Each week during the NFL season, I will offer up a variety of top-five lists because, well, who doesn’t love a top five list? With that universal love of lists in mind, I look to the near future of the wide receiver position, breaking down how the WR fantasy landscape might look heading into 2018 drafts.
Top 5 Wide Receivers for 2018 Fantasy Drafts
Antonio Brown, PIT – While Brown’s calf injury in Week 15 derailed many owners’ fantasy title hopes, they won’t soon forget that it was Brown that carried them, with a WR-high 14.8 fantasy points per game, to the postseason in the first place -- Brown is the most commonly found receiver on the roster of Yahoo’s top 500 public league teams. When the dust settles, Brown should finish top three at his position in fantasy points for a fourth straight season.
DeAndre Hopkins, HOU – ‘Nuk is headed towards a No. 1 finish at WR in fantasy points despite having been saddled with two backup quarterbacks for the second-half of the season, as rookie starter Deshaun Watson suffered a season-ending ACL injury before Week 9. Despite Houston’s marked drop-off in arm talent once Watson went down, Hopkins’ fantasy value not only survived, but continued to thrive, as he ranks second (behind A. Brown) among WRs in fantasy points from Weeks 9-15, a seven game stretch in which Houston had either Tom Savage or T.J. Yates working behind center. With Watson expected to make a full recovery from his ACL injury in time for the start of the ’18 campaign, Hopkins will be a justifiable mid-Round 1 option in next year’s drafts.
Odell Beckham, NYG – A broken ankle in Week 5 ended Beckham’s season before it really got started. But before the injury, Beckham was doing his usual WR1 things, catching three touchdowns and averaging a healthy 75.5 yards through his first four games. Beckham has been one of the most reliable scoring weapons since entering the league, as he’s found pay dirt 38 times in 47 career regular-season games. Only 25 years old for the bulk of the upcoming ’18 campaign, he’ll check mark all the boxes of an upper class WR1. The biggest question mark that will need to be answered before ’18 drafts is who his QB is going to be, as it is likely that Eli Manning hits free agency.
Julio Jones, ATL – Jones is the perfect NFL receiving weapon, a standout physical specimen with refined receiving skills. Yet, for some reason, Atlanta has struggled mightily getting him into the end zone the past couple seasons, with just nine touchdowns in his past 28 games, and 25 scores in his past 64 contests. Luckily for his fantasy owners, especially those in PPR leagues, his high volume workload outside the red zone helps make up for a lack of goal line splashes, as only Antonio Brown and Jones have amassed a combined 6,000 receiving yards from ’14 to present (through Week 15), and his 399 receptions in that span is also second to Brown (472).
Keenan Allen, LAC – After sitting out almost the entire ’16 season with an ACL injury, Allen’s ’17 return was a bit sluggish out of the gates, as he scored just one touchdown and averaged 68.5 receiving yards through the first eight games of the season. Then Allen found a second (and even third) gear from Weeks 11 through 15, combing for 44 catches, 601 yards and four touchdowns in that five-game stretch. However, perhaps Allen’s most important accomplishment in ’17 is that he played a full season without significant injury issues, a big departure from his past. As QB Philip Rivers’ clear go-to guy, Allen has top five receiver appeal in ’18 drafts, though New Orleans’ Michael Thomas, Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans, Cincy’s A.J. Green, Green Bay’s Davante Adams and even KC’s diminutive dynamo Tyreek Hill will all be right behind him, jockeying for position.
5 Wide Receivers on the Rise Heading into 2018
Josh Gordon, CLE – Gordon returned in Week 13 from a NFL substance-abuse suspension that kept him sidelined for the entire ’15 and ’16 seasons. But the 26-year-old showed little rust in that return, catching four passes for 85 yards against the Chargers and elite cover corner Casey Heyward, who said that Gordon was, outside of Odell Beckham, his toughest assignment of the season. Impressive praise when you consider Hayward has also tussled with the likes of Dez Bryant, Tyreek Hill, Brandin Cooks, Alshon Jeffery, Demaryius Thomas and Michael Crabtree. We’ve seen Gordon lead the NFL in receiving yards in ’13 (in only 13 games played!) with suspect QB play, so he should be an early consideration at receiver in drafts even if the Browns can’t upgrade at quarterback this offseason. But, if they do improve there, Gordon’s stock should see improvement as well.
Robert Woods, LAR – Woods returned from three weeks off (shoulder ailment) to re-establish himself as the Rams’ go-to option in the passing game, catching six passes (on seven targets) for 45 yards and a touchdown in a blowout victory over the division-rival Seattle Seahawks. Third in fantasy points per game at WR since Week 3, averaging 11.1 PPG in that span, better than all WRs not named Antonio Brown or DeAndre Hopkins, Woods is a former second round pick with plenty in the tank (he’s just 25 years old) to settle in to what is currently one of the league’s top offenses and put together some notable fantasy campaigns in the years ahead. In a situation so much more lucrative for receivers than Buffalo was, Woods should be in consideration as one of the top 20 receivers taken in ’18 drafts.
Juju Smith-Schuster, PIT – Smith-Schuster carried some Anquan Boldin comparisons into the NFL, and those comps appear to be on the money as the rookie from USC worked the slot for the Steelers like a savvy veteran. Moreover, despite missing a game because of a hamstring injury (Week 12) and another for targeting/taunting Cincy MLB Vontaze Burfict (Week 14), JSS still ranks a very close second to Cooper Kupp in total fantasy points among rookie receivers (through Week 15). He’s going to remain no better than second fiddle in this Steelers’ passing game (at least until Antonio Brown starts to slow down), but this is an offense that has been in the top 10 in scoring average every season since ’14, so second fiddle can still be lucrative for fantasy purposes going forward. Juju’s name is worth consideration with some of the other top slot receivers (Golden Tate, Larry Fitzgerald, Jarvis Landry, Doug Baldwin) headed into ’18 drafts. Maybe he won’t go ahead of them, but he shouldn’t last very long after their names are called on draft day.
Devin Funchess, CAR – With the surprising trade of Kelvin Benjamin to Buffalo after Week 8, Funchess became Carolina’s de facto go-to receiver, and he mostly excelled in his new opportunity, ranking as the No. 12 receiver in fantasy point per game after the deal (Week 9) to the present (through Week 15). The towering Funchess found the end zone four times in that span, and averaged a healthy 70.7 receiving yards. It’s likely the Panthers will look to add some more receiving help this offseason, but Funchess appears to have established a rapport with Cam Newton that should continue to pay off into the ’18 season. A draft-day afterthought in ’17, Funchess is looking like a WR2 candidate for ’18 drafts.
Dede Westbrook, JAX – Coming off a Heisman run at Oklahoma, Westbrook was one of the impressive rookie wideouts in preseason. An abdominal injury suffered before Week 1 kept him sidelined for most of the ’17 campaign. However, he returned in Week 11 and made an immediate impact. In fact, his 23.5 percent target share through his first five games is good for 20th among wide receivers. With Allen Robinson, Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns all hitting free agency this offseason, there’s a good chance that Westbrook (and fellow teammate Keelan Cole) has convinced Jacksonville brass that ponying up for more than one of those receivers is unnecessary. Westbrook should be looking at a big opportunity going into the ’18 season, making him worthy of middle round consideration in fantasy drafts.
5 Wide Receivers on the Decline Heading into 2018
Jordy Nelson, GB – Aaron Rodgers’ trusty chain-mover/red-zone crutch hit a career wall in ’17. It started out fine, as he scored six touchdowns in the five full games Rodgers played to open the season before the future Hall of Famer QB broke his collarbone in Week 6. However, while Nelson was finding the end zone, his targets and yardage were waning. Nelson averaged just 47yards while Rodgers was active, and then things took a major turn for the worse (26.6 YPG) in the eight weeks working with backup Brett Hundley at quarterback. The hope was that Rodgers’ return to action in Week 15 would lead to a return to the end zone for Nelson, but instead he posted a line (3/28/0) that looked all too similar to his output with Hundley at the helm. Going into next season at age 33, Nelson, a consensus top 15 pick in ’17 drafts, is going to be lucky to be drafted in the top 100 of ’18 drafts.
Amari Cooper, OAK – Miserable. That’s about the only way to describe the experience of owning Cooper in ’17, a season marred by both ineffectiveness and injury. Through Week 15, Cooper missed two games because of injury and recorded five games with 10 receiving yards or less. A whopping 41 percent of his fantasy production through his first 12 games of the season came in one contest, a Week 7 meeting with the Chiefs in which he exploded for 11 catches, 210 receiving yards and two touchdowns. The 11th receiver taken, on average, in ’17 Yahoo drafts, Cooper will be most likely be on the outside (looking in) of the top 20 receivers for ’18.
DeVante Parker, MIA – Despite some occasional flashes of brilliance, Parker’s career can be filed under the “Failure to Launch” category. In his third season, a time that has traditionally been marked as a wide receiver’s time to finally shine (if he hasn’t yet to that point), Parker’s ’17 season has been one long slog mixed with mediocrity and flat-out disappointment. He’s scored just one touchdown through his first 11 games of the season, he’s failed to reach 90 yards in any contest and he’s clocked in with 40 yards or less five times. Commonly found on ’17 sleeper lists, Parker will have to hope the upcoming post-hype chapter of his career offers an eventual route back to respectability.
DeSean Jackson, TB – Being paired with Jameis Winston’s big arm and playing opposite Mike Evans was supposed to propel D-Jax’s rebound from a lackluster ’16 campaign. Instead Jackson took another step backwards in Tampa, averaging just shy of 20 fewer yards per game (through Week 15) than he did last season in Washington, as nine of his 14 games played have resulted in 41 receiving yards or less. Moreover, Jackson’s calling card as a big-play threat may have to be revoked as he went from 19 receptions of 20-plus yards last season (in 15 games) to just 10 this season (in 14 games). You have to be a bit worried about a receiver getting deeper into his 30s (he turned 31 earlier this month) who has relied mainly on his speed throughout his career.
T.Y. Hilton, IND – It wasn’t hard to figure that the more time Andrew Luck missed this season, the worse it was going to be for Hilton. And with the Colts’ franchise QB never able to make it off the sidelines this season because of a shoulder issue, Hilton’s season has been a predictable disaster - he has finished outside the top 40 fantasy receivers in 10 of his 14 games. The problem for Hilton heading into ’18 is that Luck’s shoulder problem doesn’t sound like it is going away any time soon – there were reports in early November that his shoulder had stopped improving, and now Luck is contemplating the surgery he’d been trying to avoid. In other words, this a big, dark cloud that casts a shadow on not just Luck, but those tied to him in the passing game, as well.
Top 5 Most Intriguing NFL Draft WR Prospects for '18
Calvin Ridley, Alabama – Ridley is widely considered the top wideout in the ’18 draft class. The former five-star high school receiver has been delivering for Alabama since the moment he stepped on campus, catching 89 passes for 1,045 yards and seven touchdowns as a freshman. He’s got the speed, route running ability and strong hands that compares more favorably to former Tide WR Amari Cooper than Julio Jones. Unless he lands in a disadvantageous situation, Ridley should be ready to help fantasy teams’ bottom line in his rookie campaign.
Courtland Sutton, SMU – At 6-foot-4, with athleticism, Sutton has drawn some comparisons to Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans. He’s not quite the “power forward” that Evans is, but he runs solid routes for a big man and he can make the high-point catches in traffic that are all but required for someone of his stature. Although he didn’t face elite competition very often, you still have to be impressed with his statistics as a member of the Mustangs, with 3,125 receiving yards and 32 touchdowns over the past three seasons.
Anthony Miller, Memphis – Slot man extraordinaire, Miller’s a bit like Golden Tate and Jarvis Landry in that they have physicality after the catch, strong hands and athleticism which allows them to make contested grabs. Miller, Memphis’ all-time leading receiver, ranks third in FBS at WR in Yards per Route (3.5). His only real knock is less-than-ideal size (5-foot-11, 190 pounds), but Tate and Landry are great examples of how little that can matter.
Michael Gallup, Colorado St. – Gallup is a tough, physical wideout with good size, long arms, strong hands and more than serviceable speed. He didn’t face regular elite competition at Colorado St., but he did get to test his skills against Alabama in mid-September, and he came out smelling like a rose (five catches, 81 yards).
James Washington, Oklahoma St. – Washington was a big-play specialist in OSU’s potent spread offense, putting up 1.423 yards and 12 touchdowns this past season, including a whopping 20.6 yards per catch. It was his third consecutive season with at least 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns for the Cowboys. Washington tracks deep balls especially well, and shows the athleticism and physicality to make adjustments and fight through traffic to make the catch. Like most receivers coming out of a spread offense, Washington will be dogged most by questions about his ability to run the NFL route tree.