Most fantasy football players agree that there are six elite players at the top of the draft. Three running backs and three wide receivers. The debate is on for which running back; Le’Veon Bell, David Johnson and Ezkiell Elliot is the best option. Similarly, at receiver; Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr. and Julio Jones battle it out for the top spot.
All six of these players are excellent first round choices but I’m going to focus on the receiver trio with the following disclaimer. With several other good wide receiver options I would have a hard time taking any of the three receivers over any of the three running backs even in PPR leagues.
Obviously these three receivers make up the top tier of fantasy receivers. Looking at the numbers from the 2016 season, lets examine the three. Fantasy points scored is based off standard scoring.
Antonio Brown: 106 catches on 155 targets for 1,284 yards and ten touchdowns. Scored 200.4 fantasy points. Had 10 double digit fantasy games in 15 games played.
Odell Beckham Jr: 101 catches on 169 targets for 1,367 yards and ten touchdowns. Scored 196.7 fantasy points. Had 10 double digit fantasy games in 16 games played.
Julio Jones: 83 catches on 129 targets for 1,409 yards and six touchdowns. Scored 176.9 fantasy points. Had nine double digit fantasy games in 14 games played.
Looking at the 2016 stats, each receiver has an argument for being the top one taken in 2017 drafts. Brown finished with the most catches making him the guy you might take in a PPR league. Beckham had the most targets and was the only one to play in all 16 games may take if you value durability and consistency. Jones despite finishing with the least amount of catches and targets finished with the most yards making him the player you might take if you value yards over touchdowns.
However, things have changed to each of these teams since the 2016 season ended and each player has their own concerns. With three players so closely grouped together these little changes and concerns could tilt your pick one way or the other.
Pittsburgh’s offense has remained mostly the same. Ladarius Green and Markus Wheaton were let go in free agency but they are replaced with second round pick JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant, who is returning from a year long suspension. The losses have no affect on Brown’s fantasy production. However, Smith-Schuster and Bryant potential roles might be a concern.
Now let’s all remember Smith-Schuster is a rookie and Bryant is coming off a suspension where if he has one slight slip up his NFL career very well might be over. Neither are going to take a ton of targets away from Brown, but the Steelers may decide to lighten Brown’s workload if possible.
During the 2015, Bryant’s last season playing, Brown put up 136 catches on 195 targets for 1,834 yards and ten touchdowns while playing in all 16 games. Bryant that year had 50 catches on 92 targets for 765 yards and six touchdowns while playing in only 11 games. In conclusion Brown had his best fantasy season of his career despite Bryant playing 11 games.
The difference is Brown is now two years older with more mileage on his body and the Steelers want to protect his long term health. Bryant is going into a contract year and is looking for a long term deal. Bryant is an expected break out player this year and has always had the talent. Typically receivers either pop or show to be a bust by their third season. With Bryant’s big play ability it will take away some deeper throws from Brown.
Smith-Schuster gives the Steelers a bigger and more physical receiver on the outside the team has lacked for a while now. Smith-Schuster might steal a few red zone touchdowns from Brown but outside of that isn’t a real threat to hurt Brown’s fantasy value.
The biggest concern for Brown is his production with Ben Roethlisberger on and off the field. In the last two seasons Roethlisberger has missed five games that Brown played in. During those five games Brown only averaged 6.8 fantasy points per game. A steep drop off verse his normal numbers. While Roethlisberger’s history of being somewhat injury prone is a factor in drafting Brown it doesn’t take him out of the conversation as the top fantasy wide receiver.
Despite more mouths to feed in this high powered Steelers offense, it still flows through Brown first and foremost. Don’t expect much of a drop off fantasy wise for Brown this season. He should be good for over 100 catches for 1,300 yards and about ten touchdowns this season.
Beckham has always been the focal point of the Giants offense since being drafted in 2014. That was in part cause the team lacked play makers outside of him. However, this off season the Giants took a step forward offensively.
Brandon Marshall was signed at the start of free agency and Evan Engram was the team’s first round draft pick. Sterling Shepard is coming off a solid rookie season and the team expects him to take the next step in his development this season.
With more weapons on offense it means less targets for Beckham. It also means less double teams or so you would think. Beckham has shown to be one of the most explosive receivers in the league and can change the game in a single play. With that ability expect opposing defenses to try and contain Beckham even if another receiver is having a strong game.
The thought might be, “well Beckham was doubled all last season so his stats should be similar”. That would be wrong. The Giants didn’t have any other weapon they trusted and forced feed him his targets. Beckham caught only 60% of his targets; much lower than Brown and Jones. With more weapons that Eli Manning can trust the Giants won’t be forced to throw at Beckham when he is double teamed as often.
Because of his big play ability, Beckham can make one catch and turn it in a big play for the Giants and your fantasy team. However, with more options around him this season he won’t be forced fed so many targets and therefor lowering his fantasy production from last season. Expect about 90 catches for 1,200 yards and eight touchdowns for Beckham this season.
Coming off a tough Superbowl loss, the Falcons made no impact changes to their offense during the offseason. However, Kyle Shanahan is now the 49ers head coach and has been replaced with former USC head coach Steve Sarkisian. The team has stated that the offense hasn’t change much and nor should it.
Jones’ is expected to be the focal point of the offense again this season. With no changes to the supporting cast Jones will have similar production as last season. The problem with Jones is always risk of injury and it affecting his play.
In six seasons, Jones has only played 16 games twice and while he has played 13 or more games in five of six season he often plays injured. Normally players toughening it out and playing is a good thing but not for your fantasy team.
Over the past few years Jones has played games seriously hurt and it affected his fantasy production. Usually with less talented players, fantasy owners just sit the injured player for a healthy one. However; can you do that with your top six pick? That’s a tough call, especially when you get burned with it week to week. Injury is always the risk with Jones but it’s a risk worth taking.
Another concern for Jones is his lack of catches and touchdowns. In PPR leagues the catches should concern you; Jones has only two seasons with 100 plus catches. For standard leagues touchdowns are gold and Jones only scored over eight touchdowns once, with ten in 2012. However, Sarkisian has stated that the team wants to get Jones more red zone targets this season. Hopefully an uptick in red zone targets will mean an increase in touchdowns.
Both of these critical stats fall short compare to Brown and Beckham Jr. However, Julio has the best height, weight and speed combo of the three making him the most dangerous when picking up yards. With no changes to the supporting cast expect Jones to put up similar numbers to least season. If Jones can play a full 16 games he should produce around 90 catches for 1,400 yards and eight touchdowns.
Again all three of these receivers are excellent choices but all come with their concerns. For me given their pros and cons I am taking Brown first, Jones second and Beckham Jr. third. Brown is clearly the top receiver for me while Jones and Beckham Jr. is a close call. I worry more about the added weapons around Beckham Jr. than I do about Jones’ injury history.