Even with the nefarious Madden Cover jinx hanging over his head, Calvin Johnson remains the clear choice as THE #1 WR in virtually every fantasy format. But who is #2? That is one of the most common questions we have fielded in recent weeks. There is no obvious answer to that question — and certainly your league rules will help dictate the order in which the top fantasy WRs should be rated.
The way I see it, there are four strong possibilities:
1. Larry Fitzgerald. He is entering his 10th season in the league, and has been an outstanding receiver almost since the beginning. Age does not appear to be a concern for the well-conditioned Fitzgerald, and he may benefit from the addition of Notre Dame’s Michael Floyd, who should force defenses to roll coverages his way in the redzone, especially. The concern here, of course, is the QB controversy brewing in Arizona. Will it be Kevin Kolb — or John Skelton? Fitzgerald has posted quality stats in the past with less than stellar QB play (he racked up 1453 yards and 10 TDs with Kolb/Skelton last season), but if you are seriously considering drafting Fitzgerald as the #2 WR overall (which likely means an early 2nd round selection in typical 12-team leagues), you would like to have more assurance at the QB position.
2. A.J. Green. Last year the rookie made the transition from Georgia to the pros without taking a step back. He made an immediate impact — and his lethal combination of size, speed and great hands means that he should be a force in the NFL for years to come. Think Randy Moss when he has his head screwed on right. That is the kind of potential that Green has. He and fellow rookie Andy Dalton clicked instantly, and the chemistry between the two is undeniable. You always have to worry about a sophomore slump. Also, Green did have to deal with some nagging injuries down the stretch in 2011 — so you have to wonder if that will carry over into this season at all.
3. Victor Cruz. He is coming off a true breakout season (82 receptions, over 1500 yards and 9 TDs), and 2012 looks to be a contract year for him. This came after he failed to catch a single pass in 2010 — and was very nearly cut by the Giants in training camp! The loss of Steve Smith in free agency and nagging injuries to Hakeem Nicks helped to open the door for Cruz last season — and he certainly made good when given the opportunity. With Mario Manningham gone and Nicks likely to enter the season hobbled with off-season foot surgery, Eli Manning will certainly be looking Cruz’s way early and often.
4. Brandon Marshall. He just spent the last couple of seasons in the fantasy wastelands of Miami, so he may be the most surprising candidate on this list. All things considered, he was not THAT bad in Miami, despite the QB nightmare he endured: over 80 catches and 1,000+ yards each season. Of course, the trade to Chicago happily reunites him with Jay Cutler with whom he developed a fantastic connection when the two were together in Denver. Marshall had three straight seasons in which he caught 100 or more passes when he was a Bronco — so expect plenty of targets for him in 2012. Given his lack of success in the endzone, though — Marshall has only ever scored more than 6 TDs in a season twice — we only mention him as a possibility to go this high in PPR formats. Otherwise, he is more of a top 5-10 WR. For now, I am not too worried about his off-field issues, since he was never formally charged with anything and may not face any disciplinary action (at least in the way of a suspension) from the league. Still, it is a good idea to keep an eye on that situation, too.
OK, so what about the guys that I have not mentioned?
Until last season, Andre Johnson was the perennial #1 fantasy WR to come off the board. However, a collection of injuries, the flux of young WRs in the game and the Texans’ move toward a run-first style offense have caused Johnson’s stock to drop. Considering that he has never caught as any as 10 TD passes in a season, we have to look back and wonder if he may have been a bit overrated.
Wes Welker is coming off yet another 100+ catch season — 122 to be exact. In fact, 2011 marked a career year for Welker, as he reached career highs in yards, receptions and TDs. Welker has broken the century mark in 5 of his last 6 seasons, so he remains a huge factor in PPR formats no matter how you look at it. Still, the holdout (and the fact that the Patriots do not seem serious about signing him to a long term deal) worries me. What’s more, it is highly doubtful that he will match (let alone surpass) his 2011 totals — especially with Brandon Lloyd added to the roster.
I mention Jordy Nelson because he actually was the #2 fantasy WR in many formats last year when he caught 15 TD passes. Taking a closer look, though, he only caught 68 passes total — so I think it is safe to say that he over-achieved in a major way in 2011. Nelson isn’t even the top fantasy WR on his team, as I still have Greg Jennings ranked higher.
In the final analysis, I will lean on my tried and true mantra when it comes to fantasy wide receivers: They are a dime a dozen. Of the four guys I mentioned as best bets to be the #2 fantasy WR, only Fitzgerald was drafted as a #1 WR in most fantasy leagues. Cruz was a waiver wire pickup, and Green was a late-round after-thought in 2011. There will be top fantasy wide receivers this year that you will likewise be able to pick up off the scrap heap. So my best recommendation is to let someone else in your league determine who should be the 2nd (or even 3rd) WR to come off the board. I would rather aim for one of the 5 elite QBs and a stud RB with my first 2 picks in the draft — and wait until the 3rd or 4th round to consider drafting a wide receiver.