Last season, Steve Smith was the be-all, end-all of the Carolina offense. With injuries in the running game, and lacking a solid secondary option in the passing game, Smith was targeted 150 times by Jake Delhomme, with 103 of those passes successfully completed.
This time around, the Panthers attack is healthy in the running game, and re-stocked with the addition of electric rookie DeAngelo Williams. The team also brought in a perfect, possession-receiving compliment to Smith in veteran Keyshawn Johnson. But even if the Panthers can afford to lean less on Smith in '06, the Barnum and Bailey act that he puts on when the ball is in his hands is too enticing to pass up when considering the top WRs on draft day. In a fairly top-heavy fantasy receiving class, I think Smith still stands alone. Here's a look at how the receiving class looks heading into early fantasy drafts:
Tier 1: Steve Smith
Tier 2: Terrell Owens, Chad Johnson, Torry Holt, Larry Fitzgerald, Randy Moss, Marvin Harrison, Anquan Boldin
Tier 3: Hines Ward, Chris Chambers
Tier 4: Darrell Jackson, Santana Moss, Reggie Wayne, Donald Driver
Tier 5: Roy Williams, Plaxico Burress, Joey Galloway
Tier 6: T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Andre Johnson, Javon Walker, Derrick Mason, Rod Smith, Deion Branch
Tier 7: Joe Horn, Eddie Kennison, Reggie Brown, Lee Evans, Drew Bennett, Nate Burleson
Tier 8: Donte' Stallworth, Laveranues Coles, Koren Robinson, Muhsin Muhammad, Michael Clayton, Jerry Porter
Tier 9: Keenan McCardell, Ernest Wilford, Antonio Bryant, Terry Glenn, Isaac Bruce, Kevin Curtis, Keyshawn Johnson
Tier 10: Eric Moulds, Antwaan Randle El, Brandon Lloyd, Braylon Edwards, Joe Jurevicius, David Givens, Matt Jones, Amani Toomer, Mark Clayton
Other Notables: Brandon Stokley, Reggie Williams, Reche Caldwell, Chad Jackson, Cedrick Wilson, Samie Parker, Michael Jenkins, Roddy White, Eric Parker, Ashley Lelie, Troy Williamson, Charles Rogers, Mike Williams, Mark Bradley, Justin McCareins, Arnaz Battle, Santonio Holmes, Sinorice Moss, Peerless Price, Roscoe Parrish, Chris Henry, Bobby Engram, Ronald Curry, Robert Ferguson, Marty Booker, Todd Pinkston, Marcus Robinson
Jacksonville: Now that Jimmy Smith has retired, fantasy pundits are starting two pick sides as to who will emerge as Jacksonville's top wideout. Matt Jones and Ernest Wilford are the two players that are causing this division and, given the emerging chemistry that Wilford and QB Byron Leftwich have shown the past two years, I lean in the direction of Wilford being the top guy here. But Jones' freakish athletic ability and size has left him with no shortage of proponents. As the summer unfolds, this picture will start to clear up a bit, but the draft day decision will still likely be a leap of faith.
Green Bay: With Javon Walker out of the picture, the Packers' No. 2 wideout spot is open for competition, mainly between Robert Ferguson and Rod Gardner, although the team's second-round pick, Greg Jennings, could surprise. Ferguson might have an early leg up, if only because he's spent the most time in a Packers uniform. But the team has a new offense this year and ultimately the job will be won by the receiver that best picks up the nuances of the system.
New England: The team lost David Givens to free agency, traded Bethel Johnson and is dealing with a potential holdout by Deion Branch. If Branch does decided to take his contract demands into the season, the team is looking at the elderly Troy Brown, rookie Chad Jackson and offseason acquisition Reche Caldwell as the nucleus of the receiving unit. Even if Branch decides to table his contract demands, this is a unit in transition, and someone new is going to have to step up where Givens left a hole.
Philadelphia: The team's Terrell Owens nightmare is over, but the Eagles did little to fill the void in talent he left behind. They did sign veteran Jabar Gaffney, but they waited until the fourth round to address the need in the draft. Gaffney and late-round draft help won't go very far in replacing Owens, meaning much of the pressure to pick up the slack will land on second-year wideout Reggie Brown and veteran Todd Pinkston, who is returning from a ruptured Achilles' tendon.
On the Rise
Chris Chambers, Mia – Daunte Culpepper arguably throws the best deep ball in the league. Chambers is one of the best in the league at hauling in deep passes. So, with the news that Culpepper is making a miraculously speedy recovery from major knee surgery and could be more than ready to go come Week 1 of the regular season, it makes sense that Chambers will be a name on the rise. His ascent has already begun.
Roy Williams, Det – Like Kevin Jones and Jon Kitna, or Josh McCown, Williams is seeing a rise in his fantasy draft value for the simple reason that Mike Martz is now the team's offensive coordinator. Williams has special physical skills as a receiver to begin with, and he managed to make a pretty good fantasy living in '05 (8 TDs) despite working within the league's 27th-ranked offense. If Williams can stay healthy, he's could be a monster under Martz's guidance.
Joe Horn, NO – Hamstring problems took a big bite out of Horn's '05 campaign, but he's feeling great heading into the summer of '06. With a new quarterback running the show for the Saints in Drew Brees, optimism is running high in fantasy drafts that Horn can return to the go-to guy he was as recently as '04 – 94 catches, 1,399 yards, 11 TDs. Horn has typically been taken among, or on the bubble of, the top 20 WRs in early experts drafts, representing that many feel he's a worthy No. 2 fantasy wideout option despite just 654 yards and one touchdown in '05.
Ernest Wilford, Jac – As mentioned in the Hot Spots above, I like Wilford to emerge as Jacksonville's top wideout over Matt Jones. Both players saw their draft values boosted by Jimmy Smith's retirement, however. Both went from often going undrafted in typical 12-team league formats to top 120 picks after Smith's retirement. Wilford, like Jones, is tall, and he has shown a knack for scoring big-moment TDs in his two seasons. And he was particularly strong in his final 10 games of '05, picking up 564 yards and five TDs.
Reggie Brown, Phi – The lion's share of the burden of replacing Terrell Owens is going to fall on Reggie Brown. He stands as the team's clear go-to wide receiver after making a favorable rookie impression – 463 yards and four TDs in the final nine games of '05. He has landed among the top 75 picks in the majority of experts drafts that I've participated in, thus far.
On the Decline
Ashley Lelie, Den – Lelie is holding out and currently does not plan to play for a team that he feels should make him the No. 1 receiver. The problem here is that, not only is Lelie not considered the No 1 receiver in Denver, he's also no longer considered the No. 2 option now that Javon Walker has been brought in. And head coach Mike Shanahan recently went out of his way to praise the play of Darius Watts in camp, leading many to wonder if Watts has passed Lelie up as well. Lelie has fired his former agent and hired a new one in hopes that he'll be able to broker a deal that would lead Lelie to a new team. If that doesn't happen, Lelie's '06 draft value will continue to swirl down the toilet.
Donte' Stallworth, NO – OK, so his draft value might not be in major decline, but the deck sure seems to be stacked against Stallworth this offseason. Not only were there rumors that Stallworth was part of a potential deal that would send him to San Francisco (Mr. Yuck sticker-worthy) and send Ashley Lelie to New Orleans, but the Saints also went out and traded for WR Bethel Johnson. With a developing Devery Henderson and a healthier Joe Horn in tow, Stallworth is already likely to see less attention than he did last season.
Chris Henry, Cin – Henry's cup overflows with talent. Unfortunately, it also contains a healthy mix of stupidity. Henry has been arrested three times in the past eight months – driving under the influence, carrying a concealed weapon and marijuana possession – and has drawn strong criticism from head coach Marvin Lewis. "That bothers me when someone doesn't quite understand social laws. No question that bothers me," Lewis said. He also mentioned that his actions could weigh into Henry's roster considerations. Henry's talent will likely win out, but another misstep would very likely mean the end of the line for him in Cincinnati.
Mike Williams, Det – After a disappointing rookie season, Williams is not exactly playing the part of a guy looking to atone for his downer '05 campaign. He was recently banned by Detroit from practicing in the final two days of the team's three-day mini-camp for skipping a scheduled treatment for his sore hamstring and then showing up late for a meeting. And his actions certainly appear to have drawn the ire of his teammates, or at least guard Damien Woody. "It's already been handled and it's in-house and I'm going to keep it at that," Woody said about Williams' actions. "It was an issue of a player not holding up his end of the deal and that was pretty much it. He knew what he didn't do and it got resolved. That's it, it's over." The incident may be put to bed, but you can bet that Williams is an early resident in head coach Rod Marinelli's doghouse, if he wasn't already.