Fantasy Football Roundtable: Who Should Be the Number One Receiver?

Should you draft Calvin Johnson first, or is there another receiver to take instead? Our football writers debate.

Fantasy analysts don't always get along. They don't always agree. And while our algorithms spit out some amazing projections each and every year, we're bound to disagree with the computers at times.

Insert the fantasy football roundtable, where the football guys here at numberFire are able to disagree and argue for a particular player or ranking in fantasy football. The topic for today: Who should be the number one receiver in fantasy football?

The Argument for Dez Bryant

From Daniel Lindsey

Two words: Scott Linehan. After years helping out Calvin Johnson in Detroit, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan is now in Dallas with Dez Bryant. The Cowboys have never had more than 694 passing plays since 2000, while the Lions exceeded that number twice under Linehan. Volume, volume, volume.

Dez, you're the next elite receiver in line for the Scott Linehan treatment. If Marc Trestman can turn around a quarterback and Norv Tuner can have success with tight ends, then Linehan has to be the number one wide receiver whisperer.

With more volume comes more opportunity. And given Bryant's catch rate, that should be a great thing. Over the last four seasons, Calvin Johnson has caught an average of 57.65% of his targets, while Bryant has seen one season below 60% on his way to catching 62.3% of his targets. There may be a little regression on Johnson's numbers, but of the 74 receivers who have caught a pass over the last four seasons, Bryant has the 21st best catch rate; Johnson's rate is in the middle of the pack at 37th.

So if Bryant sees just 10 to 15 more targets (which shouldn’t be hard with Linehan) and maintains his career average of 14.0 yards per reception, 1,400 - if not 1,500 - yards would not be out of question. That's what we call upside, and that alone vaults him to the top of my fantasy football board as the number one receiver.

The Argument for Calvin Johnson

From JJ Zachariason

If there's one year to begin to believe Calvin Johnson isn't the number one wideout, it'd probably be this one. Both Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas have favorable situations ahead, and Megatron's Lions just added some beefy receiving weapons to Matthew Stafford's arsenal.

But the idea here isn't necessarily to pick the one player who will finish first. It's to pick the one player who has a mix of upside (finishing first overall at the position) and risk-aversion. That's Calvin Johnson.

I don't need to tell you how good Megatron is. Over the last three seasons, he's finished first, first and third in wide receiver scoring in PPR leagues. This, of course, includes a 2012 season where he only scored five times. Touchdown dependency, something both Dez and Demaryius generally have within the context of this number one wide receiver argument, isn't exactly a thing for Calvin Johnson.

We kind of know what we're getting from Megatron, so let me just pose a couple of questions about Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas' situations to show their downside. Are we so sure Thomas' numbers can remain similar to last year given a natural regression in the Broncos offense? Even without the presence of Eric Decker? What about the lack of proven pass-catching running backs? And on Dez Bryant's side, can he stay healthy? Can he keep up consistency-wise with a guy like Calvin Johnson? Is his floor really as high?

Did I mention that Calvin Johnson's lowest Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) score over the last four years was 118.69? And that he owns three of numberFire's top four wide receiver seasons since 2010? Yeah, I want that.

In the end, safety is the name of the game. And there's no one safer than Calvin Johnson.

The Argument for Demaryius Thomas

From Sean Wirth

And in the blue and orange corner standing 6’3”, weighing in at the 230 pounds, the middle weight champion of the worl…err...Denver. The Ramblin’ Wreck, Demaryius Thomas!

Thomas will be entering his fifth year in the NFL this upcoming season, his third with Peyton Manning as his quarterback. I think it’s safe to assume Thomas’ development was nothing short of halted during his first two years in the league, when Tim Tebow was throwing him the ball. It's for this reason I'm mainly going to focus on Thomas’ years with Manning.

In 2012 and 2013 ,Thomas was one of the best wide receivers in the game, posting Reception NEP totals of 114.05 (ninth among wide receivers) and 130.03 (third), respectively. Great production from just his first and second season with a real passing threat. Here's Thomas’ 2013 numbers to the other two receivers in this prized title fight, Calvin Johnson and Dez Bryant.

PlayerRec. NEPPer TargetSuccess RateTargets
Demaryius Thomas130.030.9293.48142
Calvin Johnson143.560.9295.24156
Dez Bryant107.910.6890.32159

While there's little to no separation in skill or talent between Dez Bryant and the other two, Demaryius Thomas and Calvin Johnson have clearly separated themselves from a production standpoint. Thomas is nipping at the heels of Megatron and he was just as, if not more, efficient. He was the least targeted out of the three and still managed to produce a high Reception NEP total (good for the 29th-highest total since 2000).

But this is about Peyton Manning, too. I want go back to his days in Indianapolis and look at two other extraordinary receivers he had. I gathered the stats of Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne from their third full year as Manning’s clear-cut number one target. These years would be 2001 for Harrison (sixth year in the NFL) and 2009 for Wayne (ninth year in the NFL).

PlayerReception NEPTargetsRec. NEP Per TargetSuccess Rate
Marvin Harrison144.771640.8894.5%
Reggie Wayne117.571490.7989.0%

Not only was Harrison’s year the best of any receiver in 2001, it ranks as one of the best overall since 2000. With the year Manning had last year and Demaryius’ elite skills, I can easily see Thomas replicating, or getting close, to Harrison’s 2001 season. And this is why he'll be the number one receiver in fantasy football next year.