By Matt Vensel
1:00 PM EDT, August 17, 2011
Let's jump in the time machine and flash back in time to the early 2000s when Tom Cruise wasn't a known crazy person, "Freedom Fries" were an innovation in redneck culinary circles and men under the age of 40 wearing visors in public was considered to be socially acceptable. Thanks to Al Gore's Internet invention, fantasy football was starting to blow up -- and we were advised to select running backs with our first 13 or so picks.
Back to the future, the NFL has become a passing league. And fantasy football is a gazillion-dollar industry with endless amounts of analysis and statistical know-how. We know now that building a fantasy team with running backs first doesn’t have to be the way to go. Quarterbacks and receivers are getting love, too.
This year, you can make an argument for taking one of five, maybe six wide receivers in the first round of your draft. Andre Johnson, Roddy White and Calvin Johnson are virtual locks to go in Round 1, and you could also see Greg Jennings, Hakeem Nicks or Larry Fitzgerald come off the board before Round 2.
If you’re able to land two of those guys in the first two rounds, your team should be in very good shape, especially if you’re able to pinpoint sleepers at running back and QB the rest of the way.
I’m an Andre Johnson guy, and once again he is atop my wide receiver rankings. But for the first time in a couple of summers, I had to think hard about that one. White has solidified himself as one of the top point-producers in fantasy football, and I’m a big fan of Nicks, who might have finished as the top wide receiver in fantasy football last year had he not had injury issues in the season's second half.
You can’t go wrong with any of those three in Round 1, with the “if healthy” caveat, of course. And as an added bonus, your fellow owners won’t mock you for not taking a running back. Doing it while wearing a visor is another story, though -- well, unless you’re Steve Spurrier or you’re on the LPGA tour, I suppose.
On to the wide receiver rankings…
1. Andre Johnson, Texans: The presence of Arian Foster opens things up for Johnson and this offense.
2. Roddy White, Falcons: Will the addition of Julio Jones help or hurt White’s fantasy value?
3. Hakeem Nicks, Giants: I’m willing to take on the injury risk for this semi-sleeper wideout.
4. Calvin Johnson, Lions: If Matt Stafford stays healthy, look out. If he doesn’t, you should still look out.
5. Greg Jennings, Packers: Don’t worry, there are plenty of balls to go around in the Green Bay offense.
6. Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals: His numbers will rise now that Arizona no longer has a pu-pu platter at QB.
7. Vincent Jackson, Chargers: He was projected as a top-7 or top-8 wideout before last season’s holdout.
8. DeSean Jackson, Eagles: Like LeSean McCoy, he needs a healthy Mike Vick to max out his production.
9. Reggie Wayne, Colts: He’s 32 and Peyton Manning has that neck injury. Those are big question marks.
10. Mike Wallace, Steelers: Is he more than just a very good deep threat?
11. Miles Austin, Cowboys: I thought he was overrated last year. This season, he is undervalued.
12. Marques Colston, Saints: A solid, consistent option, Colston is good for 1,000 yards and seven TDs.
13. Brandon Marshall, Dolphins: If Miami had traded for Kyle Orton, Marshall would have made my top 10.
14. Mike Williams, Buccaneers: It will be interesting to see how Tampa’s young offensive players progress.
15. Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs: I’m betting that his 15 touchdowns last season were an anomaly.
16. Sidney Rice, Seahawks: It’s worth noting that Rice signed in Seattle after QB Tarvaris Jackson did.
17. Anquan Boldin, Ravens: Jamison Hensley said Boldin will get 90 catches. Who am I to question Jamison?
18. Brandon Lloyd, Broncos: See Bowe, Dwayne and apply it to all of Lloyd’s fantasy numbers from 2010.
19. Santonio Holmes, Jets: Great receiver, but he’s stuck with Mark Sanchez and a run-heavy offense.
20. Dez Bryant, Cowboys: Bryant and Austin will benefit from having a healthy Tony Romo under center.
21. Wes Welker, Patriots: His numbers took a dive in 2010. Was it because of the knee or something else?
22. Stevie Johnson, Bills: He is the unquestioned No. 1 receiver now that Lee Evans is in Baltimore.
23. Jeremy Maclin, Eagles: This “mystery illness” that knocked Maclin out of training camp is concerning.
24. Kenny Britt, Titans: I’m not wasting a pick hoping this troubled talent will pan out, but you can if you want.
25. Chad Ochocinco, Patriots: He’ll be focused, but don’t expect a Randy Moss-like renaissance.
26. Percy Harvin, Vikings: How will he fare as Minnesota’s top target? Will he click with Donovan McNabb?
27. Austin Collie, Colts: This guy was on a tear last season until concussions knocked him out of the lineup.
28. Steve Smith, Panthers: Playing with Cam Newton should mean a somewhat productive season for Smith.
29. Mike Sims-Walker, Rams: He’s like kryptonite for me, but I’m intrigued now that he’s with Sam Bradford.
30. Mario Manningham, Giants: He had 944 receiving yards and nine scores in 2010. Now he’s a starter.
If you really want to draft a rookie…
Go with A.J. Green, who is head and shoulders the top receiver on the Bengals’ roster right now.
Three wide receivers with sleeper potential…
1. Roy Williams: I know, I know, it’s Roy Williams. But it’s also a Mike Martz offense.
2. Sidney Rice: If he plays like the receiver we saw in 2009, he will be a steal.
3. Jordy Nelson: Will he build on his strong Super Bowl run with the Packers?
Three wide receivers I’d draft with caution…
1. Hines Ward: Turn off the lights and lock the doors. It’s over, at least in terms of his fantasy value.
2. Kenny Britt: He’s on Roger Goodell’s hit list, and he hasn’t come close to playing up to his potential.
3. Santana Moss: John Beck. Rex Grossman. John Beck. Rex Grossman. John Beck. Rex Grossman.
Matt Vensel is a blogger and community coordinator for The Baltimore Sun. Send your fantasy questions and comments to Matt.Vensel@baltsun.com, @mattvensel on Twitter or leave them in the comments section below.
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