1. Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
Brown finished the 2015 season with 136 catches for 1,834 yards and 10 touchdowns, producing 250 fantasy points, the most among non-quarterbacks. And that’s with Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger missing four games last year.
With Roethlisberger healthy, Brown could be the highest-scoring fantasy player on any roster. Early projections have Brown catching 127 passes for 1,700 yards and 11 touchdowns for 233 fantasy points, most among all wide receivers.
But Brown’s value is tied to volume — he scored 1.3 fantasy points per target last season, 26th among wideouts with at least 50 passes thrown their way. If the offense reduces his opportunities in any way, it will have a trickle effect on your fantasy team’s performance.
2. Todd Gurley, RB, Los Angeles Rams
He didn’t get much action during the first month of the season, but Gurley rushed for 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns, finishing third among running backs for most yards per carry after contact.
Projections have Gurley second only to Bell in terms of fantasy-point production, but that might be optimistic with rookie Jared Goff or veteran Case Keenum lining up at quarterback for Los Angeles. Having an inexperienced (Goff) or career backup (Keenum) under center will allow opposing defenses to stack the box and limit Gurley’s production.
3. Odell Beckham Jr, WR, New York Giants
Since the merger of 1970, three wide receivers in addition to Beckham have caught at least 150 passes for 2,000 yards and 15 touchdown in their first two NFL seasons: A.J. Green, Larry Fitzgerald and Marques Colston. None have matched Beckham’s 187 catches for 2,755 yards and 25 touchdowns.
When Beckham faced Norman in Week 15, he still caught four of seven targets for 30 yards and a touchdown when in Norman’s coverage (he totaled 76 yards receiving overall). Plus, the Giants and Redskins face off in Weeks 3 and 17, the latter of which is typically one week after the fantasy championship has already been decided.
4. Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons
By the end of the regular season, Jones produced 237 fantasy points, just 13 fewer than Brown, and set career-highs in receptions (136) and yards (1,871), while scoring eight touchdowns. His 203 targets led the league and only two other wideouts were targeted over 180 times last season: Brown and DeAndre Hopkins.
In addition, no receiver averaged more yards per route run (3.0) than Jones.
5. Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings
Peterson bolstered his Hall-of-Fame resume after rushing for 1,485 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2016, but he is now 31 years old, and that typically starts a rapid decline among the league’s running backs. According to Adam Harstad of footballguys.com, a rusher has a 42.3 percent chance of suffering “a catastrophic and career-ending decline” at age 31, which might be too high to justify Peterson’s spot in the first round.
6. David Johnson, RB, Arizona Cardinals
Johnson averaged 4.6 yards per carry and caught 36 of his 57 targets last season, and while he is currently the No.1 running back on the depth chart, Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington are still on the roster, which could limit Johnson’s ability to garner a lion’s share of the rushing attempts, especially in the red zone.
7. Le’Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
A possible four-game suspension has dropped Bell from a No. 2 overall pick behind Brown to the seventh player — on average — selected in 12-team, standard-scoring leagues, with him dropping to as low as the sixth pick in the second round in some mock drafts.
Consensus projections for 2016 compiled by Fantasy Pros now expect Bell to rush for 999 yards with eight touchdowns, adding 459 yards and two touchdowns through the air for a total of 204.8 fantasy points, fifth most at the position. Bell’s backup, DeAngelo Williams, carried the ball 200 times for 907 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2015, a TD total that led the league. If Williams gets hot during the first four weeks of the season, Bell’s fantasy impact be even further diminished.
8. DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans
Hopkins was one of three receivers to have over 190 targets last year, catching 111 passes for 1,521 yards and 11 touchdowns. However, the change at quarterback from Brian Hoyer to Brock Osweiler could have some impact in 2016.
Hopkins was targeted at least 20 yards downfield 44 times last season, accounting for 492 of his yards and seven of his touchdowns. Osweiler, however, was accurate on just 26.7 percent of such throws during his time in Denver, much less accurate than Hoyer (38.8 percent) with Houston.
9. Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys
Since 2006, there have been 23 running backs drafted in the first round. Four of those started at least 12 games as a rookie and only two — Doug Martin and Trent Richardson — produced 200 or more fantasy points in their first NFL season. Just four of those 23 rookies ranked in the top 10 at the position.
The median, or middle, production of these rookies has been 14 games played (five started) with 678 rushing yards and six touchdowns, plus 192 yards and one more touchdown via the passing game, for a total of 135 fantasy points. That’s on par with what Rashad Jennings, the 20th ranked fantasy running back, did for the New York Giants in 2015.
Still, expectations are running high for Elliot, who is included in the top 50 players most likely to win this year’s MVP award. Accusations of sexual assault last week could further cloud his playing status. That said, there is a strong sentiment that he could have a monster first season in the NFL.
10. A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
Since being drafted in 2011, Green has topped the 1,000-yard mark and been named to the Pro Bowl in all five of his NFL seasons played.
NFL.com’s Matt Harmon goes so far as to call Green a “must-own receiver” for his 71.8 percent success rate versus man coverage and a 77.8 percent success rate versus press, both good enough to place him within the top 10 at the position in 2015. Harmon also thinks Green will receive more targets in 2016:
The Bengals failed to adequately replace [Marvin] Jones or [Mohamed] Sanu, who both left for bigger opportunities elsewhere. Brandon LaFell, starting in place of Jones, is a downgrade and rookie Tyler Boyd (a painfully limited player) is pegged as their slot receiver “no matter what.” Additionally, Tyler Eifert — the likely No. 2 target — isn’t the picture of health, funneling more of the offense to Green.
Green certainly warrants a look higher in the first round.
11. Lamar Miller, RB, Houston Texans
Miller signed a a four-year, $26 million deal with the Houston Texans this offseason after rushing for 872 yards and eight touchdowns in 2015 for the Miami Dolphins. Part of Miller’s reduced fantasy production stemmed from how he was used in Miami, but Houston will have its own challenges: Alfred Blue (698 yards and two touchdowns in 2015) returns in a back-up role and the team drafted Tyler Ervin in the fourth round.
However, even if Miller does lose some carries to his backups, there still figures to be plenty of opportunity to go around. The Texans ranked fifth in the league in rushing attempts (472) in Bill O’Brien’s second season as head coach in Houston and Miller averaged 2.76 yards per carry after contact in 2015, perhaps making him slightly undervalued in this spot.
Dez Bryant, WR, Dallas Cowboys
Bryant is a boom-or-bust receiver whose fantasy production will be heavily influenced by his touchdown totals. Limited to nine games last season due to injury, he caught 31 of his 72 targets for 401 yards and three touchdowns, which paled in comparison to his 1,320-yard, 16-touchdown campaign of 2014.
Plus, as Marcus Mosher notes in his blog, Bryant has exceeded 100 yards just 15 times in 86 career games (including the playoffs), the same as Beckham, who has played in just 26 career games.
Perhaps New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, who is the very next pick in mock drafts, is the better play. Projections have Gronkowski producing 178 fantasy points, the most among tight ends and just slightly lower than Bryant (189 projected fantasy points).