2023 fantasy football position preview: Wide receiver

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Our ESPN Fantasy analysts are providing overviews and fantasy football draft strategy for each key position. Be sure to check them all out: Quarterback | Running Back | Wide Receiver | Tight End

In an NFL era that has seen a stark increase in passing offense, it makes sense, naturally, that wide receivers have taken on greater importance in your fantasy football strategy in recent seasons. When we're talking about big passing numbers, it's the wide receivers who generally benefit most.

State of the WR position/draft strategy

The wide receiver position as a whole has delivered three of its six highest-scoring seasons in history in the past three years -- not just in total points (due to more games played) but also average points scored per NFL team -- and every one of those six has occurred since 2015. Additionally, seven of the league's 20 individual wide receiver seasons of at least 350 PPR fantasy points have occurred in the past nine seasons.

Nevertheless, this spike in positional scoring hasn't rendered the wide receiver position to "dime a dozen" status in fantasy terms. In actuality, it has enhanced its importance in roster-building and is largely behind the increasingly utilized zero-RB strategy. With elite wide receivers putting up historic fantasy point totals, not to mention some of the game's most prolific all-time positional talents gracing the tops of rankings lists -- Davante Adams, Stefon Diggs, Tyreek Hill, Justin Jefferson and Cooper Kupp are all on Hall of Fame trajectories -- it's imperative that you address this position early in your drafts.

Consider last season, one in which the position actually saw a slight decline in fantasy production compared to the two that preceded it. Six of the top 16 PPR (point per reception) scorers were wide receivers, tops among any position (quarterbacks had five, running backs four and tight ends one). Going even deeper, 19 of the top 50 overall scorers were wide receivers, which is saying a lot when you consider the advantages that most scoring systems provide quarterbacks (only 16 of them made the top 50).

Your league's specific settings do, however, have a major bearing on how critical it is to target wide receivers with your earliest picks. In ESPN's standard game, which utilizes two starting wide receivers and a flex (which can also be a RB or TE), the position's depth affords managers a little more leeway with waiting on or going the sleeper route at the position. Still, recent data supports that, more often than not, your optimal flex will be a wide receiver. Additionally, in non-PPR scoring leagues, wide receiver scoring tends to be more deflated relative to running backs.

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Breaking down the WR tiers

Fantasy football's top wide receiver tier begins 2023 the same as it did heading into 2022, with Jefferson, Kupp and Ja'Marr Chase widely considered the first-round-caliber cream of the crop. They're game-changing talents, representing three of the position's four who averaged more than 20 PPR fantasy points per game last season.

That's not to say the position is hurting for depth in either of the top two tiers. As many as 10 individuals could compose the second tier, including the other three aforementioned players on a Hall of Fame trajectory -- Adams, Diggs and Hill (the effective 2A of this tier) -- target hound Amon-Ra St. Brown, rising star Garrett Wilson and a group of receivers from those loaded pass offenses -- Lamb (Cowboys), Waddle (Dolphins), Brown and Smith (Eagles) and Higgins (Bengals) -- as the effective 2B of the tier. All are among the most likely receivers to exceed the 15 PPG threshold.

Tier 3 includes some up-and-comers in more questionable passing offenses, such as Chris Olave and Christian Watson; oldies but goodies such as DeAndre Hopkins, Keenan Allen, Williams, Amari Cooper, Diontae Johnson, Mike Evans, Godwin and Terry McLaurin; and prime-age options including Metcalf, Deebo Samuel and DJ Moore. It's only after that group that a fantasy team must take chances on role expansion or skills flourishing more quickly than anticipated, and it's wise for a fantasy team to have rostered at least two of the wide receivers from the above three groups by this point in the draft.

Potential breakouts and busts

A trio of sophomores in offenses that experienced offseason quarterback changes stand out on the "breakthrough" side, as the Jets' Wilson could benefit in a big way from the team's acquisition of Aaron Rodgers, the best quarterback the team has had in decades; the Saints' Olave should enjoy a boost as the result of strong-armed Derek Carr; and the Packers' Watson, despite dealing with Jordan Love's development as an NFL starter, proved to be an impact receiver during the second half of 2022.

Digging deeper, Jahan Dotson could take on a larger role in his second season with the Commanders, after he finished the 2022 campaign on a high note (top-20 WR over the season's final month).

A top-20 wide receiver in each of the past two seasons, the Indianapolis Colts' Michael Pittman Jr. will probably struggle to make it a third year in a row while working with a developing rookie quarterback in Anthony Richardson. Speaking of rookies, Smith-Njigba's arrival in Seattle cuts into the target shares of Metcalf and Lockett, with the latter in danger of a decline in fantasy production especially after a 2022 season that saw him outperform expectations.