1. Calvin Johnson (DET): Megatron only faces 5 teams worthy of shutting him down in 2012 which means plenty of scoring opportunities. His chemistry with Matt Stafford has grown with each season and he was nearly a lock for 2 scores per game last year. This season, he will be facing the likes of the Packers 32nd ranked secondary twice, the lowly Vikings twice, Rams, Seahawks, Colts, Jags, and Titans. Detroit will mostly stay in tact but could lose a few pieces on defense only. If they do, all it’s going to equate to is more opportunities for Megatron. He is by far the top pick this season.
2. Wes Welker (NE): Welker will either get his long term deal or get the franchise tag. Either way, he is staying in pass happy New England. It’s a good thing too, since the Patriots have the best strength of schedule based on 2011 records. Welker will face the Colts, Broncos, Bills 2x, Dolphins 2x, Jags, Rams, Seahawks and Titans secondaries. The Pats are likely to add a veteran deep threat in Brandon Lloyd or otherwise and it will only make Welker’s job easier. With no other true wide receiver in Foxborough, Welker still wound up 3rd in standard scoring leagues. Imagine what he will be able to do with less double coverage and focus on his side of the field. Welker is as sure as it gets in terms of production.
3. Andre Johnson (HOU): Johnson missed 9 games due to injury in 2011 but now will have plenty of time to regroup and heal. The Texans are another team likely to be in the market for a wide receiving threat and the presence of Arian Foster already keeps defenses guessing. With Matt Schaub healthy and this team back on track, Johnson will get back to getting his high volume targets. The Texans have the 4th best strength of schedule, facing the same opponents as Welker will in 2012. Johnson is a good shot to rival Megatron for the top spot when all is said and done.
4. Kenny Britt (TEN): Like Johnson, Britt has a running back capable of keeping defenses guessing. While Chris Johnson was hampered by poor conditioning, the lockout, and a contract dispute last season, he will be re-committed this year. We saw him get better as the season wore on and he got his legs back under him. Both he and Britt make each other’s life easier so a healthy Johnson will allow Britt to return to his pre-injury ways. Before his season ending injury in week 4, Britt had scored 3 times in three games with two games of 135 yards or more. Regardless of who is at quarterback, Britt will get his and has proven he is as lethal as they come. The presence of Nate Washington only helps Britt’s cause and the Titans will most likely improve their tight end play during the off-season. This is a team which will only add talent and that equates to a big season for Britt. He is very likely to be a forgotten man in a small market so you should be able to select him later than this ranking which means amazing value. If there is not an early run on WR’s in your league, you should be able to snag him in the early part of the second round. The Titans have the 5th easiest SOS based on 2011 records.
5. Larry Fitzgerald (ARI): Despite playing musical chairs at quarterback and facing full focus of opposing defenses, Fitz still was able to record 8 scores in 2011. His 153 targets were 4th among the top 20 wide receivers and there will only be progress in the desert. There are rumors of Peyton Manning but regardless, Kevin Kolb has another year to develop in the system to get the swing of things. The breakout season of Beanie Wells and emergence of Early Doucet and Andre Roberts will form a more cohesive unit which can quickly become one of the more potent attacks in the NFL. Life will get easier for Fitz and we could see him explode if Manning winds up Phoenix.
6. Roddy White (ARI): White led all receivers with 181 targets and finished 6th in total yards. This, despite Matt Ryan struggling mightily throughout the season. Ryan never looked fully comfortable until the second half of the season but will now have a full off-season to work with Julio Jones and his two vets Gonzo and White. The Falcons will be losing DE John Abraham this off-season and possibly one of their corner backs as well. Matt Ryan will be looking to through often and despite there being more mouths to feed, it will only make White’s touches that much more productive, especially against the NFC South’s weak secondaries.
7. Victor Cruz (NYG): America’s salsa dancing sweetheart isn’t likely to be a one hit wonder. The Giants are possibly going to lose WR Mario Manningham, but that has little effect when Hakeem Nicks lines up across the field from you. The Giants power run game fits perfectly with the down field striking this offense excelled at in 2011 so you can expect more of the same in 2012. Though the Giants own the toughest schedule this season, bottom line is Eli Manning will continue to take his shots and is in a division which struggled against the pass last year. Cruz’ speed and agility make him once again a solid option as a #1 WR. He is not a first round value however so be patient and let him fall to you.
8. Mike Wallace (PIT): Wallace will no be escaping Pittsburgh this year so he will once again be Roethlisberger’s favorite target. The rise of Antonio Brown keeps Wallace as the down field threat. The Steelers will look to add some help at the running back position but unless it is a stellar free agent, we can expect a pass first team once again. The Steelers have the 16th best strength of schedule in 2012 and will be a team on a mission after allowing young Tebow to shatter their playoff run.
9. Miles Austin (DAL): Make no mistake, Austin is still the leading receiver on this Cowboys team. Though he missed 6 games with injury, Austin caught 7 scores in 10 games which included three straight games with a touchdown in his final four contests. Laurent Robinson is a free agent this season but even if he returns, he is not going to overtake Dez Bryant and Austin’s spots. The Cowboys are facing an off-season filled with a focus on accountability and health. Nearly every offensive starter for the Boys was plagued by injury last year and players like Austin will be forgotten men. Austin should be able to be snatched up in the 2nd or even 3rd rounds of most drafts so he presents one of the best values if not the best in your draft. Focus on other positional priorities and come away smiling with a first round value in the late second/third round.
10. Greg Jennings (GB): Jennings finished 17th among wide receivers in 2011 after missing his last three games. Still, he was able to rack up 9 scores on only 101 targets. That was the second best scoring to target ratio among the top 20 wide receivers last year and Jennings could have easily wound up as a top 5 finisher had he been healthy to close out the fantasy playoffs. We know he has possibly the best NFL quarterback in Aaron Rodgers throwing him the ball and Jennings return to full health will have him right back among the elite. The Packers face the 2nd easiest strength of schedule in 2012 so scoring will not be an issue.
11. Jordy Nelson (GB): Teammate Jennings may have had the second best scoring to target ratio but Nelson owned the top spot. Nelson scored an amazing 15 touchdowns on just 96 targets last season. No other receiver did so much with so little and his role will likely expand in 2012. Nelson is Wes Welker 2.0 in a system just as pass happy as the Patriots. Though he is unlikely to reproduce these numbers with a healthy Jermichael Finley and Jennings, Nelson should still wind up as a top ten fantasy wide receiver. Best of all, you can probably get him around the 16th spot in terms of WR’s since other owners will be focused on name value before selecting Nelson.
12. Marques Colston (NO): There is still a lot of uncertainty surrounding Colston and where he will wind up but all signs point to Brees lobbying for his best wide out and keeping him in town. Colston missed two games early in the year with shoulder issues but was really feast or famine throughout the season. With the Saints running game progressing into a viable unit and the emergence of Jimmy Graham, the days of Colston being an elite wide receiver in fantasy are gone. Graham has become Brees’ red zone sweetheart and though Colston will get his looks, he is a risk with a first or second round pick.
13. Steve Smith (CAR): Despite having rookie Cam Newton at the helm, Smith was able to strive since he was the only true weapon in the pass game. Smith scored double digit fantasy points in 10 of the 16 games, largely due to Newton’s scrambling abilities which extended plays and saw Smith find holes in broken coverage. With a full off-season under his belt, Newton should jump leaps and bounds within the system and make smarter choices. If Newton can cut his turnovers in half and add some quality throws to Smith, then this ranking will be a low one. Still, it’s too many if’s and this NFC South will see plenty of improvement defensively this year. Smith is a safe pick here but a risk any higher on the list.
14. Vincent Jackson (SD): Jackson will be testing the open market after being scorned by San Diego in his search for a long term deal. It is highly unlikely he will return there so his landing spot is yet to be determined. The Patriots, 49ers, Bears and Buccaneers are the early favorites for his services and could affect his overall value. Still, Jackson will be a primary down field target for each of these teams and will be just as involved as his time with the Chargers. Though he will produce, Jackson is not as safe a bet entering a new system in a stronger division.
15. Percy Harvin (MIN): Harvin was promised a larger role in the offense last year and he got it. He then performed up to expectations, finishing 8th among wide receivers in standard scoring leagues. Harvin was asked to do it all, returning kicks, running the ball and receiving. What held him back was the development of rookie Christian Ponder, who took to Harvin like a baby to it’s mamma. Like Steve Smith, Harvin will only further excel as Ponder has another year to grow and Adrain Peterson returns to full health. Harvin’s work in the return game adds extra benefit as a selection and he is as solid a #2 WR you can find.
16. DeSean Jackson (PHI): Jackson’s attitude and immaturity got the best of him last season but the receiver seems to be back into a healthier state of mind. Though he is a free agent, the Eagles are the favorites to bring him back and they know the important role Jackson plays in this offense. Like Harvin, Jackson is a multi-dimensional receiver who can add some very valuable points in the return game. The Eagles are not going to have such a poor showing again and will only improve after learning how best to use the stockpile of talent on this roster. Jackson is another possible first round value you can select well below his expected performance output due to the negativity surrounding him. All that matters is what he does on the field though, so if he stays with the Eagles, feel confident with the pick.
17. Brandon Marshall (MIA): Marshall quietly had a solid 2011, finishing 8th with 1,213 yards receiving. He started out the season with red zone issues but was able to put it together in the second half of the season where he scored 5 of his 6 touchdowns. Miami seems poised to make a serious run at Peyton Manning should he hit the market so be prepared to seriously elevate this current ranking if Peyton makes the move to South Beach.
18. Dwayne Bowe (KC): Bowe is another free agent likely to be retained this season and he will see a better year than the one past. Bowe was forced to work with three different quarterbacks on a team which had no run game. Despite playing behind the eight ball all year, Bowe was still able to put up 5 touchdowns and 1,159 yards. If Matt Cassel can stay healthy and Jon Baldwin build on a solid rookie campaign, Bowe should see his scores jump up to the 8-10 range. Getting Jamaal Charles back will also help significantly ease Bowe’s focus from opposing defenses. If he produced this well with a mish-mash offense which saw a coach change, imagine what he can do with some stability in 2012.
19. A.J. Green (CIN): Green gave us the highlight somersault touchdown in 2011 but was also the main threat in a young offense. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden expects to see big things from Andy Dalton in 2012 and AJ Green will once again be his go to guy. Green posted 7 touchdowns and 1,057 yards in his rookie campaign despite having minimal time to prepare for the season. While the lockout hurt may rebuilding teams, the Bengals showed great chemistry and promise. With some moves in free agency, this team could become a perennial playoff contender.
20. Brandon Lloyd (STL): Regardless if Lloyd follows Josh McDaniels to New England or not, the 20th spot is a safe ranking for him. We saw how veteran Ochocinco struggled in the new system despite his talents. The good news is Lloyd has followed McDaniels everywhere and the system won’t be too much of a stretch for him to grasp. Still, there would be timing issues to work out with Brady and the fact he will play third fiddle behind Welker and Gronkowski. If he does stay with the Rams, Lloyd will stay as top dog but will should still be no higher than a reliable #2 WR.