NFL North divisions: Wide receiver fantasy investigation

Sunday, Aug 13, 2023 at 12:33 pm ET

Wide receiver production, both in real and fantasy football, is affected by multiple factors, none less than their quarterback. Great talents can struggle to put up numbers while similar talents are making the Pro Bowl in a similar situation. I wanted to see which players are in the best situations and who to target depending on their rankings in fantasy. I am looking at the wide receivers ranked in the top 100 in standard scoring by Fantasy Nerds, going division by division. Most stats are from ESPN, and numbers and rankings are correct as of 8/11/23.

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AFC North

BALBaltimore Ravens

Zay FlowersTop-100 WR: Zay Flowers #46, Odell Beckham #50, Rashod Bateman #54, Laquon Treadwell #90

Lamar Jackson is locked in as Baltimore's quarterback, and the team made some effort to surround him with more receiving talent. Jackson has said he expects to throw more and run less, so there may be more opportunities for Baltimore receivers than in past seasons. Flowers was selected in the first round, and there is an expectation that he will make an early impact as some analysts liked him more than any other receiver in the class.

Bateman is a former first rounder who was a candidate to break out last year, but he played only five full games before suffering an injury and missing the rest of the season. There is still hope for Bateman, but he is sitting out of practice as he continues to heal, and it might take him a while to get back. Treadwell (another former first round pick) is veteran depth, but he won't make an impact in fantasy.

Beckham is a former star, but his name outshines his production at this point in his career. He has dealt with injuries, including missing all of 2022, and he hasn't had 50 catches or 600 yards since 2019. He may be able to show flashes, but consistent production probably won't be there for OBJ.

Verdict: No Ravens receiver appears higher than 46th in the rankings, so the investment won't be costly. Still, the only player I want from this group is Flowers, and that's just a flier. Jackson makes plenty of plays, but receivers haven't thrived in Baltimore lately, so I'm looking elsewhere.

CINCincinnati Bengals

Ja'Marr ChaseTop-100 WR: Ja'Marr Chase #2, Tee Higgins #12, Tyler Boyd #58

Chase is rightly considered one of the best receivers in football, and his status near the top makes perfect fantasy sense. I personally prefer taking running backs early, but Chase is worthy of consideration for the top overall pick if you want to go with a receiver. Joe Burrow's injury status is the only thing that would lower him, but it sounds like Burrow will be back with no issue for Week 1.

Higgins had only 13 less catches, 27 less yards, and two less touchdowns than Chase last year, but he did it in 16 games versus just 12 for Chase. I really like Higgins as a player, but I don't like taking a team's number two receiver in the second or third round. He's a great player, but he doesn't line up with what I want in fantasy.

Boyd has seen his targets, receptions, and yards all decrease in each of the last two seasons since Chase arrived, and he is firmly locked into the WR3 spot on the team. He will still get some opportunities in a good offense, but he is more of an option in case of injury to one of the top two receivers in Cincinnati.

Verdict: Chase and Higgins are well worthy of a spot on your fantasy team, but they don't line up with how I like to draft my team, so I haven't been grabbing them in mock drafts. Chase is a force, though. Boyd is worth a late-round flier and in deep leagues, but he won't be a consistent performer in his current role.

CLECleveland Browns

Amari CooperTop-100 WR: Amari Cooper #16, Elijah Moore #45, Donovan Peoples-Jones #66

The impact of the Cleveland receivers this season probably hinges most on what version of Deshaun Watson the Browns get. Watson was one of the best quarterbacks in football before missing almost two years due to off-field misconduct, but his return for six games last year wasn't inspiring. The Watson who plays this year will probably be somewhere in between, but your opinion of him should influence your thoughts on the Browns receivers.

Cooper had his best season in Dallas, but last year he had 78 catches for 1,160 yards and nine touchdowns. If Watson returns to somewhere near his top form, Cooper could rise into the top 10 at the position in production.

Moore was drafted early in the second round in 2021 and came into the league with high expectations, but he never caught on with the Jets (who were something of a dumpster fire on offense, to be fair). He has a chance to find a much bigger role as the WR2 in Cleveland, and he's a player I would look to target toward the end of drafts if you need to fill out your wide receiver depth.

Peoples-Jones has increased his targets, receptions, and yards in each season of his career, and he could see a role as the deep option in the Browns passing game. I am not trusting him, though, as I see him as more of a boom or bust option who mostly busts. Rookie Cedric Tillman is a player I loved in the Draft this year, and Randy Moss just called him the "best young receiver to enter the league in the last 15 years." He probably won't make a big impact until next year, but keep that name in mind if he starts to flash this season.

Verdict: Much of the value here depends on Watson, but I'm comfortable with Cooper as one of my starting receivers and Moore as a depth option who could have his best season. Peoples-Jones is a super-deep option I am avoiding, and Tillman is worth watching, especially if someone gets hurt.

PITPittsburgh Steelers

Diontae JohnsonTop-100 WR: George Pickens #34, Diontae Johnson #35, Allen Robinson III #89

Pickens is my pick for breakout receiver of 2023. He was a first-round talent who fell to the second because of injuries his last year of college, and he has some jaw-dropping highlights on film. He's just a little smaller than DeAndre Hopkins, but he makes incredible catches in the same fashion.

The possible struggles of quarterback Kenny Pickett seems to be the biggest thing holding Pickens back from a big season. Pickett never threw more than one touchdown in any game last year, and he threw for no touchdowns in five games (and a sixth in which he only threw one pass and was injured). Second year improvement should be expected, though, and Pickens did catch all four of his touchdowns from Pickett.

Johnson was a statistical outlier last season, scoring no touchdowns on 86 receptions. He scored 20 touchdowns on 254 receptions in his previous three seasons, with just under 8% of his catches going for touchdowns. At that rate, he would have expected almost seven touchdowns last season which would have taken him from WR46 in standard scoring to WR20. We just discussed Pickett's low touchdown output, but Johnson has to score more touchdowns in 2023.

Robinson is a former star who has struggled with injuries and effectiveness the last two seasons, playing only 22 games and not topping 38 catches, 410 yards, or three touchdowns in either season. A rejuvenation seems unlikely as he will turn 30 before the season starts and works as the third option on a low-volume team.

Verdict: Johnson will bounce back in terms of scoring, but he will struggle to break into the top 20. Pickens has potential to do great things, and I am drafting him in every mock draft, even as my second receiver sometimes. There is risk and injury history, but he's being drafted in the eighth round or later and available for less than $10 in auctions. Robinson's days as a top option are over; make him prove it before considering him.

NFC North

CHIChicago Bears

DJ MooreTop-100 WR: D.J. Moore #21, Darnell Mooney #55, Chase Claypool #68

Moore came over from Carolina in the trade of the number one pick, and he is expected to be the true top receiver quarterback Justin Fields has been missing. From 2019-2021, Moore topped 1,150 yards every year and scored 12 touchdowns, topping out at 93 receptions in 2021. He saw a downturn in 2022 amongst disfunction losing 30 receptions and 269 yards from 2021 (though he did add three touchdowns).

Part of the drop in numbers is less opportunity. From 2019-2021, the Panthers averaged 594 pass attempts for 3,945.3 yards and 15.7 touchdowns per season. In 2022, that dropped to 457 attempts for 3,246 yards and 16 touchdowns. Moore's lower numbers make sense, but it's worse when looking at the 2022 Bears. That team, with Fields mostly at QB, threw 377 times for 2,598 yards and 19 touchdowns. While the touchdowns improved a bit, the Bears threw more than 200 times less and for 1,300 less yards than during Moore's best years.

Mooney missed five games last year, but he lost 50% or more of his targets, catches, yards, and touchdowns from 2021 while playing every game with Fields. Coming back healthy will make a difference, as will another year of work with Fields, but I don't see Mooney bouncing back, especially with Moore on the team.

I somehow have more faith in Claypool than Mooney, though I'm avoiding both. Claypool came to Chicago at the trade deadline, but he only topped 30 yards once and didn't score any touchdowns for the Bears. A year of familiarity gives Claypool a puncher's chance of reaching his previous heights (62 receptions, 873 yards, and nine touchdowns his rookie season of 2020), but his numbers have declined across the board the last two seasons, and he won't get many opportunities in Chicago's offense.

Verdict: Moore has been a star, but he will likely have less opportunities with the Bears and see his numbers suffer as a result. His rank of 21st receiver is a little too high for me. Mooney and Claypool both have a record of success, but it's been a few years for each, and they won't get volume targets as Chicago runs the ball.

DETDetroit Lions

Amon-Ra St. BrownTop-100 WR: Amon-Ra St. Brown #11, Jameson Williams #53, Marvin Jones #88

Jared Goff had the sixth-most pass attempts in the league last year. Accordingly, St. Brown had the ninth-most targets in the league. St. Brown has nearly 200 catches and 2,000 yards in his two seasons, and Detroit looks like a team on the rise. St. Brown has shined with no signs of slowing down.

Williams missed most of his rookie season recovering from a major knee injury suffered in college, and he is suspended for the first six games this year for a gambling violation. When he comes back, though, Williams will get his first chance to show the skill that made him a first-round pick. Detroit traded up to 12th to draft him, so they see something in him. When he hits the field, he could have an immediate impact and goes undrafted in some leagues.

Jones has been durable and topped 70 catches in 2020 and 2021, but he's 33 and had just 46 catches for 529 yards last season. He may be the number two receiver until Williams returns, but he will only be a third option after Week 6. He would be a short-term option at best.

Verdict: St. Brown is fairly ranked and has a good chance to finish the season as a top-10 receiver. Williams will miss a month and a half, but when he does come back, I see him as a mid-round talent. That's a good player to pick up at the end of your draft and stash. Jones may have a little value while Williams is out, but he's not a player I'm counting on at all.

GBGreen Bay Packers

Christian WatsonTop-100 WR: Christian Watson #20, Romeo Doubs #63, Jayden Reed #71

The biggest question for the Packers is how new starting quarterback Jordan Love will perform stepping into the role held by Aaron Rodgers for the last 15 years. Expecting Love to match that level of play is unfair, but his ability to step in and play at a high level Week 1 will inform the performances of his receivers.

Watson showed flashes his rookie year but was uneven week to week. He scored seven receiving touchdowns and ran in two more, and he topped 100 yards three times in 14 games. He also failed to reach 50 yards in any other game. There is a memory of Watson taking a slant pass from Love 63 yards for a touchdown for Packer fans to dream about, but the hazy picture of the Green Bay offense worries me.

Doubs was another rookie who showed he can hang last season, but he was also inconsistent. He only had three games over 50 yards and scored three touchdowns in 13 games. Doubs will probably be fine, but it's hard to expect anything big in this unsure situation.

Reed is a rookie who has fans, but the Packers have said they don't want to overwhelm him early. He probably won't be a fantasy option this year and should only be kept in the back of your mind in case he starts to shine.

Verdict: Watson and Doubs showed something in their rookie seasons, but it's hard to believe in either to be a consistent performer. Watson in the top-20 is too high for me, and there are better lottery tickets than Doubs or Reed right now.

MINMinnesota Vikings

Justin JeffersonTop-100 WR: Justin Jefferson #1, Jordan Addison #41, K.J. Osborn #64

Jefferson is the top overall player in most rankings, and it's easy to see why. He led the league in targets, receptions, and yards, and Kirk Cousins threw the fourth-most passes among quarterbacks in 2022. He was 10th in 2021, and the Vikings don't seem likely to throw less as they added Addison and cut starting running back Dalvin Cook.

Speaking of Addison, he had 100 catches, almost 1,600 yards and 17 touchdowns at Pitt in 2021 and won the Fred Biletnikoff award as the country's best receiver. He didn't reach those heights after moving to USC last year and struggling a little with health, but he showed the chops to be a first-round pick and is in position to lead all rookie receivers in most categories.

Over the last three seasons, the WR2 in Minnesota has averaged 94 targets and topped 100 twice. That bolds well for Addison, listed second on the depth chart. Osborn was the third receiver last season and might have expected to see more work when Adam Thielen left town, but Addison is likely to soak up most of that work, and Osborn probably won't see the same 90 targets he did last year.

Verdict: Jefferson is #1 for a reason and should be drafted as such. I prefer running backs early, but Jefferson is hard to ignore. Addison will likely see a large role as a rookie and is a good option to target as a depth receiver with upside. Osborn played well last year, but he will be squeezed as probably the fourth option behind tight end T.J. Hockenson as well. There are better fantasy options.

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