An already deep fantasy wide receiver corps went to Olympic-caliber depths last season with the addition of what was possibly the best wide receiver draft class in NFL history. This glut of talent led to 12 wide receivers posting at least 160 fantasy points last season, so in most leagues every team should be able to field a bona-fide WR1. Don't let that trend lead to false security, as this is a position where even the best players have question marks. It pays to stockpile quality depth.
With that thought in mind, let's take a look at multiple tiers of wide receivers to get an idea as to where they should be valued in most draft rooms.
Antonio Brown is the definition of a plug-and-play fantasy wide receiver. He posted 14 games with 10 or more fantasy points last season, a level of double-digit scoring consistency that no other wide receiver equaled. He also had six games with 20 or more points, another mark unequaled by a wideout. It's almost impossible for a defense to take him out of the game plan, as Brown ranked second in both fantasy points on short passes (aerials thrown 10 or fewer yards) and vertical passes (targets that traveled 11 or more yards downfield). He is hands down the top wide receiver in fantasy.
Over the last eight games of the 2014 season, Odell Beckham Jr. racked up 91 points on vertical passes. To put that insane scoring pace into perspective, note that Jordy Nelson led wide receivers in that category with 135 points last season. The big question is can OBJ keep that pace up over a 16-game schedule? If he can, Beckham can overtake Brown as the top fantasy wideout.
Demaryius Thomas is a rare "32-team free agent" type of player who can do it all in any system. The issue for Thomas is the Broncos may be leaning more on the rushing game in an effort to keep Peyton Manning operating at full strength late in the season. That could cut into Thomas' league-leading 185 targets from last season.
The matchup slate strongly suggests that the Dallas Cowboys are going to end up in more shootout games than they did last season. That could bode well for Dez Bryant to improve upon his career-high 221 fantasy points last season.
After posting 149 targets last season, a mark that ranked fourth among wide receivers, Jordy Nelson no longer has to prove he can be a high-volume player. At the same time, there is a bit of concern in that six of his 13 touchdown receptions last season occurred on plays in which a defender made a significant coverage error. If those mistakes don't happen again, Nelson may drop back to single-digit touchdown territory.
In his three best games last season, Julio Jones scored 83 fantasy points. Despite this trio of gargantuan performances, Jones still managed to rank only eighth in wide receiver fantasy points. Short passes are the impediment, as Jones tied for 18th in points at that depth level (56). This is not a one-season anomaly, as Jones placed 16th and 22nd, respectively, in that category in 2012 and 2011. He hits home runs, but until he can hit more singles, Jones will be hard pressed to contend for top-five fantasy wide receiver status.
The next tier
Calvin Johnson ranks 34th among wide receivers in terms of offensive snaps played over the past two seasons (1,526). Before chalking that up to injury bad luck, consider that one NFL executive heard there are serious concerns with Johnson's health and that, "this guy is going to fall apart at some point." Megatron could return to his former high-end WR1 form, but wise fantasy owners will value him more as a low-end WR1/high-end WR2 and hope for upside.
In his first three NFL seasons, A.J. Green was on the up escalator, going from 144 points in his rookie campaign to 194 in Year 2 and 203 in Year 3. The move to Hue Jackson's run-first offense and injuries that limited Green to only 13 games last season combined to drop him to a career-low 132 fantasy points. If he puts in a full season, Green is capable of getting to the 150-160 point range, but this offense likely precludes a return to contending for 200 points.
He has a reputation for being an impact downfield receiver yet Alshon Jeffery tied for 20th in vertical fantasy points (78) and tied for 22nd in vertical fantasy points per game (4.9) last season. New offensive coordinator Adam Gase previously operated a highly successful vertical attack in Denver, so he may be able to get Jeffery to reach full potential in this area.
Most top-10-caliber fantasy wide receivers make their impact on downfield receptions, but Randall Cobb is an exception to that rule. His 76 vertical fantasy points ranked 23rd, but when they were added to his league-leading 110 short pass fantasy points, it vaulted Cobb just short of the 200-point mark. Look for more elite production on dink-and-dunk throws and another top-10 finish by Cobb.
Could end up as a WR1 or a WR2
T.Y. Hilton was a borderline top-10 fantasy wideout last year (172 points, ranked 10th) and yet he has more than a few question marks. Over the past two seasons the Colts have the third-most quarterback dropbacks (1,384) and yet Hilton placed 13th in wide receiver targets. He also had fewer short-pass fantasy points last season (42) than Dwayne Bowe (43), Harry Douglas (43), Rueben Randle (45) or Eddie Royal (46). Think of Hilton more as a WR2 than a WR1.
Mike Evans had more stretch-vertical receptions (aerials thrown 20 or more yards) than any other player in the league. Jameis Winston wasn't afraid to throw the ball downfield at Florida State, so look for him to give Evans ample opportunity to defend his crown in this metric.
Gut instinct says that if the Broncos do run the ball less frequently this season they may not evenly distribute the reduced pass volume. That could be bad news for Emmanuel Sanders, as he was already second fiddle (albeit a strong one) to Demaryius Thomas in nearly every metric category. That production gap could get wider in a negative way for Sanders in 2015.
Kelvin Benjamin was at his best on stretch-vertical throws last year (58 points, ranked 11th) and held his own on vertical passes (94 points, ranked 15th). He should be able to significantly improve on his short-pass production (46 points, tied for 32nd), and if that happens, Benjamin will find his way to low-end WR1 territory.
The departure of Andre Johnson to Indianapolis moves DeAndre Hopkins into Houston's top wide receiver role, but he already led the team in receiving yards, receiving touchdowns and receptions of 20 or more yards last season. That production equated to mid-range WR2 production (146 points, ranked 15th). Brian Hoyer could be something of an upgrade at quarterback, but it's hard to see anything here that would move Hopkins into true WR1 status.
Sammy Watkins is only two seasons removed from posting out-of-this-world metrics, but those talents went underutilized in his first season in Buffalo. That may be the case again in 2015, especially if Matt Cassel takes over the starting quarterback job. Cassel has the lowest vertical yards per attempt total (9.0) in the league since the 2008 season. That means fantasy owners with Watkins on their roster will have to hope E.J. Manuel ends up under center for the Bills.
DeSean Jackson ranked sixth in stretch-vertical fantasy points last season (73), but he ranked 52nd in short-pass fantasy points (34). Even if he doesn't repeat the former, a relatively-easy-to-achieve improvement on the latter should be enough to keep him as a solid, if inconsistent, WR2.
Golden Tate's 99 catches propelled him to a No. 12 ranking in wide receiver PPR scoring last season (250), but he also had more than his share of double-digit yardage gains. His 51 receptions of 10 or more yards ranked eighth among wide receivers and gave him more catches of that caliber than Bryant (50), Jeffery (47) or Green (45). Given Megatron's aforementioned injury concerns, Tate should be considered a WR2 candidate in any league and a strong WR2/borderline WR1 in PPR leagues.
Last preseason it looked like Brandin Cooks had the inside track to being the offensive rookie of the year. A slow start followed by a season-ending thumb injury curtailed that train, but the Saints are going to lean on him as their No. 1 wide receiver. If all goes well with that transition, it could lead to a 100-reception campaign.
Julian Edelman's 10.4 PPR points per game on short passes (ranked fourth) helped him place 16th in PPR fantasy points at season's end despite missing the last two games due to a concussion. Not having Tom Brady under center for as many four games to start the season isn't a plus, but this shows Edelman can still be a PPR WR2 even if Brady is gone for a month.
The Jets' offense did turn out to be a backward step for Eric Decker's overall production but he still managed to post 11 games of double-digit point totals in PPR leagues. New York's quarterback play is almost guaranteed to get better this season, so Decker ought to be able to at least replicate this performance.
Antonio Brown and Randall Cobb were the only wide receivers to post more PPR fantasy points on short passes than Jarvis Landry (160). The only thing keeping Landry from rating higher is a complete lack of production on vertical passes (15 points, tied for 99th).
WR3 options with starter potential
Take this to the bank: Chip Kelly does not want his offense to throw the ball 621 times again. He will do everything in his power to get back to the 508 pass attempts the Eagles had in 2013. That trend will preclude Jordan Matthews from increasing his 102 targets last season and could make it difficult for him to equal it.
It can be difficult to understand the Keenan Allen hype. He ranked third on his own team in wide receiver fantasy points and had only four games with 10 or more fantasy points. There is an assumption that he will return to his WR2-rookie form but the prudent move may be to value him as a WR3.
Over the past three seasons, only Calvin Johnson has seen more targets (482) than Andre Johnson (479). Put a workhorse like that into an Andrew Luck-led offense and it could equal strong WR2-caliber production.
Brandon Marshall has the same type of workhorse credentials (460 targets the past three seasons, ranked fourth among wide receivers) but he is now in a much more conservative Jets offense where he will be fighting with Eric Decker for the top wide receiver role.
Jeremy Maclin will be the Chiefs' vertical threat and has a history of putting up top-flight vertical numbers (115 vertical fantasy points last season, ranked eighth), so don't discount the chance he could be a starting-caliber fantasy wide receiver at least part of the time.
Teddy Bridgewater led the league in vertical YPA over the last five weeks of the 2014 season. That could be a good omen for Mike Wallace, whose struggles in Miami occurred in part due to Ryan Tannehill's subpar vertical production (9.7 vertical YPA, ranked 27th).
Amari Cooper was the most pro-ready wide receiver in the 2015 NFL draft. His 171 targets last year at Alabama prove Cooper has upper-tier workhorse capabilities. Expect Derek Carr to throw a boatload of passes to Cooper early and often.
There is no doubting Kevin White's elite physical ability. The concern here is wide receivers coming out of the Dana Holgorsen system (Justin Blackmon, Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey) have not transitioned well to the NFL of late.
Nelson Agholor is in the same boat as Matthews in that his target volume could be capped if Kelly gets back to his run-first play calling ways.
The combination of bye weeks, flex starts and injuries makes it almost impossible to stockpile enough quality wide receivers in fantasy football.
Having said this, there is no need to pay too much of a premium for this depth. Outside of PPR leagues, there is only one wide receiver worth first-round consideration (Antonio Brown) and even he is likely to last until the second round in most draft rooms. Most owners should be able to select two of the top 20 wide receivers in the first four rounds.
After those starting wideouts are chosen, draft priority should be given to those pass catchers who are likely to tally large target volumes. There is no substitute for target opportunities, and every team should aim to have at least four wideouts who will tally at least 100 targets.
In the case of auction leagues, a good rule of thumb is to keep the cost of the top two wide receivers at or less than $60 and the overall cost of all wide receivers to about $80.