Trying to project the fantasy landscape for the upcoming season is near impossible. For quarterbacks, one tends to select players who performed well the previous season; whereas for running backs you want players who performed well but kept their total carries to a respectable number. When it comes to wide receivers and tight ends, how do you know who to select and why? Contrary to the speculation that one should steer clear of running backs that get too large of a workload, I would argue that you want to draft wide receivers that get a lot of quarterback attention. You can simply tabulate this attention by calculating the amount of times they were thrown to during the regular season. This statistic is termed TARGETS and can be a very useful number in ranking pass catchers on draft day.
To convince you of its importance in determining the best fantasy players at the wideout/tight end positions (using PPR scoring of 1 point/catch), 73.33% of last year's top 15 targeted pass catchers (Roddy White, Wes Welker, Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald , Brandon Lloyd, Jimmy Graham , Brandon Marshall, Dwayne Bowe, Steve Johnson, Pierre Garcon, Hakeem Nicks, Reggie Wayne, Victor Cruz, Steve Smith (CAR), and Brandon Pettigrew) were in the overall top 50 scorers in fantasy football, all 15 were in the top 68 scorers. In 2010, 81.25% of the top 16 (two were tied for the 15th ranking) targeted pass catchers (Roddy White, Larry Fitzgerald, Reggie Wayne, Brandon Lloyd, Brandon Marshall, Santana Moss, Steve Johnson, Terrell Owens, Andre Johnson, Calvin Johnson, Marques Colston, Dwayne Bowe, Jason Witten, Hakeem Nicks, Chris Cooley, and Mike Williams) were in the top 50 and all were in the top 83 overall scorers. Thus, you have roughly a 77% chance (over the last two seasons) of a highly targeted player being a top 50 scorer. This sounds rather obvious; however, predicting those players year in and year out might be a whole different story. Even though it may be difficult, I think it is possible and here is why.
My prediction for the top 15 most targeted pass catchers for the 2012 NFL season is as follows:
Brandon Marshall (WR)
Calvin Johnson (WR)
Larry Fitzgerald (WR)
Wes Welker (WR)
Greg Jennings (WR)
Jimmy Graham (TE)
Dwayne Bowe (WR)
Hakeem Nicks (WR)
Andre Johnson (WR)
Julio Jones (WR)
Rob Gronkowski (TE)
Dez Bryant (WR)
Roddy White (WR)
Miles Austin (WR)
Mike Williams (WR)
Sidenote, all player rankings and targets statistics from 2006-2011 were taken from ESPN sources.
The rationale behind this list is multi-fold. First off, let's address the presence of tight ends in the projected 2012 list. From 2006-2011, there were 9 total tight ends in the top 15 targeted pass catchers. This equates to 1.5 TE per year in the top 15; furthermore, there have been 2 TE in the top 15 in each of the last three NFL seasons. In today's age where the TE position is more dynamic, I think it is safe to predict at least 2 TE (Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski) will be in the top 15 for total targets in 2012.
Secondly, if you calculate the amount of players in the top 15 for targets from 2006-2011 that have a top three quarterback (based on passing yardage from that year) throwing them the ball, the average is roughly 2.8, rounded up to 3. To illustrate this point using Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and Matthew Stafford (the top 3 quarterbacks in regards to passing yards from 2011), we can see that Jimmy Graham, Wes Welker, and Calvin Johnson are in the top 15 for targets in 2011. Using Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford, and Aaron Rodgers as the predicted top 3 leaders in passing yards for 2012; I would postulate that Jimmy Graham, Calvin Johnson, and Greg Jennings should be in the top 15 in 2012.
Since 2006, there have been on average between 2 and 3 teams that provided 2 players to the top 15 ranking. Last year, it was Indianapolis (Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon) and Detroit (Calvin Johnson and Brandon Pettigrew). In 2010, there was only one; however from 2006-2009 there was a total of 10 teams that contributed 2 players. I'm predicting for 2012 that 3 teams will contribute 2 players and those teams will be New England (Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski), Dallas (Miles Austin and Dez Bryant), and Atlanta (Roddy White and Julio Jones).
Each season new faces creep into the rankings, some young, some old. From 2006-2007, 10 new names joined the list; from 2007-2008, 7 new players; from 2008-2009, 6 new players; you get the picture. Combining all those new names since 2006, we get an average of 7.6 per year. Thus, there should be at least 7 new names in the 2012 ranking compared to the list from 2011. My prediction for those 7 players is: Greg Jennings, Andre Johnson, Julio Jones, Rob Gronkowski, Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, and Mike Williams. I also chose Mike Williams because he was 16th for targets in 2011 and Tampa Bay seems to be a yo-yo with players bouncing in and out of the top 15 from even to odd years (Joey Galloway – 2006, Antonio Bryant – 2008, Mike Williams – 2010). Names also drop out; I'm predicting those long tenured players will be Steve Smith (CAR) (who has been on the list 3 of the past 6 years) and Reggie Wayne (who has been on the list 6 of the last 6 years).
Players also appear on this list because they have shown consistency (Brandon Marshall/Larry Fitzgerald for 5 straight years, Calvin Johnson/Wes Welker/Roddy White/Andre Johnson for 4 of the last 5 years and Dwayne Bowe for 3 of the past 4 years) OR are young talent with a great quarterback (Hakeem Nicks, Julio Jones, Dez Bryant, Rob Gronkowski). This 2012 top 15 list of projected targeted pass catchers should give a 75% chance of the player chosen to become a high scorer. Try and give attention to as many of them as possible on draft day.