The NFL regular season is getting closer by the day as teams are now finished with their respective training camps and preparing for the all-important third preseason game. Fans are very lucky these days because every single preseason game is made available to them, whether it be online or on television. That gives fantasy football players the opportunity to scout everyone and anyone that they may consider drafting.
Last week we began listing our fantasy football rankings, covering the Top 20 NFL Fantasy Quarterbacks and the Top 20 NFL Fantasy Running Backs. This week we’ll continue with our rankings to help get you as prepared as possible for your upcoming drafts. Up next are the wide receivers.
1- Calvin Johnson
There won’t be many drafts where Calvin Johnson isn’t the first receiver off the board. He’s the full package of size, speed and great hands and has consistently put up impressive numbers. Johnson has averaged over 100 receiving yards per game in each of the last three seasons and should be good for double digit touchdowns. The Lions have a new head coach in Jim Caldwell and a new offensive coordinator in Joe Lombardi, both of whom have extensive experience with great passing offenses. Caldwell coached Peyton Manning and the Colts while Lombardi was Drew Brees’ quarterbacks coach in New Orleans. A healthy Matthew Stafford is looking to have a big year and Johnson will be the focal point of the Lions offense.
2- Demaryius Thomas
There is a gap between the top two receivers in the league and the rest of the elite pass-catchers out there as Demaryius Thomas is right up there with Calvin Johnson as the two most freakishly gifted wideouts in the NFL. Thomas is another guy who combines size, speed and good hands and over the past few years has grown into one of the best receivers in recent memory. It certainly helps that he’s got Peyton Manning throwing him the ball in the most potent offense in football, which showed last season in Thomas’ league leading 14 touchdowns. The Broncos lost Eric Decker and Knowshon Moreno to free agency so somebody is going to have to make up for the 147 receptions and 14 touchdowns the two combined for in 2013 and Thomas is certainly capable of picking up the slack. Not to mention he also has the trust of the ultimate decision maker in Manning, who will be looking Thomas’ way early and often in the upcoming season.
3- Dez Bryant
The Cowboys knew that they didn’t get as much out of Dez Bryant in 2013 as they could have and made a personnel change in the hopes of maximizing the production out of their best playmaker. Dallas brought in Scott Linehan to run their offense and throughout his career, Linehan has consistently gotten the most of out of his best receivers. It’s hard to think that a season in which Bryant caught 93 passes for 1,233 yards and 13 touchdowns isn’t considered a complete success but the lack of production in downfield routes is something that needed to be addressed. In 2012, Bryant caught eight touchdowns of 20 or more yards (compared to just three in 2013) and his average yards per catch was almost two yards longer than it was last season. Look for that to be addressed in 2014.
4- A.J. Green
Over the past couple years A.J. Green has been one of the more consistent receivers in the league. He’s averaged 98 catches, 1,388 yards and 11 touchdowns in the past two seasons and was one of two wideouts that had 90 catches, 1,400 yards and double-digit touchdowns in 2013 (Demaryius Thomas was the other). Big play ability is something that Green thrives on, having eight catches of 40 or more yards last season. Most young receivers begin to flourish in their fourth season which could mean big things are on the horizon for the Bengals talented young pass-catcher. Further development of the chemistry between Green and his quarterback Andy Dalton will only help his production totals in 2014.
5- Brandon Marshall
Entering his third season with the Bears, Brandon Marshall has developed a great rapport with quarterback Jay Cutler which is evident by the two 100-catch seasons that he’s had after being traded to Chicago. Marshall is Cutler’s favorite target inside the red zone, catching 10 of the 16 passes thrown his way inside the 10-yard line in 2013, nine of which went for touchdowns. He’s averaged 109 catches, 1,401 yards and 11.5 touchdowns over the past two seasons in Chicago and while he isn’t as big of a downfield threat as his teammate Alshon Jeffery, Marshall should make up for that by having another season with double-digit touchdowns.
6- Julio Jones
Another guy poised for a big year is Julio Jones. He missed the final 11 weeks of the season after suffering a foot injury in Week 5 last year but had that not happened, Jones may very well have led the league in receiving. When he got hurt, Jones was on pace for 131 catches and 1,856 yards and could very well pick up where he left off on a Falcons team that is ready to show that their 4-win season in 2013 was nothing more than a fluke. Durability has been an issue with Jones throughout his pro and college career but if he can shake that stigma than the sky is the limit for the 4th year receiver.
7- Jordy Nelson
The injury to Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers last November limited Jordy Nelson’s production, if only somewhat. He still finished the season with 85 catches, 1,314 yards and 8 touchdowns but if you look at his numbers during the eight full games with Rodgers in the lineup (49 receptions, 810 yards and 7 touchdowns) it’s easy to see how Nelson could’ve had a much bigger year. Now he’s got a healthy quarterback and is ready to build on his 16.4 yards per catch over the last three years. Nelson has always been a threat down the field and his big frame (6-3, 217) allows him to come down with most of those 50-50 balls. He also has an amazing rapport with Rodgers which has led to the pair being one of the best red zone combos in the NFL.
8- Alshon Jeffery
After a quiet rookie season in 2012, Alshon Jeffery burst onto the scene in 2013 as one of the league’s best downfield threats. He averaged 16.0 yards per reception last season, grabbing six passes of 40-plus yards and another 19 catches of 20 or more yards. Jeffery also received his share of rushes, carrying the ball 16 times for 105 yards in 2013. He gets plenty of looks inside the red zone as well, getting targeted 19 times inside the 20-yard line and another 11 times inside the 10. Chicago’s head coach is offensive guru Marc Trestman who should continue to find ways to share the ball between Jeffery and his teammate Brandon Marshall.
9- Antonio Brown
While he doesn’t have the size that most of the elite receivers in the NFL can boast (listed at 5-10, 186), Antonio Brown has the ability to put up some very impressive numbers. He ranked second in the league last season with 110 catches and 1,499 yards and could be in store for more targets after Pittsburgh lost Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery to free agency. Brown’s ability to get open down the field combined with his quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to scramble and buy time for his receivers has bode well for Brown during his time with the Steelers. One area that is expected to improve is Brown’s production in the red zone. He’s seen a limited number of targets in that area of the field in recent years but look for that to change in the upcoming season.
10- Randall Cobb
A broken right fibula in Week 5 kept Cobb out of action until the final game of the 2013 regular season but the 5-10, 192 pound receiver is in store to catch a lot of passes from Aaron Rodgers this year. He was on pace for 103 catches and eight touchdowns when he was injured last season but now Cobb is entering his third year in the league and is hoping that 2014 will be the breakout campaign that he started out having a season ago. A tough cover out of the slot, Cobb is very good at making potential tacklers miss him down the field and will turn short gains into long ones when given the opportunity.
11- Andre Johnson
Aside from the offseason unpleasantness that saw Andre Johnson angling for a trade, the veteran receiver is heading towards another target-heavy season as the Texans main receiving weapon. New head coach Bill O’Brien built a strong passing offense around a big-target receiver in Allen Robinson last year at Penn State and would be wise to do the same in Houston. Johnson has averaged 110 catches and 1,502 yards in the past two seasons despite combining for just nine touchdowns during that span.
12- Vincent Jackson
One of the biggest receivers in the league at 6-5, 230, Vincent Jackson is one of the tougher guys to cover in the NFL. He had a rough season in 2013 thank to an assortment of issues in Tampa Bay. After injuries to Doug Martin and Mike Williams, Jackson was the only playmaker left on the Bucs offense for most of last season. Now he’s got a better quarterback in Josh McCown, a new head coach in Lovie Smith and a new offensive coordinator in for Cal head coach Jeff Tedford. Tampa also drafted receiver Mike Evans with the seventh overall pick in this year’s draft, another big target (6-5, 231) that should help open things up for Jackson down the field.
13- Larry Fitzgerald
There is no argument that Larry Fitzgerald has had the best hands in the league for the past decade. He’ll be the main red zone target for Carson Palmer and despite getting up there in age (he’ll be 31 on opening day) Fitzgerald still runs crisp, precise routs and rarely drops the ball (he dropped just two of his 134 targets last year). He scored 10 touchdowns in 2013, the first season he scored double-digit touchdowns since 2009. There should be a stronger connection with Palmer this season as the pair has now had a full year to work together on and off the field.
14- Pierre Garcon
Coming off of a season in which he led the league in receptions with 113, Pierre Garcon is looking forward to having some help around him on the Redskins offense. The addition of DeSean Jackson combined with a healthy Jordan Reed should open things up a bit more for Garcon, and new head coach Jay Gruden will find ways to utilize each one of his weapons in a more well-rounded offense than what the Redskins have run in recent years under the Shanahan’s.
15- Michael Crabtree
If not for suffering a torn Achilles in the spring of 2013, Michael Crabtree could’ve had a big year working with Colin Kaepernick last season. San Francisco has several playmakers on offense in Vernon Davis, Anquan Boldin and newly acquired Stevie Johnson but make no mistake, Kaepernick will look towards Crabtree early and often. He’s got a tough draw to deal with, but that’s a byproduct of playing in the defense-heavy NFC West that features Seattle, Arizona and St. Louis.
16- Victor Cruz
Victor Cruz and the New York Giants had a very rough season in 2013. During the first eight games of each of the past two seasons Cruz has put up top-10 receiving numbers, pulling in 99 catches, 1,327 yards and 11 touchdowns in those 16 games. He’s got the speed, the hands and the big play ability, but he can only be as good as the offense around him. If Cruz and the Giants can keep it together for a full season, he could be a great value pick.
17- Keenan Allen
Only the fifth rookie receiver since the year 2000 to reach the 1,000-yard mark, Keenan Allen quickly became a favorite target of Philip Rivers in 2013. That’s even more impressive when you remember that he only had 30 receiving yards through the first three weeks of last season as it wasn’t until Week 4 that he became a regular part of the Chargers offense. Allen has great hands and despite not being featured in a full seasons worth of games, he still tied for ninth in the league with 20 red zone targets.
18- Wes Welker
Normally known for catching a ton of balls and being a great possession receiver, Wes Welker confused us all by catching the second-most touchdowns in his career (10) while catching the fewest passes since before his days in New England (73). It’s worth keeping in mind that he missed three games at the end of the season after suffering from a concussion. Welker was a favorite target of Peyton Manning around the goal line and he could see even more looks in that area following the departures of Eric Decker and Knowshon Moreno.
19- Roddy White
With the Falcons sputtering through a forgettable 2013 campaign, Roddy While did what he could to help the team while playing the majority of the year on a badly sprained ankle. He was finally healthy for the final five weeks of the season and in those games he caught 43 of his 60 targets for 502 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Now White is healthy again and is looking to regain the form that saw him be one of the league’s elite receivers for the past several years.
20- DeSean Jackson
One of the more electric players in the NFL, DeSean Jackson makes up for his lack of size (5-10, 175) by using his elusive speed to make plays down the field. While he wasn’t even in the NFL’s top-20 for targets in 2013, Jackson finished tied for second with 8 catches of 40 or more yards and alone in second with 24 catches of 20-plus yards. His nine touchdowns last season tied a career-high and new Redskins coach Jay Gruden will find some interesting ways to get Jackson involved in the RG3-ran offense.