Change At The Top: Wide Receiver Edition, Part 1
This position gets a bad rap for being a position of inconsistency. Sure, very few WRs will offer steady week-to-week production like Antonio Brown did last season, but at the end of the season, this has actually proven to be the most predicative position of the bunch.
There have been 31 different names that have graced the fantasy Top 10 at the position since 2008, and that is with us once again subtracting the position’s one player you don’t have any concerns about in Calvin Johnson. Not only is that one fewer “new name” per season than the running back position produces, but the consistency is on the rise.
Seven of the Top 10 last year (Demaryius Thomas, A.J. Green, Brandon Marshall, Dez Bryant, Eric Decker, DeSean Jackson, and Jordy Nelson) had previously been Top 10 contributors, five as recent as 2012. In fact, we’ve had at least five receivers finish a given season as a Top 10 option that had previously finished as a Top 10 option since 2008 in four of the last five seasons. The yardage gained through the air continues to increase, but the elite receivers are continuing to distance themselves from the pack.
The following 10 receivers finished 2013 as the top contributors at the position: Josh Gordon, Thomas, Green, Marshall, Bryant, Decker, Brown, Alshon Jeffery, Jackson, and Nelson.
With Gordon facing a substantial, if not season-long, drug suspension and Decker/Jackson joining new teams, it isn’t difficult to forecast who the favorites to finish among the 10 best receivers in the fantasy game this season. Sure, there might be some fighting over the order in which you put them, but landing two of these stud pass catchers would put you in a favorable position this season.
Gordon (5 percent chance of repeating a Top 10 performance)
What to like: In just 14 games last season, Gordon led the league in receiving and averaged more than two 20-plus yard receptions per week (he finished with 20 percent more big plays than DeSean Jackson in 12.5 percent fewer games). Those numbers are impressive by themselves, but how about when you toss in the fact that Cleveland quarterbacks finished 31st in completion percentage and their best deep tosser in Brandon Weeden ranked 25th in deep pass accuracy. Gordon picked up 637 yards after the catch … that’s 162 more than any other Browns receiver totaled for the season. In other words, Gordon had little to no help on the offensive side of the ball, and NFL defenses still couldn’t contain, let alone stop, him. He had as many games with 145-plus yards and a touchdown as he did games with less than 100 total yards and no scores.
What to fear: Well, there’s that 16-game suspension looming and that certainly doesn’t help his fantasy value. I’d consider it speculation, but the Browns went out and added Miles Austin and Nate Burleson, leading me to think that where there’s smoke there’s weed, and where there’s weed there’s Gordon. You might have heard that the Browns drafted some guy named Johnny, and while I think he has a spot in the NFL, there are going to be growing pains regardless. The combination of an offensive line that struggles to support the run and the lack of a proven back might once again make this Browns offensive attack one dimensional and counting on a repeat of last year’s domination is a major risk … and that’s assuming Gordon is allowed to play.
Verdict: The talent is real and the size/speed combination is among the best in the league, but receivers not named Calvin Johnson rarely follow up a season full of big plays with an equally impressive campaign. Since 1992, only Megatron has led the league in 20-plus yard receptions in back-to-back seasons, meaning even Hall Of Famers like Cris Carter and Jerry Rice couldn’t pull off the feat. I’m of the belief that the Players Union will find a way to save Gordon from a 16-game ban, but a suspension seems likely and figures to rule him out of the WR1 conversation, at minimum, in 2014.
Thomas (95 percent)
What to like: Peyton Manning will still be throwing him the ball. That should be enough of an argument, as Thomas has averaged 93 catches for 1,432 yards and 12 scores with Manning at the helm. The Broncos replaced Eric Decker with Emmanuel Sanders, a tradeoff that leaves some downfield production to be had – a role we could very easily see DT step into. At the very least, Manning and Thomas have developed a nice line of communication that allows them to exploit soft defenses with a quick screen pass (15 catches for 183 yards on passes thrown behind the line of scrimmage last season), a dangerous weapon to have for a 6’3” receiver.
What to fear: Finding significant downside here is difficult. Maybe the battle between Peyton Manning and Father Time starts going the way of the undefeated force, but that doesn’t seem like it’d be enough to keep Thomas out of the Top 10 at his position. Manning did attempt 105 more passes last season than he averaged in his 13 years in Indianapolis, so expecting a regression to the mean in that sense is reasonable and could cut into Thomas’ target count a bit. After a historic season, don’t be surprised if the Broncos use the running game to set up the pass, as they believe (as do I) that Montee Ball has the potential to produce at a high level.
Verdict: I would listen to an argument that would put Thomas as the number one receiver in fantasy football this season, but even if you aren’t ready to make a claim like that, he is as safe a bet as there is. When one of your concerns is that “the Broncos might be up big and not pass the ball,” you know you’re in a good spot to get significant production on a week-to-week basis. Invest with confidence with a Top 15 pick and feel good about it.
Come back tomorrow for the wide receivers that finished 2013 ranked 3-6 and the odds of them repeating such a ranking in 2014.