While the main focus for many fantasy managers is running backs, wide receivers will have just as much impact on your team. The good news is that they are plentiful in what I will call the golden age of wide receivers. I don’t recall a time when there was more depth at the wide receiver position. The NFL has become a pass-happy league, with some team starting three fantasy-relevant wide receivers. Consider that both the Steelers and Panthers had three wide receivers with more than 200 fantasy points (FPTS) last season, and neither team had above-average quarterbacks.
The depth at the position did not happen by accident. Twenty-six teams have drafted at least one wide receiver in the first four rounds in the last two drafts. It’s not an exaggeration to say that every team has at least one wideout with high upside. The trick is to know which receiver to draft and in which round. There are different ways to determine this, but my method leans heavily on expected volume. Catches produce points, and catches result from targets. Therefore, my favorite wide receivers in each round are the ones who are expected to receive the most targets.
One of the keys in life is managing your expectation. Let me help you by stating that wide receiver is the most inconsistent position in fantasy. Calvin Ridley, who finished last season as the No.4 receiver, had weeks with 4.2 FPTS, 2.6 FPTS, and even a 0 FPTS week. It’s simple, just accept that bust weeks will occur. The focus however needs to be on high target volume players. Touchdowns are difficult to project on a weekly basis. But you give yourself the best chance at multi-touchdown games with players in a position to see the ball thrown their way often.
Another note before we jump into a breakdown of the top 12 wide receivers, based on my rankings. I have been successful drafting a team full of talented wide receivers each season. I often use them as trade bait to acquire other positions. The wide receiver position is where I try to find my value picks. Only elite wideouts are consistent. The WR position is very matchup/game script-dependent beyond the Top 10. In my view, you’re more likely to win your league drafting solid RBs than you are taking elite wide receivers early. Be patient at this position.
Adams is being drafted behind Tyreek Hill in most fantasy drafts but I rank him No. 1. Last year, Adams led the league with an average of 10.6 targets per game (TPG). He has been a WR1 in 22 of his last 41 games (53.7 percent), which is historically good. During that time, he’s scored fewer than 11.1 PPR points just four times, and once was due to leaving with an injury. With the disgruntled Aaron Rodgers reporting to training camp, Adams is a safe first-round pick.
Hill was actually only 10th in TPG but second in wide receiver fantasy points because he found his way into the end zone 15 times. He did see 10-plus targets in seven different games. Those numbers, coupled with his efficiency, makes him an elite player. Travis Kelce is going to be 32 years old, Sammy Watkins is gone, and they brought in no big-name wide receivers who are guaranteed much of anything. Hill’s worthy of a first-round pick in fantasy drafts.
To say that Diggs exceeded expectations in his first season in Buffalo is the understatement of the year. He set new career-high and league-leading marks in targets (168), receptions (127) and receiving yards (1,535). Diggs’ 29% target share was a new career-high, and his third-place finish in fantasy points for wide receivers marked his first season better than 10th. Diggs is usually the third WR off the board in drafts, going early in the second round for good reason.
Hopkins was one of only four wideouts who averaged 10 plus TPG last year, but consider that he’s now seen at least 150 targets in six straight seasons and has finished as a top-five receiver in five of them. He saw at least seven targets in 15 of 16 games in 2020 and has now handled a target share of at least 26% and air-yard share of at least 34% each of the past seven seasons. He only scored six touchdowns last year, so positive regression could be in the cards in 2021.
Ridley finished as the No. 4 wide receiver with Julio Jones on the team in 2020, and that was while missing one full game. Just how much better can he be with Jones gone? Some worry about Ridley becoming the focus of shadow coverage and seeing all the top cornerbacks focusing on him. But we’ve already witnessed that in the games Jones missed. In the eight games Ridley has played without Jones, he’s averaged 11.1 targets, 7.3 receptions, 107.0 yards.
Metcalf is ranked as high as WR4 by some analysts, but he’s my WR6 only because his target share is lower. He finished 11th among WRs in 2020, his second year in the NFL, with 131 targets, or 8.1 TPG. He did also finish sixth in routes (577), and his 15 end zone targets ranked third in the NFL. Metcalf’s elite efficiency makes him one of the best receivers in football anyway. He has slipped into the third round in some fantasy drafts, and he has real value there.
Speaking of elite efficiency, Jefferson is another one who made the most of his 125 targets. In his rookie year, he finished with 1,400 yards on just 125 targets. Jefferson caught 70.4 percent of his targets, averaging 15.9 YPC and finished sixth in fantasy points for all wide receivers. I expect negative regression in Jefferson’s second season. No other wide receiver has totaled 1,400 yards on 125 or less targets. He’s talented, but don’t take him before the third round.
Despite Robinson’s lackluster quarterback play, he’s been able to finish as a top-12 receiver in back-to-back seasons. The upgrade to Andy Dalton helps, but if the Bears play Justin Fields, it could be even better for Robinson. Based on opportunity alone, Robinson should have finished as the WR4 in each of the last two seasons (that’s based on how many targets he saw and where he saw them). I wouldn’t be surprised to see him be a top-five receiver in 2021.
Allen had the second-highest TPG average among wide receivers last year, so why is he only my WR9? The problem is depth of routes. Allen failed to record 1,000 yards last season despite seeing 147 targets (5th in NFL). His 992 yards was only 17th among wide receivers. The good news is that Justin Herbert clearly found his “go-to” guy, targeting Allen 10-plus times on 10 separate occasions. He’s an extremely safe WR2 based on volume alone, but the short routes limit him.
Despite playing with Dwayne Haskins, Alex Smith, Kyle Allen, and Taylor Heinicke the last two years, McLaurin has managed to produce 2,037 yards and 11 touchdowns. Enter Ryan Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick has supported many fantasy wide receivers throughout his years, and he’s been willing to target them relentlessly. McLaurin is the clear-cut No. 1 option in Washington, and he should be targeted 140-plus times in 2021. Draft him in the third round with confidence.
A.J. Brown is frequently the seventh wide receiver off the board, but I rank him behind McLaurin and Robinson as my WR11. Let me make my case for fading him. Brown has defied the rule of regression. Based on the targets he saw last year and where on the field he saw them, he was supposed to finish as the No. 30 wide receiver. He finished 12th. The year before that, he was supposed to finish No. 49, but finished as No. 15. The addition of Julio Jones further limits his target ceiling.
Lamb rounds out my top 12 wide receivers – the last WR1 on my list. He enjoyed a successful rookie season, racking up 1,017 yards and six TDs on 85 touches, but it could’ve been even better. Lamb posted a 29-433-2 receiving line and was WR11 in fantasy in Dak Prescott’s five starts. The good news is that Prescott is back and appears healthy for 2021. With Amari Cooper starting the season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, I expect a fast start from Lamb.
Follow Thomas L. Seltzer, AKA Doubting Thomas, on Twitter @ThomasLSeltzer1.