UPDATED 8/21: When I draft, I always have a tier sheet handy. I find that organizing players by tiers is far more beneficial than merely ranking players.
I could rank Julio Jones over Odell Beckham Jr., but it is impossible to truly predict who will have a better season between the two of them, but I do know that both should finish better than a guy like Brandin Cooks.
Another reason I prefer tier rankings is that a range of outcomes approach is preferable to just this is what a guy will finish with at the end of the season. Jason Witten and Frank Gore have low end RB1 and TE1 numbers the past two years, but their weekly numbers are not going to help you win your weeks for the most part. In essence, you are looking for a player that has a chance to perform at a weekly level that is higher than a mere replacement level player, even if that replacement level player may have decent looking year-end numbers. Which brings me to my final point, fantasy football, in season long leagues, is about winning weeks, so you need to draft a combination of players where some have high ceiling, while some of high floors. That is how you win.
Antonio Brown, Steelers – The best wide receiver in the NFL and in fantasy as long as Ben Roethlisberger stays healthy. The return of Martavis Bryant should also help keep some of the pressure off. The only real worry is those Roethlisberger home/road splits, which can kill you.
Julio Jones, Falcons – An absolute beast and perhaps the only wide receiver in the league capable of going off for 12 catches for 300 yards, like he did against the Panthers last year. He once again battled lower leg injuries and his targets were down from 204 to 129. Hope for health and expect his targets to bounce back into the 175+ range with very little else at the receiver position.
Odell Beckham Jr, Giants – Eli Manning force fed him far too much last year, so they went out and signed Brandon Marshall and drafted rookie move tight end Evan Engram to go along with solid second-year receiver, Sterling Shepard. His target percentage will come down from the absurd 27% it was last year, but the quality of targets should be better and the coverage on those targets easier.
A.J. Green, Bengals – PFF's 4th rated receiver from last year and my fourth ranked this year. Was killing it last season and leading the league in receiving yards before he got injured, accumulating nearly 1,000 yards in just 9.5 games. Additions of weapons should help him, and without the semblance of an offensive line to run the ball, they could pass a ton.
Jordy Nelson, Packers – Entering his age 32 season, coming off a monster year and he is Aaron Rodgers boy. He did look sluggish at times last year, but was that due to his recovery from a knee injury or due to age? Probably a bit of both, but look for him to have 85+ catches and 10+ touchdowns again this year if he stays healthy. Speaking of health, with an average draft position (ADP) of 2.01, it all comes down to how much you are willing to invest in an older player so early in the draft with other good options available. That said, per Curtis Patrick at DLF, over the past 16 games played, he's tied with Keenan Allen (my guy) for percent of finishes in the top 6, and 4th in top 12. I certainly wouldn't look down on anyone for taking him in the first round.
Mike Evans, Buccaneers – 1,200+ yards and 10+ touchdowns should be the norm, but keep in mind he was the only game in town last year at the receiver position and they have other legit weapons now, especially in deep threat DeSean Jackson, not to mention rookies Chris Godwin and O.J. Howard. The other concern is Winston, who was PFF's 20th ranked quarterback and who had a middle of the pack 64.9 QBR rating from ESPN last year. Winston's erratic play showed up in Evans box score down the stretch where he would mix in big games with some major duds. While Evans will not see another 175 targets, he will still get his, but I'd rather take the guys in Tier 2 over him at this point in the pre-season, which means I'm probably owning very few shares.
Michael Thomas, Saints – With Brandin Cooks out of town, Thomas is the lead dog in this receiving corps. He was Pro Football Focus' (PFF) 5th rated wide receiver last year and finished with Football Outsiders second best DVOA score, which represents value, per play, over an average WR in the same game situations. Additionally, in Matt Harmon's Reception Perception metric he performed amazingly well, finishing with some of the best numbers on the season: Success rate vs: Man-74%, Zone-84%, Double-73%, Press-80%. All that said, keep in mind that it's not as easy being the man and taking on teams top corners and/or seeing extra coverage and being game planned for, then it is having a guy like Cooks on the other side of the field taking some of the pressure away. As Scott Barrett at PFF mentioned, Thomas had the 4th easiest corner back schedule last year, while Cooks had the 52nd out of 95 receivers. This year, the Saints have the leagues 7th toughest schedule for outside receivers, so there is some cause for concern despite my love of his talent. Drew Brees also likes to spread things around and as Graham Barfield from Fantasy Guru mentioned, Saints lead receivers usually see around 20% target share, while 36 receivers saw more than 20% last year. That said, the Saints have a high volume pass attack and the quality of those targets are top notch coming from Brees. Early in the pre-season I had him a tier lower, but I'm buying him as safe and great late first or early second round pick.
T.Y. Hilton, Colts – Andrew Luck's go-to guy stymied last year by mediocre quarterback play and still caught 91 passes for 1,448 yards and 6 touchdowns. However, as Rotoworld's Evan Silva pointed out, Hilton averaged 10.3 targets for 101.3 yards and a 9 touchdown pace in games where Donte Moncrief missed, but fell to a 9.2 target, 82.1 yards, and four touchdown pace when Moncrief played. In terms of fantasy scoring, that is a difference between 19.8 fantasy points per game versus 14.8 fantasy points per game. With Moncrief fully healthy, it is realistic to assume Hilton's lower clip could certainly be the proper pace. Although, even so, that is still a finishing line of 147 targets for 1,313 yards, good enough for a top 12 finish at the position last year. The biggest red flag is his quarterback. Andrew Luck still is not throwing from off-season shoulder surgery and there is talk that he could miss a few games to start the season or even go on the PUP list. He’s gone from a very safe second round pick to a risky one. I’ve debated dropping him a tier.
Doug Baldwin, Seahawks – Has some serious mojo with Russell Wilson and that cannot be underestimated. Baldwin put up 94 catches for 1,128 yards and 7 touchdowns on 125 targets with a 75.2% catch rate. His 15.9 FPG ranked 9th among all wide receivers. He's an underrated talent and finished in the top 10 in both PFF and Football Outsider rankings, look for that to continue.
Dez Bryant, Cowboys – He is as talented as any wide receiver in the league and is also by far the best receiver on his team. Unfortunately, he is perpetually capped by volume and as Scott Barett of PFF pointed out, he is the most cornerback sensitive wide receiver in the league. Over the past three years, he averages just 1.2 fantasy points per target against top 25 corners and 3.3 fantasy points per target against bottom 25 corners, so the start to his season will be tough going up against the Janoris Jenkins (88 PFF grade) Aqib Talib (90.6 PFF grade) and Patrick Peterson (83.9 PFF grade). Then on the season he faces Jenkins again, Josh Norman (81.9 PFF grade) twice, Desmond Trufant (78 PFF grade), Casey Hayward (88.4 PFF grade), Richard Sherman (84.4 PFF grade) and Marcus Peters (83.9 PFF grade). All in all, 10 of Bryant’s 16 matchups this fantasy season will be against top 25 corners, while Trufant is certainly at that level as well, making it 11. Working in Bryant’s favor is that his domination against bottom corners is near the top of the league and some of his struggles the past two years against the top corners could have easily been due to nagging injury and scattered quarterback play. Nonetheless, this is a stat to keep in mind when playing DFS and also something to be aware of in your season long leagues.
As for the positives, Dez is still a dominant red zone receiver and his mojo with Dak Prescott certainly improved as the season went on. After Week 8, he had five top 12 weeks, and ended the fantasy season (through Week 16) averaging over 15 fantasy point a game, which ranked 13th overall despite the slow start to the year and despite Prescott averaging the fewest throws per game in the league. If we just take his Week 8 through 16 numbers, he would have averaged 16.6 fantasy points per game, extrapolated over a full season would have made him the WR6. In Prescott’s second season, we should expect the offense to open up more and see an uptick in the number of passes thrown a game. Possibly Dez’s biggest obstacle though is staying healthy, as he is entering his age 29 season and continues to get dinged up every year, playing in only 13 games last season, so despite his rock solid per game numbers, he finished outside of the top 25. While I wouldn’t blame you for drafting Bryant in the second round, you might be better off going with another running back and catching the slew of solid receivers available in the 4th and 5th rounds.
Keenan Allen, Chargers – Was on pace for a 134 catch, 1,450 yard and 8 touchdown line before he got injured in Week 8 two seasons ago with a lacerated kidney and then had a dominant first half of the first game of the year last season against Marcus Peters before tearing his knee. Fortunately, he will have had a full 12 months of recovery by the time this season starts and he is already running at nearly 100%. His talent on tape matches the analytical data. He finished 2nd overall against man coverage, 1st overall against double coverage and 2nd overall against press coverage in Matt Harmon's Reception Perception methodology. It's a more crowded receiving corps this year, but he's the alpha male and has been dominating in camp and in practices against other teams. Some will disagree with this ranking, but they will be wrong.
Amari Cooper, Raiders – He's still just 22 years old and is entering his third season in the league, a year many receivers usually break out. Despite some down weeks last season, overall he had a very good year and will be even better this year. Case in point, last season Seth Roberts inexplicably had 21 red-zone targets, while Cooper had just 13. Look for that to flip flop this season. Reception Perception showed that he dominated against zone coverage but struggled against man, and that was certainly the case last year when determining whether or not to play him in DFS last season. Being so young, I'm hopeful that his rate against man coverage improves this year. In fact, beat writers have mentioned that he has noticeably "bulked up" and Derek Carr stated, “the guy has been going off all offseason. We're laughing about how impressed we are.” While Michael Crabtree is a very close 1b, which does cap his upside, between the two, Cooper at least has the higher ceiling.
Demaryius Thomas, Broncos – Coming off of his third straight 1,000-yard season, Thomas welcomes back offensive coordinator Mike McCoy and his deployment of the screen pass, a play Thomas uses to dominate opposing defenses and put up major fantasy points. Last season's down year was due to a lingering hip issue and essentially first-year quarterback play. The quarterback play should be somewhat improved and Thomas should improve on his 5 touchdowns, especially after seeing a very solid 18 red zone targets last season. While the hip is feeling better, it is a potentially chronic issue, so for those that are risk adverse, you might want to keep that in mind. He is a solid floor play in all formats, catching more than 90 passes and going over 1,000 yards the past five season, however he has had only few blow up weeks the past two years, eclipsing 100 yards only once last season. I like Thomas as a safe pick, but I'd rather grab Sanders a few rounds later.
DeAndre Hopkins, Texas – Major regression last season and I'm not talking about his quarterback play. Routes, effort, precision and technique all regressed. That's not to say the quarterback play was very good, and unfortunately, it may not be very good again this year. For a big receiver, he also faired poorly against man coverage, finishing 20th out of the 50 players Matt Harmon tracked in his Reception Perception metric. Not a player I'm targeting at this point.
Terrelle Pryor, Washington – Pryor is a freak of an athlete standing 6'4" 240 pounds with 4.38 forty speed. His conversion from quarterback to receiver looks to finally be complete, and he could end up turning in a monster year, especially after training with Antonio Brown and Randy Moss during the off-season. DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon abandon 216 targets between them, a good chunk of which will go to Pryor. Playing in a much better offense with a far more capable quarterback, look for him to push 80+ catches, over 1,000 yards and 7+ touchdowns as the team's top outside receiving threat. Lots of competition (Doctson, Crowder, Reed) for targets keeps him in this tier, but there is upside especially if Doctson can't get healthy.
Sammy Watkins, Rams – Foot injury concerns were enough for the Bills to turn down his 5th-year option and to trade him to the Rams. However, he looked great in his first pre-season game and when healthy he is one of the leagues best receivers. His value takes a perceived hit playing with Jared Goff, but Goff has looked very good so far in the pre-season, head coach McVay loves to take shots down field and Watkins is the clear alpha male in this receiving core. He's a bit more risky now, but it also presents a buying opportunity. It's no like Goff is any worse than Siemian or Savage.
Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals – The juice is gone, but his hands and route running aren't. This is also a team totally devoid of any legitimate and reliable passing options outside of him. He's a safe WR2, albeit, one that has faded towards the end of the season two years in a row now.
Brandin Cooks, Patriots – He's talented, but perhaps not elite just yet, finishing last season at number 15th in Football Outsiders DYAR rankings and as PFF's 31st rated pass catcher. Cooks will be starting on the outside, but there are a lot of mouths to feed and Brady won't force feed anyone as long as this whole core is healthy. Additionally, he's had some issues playing outside of the dome in the past, and put up horrible numbers in Matt Harmon's Reception Perception metric: Success rate vs: Man-51%, Zone-74%, Double-38%, Press-32%. I have been a big Cooks fan since he came into the league, he's still just 23 years old and has been “an absolute savage” in camp, yet he's not someone I’m targeting aggressively at the moment, perhaps to my detriment, especially since PFF has targeted the Patriots with the 3rd easiest schedule for outside receivers this year. I am coming around to him more and more every day though.