What does a prototypical fantasy receiver look like in a 12-team league? Is he earning a lopsided majority of the workload in the passing game? Is he the leading option in a balanced attack? Does a specific combination of physical skills matter?
Do teammates of quality "take away" targets from other teammates? This week, the Gut Check examines these questions and profiles receivers with the skills and supporting cast to earn top-12 fantasy production at the position.
Between 2005-2015, there has been a correlation between top-12 fantasy receivers and at least one fantasy starter at receiver or tight end that forces opposing defenses to respect balance in the passing game.
I examined 11 years of top-36 wide receiver rankings and top-12 tight end rankings. The percentage of the team representation as WR2s, WR3s, and TE1s during that 11-year period (72.4%) is lower than the percentage of WR1s with at least one fantasy-worthy cohort (78.8%), which is a sign of positive correlation. Here's the data for those of you curious.
Pct. of Teams Represented among WR2s-WR3s-TE1s
Pct. of WR1s With Fantasy Starter Cohorts at WR or TE
|WR 1 Sample Size||132|
Top Fantasy Wide Receivers With Starter Teammates at Receiver and/or Tight End
Note: Rankings in parenthesis are provided for the secondary options ("Starter Teammates"). Quarterbacks listed for teams with three more fantasy starters or a single WR1 that didn't have any fantasy starter teammates (listed with an asterisk).
Balanced Passing Games Rule
For the past 11 years, nearly 80 percent of the top-12 receivers come from balanced offenses with productive players that put defenses in a bind and create opportunities for primary options. Sometimes it's a seam stretcher and reliable check-down magnet from the slot like Tyler Eifert who helps A.J. Green see optimal targets. Other teams have a "possession plus" receiver capable of plays all over the field like Allen Hurns complementing Allen Robinson.
It can also work in reverse, Torry Holt was the intermediate and short possession man with Isaac Bruce the big-play threat. Steve Smith (NYG) was the top-12 possession man often working from the slot and Hakeem Nicks was the big-play option. Terry Glenn's speed to stretch defenses made it easier to give Terrell Owens short underneath plays where he could run away from defenses after the catch.
Offenses can also have peers capable of both big plays and chain moving. I'd say Holt and Bruce were close to even. So were Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin and Greg Jennings and Donald Driver. Allen Robinson is more explosive than Allen Hurns but Hurns holds his own as a multidimensional threat.
While there isn't enough data to say this is a fact of football life or an undeniable correlation, all of the tight ends in this sample are athletic players capable of stretching the field and forcing safeties to account for them. They are mismatches up the seam, split wide, or in the red zone.
The quarterbacks who had three quality fantasy starters in the passing game (not including RB) on this list aren't a specific type. There are pocket players like Carson Palmer, Kurt Warner and Peyton Manning and more mobile types who can throw it off balance like Tony Romo, Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler, Ben Roethlisberger, and Brett Favre. Matt Ryan and Drew Brees lie somewhere in between.
I'm more inclined to guess that, in addition to the most obvious factor of individual skill, the supplemental factors contributing to top-12 receiver production with the most weight are a combination of competent QB play and surrounding talent at receiver or tight end. I'll give more weight to the surrounding talent.
Monster Fantasy WRs and Lesser QB Performers: "Feed Me, Seymour"
There are mediocre to poor QB performers on this list who have paired with receivers who produced as top-12 receivers without cohorts meeting fantasy starter production standards: DeAndre Hopkins and the Brian Hoyer/Ryan Mallett combo, Steve Smith and Jake Delhomme, Percy Harvin and Christian Ponder, Joey Galloway and Chris Simms, Lee Evans and J.P. Losman, Calvin Johnson and Dan Orlovsky, Brandon Lloyd and Kyle Orton, Steve Johnson and Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Larry Fitzgerald and John Skelton.
Not all of these WR1s performing without a strong supporting cast are size-speed-agility freaks like Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson, and Randy Moss. Some are straight-line speedsters like Galloway and Evans. Others are acrobats in tight coverage like Smith, Lloyd, and Johnson.
Factoring 'How Athletic' in Athletic NFL is Overkill, Surrounding Talent Matters Most
My recommendation is not to seek a specific "type" of athlete to place your bets on a potential top-12 receiver. Athletic ability and skill are the first steps to making the league and cracking a starting lineup. Unless the athlete is a once in a decade freak (Moss or Calvin Johnson), the caliber of surrounding talent offers more for a fantasy owner developing his draft list.
Teams with a proven, highly productive receiving weapon at tight end, slot receiver, wideout working alongside the receiver in question is a stronger indicator of hitting on that potential top-12 fantasy receiver.
Emmanuel Sanders was a player I recommended often in 2014 for multiple reasons. I always considered Sanders a talent as far back as his days playing for June Jones at SMU. Joining Peyton Manning was another obvious factor. The analysts who got it wrong about Sanders often combined their doubts about Sanders' talent with the possibility he wouldn't earn enough opportunities in an offense with Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas.
It's dangerous to dismiss a player solely on the grounds that he might not earn enough opportunities. Even without Manning's skills, the offensive setup with these two receivers alone was enough to place a mid-round bet on Sanders. One potential concern is with players having incomplete skill sets in offenses where there are other weapons who potentially can make more of their targets and limit that incomplete player's upside.
Ryan Fitzpatrick's career is nowhere on the same plain as Manning and he did enough to support two WR1s last year. Considering the skepticism surrounding Blake Bortles' fantasy prospects this year, the same could be said for the Jaguars quarterback.
APPLYING THIS INFORMATION TO 2016 DRAFTS
That's why you read all this information. Here are my projected top-12 receivers and my how they fit with my observations of this information.
- Antonio Brown: Losing Heath Miller and Martavis Bryant would be a blow for most potential WR1s but a strong offensive line, two good receiving backs, and Ben Roethlisberger in his prime still make Brown a safe bet. If Sammie Coates Jr, Markus Wheaton, and Ladarius Green offer a moderate amount of replacement value to Miller and Bryant, Brown will remain one of the safest receivers on this list.
- Odell Beckham Jr: It's a rare occurrence when a rookie replacing a veteran is an instant upgrade but this may be the case with Sterling Shepard. Rueben Randle has the physical ability of a strong fantasy WR2 but he has never played to his potential. Shepard's skills remind me of Manning's old running mate Steve Smith. The Giants already consider Shepard the starter. Beckham, like Brown, has a unique combination of elite physical skills and technical acumen that makes him one of the safest receivers in fantasy drafts.
- Julio Jones: Jones is one of those rare physical studs who can win the ball against anyone. His 2015 campaign was arguably more impressive than Browns because the Falcons could not field a receiver or tight end who could have started for another team in the league last year. I had concerns about Jones performing as a top-5 option for those reasons and how it might change Matt Ryan's decision-making. No more. Mohamed Sanu is an upgrade and should help Matt Ryan run a more efficient offense that makes Atlanta more competitive. I wouldn't go so far to say that Sanu is as strong of an upgrade as many believe but Jones is good enough that he's arguably the safest WR1 on the list even if I think Brown and Beckham have more upside because of quarterback play.
- A.J. Green: Brandon LaFell and Tyler Boyd will not adequately replace Marvin Jones Jr and Mohamed Sanu this year and Tyler Eifert is a good bet for a slow start. It won't matter for Green. He's not as strong as Julio Jones but he's as talented with the ball in the air and quicker after the catch. As long as Andy Dalton leans on Green, expect Top-12 fantasy production. "Lean on Green." I like it.
- Dez Bryant: Bryant is one of the best receivers in the game. He's also the one I'm most concerned about as a fantasy owner. The aged version of Jason Witten and fourth-year option Terrance Williams are competent players but this offense goes nowhere without a healthy Tony Romo. If the veteran quarterback gets hurt, the only fantasy option I'll want in Dallas is Ezekiel Elliott. If Romo stays healthy, Bryant is capable of top-five production. Since I don't project injuries, Bryant earns this lofty perch but be warned.
- DeAndre Hopkins: Few are considering the possibility that Brock Osweiler could be worse than Brian Hoyer. Many football fans have short memories. Osweiler's stats last year were 170-275-1967-10-6 in 8 games with a great defense and excellent receivers. When Hoyer was a spark for the lowly Browns in 2013, his 3 games were 57-96-615-5-3. Extrapolate it to 8 games, and you're looking at 152-256-1642-13-6 with Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron as his options. I love Gordon's skills but I'd take the combined talents of Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. The general point, Osweiler is unproven and he could easily be worse than the next Hoyer, Derek Anderson, or Scott Mitchell. Then again, if Hopkins has performed well with the array of quarterbacks he had last year (and an inconsistent ground game), Osweiler would have to be his own special kind of sad for the Texans' top threat to suffer. I'm beginning to warm up to Hopkins even more.
- Allen Robinson: Having an aggressive attitude to quarterbacking matters when it comes to wide receiver production. We criticize quarterbacks for not trusting receivers to win the ball against tight coverage but we often punish the receivers that play with the fantasy passers we downgrade because those quarterbacks make aggressive decisions that don't work out. Blake Bortles' 2016 fantasy prospects is a good example of this pervading attitude. While true Bortles makes aggressive decisions that cross the line into foolishness, it doesn't detract that much from the fact that Robinson, Allen Hurns, and Julius Thomas are three of the better receiving options you'll see on one team. If Hopkins can thrive with Hoyer, Brandon Weeden, and Ryan Mallett, I think at least two of these three options will still thrive with Bortles—even if the Jaguars' ground game and the defense improves.
- Brandon Marshall: Geno Smith is at least on par with last year's quarterbacks in Houston. The combo of Marshall, Decker, and Forte is the kind of grouping that makes life easier for all parts of the passing game. Although Marshall's age is a concern for many fantasy owners, I'm still buying him despite those fears and the possibility that the Jets don't give in to Ryan Fitzpatrick's demands. Last year, Marshall was my top candidate to make the top-12 who wasn't on this list initially. His 2015 reception and yardage totals were the second-best of his career and his 14-scores were a career best. He's missed 10 games during his 10-year career and the 3 he missed in 2014 were the first he's missed since 2010. A regression may be coming, but I'm more inclined it's a drop from No.3 fantasy totals to the bottom half of the top-12.
- Jordy Nelson: Randall Cobb didn't prove he could be the primary option in this offense without Nelson but he remains an excellent complement in a strong passing game. Nelson said on June 5 that he could play in a game right now. He'll provide fantasy owners an underrated WR1 option.
- Larry Fitzgerald: Repeat after me, Larry Fitzgerald is a bigger, more physical upgrade to Wes Welker in his prime. Yes, Michael Floyd and John Brown are capable of big games. No, this won't hurt Fitzgerald's production. Carson Palmer supported three fantasy starters at wide receiver and Floyd wasn't completely healthy for parts of the season. I'm not concerned about David Johnson, either. More targets for other players won't mean that much less for Fitzgerald. It means you should be considering Carson Palmer as a bargain with his ADP at QB9 after posted QB5 production because this offense has the skill players, the line, and the coach to deliver the production we've seen with some of Peyton Manning's best seasons. Fitzgerald is too smart, too dedicated to his preparation, and still, too much of a mismatch in underneath zones and the red zone to underestimate as no more than a fantasy WR2-WR3.
- Amari Cooper: I'm torn between Cooper and Keenan Allen for this spot. The fact that Cooper was about three touchdown catches from earning top-12 production last year as a rookie, gives me optimism about a second-year jump in production that will place him in this tier. Already a good route runner, Cooper should only improve with his releases against press coverage and develop a greater rapport with Derek Carr. Michael Crabtree and Seth Roberts are underrated complements and if DeAndre Washington delivers in the passing game, the Raiders can create a lot of opportunities when it spreads the field.
- Alshon Jeffery: Jeffery is the kind of receiver who can be force-fed the ball and we know Jay Cutler is just the quarterback to do it. Jeffery was on track for a WR1 season last year and that was without Brandon Marshall. With Kevin White healthy, the second-year option should give the Bears passing game a second big-play threat with even greater physical upside than Jeffery. Because Cutler is used to playing with receivers that win against tight coverage, look for Jeffery to rebound from his injury-hampered 2015 campaign and at least come close to top-12 fantasy production at his position.
POTENTIAL TOP-12 CANDIDATES FROM THE SECOND TIER BASED ON THE CRITERIA
- Brandin Cooks: The addition of Michael Thomas and Cobi Fleener make Cooks a compelling top-12 option because Drew Brees has the skill to support multiple top-tier fantasy targets and the NFC West isn't a bastion of great defensive play just yet. I have a minor concern than Cooks' role is more Devery Henderson to Thomas' Marques Colston and that could create a fantasy pecking order that is Thomas-Fleener-Cooks. This would be a spoiler for most prognosticators. I'm not counting on it but it's enough that Cooks isn't a lock for my top-12.
- Keenan Allen: One of my favorite young receivers, Allen was on track for a 124-catch, 1450-yard, 8-score season before lost for the year. Antonio Gates is just good enough to make life easy on Allen for a high volume of receptions and Travis Benjamin's DeSean Jackson act will give Allen a lot more single coverage this year. If there's a "second tier" receiver I'm targeting, Allen is the guy. The only reason he isn't on my top-12 list in late June is that Benjamin and Gates have more potential to overshadow Allen than White does with Jeffery. I also think Cooks is a little safer even if his ceiling isn't as high.
- Demaryius Thomas: The Broncos receiver still has top-5 upside but he's still not a complete receiver among the physical beasts that roam the prairies of the NFL. The Kubiak offense provides enough stability that I'm not concerned about him falling out of the top-20 at his position, especially with the support of Emmanuel Sanders—one of the most complete and underrated receivers in the league. I'm just not sold on the quarterback situation this year.
- Mike Evans: The drop from 12 TDs to 3 between 2014 and 2015 speaks to defenses having a heightened awareness of Evans and Jameis Winston's rookie inexperience. I expect a rebound in the scoring column and if Evans merely doubles last year's totals while maintaining his reception and yardage totals, he's knocking on the top-15 at his position. I expect Evans to triple his scoring, especially if Cameron Brate takes another step and second-year option Kenny Bell provides enough as a big-play threat to force safeties to account for him. Even with this potential uptick in production, Evans is a safer bet as a top-15 option than a top-12 guy.
- Kelvin Benjamin: Ted Ginn Jr was the No.25 fantasy receiver last year. Ginn is a great athlete and good depth that was put to maximum use in light of Carolina's inexperienced and injured corps. I believed in Ginn last year because Cam Newton set the example with Benjamin in 2014 that he'd keeping firing to receivers who drop more passes than they should. Benjamin should be in good enough shape to return to the 73-1008-9 numbers from 2014. But with Ginn and Devin Funchess in the fold and Benjamin not yet a complete player, I do have concerns that he won't reach that top-12 tier because Ginn, Funchess, and Greg Olsen will offer enough to hurt a mistake-prone option.
- T.Y. Hilton: Hilton is every bit the physical talent of Antonio Brown. They're roughly the same dimensions in height-weight. Hilton might be a little faster and he's an excellent open field runner in his own right. He has also been playing in an offense that requires less of him as a route runner and it limits his opportunities to deliver top-12 production—especially when the offensive line puts its quarterback under constant pressure. I'm a fan of Hilton but I'm leery of this offensive line the range of targets the receiver earns with the Colts.
- Jeremy Maclin: One of the safest fantasy WR2s in football, Maclin is capable of WR1 production in the right system. I think the Chiefs can offer that upside now that Alex Smith has gotten a little more comfortable throwing the ball downfield. But I'm not betting on it compared to the other players who have more big-play upside thanks to their scheme and quarterback. If you want a safe high-end WR2, Maclin is your guy and I wouldn't blame you for passing up WR1 upside to take him.
- Allen Hurns: No.14 fantasy production at his position while playing with a sports hernia? If some are predicting a regression of his 10 touchdowns in 2015, it could be just as compelling to counter that Hurns' return to full health could keep those TD totals closer than many think. What I know is that Hurns averaged 16.5 yards per catch with that hernia, which was better than any top-25 fantasy receiver not named Allen Robinson and Sammy Watkins. He's a tough receiver and I don't think he's fading into the background as much as most believe.
- Sammy Watkins: Health is the only issue. If he's running and cutting at full speed in camp and sees preseason action, he's at the top of this list even without a great supporting cast. If not, I think he'll be healthy enough to post WR1-caliber production for an extended part of the season as long as he doesn't rush back and wind up hobbling through the year.
- Marvin Jones Jr: He's talented enough. It's the question some of my colleagues have. Jones is a more talented Donald Driver in terms of skills and athletic ability. Look at the table from 2005-2015 and you'll see his name show up a few times—once as a WR1 without a supporting cast but with a QB who will force the ball into tight spots. Driver was also the No.13 WR in 2005 and the No.10 WR in 2004. Jones finally gets a strong-armed passer who can make the kind of plays that Dalton cannot. And if you don't think Jones picked the brain of teammate A.J. Green about playing with Stafford (and vice versa), think again. Jones could be the bargain WR of this season.
- Doug Baldwin: He's the modern-day Derrick Mason in the sense that he's better in the red zone and the vertical game than his size and the Seahawks run-based offense indicated. Fantasy owners also may be mistaking a trend for a fluke. Baldwin has seen his targets increase from 73 to 98 to 103 the past three seasons and his reception totals have more than doubled during that span. He and Wilson are becoming more efficient and the addition of Tyler Lockett should only help matters. Baldwin's 14 touchdowns are in the appropriate range to consider a regression as wise. But if Lockett, Paul Richardson Jr, or Jimmy Graham don't stay healthy, Baldwin could see a return engagement as Russell Wilson's top weapon.
TALENT AND CONDITIONS ARE THERE TO MAKE THE LEAP
The players below have ADPs within the range of rounds 5-10, the talent, and the conditions that can support a top-12 fantasy producer.
- Tyler Lockett: Matt Harmon recently touted Lockett as his fantasy football Charlie for 2016, citing excellent production with a variety of routes and promising work against press coverage. Baldwin recently noted Lockett has shown improvement against press this year. Physically, Lockett has Antonio Brown-like upside. With the Seahawks poised to transition to a more balanced offense that could eventually lean more towards the pass than the run, Russell Wilson has the skills to support multiple fantasy starters in the passing game.
- Stefon Diggs and Laquon Treadwell: One of these two receivers should produce like a top-20 receiver. A healthy Vikings offensive line should reduce the league-high 47 percent of Teddy Bridgewater's snaps resulting in pressure. Diggs is the more crafty route runner with speed and quickness to burn after the catch. But Treadwell offers more versatility in the short range of the field and the red zone. He's also physical enough to make plays deep. Most are counting on Treadwell taking the WR1 role for the Vikings but Diggs' upside hasn't gone away because Treadwell joined the squad. He'll be moving around the formation and he's worked with Bridgewater during the offseason to gain rapport. Don't be surprised if Bridgewater's 2016 campaign is good enough for high-end QB2 production. If so, Diggs and Treadwell will be the primary beneficiaries.
- Michael Thomas: Marques Colston had three seasons as a top-12 receiver and five as a top-15 option. Those were five of the seven years when Colston played at least 14 games. A concern that I've heard fantasy analysts state is the presence of Cobi Fleener in the middle of the field taking targets away from Colston. When Graham was an elite fantasy performer between 2011-2014, Colston was a WR1 for half of those seasons and a WR3 for the other two. Once again, players "taking away targets" is an overstated point of analysis. Fleener and Thomas (and Cooks) will move around the formation and Brees is crafty enough that he often gets to target whom he wants. Thomas will see red zone looks, he'll see vertical looks, and he'll catch a lot of passes in the open zones. It's possible Thomas replaces Colston and offers more, and sooner than we think.
LATER ROUND LONG SHOTS
The players below aren't listed in any order of preference.
- Paul Richardson Jr: He's not even drafted in most leagues but he's a talent that Seattle practice observers believe will make a contribution this year. He's most likely the third or fourth receiver in Seattle's lineup. If one of its starters get hurt, Richardson has deep speed, skill after the catch, and acrobatic ability to become a go-to guy for Russell Wilson.
- Dorial Green-Beckham: Umass rookie Tajae Sharpe is working ahead of Green-Beckham as OTAs wind down. Green-Beckham is still considered a project. It doesn't matter, Green will see the field often. Other than Delanie Walker, he's the best red zone threat in the passing game that the Titans have. He's also the team's best vertical threat. These two areas alone should earn Green-Beckham fantasy WR4 production. If he develops more consistency with reading zones and adjusting on the fly with Marcus Mariota, he could threaten WR1 territory despite lacking the complete game to match his promise.
- Kamar Aiken: I haven't known much about Aiken. He's big, fast, technically sound, and he produced as the No.30 fantasy receiver last year. Matt Harmon believes Aiken is for real and gives the low-down here. Harmon says Aiken's Reception-Perception compares favorably with Donte Moncrief. The difference is that Aiken has a better offensive line blocking for his QB and Marc Trestman's offense is a more proven scheme. I believed in Steve Smith but returning to No.1-caliber production off an Achilles' tear at his age is too much for me to be on board. Aiken has the best chance to elevate his game.
- Markus Wheaton: One play away from becoming the Steelers' primary option, Wheaton has the deep speed and route skills to thrive in many pro offenses but he has lacked the chemistry with Ben Roethlisberger to make good on it consistently. Wheaton's drop rate is among the lowest among NFL receivers since he entered the league. I've also noticed that Roethlisberger often overthrows Wheaton on sideline patterns beyond 15 yards in length. Wheaton saw 79 targets last year and 35 of them incomplete passes (44.3%) with only 2 of those incomplete passes drops (2.5%). Brown saw 193 targets and 57 of them were incomplete passes (29.5%) with only 2 of those incomplete passes drops (1%). In contrast here are some higher drop rates among starters: Martavis Bryant (9.8%), Julian Edelman (9.1%), Ted Ginn Jr (10.4%), Tyler Eifert (8.1%), Amari Cooper (7.7%), and Mike Evans (7.4%). It leaves me wondering if the type of targets Wheaton earns isn't in Roethlisberger's wheelhouse as a passer. I have a feeling that Wheaton would perform close to a WR1 in this offense if he ran Browns' routes. This is something I want to look into further.