Here in mid-July, it seems fairly clear that Steve Smith of the Carolina Panthers will be the first wideout taken in most fantasy drafts, and with good reason. Smith racked up an incredible 1,563 receiving yards on 103 catches in '05 (leading the league in both categories), caught 12 TDs (tied for the league lead with Marvin Harrison), and had the highest yards-after-catch average in the NFL. He's as elusive as a funny Wayans Brothers movie, despite being just about as short as the lead character in Little Man. He's the safe pick.
But who goes next? I think you can legitimately nominate four candidates for the second slot (in alphabetical order): Marvin Harrison, Torry Holt, Chad Johnson and Terrell Owens. All four are incredible receivers, and will likely be a boon to their fantasy teams, but each has a mitigating circumstance that could cause problems. Most obviously, Johnson has the ongoing questionable status of Carson Palmer – Have you ever noticed that not one single knee surgery has ever failed to go "very well," or that not one single knee-rupture victim is anything but "well ahead of schedule" on his rehab? Holt has the departure of Mike Martz's aerial carnival. Harrison has the departure of Edgerrin James and the continued emergence of Reggie Wayne. And as for Owens … well, mostly he's got Owens. Let's take a closer look at all four of our second-wideout candidates.
Marvin Harrison, Ind
At age 34, Harrison is the oldest of our four candidates, and while he keeps himself in terrific shape, it's foolish not to consider his relatively advanced age. Also of concern is the fact that he had elbow surgery this May (presumably because he's on the Shaquille O'Neal HMO), and didn't participate in any of the Colts' offseason team activities; he'll supposedly be all right for the start of the season, but again, it's a negative.
Of course, on the positive side: he's Marvin Harrison. He's the most consistent receiver in fantasy football, having reached double-digits in TDs in each of the last (gasp) seven seasons. To me, it doesn't particularly matter that 2005 represented his lowest catch total in that time period, because Peyton Manning just loves him in the red zone. Harrison will never be mistaken for a bulldozer (as his YAC average attests), but the dude owns the hash marks. If Smith is the safest bet to take as the first overall WR, Harrison is perhaps the safest player in all of fantasy.
Torry Holt, StL
Tory, Tory, Tory! Harrison is the littlest of our foursome, and Holt comes next. The Rams standout will never be confused with the new breed of physical freaks (e.g., Owens, Randy Moss, Larry Fitzgerald, et al) at his position, but he plays with incredible precision that makes him a fantasy stud. Until 2003, Holt struggled to get into the end zone, registering just under six scores a year, but he hit double digits in both '03 and '04, and would likely have reached that mark last season if he hadn't been slowed by a sore knee that caused him to miss two games. At 30, and the only real question about him involves his team situation, not his personal skill.
Mike Martz is gone, as are the days of Holt getting upwards of 160 targets every season. With Scott Linehan in charge, St. Louis will continue to throw, but will be more committed to the run as well, and will also be more heavily invested than Martz was in keeping Marc Bulger upright. As such, on most plays, Holt will be one of two or three receiving options, not four or five, and he could see more double-coverage as a result. That doesn't scare me much; Holt doesn't make his money breaking short catches for long runs, and his routes are so good that he'll be open no matter what. In my eyes, any detriment to Holt's fantasy value caused by Martz's departure is more than made up for by the prospect of a fully healthy Bulger for 16 games. Plus, with Isaac Bruce on the downslide, Holt has to step up even bigger.
Chad Johnson, Cin
With a healthy Carson Palmer, there's no doubt 7-11 is at least No. 2 on my wideout list, and might even occupy the top spot. Ah, then again, if Justin Timberlake could act his way out of a paper bag, he'd do more than sing to 12-year-old girls. But don't cry a river for Johnson: Palmer willll get healthier toward the end of the year, and the Gold-Choppered One's stats will only rise.
It's worth noting that Johnson is the only player on our list who hasn't ever caught 100 passes in a season, but that's splitting hairs: he's caught 90, 95 and 97 in his past three years. A bit more worrisome is the fact that the Bengals don't look Johnson's way in the red zone nearly as much as these other receivers' teams look for their studs. Indeed, now that James has left Indy, I think you can argue that Cincy has the widest variety of very good red-zone options of all four of these squads; recall that Johnson's running mate, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, caught seven scores with a bad hand in '05, and that Rudi Johnson accounted for 12 scores himself, every single one of which came from the 16-yard-line or closer. Add to this equation the fact that Palmer's backup will either be Anthony Wright or Doug Johnson, and you see why C.J. gets lumped just below Smith in the second tier.
Terrell Owens, Dal
Owens is a jerk and a moron. Let's just get that out of the way. I don't particularly enjoy owning him, because he's no fun to root for. And now that he's been misquoted in his own recent autobiography, there isn't a single person in the universe, including himself, who Owens likes or trusts. All that said, it's easy for me to shake off the emotional when it comes to T.O., and simply evaluate the physical. And the physical says: when Owens wants to play, he's unbelievable. He's giant, strong, runs perfect routes, is one of the faster players in the league, and is well nigh unstoppable one-on-one. His 2004, in which he led the Eagles to the Super Bowl, was a thing of beauty – 1,200 yards and 14 scores – which makes the persuasive argument that when T.O. is right in the head, he's as valuable as any fantasy receiver alive.
And I'm quite sure he'll have a very nice first season with Dallas, where no one has egregiously pissed him off (yet). If there are downsides to Owens, though, they reside under center in Big D. I just don't trust Drew Bledsoe. He has absolutely no mobility, and a huge arm whose days of perfect accuracy are long behind him. How many games will it take for Owens to get up in Bledsoe's face, after Bledsoe makes an ill-advised too-high throw to T.O. over the middle? I mean, if Owens didn't like Donovan McNabb's quarterbacking skills, what in the world is he going to be saying by the end of '06? I do expect T.O. to be well-behaved this year, and he's obviously going to score a lot, and rack up a lot of yards. With a better QB, I'd say he wins this battle hands-down.
I like this foursome of receivers in the following order:
I think Holt's combination of precision, level-headedness and speed, and the presumed good health of Bulger, will lead him to heights that will include 100-plus catches, 1,500-plus yards and 10-12 scores. Harrison bumps down just a peg because of age and injury questions, as well as the departure of James, which could cause defenses to concentrate a bit more on the pass. Nevertheless, Harrison is a virtual lock to score 10 times, and probably will get you even more than that. As I said above, Johnson would be my top receiver overall if Palmer didn't have his knee issues, but given the nature of reality, I think there will be some serious bumps in the road for the Cincinnati offense. Too many variables and negative possibilities make me feel just the slightest bit reserved about 7-11. Finally, I know for a fact that I'm the least sanguine writer here at Yahoo! about Owens's prospects in Dallas; our other experts had him graded second, third and third among wideouts. And sure, I'm worried about Owens's questionable character, the possibility he'll have a tiff with Bill Parcels, and the further chance that Dallas's offensive line will be the team's undoing. But mostly I'm worried about Bledsoe.