would rather have Rice than some of the names in the above tiers, but he'll go way before I would be willing to take him. He'll have some big plays, but who knows which weeks they will come in. Ochocinco looks lost in the preseason so far, but he'll take enough snaps/targets from Branch to keep his value capped. Burress can't seem to stay healthy. Edwards has a shaky QB and no one thought he was worth more than a measly million on the open market. Crabtree is persona non grata in San Francisco with the same shaky QB that is holding back Edwards. He might not even start once he's healthy. This group is dangerous because the promise of past production might cause you to miss out on a better waiver wire pickup while you wait on them to deliver.

    Jene Bramel

    I don't have anything relevant to the discussion to add here, but feel compelled to express my appreciation for Bloom's flair for naming tiers. Now, every time I see Sidney Rice play this year, I'm going to be reminded of my four year old taking a whiffle ball bat and hamstringing his seven year old brother as Harry did to Lloyd at the owl benefit . I suppose I could break down the physical comedy in that scene like a inside zone run to bring the discussion full circle, but I digress.

    Sigmund Bloom

    Waiver Wire/Deep Drafts

  • Brandon Gibson
  • Mike Williams SEA
  • Arrelious Benn
  • Devin Hester
  • Josh Morgan
  • Jerome Simpson/Andre Caldwell
  • Derrick Mason
  • Bernard Berrian
  • Kevin Walter/Jacoby Jones
  • James Jones
  • Steve Smith (PHI)
  • Steve Breaston
  • Vincent Brown
  • Taylor Price
  • Jabar Gaffney/Anthony Armstrong
  • Harry Douglas
  • Roy Williams
  • Darrius Heyward-Bey
  • This grab bag of receivers with either the talent, roles, or situation to be better than we expect is just a watch list for week 1. Certainly there will be a receiver or three that emerge this year that no one sees coming, like Brandon Lloyd and Mark Clayton last year. Let their shocking breakouts be a reminder that sometimes we should ignore a receiver's history and just pick them up when they put up numbers in week 1, no matter the circumstances.

    Hope you enjoyed this installment. We'll be rolling out the others as soon as possible. Comments, suggestions or questions are welcome below or by email at bloom@footballguys.com or bramel@footballguys.com. You can also follow our active Twitter feeds @SigmundBloom and @JeneBramel. Thanks for reading.

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