As the NFL has become more of a passing league in recent seasons, the wide receiver position has gained more relevance in fantasy football. Just ask anyone who rode Calvin Johnson or Victor Cruz to a fantasy championship in 2011. In fact, it was those two players who were owned (Johnson - 22.9 percent, Cruz - 21.3 percent) on the most fantasy teams that won a league title on NFL.com. That can't be considered a surprise, though, as teams threw the football 57.1 percent of the time -- that was the highest percentage in the last five seasons.
Based on the increased opportunities to produce points, fantasy leaguers are going to see wide receivers coming off the board much sooner on draft day. While the franchise tag will be in play with a number of the top options, there are others who could end up with new teams -- and in better situations to produce for fantasy owners. With that said, here's a look at where I'd like to see the top free-agent wideouts end up from a fantasy perspective this offseason.
Wes Welker, Patriots: 48 receptions, 560 yards. That is what Welker averaged in his last two seasons before joining the Patriots. So if there is any argument about where his fantasy value is best held, that should throw it out the window. The real question is whether or not the two sides agree on a new deal, or if Welker is franchised in the weeks to come. Regardless, there's little chance he'll be wearing anything but a New England uniform in 2012. Consider him a No. 1 wide receiver in all fantasy formats, especially in PPR leagues.
Mike Wallace, Steelers: If I'm a Steelers fan, I'm a little worried about Wallace. Based on the new CBA, a team would only lose a first-round pick if it offers Wallace, a restricted free agent, a contract. And there will be no shortage of suitors for the talented wideout. However, I find it hard to believe the Steelers would let this talented kid leave despite the salary cap situation. His best fantasy fit would be New England, but I think staying in Pittsburgh is a more likely scenario. The 49ers and Ravens could also be in the mix.
Vincent Jackson, Chargers: Reports out of San Diego suggest that the Chargers are hesitant to franchise Jackson, because it would cost them more than $13 million. That's a lot to pay for one player, especially when there are so many other positions to improve on the roster. If Jackson did hit the open market, he would draw plenty of interest from teams like the 49ers, Buccaneers, Rams, Redskins and Vikings, but none of those teams have a quarterback as good as Philip Rivers. If Jackson goes elsewhere, he could turn into a fantasy bust.
Marques Colston, Saints: The Saints have some tough decisions ahead, as Colston, Drew Brees, Robert Meachem and Carl Nicks are among the team's top free agents. Brees isn't going anywhere, and from a fantasy angle I'd like to see Colston remain there as well. While he has had some injury issues in recent seasons, the Hofstra product has long been a borderline No. 1 or 2 fantasy wideout. That will remain the same as long as he is back in the Big Easy next season. A move to another team, and away from Brees, would not be attractive.
Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs: The addition of CB Stanford Routt will leave the Chiefs more open to using their franchise tag on Bowe, not CB Brandon Carr. The talented wide receiver is coming off a down year compared to his 2010 campaign, but he still finished in the top 20 in fantasy points among wideouts. With Matt Cassel back under center, I expect Bowe to be better in 2012. He won't be a stat sheet monster like he was two seasons ago, but he will be a bit more consistent. And Bowe will remain a member of the Chiefs in all likelihood.
Stevie Johnson, Bills: The Bills are negotiating a new deal with Johnson, but reports suggest the two sides are far apart at this point. Sources also suggest that the team won't franchise him, though that could change if a contract isn't agreed on before the start of free agency on March 13. Regardless, I don't see the Bills giving up on Johnson because of the enormous void that would leave at the wide receiver position. Johnson, a No. 2 fantasy wideout in most leagues, has scored a combined 17 touchdowns over the last two years.
DeSean Jackson, Eagles: I'm not sold on Jackson remaining with the Eagles long term, but reports out of Philadelphia suggest that the team could franchise him. That could elicit trade talks, as teams like the 49ers, Buccaneers and Rams (to name a few) all have an obvious need at wide receiver. Regardless, Jackson's fantasy stock is falling after what was a disappointing 2011 season that saw him post his worst totals since 2009. A change of scenery might help, but Jackson's best chance at turning things around is to stay with the Eagles.
Brandon Lloyd, Rams: As expected, Lloyd's numbers took a tumble last season compared to his 2010 totals. However, he had far more statistical success after he was reunited with Josh McDaniels in St. Louis. Now that McDaniels is back in New England, I can't think of a more perfect fit for the veteran wideout. Deion Branch is a free agent, and Chad Ochocinco is no lock to return to the team. That leaves a void at wide receiver that Lloyd could fill and thrive in next season. If that happens, he could post around 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Laurent Robinson, Cowboys: Robinson was an afterthought in fantasy land at the start of last season, but a move to Dallas turned him into one of the best waiver-wire pickups of 2011. He posted career bests across the board, including 11 touchdowns, while becoming a reliable option in the pass attack for Tony Romo. The Cowboys will make retaining Robinson a priority, and there's really no better situation for him to be in from a total fantasy perspective. No double teams, no pressure and the chance to find continued statistical success.
Pierre Garcon, Colts: It appears that a complete face lift is in store for the Colts this offseason, but I expect Garcon to remain with the franchise. He's still very young at the age of 25 and could enter the 2012 campaign as the team's No. 1 wide receiver. Garcon does need to work on his level of consistent production -- a ridiculous 60.3 percent of his fantasy production in 2011 came in three games -- but remaining in Indianapolis is his best shot to retain value. He'll be seen as a No. 3 fantasy wideout in most drafts as of right now.
Reggie Wayne, Colts: At 33, Wayne isn't the same elite fantasy wideout he's been in the past. So where would he best fit from a statistical perspective? How about in Arizona, where his old pal Peyton Manning could end up? The Patriots and Ravens could also show some interest, but following Manning to the desert and not having to be a team's top wide receiver would do wonders for Wayne at this stage of his career. In this scenario, I could see Wayne as a No. 3 fantasy wideout, as teams will be more focused on stopping Larry Fitzgerald.
Randy Moss, free agent: Moss, 35, is clearly past his prime and no longer the playmaker he was during his salad days in Minnesota and New England. But with the news that he wants to return to the gridiron, Moss could be back on the fantasy radar in 2012. While I could see the Bears kicking the tires, this looks like a nice fit for the Jets. The Plaxico Burress experiment is over, so the Men in Green will be looking for help at the wide receiver position. Even if this does happen, I still won't draft Moss outside of the late rounds.
Mario Manningham, Giants: Can Manningham become a No. 1 wide receiver at the NFL level? That remains to be seen, but I think he'll be looking at a greater role than the one he had in New York. On the heels of what was a productive postseason, the Michigan product would be a nice option for the Bears. In that scenario, he would slide in as the team's top wideout and become a prominent target in the pass attack for Jay Cutler. The 49ers are also a possibility, but I like the idea of Manningham catching passes from Cutler rather than Alex Smith.
Plaxico Burress, Jets: Burress hauled in a solid eight touchdown passes in his first year back from being incarcerated, but he was widely inconsistent overall with just one double-digit fantasy performance after Week 7. Still, he's a proven red-zone target and would be a nice fit for the Eagles as a No. 3 wide receiver. Burress isn't going to ever reclaim his past statistical glory at the age of 34, however, so he wouldn't be worth more than a late-round look in fantasy leagues regardless of the team that signs him this offseason.
Robert Meachem, Saints: As I mentioned earlier, the Saints have a number of free agents to decide on this offseason. That means Meachem will hit the free agent market with little chance of remaining in New Orleans. There are plenty of teams that could use him, including the Bears, Bengals and Vikings, but his best fantasy destination would be San Francisco (assuming Manningham goes to the Bears). With the Niners, Meachem would start opposite Michael Crabtree and be used as a vertical threat to stretch defenses in the pass attack.