2012 Top 30 Fantasy Wide Receivers
1. Calvin Johnson- I don’t expect to catch anyone by surprise with this pick. Coming off his best season where he put up 96 receptions for 1,681 yards and 16 touchdowns, Megatron has a lot of fantasy owners excited. The craziest thing about Calvin’s 2011 season is the fact that the Lions didn’t maximize his talents for the full game. His production in the first quarter was around 40% less than any other quarter. If the team looks to get him more involved early, look out.
Fear Factor: Last year may have been the perfect storm as far as it relates to Johnson’s fantasy value. Matt Stafford stayed healthy and the Lions didn’t have any other option but to throw the ball a 1,000 times a game. How much will Megatron’s stats fall if the Lions actually have a rushing attack in 2012?
2. Larry Fitzgerald- Last year was worst case scenario for the Cardinals offense. So, a bad year for Mr. Fitzgerald is 80 receptions for 1,411 yards and 8 touchdowns? I’m good with that. If the line can be just a little bit better and either Ryan Williams and Beanie Wells can stay healthy, and Michael Floyd or Andre Roberts can keep secondaries aware of them, then Fitzgerald will have a stellar year…yes, even with Kevin Kolb or John Skelton under center.
Fear Factor: If Kolb or Skelton haven’t progressed or are still running for their lives behind the Cardinals O-line, then production could be slowed. Don’t look now, but the NFC West secondaries are legit. Fitzgerald will face off against the likes of Cortland Finnegan, Janoris Jenkins, Carlos Rogers, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, and Dashon Goldson, twice a piece. Of course Fitzgerald will get his catches, but it won’t be in any pushover match ups.
3. Andre Johnson - Andre has never had a great complimentary receiver to pull some of the attention away from him. Defenses do have to focus on Arian Foster and Owen Daniels as reliable targets. If one of the young receivers like Lestar Jean, DeVier Posey, or Keshawn Martin can step up, then Johnson would have the most favorable match ups of his career. AJ still has some gas left in the tank. He had 21 receptions for 316 yards and 2 touchdowns through the first 3 games last season. At that pace, he would have finished with 112 catches for 1,685 yards and 11 touchdowns. Obviously, he probably wouldn’t of kept up that pace, but his quick start shows that he’s far from finished.
Fear Factor: The nagging injuries are taking a longer time to heal. He’s been nicked up a few times over the years and I have to wonder if he will be playing with the fear of injury running through the back of his mind. Speaking of injuries, Schaub hasn’t finished the season in three of his five years in Houston. While TJ Yates was a pleasant surprise last season, I don’t see Johnson putting up the lofty fantasy numbers with the second year quarterback. Yates managed the games in 2011 and with the talent in the backfield, he would probably be looked upon to do the same thing again this season if called upon.
4. Brandon Marshall - While I would like to see Marshall’s touchdowns increase, he has been one of the most productive receivers. Despite having numerous quarterbacks and different offenses, he has still averaged 95 catches, almost 1,200 yards, and 6.5 touchdowns over the last five seasons. This year may be the perfect situation for him. He seems to have the off-field issues behind him and will be paired again with the only quarterback that he has ever trusted and connected with. Jay Cutler will be back in an offense that he’s comfortable with and he protected the ball in the red zone in 2011, better than he has in years. I expect the receptions and yardage to be there as usual for Marshall and I would be extremely surprised if Brandon didn’t hit double digits in touchdowns.
Fear Factor: When there is a guy with a troubled past as long as Marshall, I can’t help but fear that the next mistake is right around the corner. My only concerns with Marshall in Chicago surround his off the field issues. He’s a beast on the field and he’s in the ideal situation with the Bears.
5. Greg Jennings – This is one of the most explosive players in an offense that is designed flawlessly for what he does well. Much like Andre Johnson, Greg Jennings was off to another stellar season before injuries slowed him. Through the first 8 games of last season, Jennings was pacing 96 receptions, 1,446 yards, and 12 touchdowns. Fans fell in love with Jordy Nelson last year, but his numbers spiked due to Jennings departure from the field. A healthy Jennings will once again be the primary option in this high-octane passing attack.
Fear Factor: Much like most of the top passing attacks in the NFL, the Packers have a lot of mouths to feed. Aaron Rodgers can spread the ball around with the best of them and he will use all of his weapons. There is always that fear that a player may not be the same after coming back from injury. If Jennings shows signs of rust, Rodgers may look to other targets ahead of him.
6. Julio Jones - Without much of an off-season, Julio Jones had to learn fast. Wide receiver is one of the hardest positions to come in and play well at as a rookie. It took Jones some time, but he caught up to speed late in the season. Over the last five games of 2011, Jones recorded 24 catches for 461 yards and 6 touchdowns. Up until that point, Jones only had 30 catches for 498 yards and 2 touchdowns. The Falcons will use him differently in 2012 and look to fully maximize his potential. In 2011, the team mostly looked to him in the first and fourth quarters. He had 32 of his 54 receptions in these two quarters, 612 of his 959 yards, and 7 of his 8 touchdowns.
Fear Factor: The team could find themselves content with Roddy White as the primary target and just keep Jones as the big play threat. If so, he will produce, but not at the level of a top 10 receiving option. Atlanta could also continue to ride the legs of Michael Turner and allow Jacquizz Rodgers to become their home run threat. I don’t see this happening though, as the team has held Matt Ryan back long enough. They should let him loose this year to see how high his ceiling may be.
7. Victor Cruz - I told anyone that would listen last year that Victor Cruz was the obvious second option for the Giants. New York had second thoughts and slow played him early on. Over the last 8 games, they committed to him and he didn’t let them down. During that time frame, Cruz made 48 catches for 948 yards and 5 touchdowns. The kid almost had a 1,000 yards in half of a season. Cruz is a complete receiver that plays the whole field. These type of “complete” receivers are more rare than you would believe. He’s also clutch. 45% of his receiving yards, 48% of his receptions, and 67 % of his touchdowns came in the 4th quarter.
Fear Factor: The biggest thing that I would worry about with Cruz would be his hunger. If he becomes complacent, we won’t see the same product put on the field in 2012 that we saw last season. He has to keep the chip on his shoulder. His numbers could take a bit of a hit if defenses start keying on him and giving Hakeem Nicks more favorable match ups.
8. AJ Green - A rookie quarterback and a rookie wide receiver isn’t the ideal situation for a team’s offense. The Bengals made it work. AJ hit the ground running last year and jumped out to 40 receptions for 599 yards and 5 touchdowns in the first 8 games. Cincinnati looked to Green in moments of desperation, only throwing to him when the team was trailing. The Bengals should look to open the playbook up a little more this year, as they’ll feel much more comfortable with the second year duo.
Fear Factor: I would worry that the team may look to lean on their defense like they did in 2011. Cincinnati has a very talented defense and if the Bengals keep the same plan of attack that they had last season, Green’s numbers could suffer because of it.
9. Vincent Jackson - V-Jack is a big play machine. It would be easy to see him higher on this list, but he’s never been a quantity receiver. Instead, he’s always focused on the quality. Jackson has never had a season with more than 70 catches or 1,200 yards. Surprisingly, he’s never had a season with double digit touchdowns. Vincent will be Josh Freeman’s security blanket and he’ll definitely get his yardage in bundles. The question is, will the Bucs look to get him 4-5 catches a game or 6-7? Jackson had 10 games last season with 3 or less catches. Tampa Bay can’t allow their top free agent receiver to be reduced to that many soft games.
Fear Factor: Vincent will be surrounded by change. Not only is he changing teams, but he will join a first year head coach, a young quarterback that’s coming off a bad year, and a team that’s trying to find it’s identity.
10. Brandon Lloyd - Lloyd got the short end of the stick for most of his career. He’s always been one of the top receivers in the NFL, but due to the situation, attitude, etc, he never reached his max potential. Brandon will have his numbers from 2010 resurface again this year. This is the same offense that Lloyd put up his best season of 77 receptions, 1,448 yards, and 11 touchdowns. The biggest difference is that Tom Brady will be running it this year, instead of Kyle Orton. Despite bouncing around last year, Lloyd still managed 70 catches for almost 1,000 yards.
Fear Factor: It’s a high power passing offense in New England, but there are plenty of hands to throw the ball to. Wes Welker will get his catches, Rob Gronkowski became the #1 option last year, Aaron Hernandez will play an even bigger role this year, the team added Visanthe Shiancoe and Daniel Fells, and the list goes on and on and on. There could be games that Lloyd could get left out in the dark.
11. Roddy White - You hear the talk about Andre Johnson and Wes Welker being too old, but nobody ever mentions Roddy White. Just like Johnson and Welker, White turns 31 this year. He’s still putting up the huge numbers year after year, but his hands were questionable last season. Since 2007, Roddy has had at least 80 catches, 1,100 yards, and 6 touchdowns every year. He’s a sure thing, but the team would be wise to shift some of the workload over towards Julio.
Fear Factor: I wonder if he will correct a lot of the mental mistakes he made last season. Statistically, his numbers should start to head a little south as Julio Jones’ numbers start to skyrocket.
12. Wes Welker - Welker owned his division last year. He put up stats in those divisional games (53 receptions, 736 yards, and 4 touchdowns) that some receivers dream about for a season. Welker will get his catches, but the yardage and touchdowns will become the concern.
Fear Factor: Comparing the second half of last season to the first half, Welker’s stats took a noticeable decline. He had 10 less catches for around 350 less yards, 3 less touchdowns, and his average fell by almost 4 yards a catch. Now, the Patriots add even more talent to the offense and Welker’s role may develop into more of an underneath, short yardage, chain mover.
13. Percy Harvin - As Christian Ponder grew last year, Harvin’s stats grew. After the first 8 games of 2011, Harvin improved his numbers by catching 56 passes for 633 yards and all 6 of his receiving touchdowns in games 9-16. He had zero receiving touchdowns in the first 8 games and 25 less receptions and 299 less yards. In the last 8 games, Harvin only had one game where he had less than 5 receptions.
Fear Factor: Obviously, I worry that Harvin may still be unhappy and not play to his utmost potential. Also, Ponder could regress and have a sophomore slump.
14. Hakeem Nicks - Nicks is a sure thing as long as he comes back from his injury 100% healthy. Victor Cruz will see a lot more attention this season and Nicks will get the softest coverage that he’s seen in his career. Hakeem will make defenses pay for playing him with man coverage.
Fear Factor: Forgive the pun, but Hakeem always gets nicked up. The season hasn’t started yet and he’s already fighting through an injury. If he can play 16 games this year, he’ll have his best season to date.
15. Antonio Brown - I was mocked for calling Antonio the most complete receiver on the Steelers after last preseason. It took Pittsburgh half the season to realize it, but then they changed their game plan accordingly. Over the second half of last season, Mike Wallace’s yards were cut in half; he fell from 800 yards over the first 8 games to 393 over the last 8. During this same time frame, Brown’s yards increased by 246 yards. Antonio’s average per catch also shot up by almost 6.5 yards, while Wallace’s average fell by 5 yards.
Fear Factor: Brown only had two receiving touchdowns out of almost 70 catches. If the team continues to just look to him for the yardage, than he will have to produce heavy workloads every game to make up for the absence of touchdowns.
16. Dez Bryant - This is a huge risk pick. Not only does he have the off-field issues but he also struggles to stay on the field due to injuries. When he’s healthy and not in trouble he’s one of the best receivers in the NFL. Even if he’s suspended for 1 or 2 games, he will still have a top 10 season. I’m still not sold on the fact that he will definitely be suspended.
Fear Factor: As mentioned earlier, Dez struggles to stay healthy and the Cowboys feel the need to risk his health even further by placing him on return duty. Now that training camp has started, I don’t think we have anything to fear as far as off-field issues are concerned.
17. Steve Smith - Smith had a monster year last year, combined with a stellar rookie quarterback. Smith still has something left in the tank, but they need to ration that gas out. The last half of the 2011 season, Steve was coasting on fumes. He had 46 receptions for 918 yards at the halfway point and was averaging an incredible 20.0 yards per catch. Then, he pumped the brakes and his yards were almost cut in half over the second half of the season and his average dropped by almost 6 yards a catch. Over the last 8 games, he only had 1 game with more than 90 receiving yards (he had 5 out of the first 8 games).
Fear Factor: I worry that Smith will run out of a gas even faster this season. I’m also a lot higher on the supporting receivers than most. Brandon Lafell will continue to improve, David Gettis is a great fit for Cam, Louis Murphy was a steal (if healthy), and Joe Adams will drop jaws.
18. Jeremy Maclin - Through 8 games last year, Jeremy Maclin was pacing 88 catches for 1,212 yards and 8 touchdowns. I fully expect a full season from Maclin, in which he displays those numbers. Last year was a madhouse for the Eagles. Things have settled down now and Maclin is the go-to receiver for Mike Vick. DeSean Jackson still fears going over the middle of the field.
Fear Factor: If Vick continues to force the issue of getting Jackson the ball, it will kill the flow of the offense. Philadelphia needs to run the offense through LeSean McCoy and look for Jeremy in the passing game.
19. Dwayne Bowe - He’s a special type of receiver, with a unique ability. He’s at his best in the fourth quarter and down the right side of the field. 61 out of his 81 receptions came down the right side of the field last year.
Fear Factor: Bowe needs to get elevated play out of his quarterback for the full season. He needs to become more of a diverse receiver. If defenses key on his patterns, they’ll just cut off the right side of the field for the Chiefs.
20. Marques Colston - I fear that I may have Colston too low. He could be on the cusp of an amazing season. I could see Colston having a better season than 2007. After missing time due to injury last September, Marques was golden from October on, putting up 74 catches for 1,062 yards and 8 touchdowns. The bulk of Colston’s work comes in the first half of games. About 50% of Colston’s catches, yards, and touchdowns came against his own division.
Fear Factor: Drew Brees can turn anyone into an overnight success. If he gets on the same page with Nick Toon or Adrian Arrington for a couple of games, then Colston could suffer a few down weeks. We already know that Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles will get their touches.
21. Jordy Nelson - This may catch some people by surprise. I think Jordy’s numbers will decline this year and especially in touchdowns. Jordy had almost 400 more receiving yards at home than on the road and 13 of his touchdowns were at home. Nelson’s stats were inflated after Greg Jennings went down. He’s a solid receiver and perfect for the Packers’ system, but I wouldn’t expect to see double digit touchdowns again.
Fear Factor: Jermichael Finley could have a big year, Greg Jennings should be healthy and the #1 option, Randall Cobb will cut out a bigger role, and Tori Gurley is worth keeping an eye on.
22. Stevie Johnson - He’s the Bills’ top option in the passing game, but they don’t take a lot of shots. It’s a conservative offense and Johnson falls victim to that. He runs multiple routes and keeps the secondary guessing, but he’s a “par for the course” type of stat producer, with Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback. He’s good for 80 catches, 1,000 yards, 13.0 ypc, and about 8 touchdowns.
Fear Factor: There really isn’t anything to fear. You’re not going all-in with Stevie, you’re probably betting a comfortable stack amount, holding pocket Jacks, and a Jack comes off on the flop…it’s high percentage. Just as long as he doesn’t blame God for dropping any more open passes.
23. Robert Meachem - We have a tendency to believe that because a player hasn’t been asked to do something, he can’t do it. Meachem has been asked to catch 40 passes a year for around 700 yards and 6 or 7 touchdowns. He’s done that perfectly. He’ll be ask to do more in San Diego and he will do more. Meachem will be the primary. In New Orleans, he competed with Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, Darren Sproles, and many more. In San Diego, his competition is Malcolm Floyd, who has never caught more than 45 passes as well, Vincent Brown, who’s a possession receiver that hauled in 19 passes last year, and Eddie Royal, who has only averaged 38 catches over the last 3 years since his outstanding 91 receptions as a rookie.
Fear Factor: Meachem may struggle adjusting to his new found role as being the “guy”. Philip Rivers already has chemistry with Floyd and Brown and could connect with Eddie Royal.
24. Miles Austin - Miles could benefit statistically from Dez’ off-field problems. Tony Romo is good for throwing the ball around and accumulating yards. Somebody has to catch the ball and Austin has proven the ability to be a go-to guy. Dallas is already short on receiver talent, without Bryant, Miles will receive a ton more targets.
Fear Factor: If those injuries from 2011 are still nagging and hanging around, Austin could miss more time or even worse; he tries to fight through it and causes a more severe injury.
25. Eric Decker – Decker was in a traditional NFL passing attack last season through the first 4 weeks. During that span, he had 20 receptions for 270 yards and 4 touchdowns. That was 45% of his production for the whole year. If he would of stayed on that pace he would have finished with 80 receptions, 1,080 yards, and 16 touchdowns. Decker also had more receiving yards in the 4th quarter than all other quarters combined.
Fear Factor: No matter what anyone says, none of us know how Peyton Manning will play in 2012. He could come out conservative and lean on all of the talented tight ends that the Broncos have. He could also love the big play ability of DeMaryius Thomas.
26. Reggie Wayne - Reggie had 75 catches and almost 1,000 yards receiving last year, despite Starsky and Hutch throwing him the ball. Andrew Luck will suffer some growing pains this year, but let’s not act like he can’t complete a pass to Reggie Wayne, who will be the most talented person that he has ever thrown a ball to.
Fear Factor: Wayne will be 34 years old this year and I don’t know how much he has left and how much he’s willing to give for a bad football team. The Colts also did a really good job of putting a solid, young, fast receiving core around Luck. Andrew may connect with his two tight ends, Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener, or his speedy wideouts like Donnie Avery or TY Hilton, often.
27. DeSean Jackson - Shocked that DeSean is so low? Don’t be. Jackson is a big play guy whose effectiveness is based off of Mike Vick being on his game and the secondary allowing him to get over the top. He fears the middle of the field and for that reason, he doesn’t control enough of his success. However, he’s fast enough to win in favorable match ups.
Fear Factor: Players that play scared, usually get hurt. I don’t know if DeSean can ever go back to being the player he was before Dunta Robinson knocked his head off.
28. Nate Washington - Nate is probably the best kept secret as far as a veteran fantasy receiver. He could possibly have a top 10 fantasy season. Besides Victor Cruz, no other receiver ran a more vastly balanced and extensive route tree in 2011. It doesn’t matter if Jake Locker or Matt Hasselbeck is the quarterback this year, they both will look and find Nate often. Washington elevates his game at the most crucial time. He’s at his best in the 4th quarter when their losing or on third downs. Out of his 7 touchdowns, 5 of them came in the fourth quarter.
Fear Factor: Kendall Wright is so versatile and talented, the quarterbacks could look to him first. Jared Cook is prime for a breakout season and rookie Taylor Thompson could develop this offense into a two tight end set, similar to the Patriots.
29. Demaryius Thomas - Demaryius showed his worth this past December. In that month, Thomas had 22 catches for 414 yards and 3 touchdowns. He didn’t have any other month with more than 4 catches or 66 yards. Demaryius is a big play threat that Peyton can take advantage of.
Fear Factor: Demaryius struggled with drops last season. He’ll have to fix this issue and prove that he can stay healthy. Through two years, he’s barely made it through half the season. In 5 of the 9 games that he caught a pass in last year, one catch made up for 50% or more of his yardage in that game. Predominantly, he only ran out wide and depends too heavily on natural ability. This isn’t a recipe for continuous success.
30. Greg Little - I’ll be the first to admit that I could be selling Little short. Like Demaryius, he suffered a lot of drops last year and that doesn’t sit too well with me. He is the primary target in Cleveland and will see a boost in his average per reception this year thanks to the switch from Colt McCoy to Brandon Weeden. Little needs to come inside more and not just depend on the edges. He’ll have to become a complete receiver in Cleveland.
Fear Factor: Rookie quarterback, rookie running back, rookie right tackle, and young receiver group. This team could grow together and become something special. I just feel that it may be asking for too much if we expect them to pull that off this year, in that division.
Jayson Braddock is an NFL Scout / NFL Writer & On-Air Personality. Jayson is also a football insider for the Dylan Gwinn show on 790 AM in Houston, TX - Listeners NOT in the Houston metropolitan area can hear Jayson on iheart radio or sports790.com. You can also catch Jayson on Sirius XM Fantasy Sports Radio with Scott Engel and the morning crew every Thursday at 10:30am ET. You may email Jayson directly @ firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @JaysonBraddock