2012 Draft Prep: WR tiers & strategies

• Dave Richard's tiers and strategies: Quarterback | Running back | Tight end | Kicker and DST

With the exception of our pal Calvin Johnson, wide receivers are the position that Fantasy Football forgot.

Running backs remain as prized as ever, quarterbacks have crept into the first round of drafts and the tight end revolution is upon us. Meanwhile, receivers are still expected to put up solid numbers, but not many owners are drafting with the plan to get specific good receivers. Instead, they're drafting with good intentions.

The reality is that there aren't many league formats that dictate a stern receiver strategy. Save for the PPR leagues that demand three starting receivers, you just don't have to figure out when to get whom. Instead, the only plan you should walk into your draft room with is a basic one: Go quality over quantity.

Something weird happened as we kicked into the whole "It's a passing league" era last season: Receivers weren't largely affected. Teams skewed way more toward the pass than the run in 2011 but it was running backs, tight ends and fringe receivers (guys like Dezmon Briscoe and Dane Sanzenbacher) who made out in the stat books. Sure, five receivers had over 200 Fantasy points last year compared to just one in each of the previous three, but otherwise Fantasy receivers have stayed consistent. Here's proof: 16 wideouts has 150 or more Fantasy points in 2011; 11 had that many in 2010 and 13 had that many in 2009. You'd think there would be more following a season where passing reigned supreme.

This isn't meant to be bad news. If anything, feel good knowing that the pressure to take a receiver shouldn't be as big as it is for other positions. Moreover, the talent pool at receiver is deeper this year than last year and the dropoff from great to good isn't as steep as it was a season ago. That opens the door to consider starting-caliber receivers a little later on in drafts. But that elite talent -- players we can draft and plug in as No. 1 receivers without hesitation -- will remain in demand. By the 70th pick, those guys will be off the board.

Therefore, live and die by this rule: Don't get caught without "safe" starting receivers. However many you need, make sure you get them.

Consistency Counts
The average Fantasy point total per game among Top 12 WRs was 11.4 (standard scoring). Here's who had at least 11 Fantasy points in 40 pct. or more of games played.
Player No. of 11+ FPTS Pct. Player No. of 11+ FPTS Pct.
Calvin Johnson 11 69% Victor Cruz 8 50%
Jordy Nelson 10 63% Marques Colston 6 43%
Steve Smith 10 63% Laurent Robinson 6 43%
Greg Jennings 8 62% Andre Johnson 3 43%
Wes Welker 9 56% Malcom Floyd 5 42%
Roddy White 9 56% Hakeem Nicks 6 40%
Julio Jones 7 54% DeSean Jackson 6 40%
A.J. Green 8 53% Miles Austin 4 40%
Dez Bryant 8 53%      

When to call on Calvin?

Here's some eye candy: With 1,681 yards and 16 touchdowns last year, Calvin Johnson averaged 105.0 yards and a score per game. Throw in the Lions' playoff loss at New Orleans and Johnson averaged 111.3 yards per game with 18 touchdowns. Obviously last year was monumental for Johnson, but even if you rope in his 2010 numbers with his complete 17-game stretch in 2011, he averaged 94.1 yards per game over 32 games. Over those 32 games, he has less than 10 Fantasy points (standard scoring) nine times, and never three sub-10-point games in a row.

You already know Johnson is the best receiver in Fantasy. The question is how soon he's worth taking in Round 1. League scoring might play a factor but if we're going to consider a receiver among the league's elite running backs and quarterbacks, then he better be safe like a seat belt. The running backs we'd take in the early half of the first round have 1,500-yard, 10 touchdown expectations (over 200 Fantasy points). Johnson crushed those numbers last year, but only seven receivers in the last five seasons have crossed 200 or more Fantasy points. Johnson's previous receiving high was 1,331 yards in '08. No one thinks he'll starve from a lack of scores but his yardage might not quite be up to par with the elite rushers. Furthermore, the Top 3 quarterbacks are not only a cinch to outscore Johnson (and anyone who isn't a quarterback) but are even considered safer than Johnson is in terms of consistency.

So here's your pre-draft homework: Scan the list of running backs and when you find one you don't believe will get 1,500 total yards and 10 total touchdowns, slot in Johnson. For me, there aren't many. That makes Megatron seventh best on my big board. I wouldn't hesitate to pick him then if he survives that long. Some people out there just can't resist Johnson's potential and will take him sooner. I'm not one of those people -- he's the best receiver in the league, but he's not the only receiver in the league.

How long does a breakout last?

Part of the fun last season was seeing guys like Victor Cruz, Jordy Nelson and Laurent Robinson come out of nowhere to become Fantasy fixtures. But ultimately they're not all expected to keep up their numbers from 2011. By my count we had six major fresh-on-the-scene receivers who delivered big -- the three mentioned along with A.J. Green, Nate Washington and Julio Jones.

History suggests receivers who didn't get their first opportunity to play regularly while breaking out will regress the following season. Some 2010-to-2011 examples include Brandon Lloyd, Dwayne Bowe and Jeremy Maclin. Be it because of injuries, trades or bad quarterbacks, all three didn't finish with great stats. Steve Johnson didn't do as well from '10 to '11 either but he was still about as good; he was like Miles Austin the year before.

High-pedigree rookies don't often fall off a statistical cliff, either. Calvin Johnson is proof of that as is Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald and to a degree Anquan Boldin (Mike Williams is decidedly not). Others like Roddy White, Vincent Jackson, Reggie Wayne and Greg Jennings needed some experience before being given full-time work and blossoming. That's why everyone feels safer drafting second-year receivers Green and Jones over the likes of Cruz (entering his third year), Nelson (his fifth year), Robinson (his sixth year) and Washington (his eighth year).

The belief is that all four of the non-rookies will not exactly repeat their 2011 feats. Nelson and Cruz should remain heavily involved in their offenses and shouldn't have numbers too far off of where they were. Washington might have a real good opportunity again thanks to the knuckleheadedness of Kenny Britt, but can't be considered a lock for another 1,000 yards. Robinson is the riskiest of them all -- his previous career-highs were 437 receiving yards and two touchdowns. It just so happened that he had an 858-yard, 11-touchdown campaign and then signed a rich contract with one of the worst quarterbacked teams after playing for one of the best. No chance he's as big of a factor again.

The Big Breakout Theory

The only thing better than picking up the next Nelson or Cruz off waivers is drafting them with a late-round pick. Breakout candidates aren't just hot rookies or guys entering their third year. Pretty much any receiver with this formula is a candidate to be helpful in Fantasy: Very good quarterback + playing time + talent = happy Fantasy owner!

Let's go back to Cruz and Nelson from 2011. Who threw them the ball? What kind of playing time did they have, especially compared to previous seasons? Makes some sense now that they were as good as they were if you think about it, especially since both are very fast, very talented players. It also helped them -- Cruz especially -- that they did well against bend-but-don't-break defenses that will probably continue to populate around the league in 2012. Offensive trends come and go, but there's nothing quite like speed, and those guys have it.

Now you don't have to have Eli Manning or Aaron Rodgers to be a sleeper-turned-stud. A.J. Green and Nate Washington are two success stories from 2011. Brandon Lloyd and Steve Johnson did it in 2010. These guys had good passers -- not great passers -- but they got the chance to play regularly and did well with it. You don't need the quarterback but he sure helps; if a quarterback is pegged to throw for over 4,000 yards and 25 touchdowns, those passing stats have to be caught by someone.

Who's next? Here's my list -- jot these names down and look for the one you like the best with a late pick in your draft.

Jon Baldwin, Chiefs: Baldwin needed his rookie season to get acclimated to NFL life; let's hope he doesn't need a ton of time to learn his second offense in as many years. Quarterback questions might back owners off of from taking him, but Matt Cassel's been on the other end of great receiving production before. Baldwin has great potential.

Brandon LaFell, Panthers: The Panthers could use a threat opposite Steve Smith. LaFell is your prototypical big third-year receiver with ascending stats just waiting for his time. He's staying in the same offense for the second year in a row with Cam Newton only getting better.

Greg Little, Browns: With Colt McCoy's wayward arm at the helm for much of last season Little still posted 61 catches. He had his fair share of drops and his receiving average and touchdown totals were gross. But with a year of offseason work in Cleveland and an upgrade at quarterback to Brandon Weeden, Little stands to make a solid improvement.

Robert Meachem/Malcom Floyd, Chargers: This isn't a cop-out -- both guys should be solid. Meachem was brought to San Diego to take Vincent Jackson's spot and make mid- and long-range receptions. Floyd has been in Norv Turner's system for years and is familiar with Philip Rivers. Both are injury risks -- especially Floyd -- but they're both going to play a lot and should be in line for some good numbers. Floyd happens to be in a contract year.

Catching a draft plan

As I said before, your one rule should be to not get caught without safe starting receivers. The idea is to pick up players you're comfortable starting from the get-go and potentially roll with throughout the season. Splurging on quarterbacks and tight ends and a million running backs won't completely work out well for you if your starting receivers are Danny Amendola and Santana Moss.

The good news is that there are a ton of receivers to go around, so many that you should be able to confidently find starters as late as Round 6, regardless of format. But expect the majority of the Top 25 receivers to get snapped up between Rounds 3 and 5, leading to this tip: Finishing with two receivers through five rounds should prove beneficial.

But what if the getting is so good through the first five rounds that you only end up with one receiver? Are you sunk? Not really, but you do make your lineup choices a little tougher, which isn't going to help you later on this fall. There's no "safety" in any of the receivers ranked from roughly 30th on down, but there are plenty of No. 1 options capable of catching north of 70 passes and scoring seven or more times. Be it deciding before the draft or during the draft, you could pick one stud receiver with one of your first three picks, then ignore receiver until Round 7 before going with three straight choices and not picking any more for the remainder of the draft. The rationale behind this is to at least lock up one "safe" starter and then have a pool of three receivers to pick from for one or two starting spots every week. Assuming a standard league that starts two receivers and a flex, here's a glimpse of how this might look from an owner picking 10th overall:

Round 1: Chris Johnson Round 2: Steven Jackson Round 3: Wes Welker
Round 4: Darren Sproles Round 5: Antonio Gates Round 6: Tony Romo
Round 7: Torrey Smith Round 8: Justin Blackmon Round 9: Nate Washington
Round 10: Mark Ingram Round 11: Jay Cutler Round 12: Robert Turbin
Round 13: Packers DST Round 14: Neil Rackers  

Everything on this team is great except for the second receiver spot, but in exchange for having that second quality starting receiver (and taking someone like Gates) the owner would be able to pick from a solid vet in Washington and a couple of upside receivers I happen to like in Smith and Blackmon. I'm not condoning this strategy but it's not a bad one. This is a tool in your arsenal depending on how your draft breaks through the first four-plus rounds.

Return of the Moss

The one receiver I get asked about the most is Randy Moss, who has resurfaced in San Francisco after a year out of football (two years if you count 2010). By all accounts it looks like Moss actually wants to prove to the world that he's not washed up after everyone assumed as much after a terrible stint in "New Minnessee."

The bad: Moss is 35. The good: He's a spry 35, as every media outlet in the Bay Area says he's flashed excellent speed thus far. The bad: Alex Smith is his quarterback. The good: Moss has made several quarterbacks look good including Jeff George, Kerry Collins and Matt Cassel. Smith is coming off a career year and clearly will be relied upon to throw downfield after the Niners re-invented their receiving corps via free agency and the draft. Making the assumption that Moss starts for the Niners, he's well worth a 10th- or 11th-round pick as a low-risk, high-reward type of Fantasy player. He might have been a bum two years ago but three years ago he had 1,264 yards and 13 touchdowns in New England. There could be 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns left in his tank.

Tier me!

As we do with all key Fantasy positions, we group players based on expected production and settle them into tiers. The goal here is to see when a certain level of talent is disappearing in drafts, giving you an idea of when to take a receiver. For instance, if you're about to pick and there are still six names in the near-elite tier and you pick again soon, you can probably pass on taking a receiver. When you pick again, those six names could be down to two, and then you should probably make the call on drafting one of them.

Megatron Tier Elite Tier Near-Elite Tier Excellent Tier
1,300+ yards, 10+ TDs 1,300+ yards, 9+ TDs 1,200+ yards, 8+ TDs 1,100+ yards, 7+ TDs
Calvin Johnson Julio Jones A.J. Green Victor Cruz
  Jordy Nelson Roddy White Marques Colston
  Greg Jennings Wes Welker Percy Harvin
  Larry Fitzgerald Brandon Marshall Jeremy Maclin
  Hakeem Nicks Dez Bryant
    Demaryius Thomas Steve Smith
    Andre Johnson Vincent Jackson
      Brandon Lloyd
Very Good Tier Good Tier Upside Tier Sleepers
1,000+ yards, 7+ TDs 900+ yards, 7+ TDs 900+ yards, 6+ TDs  
Steve Johnson Pierre Garcon Darrius Heyward-Bey Denarius Moore
Antonio Brown Titus Young Lance Moore Danny Amendola
Torrey Smith Nate Washington Malcom Floyd Jon Baldwin
Eric Decker Miles Austin Kendall Wright Michael Crabtree
Dwayne Bowe Robert Meachem Laurent Robinson Brandon LaFell
Mike Wallace Justin Blackmon Sidney Rice Randy Moss
DeSean Jackson Greg Little Santonio Holmes Jerome Simpson
Reggie Wayne Anquan Boldin Leonard Hankerson
Davone Bess

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Senior Fantasy Writer

Dave Richard has spent nearly his entire career covering the National Football League. Beginning with NFL.com at the boom of the Internet, Richard was that site's first Fantasy Football writer before transitioning... Full Bio

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