Need proof the NFL is a passing league? Five wide receivers went in the first round, compared to zero running backs, and nine wideouts were off the board before the first running back was selected.
This year’s class of receivers is deep in quality as well as quantity, and fantasy owners know that rookie wideouts are more frequently making an impact right out of the gate. Here’s an overview of the fantasy prospects for this year’s crop of wide receivers.
SAMMY WATKINS, BILLS
The Bills spent two Day 2 picks on wide receivers last season, but the opportunity to trade up and add Sammy Watkins to their young offense was too good to pass up. Watkins already sat atop most fantasy rookie rankings, and when Buffalo cleared his path to the lineup by trading away Stevie Johnson it only reinforced his ranking.
Watkins is clearly E.J. Manuel’s top target, with last year’s rookie finds Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin, along with recent acquisition Mike Williams, serving as the complementary targets. The hope is that a year of experience for Manuel and Watkins’ playmaking ability elevates the Buffalo passing game to—and beyond—the consistent 1,000-yard seasons Johnson provided from 2010 through 2012. The price the Bills paid to acquire Watkins suggests he’ll be given every opportunity to rekindle memories of Andre Reed.
MIKE EVANS, BUCCANEERS
Maybe the worst-kept secret entering the 2014 NFL Draft was the Buccaneers’ desire to team Mike Evans with Vincent Jackson and recreate Chicago’s twin tower receivers for free agent quarterback Josh McCown. Despite whispers that the Bucs might go instead with Johnny Manziel, Evans indeed landed in Tampa—where he walks into the WR2 slot vacated by the trade of Mike Williams.
Clearly the tandem of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey worked for the Bears last season, so the Bucs’ plan to emulate that attack makes sense. Evans’ size and skill set draws comparisons to Jeffery as well as new teammate Jackson, and with Williams gone there’s an opening for productivity opposite Jackson. If Tampa’s twin towers come anywhere close to the numbers the Bears put up last season—Chicago’s wide receivers were second only to Denver in fantasy productivity—Evans will be a fantasy helper right out of the gate.
ODELL BECKHAM, GIANTS
The Giants consistently use early-round picks to load up on edge rushers and wide receivers, and this year was no exception. New York didn’t necessarily have a burning need for Odell Beckham, but his play-making skills both as a receiver and in the return game were too tempting to pass up.
Beckham joins a crowded receiver rotation that includes Victor Cruz and Rueben Randle. He’s not likely to unseat Cruz and brings a different skill set than Randle to the table, but this is an offense that’s been able to feed three receivers before and is now run by Ben McAdoo, whose Green Bay offense consistently did exactly that. So if Beckham can outduel the likes of Jerrel Jernigan and Mario Manningham, he should make fantasy noise sooner rather than later.
BRANDIN COOKS, SAINTS
There are few better places to land for your first NFL gig than catching passes from Drew Brees, which is the situation Brandin Cooks walks into in 2014. The Saints traded up to select Cooks, who has Tavon Austin speed and Steve Smith grit, and while he may appear blocked on the depth chart by Kenny Stills he should have little difficulty working himself into the regular receiver rotation.
In addition to Stills, Cooks will be competing with Marques Colston and former first-round pick Robert Meachem for the portion of the passing game Brees directs at the wideouts. It’s not as luxurious a role as you might think, since Jimmy Graham and backfield receivers take their bite off the top. But if you think of Cooks as a more talented Lance Moore or Devery Henderson, he’s looking at solid fantasy numbers with a significantly higher ceiling—especially with Darren Sproles now in Philadelphia.
KELVIN BENJAMIN, PANTHERS
For years draft-day expectations were that the Panthers would select a complement to Steve Smith. Those prognostications partially came true this year as Carolina selected Kelvin Benjamin in the first round. However, with Smith having been released by the Panthers this offseason, Benjamin will now be asked to replace him instead.
Benjamin is still a bit of a work in progress, but he has NFL size and is just beginning to play to his potential. That scouting report doesn’t exactly scream “NFL-ready”, but with Carolina currently lining up Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant as their starting wide receivers the Panthers don’t have the luxury of patience. Benjamin’s situation in Carolina may cause him slide down redraft rankings, and if he struggles as a rookie it could ding his dynasy value as well. Don’t let that tarnish his long-term value, however; any receiver drawing comparisons to Demaryius Thomas is worth waiting for.
MARQISE LEE, JAGUARS
The Jaguars are rebuilding their offense from scratch, and with third overall selection Blake Bortles expected to sit for a season behind Chad Henne it’s expected to be a slow build. Long-term Jacksonville armed Bortles with a pair of rookie receivers, Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson. Not only will they cover for Justin Blackmon, who remains suspended indefinitely, but Cecil Shorts hits free agency soon and may not be viewed as part of the solution.
Lee has the better opportunity for an immediate impact, as he already possesses NFL-level route-running savvy. If he’s able to stay healthy he’s the Jags’ likely WR1 for the immediate future—and if Blackmon fails to stay clean, perhaps for the long term as well.
JORDAN MATTHEWS, EAGLES
Jordan Matthews doesn’t offer the skill set to be a direct replacement for DeSean Jackson in Philadelphia; third-round pick Josh Huff more closely fits that bill. But Chip Kelly wouldn’t waste a pick on a puzzle piece he didn’t have a plan to use, so look for Matthews to provide a possession-receiver option for the receiver-rich Eagles. It’s not a role that screams fantasy explosion, at least to start, but there are certainly worse offenses to be a secondary target in than Kelly’s high-octane Eagles.
PAUL RICHARDSON, SEAHAWKS
As receiver depth on a run-first team, there isn’t a ton of fantasy upside to Paul Richardson, and his college resume—dismissed from UCLA for theft, suffered a couple of knee injuries—does little to bolster his case. But Seattle’s receiver rotation lost Golden Tate, has Sidney Rice coming off a knee injury of his own, and who knows if Percy Harvin can stay healthy. There could be room for Richardson to carve out a role, and if he’s able to stay out of trouble and on the field he could be the latest head-scratching draft-day decision for the Seattle front office that makes them look like geniuses down the road.
DAVANTE ADAMS, PACKERS
James Jones left the Packers for Oakland via free agency; Green Bay replaces him in the receiver rotation with Fresno State’s Davante Adams, whose game has been compared to… former Packer James Jones. After posting video game numbers in college the expectation was that Adams would have to see a drop in productivity; however, with Aaron Rodgers slinging the ball the dropoff won’t be nearly as steep. Adams and fellow rookie Jared Abbrederis will push to crack the receiver rotation behind oft-injured starters Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb.
CODY LATIMER, BRONCOS
Another “draft Twitter” darling, Cody Latimer has the luxury of catching passes from Peyton Manning. The downside, of course, is that he’s buried on a receiver-rich depth chart behind Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, and Emmanuelle Sanders—as well as tight end Julius Thomas. It’s an offense that made multiple receivers major fantasy factors, and there’s likely a monster game or two lurking in Latimer’s rookie season; however, you’ll need a crystal ball to know when Latimer’s turn comes up in that thick receiver rotation.
ALLEN ROBINSON, JAGUARS
Draft Twitter darling Allen Robinson could have ended up in a better situation, but landing in Jacksonville isn’t all bad. Initially he’ll battle fellow rookie Marqise Lee and holdover Cecil Shorts to catch balls from Chad Henne, and his scouting report suggests he’s ready to contribute at the NFL level from Day 1. Eventually it’ll be Blake Bortles throwing the ball, with Shorts potentially leaving via free agency and Justin Blackmon still suspended indefinitely; that’s a combo platter that makes Robinson an intriguing dynasty investment.
JARVIS LANDRY, DOLPHINS
Jarvis Landry should provide a nice complement to deep threat Mike Wallace in Miami, competing with Brian Hartline and Rishard Matthews to handle slot and possession receiver duties. There’s optimism regarding Ryan Tannehill’s development, and new Dolphins’ offensive coordinator Bill Lazor brings some uptempo to the attack that could provide fantasy benefits for a larger depth of receivers than we’re used to seeing out of Miami.
DEEPER DYNASTY CONSIDERATIONS
Josh Huff is a speedster out of Oregon that Chip Kelly is intimately familiar with; if you’re looking for a darkhorse candidate to replace DeSean Jackson in the Eagles’ attack, he’s your guy… With Reggie Wayne aging—and coming back from a major injury—and Da’Rick Rodgers still an unknown quantity, there’s an opening opposite TY Hilton in the Colts’ Andrew Luck-led passing game. Donte Moncrief offers a bigger target to complement Hilton and could work his way into a significant role sooner rather than later… John Brown was the star of Arizona’s first OTAs; while he’ll be stuck behind Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd in the Cardinals’ receiver rotation, the departed Andre Roberts proved a third receiver could deliver fantasy contributions in the desert so don’t cross him off just yet… The Steelers have lost key members of their receiving corps in back-to-back offseasons. While the expectation is that Markus Wheaton will move into the starting lineup opposite Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant offers a similar skill set (read: plenty of speed) and could force his way onto Ben Roethlisberger’s radar.