By Ryan Mayer
The advent of NFL training camps is almost upon us as rookies begin to report at the end of this week. With the return of football comes the return of our favorite form of legal sports betting, fantasy football. As you scour the internet for the latest news and rankings getting ready for your league’s draft, we’ll be providing you lists of the top fantasy prospects by position for this season. Today, we take a look at the guys with the best hands in the league. All fantasy point totals come from CBS Sports rankings.
1) Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers
Brown had a borderline insane season last year. He caught 136 of the 193 passes thrown his way (70.4%) for 1,834 yards and 10 touchdowns. That was good for 245 fantasy points, which works out to a little over 15 fantasy points per week. Keep in mind by the way, that the production for Brown came despite Ben Roethlisberger missing four games entirely and part of a fifth. Also working in Brown’s favor? Martavis Bryant is suspended the first four games of the season. Those targets have to go somewhere.
Brown will cede some of his targets this year to Le’Veon Bell, who the Steelers hope returns fully healthy after tearing his ACL last year. The addition of LaDarius Green, who was perpetually underused in San Diego could also cut into his targets a bit. But, with a talent like Brown, the team is going to find a way to get him the football.
2) Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons
Jones actually led the league in receiving yards last season with 1,871. He started off the year hot and on pace to break Calvin Johnson’s single-season record for receiving yards before tailing off in Weeks 4 & 5. He resumed his normal production after that and wound up producing 233 (14.5 average) fantasy points for owners last season. He had the same number of receptions as Brown (136), making him a dominant option in PPR leagues as well.
Mohammed Sanu was added to the roster to attempt to take some of the workload off of Jones’ shoulders but, he’ll still be Ryan’s favorite target. With a more solidified offensive line following the addition of center Alex Mack, the Falcons should be able to give more time to Ryan as well, which in turn could mean Jones running roughshod over more secondaries this season.
3) Odell Beckham Jr., New York Giants
Beckham has established himself as a Top 5 receiver in the league in just two seasons. He’s averaged 93.5 receptions for 1,377.5 yards and 12.5 TDs in those two years. Last season he ranked 5th among receivers in fantasy points last season (223 total, 13.9 average). He’s established himself as the number one read for Eli Manning and as long as he can stay out of fights with Josh Norman when those two meet up this year, you should expect the same level of production.
The Giants are hoping to have Victor Cruz back finally this year and they drafted Sterling Shepard out of Oklahoma in hopes of trying to take some of the pressure off of Beckham and draw some of the coverage away from him. The second leading receiver on the Giants last year was Shane Vereen followed by Rueben Randle, who is no longer with the team.
4) Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys
Bryant was injured last season and missed seven games. Add that to the fact that he played very few games with starting QB Tony Romo and you have a recipe for why Bryant put up just 31 receptions for 401 yards and three touchdowns. That meant that fantasy owners who drafted Bryant with the expectation of WR No. 1 production, instead got 58 total fantasy points, or just 6.4 per game he played.
Now for the good news. Romo is expected to be back fully healthy, playing behind one of the most dominant offensive lines in all of football. The team added a potential top running back in Ezekiel Elliott, who should force defenses to bring another defender into the box. That draws coverage away from Bryant who should also be fully healthy this season. That all adds up to Bryant returning to WR No. 1 levels of production for this fantasy season.
5) AJ Green, Cincinnati Bengals
AJ Green has been one of the most consistent number one receiver options since entering the league six years ago now. He’s never had less than 1,000 yards or less than 65 receptions in a season. His lowest touchdown total for a year is six, which came in 2014 when he missed three games due to injury. Last year he was 7th among receivers in fantasy points with 187 (11.6 average). That came despite starting QB Andy Dalton missing the final three games of the season due to injury.
This year, Dalton will be back healthy and the Bengals lost their 2nd and 5th leading receivers in Marvin Jones and Mohammed Sanu. The team brought in Brandon Lafell and drafted Tyler Boyd/Cody Core to try and replace that production, but until Dalton gets comfortable with those guys expect more targets to go Green’s way.
6) DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans
Hopkins could be higher on this list without a doubt. With a combination of Ryan Mallett, Brian Hoyer, TJ Yates and Brandon Weeden at QB last season Hopkins managed to haul in 111 catches for 1,521 yards and 11 touchdowns. He was targeted 192(!) times. His 220 fantasy points ranked 6th in the league among receivers.
Hopkins will be working with another new QB this season as Brock Osweiler, owner of a shiny new $75 million contract, which could be good or bad. Osweiler looks to be a significant improvement over what Hopkins has had to work with at the QB spot in his young career. But, there’s always a question of how long it takes for these guys to get fully on the same page. The development of Jaelen Strong and Will Fuller as secondary options would help draw some coverage away from Hopkins.
7) Jordy Nelson, Green Bay Packers
Nelson missed all of last season after tearing his ACL during the course of preseason. It was very evident during the Packers struggles in the latter half of the season that they missed Nelson’s ability to use his body positioning and strength to get open for Aaron Rodgers. The Packers will be hoping for a return of the Nelson from 2014 who hauled in 98 receptions for 1,519 yards and 13 touchdowns.
The biggest question mark with Nelson is his age in recovering from the injury. He’ll be 31 this season. Whether or not he’s able to show up fully recovered will determine how valuable he is in fantasy. However, with the way that recovery from ACL surgeries has trended in recent years, it would seem likely that Nelson, a full year removed from the surgery, will be able to return at top strength.
8) Allen Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars
With Blake Bortles breaking out in his sophomore season last year came the break out of two receivers for the Jaguars as well. Robinson and Allen Hurns each broke out as well in their second NFL seasons, both producing over 1,000 yards. Robinson was the more productive of the two putting up 80 receptions for 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns. That was good for 224 fantasy points (14 per game average), which was 4th in the league.
Hurns got rewarded with a new contract this offseason, Robinson and the team haven’t come to terms on a new deal yet. So, there’s a little extra motivation to prove that last year was no fluke for him as he enters this year. One area that would surely help fantasy owners would be the improvement in his catch percentage. His 80 receptions were good, but he was targeted 151 times last year which means he caught just 53 percent of the balls thrown his way. If he can up that into the 58-60 range, fantasy owners will be praising him all season long.
9) Alshon Jeffery, Chicago Bears
Jeffery spent much of last season dealing with a nagging hamstring injury that limited his production to just 54 catches for 807 yards and four touchdowns. That production came in just nine games, which means had Jeffery been able to play the full season he likely would have been near 100 catches and 1,500 yards on the year. Jeffery was perfectly healthy in 2013-14 not missing a game.
Jeffery has a big carrot dangling in front of him this year in that he’s playing on the franchise tag and hasn’t been given a long term deal. A return to his production from 2013 and 2014 would put him in line for a nice pay day next spring. The most interesting thing is that Jeffery was the Bears leading receiver last year despite missing seven full games. That should tell you how much an offense that ranked 23rd in the NFL in passing yards per game (222.8).
10) Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Evans has put up 1,000 yard seasons in each of his first two years as a pro while averaging 71 catches. Now entering his third year and having had a full year of work to develop chemistry with QB Jameis Winston, Evans should be even more productive. He had just three touchdowns last season which disappointed anyone who had him on their team, but I would expect that number to be more towards the 12 that he recorded in his rookie season. Due to those three touchdowns he was just 27th in the league in fantasy points from the receiver spot at 136.
The Bucs added guard JR Sweezy in an attempt to improve the offensive line which can only help Winston and Evans connect more if Winston has more time to look over the field. While they do have a new head coach in Dirk Koetter, Koetter was the QB coach for Winston and the two developed a lot of trust which should help him continue to grow and therefore give Evans more opportunities to shine.
Snubs/Other Players To Watch
Brandon Marshall, New York Jets
I know I know Jets fans. Marshall had that 3rd best fantasy football season of any wide receiver last year when he racked up 109 receptions for 1,502 yards and 14 touchdowns, good for 230 fantasy points. So why does he find himself outside of the top 10? The answer is twofold. One, the Jets have no idea who their QB will be. Negotiations with Ryan Fitzpatrick remain at a standstill and the three options on their roster (Geno Smith, Bryce Petty, Christian Hackenberg), don’t exactly inspire confidence. Secondly, Marshall is now 32 years old and at some point those numbers are going to decline. He’ll still put up numbers this year, but I don’t expect it to be anywhere near last year’s otherworldly stats.
Sammy Watkins, Buffalo Bills
Watkins is exciting when he’s actually on the field. He missed three games last season and reports during this offseason haven’t exactly been encouraging for anyone expecting him to be 100 percent this year. If he can be on the field for a full 16 games this season, fantasy owners can likely expect somewhere between 1,000 and 1,300 yards and 8-12 touchdowns.
Amari Cooper, Oakland Raiders
Cooper had the kind of rookie year that many expected from him after Oakland took him with the 4th overall pick in last year’s draft. 72 catches, 1,070 yards and six touchdowns led to him being the 23rd best receiver in the league in terms of fantasy points at 141. Producing those kinds of numbers as a rookie is impressive. With Cooper and QB Derek Carr having a full year working with each other under their belt, expect bigger and better numbers from Cooper.
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.