Each week leading up to the NFL pre-season I’ll be bringing you an overview of those fantasy players that I consider to be starting caliber. This is to say, the top 12 quarterbacks, 24 running backs, 36 wide receivers, and 12 tight ends. As each grouping of these players represents a different position on a fantasy starting lineup, they are being presented in groupings of twelve each week. This week, wide receiver 1 through 12.
As one of the more relatively stable positions in fantasy, wide receiver will be covered this week and next, leaving the volatile running backs for review right before pre-season.
Rank. Name – Team [Consensus rank for comparison]
1. Calvin Johnson – Detroit 
One of the first men to chump the “Madden curse”, Johnson has been the best receiver in the NFL for at least three seasons running. He is a sure thing for at least 140 targets, at least 20 of which will be in the redzone. Nobody else can offer his kind of consistency at the position. He is a threat on every snap. He is the reason Stafford is a great fantasy quarterback. He is the most double-covered receiver in the game, but it doesn’t matter. There are players who will outscore him on a weekly basis, but there’s no receiver you should feel more comfortable starting.
2. Demaryius Thomas – Denver 
Being the number one receiving option on the best passing offense in the world has its perks. Extreme fantasy relevance comes from his deadly combination of speed, height, hands, and diversity of looks. Thomas takes screens, posts, slants, curls, bubbles — basically he can play any role. Because of this, he’s a threat to score on every possession, similar to Calvin. He even went to the same school…
3. Dez Bryant – Dallas 
Dez Bryant, the Cher of the fantasy world. As much as I’d love to continue to make fun of Dez being a diva, he certainly gets results. He famously whined about his lack of involvement last year mid-season and was rewarded in the next few games with more looks from Tony Romo, and more redzone chances. After making the most of those chances, the Cowboys coaching staff kept him involved for the rest of the season, presumably after burying their faces deep in their palms.
4. Brandon Marshall – Chicago 
Marshall has been a fantasy threat for longer than I’ve been playing. His receiving yards haven’t dipped below a grand in seven seasons, and there’s no reason to believe that he’s due for a decline this year. The offense will be the same in its second season under Trestman, who will look to add plays and variations on his hyper-aggressive offense. It’s the same argument that I’ll be making in the next article for Larry Fitzgerald, and very much applies to the Chicago offense as well.
5. Julio Jones – Atlanta 
If forced into a moment of honesty, I’d disclose that the differences between Thomas, Bryant, Marshall, and Jones are minimal at their most extreme. Each one of these is a very solid number one. The frankenstein-esque bucket of metal parts in his foot is the only reason Jones is at the bottom of the group. If you draft Calvin in the first round, there’s a very compelling argument for getting the last guy in this group of four in round two.
6. Jordy Nelson – Green Bay 
Drafting Jordy Neldon is like buying a four-year-used Toyota Camry. You’re gonna have a very comfortable, safe, productive time. You’re gonna get reliability without a lot of thrills, spectacle, or fanfare. You’re gonna be happy with your purchase, without really knowing why. There’s nothing wrong with driving a Camry, in fact it’s probably a good idea. You don’t even have to watch it’s games, that Camry is going to end up getting you 5 to 7 catches, between 70 and 90 yards per game, and a touchdown every other. I’m probably going to end up with a Camry in a lot of my leagues this year.
7. Antonio Brown – Pittsburgh 
Antonio Brown is immensely talented. This talent is being put to good use, despite his stature not really being the picture of a star wide-receiver. Brown is one of only two receivers on this list under six feet tall, in fact he’s the shortest on the list so far by five full inches. What this means is that he has to out-play the opposing defenses. He has to run routes perfectly to pick up looks. Windows don’t just happen for him, he has a harder time winning jump-balls, and big Ben has to throw down to him. When it comes to Antonio Brown, it is very much a hard knock life. He has been able to overcome this with both his aforementioned immense talent, and a crazy number of targets. Based on where he’s being drafted, Brown could be one of the best PPR values in the game.
8. A.J. Green – Cincinnati 
I’m low on A.J. Green. I understand this. I also understand that he’s being thrown to by an underpowered, low rated, ginger quarterback. An underpowered, low rated, ginger quarterback who was being artificially propped up by Jay Gruden. Green can make some serious plays on his own, and will therefore remain in the top ten, but I have a really hard time seeing him put up the type of touchdowns that he did last season.
9. Alshon Jeffery – Chicago 
The first number-two receiver to be covered here, Jeffery exploded onto the scene last year. He was the second option in the revitalized Chicago offense, and accounted for a serious presence on the field opposite Brandon Marshall. Skeptics will argue that Jeffery had his best games while Jay Cutler was on the bench with injury, and that because he will be the starting quarterback again this fall, Jeffery is due for a return to earth. To those people I would offer this: Yes, his franchise record breaking 249 yard game was under McCown. However, the record broken in that game was his own, set earlier that same season. The quarterback in that game? Jay Cutler.
10. Pierre Garcon – Washington 
One of the classic debates in fantasy football is this: does a receiver’s value increase or decrease with better receiving talent playing opposite them on the field? Does the decreased attention from defenses outweigh the potential loss of targets? Does being a peg on a prettier totem pole make one better looking by association, or uglier by comparison? Admittedly without having done a ton of research on this, I fall on the increased value side. I believe that having another serious threat on the field helps a pass catcher far more than it hurts. This is partially why I have Garcon ranked so high. It’s also partially why I’m expecting a bump for Michael Crabtree and Larry Fitzgerald, and why I’m expecting regression from Jordan Cameron.
11. Andre Johnson – Houston 
It’s hard not to like Andre Johnson. He gets a ton of targets, presentsan excellent teammate, and is very consistent in his ability to rack up yards. The question with Johnson in recent years has been the touchdowns. I tend to look for players to move towards their mean production, rather than repeat stand-out seasons. He’s certainly got the standards that one looks for in a touchdown hoarding receiver, and he’s clearly the best air target in the redzone, so it stands to reason that the touchdowns should pick up. Even if they don’t, he will remain a PPR monster, and a pillar at his position.
12. Michael Crabtree – San Francisco 
Moving to a new stadium isn’t the only pretty new thing that Crabtree is getting this season. He’s coming into this Fall healthy and rearing to start reproducing some of the magic of 2012. Playing opposite new talent in Stevie Johnson, and playing in an offense with diverse threats, Crabtree is lining up to have a career year. This will be Kaepernick’s second full season as the starter for the 49ers, and Crabtree is his number one threat. They may be a run-first team, but as I mentioned in the quarterback article, I don’t see their defense being as rock-solid as it was one year ago, and when they need a touchdown to win, these guys call Crabtree’s number.
I’m perfectly fine drafting any of these as my number one receiver, although they clearly stack into different tiers. Draft strategy is an entire article’s worth of a topic, but having one of these twelve on your roster is worth the investment no matter how you divide it. Some of these gentlemen will likely slip to round three or even four and will be a bargain. Look for value, divide the players into tiers mentally, look for the last guy in a given tier, and get some consistency on your roster.