This is a list of who I regard as the Top 10 fantasy wide receivers at the moment (see my piece on running backs here). The analysis below is intended to offer contrarian and in-depth perspectives. While I am not saying don’t draft any of these players, I would just like to bring areas of concern for each of them to the forefront.
1. Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers
Antonio Brown enters this season as a consensus top-ranked fantasy wide receiver for arguably the fourth year in a row since 2014. This time, however, the gap between him and the next guy is not as wide as it has been in the past. Draft Brown in the first round, after the Top 3 running backs have been taken.
2016 Season: Brown had 106 catches for 1,284 yards and 12 touchdowns in 15 games played (he sat out the Steelers’ meaningless season finale). Brown had 154 quarterback targets, which accounted for 26.1 percent of the team’s target total. Brown’s 106 catches gave him four straight seasons of at least 100 catches dating back to 2013. The fact that Brown’s season could be considered a disappointment (given his catch and yardage totals were his lowest since 2012) only exemplifies his elite status.
Offseason Buzz: Brown recently received a $68 million contract extension that locks him up through 2021 ($19 million signing bonus). Antonio Brown is one of the hardest working players in the NFL, so I would not worry about him slacking off.
Expected Usage/Target Share: Antonio Brown is the lead dog in what is starting to look like a crowded Pittsburgh wide receiver group. Brown’s 26.1 percent target share and 154 targets were his lowest since 2012, and given the return of Martavis Bryant and the addition of second-round pick JuJu Smith-Schuster, I would expect those target share and target numbers to remain the same for 2017. While not a big receiver (height of 5-foot-10), Brown does get some looks inside the 20-yard-line, as he scored four touchdowns last year from that distance. Brown is not afraid to lower his shoulder and punch the ball into the end zone if necessary. Also, Brown does occasionally see some time as a punt returner, with four career punt return touchdowns. If your fantasy league counts special teams production, Brown could give you some bonus points in that area.
Supporting Cast: The most important member of Antonio Brown’s supporting cast is quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. While clearly on his way to the NFL Hall of Fame, Roethlisberger has unfortunately missed five games over the past two seasons, and been limited in several others. For what it’s worth, Brown’s receiving stats have not suffered too greatly in his two games played where current backup quarterback Landry Jones has started (11 catches and 230 yards on 19 targets). Bryant has returned from his league-mandated suspension and is expected to resume his usual role as the No. 2 receiver. Bryant’s presence should take some targets away from Brown, but should also prevent secondaries from rolling coverage Brown’s way. Running back Le’Veon Bell will also siphon catches out of the backfield. Backup wide receivers Smith-Schuster and Eli Rogers, as well as tight end Jesse James, will be left fighting for target scraps, but their quarterback is not afraid to spread the ball around and find whomever is open.
Health Concerns: None currently. Brown has played all 16 games in four straight seasons. Roethlisberger on the other hand …
2. Odell Beckham Jr., New York Giants
Part of me really wants to rank Beckham Jr. as my top receiver going into this season. Maybe it’s the fact he plays for the New York Giants, or that he gets in fights with kicking nets. Either way, Beckham Jr. has been a monster since entering the league in 2014. Draft Beckham Jr. in the first round after the Top 3 running backs and maybe Brown have been taken.
2016 Season: Beckham Jr. had 101 catches for 1,367 yards and 12 touchdowns. Beckham Jr. had 169 quarterback targets, which accounted for 28.2 percent of the team’s target total. Beckham Jr.’s 85.7 receiving yards-per-game average actually represents a career low, but when your career-to-date average yards per game average is 102, there isn’t really anywhere to go but down. Beckham Jr. has had at least 1,300 yards and double-digit scores since entering the NFL in 2014.
Offseason Buzz: The media recently created a stir when Beckham Jr. showed up late to organized team activities (OTAs). Beckham Jr.’s eccentric behavior tends to be a magnet for the tabloids to latch on to and often try and create stories where there isn’t one. As of now, there seems to be no indication that Beckham Jr. will hold out for a new contract.
Expected Usage/Target Share: I’m expecting Beckham Jr. to finish the season near the top of the target and receiving yard leaderboards in 2017. Beckham Jr. is the engine that drives the Giants offense, as their run game is expected to be a work-in-progress this season. I would anticipate Beckham Jr. to command at least 25 percent of the team target totals. In terms of red zone usage, Beckham Jr. led the league last season in percentage of targets inside the 20-yard-line (34.4 percent). I would expect that number to come down a little based on the arrival of some newcomers to New York who I will mention below.
Supporting Cast: Beckham Jr.’s quarterback is stalwart veteran Eli Manning, who has started every game for his team since the 2005 season. While erratic at times, you can at least count on Manning to suit up each Sunday. New York added some pieces to the receiving puzzle in wide receiver Brandon Marshall via free agency, and tight end Evan Engram via the first round of the 2017 draft. Marshall has been one of the most productive receivers of the past decade. My suspicion, though, with regards to his desire to play in New York (first with the Jets before signing with the Giants), is that Marshall’s concentration is divided between football and his role on Showtime’s Inside the NFL. Engram, while an intriguing athlete, faces a learning curve in his transition to the NFL. The Giants coaching staff has high expectations for second-year running back Paul Perkins, but he is largely unproven to this point. As mentioned above, the Giants are going to want to pass to consistently move the ball.
Health Concerns: None currently. Beckham Jr. has yet to miss a game for injury-related reasons since his rookie year in 2014.
3. Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Here’s where things get murky with the wide receiver rankings, as the next three guys on this list could be interchangeable in terms of ranking. I gave Mike Evans the edge here based on age and health factors. Draft Mike Evans late in the first round.
2016 Season: Evans had 96 catches for 1,321 yards and 12 touchdowns. Evans had 173 quarterback targets (led the NFL), which accounted for 30.3 percent of the team’s target total. Like Beckham Jr., Mike Evans has never had fewer than 1,000 receiving yards in his three-year career.
Offseason Buzz: All has been quiet on the Mike Evans front this offseason. The Buccaneers recently picked up Evans’ fifth-year option for 2018, which would emphasize the team intends to keep him around (not that it was a difficult decision).
Expected Usage/Target Share: Evans should again easily lead the Buccaneers in all receiving categories. His 30.3 percent target share could take a slight hit with the signing of DeSean Jackson via free agency and drafting tight end O.J. Howard, but not enough for me to bump Evans down in my rankings. The hope is that even if Evans’ target share dips, his efficiency will rise due opposing defenses being unable to dial in on him. Evans will also be the guy his quarterback tosses the ball up to in the endzone, giving Evans the opportunity to use his towering 6-foot-5 frame to snatch the ball away from opposing defensive backs.
Supporting Cast: Evans has one of the best young, ascending quarterbacks in Jameis Winston. Winston loves uncorking deep throws for Evans to go up and grab. New addition DeSean Jackson‘s speed should also help clear out the opposing defensive backfields, allowing Evans to run more possession routes against 1-on-1 coverage. The run game featuring Doug Martin (suspended the first three games) and Jacquizz Rodgers should be competent enough to keep opposing defenses honest.
Health Concerns: None currently. Evans is expected to enter the 2017 season healthy.