Wide receivers: Are the top guys first-round worthy?

In our quarterbacks preview, I gave you statistical reasons to believe elite quarterbacks could be considered on the fantasy upswing relative to just-less-than-elite running backs. The gist of that argument: As opposed to nine of the 10 seasons prior, in 2007 two quarterbacks (Tom Brady and Tony Romo) placed in the top five in VBD points ("Value-Based Drafting," in which a player's fantasy points are compared to the fantasy points of the baseline player at his position). That means having Brady in '07 was like having Steve Young in 1994 or Brett Favre in 1996: the best player in the NFL in terms of how far above his position mates he was. It's that thinking which leads ESPN.com to rank Brady sixth overall for 2008.

But what about wide receiver? Are the elite wide receivers on the upswing, too? After all, in '07 Randy Moss ranked third in VBD points, Terrell Owens ranked sixth and Braylon Edwards ranked seventh. That sure sounds like a convincing case for the top receivers being taken well before middling rushers, doesn't it? Yes, but here's the thing: That argument has been valid for a few seasons now. Check out this chart, which indicates the number of running backs, quarterbacks and receivers who've finished inside the VBD-points top 10 over the last six seasons:

While the best quarterbacks seem to be outdistancing their average counterparts by more in recent years, the best wide receivers seem to have been doing this for the better part of a decade. And while it's not always easy to ascertain which receivers will be the absolute elite, and thus worthy of first- or second-round consideration, it's very much worth trying. Let's take a closer look at wide receivers, top to bottom.

The Elite

What I wrote about Brady applies to Randy Moss, too. Just because he almost certainly won't duplicate his incredible 2007 season that doesn't mean he shouldn't be the first guy taken at his position. Because defenses will be out to stop him, it's hard to imagine Moss getting 20 scores again (he rolled up 23 touchdowns in '07), but as other Patriots weapons step up, Moss will get his, too. There's a chance he'll be complacent following the signing of his big new contract, but losing the Super Bowl might have been the best medicine for worries about a letdown. … It's not necessarily fun to root for Terrell Owens, but it sure is fun to own him in a fantasy league. He set career highs in first downs and yards per catch in '07, and nabbed double-digit touchdowns for the third time in four seasons. Yes, he also led the NFL in drops over the past couple seasons, but as long as the Cowboys stay aggressive, he'll be elite. It's worth noting, however, that like Moss, Owens got a big, new contract this summer, so complacency also could be an issue with him. … The guard has changed in Indianapolis: Reggie Wayne is the unquestioned No. 1 receiver, not Marvin Harrison. In 2007, Wayne set career highs in receptions and receiving yards, and oh by the way, he led the league in receiving yardage, too. If Harrison isn't able to recover from his knee problems, Wayne could well be on his way to being the most productive receiver in fantasy football, but even if Harrison is back, Wayne will continue to be a good deep zone and red zone threat. … Braylon Edwards got hurt in '05 and was pretty good in '06. But his version of the third-year leap was worthy of the late Evel Knievel. He was a highlight-reel machine, grabbing deep balls and a whopping 16 touchdowns, and joining quarterback Derek Anderson as one of the breakout stars of '07. The Browns' offense figures to continue its upswing, and Edwards should be at the forefront.

Not sexy, but they get the job done

In 2007, Wes Welker might have turned in the greatest fantasy season a slot receiver has ever produced: He tied for the league lead in receptions, scored eight touchdowns and amassed 1,175 receiving yards. No second-banana receiver benefits more from the presence of his team's top threat. Opposing defenses must pay so much attention to Moss that Welker can often stride across the middle of the field uncontested. He might not be a top-10 receiver again, but Welker should be about as steady as they come in '08. … Anquan Boldin got 13 red zone targets in '07 and scored nine times, making him the perfect complement to deep threat Larry Fitzgerald in Arizona. Boldin wants a new contract (since Fitzgerald just got a $30 million extension) but isn't likely to be paid like a franchise receiver by the Cardinals. As long as he goes to training camp and doesn't make waves, though, and as long as he doesn't have a recurrence of the hip and toe problems that sidelined him in '07, Boldin is one of the game's best possession receivers. … Jerricho Cotchery won't set any speed records, but he has terrific hands and isn't afraid to go over the middle. He topped 1,000 yards for the first time in his career in '07, and figures to top his two scores from last season (he registered six touchdowns in '06). If the Jets can get their quarterback situation settled, Cotchery can be a reliable starter in deeper fantasy leagues. … Derrick Mason outlasted his old buddy Steve McNair in the NFL, and now will have to catch passes in Baltimore from a younger, presumably worse quarterback. Still, considering McNair had grown gun-shy over the past couple seasons, Mason -- like the other men on this list, he's mostly a possession receiver -- might actually benefit. He should catch a lot of balls, which makes him an intriguing option in point-per-reception leagues.

Falling Down

What to make of Chad Johnson? When he's healthy, he's one of the steadiest contributors in fantasy football; he has registered between 1,369 and 1,440 receiving yards in each of the last three seasons, scores between seven and 10 touchdowns, and is an elite deep threat. While it appears he's put some of his contract issues behind him for the time being (and reported to camp), Johnson did have offseason ankle surgery, so it may take him a little extra time for him in camp to get ready for the season. Also because he probably has burned some bridges with his organization and his teammates, you probably can't draft Johnson as highly as his talent warrants. … Early-season suspensions will cut a bit into the fantasy values of both Steve Smith and Brandon Marshall. Smith will miss the first two games of the season after punching out teammate Ken Lucas early in training camp. However, Smith missed the first two games of the 2007 season and still finished with 1,166 yards and eight TDs despite issues at quarterback. Marshall, who had a breakout 2007 season, reportedly was suspended three games for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy thanks to some off-field issues this offseason. If you draft them, you know you won't have them early in the season. … After eight consecutive seasons with at least 82 catches, at least 1,113 receiving yards and at least 10 touchdowns, Marvin Harrison fell off the planet in '07. Knee problems limited him to just five games last season, and make him a big name you don't want to pay a lot for in '08. It's definitely possible he recovers his past glory, but considering he's 36 years old, I wouldn't give up a high draft choice to find out. … Top to bottom, the Packers have one of the most impressive receiving corps in the NFL. That's great for Green Bay, but not great for Donald Driver, who saw his targets drop from 167 during '06 to 122 during '07. Greg Jennings might not be the team's leading receiver, but he's the best deep threat and a touchdown creator, which makes him the most valuable fantasy receiver in cheesehead land. Driver is 33 this year, and wasn't much of a threat in the red zone in '07. His contract runs through '09, but speculation in Green Bay this summer is that '08 could be Driver's last season with the Packers. He'll be good, but not great. … The Broncos are doing everything they can to build up Darrell Jackson as a viable starter opposite Brandon Marshall, but pardon me if I don't turn back flips. After all, this is the same Darrell Jackson who caught 46 of his 104 targets for the 49ers in '07, right? And he's the same guy who has slowed down the past couple years because of knee injuries? When it comes to Jackson, the name might be familiar, but the game that helped him catch 34 touchdowns from 2000 to 2004 is gone. … Stay away from Deion Branch, except as a late-round flyer. The Seahawks have been suitably vague about Branch's health, but he tore an ACL in Seattle's playoff loss in January, and he's not likely to be up to spped early in '08. There's a chance he comes back midway through the season, but the idea that he'll be a big-time fantasy contributor this season is wrong.

Opportunity Knocks

Calvin Johnson entered the league to trumpets blaring, but he was underwhelmed during his first season in Detroit. The Lions said a bad back was at fault, but Johnson occasionally flashed shaky hands, too, and now that Mike Martz is gone, there'll certainly be fewer targets to go around. Still, Roy Williams is entering the final year of his contract, and at the moment doesn't figure to get a big-time deal from the Lions. That means the franchise should be invested in making Johnson a focal point, which gives him a chance to become the stud we all hoped he'd be in '07. … Whatever success the Vikings achieve in '08 figures to be based on a great rushing game and a good defense, so expecting too much out of free-agent signee Bernard Berrian is risky. Still, considering Tarvaris Jackson struggled so badly in '07, opposing defenses figure to load up the box to stop Adrian Peterson, and make the Vikes' aerial game beat them. Berrian has yet to eclipse six touchdowns or 1,000 yards receiving in a season, but he's a burner who can make game-breaking plays, and was pretty darned productive with mediocre quarterbacks throwing it to him in Chicago. … If Marvin Harrison can't get healthy or has lost a step, Anthony Gonzalez would get a crack at playing second fiddle in the Colts' receiving game, a valuable role, indeed. He's short, but fast and even out of the slot can be a viable fantasy bye-week contributor. But if he wins a starting job in Indy, he'd be a very nice complement to Reggie Wayne, and an option in even shallow fantasy leagues. … D.J. Hackett is turning into a perpetual tease: He's big, with good hands and a nice head for finding open spaces in a zone, but he hasn't been able to stay healthy. After signing with Carolina to play opposite one of the NFL's true elite deep threats in Steve Smith, Hackett has the world at his fingertips. If he stays healthy and develops some chemistry with Jake Delhomme, he could be a 100-catch receiver. … Donte' Stallworth is another new signee who should benefit from the attention that opposing defenses pay to the star opposite him. While Braylon Edwards sees defensive backs roll his way, someone should be open on the other side. Now, Kellen Winslow was often that guy in '07, and Stallworth had a chance to be a super-productive No. 2 opposite Randy Moss in New England last season, and wound up losing his starting job. But at least he has a shot to be single-covered nearly every down. … Mike Martz has moved his high-octane offensive-coordinator skills to San Francisco, which instantly makes the Niners' receiving corps relevant for fantasy leagues. Isaac Bruce is clearly someone with whom Martz is familiar with from his St. Louis days, and for as long as Bruce's hammies stay healthy, he'd figure to be the top pass-catcher by the Bay. But it's very much worth keeping your eye on guys like Bryant Johnson, Arnaz Battle, Jason Hill and even (gulp!) Ashley Lelie, because if Martz can make fantasy studs out of Mike Furrey and Shaun McDonald, he can do it with these guys, too.

Rookie crop

The Bills desperately needed a big pass-catcher, which is why James Hardy is our favorite rookie receiver for during '08 (in what is a mostly weak crop). There just aren't any viable veterans to start outside, opposite Lee Evans because Roscoe Parrish and Josh Reed are better suited for slot work. If Hardy or fellow rookie Steve Johnson can master the playbook early, avoid mental mistakes and show good hands, they could be red zone threats right away. … Early Doucet is another guy who could step in and play right away. The Cardinals lost Bryant Johnson as their third receiver, and the underwhelming trio of Jerheme Urban, Steve Breaston and Ahmad Merritt will be Doucet's main competition. He won't be a star, but he could amass enough catches to have value in deeper leagues. … Devin Thomas had a spectacular junior year at Michigan State, and while he's something of a one-year wonder at this point, his measurables are fantastic: He's big, fast and has soft hands. The Redskins have a lot of receivers in camp, so it's tough to say Thomas is set for a lot of playing time, but he is a name to know long-term. … The Steelers drafted Limas Sweed to be the answer to Ben Roethlisberger's request for a big receiver. Sweed is 6-foot-4 and has tremendous jumping skills, and eventually will make a dynamite pairing with Santonio Holmes. … DeSean Jackson has 4.39 speed and is elusive in the open field, qualities that will make him a dangerous return man right away. Jackson has been looking good in preseason games and will definitely be part of the Eagles' passing offense with Reggie Brown and Kevin Curtis out. He's a "rookie sleeper" if there ever was one.
… Did I mention the Redskins have a lot of receivers? In addition to starters Santana Moss and Antwaan Randle El, and rookie Devin Thomas, Washington took Malcolm Kelly out of Oklahoma. Kelly isn't quite the burner Thomas is, and if I had to choose one for this season, it would be Thomas. But Kelly has quite a lot of potential, too. … The Bengals re-signed Chris Henry during camp to be their third receiver, but they'll be without him for four weeks (suspension), and and depending on what happens with Chad Johnson (shoulder), they could be in serious need for a rookie to step up early and develop chemistry with Carson Palmer. Andre Caldwell is big and fast, although he's also subject to the on-field mental lapses that plagued Henry. Jerome Simpson played at I-AA Coastal Carolina and figures to have a rough transition to the pros, but he also is 6-foot-1 and has 4.45 speed. Caldwell is more polished, and thus a better bet to have fantasy impact in '08, although it sounds like Antonio Chatman also figures to get a look in camp. Keep an eye on this situation. … Earl Bennett landed in a good spot for playing time, but a bad spot for fantasy production. There are no certain starters at receiver in Chicago: Devin Hester, Brandon Lloyd, Mark Bradley (who just had another knee surgery) and Rashied Davis are all in the mix, as is the sure-handed Bennett. He's the SEC's all-time leading receiver, and he has enough speed to play outside. But the Bears' quarterbacks aren't very good. … If you're not buying the Darrell Jackson experiment in Denver, take a look at Eddie Royal, one of the draft's most accomplished route-runners. It's incredibly tough for rookie receivers to produce week to week, but Royal has gotten rave reviews in Broncos camp this summer. … As is the case in Chicago, Kansas City doesn't have much settled at receiver, outside of Dwayne Bowe. That gives Will Franklin, a talented but mercurial receiver, a shot to shine this summer. He's big, has 4.39 speed, and needs only to beat out Jeff Webb and Devard Darling. Still, his reputation as a head case should give you heed. … The first receiver taken in this April's draft was Donnie Avery, which was a shocker. Avery has a chance to be the Rams' third receiver, and is very fast in a straight line. But this pick seemed like a stretch at the time, and still does. Stay away from him on draft day.

Unsettled situations

The Bengals have the kind of high-octane aerial game that helps win fantasy championships, but with so much dissension among the starters (and with the third-stringer banished from the league for the first four weeks of the 2008 season for bad behavior), it's tough to know what'll happen. T.J. Houshmandzadeh tied for the NFL lead in catches with 112 last season, and was second in targets with 168. He's a great possession receiver, and a tough red zone threat, but he's just about as unhappy with his contract as Chad Johnson is, even though he has made far less noise about it. … Dwayne Bowe was unexpectedly the most productive rookie receiver from '07, and even though he tailed off as the year progressed, he wound up with 70 catches, 995 yards and five scores. He's a big guy who's tough to tackle and can make the acrobatic catch, and in another situation, he'd look like a sure candidate for the top 20. But Brodie Croyle is the Chiefs' quarterback, the offensive line is weak, and there isn't much quality on the opposite side. If the Chiefs suddenly discover their offense, though, Bowe could be a star. … The Cowboys finally cut ties with Terry Glenn earlier this summer, meaning Patrick Crayton resumes his starting role on the high-powered Dallas offense. Meanwhile, Glenn might sign with the Dolphins, and if healthy, would probably slide into a starting role in the Miami offense immediately. … Reggie Williams put together a shockingly good fantasy season in '07, highlighted by a career-high 10 touchdowns on just 38 catches, but then the Jags went out and signed Jerry Porter, muddying the waters in Jacksonville. These guys have overlapping skill sets (they're big and not necessarily fast, do good work in the middle and can score in the red zone), and might wind up canceling out one another, unless Porter's May hamstring surgery lingers and relegates his role. Williams had knee surgery early in training camp, making things even murkier. … The Chargers tired of waiting for Vincent Jackson to be a viable complement to Antonio Gates, so they traded for Chris Chambers early in the '07 season. Jackson does enter training camp as the team's No. 2 receiver, but he's far less of a fantasy darling, and he could have to fend off Eric Parker, Craig Davis and Legedu Naanee for meaningful snaps. … The split end gig in New England, alongside Randy Moss and Wes Welker, figures to be a valuable spot if one man can hold it down all season. With Donte' Stallworth gone, Jabar Gaffney is the early favorite, but he'll have challenges from Chad Jackson and Kelley Washington.

Injury concerns

Andre Johnson sprained his knee in Week 2 last year and missed seven games thereafter, making him a big-time fantasy tease through the meat of the '07 season. Then this spring, word came that Johnson needed to have arthroscopic surgery on the same knee. While Johnson reported to camp, it's hard to deny this seems like a trend. … Brandon Marshall reportedly put his hand through a television set in March, causing major cuts that required surgery. There have been concerns that Marshall suffered nerve damage, which would certainly be a blow to one of the league's most surprising fantasy stars of '07, but Marshall has reportedly made progress in his recovery. However, Marshall is reportedly suspended for the first three games of the season for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy thanks to a couple of off-field incidents this offseason. Right now, it's his maturity, not his talent, that keeps him from becoming a No. 1 fantasy wideout. … Very quietly, Hines Ward struggled through a series of knee injuries in '07, and those problems limited him to a career-worst 10.3 yards per reception. Ward had his knee scoped this winter to repair partial tears of two ligaments and some cartilage, and figures to be healthier in '08. But he's 32 now, and complete health is no guarantee. … Laveranues Coles is a tough guy who hadn't missed a game in four seasons, but he had to sit out four contests in '07 because of a bad ankle. He's still fast, and still gets looks in the red zone, but he's a small guy (generously listed at 5-foot-11) and is often nicked up. A return to full health is needed for him to return to every-week fantasy starter status. … Over the past three seasons, Javon Walker has missed 23 complete games and parts of several others because of a bad knee, so just accepting that he's ready to resume his downfield ways is risky. In fact, Walker reported to minicamp too heavy, and reportedly looked sluggish throughout team drills. The Raiders don't exactly have a sterling record when it comes to skill-position, free-agent signees, so tread lightly when it comes to Walker.


One person's sleeper is another's starter, depending on league size, so let's look beyond the top 60 for guys with upside. Antonio Bryant has had a terrible attitude seemingly from the moment he joined the NFL, but he finds himself in a good situation this summer. He signed with Tampa for the league minimum, but outside of Joey Galloway, there just aren't many great receiving options for the Bucs. Meanwhile, Bryant has good speed and runs good routes. There's a chance he gets cut, but there's also a chance he winds up starting. … Chad Jackson reportedly looked very sharp in New England's passing minicamp this spring, which gives him a little juice heading into training camp. An early second-rounder a couple years ago, Jackson has fought knee injuries and indifferent practice habits, and he hasn't contributed anything to the Patriots. But with Donte' Stallworth gone and Wes Welker operating out of the slot, Jackson could find himself manning an outside position. … The Saints have a ton of receivers, so last year's first-rounder, Robert Meachem, will have nothing handed to him. But after showing up out of shape for last year's camp and then hurting his knee, Meachem drew raves from New Orleans coaches this spring in minicamp. David Patten looks like a better bet to start opposite Marques Colston, but the Saints use a lot of three-receiver sets, and Meachem has loads of physical tools. … You'll probably be making a mistake if you rely too heavily on the Atlanta offense in '08, but Roddy White turned in a fantastic season in '07, and it's not outside the realm of possibility that Laurent Robinson could take a big step this year. Robinson is 6-foot-2 and runs a 4.38, and if defenses focus on White, he could make some big plays. … Logan Payne spent his rookie year on Seattle's practice squad, but reportedly this summer he has impressed coaches with his good hands and route-running so much that he's starting to be looked at as an option for an outside-receiver role in three-receiver sets. Considering how often the Seahawks run three-receiver sets, that could make Payne a contributor.

Draft strategy

I'd rather have Tom Brady than Randy Moss, but I'd rather have Randy Moss than Marion Barber. In other words, don't blindly draft a running back late in the first round because of simple tradition. These past four seasons, running back performance has normalized just a bit, while quarterback and wide receiver performance has begun to spread out. So while in the past you might have read that it's imperative to go RB-RB in the first two rounds of your fantasy draft, that's no longer automatically the case.

Now, if you're in a league in which you know everyone's going to take their rushers first and second, it's probably a good idea to follow suit; otherwise, you're left with table scraps in your fantasy backfield. But all things being equal, Moss really should be a late first-rounder, while Terrell Owens, Reggie Wayne and maybe even Braylon Edwards, Andre Johnson and/or Larry Fitzgerald should go in the second round.

If you don't take a receiver with either of your first two picks, it's imperative you get one with your third, and probably your fourth (since if you've waited to take a quarterback beyond the second round, you'd might as well wait until the fifth). After filling in my starters, my tendency is to lean heavily in the direction of "flyer" running backs, but I'll mix in a "flyer" receiver or two if I think I'm getting some good upside. My logic is that whereas a "flyer" receiver's upside is probably that he becomes a starter and posts a couple decent games, a "flyer" rusher's upside is that he takes over as a starter and becomes a stud, a la Ryan Grant.

Auction strategy

In accordance with the laws of supply and demand, wide receiver stars tend to go for a bit less money than their counterparts at quarterback and running back. Still, you'll probably have to spend on the order of $30 to $35 to get your No. 1 receiver. In general, I'll budget around $60 (in leagues where you've got $200 to spend) for my entire wide receiver stable, which means my No. 2 receiver (and in leagues that have them, the No. 3 receiver) might go for between $15 to $25, and everyone else will be straight from the bargain bin. If you try a "studs and duds" strategy, you'd better be darned sure about the guys you've earmarked as your studs, because dud receivers often contribute absolutely nothing. It's worth noting that because there are so many decent receivers with upside in the NFL, this position tends to be a favorite for "hiding" a player, and hoping no one nominates him in your auction until most of the money is gone. It feels pretty good when you get a guy like James Jones for a buck.

Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner across all three of those sports. You can e-mail him here.