It's funny, but you hear every fantasy expert talk about how there's a dearth of top-flight No. 1 running backs (which there are), but I don't hear anyone speaking the truth about the wide receiver position. And that truth is, it's in the same spot as the running backs. Teams are shying away from the one stud wideout in favor of a depth-is-better approach, thanks to the success of teams like the Packers and Saints, who do more with less talent - so long as they have a great quarterback.
Look throughout the league. How many clear-cut star wide receivers are there who get the vast majority of the passes and touchdowns? Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson, A.J. Green, Dwayne Bowe, Percy Harvin and Larry Fitzgerald. Likely Brandon Marshall with the Bears this season. And that's it. Even guys like Roddy White and Mike Wallace have down periods, while Wes Welker will deal with Brandon Lloyd taking passes away from him in 2012. You're really at the point where you have to hope you get one of the elite ones and also hit it big later on in your draft with a sleeper to fill out your first and second wide receiver slots.
So, how do you draft wide receivers this season? Get as many 'possibilities' as you can. By that, I mean players on the upswing who can break out this season. Don't start looking for a 2012 Steve Smith, because that rarely happens (though if it does, keep an eye on Reggie Wayne, he'll be worth a flier late, because owners will lay off of him due to all the fantasy uncertainty in Indianapolis). So there you go, there's one name I like already as you inch closer to the late rounds. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Draft strategies: Rounds 1-2
You're not looking to take a wide receiver until the end of the first round or sometime in the second. The first ten picks will be the five or so star running backs and the five or so star quarterbacks. So if you're sitting at the 10, 11 or 12 spot and beyond, and there are no backs you like, the receivers I recommend taking in the first 20-24 picks are Calvin Johnson, Percy Harvin and Dwayne Bowe. That's it. Madden curse or no Madden curse, Megatron is the best receiver in the game. Say this year he gives you only 1,300 yards and 13 touchdowns. I doubt you'll weep for his 'down' season. Bowe is someone I think is going to have a huge year. He still had over 1,100 yards in 2011 despite there being so much flux (Tyler Palko) in the Chiefs offense. I like getting ahead of the curve on him. It's a little early, but I think he'll be a stud. Percy Harvin had an unreal final six weeks last year to tally the fifth-most fantasy points for wide receivers. No matter who's throwing him the ball this season, he'll produce. Just think about him doing it over the course of a whole season instead of finally hitting a groove in the winter.
I'm not as high on Andre Johnson (age, injury and a commitment to running the ball first in Houston) or Larry Fitzgerald (I can't trust whoever wins the job in Arizona). A.J. Green is probably the player I like the most outside of Calvin and Bowe, but I can't take him in the 2nd round. If you can't get any of my recommended three, then wait on drafting your first wide receiver.
Draft strategies: Rounds 3-7
This is where your draft comes apart a bit and you wind up altering your strategy due to unforeseen developments (a run on defenses in Round 6 leaves someone available you didn't think would be there at a certain position, teams going for their second quarterbacks' early, owners trying to load up on running backs, etc.). You'll be taking the best available receiver and you'll watch guys like Roddy White, Julio Jones, Mike Wallace and Demaryius Thomas all fly off the board. As they should. This is where owners rely on the numbers they've seen the last couple of years to make their picks. But when those players run out? Project forward. Don't take Steve Smith because of what he did last year, or Vincent Jackson just because he's got new surroundings. I'm okay with reaching a little for players who may break out. So while it may be a round or so too early in theory to take any of the guys mentioned below, I think they're worth the chance.Stevie Johnson, Bills (4th): He loves football, he got paid, and he wants to be a star. Breakout year.
Dez Bryant, Cowboys (4th): This year he matures, becomes the full-fledged number one in Dallas and gives you a great season.
Eric Decker, Broncos (4th): Who knows if Thomas will be Peyton's go-to guy. But Manning always found a way to get the football to both his starting receivers in Indianapolis.
Torrey Smith (5th): He'll be the number one option in the Ravens offense, and he has big-play ability.
Greg Little (5th): Totaled nearly as many fantasy points as A.J. Green. He's the only one who'll catch the football in Cleveland.
Darrius Heyward-Bey (6th): He came on early and then late in 2011. He'll be Carson Palmer's top target in 2012.
Draft strategies: Rounds 8-15
Okay, so I already gave you Reggie Wayne as you start looking for sleepers and bargains in filling out the back half of your roster. Hey, who else is going to catch balls in Indianapolis? But Wayne is the exception. Here, I mainly look for young players who flashed somewhat last season and could make a big jump this year, or, could come out of the NFL draft and contribute. So as the draft gets late, here are the receivers I'll target and be pretty happy if I can land them in my final two or three bench spots.Stephen Hill: Immediately steps in as the number two receiver for the Jets. They'll get vertical this year under Tony Sparano.
Malcom Floyd: Was THE difference in the Chargers passing game last season. Now with no Vincent Jackson, he can be huge.
Vincent Brown: Could also wind up having a big year with the Chargers. It's a toss-up who I like more between he and Floyd.
Brian Quick: Was drafted to be Sam Bradford's go-to-guy for the next ten years. There's no one else in St. Louis to catch the ball.
Doug Baldwin: Could be a huge breakout guy in Seattle. But will he be Matt Flynn's favorite? That keeps him in this category.
Mohamed Sanu: Cincinnati needs to throw the ball to someone outside of Green. He has huge possession potential.
Justin Blackmon: Forget about his off-field issues, once the games start, you'll see why he was first wide receiver drafted. Even in Jacksonville.
Kendall Wright: Kenny Britt is coming off a torn ACL and he'll fit right in, especially if Jake Locker wins the job.
That's how I'll approach the wide receivers this year. "Elite" early, "Project" forward in the middle and "Flash" late. Wow, that sounds like a power point presentation. "Elite early, Project middle, Flash Late." Either that or a Tony Robbins book.
Jason Smith writes fantasy and other pith for nfl.com. He hosts NFL Fantasy Live during the regular season on the NFL Network, and you can download his weekly Cover 2 podcast with Steve Wyche at nfl.com. Talk to him on twitter @howaboutafresca. He only asks you never bring up when the Jets play poorly.