Fantasy football leagues aren't won during the first few rounds of your draft. Much to our chagrin, guys underwhelm or go down with injuries. For this reason, it's important to become familiar not only with superstars, but also with role players and emerging youngsters who could find themselves on the fantasy radar during the 2017 season.
Last year, the likes of Michael Thomas, Tyreek Hill, Davante Adams, Jamison Crowder, Tyrell Williams, Adam Thielen, Kenny Stills, Anquan Boldin, Taylor Gabriel, Marqise Lee, Quincy Enunwa, Cole Beasley, Cameron Meredith and J.J. Nelson entered the season third or lower on their respective team's depth chart. It didn't take long for each to land in the fantasy spotlight.
With that in mind, I have ranked the current No. 3 wide receivers for each NFL team in terms of expected 2017 fantasy production, not strictly on skill. As you'll see in the explanations, scheme, playing-time security and supporting cast are among the other variables in play.
Some of these players are worth your attention on draft day, while others are names to scoop up in dynasty leagues or to file away for later.
Note: Mentions of three-plus wide receiver sets throughout this article refer only to pass plays.
The Packers had a third wide receiver on the field for 92 percent of their pass plays last season. That ranked second to only the Giants and marks the first season in which they didn't lead the league in the category since 2012. In fact, Green Bay has ranked in the top eight in the category each of the past 10 seasons, including the top five each of the past seven. All of this is good news for Cobb, who took a back seat to Jordy Nelson and Davante Adams last season, but he still should remain plenty busy in the Packers' high-scoring offense. Cobb ranked 32nd at the position in fantasy points during the 13 weeks he was active last year.
The Titans have ranked in the bottom five of the NFL in three-plus wide receiver sets over the past two seasons, but that number figures to go up following the offseason additions of Eric Decker, Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor. Matthews was a top-25 fantasy receiver last seasons despite playing a part-time role prior to midseason. He's competing with Decker at flanker and will work outside opposite split end Davis in three-wide sets. He remains a candidate to lead the team in targets again this season, but the team's run-first scheme and crowded wide receiver room will limit his fantasy ceiling.
This may come as a surprise, but the Saints actually rank in the bottom half of the league in three-plus wide receiver sets during the Drew Brees/Sean Payton era. Despite this, the team's high-scoring offense has allowed the third receiver to generate plenty of fantasy production. With Brandin Cooks out the door, Ginn steps in behind Michael Thomas and Willie Snead as the club's third wideout. Consistency and drops figure to be of concern considering he'll operate primarily as a deep threat, but Ginn will produce enough to land on the flex radar most weeks.
4. Kenny Stills, Miami Dolphins
Miami's change from Joe Philbin to Adam Gase hasn't had an effect on its usage of wide receivers. Miami has ranked either fourth or fifth in three-plus wide receiver sets each of the past four seasons. We should expect more of the same this season after the team re-signed Stills to a four-year, $32 million extension during the offseason. Stills is a near lock to score fewer touchdowns this year (he had nine on 42 catches in 2016), but his target share increased in the second half last season, and he sports big downfield playmaking ability.
Jay Gruden took over as the Redskins head coach in 2014, and the team has ranked seventh, fifth and eighth in three-plus wide receiver sets during his three seasons. That's great news for Doctson's prospects as he enters what is essentially his first NFL season (he missed all but 30 snaps as a rookie due to an Achilles injury). The former first-round pick will start behind Terrelle Pryor Sr. and Jamison Crowder, but this offense will allow him the opportunity to earn a larger share of the target pie. Doctson's massive upside makes him a highly intriguing stash.
Following an eight-year stint as a Packers assistant, Ben McAdoo has been running the Giants' offense each of the past three seasons. So it shouldn't be a surprise that New York has had a third wide receiver on the field for an NFL-high 92 percent of its pass plays during his tenure. That number peaked at a whopping 97 percent last season. Reports suggest the team will lean more on a fullback and second tight end this season, but that will primarily be in running situations. Furthermore, the team is unlikely to remove the dynamic Odell Beckham Jr./Brandon Marshall/Shepard trio when planning to throw the football. Shepard's value took a hit when Marshall signed, but he'll still see the field often.
7. Marqise Lee, Jacksonville Jaguars
Lee's emergence in 2016 allowed the Jaguars to vault from 25th in three-plus wide receiver sets in 2015 to seventh last season. Coach Doug Marrone's influence was certainly felt, as the Jaguars had three wideouts on the field for all but one pass play during the two games he was the head coach. Marrone's Buffalo offenses ranked well above average in the category each of his two seasons with the team (2013-14). The Jaguars are moving to a run-heavy offense this season after drafting Leonard Fournette, which is bad news for the team's wide receiver trio, but Lee still figures to push for a healthy 20 percent target share.
8. Taylor Gabriel, Atlanta Falcons
At 59 percent, the Falcons ranked dead last in three-plus wide receivers sets last season, and Kyle Shanahan's offenses have ranked below average in the category seven of the past nine seasons. He's obviously off to San Francisco, however, so it's possible that new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian will look to keep Gabriel on the field more often. That would make sense following the departure of Jacob Tamme. The Falcons' high-scoring offense and Gabriel's big-play ability make him a fine late-round target.
Sean McVay's offenses ranked in the top eight in three-plus wide receiver sets during each of his three seasons with the Redskins. The Rams were below average in the category during the Jeff Fisher era, so expect a new-look offense with McVay taking over as the team's new head coach. Tavon Austin and Robert Woods are expected to open the season as Los Angeles' top two wideouts, but Kupp is a sneaky bet to lead the team in targets as the primary slot man. Kupp registered 6,512 yards and 74 touchdowns on 445 touches at Eastern Washington and can also help out as a returner.
The Lions have ranked in the top 11 in three-plus wide receiver sets each of the past four seasons, including the top six each of the past two (Jim Bob Cooter took over as offensive coordinator during the 2015 season). At 91 percent, the Lions ranked third in the league last season. With Anquan Boldin gone and the rookie Golladay in, that number may fall slightly in 2017, but it appears fairly clear that Cooter prefers the "11" package (three wide receivers, one running back, one tight end). Golladay is 6-4, making him a good bet to take on some of Boldin's work near the goal line, but he's also likely to work outside and handle some deep targets, as well.
The Ravens operated one of the league's pass-heaviest offenses last season, but they still finished in the bottom seven of the league in three-plus wide receiver sets for the third year in a row. That doesn't bode well for Perriman, who will open 2017 behind both Jeremy Maclin and Mike Wallace. Nonetheless, Perriman sits just outside my top 10 as a product of his massive ceiling combined with OC Marty Mornhinweg's pass-heavy tendencies (Baltimore led the NFL in pass attempts last season). Perriman is only 23 and sports 4.24-second wheels at 6-foot-2 and 218 pounds.
12. J.J. Nelson, Arizona Cardinals
When it comes to Arizona's offense, it might be more interesting to talk about the fourth wide receiver rather than the third. The Cardinals have ranked near the middle of the pack in three-plus wide receiver sets each season of the Bruce Arians era, but they've trailed only the Jets in four-wide sets (20 percent) during the span. They've ranked in the top three in the category each of Arians' five seasons in Arizona. Nelson is grossly undersized at 160 pounds, but he flashed some fantasy upside as a deep threat last season (his 18.3 average depth of target tops the league since he was drafted in 2015). He'll obviously be busy behind Larry Fitzgerald and John Brown this season, but keep an eye on Jaron Brown and third-round rookie Chad Williams, who will have plenty of opportunity in this wide receiver-friendly scheme.
The Patriots have ranked in the bottom half of the league in three-plus wide receiver sets each of the past seven seasons. At 55 percent during the span, only the 49ers come in lower (51 percent). Even with Rob Gronkowski missing a large chunk of the season, New England ranked 26th in 2016 (66 percent). It also doesn't help that Hogan will need to fend off second-year Malcolm Mitchell and slot man Danny Amendola for snaps behind Brandin Cooks and Julian Edelman. So why the somewhat optimistic ranking? Handcuffing, frankly. Hogan is an injury or two away from a very significant role in an elite offense.
Carolina has ranked 31st in three-plus wide receiver sets each of the past two seasons and 25th or worse each of the past four. Of course, Samuel's versatility -- he figures to work as a rusher and receiver -- means he should be able to overcome the scheme. The second-round draft pick registered 1,636 yards and 15 touchdowns on 171 touches at Ohio State last season. Only Greg Olsen and Kelvin Benjamin are assured more targets than Samuel in Carolina this year, though Christian McCaffrey and Devin Funchess are certainly in the mix.
After ranking outside the top 10 in three-plus wide receiver sets during seven of the previous eight seasons, the Eagles dipped to 25th (66 percent) in Doug Pederson's first year as head coach. Of course, the low usage of "11" makes sense. Philly sports one of the league's better tight end trios and was horrific at wideout last season. The offseason additions of Smith and Alshon Jeffery figure to mean more wide receivers on the field in 2017. Smith won't be the featured target like he was in Baltimore and, at times, San Francisco, but his big-play ability keeps him on the fantasy radar.
The Jets have paced the NFL in four-wide receiver sets each of the past two seasons, but that number figures to drop (possibly significantly) following the departure of offensive coordinator Chan Gailey. That said, the Jets are in pretty rough shape at tight end, which means the team's young wide receivers will be busy. Stewart, the team's 2017 third-round pick, will compete with the likes of Charone Peake and Chad Hansen for the team's No. 3 gig, but it's also possible he eventually passes Robby Anderson and Quincy Enunwa on the target totem pole. The Jets' aren't going to score much this season, but Stewart has a clear path to a lot of volume if he's up to the task.
John Fox's teams have ranked top-12 in three-plus wide receiver sets each of the past six seasons, though some of that was surely fueled by the presence of OC Adam Gase. Chicago overhauled their depth at wide receiver and tight end, so the likes of Dion Sims, Adam Shaheen, Kendall Wright, Victor Cruz will be among Wheaton's competition for snaps and targets off the bench. However, Wheaton is being paid $6 million this year and is currently the heavy favorite for the No. 3 gig. Considering Kevin White's durability woes, Wheaton very well could end up playing a major role in this offense in 2017.
The Vikings have ranked below average in three-plus wide receiver sets during each of Mike Zimmer's three years as head coach. This doesn't bode well for Treadwell, who was limited by age and ineffectiveness to just 76 snaps over nine games as a rookie. The 2016 first-round pick will begin his second season behind Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen on the depth chart. Only 22, Treadwell's raw talent makes him an intriguing late-round flier, but he's unlikely to make a big impact early in the year.
New offensive coordinator Mike McCoy was inconsistent with his personnel usage during his time in San Diego, but Denver ranked seventh in three-plus wide receiver sets (70 percent) and second in "11" (65 percent) during his first stint as Broncos OC (2009-12). Sans the tight end talent and depth he had in San Diego, McCoy is a good bet to return to a scheme that leans on three wideouts. That's good news for this year's third-round pick. Henderson is the team's best wide receiver prospect in years and is one injury away from an every-down role and big target share in Denver.
With Hue Jackson out and Ken Zampese in as OC, the Bengals jumped to ninth (81 percent) in the league in three-plus wide sets last year. It was the first time they cleared 80 percent over the past decade. Though Tyler Eifert is back and healthy, the Bengals' recent early-round selections of John Ross and Boyd suggest they'll continue to roll with plenty of three- and four-wide sets. Boyd is expected to open 2017 as the team's slot man, bookended by A.J. Green and Brandon LaFell. Still, his ceiling is limited with Ross, Eifert, Giovani Bernard and Joe Mixon also in the mix for targets.
Williams plays more snaps and runs more routes than Cole Beasley, but he also saw 36 fewer targets over 17 games last season. Thus, he qualifies as the team's No. 3 receiver for this exercise. Dallas ranked 10th in three-plus wide receiver sets last season after finishing no higher than 11th each of the previous nine seasons. Williams will catch the occasional long touchdown, but he's struggled for consistent fantasy value, even when Dez Bryant has been sidelined.
Houston has ranked near league average in three-plus wide receiver sets during the Bill O'Brien era. That trends figures to continue considering the team's solid wide receiver trio (DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller and Miller) and the re-signing of Ryan Griffin to work alongside C.J. Fiedorowicz at tight end. Miller, a third-round pick last year, is continuing his conversion from quarterback and will again work as the team's slot receiver. The team's weak quarterback situation will limit his statistical contributions, but Miller is a candidate for a leap forward in his second season. His breakout prospects are further boosted by Fuller's broken collarbone, which figures to cost him six to eight games.
The Raiders have trended upward in their use of three-plus wide receiver sets each year since finishing 31st at 50 percent in 2013. Oakland finished 11th in the category (80 percent) last season, which was their highest ranking over the past decade. The signing of Jared Cook and return of Lee Smith figure to keep Oakland near the middle of the pack in the category, but Roberts has been a valued target near the goal line, and the team will have a package in place for newcomer Cordarrelle Patterson. Roberts will catch the occasional touchdown but won't have consistent fantasy value.
We're at the point in this list where players will need to compete to retain a top-three gig. Dorsett has been a bust since the Colts selected him in the first round of the 2015 draft. The vertical threat from Miami will need to fend off Chester Rogers and Kamar Aiken for snaps and targets. Even if he nails down the No. 3 job, the Colts have trended downward in their usage of three-plus wide receiver sets during the Chuck Pagano era. OC Rob Chudzinski's offenses have ranked below average in the category during five of his past six seasons on the job. This is a situation to avoid except in deeper leagues.
The Steelers rank third in the NFL in three-plus wide receiver sets since Mike Tomlin took over as head coach in 2007. They've ranked in the top eight during eight of those seasons, though they dipped to 16th (77 percent) last season. Rogers is intriguing in that he's the emerging 24-year-old slot receiver in the Steelers' high-scoring offense. However, Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell will handle 45 to 50 percent of the targets, and the return of Martavis Bryant and selection of JuJu Smith-Schuster further limit Rogers' target volume.
Offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt has a history of heavy wide receiver usage, but the Chargers ranked 15th (77 percent) in the category last season. This should hardly be a surprise considering the injuries to Keenan Allen and Stevie Johnson, as well as the team's strong tight end duo (Antonio Gates and Hunter Henry). We shouldn't expect much of a change this season, though Mike Williams' back injury ensures Benjamin will remain involved out of the gate. The situational deep threat has returned to full health after playing through a PCL injury during the second half last season.
The Bills have ranked near the basement of the league in three-plus wide receiver sets each of the past two seasons. They changed coaching staffs during the offseason, but we shouldn't expect a drastic change with Rick Dennison now the offensive coordinator. Dennison has a history of substantial reliance on "heavy" sets, and the Bills were aggressive in signing fullback Patrick DiMarco away from Atlanta. Additionally, the Bills are weak with wide receiver depth, which suggests Holmes would need to beat out rookie Zay Jones to play a significant snap share.
The Browns swap coaches, coordinators and quarterbacks often, but one thing that hasn't changed is their lack of affection for three-wide receiver sets. The Browns have ranked 23rd or lower in the category nine of the past 10 seasons, including each of the past seven. Coach Hue Jackson's offenses have ranked below average in the category each of his past four seasons as the offensive boss. Louis, who was a fourth-round pick last year, has made some noise this offseason and makes for an interesting dynasty stash, but he'll need an injury to find his way into the fantasy discussion.
The Chiefs have ranked 30th, 27th and 30th in three-plus wide receiver sets over the past three seasons. Expect a similar ranking in 2017, especially following the offseason release of Jeremy Maclin. Wilson is the current favorite to replace Maclin as the team's slot receiver, but he'll face heavy competition from the team's past two fourth-round picks, Demarcus Robinson and Jehu Chesson. Wilson should only be considered in extremely deep PPR leagues.
Head coach Dirk Koetter's career shows that he falls a bit below average in terms of his usage of three-plus wide receiver sets, so it should be no surprise that the Buccaneers ranked 21st in the category (73 percent) last season. Tampa Bay added DeSean Jackson and Chris Godwin during the offseason, but the selection of tight end O.J. Howard in the first round suggests he and Cameron Brate will be on the field often. Expect the Bucs to rank near the top of the league in multiple tight end sets this year, which will limit the contributions of Humphries and Godwin.
The revamped 49ers wide receiver unit will include Pierre Garcon and Marquise Goodwin outside and Kerley lining up in the slot. As noted earlier, new head coach Kyle Shanahan's offenses have ranked below average in three-plus wide sets during seven of his nine years as an offensive coordinator. That includes dead last with Atlanta last season. Kerley may soak up targets from the slot, especially in an offense likely to be in garbage time often, but he's well off the fantasy radar, except in very deep PPR leagues.
The Seahawks have generally ranked near league average in their usage of three-wide sets during the Pete Carroll era. There's little reason to expect much of a change in 2017, but figuring out who the third receiver will be is a bit trickier. Kearse played 49 snaps per game last season as the mandatory "big" wideout in the Seattle offense, but he was not very effective. Paul Richardson exploded during the 2016 playoffs and is lined up for a bigger role behind Doug Baldwin and Tyler Lockett. Additionally, Amara Darboh was selected in the third round and is a sneaky bet to push Kearse out of a job.