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Breaking Down the Top 10 Wide Receivers

As the NFL and fantasy realm sit on pins and needles awaiting the results of Tom Brady’s appeal (yes, that was to be read with much sarcasm) we here at Fantasy Sharks continue to press onwards.

Besides, we could spend all day worrying about Brady and what does that get us? Just more pent up aggression because no matter how many games he misses he still goes home to his wife, Gisele Bundchen. Jealous much? Yes, yes I am.

After taking a stroll among the Top 10 quarterbacks and running backs, we turn our attention to the deepest position, in my opinion, for fantasy purposes. OK, it’s not just my opinion but also the opinion of the majority of fantasy pundits. Or at least should be.

Not only is the position ripe with fantasy point producers it is also the tightest grouped position as far as the top 10 ranked players goes. From the top 5 as well as Nos. 6-10, there are reasons an owner could like one player slightly more than another.

Yes, this was a very difficult group to rank and may spark more debate than previous articles.

Hey, if we aren’t debating we aren’t doing our jobs in my humble opinion.

1) Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh (previous rank – 1): The speedy Brown still holds down the top of the rankings and barring injury should stay here until fantasy draft day arrive. He blew up for a league-high in receptions (129) as well as receiving yards (1,698) and finished tied for second among wideouts in touchdown receptions (13).

Brown is far-and-away quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s favorite target having seen the ball thrown his way an average of 173 times the last two seasons. Making him even more dangerous is the fact that he’s hauled in 68 percent of those passes to the tune of 239 receptions for 3,197 yards and 21 touchdowns.

There isn’t a route that Brown cannot efficiently execute and once the ball in his hands he is electrifying. At only 5-foot-10 and roughly 186 pounds he shows a fearlessness over the middle and the speed to get up and on defensive backs on ‘go’ routes before they can react.

Another thing we love as fantasy owners is consistency. Brown has caught at least five passes in 32 straight regular season games. It doesn’t get much more consistent than that, my friends.

Brown is a points per reception beast who could actually see an increased workload early in the season as Le’Veon Bell serves his suspension that as of this writing is three games. With double-digit touchdown receptions within his grasp for a second consecutive season, we like Brown as the top option in standard leagues as well.

2) Demaryius Thomas, Denver (previous rank – 3): As I stated in the opening of this piece, there are razor thin differences between many of these wide receivers. Having Thomas leapfrog Dez Bryant for the second spot is a prime example. Both could easily finish the season here but Thomas still has Peyton Manning as his starting quarterback for at least one more year and that gives him a slight edge.

Since Manning has been under center, Thomas has emerged as a top fantasy wide receiver. He has averaged just fewer than 1,500 yards receiving per season and 11 touchdowns.

Yes, I do realize that Denver will be running a new offense this season that will feature more two tight end sets and look for more balance between the rushing and passing game. No, I do not believe that Manning will throw the ball less to Thomas. In their three years together, Thomas has averaged 158 targets, including an average of 26 in the red zone per season.

Despite missing offseason workouts due to his current contract situation, Thomas will be there for training camp and his rapport with Manning will be intact. With the loss of Julius Thomas via free agency Thomas may even take on more red zone opportunities.

I will also reiterate that this is only July and Thomas’ hold on the No. 2 spot remains very precarious. Yes, I am firmly riding that proverbial fence and stay tuned to my updated rankings to see if Thomas can hold on here. One thing is certain and that is Thomas will finish as one of the top-5 scoring wide receivers in 2015.

3) Dez Bryant, Dallas (previous rank – 2): If Bryant was to actually sit out a regular season game due to his contract status (franchise tagged) I would feel better about this ranking. While I am of the opinion he won’t take things that far, I believe that between Bryant and Thomas if either was to miss any games as a sign of protest it would be Bryant.

Contract issues aside, Bryant is an elite fantasy option, having racked up more than 3,900 receiving yards and 41 touchdowns over the past three years. His 16 touchdown receptions led all wide receivers last season and he led all Dallas receivers in red zone targets with 15.

Bryant will remain quarterback Tony Romo’s favorite target and is one of the most physically intimidating players at his position who exhibits a top notch ‘my ball’ mentality. He uses his size as well as strength to out-muscle defensive backs for position and can get up and high-point passes better than most.

Bryant resides here in the rankings mainly because of questions surrounding the Dallas run game heading into the season. Without the threat of a dominant running back like DeMarco Murray chewing up yardage, defenses will be able to roll more coverage to Bryant.

That is not to say that he can be completely shut down but added attention is never a good thing and until someone proves they can tote the rock for Dallas there will be concerns. There will also be some concerns surrounding Bryant’s demeanor heading into the season if a long-term deal is not done. An angry or distracted Bryant is not always a productive Bryant.

That being said, there is simply too much talent to keep Bryant from having another productive fantasy campaign. Look for Romo to target Bryant around 150 times and for Bryant to challenge for a top-3 finish this season.

4) Odell Beckham Jr., New York Giants (previous rank – 5): There is no wide receiver that has garnered more fantasy buzz this offseason (like there really is an offseason) than Beckham Jr. After overcoming an early season hamstring issue, he dominated the fantasy landscape down the stretch last season, emerging as a budding superstar.

This is another ranking etched in pencil as Beckham Jr. could easily finish as the top scoring fantasy option at wide receiver by picking up where he left off in 2014.

Let’s briefly recap briefly what the kid managed to do while playing only 12 games last season. Beckham Jr. racked up 91 receptions for 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns. He had seven games in which he posted more than 100 receiving yards and four games where he caught at least two touchdowns. One last tidbit of fantasy goodness is that over the final nine weeks of the season Beckham Jr. didn’t record less than 90 receiving yards in any game.

Yeah, we like that a lot.

Quarterback Eli Manning loves his new toy and targeted Beckham Jr. an average of 12 times per game from Weeks 9-17. More importantly, Manning threw Beckham Jr.’s way 27 times in the red zone.

Yeah, we like that a lot, too.

After all this waxing poetic about Beckham Jr., one would believe he would be the top-ranked wide receiver, right? Trust me, folks. I have often put his name there (he is my topped ranked dynasty wide receiver) only to once again move him back down. I told you wide receiver has been befuddling me all year.

As of right now, I have more questions than answers regarding the Giants offense and how they will progress in year two of the Ben McAdoo offensive schemes era. Has Manning finally turned the corner from wildly inconsistent to a player who can be relied on to repeat his 2014 numbers? Will Victor Cruz return from injury in time for Week 1? Whenever he does return how much does Cruz eat into Beckham Jr.’s targets? Does the addition of pass-catching running back extraordinaire Shane Vereen mean less targets for wide receivers in general? Will defenses be able to contain the kid now that they have game films to study and a less than potent New York rushing game with which to contend? After Beckham Jr. sat out minicamp with hamstring tightness, should fantasy owners be concerned?

So those are the reasons Beckham Jr. is not atop the rankings but there is still the chance he could be by August. Yes, this is what we in the business call ‘waffling.’ Hey, it’s still only July and waffling is allowed until training camps open.

5) Calvin Johnson, Detroit (previous rank – 4): While the movie series that inspired his nickname continues to thrive (don’t ask me how) Johnson has begun to show the wear and tear of his eight years in the NFL. That’s not to say that he will not be able to post yet another 1,000-yard campaign, which would be the sixth of his career. After all, Johnson managed to surpass that mark while only playing 13 games last season and being severely hampered in a couple of other tilts.

He remains a top-level fantasy wide receiver who utilizes his size and strength to make plays others simply cannot. However, there were substantial dips in Johnson’s reception total, yards-per-catch as well as yards gained after the catch. Some of this drop in production can be attributed to his bothersome ankle.

It’s the frequency in which that ankle issue occurs that is worrisome, as Johnson has missed five games over the last two seasons. Once a threat to take a crossing route the distance at any time he has battled with dropped passes (seven in 2014) and an inability to create the separation from defenders he once had. For the first time since 2010 he failed to average 100 receiving yards per contest.

Working in Johnson’s favor is that he will remain the apple of quarterback Matthew Stafford’s eye and continue to lead the team in targets. He will continue to be a top red zone option despite some competition from tight ends Joseph Fauria and Eric Ebron.

The addition of Golden Tate prior to last season was an excellent one for Detroit and he filled in admirably as the top receiving option when Johnson was out. As Tate’s role continues to grow in the offense there is the chance he actually helps Johnson, as defenses will be unable to continually double-team him.

While still an elite fantasy receiver, Johnson has just slid down to the lower tier of that group due to the lower numbers Stafford is putting up (his passing yard totals have declined in each of the past three seasons) with an offense committed to more balance. He will still be a fantasy force but no longer a top-3 scorer for fantasy purposes.

About Wally Spurlin

Wally Spurlin is a Fantasy Football Staff Writer at Fantasy Sharks and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writer Association (FSWA). Spurlin’s work has appeared in print publications, including the FSWA award winning 2014 USA Today Fantasy Football magazine as well as the 2015 edition. Wally is also a weekly co-host on the Fantasy Football Feeding Frenzy pod cast on Fantasy Sharks Radio at Blog Talk Radio.Follow him on Twitter @WaltonSpurlin