Soppe's Wide Receiver Ranks and Projections
The wide receiver position is a difficult one to draft: Do you put your faith in a physical specimen and trust that his quarterback will find a way to get him the ball, or do you draft a receiver who has a reliable quarterback and trust that your receiver can make enough plays on a week-to-week basis? You’ll see a combination of both in my top 10 receivers for redraft leagues in 2014.
1. Calvin Johnson, Detroit Lions
No surprise at the top here, as Megatron is unquestionably the best in the game. The Lions brought in Golden Tate to give Matthew Stafford another option, something that can only help give Johnson a little more room to operate (not that he really needs it). Detroit is going to continue to throw the ball and throw the ball often (an NFL-high 3,258 attempts over the last five seasons), a trend that should lead to plenty of fantasy points for all involved. Johnson has been the target of 413 passes in his last 34 games (12.15 per game), a rate that is essentially slump-proof given his ability to make plays in the air.
He was more boom or bust than people want to recognize, with as many games with 115-plus yards and a TD as games with 52 or fewer receiving yards (five), but his good (746 yards and seven touchdowns in a month’s time, numbers that were better than the season stats of reasonable fantasy options in Steve Smith and Emmanuel Sanders) is simply better than anyone else in the league. It is scary to consider that there is room for improvement (those five less than stellar games, not to mention the fact that he caught only three passes that traveled at least 31 yards in the air), but not as scary as assuming anyone besides Johnson is the first wide receiver taken in your draft this summer.
Projection: 105 catches for 1,700 yards and 13 touchdowns
Upside: 1,900 yards and 16 touchdowns
2. A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals
Remember what I was saying about great receivers with iffy quarterback situations? Andy Dalton isn’t going to take the Bengals to the promised land any time soon, but for fantasy purposes, A.J. Green owners have no complaints. For the second consecutive season, the former Georgia Bulldog increased his catches, targets, and yards. The yardage and usage statistics are nice, but the fact that he has scored in nearly 60% of his regular season games over the last two years provides stability to his fantasy game.
I worry a bit about his performance at home (102-1,450-12) as compared to his road numbers (158-2,383-17) as the Cincinnati weather may be limiting his upside, but that’s nit-picking. I love what I saw from Giovani Bernard last year, and I fully expect his progression to keep defenses honest this season. Green is going to be force fed (460 targets in his first three seasons), and he is one of maybe three of four receivers in the league that has a chance to come down with any pass, regardless of accuracy of coverage.
Projection: 100 catches for 1,500 yards and 12 touchdowns
Upside: 1,650 yards and 13 touchdowns
3. Alshon Jeffery, Chicago Bears
He was born on Valentine’s Day and there is very little not to love about this third year pro out of South Carolina. Since joining the Bears, Jeffery is averaging 15.8 yards per catch (22.5% more than Brandon Marshall over that stretch) and, at 24 years of age, he is only getting better (at least 80 yards seven times in the second half of last season). It’s common knowledge that Jay Cutler trusts Brandon Marshall to make plays down the field, but look for that to change as Jeffery looks more and more like Marshall in his prime. Sure, Cutler missed some time last year, but the fact that Jeffery caught more passes and averaged more yards per reception on “money downs” (third and six or longer) is worth noting.
With Matt Forte keeping defenses honest and Marshall still very much a factor, Jeffery simply won’t be the primary focus of opposing defenses, and that’s a problem when you consider that there are very few, if any, corners in this league that can deal with his size and soft hands in a one-on-one situation. Cutler, a gunslinger who will give his teammates a chance to make a big play, is the ideal quarterback for fantasy receivers, and I am expecting huge things in 2014.
Projection: 95 catches for 1,500 yards and 10 touchdowns
Upside: 1,600 yards and 12 touchdowns
4. Demaryius Thomas, Denver Broncos
The number one target on the number one passing offense? Yes please. The Broncos “won” free agency by loading up on defense, but they lost Eric Decker to the Jets, which should have owners salivating about the upside of DT. No, I don’t think Peyton Manning is going to have the greatest statistical season from a quarterback again, but Decker’s 87 catches, 1,288 yards, and 11 touchdowns aren’t going to leave town with him. Julius Thomas and Wes Welker are still more than viable options, but Manning made a concentrated effort at getting Thomas the ball in space (62 catches on balls thrown 10 or fewer yards down the field), which leads me to believe that he has the most to gain from Decker changing zip codes.
With Manning at the helm, Thomas has produced near mirror image campaigns (94 catches on 141 targets for 1,434 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2012 and 92 catches on 143 targets for 1,430 yards and 14 scores last year), and I would expect more of the same in the coming season. In addition to his annual consistency, Thomas carried very little risk on a monthly basis as he scored at least four touchdowns in three of four months. Upside is great, but a floor that might be as high as any player at his position is the sort of consistency I look for when spending an early pick on a pass catcher.
Projection: 95 catches for 1,400 yards and 11 touchdowns
Upside: 1,500 yards and 13 touchdowns
5. Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys
I don’t care who is calling the plays in Big D, throwing the ball in Bryant’s direction is going to be a big part of the game plan. His yardage total dropped by 149 yards despite 22 more targets, but given his skill set, I’m willing to buy into the increased targets more so than the yardage dip. When all the chips were on the table, Tony Romo went to his top target (Bryant’s catch total, yards, and yards per catch all peaked in the fourth quarter), indicating that the Cowboys trust him with the game on the line, and why shouldn’t they? He, like the Cowboys as a team, isn’t perfect (six games with less than five catches and more games with fewer than 45 receiving yards than over 100), but few receivers can give the upside this 25-year-old can.
I’m buying his ability to step up in big spots as his five top games in terms of yards all came against playoff teams (42 catches for 644 yards and five scores in those games). Dysfunctional or not, this is a talented Cowboys team, and with another year of experience for Terrance Williams and a big-time campaign out of DeMarco Murray, Bryant might have the best chance of any receiver on the board to challenge Calvin Johnson.
Projection: 95 catches for 1,300 yards and 10 touchdowns
Upside: 1,700 yards and 14 touchdowns
6. Randall Cobb, Green Bay Packers
I mentioned in my Top 10 Players for 2014 that Aaron Rodgers was on pace for his first career 5,000 yard season before his injury, and Cobb is going to be the main cog if Rodgers can reach that plateau in 2014. After suffering a broken leg, the shifty receiver recorded at least 10 points (non PPR leagues) in four of his six regular season games, enough to convince me that he will be healthy and without limitations in 2014. Size wise (5’10” and 192lbs), he is comparable to Steve Smith (5’9” and 185 lbs), and at 24 years of age, the arrow is pointing straight up. Smith caught 88 passes for 1,110 yards and seven touchdowns as a 24-year-old … with Jake Delhomme throwing him the ball. Not only do I think Cobb is going to be a tougher matchup in his career than Smith, I’ll take my chances with Aaron Rodgers over Delhomme. Use that stat line as a floor, with a ceiling that is limitless.
Projection: 100 catches for 1,300 yards and 8 touchdowns
Upside: 1,650 total yards and 10 touchdowns
7. Brandon Marshall, Chicago Bears
Let’s be clear here, my ranking of him as the second best receiver on his own team does NOT make Marshall a player you should look at as anything but a WR1 in our fantasy world. He is still Cutler’s get-out-of-jail-free card and will be on the receiving side of his fair share of bombs. This will be his ninth season, but he is just turning 30 years of age and is still 6’4” and 230 lbs last time I checked. He is averaging 102.5 catches over the last eight seasons, with three of his top four TD seasons coming with Cutler at the helm (one in Denver and two in Chicago). His targets may have dropped by 16% from 2012, but he still ranked as a top-five receiver in targets, and while I think the regression in opportunities is a real concern, Marshall is still a lock to see 9-10 looks per game, and that’s plenty.
Projection: 90 catches for 1,300 yards and 9 touchdowns
Upside: 1,500 yards and 12 touchdowns
8. Josh Gordon, Cleveland Browns
Well that was impressive. He led the league in receiving (by 147 yards) and in 30-yard receptions (20% more than second place) despite playing in only 14 games (off-the-field issues remain a concern). That being said, can he really repeat those numbers given the lack of stability at the quarterback position? I don’t think so. For one, I don’t think the Browns come anywhere near repeating their NFL-high 681 pass attempts, so that’ll naturally result in some regression for their top target. I also think Cleveland will record more than one rushing touchdown per four games (the lowest rate in the league).
His ability to make the big play is a real weapon, but expecting another four-week stretch with 774 yards (21.5 yards per catch) and five touchdowns is a lot. Much like Marshall, just because I am highlighting some negatives does not mean Gordon isn’t going to have a nice encore performance, he just shouldn’t be viewed as a lock to finish among the elite. I’m basically splitting the difference between his first two professional seasons for my projection, but understand that he has the physical tools to repeat last season’s total numbers should Cleveland get consistent play under center.
Projection: 80 catches for 1,300 yards and 7 touchdowns
Upside: 1,600 yards and 10 touchdowns
9. Vincent Jackson, Tampa Buccaneers
The Buccaneers lost their two primary play-makers opposite Jackson (Doug Martin and Mike Williams) and decided to place blind faith in a rookie quarterback, yet the team’s number one receiver produced at the exact level you would expect (1,224 yards and seven scores) given his track record. He may be the eldest member of my top 10, something that limits his upside, but he is a consistent professional that will be in a better situation than he was last year.
Regardless of who the Bucs decide to start under center (Mike Glennon or Josh McCown), it will be a vast improvement over throwing Glennon into the fire after the Josh Freeman era went up in flames. Jackson struggled last season against the Dolphins, Patriots, Cardinals and Seahawks — totaling 100 yards in those four games — none of whom are on the slate this season. Treat Jackson how you treated Roddy White for all those years: a receiver you can count on weekly, but probably won’t single handedly win you weeks like the aforementioned eight are capable of.
Projection: 70 catches for 1,200 yards and 8 touchdowns
Upside: 1,400 yards and 11 touchdowns
10. Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons
If we were judging raw talent, Jones would rank higher on this list, but a season-ending foot injury and the decline in production of the skill position players around him have Jones saddled as a borderline WR1 entering 2014. I trust Matt Ryan, but with Roddy White and Steven Jackson showing signs of age, not to mention the retirement of Tony Gonzalez, I worry that the combination of increased defensive attention (especially from increasingly good defenses within the NFC South) and 11 months between games is going to be tough on a receiver who only has 34 games on his NFL resume.
All of that being said, he has caught 120 passes for 1,778 yards and 12 touchdowns in his last 21 games. The talent is there, as is the quarterback, but he is a bit of a roll of the dice after missing all of 2013.
Projection: 75 catches for 1,200 yards and 7 touchdowns
Upside: 1,500 yards and 10 touchdowns