1. Calvin Johnson
The only thing Megatron can’t outrun is his past. It creates unreasonable expectations. What is not unreasonable, however, is calling Johnson the league’s safest wideout, and a worthy first-round pick in a year with little clarity beyond the top five running backs.
2. Demaryius Thomas
Thomas is the league’s premier YAC threat playing with its premier quarterback. Translation, any questions? Not that Thomas can’t beat you at any level of the defense. He can, and with Eric Decker gone, figures to be even more of a powerhouse in the red zone. Thomas is a bulletproof first-rounder, one barely behind Megatron as the favorite to be fantasy’s No. 1 receiver.
3. A.J. Green
Dez Bryant always finds himself just ahead of Green in these kinds of rankings, but Green always finds himself just ahead of Bryant on the league-leader board. You can fret about OC Hue Jackson’s new run-heavy offense, but systems simply don’t hold players like Green down. And there’s just as much reason to believe Jackson’s presence will be a positive instead of a detriment. Jackson proved masterful at maximizing his personnel in Oakland. I consider him far more likely to coax a career year out of Green than send him back below 1,300 yards.
4. Dez Bryant
There’s just as good an argument to be made for Bryant at No. 1 as there is at No. 4. Perhaps the most thrilling player in the NFL, his 25 receiving touchdowns over the past two seasons are tied for the most in the league. Bryant lets nothing stand between him and his next catch, putting his body on the line in a way most would consider crazy. It’s what’s led to a countless number of nicks and bruises over his four-year career, if no missed games over the past two seasons. That’s as good a tiebreaker as any to drop Bryant to No. 4 when his résumé could put him at No. 1. You can take Bryant in the first round and never look back.
5. Alshon Jeffery
Jeffery or Brandon Marshall is one of 2014’s great debates. I’ll let ascendancy tiebreak it. When was the last time you didn’t want to own a 24-year-old receiver coming off a 1,421-yard campaign? Much is made of Jay Cutler and Marshall’s Apatow-style bromance, but Cutler targeted Jeffery nearly as much as Marshall last season. Marshall is still one of the league’s very best receivers, but more volume dependent than his younger teammate, and not as much of a home-run threat. I’m not betting against Marshall, but I’m certainly betting on Jeffery.
6. Jordy Nelson
You could close the case at “No. 1 receiver in an Aaron Rodgers-led offense,” but why stop there? Nelson averaged 6.1 catches for 101.2 yards in Rodgers’ eight full games last season, scoring seven touchdowns. That extrapolates out to 98/1,620/14 over a full campaign. Instead, Nelson had to “settle” for career highs in yards (1,314) and catches (85). Fantasy’s No. 11 and No. 2 receiver in his past two healthy seasons, look for Nelson to split the difference in 2014.
7. Brandon Marshall
The league’s best compiler, Marshall’s worst season over his past seven was his 86/1,014/3 in 2010 with the Dolphins. Having averaged 106/1,348/9 in four full seasons with Cutler at the helm, Marshall remains an unimpeachable WR1 heading into his age-30 campaign, even with Jeffery there to steal some of his thunder.
8. Julio Jones
There’s a simple reason Jones is so “low”: His twice-broken left foot. Even in a league with an injury risk around every corner, Jones’ can’t be ignored. By all accounts, Jones’ foot has not been an issue in the run up to 2014. But with so many other capable WR1 options, not even Jones’ mammoth upside can close the gap on the floors of those ahead of him. I hope Jones stays healthy and makes this one of my biggest misses, but I’m not willing to bet on it considering the options in front of him.
9. Antonio Brown
How much depth is there at receiver? Last year’s No. 2 in receptions (110) and yards (1,499) can be No. 9 and no one will really bat an eye. Brown could easily make us all pay. Coming off a season where he became the first player in NFL history to catch at least five passes for 50 yards in all 16 games, there’s little reason to expect Brown to crater as the No. 1 option for an offense committed to the no huddle. It may be easier to project upside for the eight guys ahead of him, but Brown is as good of a WR9 as you’re ever going to find.
10. Keenan Allen
Just the eighth receiver over the past 20 seasons to surpass 1,000 yards as a rookie, Allen accomplished the feat despite playing zero snaps in Week 1, and entering Week 4 with three catches for 30 yards. Unleashed afterwards, Allen finished as fantasy’s WR17 on the back on truly elite route running. Now supposedly faster and fully entrenched as Philip Rivers’ go-to guy, Allen is in position to take a massive sophomore leap.
11. Andre Johnson — Harder to kill than a Twitter rumor, but age and Ryan Fitzpatrick will test his WR1 limits.
12. Michael Floyd — This is admittedly aggressive, but what, you think Floyd is taking a step back from his 2013?
13. Vincent Jackson — Always underrated, but always unpredictable.
14. Michael Crabtree — Healthy and gunning for a new contract, Crabtree will prove to be one of this year’s most undervalued players.
15. Pierre Garcon — A target monster, but one who didn’t have to contend with DeSean Jackson last season.
16. Torrey Smith — A slow but steady riser, Smith is ready to take another step under new OC Gary Kubiak.
17. Victor Cruz — Could re-erupt in an offense placing an emphasis on quick, short passes.
18. Randall Cobb — Show me health, and I’ll show you love.
19. Roddy White — Ageless before last year’s ankle injury, White could be the latest elite WR1 to be left for dead too quickly.
20. T.Y. Hilton — His upside should overcome his play-calling and elderly target competition.
21. Cordarrelle Patterson — Obvious breakout candidate, but was much rawer than people realized last season. Could be a year away.
22. Larry Fitzgerald — On the downslope, but should compensate with red-zone targets.
23. Marques Colston — Always there, little reason to believe he won’t be in 2014.
24. Mike Wallace — Prime bounce-back candidate, but his fate rests in Ryan Tannehill’s hands.
25. Eric Decker — Has gone from certain overdraft to being underdrafted. Will soak up targets in New York.
1. Jimmy Graham
Graham is without peer, both at the tight end position, and in the Saints’ offense. One of fantasy’s biggest difference makers, he should not fall beyond the first round.
2. Rob Gronkowski
What we don’t know: If Gronk will play Week 1. What we do know: Gronk has scored 42 touchdowns across 50 career games. Gronk’s body has become an Operation board, but four years after he helped kick start the tight-end revolution, there’s still no one who can match his physical dominance. Gronk is injury prone, but let’s be real. How many other players in the top 25 can be slapped with that label? At least 3-4. Sometimes you have to pay the cost to be the boss. Gronk’s risk doesn’t come cheap, but it has nearly unrivaled upside.
3. Julius Thomas
A late bloomer if there ever was one, Thomas returns from his breakout 2013 as the No. 3 option in Peyton Manning’s historic passing attack. Durability was the concern through Thomas’ first two NFL seasons, but he’s no bigger injury risk than the player immediately ahead of him. Thomas will be an elite TE1 as long as he can stay on the field. It’s that simple.
4. Jordan Cameron
The loss of tight-end maestros Norval Turner and Rob Chudzinski is a concern, but Cameron comes off his breakout as the Browns’ de facto No. 1 receiver. Meanwhile, new OC Kyle Shanahan is all of one year removed from overseeing the promising development of Jordan Reed. Playing for a new contract, Cameron will make hay regardless of who’s at quarterback for the Browns, just like he did in 2013.
5. Vernon Davis
Davis has never exactly screamed consistency, but remains one of the top athletes and red-zone threats at a position that’s in the midst of a huge infusion of young talent. There will be the occasional zero, but more weeks than not, you’ll be happy to have Davis as your TE1.
6. Jordan Reed
Reed’s only mistake as a rookie was foolishly concealing his concussion issues. Otherwise, he was a bright spot for the moribund Redskins, and has reportedly looked even better this offseason. Despite his injury issues, Reed is an upside talent worth gambling on at a position with little clarity beyond the top-dog Graham.
7. Greg Olsen
At worst, Olsen will be Cam Newton’s No. 2 option, a designation he’s turned into an average line of 71/830/5.5 over the past two seasons. Always underrated, Olsen is still in his prime at age-29. There are far sexier options down the ranks (Ladarius Green, Zach Ertz, Dennis Pitta), but expect Olsen to keep on chugging as an excellent TE1.
8. Jason Witten
Every great player starts to lose steam somewhere. For Witten, it’s likely to be 2014. In a situation similar to Antonio Gates’ 2013, Witten remains a top-notch chain mover, but has a super-talented backup nipping at his heels. In Witten’s case, it’s Gavin Escobar. Coming off seven-year lows in both yards (851) and catches (73), Witten should make it eight-year lows, even if he remains a perfectly-serviceable TE1.
9. Kyle Rudolph
Rudolph has been a mountainous tease through his first three NFL seasons, but at the very least, tight-end whisperer OC Norval Turner should be able to harness his red-zone potential. Rudolph’s ceiling is a Cameron-style breakout, one he’s had the talent for since arriving in the NFL. Now he might finally have the play-caller.
10. Dennis Pitta
Forever on the verge of breaking out, Pitta might finally be at the right confluence of health, coaching staff and supporting cast. Few coordinators are more tight-end friendly than Gary Kubiak, while the additions of Steve Smith and Owen Daniels should ensure Pitta doesn’t get smothered in the middle of the field. Pitta lacks a top-five ceiling, but is a safe bet to finish in the 8-10 range.
11. Ladarius Green — The biggest threat to be this year’s Thomas.
12. Zach Ertz — Improved blocking could mean more snaps could mean more targets could mean more receptions could mean more fantasy glory.
13. Charles Clay — An ideal plug-and-play.
14. Martellus Bennett — If all you want out of the tight-end position is touchdown potential, Bennett is an every-week starter.
15. Heath Miller — Miller is a shop-keeper. There’s not much upside in that, but there’s not much downside, either.
16. Travis Kelce — Kelce has top-eight upside, but Anthony Fasano is a road block.
17. Delanie Walker — Should remain a matchup play.
18. Antonio Gates — More name than game at this point.
19. Dwayne Allen — Will threaten for touchdowns, but won’t compile in other categories.
20. Tyler Eifert — Probably a year away.
21. Jared Cook — Waiver wire fodder you add for a juicy matchup.
22. Eric Ebron — Someone to monitor, not someone to draft.
23. Coby Fleener — The step forward probably isn’t coming.
24. Austin Seferian-Jenkins — Has upside, but too many other mouths to feed in an offense that wants to run the football and dominate the sidelines.
25. Jace Amaro — The bottom of the TE2 barrel.
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