Fantasy News & Analysis

Hartitz: 2021 Fantasy Football Wide Receiver Tiers

Dec 27, 2020; Green Bay, Wisconsin, USA; Green Bay Packers wide receiver Davante Adams (17) reacts after catching a pass for a first down in the fourth quarter during the game against the Tennessee Titans at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Fantasy football rankings are cool, but sometimes they aren’t necessarily the most helpful tool for doing a little something the cool kids like to call winning. Median projections become the main tool for lining up each individual player, which can lead to -EV scenarios where those not willing to stray from their faithful ranks fail to capitalize on a better choice available because of how their specific draft played out.

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Additionally, it’s simply wishful thinking to expect to rank hundreds of footballers with pinpoint accuracy: Coaches will hold back promising rookies, injuries will take away some of our favorite talents and even people paid to write about the game like myself will inevitably miss on more than a few players ahead of any season.

It’s with this in mind that I present to you my 2021 fantasy football tiers based on redraft leagues. The general scoring I had in mind was half-point PPR in typical one-QB, non-TE premium formats. Players in the tiers are listed in order of who I would prefer first; just realize their standing in the same group reflects the reality that I’m not overly confident in picking one over the other. (Find my 2021 fantasy football quarterback tiers here and running back tiers here.)

Tier 1: Huge target projections for Grade-A ballers (5)

Davante Adams, A.J. Brown, Tyreek Hill, Stefon Diggs, DeAndre Hopkins

Adams racked up 176 targets in 16 games last season (including playoffs). There’s a chance that with better overall health he flirts with a target total beginning with a two, and we already know that few mortals are in Adams’ league when it comes to pure route-running ability. The Packers’ undisputed No. 1 WR outscored last season’s PPR WR2 Tyreek Hill by a whopping 4.36 additional fantasy points per game. Even a nightmare scenario where Aaron Rodgers takes his talents elsewhere wouldn’t necessarily sink Adams considering he functioned as the PPR WR12 in Weeks 6-14 in 2017 when forced to play with Brett Hundley while Rodgers was sidelined.

Next season will be AJB *the* WR1 szn if Adams does unfortunately lose his stud QB. You won’t find two passing games more concentrated around their No. 1 WRs than Green Bay and Tennessee; the latter added even less competition during the 2020 offseason. Brown turns 24 in June, yet has already established himself as one of the position’s best with top-four marks in both yards per route run (2.66) and PFF receiving grade (91) since entering the league in 2019. AJB has posted 10-151-1, 8-114-1, 7-112-1, 4-101-1, 6-83-1 and 7-82-1 receiving lines in six career games with more than eight targets; it’s scary to think of what’s he’s capable of achieving with the sort of legit No. 1 WR workload that is on the way in 2021.

Only Adams (22) and Michael Thomas (19.9) have averaged more PPR points per game than Hill (19.8) since Patrick Mahomes took over under center in 2018. The presence of Travis Kelce is the only reason why the artist known as Tyfreak isn’t guaranteed for 150-plus targets; just realize we have more than enough examples of 1) Hill offering special big-play ability, and 2) Mahomes being a god, to feel fine about the slightly reduced volume relative to other top receivers. Don’t be surprised if the Chiefs try to get Hill more involved as a rusher after largely declining to invest any real sort of resources into the position this offseason.

Nobody had more targets than Diggs (162) in 2020. The floor was the roof for him throughout the year; only Adams (10), DeAndre Hopkins (8) and Hill (7) had more weeks as a top-12 WR. Diggs caught at least six passes in all but one game last season; his “worst” fantasy performances were going 4-49-1 against the Rams and 7-39-0 against the Chargers. The reality that Diggs generally went about his business with style reflected the reality that he’s one of the game’s best at his position; treat him as such in fantasy land with another 150-plus targets from Josh Allen inbound.

Hopkins shocked the world with his absurd Hail Mary catch over three Bills defenders, but otherwise seemed to almost put up a “quiet” 115-1,407-6 campaign. The potential for positive TD regression in his second season with Kyler Murray is easy to get behind, while the floor is already sky high. Nuk had at least 10 targets in nine games last season — tied for the fourth-highest mark in the league. I’m skeptical that fake sharp Kliff Kingsbury finds a way to heavily utilize A.J. Green or pint-sized playmaker Rondale Moore; look for Hopkins to again push for the league lead in basically every receiving category. 

Tier 2: Overall WR1 outcome still a possibility (3)

Michael Thomas, D.K. Metcalf, Keenan Allen

I understand not naming Thomas as the single-best WR in the league, but the slander thrown his way has been ridiculous for the better part of the last 12 months. Most critics lob out the criticism of “slant boy” like it’s Thomas’ problem that he’s been so dominant with a specific route. First of all, Thomas possesses a far wider route tree than most Twitter trolls would expect. Second of all, we’ve seen him forced to play with late-career Drew Brees, Taysom Hill and Teddy Bridgewater: three signal-callers with objectively below-average arm talent (at this stage in the former’s career). When asked to win downfield, Thomas has, catching 33 of 36 (92%) catchable targets thrown at least 20 yards downfield since entering the league in 2016 — the fourth-highest mark among 64 qualified receivers. The man has posted a 16-game pace of 128-1589-5 in nine games without Brees over the past two seasons; buy the healthy version of Thomas in fantasy leagues of all shapes and sizes in 2021. The only reason why he isn’t in Tier 1 for me is the faint possibility that Hill winds up being the Saints’ starting QB.

We’ve only really seen Metcalf “shut down” on one occasion: his 3-21-0 line on nine targets against the 49ers in Week 17. Note that the extra attention he received that afternoon was likely an after effect of his 12-161-2 performance against the Seahawks’ NFC West rival back in Week 8. Sure, previous matchups against Patrick Peterson and Jalen Ramsey didn’t produce huge box score tallies, but he also wasn’t afford more than five targets most of those games: Don’t confuse Russell Wilson’s tendency to not target elite corners (in this life or the last) with Metcalf having trouble defeating them. We saw the likes of Stephon Gilmore (4-92-1), Tre’Davious White (7-109-1) and Darius Slay (10-177-0) all fail in attempting to contain Metcalf; his combination of size and speed makes him more or less matchup proof. The Seahawks can talk all they want about wanting to run the ball more, but at the end of the day their defense might not be good enough to dictate the game’s pace. Equipped with a future Hall of Fame QB and middling target competition, expect Metcalf to once again see upwards of 125 targets, which is a scary proposition for defenders of all shapes and sizes.

Allen was largely written off as too injury prone to draft after playing in just nine games during the 2015-2016 seasons. All he’s done since is rip off 102-1393-6, 97-1196-6, 104-1199-6 and 100-992-8 receiving lines while missing just two combined games. Allen did average a career-low 9.9 yards per reception with Justin Herbert in 2020, although his corresponding career-high 10.5 targets per game were more than enough to still make him a fantasy stud. It’s also worth noting that Allen had 1) eight targets in Week 1 with Tyrod Taylor under center, 2) two targets in Week 5 after being forced to exit with an injury 12 snaps into the game, and 3) three targets in Week 15 after suffering an injury 24 snaps into the game. There’s no question Allen has the talent, QB and volume to be a top-five fantasy receiver; the only reason why he isn’t higher is due to his demonstrated relatively lower yardage and TD ceilings compared to his fellow WR1 peers.

Tier 3: Alpha receivers, even if there might be two of them in the same offense (8)

Justin Jefferson, Terry McLaurin, Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, Calvin Ridley, Julio Jones, Diontae Johnson, Allen Robinson

Jefferson didn’t just have an exceptional rookie season in 2020; he established himself as a legit top-10 WR regardless of age. Overall, only Davante Adams (2.96) averaged more yards per route run than Jefferson (2.66). The reality that he did so while consistently displaying nuanced route-running ability is even more impressive; Jefferson deserves to be a top-two fantasy WR in dynasty formats of all shapes and sizes. The only reason I have him lower here is due to the potential for him again to see a target total closer to 125 than 150. Kirk Cousins does a good job focusing target share on Jefferson and Adam Thielen; the problem is that, as opposed to the Seahawks and Titans, I expect the Vikings to boast an improved defense next season and thus be able to run the ball more than they did in 2020. Remember: Stefon freaking Diggs only saw 94 targets in 2019 despite Thielen only playing 10 games. Expect Jefferson to remain a top-10 real life receiver; I’m just concerned about his chances of vaulting into the top-five in fantasy land in the immediate future.

The artist known as McLaurin F1 has ripped off 58-919-7 and 87-1118-4 receiving lines to start his career despite catching passes from a mix of Dwayne Haskins, Kyle Allen, Alex Smith, Case Keenum, Colt McCoy and Taylor Heinicke. Sheesh. Ryan Fitzpatrick is objectively the best QB of McLaurin’s career, and he has a history of enabling high-end fantasy WR1s. Overall, Fitzpatrick’s No. 1 WR has posted target totals of 128, 128, 137, 134, 141, 146, 148 and 173 in his eight seasons with double-digit starts. We should probably expect the target total to be on the lower side of those numbers considering the presence of Curtis Samuel, Dyami Brown and the Football Team’s loaded defense, but make no mistake about it people: McLaurin F1 WR1 szn is alive and well; treat him as such in fantasy drafts this instant.

Cooper (WR8) and Lamb (WR11) were both among the top-12 PPR producers at their position with Dak Prescott under center in Weeks 1-5 last season. With all due respect to Michael Gallup (WR33): it’s clear Prescott prioritizes his $100 million man as well as the team’s overqualified slot. This offense scored 17, 40, 31, 38 and 37 points in Prescott’s five starts; there’s more than enough pass-game volume to go around for two fantasy WR1s. Over the past 10 years there have been 14 instances of a pair of WRs on the same team finishing as top-12 PPR performers; I’m betting on Cooper and Lamb becoming the 15th such duo in 2021.

Ridley broke out in a major way in 2020, converting 143 targets into a 90-1374-9 receiving line. Yes, he benefited from Julio Jones missing seven games and being limited by injuries in two others. Also yes, Ridley posted 9-130-2, 7-109-2, 6-61-1, 5-69-1 and 5-108-0 receiving lines in five games that both Ridley and Jones played at least 50% of the offense's snaps. We largely saw Julio maintain his dominance when healthy: only Davante Adams (2.96), Justin Jefferson (2.66) and A.J. Brown (2.65) averaged more yards per route run than Jones among 84 WRs with at least 50 targets. Father time is undefeated, and Jones turned 32 in February, but I’m fine treating both receivers as borderline WR1s in an offense that has proven plenty capable of enabling multiple high-end fantasy options in the passing game. Note that Ridley wouldn’t lose much (if any) fantasy steam if the unthinkable happens and Jones is traded. Having to deal with Jones adjusting to a new QB wouldn’t be ideal, although there are a handful of ideal landing spots (Green Bay, Tennessee, Las Vegas, New Orleans) that wouldn’t impact his standing, either.

There was a scenario where Johnson would be up a tier if JuJu Smith-Schuster had signed elsewhere. Either way: Diontae deserves to be treated as a borderline WR1 thanks to volume and demonstrated baller ability.

Yes, Johnson needs to not drop the ball as much. Also yes, there’s a long list of great receivers that also have a double-digit drop campaign on their record. In fantasy land we don’t lose points for drops, and using the metric as a raw total tends to highlight receivers that get open more so than players that absolutely suck at catching. Ultimately, Johnson had at least 10 targets in all but one of his 12 games not impacted by injury with Ben Roethlisberger under center; targeting playmakers with high-end volume is good for the fantasy business.

A-Rob is back in an offense that has afforded him more than 150 targets in each of the past two seasons. We know Robinson is a special receiver capable of making the most out of a bad situation; the question is whether he can continue to function as a high-end fantasy receiver with 1) Andy Dalton, or 2) rookie-year version of Justin Fields, under center. I realize A-Rob has been just fine throughout his collegiate and professional career despite having to deal with the likes of Christian HackenbergMatt McGloinBlake BortlesChad HenneChase DanielMitchell Trubisky, Chase Daniel and Nick Foles, but we’ve even seen the likes of DeAndre Hopkins succumb to especially poor QB play before (see: Osweiler, Brock). I’m betting on Robinson not suffering too much; he’s inside my top-16 WRs after all. Still, there’s only so much one receiver can take when it comes to a constant carousel; I’d prefer to target my WR1s and high-end WR2s from more proven high-end offenses when possible.

Tier 4: Unfortunate volume and/or QB concerns are the only reason they’re this low (13)

Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Tyler Lockett, Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd, DeVonta Smith, D.J. Moore, Adam Thielen, Kenny Golladay, Odell Beckham

Evans and Godwin are both real life No. 1 WRs that unfortunately should be treated as WR2s in fantasy land due to volume concerns. Evans had more games with fewer than five targets in 2020 (7) as he did in 2014-2019 combined (5), and Godwin had at least eight targets in just six games in 2020 after having 10 such contests last season in two fewer games. We have a 12-game sample of Tom Brady with each of the top-three receivers in the lineup; each of Godwin (113), Evans (112) and Antonio Brown (99) had good-not-great 16-game target paces. All three receivers have a fighter’s chance at scoring double-digit TDs; just realize the additions of O.J. Howard and Giovani Bernard could further lower the weekly target ceiling for every WR involved. Look no further than the Super Bowl for an example of what this offense can do when able to get everyone involved alongside an elite defensive effort: Evans (1-31-0), Godwin (2-9-0) and Brown (5-22-1) combined for just 11 targets. The floor for each is more than solid inside of an offense expected to finish among the league’s top-five scoring units; that doesn’t mean each receiver won’t have more disappointing weeks than the public might realize.

Lockett had about the “worst” 100-1054-10 season in recent memory. Yes, Lockett finished as the overall WR8 and WR12 in PPR points per game. Also yes, he had as many weekly finishes inside the top 12 WRs (5) as he did outside the top 60. The poor performances in December have hurt over the past two seasons, but let’s not act like the man isn’t a great football player. Lockett has missed just one game since entering the league in 2015 and has ripped off 57-965-10, 82-1,057-8 and 100-1,054-10 receiving lines over the past three years, functioning as one of the position’s most-efficient talents along the way. His recent four-year, $69.2 million contract extension reinforces the reality that he’s still very much in line for triple-digit targets from Russell Wilson. Russ has cooked enough to throw at least 30 TDs in five of the last six seasons. Obviously, D.K. Metcalf will get his, but the discrepancy in ADP between the Seahawks’ undisputed top two WRs is unwarranted — particularly in best-ball formats that allow us to not sweat the inevitable down weeks as much.

The Rams have a bevy of options at No. 3 WR between Van Jefferson, DeSean Jackson and Tutu Atwell, but Woods and Kupp are again expected to work as the offense’s top-two target hogs. This has produced large roles for both the artist known as Bobby Trees (130, 139 and 129 targets since 2018) and Kupp (55 in 8 games, 134 and 124), although it’s worth noting Woods has had a commanding 60-10 lead in rush attempts during this span. The presence of Matthew Stafford, combined with their newfound source of field-stretching receivers in D-Jax and Atwell, could feasibly increase both receivers' efficiency. I’m not overly optimistic in the Rams needing to participate in weekly shootouts with their defense likely (again) being excellent, but at least we know Sean McVay has historically been just fine with producing multiple fantasy-relevant receivers.

Joe Burrow led the NFL in pass attempts before getting injured as a rookie. If any offense is capable of enabling three top-24 PPR WRs, it might as well be this one. I’m buying Chase’s rookie year ceiling being the roof; it’s tough to pass on him if he’s as good of a prospect as most think, and he’s fully expected to see A.J. Green’s departed 104 targets. Throw in the past LSU connection with Burrow, and I’m willing to ride with Chase as the Bengals’ WR1 in fantasy land. Of course, Higgins and Boyd shouldn’t be too far behind. The former rising second-year receiver impressed throughout 2020 and might just be the favorite to (again) lead this offense in receiving scores, while the latter has posted consistent 76-1028-7, 90-1046-5 and 79-841-4 receiving lines over the past three seasons. I’m buying basically anybody involved in this ascending offense; most are still being priced closer to their median outcome as opposed to their ceiling in fantasy land.

Yes, Smith doesn’t possess the sort of size that we would prefer. Also yes, he possesses every notable on-field skill that an elite WR should have. Obviously playing in an offense that sets up Smith for extra success with pre-snap motion and slot usage would be preferred; just realize the Heisman Trophy-winner might just be the sort of blue-chip talent that winds up being the exception to the rule. Jalen Hurts threw for over 300 yards in two of his four starts from last season; he’s hardly incapable as a passer. Smith projects to immediately lead this offense in targets, and that total has the potential to be quite high if Hurts decides to lean on his former teammate far more than anyone else.

Somehow still just 24 years old, Moore has posted back-to-back 87-1175-4 and 66-1193-4 receiving lines despite having to deal with the likes of Kyle Allen and Teddy Bridgewater. Seriously, Moore joined Jerry Jeudy as my top-two most-unlucky receivers from 2020 based on their plethora of uncatchable targets. Unfortunately, it’s far from a given that this metric will improve for Moore in 2021 with Sam Darnold under center. At the end of the day, DJM has at least already proven capable of clearing the century mark in this offense despite mediocre QB performance, and the potential for more snaps in the slot could better accentuate his rare after-the-catch ability. An elite QB and more condensed target share would push Moore into WR1 territory, but I’m still fine going after him as a borderline WR2 thanks to the reality that play-caller Joe Brady knows it’s in the team’s best interests to get this man the ball.

Thielen joins Lockett as another technically No. 2 WR that was a WR1 in fantasy land last season. It only took Thielen 108 targets to rack up 74 receptions for 925 yards and 14 (!!!) scores. He’ll turn 31 in August, and it’d make sense if those TDs are more evenly spread out between him and Jefferson this time around, but Kirk Cousins’ longtime stud receiver remains set up for triple-digit targets after the team largely declined to invest any serious resources into their WR room. This offense should continue to run through Dalvin Cook; just realize Cousins has averaged 30.3 passing TDs during his three seasons in Minnesota, and Thielen remains the favorite to lead the way in receiving scores. Look for Jefferson to win out over Thielen a bit more in 2021 than he did in 2020; it still wouldn’t be surprising for both Vikings WRs to finish among the position’s top-24 producers.

Golladay looked like his usual self when healthy in 2020, generally skying above whichever poor defender happened to be near by in order to make another spectacular catch. All in all, he posted 6-57-1, 4-62-1, 4-105-0 and 6-114-0 in his only four healthy games despite never getting more than eight targets in any individual contest. Now the Giants have 72 million reasons to feed the 27-year-old talent all the targets he can handle. Concerns over Golladay’s separation ability are probably overblown considering his demonstrated high-end contested-catch ability. Overall, he joins Michael Thomas, Chris Godwin and Stefon Diggs as the only wide receivers to catch at least 60% of their contested targets since 2017 among 81 qualified players. Nobody has a higher PFF receiving grade than Golladay (96.8) on contested targets since he entered the league. It’s more likely Daniel Jones is bad than good, and I don’t love chasing anybody involved with Jason Garrett, but Golladay is the sort of talent that might be capable of outperforming recent high-priced WR additions.

Let’s get one thing clear: OBJ was anything but washed during the year 2020.

Unfortunately, Beckham was limited to just seven games after tearing his ACL on his second snap of Week 7. Previously, he was on pace for an underwhelming 107 targets, but I’m buying the idea that Baker Mayfield will be pressed into a larger role in his second year inside of Kevin Stefanski’s offense after finishing the season strong. Ideally we get the patient version of Mayfield alongside the healthy version of his No. 1 WR. We’ve seen Mayfield target his first read on just 58% of his dropbacks in 22 games with Beckham over the past two seasons compared to 63% without. Only Aaron Rodgers posted a better PFF passing grade than Mayfield when targeting the first read after Week 7. It’s tough to stop Mayfield when he identifies an open receiver in rhythm; just realize the best version of this Browns offense would consist of this mindset *with* a coverage-shifting talent like Beckham making things even easier for the passing game’s complementary options. I don’t blame folks for prioritizing other receivers in this range; just realize the best version of the OBJ-Baker partnership remains capable of producing fantasy WR1 results.

Tier 5: It’s unfortunate there’s only one football to go around (12)

Robby Anderson, Courtland Sutton, Brandon Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel, Curtis Samuel, D.J. Chark, Laviska Shenault, Antonio Brown, Jaylen Waddle, Will Fuller, Chase Claypool, JuJu Smith-Schuster

Anderson actually played more in the slot than Moore last season; there’s a perfectly real scenario where the ex-Jets talent once again emerges as Sam Darnold’s No. 1 WR. We shall see. The connection was largely flawed by a constant dose of mis-thrown deep balls in New York, while the reinsertion of Christian McCaffrey into this offense could soak up a lot of Anderson’s underneath work. Ultimately, I agree with the sentiment that Moore should be projected higher than Anderson, but their present disparity in ADP has me scooping up far more of the latter WR in best-ball land.

We didn’t see much of Sutton in 2020, although he did manage to make his presence felt during his 31 total snaps. Obviously it’d be easier to feel better about Sutton in fantasy land if he 1) had a more stable QB, and 2) wasn’t coming off a torn ACL, but this might represent an opportunity to get one of the game’s more-talented receivers at a steep discount. Recall: Sutton converted 124 targets into a 72-1112-6 receiving line with Joe Flacco, Drew Lock and Brandon Allen throwing him the ball; it can't really get much worse. There’s certainly a chance that having the likes of Jerry Jeudy, K.J. Hamler, Noah Fant and even Tim Patrick condenses the target share of everyone involved; I’m still willing to pounce on Sutton a bit before his ADP in the hopes of catching his *true* breakout campaign. Obviously everyone involved in the Broncos offense would skyrocket up this list if the league’s reigning MVP happens to find his way to Denver.

The 49ers utilized Aiyuk as more of their true No. 1 WR compared to Samuel in terms of general usage. Aiyuk made a habit of making plays all over the field while lined up everywhere, while Samuel wound up with more yards after the catch than total receiving yards due to his RB-esque route tree. Both should be capable of returning borderline WR2 production as long as Jimmy G remains under center, but the potential for Trey Lance to lead more of a run-first offense is burdensome. Throw in the likelihood that George Kittle leads the way in total targets, and I’m a bit lower on both WRs in fantasy land than I would be if asked to be a general manager for a day in real life.

Samuel projects to have a more smooth transition to a new offense than most free agent signees considering his most-diverse usage came in 2019 with ex-Panthers QB coach, now-Washington OC Scott Turner in charge. The biggest perceived knock against Samuel is that he’s not a downfield threat. Well, 2019 film says he wasn’t the problem, and his status as 2020’s No. 1 receiver in passer rate when targeted at least 20 yards downfield should dispel the silly idea that Samuel isn’t capable of doing anything a WR (or RB) is asked to do. The reality that Terry McLaurin is fully expected to work as the offense’s No. 1 pass-game option slightly lowers Samuels’ ceiling; just realize he’s capable of big things as Ryan Fitzpatrick’s No. 2 WR, particularly if we see an additional ~20 rush attempts handed to the millennial version of Percy Harvin.

Both Chark and Shenault are back atop the Jaguars’ pecking order at WR, yet they have the league’s second-most available targets thanks to the departures of guys like Chris Conley and Keelan Cole. Murmurs from Urban Meyer that a Percy Harvin-esque role could be on the way for Travis Etienne, not Viska, are undoubtedly concerning, although even in this scenario we’d be looking at potentially triple-digit targets for the talented second-year playmaker. Chark can and should be considered the passing game’s No. 1 option; just realize there might be enough volume for more than one more than solid fantasy option if 1) Trevor Lawrence is anywhere near as good as many think he is, and 2) the Jaguars defense remains piss poor.

You might not like AB’s actions off the field in recent history, but he still managed to return to the field in 2020 and work as the WR23 in PPR points per game despite at times functioning as the third fiddle behind Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. This might continue, and we could see Brown be the odd man out when the offense wants to get Scotty Miller or Tyler Johnson some reps. Still, AB remains tight with the one person whose opinion truly matters: Tom Brady. Much like Evans and Godwin, I’m hesitant in crowning any of the Bucs WRs as more than low-end WR2 plays due to the likelihood that nobody commands a target share of even 20%. However, the present disparity in ADP between Evans (WR16), Godwin (WR18) and Brown (WR47) makes the latter the easy value and a priority in the later rounds.

Good things happen when Waddle touches the football, and it’s easy to envision him working as former teammate Tua Tagovailoa’s No. 1 receiver from the get go. Of course, Fuller is hardly a slouch in his own right and has the sort of field-stretching speed that can immediately elevate an entire offense. Deshaun Watson has averaged 8.8 yards per attempt vs. 7.6 and 26.1 fantasy points per game vs. 23.1 with Fuller compared to without since 2017, while DeAndre Hopkins was also far better in the fantasy points (20.3 vs. 18.9) and TDs (0.81 vs. 0.43) per game departments with the Texans’ speedster even though he had more targets per game without. Perhaps DeVante Parker winds up leading the way, although we’ve ultimately only seen him put together any sort of prolonged excellence with notable DGAF-gunslinger Ryan Fitzpatrick under center. I question the true ceiling for anyone in this somewhat crowded, potentially low-volume passing game, but both Waddle and Fuller might be special enough talents at the position to make the most out of their (hopeful) low-end triple-digit target totals.

Last season each of Juju (PPR WR16), Diontae Johnson (WR21) and Claypool (WR23) finished as top-24 options at the position. Reasons why we aren’t expecting this to happen again include 1) Johnson emerging as more of the true No. 1 option with better health/hands, 2) some of JuJu’s underneath targets being cycled to Najee Harris, and 3) James Washington continuing to at least take away some of Claypool’s snaps/targets. I’m team Claypool over team JuJu for the simple fact that JuJu hasn’t resembled the same dynamic YAC monster we saw in 2017-2018 for quite some time now; either way, we shouldn’t necessarily have the highest of expectations for anyone not getting absolutely force fed the ball in this likely descending offense.

Tier 6: It probably won’t be anything too special, but you could imagine (14)

Nelson Agholor, Michael Gallup, Jerry Jeudy, Corey Davis, Mike Williams, Cole Beasley, Brandin Cooks, Jarvis Landry, Amon-Ra St. Brown, DeVante Parker, Marquise Brown, Michael Pittman, T.Y. Hilton, Sterling Shepard

Yes, the Agholor crying baby memes are funny. Also yes, he was nothing short of great for most of 2021. The Patriots could feasibly utilize more of a pass-first offense once Mac Jones inevitably takes over for Cam Newton. Even if the transition takes longer than expected, Agholor is the clear-cut No. 1 WR in an offense that was dying to get any sort of high-level play from this position in 2020.

Gallup is a value purely from the reality that he was the PPR WR33 with Dak Prescott under center in Weeks 1-5 last season. He also made more than a few great plays with the team’s various backup QBs, cementing himself as one of those boom-or-bust WR3s that are (wait for it) better in best ball. The Cowboys might have other players that they’ll prioritize more than Gallup; just realize this defense (again) looks awful, and the offense (again) looks damn good.

The most unlucky wide receiver of 2020 was Jerry Jeudy. He didn’t help his own case at times with drops, but too often his pristine route-running ability was wasted by erratic passes and/or bad decision-making under center. It remains to be seen whether or not Drew Lock will again be the starter in Denver next season. Improvement could always come; just be careful before criticizing Jeudy if issues continue and the counting statistics we know he’s capable of achieving fail to come to fruition again in 2021.

Davis finally put together the sort of high-efficiency season in 2020 most hoped would be an annual occasion back when the Titans used the No. 5 overall pick in the 2017 draft to acquire his services. Fine, Davis’ 65-984-4 receiving line wasn’t all that impressive on the surface, but only Davante Adams (2.96), George Kittle (2.84), Justin Jefferson (2.66), A.J. Brown (2.65) and Julio Jones (2.6) averaged more yards per route run than Davis (2.58) among everyone with at least 50 targets. The Jets offense is wide open with a wide range of both good and bad outcomes; good thing Davis is being priced far closer to this floor than ceiling at the moment.

Williams is one of the league’s more accomplished WRs that has never touched triple-digit targets. This didn’t stop him from racking up 10 scores in 2018, or from clearing the century mark in 2019, although we did see a general step back in both departments in 2020. Fear not my fellow Williams truthers: The Chargers’ decision to pick up his fifth-year option reinforces the reality that he’s the favorite to function as Justin Herbert’s No. 2 pass-game option.

Beasley finished 2020 as the PPR WR32 despite playing through a small issue (broken fibula) during the team’s final four games. Don’t let Beasley’s status as a small slot receiver make you think he doesn’t possess boom potential in fantasy land: Only Calvin Ridley (8), Davante Adams (7), Stefon Diggs (7), DeAndre Hopkins (7), Justin Jefferson (7) and Travis Kelce (6) had more games with at least 100 receiving yards than Beasley (5) last season. Look for another more than stellar performance in 2021 with another triple-digit target workload on the way.

Cooks could rise, or fall even further, with news on the Deshaun Watson front. Assuming the Texans’ franchise QB misses at least a decent portion of the 2021 season, it’s hard to get behind Cooks all that much. The inverse of Allen Robinson and Andre Johnson, Cooks has played with Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Jared Goff and Watson during his seven-year career. HIs worst season by far came in 2019 (42-583-2) with the Rams, perhaps not coincidentally coinciding with the worst QB play of his career. I see the potential for Cooks to beat his ADP thanks to good, old fashioned, pure volume; that doesn’t mean you should go out of your way to get anyone involved with this likely dumpster fire of an offense.

Landry is someone that I’m always too low on, although I agree with the general sentiment that he’s an odd fit in Kevin Stefanski’s offense. Expect the YAC specialist to still see his fair share of underneath looks, but the fantasy-friendly deep balls and red-zone opportunities will likely go through OBJ, as they did in Weeks 1-6 last season. Perhaps Landry continues to outperform his ADP, but getting just 101 targets and finishing as the PPR WR36 in a best-case scenario year without Beckham doesn’t strike me as a campaign worth following up on.

The Lions offer more available targets than anybody based on roster turnover. Right meow their top-five WRs under contract consist of Breshad Perriman, Tyrell Williams, Kalif Raymond, Quintez Cephus and Victor Bolden. Look for St. Brown to immediately slide into the slot, where he could function as Jared Goff’s new-look version of Cooper Kupp. This isn’t to suggest that St. Brown is anywhere near ready to resemble a player of Kupp’s caliber from Day 1; this is purely a play on potential volume. I wouldn’t rank St. Brown inside of my top five rookie dynasty receivers, but there simply wasn’t a better situation for any first-year pass-catcher to land in terms of raw pass-game opportunity.

I mentioned my reasoning for projecting Parker lower than Waddle or Fuller in the previous tier; that doesn’t mean the Dolphins’ biggest option on the outside couldn’t mess around and still lead the team in receiving and/or scores. It’s true we’ve only seen Parker put together a great season-long stretch once, but man that 72-1202-9 receiving line in 2019 was a helluva drug.

The artist known as Hollywood Brown ended 2020 on an absolute tear, posting 4-85-1, 5-39-1, 2-50-1, 6-98-0, 4-25-1, 5-41-2, 7-109-0 and 4-87-0 receiving lines from Week 12 through the Divisional Round. The problem: Few fantasy investors benefited from this late-season surge after witnessing Brown (and most of the Ravens’ passing game) largely do nothing during the first 11 weeks of the season. There’s more competition for targets than ever with Rashod Bateman, Tylan Wallace and Sammy Watkins now in town; Brown will need to start posting some larger boom performances to make up for a potentially lower floor moving forward.

None of Hilton (93 targets), Pittman (61) or Zach Pascal (71) managed to gain control of the Colts’ passing game last season. Each is back, along with a potentially healthy version of Parris Campbell. The more concerning factor could be a rather large reduction in QB efficiency. I don’t blame the Colts for chasing the potential of Carson Wentz regaining his 2017 MVP-level form; just realize he was objectively a significantly worse QB than Philip Rivers in every meaningful statistic last season. This offense also enjoys getting its RBs and TEs plenty involved; I’ve only found myself targeting Pittman at cost throughout the offseason.

Shepard was shaping up to be a far bigger value in fantasy land before the Giants brought in Kenny Golladay and spent a first round pick on KaDarius Toney. Still, he should be considered the favorite to finish second on the offense in targets back from the friendly confines of the slot, where he’s been most productive throughout his career. I don’t blame folks for not chasing anyone involved in this Jason Garrett-led offense; just realize few things are more certain than Shepard getting six targets a game, and that’s not expected to change in 2021.

Tier 7: So you’re telling me there’s a chance (13)

Breshad Perriman, Mecole Hardman, Henry Ruggs, Elijah Moore, Denzel Mims, Jalen Reagor, Jamison Crowder, Darnell Mooney, Nico Collins, Rashod Bateman, Christian Kirk, Rondale Moore, Marvin Jones

Perriman has largely played great football with each of the Browns, Buccaneers and Jets since leaving the Ravens; it wouldn’t be surprising if he sees triple-digit targets and leads the Lions in receiving, although it also wouldn’t be shocking if he emerges as more of a complementary field-stretching option.

Hardman has largely done nothing except make the most out of his opportunities over the years; he ranks third in yards per target among all WRs with at least 100 targets since 2019. Somehow it’s not a guarantee he’ll play ahead of Demarcus Robinson and/or Byron Pringle, but a truther can dream (especially with Sammy Watkins gone).

Nobody expected Nelson Agholor to overtake Ruggs as the Raiders’ No. 1 WR in 2020, but here we are. I’m fine buying Ruggs at a steep discount to last season because of the reality that we never saw him truly struggle; the man just never had a game with more than even five targets to work with. This passing game will still go through Darren Waller first and foremost, but I like Ruggs’ chances of beating out Bryan Edwards and John Brown for the No. 2 leader.

There’s a non-zero chance that the Ole Miss product emerges as the best receiver on the Jets early in 2021. The great thing about the Jets offense at the moment is that everyone is priced far closer to their floor than ceiling. This makes them a great best-ball stack in the later rounds; using a pick on Moore presents great upside and low risk at his current reduced ADP, even if expecting a lot from anybody involved in this Jets offense is probably wishful thinking. Ditto for Mims, but I believe Moore to be the better prospect. Reagor could potentially lead this wide-open Eagles offense in targets. I believe that honor will go to DeVonta Smith, or even Dallas Goedert, before Reagor, but you could imagine, and that’s a lot more than most receivers in this range can attest to.

Crowder is seemingly on his way out of New York considering 1) the team can save $10.4 million by releasing him whenever, and 2) they already drafted his replacement in Moore. Of course, signing with a slot-needy team such as the Titans could immediately elevate him back into the WR3 conversation.

Mooney was good enough as a rookie to make some pretty great corners look pretty bad on occasion, although poor QB play was routinely a factor. There isn’t really any meaningful newfound WR competition, although Mooney will likely continue to be more of a boom-or-bust WR4 at best with Tarik Cohen likely soaking up plenty of underneath looks.

Collins is my No. 6 rookie WR; there’s next to zero competition for targets in this offense behind Brandin Cooks, obvious QB concerns aside. Collins has a potentially fantasy-friendly combination of size and contested-catch ability; he could be a huge value if his agility drills are any indication that we’ll see improved route-running skills in an actual NFL offense.

Perhaps Bateman is the No. 1 WR that Lamar Jackson has been missing. Look for the rookie to be a better real life talent than fantasy performer, at least in Year 1. Hollywood is expected to see most of the deep ball looks, and Mark Andrews the red-zone opportunities; there’s only so much we can expect from the passing game of the league’s most run-heavy offense.

The answer to which Cardinals WR to target behind DeAndre Hopkins is probable just: no. Kirk seems like the safer bet to start in three-WR sets over Moore, although Andy Isabella also looms, and we really have no idea what Kliff Kingsbury is thinking, or if his actions are even worth pursuing in fantasy land. 

Jones is on my ageist list of players not to draft. This isn’t to suggest that I’m fading every 31-year-old WR in fantasy land; Jones just had the look of a receiver past his prime in 2021 that only put up numbers because his passing game didn’t have anywhere else to go with the ball. It’d be silly for him to take any sort of meaningful targets away from the Jaguars’ incumbent top two receivers or their electric first-round RB. Of course, Urban Meyer seems to make a more perplexing decision by the day, so maybe I’m wrong and Jones winds up as one of Trevor Lawrence’s top two targets.

Tier eight: No, you’re drunk (13)

Tre’Quan Smith, Josh Reynolds, Kadarius Toney, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Amari Rodgers, Allen Lazard, Scott Miller, Gabriel Davis, Emmanuel Sanders, John Brown, Parris Campbell, K.J. Hamler, Josh Palmer, Dyami Brown

Smith is tentatively the Saints’ No. 2 WR and should be considered the favorite to finish third in targets behind Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara. Here’s to hoping Jameis wins the job.

Reynolds was one of the sneakier winners from the draft; he might just be the Titans’ No. 2 pass-game option. It remains to be seen if that role will be worth a damn, or if AJB simply gets fed every target he can handle.

I’d feel a lot better about Toney making things happen if Jason Garrett wasn’t (again) the man in charge of orchestrating the league’s reigning 31st-ranked scoring offense. 

It might not happen overnight, but I’m guessing by Week 10 we’ll rather have Rodgers than Lazard in fantasy land. Whether or not either will be worth starting is up for debate; gimme MVS and his best-ball friendly weekly boom-or-bust potential.

Miller was one of my favorite best-ball picks before AB re-signed with the Bucs. The overqualified No. 4 WR should still post a few boom performances anyway.

Davis is the favorite to work ahead of Emmanuel Sanders in three-WR sets, but the Bills use enough four-WR sets that each receiver could ultimately cancel each other out as far as fantasy is concerned. 

Smokey Brown starting over Henry Ruggs wouldn’t be the craziest decision made in Jon Gruden’s second tenure with the Raiders, but I think common sense will prevail and the 12th overall pick from the 2020 draft leads the WR room in targets.

Health has been tough to come by for Campbell; here’s to hoping it was more fluky injuries than a sign of things to come in 2019-2020. Either way, the Colts offer a low-ceiling and crowded passing game most likely to produce zero high-end fantasy WRs.

Hamler flashed toward the end of 2020 and possesses some game-changing speed; if only he wasn’t expected to function as the No. 4 pass-game option with either the drug that is Drew Lock or check-down Teddy under center.

Both Palmer and Brown project as hopeful No. 3 field-stretching options in their respectfully solid passing attacks; just realize hoping for anything resembling consistent high-end play is probably a pipe dream for 2020.

Honorable mention

Additional projected starters in three-WR sets that weren’t listed include Russell Gage, A.J. Green, Randall Cobb, Hunter Renfrow, Jakobi Meyers, Sammy Watkins, Rashard Higgins, Tyrell Williams, Zach Pascal and Greg Ward among others; there are simply too many age, health and/or volume concerns to feel at all comfortable with selecting these players with anything resembling a middle-round pick. … My fingers have been crossed for three years straight that Jalen Hurd gets a chance to fulfill his prophecy as Kyle Shanahan’s most-versatile weapon yet; I’ve thought of worse last-round best-ball picks. … Terrace Marshall is a rookie that I don’t expect much from in 2021 due to his status as the offense’s No. 4 pass-game option, but in dynasty land I’d be willing to rank him higher than some of the rookies I have listed in the tiers. … The top-three No. 4 WRs in the NFL are Tim Patrick, Auden Tate and James Washington. Does this mean anything in fantasy land? Not really. … Perhaps one of Van Jefferson, DeSean Jackson or Tutu Atwell cement themselves as the offense’s No. 3 WR; I’m inclined to believe they rotate the trio. … It’d make sense if Darius Slayton is the odd man out in three-WR sets sooner rather than later in the big apple. … Maybe meow is the time to buy the post hype dip on Bryan Edwards; just realize everything behind Darren Waller is a mystery in Las Vegas.

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