WIDE RECEIVER TIERS
Randy Moss, NE (7.9)
Terrell Owens, Dal (14.2)
Plaxico Burress, NYG (36.2)
Chris Chambers, SD (74.7)
Reggie Brown, Phi (90.7)
WIDE RECEIVER TIERS
Randy Moss, NE (7.9)
Terrell Owens, Dal (14.2)
Plaxico Burress, NYG (36.2)
Chris Chambers, SD (74.7)
Reggie Brown, Phi (90.7)
One trains with weighted gloves, the other more conventional methods. One attended a tradition-rich college, the other an undercover small conference school. And one has a sketchy legal history, the other a squeaky clean past.
But despite their different backgrounds, Pittsburgh's Santonio Holmes and Green Bay's Greg Jennings are identical twins. Well, not in the monozygotic sense like the disturbingly emaciated Olsens or the ultra-suave Barbers.
No, they're duplicates in stats, stature, style and, most importantly, systems.
Both stand at 5-foot-11 and weigh roughly 190-pounds. Both primarily operate out of the slot. And both are the preeminent home run threats for their respective teams.
In numbers speak, they're even more undistinguishable.
Last year, both wideouts experienced breakout seasons in their second year in the league. Their amassed numbers were so strikingly similar even the savviest of fantasy experts would have a difficult time telling the two apart. Take a look:
*FPPG=fantasy points per game in standard formats (6 pts/TD, 1 pt/10 rec/rush yards, 0 points per reception)
*07ADP=Average draft position in 2007 drafts per MockDraftCentral
*08ADP=Average draft position in 2008 drafts
*RNK=Final '07 WR rank in FPPG
Uncanny, isn't it?
The reason for Holmes and Jennings' surprising success is marked by yet another remarkable commonality: they're products of the ever-growing spread system.
Different from tight end-devoid or mobile quarterback spread systems commonly seen on college campuses in Gainesville, Eugene, Champaign and Lubbock, the NFL version is a mixture of former Portland State coach Mouse Davis' visionary run-and-shoot philosophies and Bill Walsh's popularized West Coast offense.
In essence, the spread strategy, featured prominently last year by Green Bay, New England, Pittsburgh and New Orleans to name a few, is rooted in multi-receiver packages ranging in size from three to five. The purpose of this revolutionary design is to stretch defenses from sideline to sideline, exposing space across the middle for quarterbacks to exploit through short, accurate passes. Hines Ward, who played in Bruce Arians' spread system in Pittsburgh last season, detailed its effectiveness to our own Charles Robinson in May '07:
"This offense [the spread] will really excite people. I remember the first time I saw something like this was when Bruce [Arians] was coaching with the Cleveland Browns when we played them in the playoffs [after the 2002 season]. They jumped right on top of us. That great defense we had, they spread us out, really took our weaknesses and exposed them. All of the sudden, our linebackers were in a position where they had to cover people. We were all over the place. And they went and up down the field on us the whole game."
The increased use of this innovative scheme, unsurprisingly, has directly impacted the fantasy landscape. Last year, just over 50 percent of wideouts that finished the year in the WR top 25 in fantasy points per game (FPPG) were products of the spread. Most notably, the season's biggest surprises at the position, Jennings, Holmes, Wes Welker and Bobby Engram, were spread derivatives.
In total, approximately 10 teams (GB, Ind, NE, NO, Phi, Pit, Sea, SF, TB and Wash) will almost exclusively run some version of the offense this year, with several others occasionally peppering pieces of it into playbooks (e.g. Ari, Cle, Cin, Dal, Hou and StL).
Here are the risers, fallers and baby crawlers at wide receiver this year:
On the Rise
14 GP, 8.2 TGT/G, 4.4 REC/G, 57.7 YPG, 13.2 YPC, 3 TDs
Washington's No. 1 headed in the opposite direction of the "other" Moss last year. A top ten receiver three short years ago (2005), the miniature Moss posted a paltry 7.1 FPPG, the 39th-best average among receivers. More alarming, his yards per catch (YPC) average plummeted for the fourth consecutive season, bottoming out at 13.2, an uncharacteristically low mark for such a premiere vertical threat. However, sunnier days are on the horizon for the 29-year-old. Mike Holmgren protg Jim Zorn plans to morph the Skins offense from ground- to air-heavy. His West Coast scheme is an ideal fit for what Moss does best: taking advantage of cracks in coverage downfield. The veteran wideout still is a gritty, hard-working player whose acrobatic air adjustments are incredibly tough to defend. With Jason Campbell more seasoned and Zorn's offense in place, Moss' fantasy value will reenergize. Going on average in the late-eighth, early-ninth rounds in preseason drafts, he's stupidly undervalued.
16 GP, 5.9 TGT/G, 3.1 REC/G, 43.4 YPG, 12.9 YPC, 9 TDs
The Nasty Nate of yore is about to resurface. Wearing Vikings purple in '04, Burleson emerged as a dependable No. 3. His 1,006-yard, nine-TD season placed him on the fast-track to fantasy stardom. However, the Nevada product failed to match his initial success over the next two seasons, overcome by injury and ineptitude. But late last year in Seattle, Burleson resuscitated an otherwise defunct career. Over the final seven weeks of the season he scored six times, averaging 60.3 YPG as a starter from Weeks 14-17. With Deion Branch expected to miss at least September rehabbing his surgically repaired knee and Bobby Engram mired in a contract dispute, Burleson could enter training camp at the top of the depth-chart. The 26-year-old's precise route-running and catch efficiency in traffic are excellent assets in Seattle's West Coast scheme. Given those skills and Holmgren's recent allusion that he could be removed from return duty in order to prepare for being the team's starting split-end, Burleson is an elite low-risk, high-reward investment in the middle rounds. If he does indeed start, double-digit touchdowns are a certainty given his nose for the end zone.
13 GP, 4.0 TGT/G, 2.8 REC/G, 44.3 YPG, 15.6 YPC, 3 TDs
Indy's "Great Gonzo" is the antithesis of a bumbling puppet daredevil. At times during his rookie campaign, the former Buckeyes standout was vibrant. Although he finished 50th in wide receiver FPPG, he performed exceptionally well over the final six weeks of the season, including the Colts' divisional playoff loss to San Diego. As Reggie Wayne's accomplice in those games, he averaged 74.7 YPG and scored four touchdowns. Tony Dungy recently proclaimed Marvin Harrison "pain-free," but at 35, he's entered the penultimate phase of his career. Gonzo's value hinges on Harrison's health, but he could develop into a Brandon Stokley-type contributor even as the third option. He has the skill set – crisp short-field route runner, plus hands, YAC racker – to thrive in that role. Peyton Manning worked extensively with the 23-year-old in mini-camp, telling NFL.com June 6 that Gonzo "feels more comfortable with the system." Gonzalez, along with Detroit's Calvin Johnson, could easily be this year's Holmes/Jennings.
16 GP, 5.4 TGT/G, 2.8 REC/G, 32.8 YPG, 11.7 YPC, 2 TDs
If Mike Martz can turn Shaun McDonald into a serviceable fantasy receiver, Johnson could morph into John Taylor circa 1990. Thrilled to be out from underneath the enormous shadows cast by Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin in Arizona, Johnson enters '08 as San Fran's projected top target. Blessed with magnificent natural tools, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound wideout excels at running sharp short-to-intermediate routes, an incredibly useful attribute in Martz's vertical offense. Some scouts have questioned his desire and concentration but Johnson, hoping to collect a sizable contract in March, will be motivated to perform. Essentially, his breakout chances boil down to how rapidly Alex Smith grasps Martz's system. If the former No. 1 pick can prove at least marginally competent, the 27-year-old Johnson will be effective as a No. 3 in 12-team leagues. Considering he's being selected on average in the forgettable rounds of early drafts, he's one of the better minimum investments out there.
Missed entire season with knee injury
Hampered by cumbersome knee troubles for the entire '07 season, Meachem surprisingly enters training camp with a chance to supplant David Patten as the Saints No. 2. The former Tennessee star's freakishly long arms, grizzly bear-sized paws, stature (6'0", 215 lbs.) and quickness are characteristics that could flourish in the Saints' air-friendly attack. The former first rounder's work ethic and offseason commitment drew high praise from head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees. Healthy and with his swagger back, Meachem, as he told The Sports Exchange in June, feels that "everything is rolling now." He has the talent to be explosive but he must fend off veterans Patten, Devery Henderson and Lance Moore to become fantasy viable. Watch his progress in exhibition play closely.
16 GP, 10.0 TGT/G, 5.8 REC/G, 90.0 YPG, 15.5 YPC, 8 TDs
Ocho Loco's diva complex is Barbara, Brittney and Beyonce rolled into one. A noisy offseason highlighted by trade demands, an uneasy reconciliation and minor ankle surgery in June are apparent turnoffs for one of the game's elite talents. Set his egocentric antics aside and you have a receiver coming off arguably the best statistical season of his career. He finished with a career-best 90.0 YPG and eighth-best 12.0 FPPG among pass catchers in standard scoring formats. Eighty-five also suited up in all 16 games for the sixth straight season, labeling him one of the game's most durable wideouts. But because his eight-TD total came in just four games, he was one of fantasy's most inconsistent commodities. During mini-camp everyone from Carson Palmer to Marvin Lewis to Bengals mascot Who Dey, expressed disdain over the endless Chad distractions, which suggests he's one outburst away from a demotion. That coupled with his persistent ankle woes and the Bengals rededication to the run implies he's avoidable. If he concentrates on football and doesn't become too overbearing, he'll be very productive, especially in PPR leagues. But there are safer and saner options available in Round 3.
16 GP, 7.1 TGT/G, 3.4 REC/G, 53.1 YPG, 15.4 YPC, 5 TDs
Trusting Evans to produce weekly last season was the fantasy equivalent of electric shock therapy, or enduring nonstop Brett Favre coverage on the Mouse House Sports Network – unbearable. Prognosticated by many to take a step forward, the 27-year-old backpedaled. He tallied just five games of 70-plus yards, shaving nearly 35 percent off his FPPG average from the year before ('07: 11.1, '08: 7.2). The revolving door at quarterback from J.P. Losman to Trent Edwards only compounded problems. Although Losman was largely inaccurate at close range, his bazooka arm and bubbly chemistry with Evans gave the receiver the best opportunity to succeed. Now with Losman relegated to backup duty, Edwards, whose arm is substantially weaker, will feed Evans the ball. Offensive coordinator Turk Schonert said recently to NFL.com that he plans to design creative ways to get the ball into his top playmaker's hands. Edwards believes that the presence of rookie James Hardy and Schonert's strategies will reduce double coverage on Evans. Despite the optimism, the second-year QB's 56.6 CMP% and 21 20-yard pass plays (21st in the NFL) from '07 will have to significantly improve for the speedy wideout to be fantasy trustworthy. Unless you're a self-proclaimed masochist, circumvent Leery Lee in Round 6.
5 GP, 6.4 TGT/G, 4.0 REC/G, 49.4 YPG, 13.5 YPC, 1 TD
When the mind-blowing news of Harrison's alleged shootout smoked off the wire in May, many, including yours truly, had no idea the supposedly docile receiver housed an inner O.J. However, all but exonerated from his role in the crime, the illustrious wideout enters training camp without controversy. Equally important, Tony Dungy divulged to ESPN July 9 that he's "running pain-free. We feel good about where he's going to be physically opening up this year … we feel pretty good about where he's going to be" Harrison will be 35 when the season begins and despite the vote of confidence from Dungy, owners shouldn't have faith in him as anything more than a No. 2. Remember, he was beset by left knee woes for much of '07 and he had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in the offseason. Yes, the potential exists for a colossal rebound, but his role could be reduced if Gonzalez's extended work with Manning in mini-camp pays off. People will overpay for the brand name but, at this point in Harrison's career, he's drenched in risk.
15 GP, 8.1 TGT/G, 5.5 REC/G, 69.9 YPG, 12.8 YPC, 2 TDs
In less than two seasons, Driver's value has gone from behind the wheel of a muscle car to a cheap Korean import. In the Pack's spread formation last year, Driver racked his fourth straight season of at least 80 receptions and 1,000 yards. However, his lowly two touchdowns labeled him the Willie Parker of wideouts. At 33, he still possesses the necessary tools to be productive – smooth route-running, vertical athleticism, coverage adaptability – but his chances for injury increases exponentially with each passing season. More damaging, he's likely to remain a secondary red-zone option to Greg Jennings regardless if Favre or Aaron Rodgers is barking signals. He's definitely valuable as a No. 3 in PPR formats but Coles, Curtis, White and Galloway are more desirable targets in the sixth round in standard scoring leagues. Anticipate more of the same.
8 GP, 6.3 TGT/G, 3.3 REC/G, 35.9 YPG, 11.0 YPC, 0 TDs
Being found concussed and broken-faced on the streets of Sin City could plummet any receiver's fantasy value. Not only does Walker not have a future in the UFC, his prospects of a rosy virtual football season are equally bleak. In eight deplorable games with Denver last year, Walker averaged a mere 3.6 FPPG, ranking him 83rd at his position. More alarming, his persistent knee troubles – he's had three knee surgeries in his career – raises a major red flag. He's expected to be at full strength at the start of camp, but with JaMarcus Russell's callowness and Walker's increased injury risk, he is someone to avoid. When healthy he has the body control, speed and leaping ability to be outstanding downfield, which suggests there is still some lingering upside. But there are more attractive mid-round targets (e.g. Gonzalez, Burleson, Sidney Rice, Jabar Gaffney) that are equally enticing and safer. Raiders fans may list $55 million reasons why he's a bust by year's end.
Rookies to Watch
'07 Stats (LSU):
9 GP, 57 REC, 525 YDs, 9.2 YPC, 5 TDs
Rookie wide receivers rarely make a fantasy impact, but if there's one guy who could have an Anquan Boldin-like splash in his initial campaign it's Doucet. The Cards' third-round pick out of LSU is a stoutly constructed, sticky-fingered pass catcher. His physical prowess combined with his quick release off the line of scrimmage is an ideal fit for Ken Whisenhunt's air-heavy attack. Completely recovered from a severe groin pull that sidelined him for four games last season, Doucet has a loose grip on the No. 3 job entering camp. If he can stave off Jerheme Urban, Steve Breaston and Ahmad Merritt this summer and entrench himself in that role he will merit an occasional start, especially in deep-PPR leagues. Of course, if misfortune rained down on either Larry Fitzgerald or Boldin, Doucet would benefit greatly. Recall that Bryant Johnson was somewhat profitable when thrust into the starting lineup last year. Kurt Warner's short-to-intermediate accuracy would be ideal for Doucet, but regardless if starter Matt Leinart or the Sultan of Stubble is slinging the pigskin, he should be sporadically productive out of the slot.
'07 Stats (Michigan St.): 13 GP, 79 REC, 1260 YDs, 15.9 YPC, 8 TDs
Standing at nearly 6-foot-2, Thomas is a skyscraper when standing next to diminutive battery-mates Santana Moss and Antwaan Randle-El. It's because of his size the second-round pick from Michigan State will earn No. 3 honors when camp breaks in August. Scouts have expressed doubts about his lack of big game exposure, but his plus vision, body control and downfield afterburners are strong positives that signal he can be an instant impact receiver at the professional level. Thomas is expected to compete with fellow rookie Malcolm Kelly for the "Z receiver" position this summer. If he can outwork Kelly, he has the potential to develop into a D.J. Hackett-like contributor this season. In Jim Zorn's West Coast scheme, the youngster definitely has the size and athleticism to become a dependable red-zone threat for Jason Campbell.
'07 Stats (Texas): 5 GP, 19 REC, 306 YDs, 16.1 YPC, 3 TDs
. Bork, bork, bork! Pittsburgh's Swedish Chef is ready to cook up plenty of landnings, Swedish for "touchdown." According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Steelers have high expectations for the Texas rookie heading into this season. Long (6-foot-5), strong (300-pound bench press) and presumably down to get the friction on, Sweed is the towering goal-line target Ben Roethlisberger has been clamoring for. His physical displays and eagerness have impressed head coach Mike Tomlin: "His passion for the game shows through the minute he walks into the building which allows you to indicate that he has a chance to be what we think he is capable of being." He likely won't accumulate many receptions or yards but he could be counted upon inside the 20, similar to how the Jags used Reggie Williams last year, which would make him occasionally serviceable in deeper leagues.
'07 Stats (Indiana):
13 GP, 79 REC, 1,125 YDs, 14.2 YPC, 16 TDs
At 6-foot-7, 220-pounds, Buffalo's new "Bumble" is a freakishly gifted yeti who should keep opposing defenses honest, especially near the goal-line. Expected to begin the season as the Bills No. 2 or No. 3, Hardy showed steadfast determination and a strong work ethic in mini-camp, as Trent Edwards told The Buffalo News in late May, "Hardy wants to get better and he wants to get better as far as he can. That says a lot about a guy that has a lot of talent, has a lot of skill like he does and obviously the work ethic." Buffalo threw just seven touchdowns inside the 20 last season, but offensive coordinator Turk Schonert's reconfigured philosophy could increase those red-zone attempts, especially with Hardy on roster. Similar to Limas Sweed, he's worthy of a roster spot in deep TD-heavy leagues.
'07 Stats (Vanderbilt):
12 GP, 75 REC, 830 YDs, 11.1 YPC, 5 TDs
Outside of long-bomb threat Devin Hester, the Bears detestable receiving corps makes bust David Terrell look adequate. The departures of Bernard Berrian (Minnesota) and Muhsin Muhammad (Carolina) leave a gigantic receiving vacancy, one which Bennett could potentially fill in his inaugural season. The Vanderbilt product is an observant, brainy pass catcher who has the tracking skills and footwork to develop into an above-average possession receiver. Chicago wide receivers coach Darryl Drake has been impressed with the rookie's development, telling ChicagoBears.com July 1, "From Day 1 to now, he's improved tremendously. He's just an outstanding young man. He has a great deal of ability. He's very deceptive with his speed. We just need to continue to work him and bring him along." Bennett has to continue to plug away in camp to leapfrog Mark Bradley and Brandon Lloyd on the depth chart but he definitely has the tools to be a future PPR mainstay. Now if the Bears could only find a competent quarterback …