Pass-heavy NFL evolution should benefit elite WRs

Life and fantasy football are about change. How you adapt to it is the difference between winning and losing in both.

How did I adapt to suddenly getting less sleep when my daughter was born? I started going to bed earlier - and I used to love staying up late. What did I do when "The Wire" finished its run? I started watching "Breaking Bad." I also had a very concrete view of the top fantasy wide receivers in the NFL at the conclusion of last season. But, just like every year, free agency and the draft changes it all. How do I adjust as I start thinking fantasy draft? The answers lie below in a list of the most targeted WRs from 2011 -- and next to each name is the percentage of all throws that came their way. So which receivers' values are still going up and whose are falling?

1. Roddy White, Falcons (30.1 percent of all throws made by Falcons QBs went to him). Owners are going to back off him because they're afraid Julio Jones is going to take more attention away in his second season. I actually like White a little more than most because I think Atlanta is going to throw it a ton this season. They can't keep pounding Michael Turner, whose age is now a big factor in how the Falcons will use him. White gets an uptick because of the continued pass-heavy evolution of the NFL. When you have elite WRs, you keep throwing them the ball. He's still a top-five fantasy WR.

2. Brandon Marshall, Bears (30 percent). While all his targets were with the Dolphins, figure a huge boost now that he's reunited with Jay Cutler in Chicago. Marshall's one of those players who's motivated every so often. Year 1 in Chicago is going to be a honeymoon, and he's going to be huge. Right now, I have him as a top-five WR once again, possibly top three.

3. Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs (28.4 percent). What Bowe showed us last year (1,159 yards, 5 TD) is that even if it's Tyler Palko or Bill Kenney throwing the football, he's going to produce. Now he'll have a running game again (Peyton Hillis and a healthy Jamaal Charles) to help support the pass, so red zone scoring will be easier. This season he'll score twice as many times as last season. In fact, I'll go this far: Megatron, Bowe, Marshall and Percy Harvin (who I'll get to later) are my official early top four fantasy WR for 2012.

4. Wes Welker, Patriots (28.2 percent). Much like White, I think people are going to back away from Welker because they're afraid of Brandon Lloyd coming in. I'll concede that this season could see a small dip in his stats. But it's not going to be a "fall off the fantasy cliff" season. Let everyone else back off of him because they're afraid that New England has too many weapons now. And let everyone else draft Lloyd first, which is what's going to happen. You nab Welker in the fourth or fifth round as your WR2 and enjoy the season.

5. Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals (28 percent). We talk about the era of the workhorse RB going away, but the era of the "One Superstar WR" is ending. Teams are trying to get as deep as possible at the position, but that won't happen in Arizona as long as Fitzgerald is there. Sure, Michael Floyd is going to get some attention from either John Skelton or Kevin Kolb. But that's just going to open things up for Fitzgerald, who now won't have to fight off three defensive backs for every pass. It might not be the salad days of Kurt Warner, but it'll still be close, which means he's worth a third-round pick.

6. Brandon Lloyd, Patriots (27.3 percent). I can already see owners getting so fired up about Lloyd in the Patriots' system, thinking he's going to catch 120 passes. Stop and be realistic. He's not going to get the attention he's enjoyed the last two seasons. You think he's going to get 27 percent of all the throws Tom Brady makes? Forget it. He might hurt Rob Gronkowski's numbers in the red zone, but don't reach too high to get him. I think Lloyd is at best the fourth Patriots player off your draft boards after Brady, Welker and Gronkowski. Maybe before Aaron Hernandez, but that's close.

7. Pierre Garcon, Redskins (25 percent). Big contracts don't equal big fantasy production. I think Garcon could be this year's Sidney Rice -- the change of scenery WR who finds it hard to mesh with a young QB. This is not Steve Smith and Cam Newton. Smith was an elite WR in the NFL when Newton was in the eighth grade. It's going to take awhile for the Redskins to figure themselves out on offense. So, don't have Garcon as an anchor dragging you down while the Redskins work things out.

8. Steve Smith, Panthers (24.8 percent). The good news for fantasy owners is that Carolina sort of left its offense alone this offseason. That is great news because Smith can get all the targets to himself once again. No one is going to challenge him for looks, so you can realistically expect something close to his 2011 production. His age and the "can he really do it again?" questions are going to prevent owners from drafting him as high as they should, so pounce on him if he's still on the board after the third round.

9. Reggie Wayne, Colts (24.7 percent). Now this is a Cam Newton-Steve Smith situation. Andrew Luck is going to heavily rely on Wayne, who still has a lot left in the tank at 33 years old. And if Wayne saw a quarter of all the teams' passes come his way from Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky, how many is he going to see now that it's Luck at QB and Garcon is gone? He could be one of the biggest steals of your fantasy draft.

10. Calvin Johnson, Lions (23.7 percent). The beauty of Johnson is very similar to Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers doesn't need to throw the ball as often as other QBs to be successful. Conversely, Johnson doesn't need the targets other WRs do to run amok. Beware of the "Madden" cover curse, but I think at worst you'll see Johnson is with 1,300 yards and 12 TD. So if that means a "curse" because it's down from last year, so be it.

The rest of the top 20

  1. Percy Harvin, Vikings (23.5 percent) 12. Steve Johnson, Bills (23.1 percent) 13. Antonio Brown, Steelers (23 percent) 14. Hakeem Nicks, Giants (22.5 percent) 15. Victor Cruz, Giants (22.2 percent) 16. A.J. Green, Bengals (21.4 percent) 17. Mike Williams, Buccaneers (21 percent) 18. Greg Little, Browns (21 percent) 19. Nate Washington, Titans (20.7 percent) 20. Jabar Gaffney, Redskins (19.4 percent).

Bold predictions

High on Harvin: I wouldn't be surprised if I'm writing this column next year and talking about Harvin coming off the best fantasy year for a WR in 2012. As long as he stays healthy, he's going to blow people away with his numbers regardless of who's playing QB (and RB, for that matter) in Minnesota. He had 44 catches and five touchdowns the last six weeks of 2011 in an offense that's going to look remarkably similar to what the Vikings have to begin this season. I can't tell you how much I love Harvin. Maybe nearly as much as I love Joe Namath.

Brown rising:Greg Little could be the steal of your draft -- his fantasy production nearly equaled that of A.J. Green -- his more celebrated rookie counterpart -- who wore down a bit as the season went on while Little heated up. Little's the only one who's going to be catching balls in Cleveland this season and the offense will be much better than it was last year.

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 Two 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.

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