Wide receivers are prima donnas because they need to be. They are more dependent than other weapons in all team sports on getting their numbers called. Even when they're wide open, they sometimes do not get the ball from the quarterback in that two or three seconds of fury after the snap.
It's always a surprisingly short list of receivers who had at least 100 balls thrown to them last year (that's targets, not actual receptions), got at least one great chance per game to score (a target in the red zone) and are playing in the same system with the same QB. These are the guys we can safely project relative to last year's numbers.
The target-only qualifiers with the same QB/system are Andre Johnson (170), Larry Fitzgerald (154), Roddy White (148), Greg Jennings (140), Santana Moss (137), Reggie Wayne (130), Steve Smith (129). Hines Ward (126), Anquan Boldin (126), Lance Moore (121), Derrick Mason (121), DeSean Jackson (116), Donald Driver (115), Santonio Holmes (114), Steve Breaston (113), Muhsin Muhammad (109), Lee Evans (101) and Vincent Jackson (100).
I'm not saying to "Buy" all of these guys by any stretch. I am saying that if you liked last year's numbers, you will probably like this year's. They're the what-you-see-is-what-you-get guys – except Evans, who is a clear No. 2 receiver with Terrell Owens now in town.
Note, too, that some who didn't make this list actually should be in improved situations – the Patriots wideouts get Tom Brady back, for example. So ignore our caveats and aggressively target them.
Quantity is great for the fantasy stats, but quality of targets in the red zone is key. Weaker QBs are often a boon here, as they lock on to first reads. The more skilled QBs go through their progressions — spreading the wealth.
The minimum requirement for a number one or two fantasy receivers is at least one red zone look per game, on average. Just 24 guys last year did that on a per-start basis, the most surprising one being Javon Walker. Larry Fitzgerald was last year's red zone target leader (31).
Looking at red zone targets eliminates Wayne (seven in 16 starts), Mason (10/16), DeSean Jackson (14/16, closer than you thought, I bet), Driver (11/16), Holmes (11/15), Breaston (13/16), Evans (8/16) and Vincent Jackson (15/16). Downgrade all of these guys in leagues that more heavily emphasize TDs.
The heavily targeted wideouts overall and in the red zone (with the same QB and system) are Andre Johnson, Fitzgerald, White, Jennings, Santana Moss, Smith, Ward, Boldin, Muhammad and Moore.
Let's make some recommendations on these guys and a couple who didn't make our list.
Calvin Johnson, Lions: Megatron does not need a good QB and no coach would implement a system that did not make him the No. 1 offensive priority. He will be fed the ball and will feast on opposing defensive backs who cannot contend with his imposing physical skills.
Chad Ochocinco, Bengals: Carson Palmer's high-ankle sprain isn't too serious but will scare most owners away from the former Chad Johnson, who is a bargain now (going about where Jackson is being drafted). Laveranues Coles isn't going to steal as many red zone looks as did T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
Lance Moore, Saints: Sort of a sleeper in summer drafts. He's generally going in the fifth or sixth round. I just got him at No. 71 overall in a Yahoo Friends and Family (experts) league. Moore is the quickest, craftiest and most reliable of the Saints receivers. Drew Brees has noticed. Moore basically accumulated last year's stats in the 14 games he started.
Santana Moss, Redskins: He's a nice mix of a deep threat and possession receiver while making our red zone target threshold despite his diminutive stature. He can be the poor man's Steve Smith, going about 10 picks after Moore.
Muhsin Muhammad, Panthers: He's old. But he will start because of his great run blocking and he will be the primary option for the Panthers in the red zone because of his size. Carolina isn't going to rush for 30 TDs again this year, which means more quality looks for Muhammad (not even drafted in many leagues).
Vincent Jackson, Chargers: He's a late fourth/early fifth round pick right now. If he slides further, grab him. The problem for Jackson is that all the Chargers receivers are great red zone options. Antonio Gates and Malcolm Floyd are enormous and athletic, too.
DeSean Jackson, Eagles: People are buying into the possibility, but I don't see him as a red zone target. He's going ahead of Moss and Moore, which is a mistake.
Steve Breaston, Cardinals: He needs a receiver to get hurt like last year to get comparable numbers. Remember, Arizona committed to the run but couldn't convert (31st in yards per carry). This year, with Chris Wells, things may be different.