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Calvin Johnson tops the Fantasy wide receiver class

Scott Cullen
8/31/2014 12:23:46 AM
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Dovetailing with the decline in 1,000-yard rushers, there are an increasing number fo 1,000-yard receivers in the NFL now, which offers more opportunity to find useful fantasy contributors. The best of the best remains Detroit's Calvin Johnson, who is in another class, even when compared to the growing field of 1,000-yard wideouts.

Last season, there were 24 wide receivers with at least 1,000 receiving yards, and seven of them had double-digit touchdowns.

The year before, it was 19 1,000-yard receivers; then 17, 16, 20, 21, 20, 19, 19 and 23 over the past decade. With a few more reaching that threshold, there is opportunity to squeeze out some value later, but it doesn't hurt to get the big guns loaded. Over that period, there are 14 receivers with five 1,000-yard seasons, and three of them (Donald Driver, Chad Johnson and Derrick Mason) are out of the league, so it's hard to bank on guys for year-in, year-out production.

Nevertheless, Calvin Johnson has gone for more than 1,000 yards in five of the past six seasons and has double-digit touchdowns in four of those five seasons. That's consistent enough to be the top fantasy option at the position and worthy of a mid-first-round pick in most formats.

Beyond Johnson, there is still lots of talent. Denver's Demaryius Thomas has had back-to-back seasons with at least 1,400 receiving yards and double-digit touchdowns. The aforementioned Calvin Johnson is the only other active receiver with two seasons of at least 1,400 receiving yards and double-digit touchdowns.

Beyond those two, Dallas' Dez Bryant has 2,615 receiving yards with 25 touchdowns the past two years, and Cincinnati's A.J. Green has racked up 2,776 yards with 22 touchdowns. In some configuation, that's a pretty strong top four.

That's not to say that there aren't more contenders for that kind of ranking, however.

Green Bay's Jordy Nelson missed four games in 2012, but in 2011 and 2013, he combined for 2,577 yards and 23 touchdowns. Being Aaron Rodgers' preferred target has its benefits.

Few receivers have been as consistently productive as Chicago's Brandon Marshall, who has seven straight seasons with at least 1,000 receiving yards, scoring 23 touchdowns in the last two combined. The trouble, if you want to call it that, is that Marshall is losing some looks to third-year wideout Alshon Jeffery, who had a breakout year in 2013, accruing 1,421 yards and seven touchdowns.

While there is typically a reluctance to pick rookie wide receivers -- since 2000, there have been five first-year receivers with at least 1,000 receiving yards -- Keenan Allen, a third-round pick of San Diego last season was one of them. Naturally, then, expectations are high for Allen going into his second season.

Tampa Bay's Vincent Jackson has never had a double-digit touchdown season, but he's gone for 1,000 yards or more in five of the past six seasons. If he turned in a dozen touchdown year on top of a 1,200-yard season, that would be some serious value.

The Atlanta Falcons offer up a pair of possible boucneback options. Julio Jones was running away from the competition last year, with 580 yards in five games before his season was ended with a foot injury. Across the field, Roddy White limped his way through much of the season with a high ankle sprain, finishing with 711 receiving yards, his lowest since 2006. White is 32, so predicting a bounceback gets a little dicey at that age, but he had 502 receiving yards in his last five games last season, presumably once the ankle had improved.

The No. 1 target in Pittsburgh, Antonio Brown is coming off a season in which he gained 1,499 receiving yards and figures to get at least as many looks this year with a less-than-inspiring supporting cast.

One of the challenges when evaluating wide receivers is that they are going to be dependent on their quarterback for production. The Giants' Victor Cruz has 3,626 receiving yards with 23 yards over the past three seasons, but if Eli Manning isn't on top of his game this season, that will likely have an adverse effect on Cruz's production.

A similar issue could hang over the Texans' duo of Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopins. Johnson, the veteran, has never had a double-digit receiving touchdown season, but has more than 1,400 receiving yards in four of the past six seasons. Hopkins is going into his second season after a rookie year that had its ups and downs, but still finished with 802 receiving yards. The question for both is whether they can put up big numbers with Ryan Fitzpatrick as their quarterback.

Larry Fitzgerald had a bit of a bounceback last season, when the Cardinals brought in Carson Palmer. Fitzgerald was held under 1,000 yards for the second straight season, but had his first double-digit touchdown season since 2009. Michael Floyd emerged, in his second season, as a strong option across from Fitzgerald, accumulating receiving 1,041 yards, so Floyd may be similarly valuable going forward.

With DeSean Jackson off to Washington, Philadelphia's top remaining wide receivers Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper will have opportunities to put up strong stats. Maclin has yet to record a 1,000-yard season in his career, and missed all of 2013, but if he can stay healthy, he should get there this year. Cooper was a full-time starter last year, for the first time in his career, and had 835 receiving yards with eight touchdowns. 1,000 yards isn't necessarily out of reach for him either.

San Francisco's receiving corps ought to be better this year, with Anquan Boldin the reliable veteran, but bolstered with a healthy Michael Crabtree, along with newcomer Stevie Johnson. Crabtree, who only played five games last season, but has played well with Colin Kaepernick under centre, could be primed for a bounceback campaign.

There are some value shifts based on team changes, most notably for Eric Decker, leaving the high-octane Broncos for the New York Jets. Decker's value will drop, but he could still provide value if he drops too far; on the other hand, Emmanuel Sanders moves from Pittsburgh to Denver, replacing Decker, and that would seem to make it likely that Sanders will top last year's career-best 740 yards and six touchdowns.

One of the most popular breakout candidates at wide receiver this season is Minnesota's Cordarrelle Patterson, the second-year receiver who had 469 receiving yards and nine touchdowns (two on returns, three rushing) as a rookie. Can Matt Cassel take advantage of Patterson's deep speed?

Baltimore's Torrey Smith could take a further step forward, after putting up a career-high 1,128 receiving yards last season. Even with similar yardage, Smith could still add value if he scores more than the four touchdowns he had last year.

When it comes to value plays, Seattle's Percy Harvin offers high upside -- he had 1,312 yards from scrimmage in 2011 with Minnesota -- but he hasn't been able to stay healthy. At some point, his talent makes him worth a pick.

It's tough to get value from rookie wide receivers (see the note associated with Keenan Allen) but this year's crop is headed by Buffalo's Sammy Watkins, Tampa Bay's Mike Evans and, as something of a sleeper, New Orleans' Brandin Cooks. Watkins and Evans are expected to start, with questionable quarterbacks, while Cooks has a chance, with his speed, to add a new dimension for an elite quarterback.

Carolina may have the league's worst receiving corps, but those expected to start, Jerricho Cotchery and rookie Kelvin Benjamin, are both intriguing when it comes to deeper leagues -- someone has to catch Cam Newton's passes.

In any case, adding depth at the position remains important. Even if you secure blue-chippers for starting spots, there are bye weeks, injuries and flex spots that will require you to look deeper on the list of candidates.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.

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