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2016 fantasy wide receiver preview: Depth is there, but don't wait too long

Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham Jr. are the cream of the fantasy wide receiver crop. Icon Sportswire

In our 2015 fantasy wide receiver preview, we opened by pointing out how there was an embarrassment of riches at the position, as 12 wide receivers posted at least 160 fantasy points during the 2014 campaign. Nothing has really changed here, as there were a dozen wideouts who achieved that mark last season too. While that means each fantasy owner should be able to field a bona fide WR1 in most leagues, it does not discount the fact that this is a position where accumulating depth is extremely desirable.

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 fantasy draft rooms.

Elite

It should be a rare draft that does not see Antonio Brown taken first overall among receivers. He hasn't just been a model of consistency, he's been a model of dominant consistency. Over the past two seasons, Brown has scored double-digit fantasy points in 24 of his 32 games. Those numbers will continue, as Brown has been targeted nine or more times in every game that Ben Roethlisberger has started since Week 1 of 2014. He's as safe and productive as they come.

In those cases where Brown doesn't go first at the position, Odell Beckham Jr. should claim that honor, as he has been an elite producer since he became a significant part of the New York Giants' offensive game plan in Week 9 of the 2014 season. In those 24 games, he has averaged seven-plus catches, to go with 110 yards and nearly a touchdown per game.

Rounding out the elite options are mainstay Julio Jones and, new to the elite class, DeAndre Hopkins. Jones finished as the second-highest-scoring wide receiver in 2015, despite only having eight touchdowns (everyone else in the top nine had at least 10 TDs), and Hopkins' line of 111 catches, 1,500 yards and 11 touchdowns displayed a statistical consistency across the board that delighted his owners. If not for minor question marks surrounding each player's quarterback -- Matt Ryan threw his fewest touchdowns since his rookie season, and it's hard to say exactly how good Brock Osweiler will be in Houston -- cases could be made for either Jones or Hopkins to challenge for the top ranking.

The next tier

On a pure talent basis, Dez Bryant is as good as any receiver in the league. However, when you rank fantasy players before your draft, you need to take into account opportunity as much as talent. Bryant's opportunity last season was negatively affected by injuries to both himself and Tony Romo. However, the upside for Bryant is monstrous, as he averaged more than 1,300 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns from 2012 through 2014.

Allen Robinson emerged as an elite weapon last year partly due to how deep his targets came. Robinson's average target traveled 15.3 yards in the air, fifth highest in the league. It's fair to wonder if the Jacksonville Jaguars' offensive game plan will need to be as vertical this year, based on the upgrades they've made on defense; if it isn't, those selecting Robinson might be disappointed. Overall, our ESPN fantasy analysts don't view that as a significant risk, but your risk tolerance should factor into your evaluation of Robinson.

When it comes to finding a reliable option near the top of the WR rankings, A.J. Green should jump to the front of the line. Green has missed only four games in his five-season career and has broken 1,000 receiving yards in each season. His production is level as well, posting 15.1 yards per reception in each of the past two seasons, despite playing significant time with AJ McCarron at quarterback.

If we have learned anything over the past couple of years, it's that NFL players are bouncing back from ACL injuries better than ever. That's a great sign for the Green Bay Packers and Jordy Nelson. Nelson will be slotted back into the No. 1 receiver role under Aaron Rodgers, who last year missed Nelson more than anyone predicted. Look for Nelson to receive close to the 149 targets he hauled in during the 2014 season.

As of press time, Geno Smith still projects to be the starter for the New York Jets, as free-agent Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Jets continue their stalemate. For fantasy purposes, Brandon Marshall is the player most affected by these negotiations. Marshall's career year in 2015 was driven by the 172 targets he received. If Fitzpatrick re-signs, consider Marshall a solid WR1 option.

Could end up as a WR1 or a WR2

Injuries allowed Sammy Watkins to accumulate only 147 receiving yards through the first seven weeks of the 2015 NFL season, but he rebounded in a major way with 900 more receiving yards in the Buffalo Bills' final nine games. Fantasy participants will want to tread carefully here, as Watkins had offseason surgery on his left foot to repair stress fractures, so ensure you monitor training camp reports on his injury recovery.

The 2015 season for Alshon Jeffery's owners was frustrating, as Jeffery missed seven games while battling a myriad of injuries. For that reason, some will view his season as a bust. The truth is that while his touchdown production was slightly down, he averaged just shy of 90 receiving yards per game, well above his previous career average of 70 yards per game. If healthy, Jeffery could be a draft-day steal, despite his high ranking.

Mike Evans finished tied for eighth among wide receivers with 148 targets last season. Despite that high usage, Evans only scored three touchdowns. To quantify how unlucky that is, wide receivers who had 100 to 140 targets averaged seven touchdowns in 2015. If Evans had attained those four additional scores, he would have finished tied for the 14th-highest point total among wideouts, instead of the No. 27 ranking he earned.

Younger receivers Brandin Cooks and Amari Cooper each posted respectable numbers last season, and it's not unreasonable to expect both to improve, particularly because of some good performance metrics achieved within their divisions. Cooks caught 71 percent of the pass attempts thrown to him against the rest of the NFC South, and Cooper gained almost seven yards after the catch on average against AFC West opponents. Both should be formidable options for years to come.

It's somewhat ironic that replacing Peyton Manning with either Mark Sanchez or Paxton Lynch will actually increase Demaryius Thomas' fantasy value, but that's likely the case. Manning's inability to throw deep passes definitely impacted Thomas' yardage totals. Consider this: Despite posting a career-best yards-after-contact rate in 2015, Thomas' yards-after-catch mark was his lowest total since he became a full-fledged starter in 2012. There definitely appears to be a correlation between how defenses were able to pack the area near the line of scrimmage and Thomas' downturn in yards after the catch.

The question on whether Keenan Allen is good enough to be an elite wide receiver isn't really about Allen himself. Instead, it's about whether Philip Rivers can replicate a season in which he posted career highs in attempts and completions. Probably not, but even a regression to Rivers' previous totals is enough to keep Allen challenging for a WR1 slot.

If you look at most of the backup statistics for T.Y. Hilton, you'll find a performance in 2015 that was comparable to each of the 2013 and 2014 seasons. He had just one drop last year, maintained a yards-per-reception rate that exceeded 16.25 yards and was targeted 130 times. The only difference came in catch rate, where Hilton's performance plummeted from a combined 62 percent over 2013 and 2014 to just 53 percent in 2015. Look for that rate to climb back to previous levels -- and for Hilton to exceed most expectations -- as Andrew Luck returns under center for the Indianapolis Colts.

For Doug Baldwin to challenge for a WR1 status, he'll need to replicate his touchdown rate of 2015, which included a stretch where he scored 10 touchdowns over the course of four consecutive games. While that might seem highly improbable, the Seattle Seahawks' offense came alive beginning in Week 10, and the increased efficiency in the passing attack had the Seahawks scoring 29 or more points in seven of their final eight games. Even if Baldwin's touchdown rate decreases, there's still some fantasy goodness left.

Rookie crop

While technically not a rookie, Kevin White is included here, as he has never played in an NFL game. He'll be the No. 2 receiver for the Chicago Bears, a position where Alshon Jeffery previously found significant success. White's draft combine results included a sub-4.4 40-yard dash, so he'll likely be most productive on vertical routes.

Corey Coleman joins the Cleveland Browns and also brings exceptional speed (4.37 40-yard dash). With Josh Gordon's return more than a little uncertain and with last year's top option, Travis Benjamin, now in San Diego, Coleman only has to fight off Marlon Moore and Andrew Hawkins for targets, which he should handle with relative ease.

As if having one of the two best wide receivers on earth wasn't enough of a blessing for Eli Manning, the New York Giants selected Sterling Shepard to work underneath routes. He's 5-foot-10 with a remarkable catch radius. He might have issues with top cornerbacks who excel in press coverage, but since the NFL East doesn't have many of those CBs, he should adjust pretty quickly.

Laquon Treadwell might be the perfect receiver for the Minnesota Vikings. He doesn't have amazing speed, but his physical frame (6-foot-2, 221 pounds) will give the Vikings the end zone receiving threat they have lacked for some time. Treadwell was the nation's top WR prospect before he enrolled at Ole Miss, and his college career reinforced his top talent, which will transition well to the NFL.

After 10 seasons of being a mainstay within the New Orleans Saints' offense, Marques Colston was released this offseason. Michael Thomas, who was selected 47th overall, will now man Colston's old role. Thomas is a virtual clone of Colston in terms of size and speed as both are right around 6-foot-3 and between 215 and 225 pounds. One difference between the two players is Thomas' college pedigree, as he enters the NFL after playing under Urban Meyer at Ohio State. (Colston went to Hofstra.) Don't be surprised if Thomas winds up being one of the biggest draft-day deals.

PPR options

There's often much talk about the impact PPR scoring has on wide receivers, but the typical adjustment you need to make isn't regarding where to rank a given wide receiver at this position. It's much more about bumping the value of all wide receivers compared to running backs, particularly when looking at the flex options. Sure, there are exceptions to the rule, but they are fewer than you might expect. Among last year's top-50 fantasy wide receivers in standard scoring, only Jarvis Landry, Mike Evans, Randall Cobb, Golden Tate, Pierre Garcon, Anquan Boldin and Keenan Allen improved by at least five ranking positions when transitioning to the PPR format.

Draft/auction strategy

The combination of bye weeks, flex starts and injuries makes it almost impossible to stockpile enough quality wide receivers in fantasy football.

It has become crystal clear that using an early selection on a wide receiver is desirable because of the consistency of the top performers at this position. However, because of past draft trends that often saw running backs selected with top picks, most owners should be able to select two of the top-20 wide receivers in the first four rounds.

After those starting wideouts (top 20) 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 fantasy owner 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 your top two wide receivers at or less than $60 and the overall cost of all wide receivers to about $80 (based on a $200 cap).