When it comes to wide receivers, nothing is a bigger question than if the best players will continue to be the same fantasy players they were a year ago. You can draft your first quarterback hoping he'll project higher than a year ago (Andrew Luck, for example), and you can do it with your No. 1 running back as well (Trent Richardson). But when it comes to wideouts, your No. 1 has to be a proven commodity. Because if he's not, and he falters, you're more than likely going to see a lot of losses next to your team's name, because you'll be at a distinct disadvantage in that category every week. So for our first edition of targets and touches for this season, we'll examine the players from 2012 who saw the most passes their way and see if that will hold true for this season.
I have no concerns for Calvin Johnson or A.J. Green, who should be two of the first three wide receivers drafted in your league this season, right around the end of the first or start of the second-round. I'm going to slot it this way: 1) Johnson 2) Dez Bryant 3) Green. Bryant turned into an absolute monster the second half of 2012 and he'll give Johnson a run to be the top fantasy wideout overall in 2013.
Brandon Marshall was hot and cold last season but finished with 66.90 points over the final five weeks. No matter how you slice it, he's a top five fantasy wide receiver for this coming season. And in Marc Trestman's new offense, you can plan on him getting the ball even more. I draft him right after Green.
Larry Fitzgerald will be one of my (okay, and everyone else's) bounce-back fantasy players of the year. Carson Palmer will have no trouble getting him the ball in tight spots and in one-on-one coverage. Even better, Arizona improved their offensive line in the offseason, which was easily the worst in the NFL a year ago, so Palmer should stay upright long enough to find his top target. Fitzgerald finished 42nd in total fantasy points for wide receivers a year ago (103.80), when he wasn't even the top fantasy scorer on his team (Andre Roberts, 108.80).
Normally this is a situation where you could wait on a player and get him late, but everyone in your league is going to have him graded highly for a rebound. So if you really want him, get him in the third round, because he won't last past that point. That's where I'll draft him, ahead of guys like Marques Colston, Hakeem Nicks, Cecil Shorts, Mike Wallace, Eric Decker, Victor Cruz and Torrey Smith. He'll be back in the top 15 in fantasy points this season, and could creep into the top 10, where he had been a mainstay for so long.
This is where things get dicey.
I'm not sold on anyone else on this list duplicating 2012. Wayne had a tremendous bounce-back season with Andrew Luck, but he didn't get in the end zone a lot (five touchdowns). Throw in a blossoming talent opposite him in T.Y. Hilton and that could spell trouble. While I don't think Wayne falls off a cliff, his 163 fantasy points will see a downturn this season. Think of it this way: if he saw 195 targets in 2012, second most in the league, and was still only 15th overall in fantasy points, what's he going to do a year older with more talent surrounding him (don't forget the pickup of Darrius Heyward-Bey, a pretty shrewd move in the off-season)? I wouldn't be surprised if his 163 points turn into 125-130 for 2013.
Andre Johnson and Steve Johnson are basically undraftable for me. Every year Andre gets closer and closer to becoming a No. 2 fantasy WR, and he was on his way last year until he had a surprising jump in production the last few weeks of the season. He crushed you if you drafted him because he gave you next to nothing for the first half of your fantasy season. I can't trust that he's still going to be Andre Johnson enough to draft him as high as he's going to merit (late second or early third-round). Steve Johnson is going to move to the slot in 2013, and he'll be working with a new quarterback and with new weapons like Robert Woods (whom I love as a sleeper) on the outside. Even when he had the passing game all to himself he was someone who peaked at 1,000 yards and five to seven touchdowns. Nice for a flex wideout, but not someone to build your team around. I wouldn't be surprised if this season he was more in the 700-800 yard range with three to six touchdowns.
Vincent Jackson, Wes Welker, Victor Cruz and Roddy White fall into the same category for me: If I can get them as my No. 2 wide receivers I'm happy. If I have them as my No. 1s, I'm a little shaky. They're all more than capable of big seasons this fall, but I wonder if Jackson wasn't a "one-hit wonder" with his new team - energized last year with a fresh start to prove the doubters wrong, he succeeded. Is he going to have that same drive again? Because when he wasn't happy in San Diego he turned invisible fast. Welker will be fighting for footballs like he never has before in a talented wide receiver corps in Denver. Demaryius Thomas will still be the deep threat, but both he and Decker will get less attention as Welker will become a co-favorite of Peyton Manning's underneath. While there are enough footballs to go around, some - if not all - of the wideouts are going to see their production decline a bit. Can you gamble Welker is still going to be the player he has been when he's now lining up with the most talented set of wide receivers he's ever been around in his career?
After Week 7 in 2012, Cruz turned into a pedestrian wide receiver who only had one standout game the rest of the way. You have to wonder if teams figured something out with him, or if the pressure of being the top option was too much for him to handle. A healthy Hakeem Nicks coupled with a continued breakout for newly acquired tight ened Brandon Myers can help return Cruz to the guy who hit the 1,500 yard mark in 2011. But that's an awful big if for a guy who came out of nowhere for one truly great season before coming down to earth.
Here are a couple of wide receivers off this list who I expect to be in the Top 10 list for targets this season: Dez Bryant (who I mentioned above) and Torrey Smith. With Anquan Boldin out of the picture in Baltimore, Smith has the outside passing game all to himself. He was close to being a breakout player a year ago, and he'll accomplish that in 2013. I would also have Justin Blackmon on this list, but missing the first four games is going to keep him off it. I will target all of these players on my draft board.
In a "perfect draft" I can see myself getting Bryant in the second round and Smith in the fifth. Blackmon will be a great sleeper pick later on, as owners are going to dismiss him due to his suspension. But in the second half of 2012 he was becoming the player he was drafted to be. That ascension will still happen. And he'll eat into Cecil Shorts numbers when he gets back as well.
Jason Smith writes fantasy and other pith for nfl.com. He hosts NFL Fantasy Live during the regular season on the NFL Network, and you can download the weekly NFL Fantasy Live podcast with him alongside Michael Fabiano and Elliot Harrison. Talk to him on twitter @howaboutafresca. He only asks you never bring up when the Jets play poorly.