Fantasy football wide receivers: One in the roster is worth two on the bench

Andre Johnson is the consensus No. 1 wide receiver this year.

Wide receivers dominate fantasy football drafts. They don’t score as many points as running backs or quarterbacks, but you will draft more receivers than any other position.

Lining up a solid receiving corps is a good way to dominate your draft. So naturally, they are the most difficult to project. The elites are obvious. Andre Johnson and Roddy White are as close to a sure thing as we get in fantasy football. It’s the WRs who come after that cause problems.

No two draft strategies are the same. Who you target depends on your draft position, your league’s rules (such as awarding points per reception — PPR) and how many teams are in your league; probably in that order.

Figure 1: Combined WR rankings from ESPN, NFL, CBS, Sports Illustrated and FF Toolbox.

Everyone has opinions on who will rank where. The “experts” at ESPN and every other fantasy football site have opinions and so should you. They all make out projection lists, and while ESPN is the most popular, there’s nothing to say it’s the most accurate. Figure 1 shows a look at how five different fantasy football sites rank WRs for this season by standard scoring.

See a player high up on that list that you don’t like? That’s the beauty of fantasy football. Don’t draft them. This is your shot to show that you know better than everyone else. The guys making those lists are just guessing; the only difference is it’s their job to guess. If you think you know better, by all means go for it.

For instance, I never draft Santana Moss. I don’t think the Redskins are a very good team and I don’t think they will have a very good offense. Plus Moss’ quarterback is Rex Grossman.

Everyone seems to be big on Bengals WR A.J. Green, but I am staying away from all rookies this season, especially rookies with a rookie quarterback.

There are other guys I’m staying away from who I’ll get to later, but the bottom line is that cheat sheets are not the be-all end-all of fantasy football decision-making. If you think you have a sleeper, go for it. If you think someone is ranked way too high or is too risky, don’t pick him. Let him be someone else’s problem. A good deal of fantasy football is luck. Even if you end up drafting someone for the wrong reasons, he still might have a good year anyway, for a different reason. Gutsy calls are often rewarded.

The thing about Figure 1 I don’t like is that outliers skew the mean. Extremely high or low scores have a much bigger effect than the other four scores. Chad Ochocinco is ranked fairly high by most predictions, but SI’s 88 ranking really pulled him down. He certainly will not be the 88th-best receiver this season, and even his 42 composite ranking is a little low.

ESPN seems to be a lot lower on the Raiders’ Jacoby Ford than most; his 37th-overall ranking is weighed down by is ESPN-awarded 51. Considering that many people will use an ESPN cheat sheet that they printed out the night before the draft, they will have Ford ranked low, and you might be able to grab him at a bargain.

The sensitivity of means is something I pay attention to when considering how players perform. Nearly every website ranks players by their average weekly score. It’s a basic way to list who scores more but doesn’t necessarily show who is the best bet week-in and week-out.

I want some consistency in my wide receivers! One in the hand (starting lineup) is definitely worth two in the bush (bench) in terms of fantasy WRs, and maybe more. ESPN has Robert Meachem and Braylon Edwards ranked 39th and 40th, respectively, but I’d rather take the consistency of Edwards over the deep ball-or-bust quality of Meachem.

To take a closer look at which players are more consistent, I plotted their scores from last season, comparing median and mean. A player whose average score is way above his median tells us that his value is skewed by an abnormally high-scoring week (or weeks), a somewhat random occurrence that is usually the result of bad defense more than it is from good offensive execution.

I ran the numbers for the top 30 WRs in my league season (don’t count the dots, two players overlapped). My league scoring differs slightly from standard, so the numbers might be slightly different from your league, but the ratios from player to player should be almost identical. Here’s what I found:

Figure 2: Plotting WRs' median scores against their averages.

The line on the graph is y=x, the 1-to-1 line, there just to show which players had higher scores in one direction or the other. Most of the dots appear above the line, players who had average scores higher than their median scores. I expected that. The median is resistant to outliers. Neither really good nor really bad days will effect the median, but they have an effect on the mean.

The difference is that really bad days are closer to average days than really good ones are. Say you average 8 or 9 points per game. A really bad day might be when you only have 20 yards and a good day is maybe when you have 120 yards and a touchdown. Eighteen points is nine or 10 away from an average day, but 2 points is only six or seven away from a normal day. Plus, the lowest you can get is 0 points (technically you could be negative, but we’ll say 0), but there is no limit to how many you can score. A Steve Johnson-esque 137-yard, three-touchdown day will really pull up your average while hardly effecting the median.

The dot at the upper-right corner is Brandon Lloyd. He was the best wide out last year, even with his one rushing attempt for negative-18 yards. Not only did he have the highest mean week, he also had the highest average week in terms of median. With a median score of 12.25 in my league (slightly less in standard), that means he scored over 12 and quarter points for you 50 PERCENT of the time. That’s crazy production for a WR… just don’t expect a repeat. Lloyd will be good, just not elite (though he looked sharp in the preseason game against the Bills).

Who you can expect an encore presentation from is Calvin Johnson, who represents the dot almost on the line in the upper corner. Despite having three different quarterbacks at the helm last season, Johnson still managed to be wildly productive, posting his second career 12-touchdown season. The consistency is there and with another year of developing for Matthew Stafford, Johnson should once again put up huge numbers. ESPN has him at No. 5, but he grabs the second spot in the composite rankings. Look for him in the second round.

Figure 3: Similar averages, different medians.

This graph is a useful tool to compare players who average about the same. This look shows us which were really consistent bets and which were more sporadic scorers. There’s a group of five players who averaged between 10 and 11 points last year but have very different median scores. Going from right to left (highest median to lowest median), they are: Andre Johnson, Hakeem Nicks, Reggie Wayne, the Buffalo Bills’ own Steve Johnson and DeSean Jackson.

Houston’s Andre Johnson is the consensus No. 1 receiver this year. Last year he was Mr. Consistency, with a median and mean of 10.5 points… and that was a down year for him. Hakeem Nicks, the near-consensus No. 4 WR this year, actually averaged slightly more than Johnson last season but had a median score a full point lower.

Reggie Wayne is an interesting case. He’s been top-10 in the NFL in receiving yards longer than most of you have been playing fantasy football, but his low median score gives credit to the theory that, at age 32, he’s starting to lose a step. The high average shows that, yes, he’s still capable of the monster game (i.e. Week 13 vs. Dallas: 14 receptions, 200 yards and touchdown), but those performances are getting fewer and farther in between, driving fantasy owners mad.

Steve Johnson may have been The Joker to the Chad Ochocinco-Terrell Owens Batman & Robin love fest in Cincinnati last season, but he was a joker on your fantasy team a lot of last season, too. As you’ll see in Figure 5, his good weeks were really balanced out by his bad weeks. Without his 8-137-3 performance in Week 11 on his co-stars home turf, Johnson is not nearly the spectacle or top-10 fantasy WR we now know him to be.

There’s also reason for concern. Perhaps in response to his “Why So Serious” gesture, defenses started to take him serious at the end of the year, and his production plummeted. The three-touchdown game brought his total to nine TDs through the first 11 weeks, but then he scored just one the remainer of the season. Yes, he should have had the overtime winner he went on to blame the Lord for, but we all know that “close” only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Plus, now that Lee Evans is gone, it’s a definite possibility that defenses shade to and take away Johnson just like they used to do with Evans before… well, before Johnson started scoring last year.

I make it a general principle to stay away from Bills in drafts. It’s fun rooting for and “owning” your hometown guys, but that’s how everyone else thinks, too. I usually don’t take Bills because they suck, but also because other people want Bills and they almost always reach to take them. If you want a Buffalo guy, you’ll probably have to grab him earlier than he’s worth.

One other player who is revealed by the graph is Deion Branch. Just by looking at his average, you’d say, “Wow, Tom Brady really can get the ball to anyone.” ESPN has him as a top-50 receiver and he’s ranked as high as 39 by CBS. Don’t believe the hype. In the words of the great Boobie Miles, “Hype is something that’s not for real.” Branch is definitely not “all real” like Miles claimed to be.

I guess the train of thought is that if Branch produced like that with Brady after being acquired during the middle of last season, imagine what chemistry they could rekindle in an entire offseason. I have a few problems with that, the first bringing into question what kind of “production” Branch really brought last year. His median game was 3.75 points. HALF OF THE TIME, he scored less than 3.75 points. He came to New England from Seattle in Week 4, so I don’t want to hear about how many bad games he had to suffer without Brady.

Field goal is good! Three points sounds like an average day for Branch this season. You have been forewarned.

Branch totaled 112 points last year. His average is supported solely on a three-week stretch in which the Patriot offense was rolling. Branch scored 23, 12 and 21 fantasy points in weeks 12-14 last season, which is 56 combined points, or half of his entire season.

I have doubts Branch and Brady really even got in sync. In that three-game stretch, the Patriots scored 45, 45 and 36 points. Brady had 10 TD passes in those three games. It was just Brady being Brady. In none of the three games did Brady target Branch more than he targeted Wes Welker. He was in command and just happened to throw a few to the guy wearing 84.

You really think Brady has been working hard to get his timing down with Branch in camp? He’s probably more concerned on working with his new No. 1 receiver Chad Ochocino. Branch is the third WR on the depth chart and even lower of an option in the gameplan on a team that also features Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Danny Woodhead (who is listed only as an RB this year) and BenJarvus Green-Ellis.

Do yourself a favor and don’t touch Deion Branch. At this spot in your draft you’re much better off taking a guy like Greg Little or Mohamed Massaquoi, whichever wins out the battle in Cleveland. The Browns’ offense is very bad, but I’d rather have someone’s No. 1 option than a guy like Branch.

In case you’re wondering who the rest of the top five dots are that kind of look like the Little Dipper (there’s actually six dots there, two overlap), they are, going clockwise: Lloyd, C. Johnson, Pittsburgh’s Mike Wallace, Green Bay’s Greg Jennings and Atlanta’s Roddy White (overlap) and finally Dwayne Bowe of Kansas City.

Figure 4: Little Dipper and extreme cases.

I’ve added a second line to the graph, y=x+3, to show WRs who had averages at least three points greater than their medians. They are Dwayne Bowe, DeSean Jackson, Terrell Owens and Branch (Anquan Boldin also qualified but is not pictured).

According to the rule, these should all be players with averages brought up by a few big weeks, with the rest of the season being kind of lame. The rule checks out. We already know about Branch. Let’s take a look at Dwayne Bowe.

He had the second most points of any WR last season but just cracked the top-10 by median score. Bowe was an unstoppable touchdown machine in the middle of the year, which brought up his low scores at the start and end of the season.

If he was on your team, heading into Week 6 all you got from him 152 yards and one touchdown (Week 4 was his bye). Then the Chiefs’ offense got rolling and Bowe scored 13 touchdowns over the next seven weeks (13!) to go along with two 13-reception games and fantasy scores in the 20s and 30s. Wow. In weeks 6-12, we saw his only low game: Week 8 against the Bills, 3-17-1 for seven fantasy points.

Little known fact: there's actually music playing on the other end... "You're hot then you're cold, you're yes then you're no..."

Week 12 versus Seattle, he had 13 catches, 170 yards, 3 touchdowns and 35 fantasy points. He was the best WR you could ask for. Guaranteed start in your roster every week, right? The nest week, a home game against Denver, Champ Bailey shut out Bowe: three targets, zero catches, zero points. Next week, Week 14 at San Diego: 7 targets, 1 catch, 3 yards. Week 15 at St. Louis: 2 catches, 53 yards. Didn’t Katy Perry wrote a song about this guy?

Oh, and he also just killed your playoff run.

DeSean Jackson was a beast last year, right? Yeah, kind of… well, sorta. Okay not really.

Talk about hot and cold. Jackson couldn’t string more than two good weeks together all season. He was either really good or really bad, and there was no middle ground. His good weeks: 27 points, 21, 19, 19, 18 and 15. His bad weeks: 0 points, 0, 1, 2, 3, 3 and 5. He only had middle-of-the-road weeks twice (8 pts in Week 13 and 9 in Week 15).

The problem with Jackson is that he’s a one-trick pony. All he has is the deep ball. He’s like the Yankees’ Kyle Farnsworth, circa 2006. He has one pitch, a blistering fastball, that is a great pitch… if he can hit his spot. The Vick-to-Jackson long ball is that one pitch (that they actually dial-up fairly well) that needs to be on the money for everything else to work.

Need more proof? How about that Jackson scored all his points (minus a punt return TD and the occasional end-around) on just 47 receptions. That’s the same amount as Visanthe Shiancoe and Darren McFadden had last year, and this guy just missed being a top-10 receiver. There’s no reason to think he’ll be significantly more consistent than last season, but unlike a guy like Meachem who also needs the long ball to be successful, Jackson has the skill set and the surroundings to warrant his composite ranking of 10 this year. Just be ready for some low days.

I won’t waste a lot of time on T.O. because he isn’t on a team, but we’ll just say he was like Bowe — good in the middle, bad finish — just not as high-scoring.

A lot of guys who are up and down can get on the nerves of fantasy owners. They keep starting the guy, hoping for the long touchdown, but get tired of waiting (or losing). Then, when their patience runs out, he gets put on the bench, and wouldn’t you know it, he goes off. It’s infuriating. To try to get a grip on this, I came up with Figure 5, a WR satisfaction graph.

Looking at the top receivers, I totaled how many weeks they made me happy (10 points or more) and how many weeks they made me mad (5 points or less). I took the percentages over a 16-game season and subtracted the angry weeks from the happy weeks. Take a look:

Figure 5: Wide receiver satisfaction -- percent of weeks they made owners happy (10 points or more) minus percent of weeks they made owners mad (5 or fewer).

I love having Roddy White on my team. He always puts up points and I’m a little mad ESPN is trying to give away my secret ranking him No. 2 this season. He and Lloyd both had 11 weeks last year with double-digit points, but only twice did White make me mad, while Lloyd had four weeks with 5 or fewer points.

This chart tells more about Steve Johnson, a satisfaction percentage of zero. Six games in double-digits, six games 5 or under.

This is the second graphic in a row that puts Percy Harvin in a positive light. The 20th overall WR by average last season, Harvin was in the top-10 in median performance (10.0 ppg). With eight happy weeks and six disappointing ones, Harvin also ranks top-15 in satisfaction. With new quarterback Donovan McNabb under center in Minnesota, there’s a lot to like in Harvin this season, as long as his migraines don’t keep him off the field.

Looking at the bottom of the chart, we see… HEY it’s our good friend Deion Branch! His nine disappointing weeks tie for the most of any WR I looked at. One guy he’s tied with is Austin Collie, who has an excuse: he was concussed multiple times last season. Healthy Austin Collie pulls in over a touchdown a game. Concussed Austin Collie watches games in t-shirts. You can buy him low due to his injury risk, and if he stays healthy, he’ll be a steal. If not, it will be Pierre Garcon catching Peyton Manning’s throws. If both are healthy, Collie’s the better option.

I like this guy even with Matt Hasselback throwing to him. He just gets dinged up a lot.

The last player I want to mention is Kenny Britt. He is very difficult to stop on a football field. The problem is getting him on one. Of the 17 weeks in the last NFL season, he didn’t record a point in seven of them. Weeks 8-13: 0 points. Week 14, a key home game vs. Indi: 4-39-0 with a costly fumble. He rallied for your fantasy team in the playoffs (12, 14 and 14 points in weeks 15-16-17), but odds are you didn’t trust him enough to put him in.

He’s another guy skewed by a huge week (Week 7 vs. Philly was the big one: 7-225-3), but of the 10 weeks he actually scored a fantasy point, half the time he scored double-digits. In his limited action, he still managed to pull in nine touchdowns. Especially going into his third year, when a lot of receivers start to break out, I like Britt, just know he’s an injury risk.

I know running backs and quarterbacks are the sexy picks in the early rounds of your fantasy draft, but don’t skip out on wide receivers. The best RBs score more than the best WRs, but mid-level backs are much easier to come by. By round five you should have two wide receivers on your roster, the only exception being going out of your way to grab Antonio Gates, who almost always goes in the fourth round.

Figure 6: Backs are easier -- running backs have a much more linear distribution than WRs.

Receivers are much more difficult to predict than running backs (see the chart if you don’t believe me), so if you have one you like when your spot comes up, go for it.

If you get in a tight spot in your draft and the timer is running out, go for a receiver. You can never have too many.

Best of luck this season. You’re gonna need it.