It was late in the summer of 2011 and I had it all figured out. The NFL lockout was finally over and camp preparation time was at a minimum. Team continuity was going to be my theme. I wasn't going to mess with rosters that had heavy turnover, and I certainly wasn't going to make the sucker play of trusting rookie players in the passing game. Sorry, first year wideouts, I won't be ranking you with any gusto.
Okay, maybe I need a mulligan on that one.
Youth was served at the wideout position this year, as a precocious group of first-year receivers hit the ground running and never looked back. A.J. Green was a star from Day 1 and Julio Jones fit in nicely in Atlanta, but they weren't the only pups to earn their stripes:
Take a second to appreciate some of the stories from the rookie crop as we collect a few scouting notes:
Green's talent leapt off the screen, evident to anyone who was paying attention. With all due respect to Andy Dalton, Cincinnati's impressive rookie QB, Green was the man steering the passing game more often than not, showing a dazzling combination of speed, size, competitiveness, strength and hand-eye coordination. Calvin Johnson 2.0? It's possible . . . Smith went for 18 yards a reception, and his numbers would have been even better if Joe Flacco didn't air mail him about 1.5 times a week. Jones countered with a 17.7 YPC mark, scaring the daylights out of NFC cornerbacks . . . Seattle's Baldwin came through as an underdog story, making the club as an undrafted free agent and settling in as a trusted target despite modest reps. The club raved about his maturity and route running . . . Moore had his share of wow plays in Oakland (remember the ridiculous grab in Buffalo?), though foot and ankle problems got in the way in the middle of the year . . . Cobb wasn't needed that much in Green Bay, but look at that zesty catch rate: 25 receptions on 31 targets . . . Little dropped a few too many passes for our liking, but obviously the Browns thought highly at him: note the lofty target number. And it's not like all of those Colt McCoy aerials were on the money.
The young-receiver revolution wasn't limited to the rookie wideouts. Consider all the second-year receivers who put food on our fantasy tables in 2011: Dez Bryant, Antonio Brown (perhaps the most improved receiver in the league), Eric Decker, Damian Williams, Demaryius Thomas, Andre Roberts and Riley Cooper, to name a few. Jacoby Ford's possible breakout was derailed by injuries (isn't that the case with everyone in Oakland?).
So what's going on here? What happened to the tried and true theory that most rookie receivers should be seen and not drafted? What happened to the theory that most young receivers should be generally distrusted until Year 3? Why are so many kids producing right away?
The answer is probably in the Xs and Os. Today's wide-open NFL has fully embraced the spread offense, and that's in line with the game so many of these kids are playing in college. Long gone are the days where a college offense was borderline-useless towards a prospect's pro development. The dividing line between college scheme and pro scheme is getting thinner and thinner all the time.
And the spread offense brings increased opportunity to the passing game; you need more targets, more route-runners. If a rookie wideout is the fourth-best receiver on his team out of the box, he'll see significant snaps right away. If he's the third-best option, he'll play quite a bit. The offensive coordinator might not throw the full playbook at his rookie speedster right away, but he won't hesitate to get talent on the field. A decade ago, these rookies would be learning in the film room and watching on game day; today, on-the-job training is part of the deal.
While you start dreaming of the 2012 rookie class (we'll get to that list in a little bit), let's look at more 2011 receiver themes, working in the Q-and-A format.
With pinpoint passing and pinball scoring dominating the league in so many cities, are wide receivers going along for the ride? Did fantasy WR scoring take off this year?
Surprisingly, the answer to that latter question is a flat "no." I fooled around with some scoring graphs tracking the position over the last six years, and for the most part scoring is static at every notable checkpoint. You'll always have an outlier here and there, but the general benchmarks aren't moving. Have a gander at the consistency here:
Okay, so fantasy points are still cranking out at a similar rate, even with the game opening up. But an interesting phenomenon is riding shotgun to that fact: consider how the targets have been arranged over the last six seasons:
The opportunity isn't much different at the 25, 40 and 50 levels, but look at the top groups — we're seeing less passes forced to the elite receivers. And it's not a big surprise if you stop and look at some teams individually.
The four teams with the most passing yards this year are the Saints, Patriots, Packers and Giants. Three elite quarterbacks at the top of that group, and Eli Manning was good enough to make the Pro Bowl. Are these quarterbacks forcing the ball to any specific target? Heck no. They'll throw to whomever is open; better yet, they'll decipher the defense pre-snap, process information, and figure out who will be open before the ball leaves the center's hands. The days of staring down your pet receiver and peppering him with targets just for the heck of it are just about over, at least with the better passing clubs. They're going to beat you one way or another, and it doesn't have to be with a dedicated star.
Here's another interesting fact with those four aerial circuses. In each city, your best fantasy value came from someone other than the first target selected. Marques Colston was the top New Orleans choice, but Jimmy Graham (a tight end, of course) was the better value. Wes Welker was terrific in Foxboro, but Rob Gronkowski was a better pull. Greg Jennings was super in Green Bay, but Jordy Nelson was a needle-moving star in the middle or end of your draft. And with all due respect to Hakeem Nicks (and no due respect to Mario Manningham), the star receiver in New Jersey was a waiver-wire stud named Victor Cruz.
Takeaway: you don't necessarily have to be first in line at the carnival, just make sure you get on the ride.
Who were the biggest fantasy difference-makers at wide receiver this year? What can we learn from their seasons?
The Yahoo! MVP list tells you about the common threads that built 2011 champions; "keys to success" coming right up. Here's the wide receiver honor roll. Keep in mind it's a mix of production and return that push you onto this list; it isn't the list of the top scorers (sorry, Calvin).
• Wes Welker (52.8 percent): The second year after a monstrous injury is often a good time to buy.
• Mike Wallace (27.4 percent): He's still polishing his craft right now — Brown might be a better route-runner despite one less year of experience — but if you're going to be a one-trick pony, might as well beat them deep.
• Jordy Nelson (23.0 percent): Don't freak out if the snap count is limited, so long as the production keeps coming. According to Pro Football Focus, Nelson played a modest 27, 33, 46, 31, 25, 35 and 31 snaps over the first seven weeks — and yet he was the No. 18 fantasy wideout by the production stats, an every-week starter. And when his role increased in the second half, the stats went through the roof.
• Marques Colston (20.6 percent): Sometimes a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. I accepted the solid-but-boring Colston after Week 4 in the Yahoo Friends & Family League, not wanting to play the waiting game on Andre Johnson's hamstring. Colston was more of a solid contributor than a true star, but Johnson only played two games in the following three months, ultimately getting hurt again.
• Victor Cruz (19.8 percent): Don't get hung up on pedigree — when someone flashes on the field, point-and-click first and ask questions later. Pro scouts are wrong all the time, and in Cruz's case, so are college scouts (he matriculated at UMass, a 1-AA school, and wasn't drafted).
• Steve Smith (16.6 percent): While it's generally No Country for Old Receivers in today's NFL (sorry about that, Ochocinco, Derrick Mason and Terrell Owens), Smith hit a revival in Carolina, clicking with strong-armed stud Cam Newton.
• Laurent Robinson (14.4 percent): Another hit for the non-pedgree crew, along with the limited-snap crew. You could quickly figure out that Tony Romo and Robinson had a mind meld working; they connected on a number of big connections outside of structure, routinely taking a lost or broken play and turning it into a hefty gain. You can learn a lot by watching the games with an open mind.
Back to Andre Johnson for a second: is he no longer an elite fantasy wideout going forward?
I hate to say anything negative about AJ because I love the talent and he's always seemed like a solid guy, a hard-working guy, a good teammate. But it's time to accept some facts of life: he's missed 22 games over the last seven years, and he's never topped the nine-touchdown mark for his career. He turns 31 next summer, and while that doesn't make him ancient, maybe it's time to stop chasing for a touchdown-heavy season that might never come. He's a risk-reward play to consider in the second or early-third round now; his first-round days are over, at least as far as I'm concerned.
Who are some of the (possible) 2012 Rookies to Watch?
Oklahoma State junior Justin Blackmon should be an early first-round pick if he comes out; he's good enough to be a fantasy factor from Day 1. Other names to know: Michael Floyd (Notre Dame), Mohamed Sanu (Rutgers), Kendall Wright (Baylor), Rueben Randle (LSU), Alshon Jeffery (South Carolina), Tommy Streeter (Miami) and Dwight Jones (North Carolina). Sanu, Jeffery, Streeter and Randle are underclassmen, in addition to Blackmon.
How about a 2012 sleeper or two? Got some overvalued names for me?
A quick look at the TD/reception chart will often lead you to underrated and overrated commodities for the next year; it's a little like BABIP for receivers. Sure, talent has a lot to do with getting to the end zone, but sometimes it's good fortune that the goal-line pass is on target or you barely break the plane as you're tripped up and hitting the turf. Flip side, anyone who's heavy on the catches and targets has to score a few touchdowns eventually, even if they don't have a skill set that glitters in the red zone and at the goal line.
Some heavy TD/catch guys that I don't fully trust in 2012: Plaxico Burress, Eric Decker, Robert Meachem, Demaryius Thomas (sorry Timmy) and probably Laurent Robinson too (I hate saying that). I also won't pay the full freight upgrade on Nelson if he's a pricy player next fall; there is a lot of gridlock in Green Bay. On the flip side, these regular targets could easily find more touchdown luck next year: Antonio Brown (go get him), Michael Crabtree, Greg Little, Nate Burleson (maybe Titus Young as well), Mike Williams of Tampa, Darrius Heyward-Bey (actually, I like just about any Oakland receiver not named Chaz Schilens).
What does the 2012 Fantasy WR Board look like?
Understand it's insanely early to do this, so write it all down in pencil. I'm not going to put any rookies in the list — we have no idea where they're headed or if they're even declaring in some instances — but I will give Blackmon a strong rank in almost any city, probably in the Top 25.
And please no wrestling in the snow if you don't like the ranks below. Draft season is a good eight months away. So much is going to change. Forget marrying these ranks; we're not even holding hands.
Enjoy the playoffs, gamer.
Preliminary 2012 WR Draft Board
1. Calvin Johnson
2. Larry Fitzgerald
3. Wes Welker
4. Greg Jennings
5. Roddy White
6. Andre Johnson
7. Hakeem Nicks
8. Mike Wallace
9. A.J. Green
10. Dwayne Bowe
11. Jeremy Maclin
12. Miles Austin
13. Jordy Nelson
14. Steve Smith
15. Dez Bryant
16. Kenny Britt
17. Brandon Marshall
18. Julio Jones
19. Victor Cruz
20. Vincent Jackson
21. Antonio Brown
22. Marques Colston
23. Brandon Lloyd
24. Percy Harvin
25. Stevie Johnson
26. Michael Crabtree
27. DeSean Jackson
28. Santonio Holmes
29. Torrey Smith
30. Darrius Heyward-Bey
31. Anquan Boldin
32. Mike Williams
33. Sidney Rice
34. Denarius Moore
35. Pierre Garcon
36. Laurent Robinson
37. Demaryius Thomas
38. Greg Little
39. Nate Washington
40. Lance Moore
41. Reggie Wayne
42. Malcom Floyd
Images courtesy of US Presswire. Historical data from FFToday.com.