2012 Fantasy Football in Review: Wide Receivers

There are busts, there are faceplants, there are atomic bombs, and then there's Larry Fitzgerald.

In our third installment of our "Wait, Michael Turner and Larry Fitzgerald were top three round draft picks?" series, we bring you the most heart-wrenching group of them all: the wide receivers.

Out of all the positions in your fantasy draft - excluding kickers, because trying to predict them makes about as much sense as predicting that a Syracuse coach would make the jump to the NFL - receiver is the toughest one to get a read on. There are so many factors that go into a fantasy season for wideouts. Will they get their targets? Will the offense throw the ball as much as usual? How is their catch rate? Are injuries a concern? And will this player score any plain old touchdowns?

Usually, it's easy to tell exactly who's going to be at the top of that list. This year, there was Calvin Johnson, and... well, if you didn't get Megatron, good luck!

Here's our look back at the wide receivers who made noise in fantasy football this year. Keep your hands firmly inside the vehicle; it's going to be a bumpy ride.

The Top Tens

Preseason Draft Kit
1. Calvin Johnson: 196.44 Fantasy Points (FP)
2. Roddy White: 187.84 FP
3. Larry Fitzgerald: 179.68 FP
4. Andre Johnson: 170.41 FP
5. Wes Welker: 166.78 FP
6. Greg Jennings: 163.28 FP
7. Mike Wallace: 160.89 FP
8. Hakeem Nicks: 160.85 FP
9. Jordy Nelson: 158.90 FP
10. Marques Colston: 156.11 FP

End of the Season
1. Calvin Johnson: 214 FP
2. Brandon Marshall: 210 FP
3. Dez Bryant: 201 FP
4. A.J. Green: 194 FP
5. Demaryius Thomas: 191 FP
6. Vincent Jackson: 181 FP
T-7. Andre Johnson: 176 FP
T-7. Eric Decker: 176 FP
9. Julio Jones: 173 FP
10. Roddy White: 169 FP

Right on Target, Sir

Calvin Johnson, Detroit Lions
Preseason Projection: No. 1 WR, 196.44 FP
End of Season Total: No. 1 WR, 214 FP

Sure, this wasn't exactly a limb that we went out on here. It really wasn't even a branch. We're just standing on top of a stump, saying, "Hey, isn't this cool guys!"

But can you blame us? Look at the rest of that preseason Top Ten for a second. We weren't the only ones with those names; that's a standard list. And only three of the guys on that preseason list ended up in the actual Top Ten: Megatron, Andre Johnson, and Roddy White (who fell from No. 2 to No. 10).

After a 2011 where Megatron finished with 158 targets (third in the NFL) and the Lions threw the ball on 65.2 percent of their offensive plays (highest proportion in the NFL), it would have been a minor miracle (or an injury) to see Johnson not in the top five receivers this year. And true to form, the Lions kept their exact same gameplan. The Lions threw the ball on 65.4 percent of their offensive plays (highest proportion in the NFL), Matthew Stafford led the league with 727 pass attempts, and Johnson led the league with 205 targets.

Essentially, all Johnson had to do to not have a complete failure of a season was catch the ball at the same average clip he had maintained for the past two seasons. And he managed to do just that - Johnson's 59.8 percent catch rate is just a shade below the league average at just over 60 percent, as well as just below his own personal career best at 60.3 percent in 2011.

Coming Out of Left Field

A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals
Preseason Projection: No. 12 WR, 148.43 FP
End of Season Total: No. 4 WR, 194 FP

Perhaps the only two guys in most other preseason top 10 lists that were conspicuously left off of our were the two young guns: A.J. Green and Julio Jones. Everybody, including our own Chief Analyst Keith Goldner, was high on their potential but simply couldn't prove it through the stats.

The big reason was the unholy combination of targets and catch rate. Green had the more targets of the two in 2011, at 116 looks. That was good for 24th in the NFL, behind such distinguished fantasy football names as, well, Greg Little and Nate Washington. And Julio Jones had even less to go on - his 96 targets were 50th in the NFL and barely half the targets of teammate Roddy White. Seemingly neither one could catch a football either: both players were just below a 57 percent catch rate in their rookie year.

But then the sophomore spurt happened. And while neither player had an extraordinary catch rate - only Jones was above the league-average rate at 62 percent - the targets began to appear in droves. Green's 164 targets finished tied for fifth in the NFL, while Jones's 129 targets finished 20th.

For Green specifically, the big change occurred in what percentage of the Bengals offense the star became. In 2011, Green was indeed the leading receiver with those 116 targets, but Jerome Simpson was just behind at 104 targets and Jermaine Gresham not much further behind him at 92. All told, only 21.7 percent of all Bengals QB throws went the rookie's way.

But then in 2012, no other single Bengal got within 70 targets of Green's 164. Those looks he received represented 30.4 percent of all Bengals throws, one of only two players above 30 percent of his team's passes in the NFL (along with Andre Johnson). That's not a bad increase. And even if it's not fully sustainable, it certainly cements Green as a top five receiver next year if he even comes close.

Back Into Hiding

Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals
Preseason Projection: No. 3 WR, 179.68 FP
End of Season Total: No. 40 WR, 99 FP

I feel a pang of pity in my heart for Larry Fitzgerald. Wouldn't you? One of the most talented receivers in the NFL, and he was forced to make due with a set of QBs that couldn't hit Godzilla while standing 10 yards away.

I wish I was overstating just how bad the Cardinals QBs were, but then you take a look at our Net Expected Points (NEP) formula. NEP measures just how many points a player gains or loses his team when compared to the league-average play in the same situation. And remember, since passing is more efficient than rushing, quarterbacks usually have a positive NEP figure when each individual play is added together.

That's why, in the bottom ten of NEP figures this season, there are six running backs, with Darren McFadden at -51.19 NEP as the worst. Then, there are four QBs who exceptionally struggled and managed to lose their team tons of points. One was Mark Sanchez, who lost the Jets 0.06 NEP per pass and 46.36 NEP total on the season. Another is Brady Quinn, whose 58.73 NEP lost for Kansas City was the second-worst mark on the season. The other two, despite only playing roughly half their team's games? John Skelton (-47.39 NEP) and Ryan Lindley (league-worst -71.45 NEP).

Want to know just how bad the situation was for Fitzgerald? Our NEP figures go back to the 2000 NFL season. And in that time, only one QB with at least 150 pass attempts averaged worse than Lindley's -0.38 NEP per pass: rookie year Alex Smith, who put up -0.42 NEP per pass for the 2005 49ers. Lindley barely beat out 2009 Jamarcus Russell, who put up -0.37 NEP per pass for the Raiders. That's not good company to keep.

That's why it doesn't matter if Fitzgerald actually has the receiving ability of Jerry Rice mixed with Tecmo Bowl Bo Jackson; without a QB, he's going nowhere. And heading into next season, Fitzgerald's stock will be directly tied to what the Cardinals do at the QB slot. But I can tell you this: he likely won't be anywhere near our No. 3 spot again.