The age of the running back is over. The time of the wide receiver is now.
At least when it comes to fantasy football.
For years, running backs ruled the fantasy landscape unchallenged, the first place owners looked when building their teams on draft day. Sure, the occasional quarterback (Peyton Manning, Tom Brady), wide receiver (Jerry Rice or Randy Moss) or tight end (Rob Gronkowski) would sneak into the top 10 on draft day, but the head seat at most draft tables was reserved for an Emmitt Smith, LaDainian Tomlinson or Marshall Faulk.
But with many leagues adopting the points-per-reception format in recent years, wideouts have become the rock stars Terrell Owens and Chad Johnson viewed themselves as being a decade ago.
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Where it was once unthinkable to draft a pass-catcher early on, it’s become the norm, with success now largely in the hands of those with, well, the best hands.
Antonio Brown, Steelers
Three years of 110-plus catches and 1,500-plus yards should be enough to convince even the most old-school, running back-loving fantasy owner that Brown is not only the class of his position, but the class of the NFL when it comes to fantasy competition. Coming off a season in which he caught 136 passes for 1,835 yards and 10 touchdowns, Brown figures to be the first name off the board in most leagues. ESPN, Yahoo and USA Today have him sitting atop their preseason overall player rankings.
Odell Beckham Jr., Giants
In just two seasons, Beckham Jr. has established himself as a top-line receiving force in the NFL. Beckham was a revelation as a rookie, catching 91 passes for 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns in 12 games in 2014. He followed that up with an even bigger season in 2015, finishing with 96 receptions for 1,450 yards and 13 TDs in 15 games. At this point, Beckham appears to be a mortal lock to top the 100-catch, and 1,500-yard marks, and 20 TDs are not out of the question. Beckham ranks second to Brown in the ESPN, Yahoo and USA Today overall player rankings.
Julio Jones, Falcons
The drop-off from Brown and Beckham to Jones is slight at best. Jones caught 104 passes for 1,593 yards and six touchdowns in 2014, then took his game to a whole new level in 2015, finishing with 136 catches for 1,871 yards and eight TDs. At 27, Jones’ best may still be yet to come. Yahoo and ESPN rank Jones fourth overall, while USA Today has his ranked as the No. 3 overall player.
DeAndre Hopkins, Texans
Hopkins officially made the jump from good to elite in 2015, finishing with 111 catches for 1,521 yards and 11 touchdowns ... and that’s without a Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers slinging him the ball. Hopkins is ranked No. 7 on ESPN’s top 300 overall for 2016. He’s ranked No. 9 overall by USA Today and comes it an No. 10 on Yahoo’s list.
A.J. Green, Bengals
Green has topped the 1,000-yard mark in each of his first five NFL seasons, solidifying himself as one of the game’s top pass-catchers. If history is any indicator, Green is a lock to reel in 90-plus catches, 1,300 yards and 10 touchdowns. Green is ranked No. 6 on USA Today’s top 200 player rankings. He comes in at No. 12 on Yahoo’s overall list and sits at No. 15 in ESPN’S rankings.
Dez Bryant, Cowboys
Injuries limited Bryant to just 31 catches for 401 yards and three touchdowns in nine games in 2015, but the talented wideout is primed for a career season in 2016. Bryant averaged roughly 90 catches, 1,300 yards and 14 TDs from 2012-2013, and it’s scary to consider that we probably haven’t seen his best season. Bryant is ranked No. 10 overall by ESPN, No. 11 by Yahoo and No. 12 by USA Today.
Allen Robinson, Jaguars
Robinson emerged as a start and a fantasy savior in his sophomore NFL season, establishing career highs with 80 catches, 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns. He won’t fly under the radar on draft day like his did a year ago, but there’s every reason to believe that he can and will be even better in 2016. Robinson is ranked 13th overall by ESPN, USA Today and Yahoo.
Jordy Nelson, Packers
Nelson’s season was over before it started in 2015 thanks to a preseason knee injury, but turn the back the clock to 2014 and you’ll be reminded that Aaron Rodgers’ favorite target caught 98 passes for 1,519 yards and 13 TDs. A healthy Nelson figures to pick up where he left off, which could be fantasy gold for owners unable to snag a Wallace or Beckham. Yahoo ranks Nelson No. 16 overall, ESPN has him at No. 17 and USA Today rates him 19th.
Brandon Marshall, Jets
Marshall made his first year in New York a memorable one, establishing career highs in receptions (109), yards (1,502) and touchdowns (14). The veteran still has the skills to be a dominant receiver, the only question is who will be delivering him the ball? Yahoo ranks Marshall No. 14 overall, while ESPN rates him as the 19th best player.
Amari Cooper, Raiders
The sky’s the limit for Cooper, whose solid rookie season produced 72 receptions, 1070 yards and six touchdowns. Look for even bigger things from Cooper in 2016, as he and quarterback Derek Carr continue to develop their rapport. USA Today ranks Cooper No. 16 on its overall list.
Compiled by Stu Rosenberg