The Never-Too-Early 2014 WR Rankings
I’ll rank them in tiers, but I wouldn’t get too caught up in the individual rankings within each tier as those are bound to change significantly while we make our way through the NFL offseason.
Note: Any mention of fantasy points refers to a standard scoring format.
On a per game basis, Calvin Johnson is still among the most productive receivers in football, but given the struggles with his knee, he’s no longer in a tier of his own. Josh Gordon actually outscored Johnson in PPG (16.2 vs. 15.8) and finished as the top fantasy receiver in 2013 despite missing the first two games due to suspension. He’d be ranked higher if not for his long history of off-field issues, a change at offensive coordinator and continuing issues at quarterback. If he can finally get some consistency at QB (and stay out of trouble), the sky is the limit for this kid.
Demaryius Thomas also finished ahead of Calvin on the season, increasing his per game production for a third straight season. If Eric Decker leaves via free agency, Peyton Manning may lean on Thomas a bit more. He’s a very safe early round pick. A.J. Green, Brandon Marshall and Dez Bryant are also extremely safe WR1s. All three players have finished in the top 6 in back-to-back seasons.
7. Alshon Jeffery, Bears
8. Julio Jones, Falcons
9. Antonio Brown, Steelers
10. Randall Cobb, Packers
11. Jordy Nelson, Packers
12. DeSean Jackson, Eagles
13. Keenan Allen, Chargers
14. Pierre Garcon, Redskins
Alshon Jeffery had a breakout sophomore campaign, finishing #9 in total points and #11 in PPG. The only concern is that Jay Cutler favored Brandon Marshall a bit more (29.0%/25.1% in percent of targets) than did Josh McCown (27.2%/26.8%). In other words, Jeffery got a slightly (~1.7%) smaller share of targets with Cutler under center. Still, entering his third year, he’s a player on the rise and should see plenty of work in 2014 in Marc Trestman’s pass-happy offense.
Julio Jones has the potential to be one of the most productive receivers in the league, but I’m a bit concerned about the foot injury, especially since it’s a broken bone in the same location as his pre-Draft injury. If he plays a full season, he’ll very likely finish in the top 5 and he'll move into the top tier with a healthy, positive offseason.
Provided they can stay healthy, Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson will be extremely safe picks in the 3rd/4th rounds given the stability of their offense and quarterback situation. James Jones is hitting free agency, so if he leaves, Cobb/Nelson could see a slight uptick in targets.
DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon and Keenan Allen are all coming off of strong seasons and head into 2014 without any major QB concerns. The Redskins (Jay Gruden) and Chargers (Frank Reich) will have new coaches calling the plays, but Gruden fed the ball to A.J. Green in Cincinnati, so Garcon should still see a healthy amount of targets under Gruden. As for Allen, Reich was the Chargers’ QB coach last season, so don’t expect any major changes to the San Diego passing game in 2014.
15. Vincent Jackson, Buccaneers
16. Michael Crabtree, 49ers
17. T.Y. Hilton, Colts
18. Andre Johnson, Texans
19. Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals
20. Victor Cruz, Giants
21. Roddy White, Falcons
22. Percy Harvin, Seahawks
23. Wes Welker, Broncos
Including three playoff games, Michael Crabtree appeared in eight contests this season and averaged 4.3 catches for 61 yards and 0.13 TD. For a better indication of his potential for 2014, we should include the 10 games he played with Colin Kaepernick in 2012 (and in the 2013 playoffs). When those numbers are rolled in, Crabtree averaged 5.3 catches for 76 yards and 0.50 TD, which equates to 10.6 PPG, or strong WR2-type numbers. He looked liked himself during the 49ers' playoff run, so we're expecting a productive 2014 from the 6th-year receiver.
Prior to Reggie Wayne’s injury, T.Y. Hilton played 63.1% of his team’s snaps. After Wayne tore his ACL, that number rose to 76.9%. With Wayne coming off of a serious injury, Hilton is (or at least he should be) the primary target in the passing game in 2014. With Wayne sidelined, Hilton averaged 6.5-91-.45 over the final 11 games, including the playoffs. That equates to 11.8 fantasy points, or fringe WR1 numbers.
They’re all getting on in years, but Vincent Jackson (31), Andre Johnson (turning 33) and Larry Fitzgerald (turning 31) all finished in the top 16 in 2013 and are relatively safe picks despite their age and relatively shaky QB situations.
The final four wideouts are coming off of seasons that were shortened/limited due to injury. Victor Cruz should bounce back after a disappointing season for the Giants’ pass offense. Roddy White is no spring chicken, but he showed some flashes late in the season, averaging 8.6-100-.40 over his final five games (without Julio Jones in the lineup, of course). Percy Harvin missed most of the season with a hip injury, but had a big impact on the Seahawks’ Super Bowl win via a 30-yard rush and an 87-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Wes Welker was the #16 WR in PPG, but could potentially retire after his next concussion.
24. Torrey Smith, Ravens
25. Michael Floyd, Cardinals
26. Cordarrelle Patterson, Vikings
27. Kendall Wright, Titans
28. Mike Wallace, Dolphins
29. Cecil Shorts, Jaguars
30. Justin Blackmon, Jaguars (SUSP)
31. Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs
32. Marques Colston, Saints
Torrey Smith was the #16 WR through 13 weeks, but petered out down the stretch with just 11 catches (for 176 yards and no TDs) in his final four games. He still posted career highs in catches (65) and yards (1,128), while his touchdowns (4) were a career low. He should bounce back in that category under new OC Gary Kubiak. The return of TE Dennis Pitta should also help loosen up the coverage, though Pitta’s return coincided with Smith’s swoon at the end of the season.
Michael Floyd broke out in his second season with a 66 catches for 1,054 yards and five TDs, gaining at least 90 yards and/or finding the endzone in seven of his last 11 games. He should continue to progress as he enters his third year in the league.
All arrows are pointing up for Cordarrelle Patterson, who was the #10 WR from Week 10 to Week 17 in his rookie season. He scored seven touchdowns in that span (three rush, four receiving) while racking up 29 catches for 323 yards to go along with 10 carries for 156 rushing yards. With Josh Gordon coming off of a breakout season under new Vikings OC Norv Turner, Patterson should be a fantasy starter sooner rather than later. His TD rate will be difficult to maintain, but he should see a jump in touches in 2014.
Kendall Wright caught 94 passes for 1,079 yards, but only found the endzone twice. He’s not likely to become a major force in the redzone, though new HC Ken Whisenhunt had success around the goal line with a similar player (Eddie Royal) in San Diego. Royal scored six of his eight TDs from inside the 15-yard line (typically on quick screens), so Whisenhunt may elect to use Wright in the same way.
The Jacksonville WR corps has some potential with Justin Blackmon and Cecil Shorts. The team has made it clear that they’re not going to give up on Blackmon despite his repeated off-field problems. There's no doubt that the kid has talent. In his last 17 games (which don't include his slow start in his rookie season), he has averaged 5.2 catches for 74 yards and 0.35 TD, which are low-end fantasy WR2 numbers. In four games last season, he averaged 7.3-104-.25, which are low-end WR1 numbers — and that's with Chad Henne/Blaine Gabbert throwing the ball. If he can get his head on straight and the Jaguars can upgrade their QB, Blackmon will be a star. He’ll be a high risk pick if he's reinstated in time to play in 2014. Meanwhile, Shorts gutted through a sports hernia on his way to a 66-777-3 season. I think the 55-979-7 line he posted in 2012 is a better indication of what he’s capable of, especially if the Jaguars upgrade their QB situation, as expected.
Dwayne Bowe finished the season as the #44 fantasy WR, but was the #26 wideout from Week 11 to Week 16. (The Chiefs rested their starters in Week 17.) He had the 34th-most targets on the season, and he posted 8-150-1 against the Colts in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, so there is some reason for optimism heading into 2014.
33. Brian Hartline, Dolphins
34. Steve Johnson, Bills
35. Greg Jennings, Vikings
36. Reggie Wayne, Colts (ACL)
37. Marvin Jones, Bengals
38. Doug Baldwin, Seahawks
39. Danny Amendola, Patriots
40. Aaron Dobson, Patriots
41. Steve L Smith, Panthers
We’re getting into the dicey section of these rankings where any number of wideouts could be ranked #32 to #41 depending on how free agency and the draft proceed. Veterans Steve Johnson (injury/usage), Reggie Wayne (ACL), Steve L Smith (a serious drop in YPC) bring experience and an established role, but lack upside.
Greg Jennings averaged 5.9-70-.57 (fantasy WR2 numbers) in seven games where Matt Cassel played heavy snaps. If Cassel is back under center for the Vikings, it would be good news for Jennings, though it looks as if the Vikings are seriously looking for their QB of the future.
Marvin Jones played on an average of 43 percent of his teams snaps in his first 13 games of the season. Over his final four games, including a Wild Card playoff loss to the Chargers, he played on an average of 68 percent of snaps. As his snaps increased, so did his targets. He averaged 4.4 targets through 13 games compared to 8.8 targets in the final four games of the season, including 12 targets against the Chargers in the playoffs. After a season of frustrating usage, it appears that the Cincinnati coaching staff finally recognized that Jones deserves to play starter's snaps, though it may not help that OC Jay Gruden left to coach the Redskins. Entering his third season, Jones is going to be an intriguing middle/late round pick in 2014 fantasy drafts. His ADP will creep up if the Bengals officially name him the starter opposite A.J. Green.
If the Seahawks part ways with Golden Tate and Sidney Rice, Doug Baldwin should return as a starter opposite Percy Harvin. In that role, Baldwin averaged 3.6 catches for 55 yards and 0.45 TD which equate to low-end fantasy WR2 numbers.
The Patriots’ WR corps will also be affected by free agency. If Julian Edelman isn’t back, Danny Amendola will see a boost in targets provided he can stay healthy (hahahaha). Aaron Dobson had some moments in his rookie season — namely the 4-60-1 and 5-130-2 he posted in back to back games against the Dolphins and Steelers — but was hobbled by a foot injury over the second half of the season.
In addition to the aforementioned 41 receivers, Mike Williams, Denarius Moore, Rod Streater and DeAndre Hopkins deserve some love as potential flex-caliber picks in 2014. Williams has some off-field issues to address, while the Raiders’ QB situation needs some stability. Hopkins could make a jump in his second-year, but he’ll be playing for a new coaching staff which may or may not help his development.
Rueben Randle & Jerrel Jernigan, Giants
Hakeem Nicks is likely to leave via free agency, so Randle and Jernigan should see a big bump in snaps. Randle was the #28 WR through the first 11 weeks, but faded down the stretch (12-151 in the final six weeks). Meanwhile, Jernigan racked up 19 catches for 237 yards and two TDs in the final three games, making him the #2 WR in fantasy in that span. Assuming the Giants address the offensive line, the passing game should bounce back, which means both of these players will be fantasy relevant in 2014, though it’s not clear just yet which one will start opposite Victor Cruz.
Terrance Williams, Cowboys
With Miles Austin basically sidelined from Week 4 to Week 10, Williams was the #12 WR in fantasy, racking up 24 catches for 438 yards and five TDs in that seven-game span. He faded upon Austin’s return to starter’s snaps, but showed enough in his rookie season to make him an interesting late-round sleeper in 2014. The Cowboys figure to throw a lot under new OC Scott Linehan, who was pass-happy while in Detroit.
Jarrett Boykin, Packers
Boykin proved he could handle a starter’s role with Randall Cobb and James Jones both sidelined for parts of the 2013 season. From Week 6 on, Boykin was the #25 WR in fantasy, posting 49 catches for 681 yards and three TDs in 12 games, mostly with Matt Flynn and Scott Tolzien throwing the ball. If Jones leaves via free agency, Boykin will see a lot of playing time in three-WR sets and will be fantasy relevant in 2014.
Kenny Stills, Saints
Stills was not dependable enough to start with confidence in 2013, but if the rumors are true about Lance Moore potentially being cut, Stills’s snap rate would likely jump from the 61% he played in his rookie season. He’s bound to improve as a second year receiver and is playing in one of the best pass offenses in the league. There’s a lot to like here.
This is an interesting group of free agent wideouts, led by Eric Decker, whose stock would likely take a hit if he signs elsewhere. He was #8 in total points and #10 in PPG, but those numbers probably won’t be attainable without Peyton Manning throwing him the ball. Julian Edelman is in a similar situation. Much of his value (#18 WR in 2013) stems from playing with Tom Brady in a slot-friendly offense, so his stock would likely take a hit if he signs elsewhere.
The Eagles’ WR2 has some value, so it will be interesting to see if the team brings back Jeremy Maclin or Riley Cooper, or perhaps both receivers will return. Maclin’s knee will hurt his value in free agency while Cooper’s off field history could make him a tough sell to a new locker room.
Anquan Boldin actually increased his production upon Michael Crabtree’s return. He averaged 4.7-66-.45 without Crabtree and 5.7-83-.43 with Crabtree in the lineup. The 49ers should re-sign him, but he’ll probably be a solid fantasy WR3 wherever he lands.
This is a pretty solid list of wideouts through the first four tiers, though we won't have a comprehensive list of sleepers or late-round values until free agency and the draft are complete. There are several free agents who could push their way into the top 30 if they land in favorable situations, so it's wise for fantasy owners to watch the offseason carefully for clues as to how these players will be utilized during the 2014 season.