I recently wrote about starting running backs who are relatively low in preseason rankings, and the same data for wide receivers is even more remarkable. While no first option at running back was ranked lower than 35th (other than the three-headed ball of mystery in the Miami backfield), three teams have their WR1 rated lower than 50th in the same rankings, and the Giants don't have a player before 70th!!!
I'm looking at players ranked outside the top 30 who are at the top of the depth chart for their team. Most of these players are the clear top option for their team, but there are also cases where multiple players could fit the role. This list won't include a lot of WR2s and WR3s that I really like in the same range; this is about players who could reasonably be the top option at wide receiver. I used the standard scoring rankings from Fantasy Nerds, and all rankings are correct as of 8/18/2023.
Marquise Brown, Arizona Cardinals, 32nd-ranked receiver
Brown and Rondale Moore (59th) are the only two Arizona receivers in the top 100, so plenty of opportunities would seem to be available. Brown had 107 targets in only 12 games last season, and DeAndre Hopkins had 96 targets in just nine games for the Cardinals.
The quality of these targets is in question, as Kyler Murray will miss an undetermined number of games recovering from a serious knee injury suffered last December. Colt McCoy and rookie Clayton Tune are next up on the depth chart, and neither figure to be very effective as the Cardinals project to be among the worst teams in the league.
Still, the ball must go somewhere, and Brown has never had less than 70 targets in a season. Don't go out of your way to draft Brown, but there are worse depth options, especially if Murray returns healthy (same for Moore in really deep leagues).
Most people would say Johnson is the clear number one, but I love Pickens so much this year I wanted to include him. While I'm still skeptical of quarterback Kenny Pickett, recent trends show second-year quarterbacks making great improvements. Pickett also has the pass-catching talent needed in Johnson, Pickens, and tight end Pat Freiermuth.
Johnson scored no touchdowns last year on 86 catches with 882 yards, a true anomaly. In his first three seasons, Johnson averaged a touchdown every 12.7 receptions and a touchdown every 138.2 yards. By those averages, he would have scored six or seven touchdowns last season, taking him from WR46 to around WR20 in standard scoring.
I'm probably underestimating Johnson because of how bullish I am on Pickens. Pickens was a five-star recruit out of high school and starred at times in college. He fell to the second round of the 2021 Draft after struggling with injuries his last year at Georgia, but he was deemed a first-round talent by many and already has crazy highlights on film.
Pickett's continued development will determine how high these receivers will climb this season, but I like both of their value where they are ranked and have been drafting Pickens in virtually every mock draft. There is risk, as Pickett threw only seven touchdowns and nine interceptions last year, but four of those touchdowns went to Pickens, and Pickett figures to see at least some improvement.
Michael Pittman, Indianapolis Colts, 36th
I'm higher on Pittman's quarterback, Anthony Richardson, more than maybe any other player in fantasy based on where he's ranked and have mentioned it several times, but I'm not sure that will translate to his pass catchers right away. Pittman makes a strong case for himself, but an offense based around a developing quarterback who runs a lot doesn't translate to receiver statistics.
Pittman has 187 receptions and 2,007 yards over the last two years, increasing his targets and receptions both seasons from the previous. That was with less-than-impressive quarterback play most of the time, as the Colts cycled through aging and deteriorating options like Matt Ryan and Carson Wentz. He received 270 targets over that time.
Justin Fields in 2022 is a good comparison to what Richardson might look to emulate, and the numbers for the Chicago receivers last year don't look promising. With Fields playing 15 games, no Bears receiver had more than 61 targets last year. Pittman is better than any receiver the Bears had, but Fields was 27th in pass attempts and second in rush attempts. Pittman is a very good receiver, but I don't see him scoring consistent fantasy points this year.
Bateman is listed at the top of the depth chart, Flowers is ranked the highest, and Beckham might have the best chance of playing like a true number one this season. Take your pick when it comes to who will be the top receiver this year, but Lamar Jackson is now locked in at quarterback (and maybe more likely to play through injury) and has said several times he expects to pass more this season.
Flowers is a first-round rookie out of Boston College who had a 78-1,077-12 line last year and can absolutely fly, evidenced by a 4.42 second 40-yard dash at the combine. He is undersized, listed at just 5'9” and 182 pounds, and might take time to hit his potential, but there's a reason he's the highest rated out of these three.
Beckham started his career as a star, with at least 90 catches, 1,300 yards, and 10 touchdowns in each of his first three seasons. He has since struggled with health and productivity, he missed all of 2022, and his last good year was 2019. He has the pedigree, but I'm not betting on the old (young?) OBJ walking through that door.
Bateman is listed as WR1 right now, and he was drafted in the first round in 2021. He has only 61 receptions for 800 yards and three touchdowns in 19 games over his first two years, missing 15 regular season games and one playoff game over that time. He hasn't had a chance to show what he can do yet, and he will attempt to live up to his draft status in his third season.
No matter who ends up as the top receiver on this team, that player probably won't be scoring consistent fantasy points and/or healthy every week. Only one receiver has had 100 targets since Jackson took over as full-time starter, as Marquise Brown did it twice before being traded to Arizona. A new offense might create more opportunities, but not seeing it yet coupled with not knowing who will get the ball most means counting on Baltimore receivers is tough in fantasy. Any of the three is fine for depth at the end of your roster, but I'm staying away from these players unless I'm desperate.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, New England Patriots, 45th
Smith-Schuster had 78 receptions on 101 targets for 933 yards and three touchdowns last season. Jakobi Meyers had 67 receptions on 96 targets for 804 yards and six touchdowns, slightly less in the bulk stats, but he played two fewer games than Smith-Schuster. This comparison is important because Smith-Schuster is essentially replacing Meyers as the WR1 in New England, but he is leaving the best quarterback in football in Kansas City to join a Patriots offense that was disjointed last season.
Mac Jones played three less games last season than he did in 2021, but all his numbers dropped from his rookie season, including average yards per completion, touchdowns per game, and sacks per game. It was a disaster of a season, but there is hope as New England brought back former offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien who has led successful offenses before. Enough has been said about Matt Patricia working as the team's offensive coordinator last season, so I won't pile on.
Still, I don't see Smith-Schuster improving on those numbers in his new situation. He had a few really good years in Pittsburgh in 2018 and 2020, but he hasn't reached those heights since. Averaging about five catches and 60 yards a game (as he did in 2022) is probably his most likely result, with a few good games and a few bad games mixed around mediocrity. There are worse depth options, as he will get some opportunities, but I'm not expecting a lot out of Smith-Schuster.
The Chiefs wanted Toney as early as the 2021 Draft before finally acquiring him in a trade last season, but he has struggled to stay healthy and make an impact since being a first-round pick. He scored his first two professional touchdowns with the Chiefs and ran in a third score. He then had a decent game in the Divisional Round of the playoffs and scored a touchdown in the Super Bowl, somehow topping that by adding a great punt return to set up another score.
Moore was anonymous for most of his rookie season, limited to 22 catches for 250 yards and no touchdowns in the regular season. He ended a quiet run in the playoffs by catching a touchdown in the Super Bowl and, just like Toney, chose the largest stage to shine. He didn't show much last year, but he was a second-round pick and has a year under his belt with Patrick Mahomes.
Anyone who can make a connection with Mahomes is set up for success, but it's hard to pinpoint who that will be. Either player could be the top wide receiver (Toney is listed at the top of the depth chart with Moore in the slot receiver role), but the real top receiver on the team is tight end Travis Kelce. I've written about Kelce's dominance, and he will lead the Chiefs in every major receiving category.
I like grabbing one of these receivers for the bottom of your roster (particularly Toney) just to see if something pops, but only truly target them in deep leagues.
Chark and Thielen both came to Carolina as free agents to rebuild the receiving corps after D.J. Moore was traded to Chicago as part of the package for the top overall pick in this year's Draft. Bryce Young was selected with that pick, and the team hopes it found its new face of the franchise, but he will probably struggle to play at a consistently high level his first year.
Thielen was a star for a stretch in Minnesota, but his receptions and yards per game have declined each of the last two years along with his receiving touchdowns and average yards per catch. He will turn 33 before the season, and he seems like more of a veteran presence for a young team than an impact player. He is listed at the top of the depth chart even though Chark is higher in the rankings.
Chark had 73 catches, 1,008 yards, and eight touchdowns in 2019, but he has otherwise failed to top 53, 706, or five in those same categories and has never played every game in a season. I wouldn't guess he is going to have his best season on this year's Panthers.
Jonathan Mingo is a player to mention as one of my favorite rookie receivers, listed at a beastly 6'2” and 225 pounds. It will probably take a year or more, but he could develop into a DK Metcalf-type player, though Metcalf is a little bigger. Keep an eye on Mingo throughout the season, especially in a dynasty league.
Nico Collins, Houston Texans, 57th
Collins leads a mostly young receiving corps on a young team with a rookie quarterback and first-year head coach. Things aren't going to go great in Houston this year. C.J. Stroud was considered maybe the most polished rookie in this quarterback class, but he probably isn't stepping in as a star, and Fantasy Nerds projects him to have the 25th-most passing yards and 24th-most passing touchdowns this season.
There will be opportunities, but Collins has missed 10 games in his two seasons and has only 70 receptions for 927 yards and three touchdowns combined. There doesn't seem to be a path to relevancy for Collins, though a spot at the end of your bench for a WR1 isn't the worst idea. I'm still using that spot for more upside.
Darius Slayton (#81) and Wan'Dale Robinson (#82) are also ranked in the top 100, but none of these players stands out as most likely to become a real number one receiver. The most likely scenario is a copycat of Kansas City, with new tight end Darren Waller acting as the team's de facto top receiver. I believe in Waller's skill, but he will turn 31 early in the season and has missed 14 games over the past two seasons. He averaged 98.5 receptions, 1,170.5 yards, and six touchdowns per year across 2019 and 2020, so that ceiling is there, but I don't see him being able to sustain that production weekly.
Still, I don't see a fantasy-relevant receiver on this team. Hodgins was a sixth-round pick in 2020 and has played 10 total games. He did have four touchdowns and a two-point conversion catch last year, but it will be hard to sustain that rate with his low target share. Campbell was middling at best and injured at worst over four seasons in Indianapolis, and he hasn't shown any reason to expect a breakout. Stay away from these receivers unless someone shows something.