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Tiered fantasy WR rankings: Michael Thomas among the elite

Michael Thomas has graduated to the elite tier of wide receivers in fantasy. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

In my view, fantasy rankings are taking a linear thought process into an inherently fluid decision-making exercise. I often find there’s a heavy amount of frivolous debate on subjects like “why do you have player-x at No. 12 but player-y at No. 15?” I don’t think it does the reader a service to try and take the numerical order as a one-to-one comparison, nor do we learn anything of use or substance about the players or how they will score us fantasy points on a week-to-week basis in the discussion. For all the hype surrounding the event of the draft, winning weekly is still the name of the game in the vast majority of fantasy formats.

With that school of thought established, I do believe that using tiers by position helps offset some of the uselessness of rankings. It helps take some of the frivolity of arguing a few spots difference in the order. Most of the players in one tier have roughly the same value, whether they fall first in the set or last. It provides more actionable information for fantasy owners to use during drafts, specifically in terms of helping us imagine the range of outcomes for players from both a season-long and weekly standpoint. We get too caught up in where we think a player will rank at the end of the season, but tiering can help remind us that the goal soon enough will be all about constructing teams that are best set to win us one week at a time.

Throughout this piece I will reference “Reception Perception,” a charting methodology I developed four years ago to better evaluate route-running and the wide receiver position as a whole. Please refer to the 2018 project primer if you need an explanation on the series or its metrics.

Tier 1 – Elite WR1s

1. Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers
2. Odell Beckham, New York Giants
3. Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons
4. Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints
5. DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans

Antonio Brown is the peoples’ No. 1 wide receiver. The Steelers wideout is on a Hall of Fame-level tear right now with over 100 receptions in each of the last five seasons.

Odell Beckham returns after missing most of last season with injuries. The All-Pro talent will find himself in a far superior offense than the one he left. Pat Shurmur made incredible use of Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen by moving them around the formation at the flanker and slot positions. The new Giants head coach will help position Beckham for success in his contract season.

Much weeping and gnashing of teeth are directed at Julio Jones, his three touchdowns and roller-coaster stat line from 2017. Fade him at your own peril with the rest of the sheep. Jones cleared 1,400 yards in each of the last four seasons and yards beget touchdowns at the receiver position. We have no reason to assume Jones’ volume and yards per reception figures are in danger of dropping and he could easily stabilize his weekly production just by cracking the six to seven touchdown thresholds. A season like 2015 where he erupted to lead the NFL in catches (136) and yards from scrimmage (1,871) is always in the cards. If he falls into the second round, he’s a highway robbery.

Michael Thomas is a new member of the credentialed elite wide receiver club after amassing a pedigree that is worth the praise. The Pro Bowl receiver is a dominant separator and route-runner for a player, as his Reception Perception chart (below) demonstrates. Thomas ranked fourth among wideouts in 2017 with 22 catches of 20-plus yards (via Inside Edge Scout) but scored four of his five touchdowns inside the 10-yard line. This is a full-field threat. Thomas gobbled up a massive 149 targets in a season where Drew Brees threw his fewest pass attempts since 2009. If he maintains that percentage of the target share, a truly massive season could be in store for Thomas should the Saints take to the air more in 2018.

DeAndre Hopkins has proven over his five years in the NFL that the only thing that can slow him is Brock Osweiler. Here in 2018, the All-Pro wideout will be reunited with a healthy Deshaun Watson, who took his fantasy value to previously undiscovered heights. Hopkins racked up 551 yards and scored six of his 13 touchdowns in Watson’s starts alone. Natural statistical regression will bring that lofty touchdown total down a bit, but there’s no reason to fear a crash to the floor with this wideout.

Tier 2 – Difference-making WR1s

6. A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals
7. Keenan Allen, Los Angeles Chargers
8. Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers

We’ve been chasing a truly transcendent season from A.J. Green for the last two years but have come up empty. After playing just 10 games in 2016, Green posted a career-low catch rate (52.4 percent) on a painfully slow Bengals offense that finished dead last in total yards and plays run. Green still posted the volume numbers we’re looking for out of an elite WR1, leading all receivers in percentage of their team’s air yards (46 percent). You can argue he has the profile to jump to Tier 1 with ease. He’s been impossible for me to pass up when he gets to the late second-round.

Keenan Allen and Davante Adams are both excellent picks at the Round 2/3 turn. Adams has yet to turn in a 1,000-yard season in the NFL but is a near-lock to do so this year as Aaron Rodgers’ top target entering 2018. He’s the lone proven talent without a major question surrounding his health or age. Adams should push for a career-high in targets and air yards, giving him the upside to lead the NFL in touchdowns as Rodgers’ WR1.

Tier 3 – Fringe WR1s

9. Adam Thielen, Minnesota Vikings
10. Stefon Diggs, Minnesota Vikings
11. T.Y. Hilton, Indianapolis Colts
12. Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals
13. Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
14. Doug Baldwin, Seattle Seahawks

Adam Thielen paced the Vikings in catches and yards as an explosive weapon out of the slot, finishing top-10 in yards per route run, per Player Profiler. Stefon Diggs is a mega-talent who is one of the premier route-runners in the NFL, separating at levels in line with elite receivers like Antonio Brown. When he’s on the field, there are few players more dangerous. My personal strategy with these two Vikings receivers has been to target both in the third-round of drafts and break the tie based on roster construction. When there is already a stable WR1 on my roster, I go Diggs. If I went RB/RB or RB/Gronk in Rounds 1 and 2, then Thielen is the pick as my WR1. An approach like this exposes you to Diggs’ weekly ceiling but shelters you from his injury risk.

With Andrew Luck on the up and up, T.Y. Hilton is once again a safe early-round selection. No other wide receivers on the Colts roster is a proven commodity in the NFL. Hilton is a sneaky candidate to push for the NFL-lead in targets. My colleague Brad Evans is on the other side of this debate.

Doug Baldwin should be a Tier 2 player or at least atop this group. However, his current injury status should leave even his most bullish backers hesitant to click his name over others in this tier. If healthy, Baldwin has a clear path to a top-10 positional finish. He’s the lone Seattle wide receiver with a recent resume of consistent production and should inherit a quarter of Russell Wilson’s targets on a team whose stripped-down defense will require shootouts.

Tier 4 – High-end WR2s with weekly upside and volatility

15. Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs
16.Allen Robinson, Chicago Bears
17. Amari Cooper, Oakland Raiders
18. Josh Gordon, Cleveland Browns
19. Demaryius Thomas, Denver Broncos

Tyreek Hill finished as a top-five wide receiver last season but will need several breaks for a 2018 encore. The vertical receiver made more of his hay in the deep game and drew just one target inside the 10. With Sammy Watkins coming to town and Travis Kelce entrenched, it’s tough to see Hill getting the necessary volume bump to keep his fantasy scoring afloat.

The prize of Chicago’s intriguing free agency crop, Allen Robinson dons the blue and orange after four seasons with the Jaguars. Moving to the Bears and landing in Matt Nagy and Mark Helfrich’s uptempo, progressive spread offense is a huge coup for Robinson. The talented wideout spent his years in Jacksonville stuck at X-receiver constantly running against press coverage and getting low-percentage deep throws from an unstable passer. Nagy’s Chiefs offense were the best in the league at finding space for its receivers. Talk about exactly what Robinson needed. He should clear 130 targets with ease in a Bears passing attack that’s full of interesting but unproven options.

Josh Gordon is tenuously positioned inside the top-20 receiver despite not being at Browns camp. Select him or fade him at your own risk.

Tier 5 – WR2s of all shapes and sizes to target in mid-rounds

20. Jarvis Landry, Cleveland Browns
21. Emmanuel Sanders, Denver Broncos
22. Alshon Jeffery, Philadelphia Eagles
23. Golden Tate, Detroit Lions
24. Brandin Cooks, Los Angeles Rams
25. Sammy Watkins, Kansas City Chiefs
26. JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh Steelers
27. Michael Crabtree, Baltimore Ravens
28. Marvin Jones, Detroit Lions

While the world bemoans Josh Gordon’s absence from Browns camp, the lack of returns in the Corey Coleman trade and rookie Antonio Callaway’s marijuana incident, Jarvis Landry keeps on sitting pretty as the best bet to lead the team in targets. Fantasy’s ultimate cockroach – situations, quarterbacks and play-callers change but Landry just keeps soaking up volume. Fantasy analysts have repeated the likely correct talking point that Landry won’t see the same obscene raw target numbers he earned in Miami so much that his ADP (WR26) bakes in all the downside. He’s an ideal pick in the fifth-round over a cavalcade of mercurial running back selections.

2017 just wasn’t Emmanuel Sanders’ year. Beyond the poor quarterback play, Sanders also had to deal with a high ankle sprain. Now healthy coming into 2018 and paired with a passing upgrade in Case Keenum, Sanders is a tempting value in fantasy leagues. It’s easy to project Sanders for 120-plus targets once again this year and you just don’t find receivers with that type of workload going off the board outside the top-30 receivers in ADP.

A healthy Emmanuel Sanders is one of the best values in fantasy football. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Sammy Watkins gets a boost with his move to Kansas City. The Rams ran Watkins almost exclusively at X receiver on low percentage routes. The Chiefs will move Watkins around the formation, including taking valuable reps in the slot. While that will improve the quality of passes he receives, it’s tough to project him for the type of targets he’ll need to vastly outproduce his ADP. He’s a better value than his fellow Chiefs wide receiver.

It’s hard to carve out the targets for JuJu Smith-Schuster to repay his top-20 positional ADP. Pittsburgh just added tantalizing deep threat maven James Washington in the second round of the draft to an offense with a future Hall of Fame wideout who will push to lead the team in targets and running back who will demand about 100 looks himself. With an already unsustainable catch rate and yards per target figure from his rookie year, both among the most volatile yearly stats, the lack of a projectable volume increase makes him a red-light pick at cost.

Tier 6 – WR3s who have the role and upside to outkick their ADP

29. Kenny Stills, Miami Dolphins
30. Corey Davis, Tennessee Titans
31. Randall Cobb, Green Bay Packers
32. Marquise Goodwin, San Francisco 49ers
33. Chris Hogan, New England Patriots
34. Jordy Nelson, Oakland Raiders
35. Jamison Crowder, Washington Redskins
36. Pierre Garcon, San Francisco 49ers
37. Julian Edelman, New England Patriots
38. Tyler Lockett, Seattle Seahawks

Kenny Stills is quietly one of the premier wide receiver values in fantasy this season. With an ADP of WR53, he’s a near-lock to outkick his cost. Stills’ Reception Perception chart (below) shows that he is one of the NFL’s top vertical threats, but also finds success on short to intermediate routes like the flat, comeback and dig. DeVante Parker can’t get his career off the tarmac and with target blackhole Jarvis Landry out of the picture, there is a ton of volume to soak up. Stills should be considered the favorite to lead the team in receiving.

Randall Cobb and Chris Hogan are secondary targets in some of the best passing games in the league. Cobb is another prime draft day value. He played some of his best football since 2014 as an individual and averaged over 13 PPR points in the games Aaron Rodgers played last season. Cobb just needs to stay healthy but hasn’t exactly had the cleanest offseason in that department. He’s a screaming value in the eighth-round but understand he’s not the picture of reliability.

Marquise Goodwin showed great chemistry with Jimmy Garopplo to end last season and that’s reportedly continued into the offseason. His Reception Perception results were quite encouraging, confirming he can indeed run the full route tree. He’s a fantastic pick at current cost (WR40) and someone I’m willing to go all-in on for 2018. His teammate Pierre Garcon can still play and should get solid volume as the team’s possession receiver.

Jordy Nelson may not be able to separate as he once did and it may not matter. The veteran consistently slips to the ninth or 10th round of drafts. He’s a fine WR4 pick there who offers you touchdown upside on a week-to-week basis. Jamison Crowder is the most expensive of the Washington pass-catchers this year but should lead the team in targets. He was solid when healthy in 2017.

You’ve heard the Tyler Lockett sell before, but this time, it really is the year. A premature hype candidate by yours truly back in 2016, Lockett finally has the volume projection here in 2018 to accumulate the stats to match his talent. With the Seahawks passing game utterly bereft of talent, outside of the currently injured Doug Baldwin, Lockett has a shot at a 20 percent target share in Russell Wilson’s offense. And while Seattle might have fever dreams of running more, a crumbling defense will force them into pass-heavy scripts. If it’s ever going to happen for this talented receiver, it’s all laid out here in 2018. He’s cheap enough in drafts you can take him in the double-digit rounds and feel no sting if it doesn’t work.

Tier 7 – The group that represents how deep this position goes

39. Rishard Matthews, Tennessee Titans
40. Nelson Agholor, Philadelphia Eagles
41. Cooper Kupp, Los Angeles Rams
42. Kelvin Benjamin, Buffalo Bills
43. Sterling Shepard, New York Giants
44. Robby Anderson, New York Jets
45. Will Fuller, Houston Texans
46. Robert Woods, Los Angeles Rams
47. Devin Funchess, Carolina Panthers
48. Cameron Meredith, New Orleans Saints

In an ideal world, Rishard Matthews should outkick his 12th round ADP with ease. However, Matthews has struggled to get on the practice field with injuries this summer. He’s a slam-dunk value at cost if he picks up momentum in the next few weeks but is inching toward flier territory the longer his absence wears on.

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Cooper Kupp and Nelson Agholor are a pair of excellent slot receivers in strong offenses. It’s a bit curious that their draft costs (WR37, WR46) are as far apart as they are given their similar profiles. Agholor is an ideal WR4 candidate where you can chase his big weeks.

Kelvin Benjamin will get the type of volume one needs to finish far higher than where he’s drafted. Good luck knowing what weeks you want to play him while he operates in a hideous Bills offense. Robby Anderson’s price has stayed modest while we wait for the other shoe to drop on a suspension. Perhaps it never comes and he becomes one of the more attractive late-round receivers.

Will Fuller and Devin Funchess are a tad overpriced in fantasy as the WR31 and 36, respectively. Fuller’s seventh-round cost is especially egregious as he’s not a high-volume receiver and there are far cheaper arbitrage plays going later. Funchess is one of at least three candidates in the Carolina low-volume passing offense who could clear 100 targets. There’s no chance all three of Funchess, Christian McCaffrey and Greg Olsen do it if they stay healthy. With the arrival of D.J. Moore, Funchess appears the most likely of the three to be left holding the bag.

Sterling Shepard and Cameron Meredith are two of my favorite selections in this area. While he might be the fourth mouth to feed in the Giants offense, Shepard is one of the best young receivers in the game. He’s too good to not make an impact and would benefit from injury chaos. Cameron Meredith looks ticketed for the coveted big slot role in New Orleans. His time in the sun back in 2016, before missing last year with a gruesome injury, contained a stretch where he showed he could beat inside and outside coverage. He’s been one of my favorite 10th round pick while keeping my fingers crossed the injury news stays positive.

Tier 8 – Priority late round picks

49. John Brown, Baltimore Ravens
50. DeVante Parker, Miami Dolphins
51. Allen Hurns, Dallas Cowboys
52. Kenny Golladay, Detroit Lions
53. Marqise Lee, Jacksonville Jaguars
54. Josh Doctson, Washington Redskins
55. D.J. Moore, Carolina Panthers
56. John Ross, Cincinnati Bengals
57. Chris Godwin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
58. Taywan Taylor, Tennessee Titans
59. Michael Gallup, Dallas Cowboys

By all accounts, John Brown is ripping it up at Ravens camp. If you deny that he was on a clear upward career trajectory prior to sickle cell issues creeping up in 2016, you’re simply lying to yourself out of hurt feelings from fantasy letdowns of the past. We know the risk is massive with Brown but if he can somehow put health troubles behind him, he could truly shine this season. Target him in the late rounds of every draft.

Chris Godwin is one of my favorite wide receivers to come into the league over the last four years and is a legitimate baller. He shined when given chances last season finishing Top-10 in yards per route run, per Player Profiler. While it appears the offensive coaching staff in Tampa recognizes that he’s a future star, his trouble will be finding a path to consistent targets in a crowded Bucs skill-position group.

Toward the end of the 2017 campaign, Josh Doctson was trusted with bulk volume, clearing 29 percent of the team’s air yards in all but one of his last seven games. He was a supreme talent coming out of college. If someone is going to vastly outkick their projections in this passing game, it’s Josh Doctson.

Allen Hurns could lead the Cowboys in targets while Michael Gallup provides tremendous deep sleeper value. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins, File)

Allen Hurns is the odds-on favorite to lead the Cowboys in targets. He could be an ultra-poor man’s version of Adam Thielen is he earns the big slot role in Dallas, as he still has intriguing deep route success rates in Reception Perception. The sleeper here is Michael Gallup, who I’ve said for months resembles a lite beer version of Micahel Thomas. Attendees of Cowboys training camp have come away impressed with his work and he earned first-team work in the preseason opener. His probability of a major fantasy hit is not high but it certainly exists.

John Ross and Taywan Taylor enjoyed great summers. The former 10th overall pick was the talk of Bengals training camp. He could approach 100 targets in a Cincinnati offense bound for positive regression in the yards gained and plays run category. Taylor might be the premier super late-round pick this year. He’s run exclusively with the first team during Rishard Matthews’ absence. He was an awesome college prospect with skills against press coverage and in contested situations. No matter whether he slides in as the slot receiver or deep threat in Matt LaFleur’s progressive offense, Taylor is primed for a second-year leap.

Tier 9 – Best of the rest and best-ball targets

60. Keelan Cole, Jacksonville Jaguars
61. Willie Snead, Baltimore Ravens
62. DeSean Jackson, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
63. Anthony Miller, Chicago Bears
64. Paul Richarson, Washington Redskins
65. Calvin Ridley, Atlanta Falcons
66. Tyrell Williams, Los Angeles Chargers
67. Mike Williams, Los Angeles Chargers
68. Albert Wilson, Miami Dolphins.
69. Mike Wallace, Philadelphia Eagles

I’m a huge fan of Keelan Cole’s game and believe he can easily be the best receiver on this team. There hasn’t been much buzz on him out of camp but I’ve heard he will take reps in the slot this year, which is a great fit with his vertical skill set.

Willie Snead is another reclamation project who found a home in Baltimore after his upward trajectory came to a crashing halt last year. Joe Flacco has finished has finished bottom-five in average intended air yards per pass attempt, per the NFL’s Next Gen Stats tracking data. That dink-and-dunk approach would fit well with a slot receiver like Snead.

Anthony Miller was one of the best college receivers in this year’s draft. From a role and skill set perspective, he was so similar to Doug Baldwin; a slot receiver who can rip big plays downfield. Miller racked up 11 red zone touchdowns in his final college season and showed he could win contested passes. Expect Miller to quicly climb the pecking order in Chicago.

Hunter Henry’s injury opens up the door for one of Tyrell Williams or Mike Williams to take a step forward. Odds are they both cancel each other out.

Sounds the siren for Albert Wilson. He’s another long-time favorite of mine who walked into some opportunity in the Miami passing game. The Dolphins paid him a decent chunk of change to head to South Beach and there’s some speculation he could force a DeVante Parker trade a good preseason. Keep his name filed away.

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