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Three-Tier Wide Receiver Power Rankings
My last two posts have been about using statistical research to help with predicting wide receiver success. The first post looked at the claim that this year's wide receiver class is especially deep and successfully debunks the theory. While there is a chance that 2012 will be an uncommonly good season for receivers, there is no statistical data to support it (you can read the article here). The second post is much less exciting and lists a number of statistics to consider when drafting fantasy wide receivers. It may not be exciting, but the information is useful when trying to predict the future success of NFL wide receivers (that post can be read here).
This post will go through the three different levels of receiver, with 12 players in each level. The cutoff may be arbitrary, but all of these rankings will be based on statistics from those two articles. The goal, as far as I'm concerned, when drafting fantasy wide receivers is to find players who will exceed 1,000 receiving yards. The touchdowns typically follow the yards.
First-Tier Wide Receivers
1. Calvin Johnson - Almost every player who has three 1,000-yard seasons by their 5th season continues that trend through their 8th or 9th season. While Megatron is very unlikely to attain the same lofty stats from last season, his youth and consistency make him the best receiver in fantasy football.
2. Larry Fitzgerald - Even though the QB situation in Arizona is suspect, Larry Fitzgerald is the real deal. Many great receivers (Jerry Rice, Marvin Harrison, TO, Jimmy Smith, Torry Holt) continued their success through their 9th season. In two years Fitzgerald will be on the decline, but years 9 and 10 are statistically viable for great receivers.
3. Greg Jennings - I really struggled with this #3 spot (any of the next 6-8 players could have gone here), but Greg Jennings looks like the most likely player to really have an amazing season in 2012. For great WRs, the 6th season is usually golden and Jennings looks like he should have 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns, easily. I know the Packers are crowded, but he was on his way towards those numbers before his injury caused him to miss the final 3 weeks. Chastise me if you want, but history said that Greg Jennings is the most likely receiver to perform.
4. Andre Johnson - It is somewhat uncommon for a player to have a 10th season better than their 9th, but Andre Johnson can do it. Just look at his numbers in the playoffs if you don't believe me. He doesn't top Greg Jennings because he has never had 10 touchdown receptions in a season, and only two receivers on my list of 83 had double digit touchdowns in their 10th season. I still like him from a probability standpoint.
5. Wes Welker - Wes Welker is also entering his 10th season and has also never reached double-digit touchdowns. The difference between Wes and Andre is that Dr. Andre Novak (wait, wrong show) has multiple 1,500 yard seasons and Welker is a bigger injury risk due to his play style. The Patriots are also stacked at WR and TE.
6. Roddy White - White is running on 5 consecutive 1,000 yard seasons and is entering his 8th year. He catches lots of passes, so his production is very stable throughout the year, but his touchdown production is not as vibrant as I would like. He should produce very similar numbers to Jennings, only he is two seasons older.
7. Brandon Marshall - Marshall dropped the ball a lot in Miami, but he still managed to get plenty of catches. He is going to a Bears team with a terrible receiving corps, good quarterback, and new offensive system. He is going to be learning along with everyone else, so no other receivers will have the upper hand on him. He is going into his 7th season off 5 consecutive 1,000-yarders. He needs to catch more touchdown passes for me to feel good about putting him here, but he still garnered 3rd-WR consideration.
8. Marques Colston - Colston is one of the few players to follow up a 1,000 yard rookie campaign with a 1,000-yard sophomore campaign. His third season was rough, but he is entering his 7th and I love his potential. The Saints thinned out their receivers and Colston has amazing size and rapport with Brees. He could have the best season of his career in 2012.
9. Hakeem Nicks - Nicks is injury-prone, so I dropped him a little bit here, but I couldn't leave him out of the top-12 like I did last time. This 4th-year receiver should benefit most from the loss of Mario Manningham, assuming his broken foot heals properly. His two consecutive 1,000 yard season are a huge confidence boost.
10. Dwayne Bowe - Bowe is entering his 6th NFL season and managed to reach 1,000 yards despite the injury to Matt Cassel. While Cassel might not be great, he does throw the ball to Bowe a ton, and the 6th season is typically gold for wide receivers. He is currently WAY undervalued, given the history of the WR position.
11. Vincent Jackson - Vincent Jackson should see plenty of targets in the barren Tampa Bay receiving squad. I don't really like him here, but everything points to him having a good season. Players entering new teams are slightly risky, but Tampa Bay will probably playing from behind frequently this season, meaning that Jackson should score plenty of points in garbage time.
12. Mike Wallace - I really don't like Mike Wallace, and if he holds out of training camp he will be off my draft board completely, but he is 12th for the time being. He has consecutive 1,000-yard seasons under his belt and the Steelers running game is looking paltry. Wallace holding out is reasonable, because he is under the 1st-round restricted tag, not the franchise tag. He is being paid near 50th in the league, but he is ranked here at 12th. He won't be here if he holds out.
You might be wondering where a lot of big-name receivers are. There was a common theme amongst those top-12 receivers; they all had multiple 1,000 yard seasons. My research shows that only 50% of receivers follow up their first 1,000-yard season with an encore performance. Alternatively, over 90% of the 1,000 yard seasons in the past 11 years were recorded by players with at least two 1,000 yard performances. While over 2/3rds of receivers who have one 1,000-yard season will have at least one more, that does not change the lack of consistency after a players first 1,000-yard season.
Second-Tier Wide Receivers
13. Victor Cruz - Cruz fell just outside of my top-12 in both WR rankings. There is not a whole lot of competition with Cruz for touches, but people should still be wary of his potential to fall short this season.
14. Dez Bryant - The first player on the list without a 1,000 yard season, Bryant is running out of time to break out. To his credit, he scores plenty of touchdowns despite his relatively low yardage totals, and the upper-limit is really high for this player. Most players with 900+ yard seasons in their sophomore season go on to 1,000 yard seasons in their 3rd.
15. Julio Jones - The number of 900-yard rookie seasons that are followed by 1,000-yards sophomore seasons is surprisingly low (hovering below 50% in my research), but Julio has the ability to break the trend. Most of the players who don't reach 1,000 yards aren't busts, they just stay about the same.
16. Stevie Johnson - I'm going to stick with the Stevie because I like it better. He has two consecutive 1,000 yard seasons and is entering his 5th year. The only things that could stop him from repeating are Fitzpatrick and his work ethic.
17. Steve Smith (CAR) - Smith is entering his 12th season, and while that isn't terrible, it certainly doesn't help his chances. His odds are about 50-50 to repeat his 1,000-yards from last season, which ranks him right here in the 2nd tier. I can't bet a 2nd or 3rd round pick on 50%.
18. Miles Austin - Austin had a crappy 2011, but still managed to catch 7 touchdowns. His history of multiple 1,000 yard seasons make him a prime candidate to have another in 2011, but there aren't many spots for players coming back to the 1,000-yard club.
19. Reggie Wayne - Wayne is entering his 12th season, but he managed to have a pretty good 2011, despite the atrocious QB play in Indianapolis last year. The Colts kept him on, and Andrew Luck has to throw the ball to someone. There is no reason that he can't record a respectable 1,000 yards and 9 touchdowns in 2012.
20. A.J. Green - There are plenty of you who will get your panties in a twist about this ranking, but only 2 of the 6 players who reached 1,000 yards in their rookie season (in my 11-year study) managed to repeat. Combine that with the fact that only ~50% of all players studied were able to follow up their first 1,000 yard season with a second and I believe wholeheartedly in this ranking. Players like Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, Andre Johnson, and Calvin Johnson could not get 1,000 yards in their second season and went on to get many after that. There just isn't a strong history of players in his situation repeating.
21. DeSean Jackson - The guy would have ranked higher if he scored more touchdowns. In his two seasons with Michael Vick he has racked up over 2,000 yards with only 10 touchdowns. I want a more 100:1 ratio of yards to touchdowns.
22. Antonio Brown - I don't like the Steelers passing game, but I do like Antonio Brown. His 1,000 yard season puts him on this list, but his chances of repeating are slim. His stock goes way up if Mike Wallace holds out.
23. Jordy Nelson - I am a Packers fan and I love Jordy Nelson. He is a strong WR2 on a very good team, but his 15 touchdowns from last season are nearly impossible to repeat. Randall Cobb should grab more receptions in the slot, so I have to rank him this low. The crowded corps is too much, especially since I like Greg Jennings to be a top-5 receiver this season.
24. Jeremy Maclin - I absolutely love Jeremy Maclin this season, but it is hard to break out in the NFL. It is harder when your quarterback is always injured and throws for 3,000 yards per season. Vick has never had more than 3,303 yards and has never broken 21 passing touchdowns...and those were in different seasons. There is not room for 2 great receivers and a great tight end in 3,000 passing yards.
The expectation is that 9-10 of the Tier-1 players have 1,000-yard seasons while 4-6 of the Tier-2 players have 1,000-yard seasons. Using the average of ~20 1,000-yard receivers per year, the next 24 players in Tier-3 are likely to only contribute 5 total 1,000-yard receivers. In order to keep this post to a short story instead of a novel, the next 24 picks are in another post.
You may be thinking that all of this focus on 1,000-yard seasons misses the point of fantasy football. I admit that it is not an absolute correlation between 1,000-yard seasons and being at the top of fantasy, but there is a strong correlation. Typically the players with the most yards also have the most touchdowns and therefore have the most fantasy points. Yards is also an easy stat to track across a players career, but I definitely keep touchdowns in mind when making these rankings.