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How To Navigate The Treacherous Wide Receiver Waters

I'm an educated man. College degree. I watch the Discovery Channel, avoid reality TV and am good at Words With Friends. I like to believe I'm a reasonably intelligent individual.
But there's one thing I cannot seem to get a grasp on lately. It's a simple question but one that has tormented me throughout this NFL season. For all of my reasonable intelligence, the answer continues to elude me and the question continues to haunt me.
Why has the wide receiver position been so unreliable in fantasy leagues this year?
Earlier this week, I joked on the National Fantasy Football Championship Message Boards that I was going to adopt the Diane Chambers method for picking starting wide receivers. I'll go with favorite colors or whether one team's mascot could beat up another. For example, Nate Burleson over Damian Williams was clearly the way to go last week because a Lion can eat a Titan. And in retrospect, you definitely should have started Riley Cooper over Vincent Brown because Cooper has better hair.
I was kidding. Well kind of.
This has been the most unpredictable season I've come across in a long time when it comes to finding reliable wide receivers. So few can be trusted consistently and just when you think a new one is emerging, he soils the bed, and ruins your fantasy week.
Going into Week 11, for example, Denarius Moore, Damian Williams and Vincent Brown were three of the hottest Waiver Wire additions in fantasy leagues. All three were producing and were emerging as productive fantasy options. The result in Week 11? Three combined receptions and zero touchdowns. Meanwhile, guys like Cooper and Kyle Williams were enjoying big days for the handful of owners brave enough to start them.
For many fantasy owners, it was back to the drawing board at the wide receiver position.
With 11 weeks of the season in the books, it's safe to say the wide receiver position has been a crap shoot. Don't believe me? Here is the list of wide receivers I would consider safe to start on a weekly basis:
Calvin Johnson
Andre Johnson (when healthy)
Greg Jennings
Steve Smith
Wes Welker
Mike Wallace 
Larry Fitzgerald 
A.J. Green (when healthy)
Brandon Lloyd
Marques Colston
Jordy Nelson (a rising WR1)
Victor Cruz (one dud in his last seven games)
That's it. That's 12 wide receivers who I believe you can consistently start at this point of the season without fear of a massive letdown. Of course, as we saw with Greg Jennings and Wes Welker in Week 11, even stud players can come up small without warning. That's how crazy this season has been.
There are a number of other receivers such as Roddy White, Miles Austin, Vincent Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and Dez Bryant who have WR1 potential each week as well. However, all of them have come up small at various times this season for a variety of reasons, enhancing their risk factor. Still, I'd feel confident starting any of them as long as they are healthy.
Even taking those other receivers into account that still leaves a lot of guesswork for fantasy owners to grapple with at the position each week. If you're in a league that requires three wide receivers and/or a flex spot that means there are a lot of roster spots being used by receivers each week who could very easily flame out.
As Denarius Moore owners can certainly attest after his Week 11 epic fail.
So what's a fantasy owner to do to try and navigate these treacherous waters? Well if you have one of the 12 receivers listed above you're off to a good start. If you have two or more you're in great shape. If you don't qualify for either one that's when the work begins.
The obvious move is to target receivers on pass-happy teams. That's why someone like Lance Moore is always a worthy WR3 option - especially in PPR leagues. The Saints will throw it a lot, Moore has a strong role in the offense and Drew Brees trusts him. He won't get it done every week but he'll rarely hurt you and he has a high ceiling. So when he does go off your team is the richer for it.
You should also continue to target top receivers with favorable matchups. Dwayne Bowe was looking shaky without Matt Cassel on Monday night, but he came through because he's still his team's No. 1 receiver and he was facing New England's highly suspect secondary. So the matchup was in his favor and he got it done. 
Lastly, and here's where I'm breaking away from my usual methodology, is I think you need to gamble and roll the dice on a potential breakout player if you do not have a consistently productive receiving corps. Typically, I don't like rolling the dice on an unproven player and hoping lighting strikes. But given how impossible this season has been to project with wide receivers, I'm more willing to gamble than ever before.
I'm not going to go in blind, but if an unknown player is in a good spot on a pass-heavy team with a favorable matchup, it's worth it to take a shot and see if he pans out. That's what made Vincent Brown such a great sleeper pick in Week 10 and why Cooper was a worthy gamble in Week 11. Both were starting on pass-first teams in matchups that favored good production. Again, it may not always work (Brown was in the exact same situation in Week 11 and flopped) but the payoff could be immense if you are able to catch lightning in a bottle that particular week.
If you're scrambling to make the playoffs in your league, it's time to be aggressive. If that means throwing caution to the wind and going for broke at the wide receiver position, make it happen. Sure there's risk involved but given how unpredictable this season has gone, a well-placed gamble could result in this week's Riley Cooper.
Here are five sleeper picks for Week 12:
QB: Josh Freeman (TB) - Freeman has been a disappointment this season but he has topped 260 yards passing in four of his last five games. The Titans' pass defense has struggled in recent weeks and if Freeman can stay on the same page with Mike Williams, this is a matchup he can exploit on Sunday.
RB: Jonathan Stewart (Car.) - Stewart has been a decent RB3 in PPR leagues. This week, he faces the Colts and their terrible run defense. He'll share time as usual with DeAngelo Williams but the matchup will result in quality fantasy production for JStew. 
WR: Early Doucet (Ari.) - He's been money as a WR3 in PPR leagues for the past several games and this week he gets to face the leaky St. Louis secondary. He's a fine sleeper pick in all formats.
TE: Jacob Tamme (Ind.) - Tamme is expected to start again for the injured Dallas Clark. He caught 6-75-0 in his first start two weeks ago and will be a trusted outlet for Indy's passing game on Sunday. 
D: Seattle - The Seahawks are quietly playing improved football and their defense has been coming through for fantasy owners. A matchup at home against the scuffling Redskins will help them deliver again.
Tom Kessenich is the Manager of High Stakes Fantasy Games for STATS LLC. Find out more about the NFFC at or email Tom at Follow him on Twitter @TomKessenich.