On the road of fantasy ownership each turn reveals a surprise. Elite players acquired for a handsome sum often fail to meet expectations (Randy Moss(notes)). While in other instances, spontaneous early-season waiver grabs become deeply-rooted roster cornerstones (Thank you, Stevie Johnson(notes)).
Denver's Brandon Lloyd was another such rock last year.
At this time a year ago, the nomadic veteran entered Broncos training camp as a mile-high question mark. Though an incredibly gifted athlete who occasionally flashed Pro Bowl caliber skills, Lloyd, limited by injuries and immaturity throughout his entire career, produced marginally in previous stints in San Francisco, Washington and Chicago. However, after Brandon Marshall(notes) migrated to Miami, the 29-year-old, who just a year before was relegated to scout duty with the Broncos, was gifted one last chance to prove his mettle.
He took advantage.
Emerging from the darkest corner of the waiver wire, the leviathan finally showcased the early-round skill set many scouts salivated over while he was a top prospect at Illinois – precise route-running, awareness, Gumby flexibility, home-run hitting ability. Orton-to-Lloyd, once a punchline in the Windy City, quickly developed into one of the league's most feared vertical connections. By year's end, the eight-year vet finished with 77 receptions, 1,448 yards and 11 touchdowns. His 13.4 points per game output in standard formats topped the WR chart. Stunning.
Lloyd's astonishing story isn't completely unheard of. Over the past five years, at least one very late-round or leftover wideout has risen to prominence, becoming an indispensable WR1 on championship rosters.
What do these overlooked targets have in common? After studying the profiles of nine rags-to-riches receivers since '06 (players selected outside the WR top 48), here are five characteristics the group shared:
Competent QBs – Miles Austin(notes) had Tony Romo(notes). Wes Welker(notes), Tom Brady(notes). Lance Moore(notes), Drew Brees(notes). And Sidney Rice(notes), "Barbra" Brett Favre(notes). In total, six of the nine breakout WRs that were studied benefited greatly from proven signal callers. No surprise, a receiver's sleeper potential is only as good as his quarterback.
Spread Eagles – Socialist offenses that spread the wealth not only make Michele Bachmann's mascara melt, they're also breeding grounds for new sources of wide receiver production and are almost single-handedly responsible for the position's shrinking tier-to-tier drop-off. Check out the chart below:
*Dif-12 = points per game differential between No. 1 and No. 12 (lowest WR1) ranked WRs
*Dif-24 = points per game differential between No. 1 and No. 24 (lowest WR2) ranked WRs
*Dif-36 = points per game differential between No. 1 and No. 36 (lowest WR3) ranked WRs
As the information above illustrates, the disparity between top targets, WR2s and WR3s has tightened, a direct result of the league's pass-happy trend and implementation of spread formations. Of the targets surveyed, six of the nine were products of such a system.
When digging for WR gold in the later rounds, aim for weapons in similar schemes (e.g. Earl Bennett(notes) (Chi), Robert Meachem(notes) (NO), Lance Moore (NO), Jordy Nelson(notes) (GB), Jerheme Urban(notes) (KC), Jason Avant(notes) (Phi) and Danny Amendola(notes) (StL)).
Opportunity knocks – Even G.I. Joe would tell you that getting one's foot in the door is half the battle. In almost every instance, the shocker specials that were surveyed broke camp as starters. Expanded PT leads to more snaps, more targets and, thus, more scoring opportunities. Still, not every WR currently locked into a prominent role should be viewed the same. Obviously, numerous factors, including philosophical fit, durability and talent level, play a major part in determining who has the best shot to shock.
Without a doubt, the preseason gives owners invaluable insight into possible breakouts. Arizona's Andre Roberts(notes), for example, is one interesting commodity fanatics should keep close tabs on. If he nails down the No. 2 job opposite Larry Fitzgerald(notes), he has a chance to develop into a certifiable WR3 in 12-teamers. Others like Joshua Cribbs(notes), Victor Cruz(notes), Riley Cooper(notes), David Nelson(notes) and rising rookie Denarius Moore(notes) also have a chance to attract significant looks.
Pass the happy – Unsurprisingly, among the unheralded group, eight of the nine came from teams that favored the pass over the run. Only Javon Walker(notes), in 2006, was a product of a system that called pass less than 52.5 percent of the time. Essentially, Rip Van Winkles from prolific air attacks (e.g. Indianapolis, San Diego, New Orleans, Green Bay, New England and Philadelphia) have higher odds of emerging than those from conservative schemes (e.g. Denver, Carolina, New York Jets, Baltimore, Jacksonville and Tennessee).
Defensive boost – The view from the other side of the ball is probably the most overlooked factor when uncovering WR diamonds in the rough. It shouldn't be. Four of the nine wideouts researched benefited greatly from their own team's horrendous defense. It makes sense. The deeper the hole, the more a team will throw. Fantasy superstars are often made in garbage time. Just ask Lloyd and Stevie. Both benefited greatly from attempting to dig out of large deficits last year.
Because significant defensive turnover occurs annually it's difficult to pinpoint exactly what units will be bad. But after a week or three into the regular season it will become ever-clear. Keep close tabs on what secondaries get torched in September. Their shortcomings could unleash a waiver monster at WR.
Which WR, given his draft cost, looks like the best bang for the buck?
1. Hakeem Nicks: In fantasy drafts, Nicks typically plays the caboose for the top five WRs, yet he outproduced all four above him in fantasy on a per game basis last season, and beat out Andre Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald in total points despite missing three games (same as Johnson). In his third season, and with his go-to role only likely to expand with the exits Steve Smith and Kevin Boss(notes), only injury is likely to stand in the way of a career year. He's got No. 1 receiver upside for a full round cheaper than Andre Johnson.
Which relocated WR is in the best position to deliver elite fantasy numbers?
1. Chad Ochocinco: There's just no question that No. 85 earned the biggest transaction-related upgrade. He escapes the Andy Dalton(notes)-Bruce Gradkowski mess in Cincinnati, and suddenly finds himself tied to an all-time quarterback coming off a 36-TD season. He's well-positioned to at least repeat his '09 numbers (72-1047-9), if not exceed them.
Which WR, given his draft cost, carries the most risk?
1. Larry Fitzgerald: When you spent a mid-second round pick on Larry Fitzgerald, you're essentially saying "I believe in Kevin Kolb(notes)." I'm not ready to proclaim Kolb a sure thing. He's only made seven pro starts, he's had little time to learn Arizona's system, and his career numbers from the womb of Andy Reid leave me cold (6.5 YPA, 73.2 rating). Perhaps Kolb will be in the circle of trust in the second half of the year, once he's more comfortable in Arizona, but I'm worried about him taking Fitzgerald down with him over the opening 4-8 weeks. Tread carefully.
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