Other Positions: Quarterback | Running Back | Wide Receiver | Tight End
Despite the increasing pass-heavy nature of the NFL, rookie receivers are still mostly fantasy kryptonite. Last season A.J. Green was the only first-year pass-catcher to top 1,000 yards, and the first rookie to do so since Marques Colston in 2006. Neither Green nor fellow first-rounder Julio Jones could top seven touchdowns; only Tampa Bay’s Mike Williams has reached that benchmark in Year One since Colston did so, and Williams crashed back to Earth as a sophomore.
That track record of success, or lack thereof, combined with a relatively deep crop of rookie receivers could keep the number of Day One wideouts to a minimum. That doesn’t mean teams won’t find pass-catching help in the class of 2012, however, and as many as a dozen wide receivers could be off the board by the end of Round Three. Here’s a look at some of the more likely names you’ll want to track on your fantasy re-draft and dynasty boards.
POTENTIAL FIRST ROUNDERS
There’s a reason Justin Blackmon is the top wide receiver on most draft boards; in fact, there are several. There’s the 3,304 receiving yards and 39 touchdowns the past two seasons. There’s the back-to-back Biletnikoff Awards. There’s the NFL-ready 6-1, 207-pound frame. And when Blackmon posted a pair of mid-4.4 40s at his Pro Day, any lingering questions about his lack of straight-line speed were answered. If you want to quibble, Blackmon’s stats may have been inflated by Oklahoma State’s wide-open offense and despite the 40 times he isn’t widely regarded as a blazer. But his frame and hands make him an attractive red zone target and he has the strength and enough speed to be extremely dangerous after the catch. He lacks the height of Calvin Johnson or even Larry Fitzgerald, with a frame more reminiscent of Anquan Boldin. However, the more common comparison among draft analysts is Brandon Marshall—and there’s more than enough upside to that. Blackmon could go off the board within the top five picks and barring a major upset will be the first wideout off the board. He’ll be some team’s WR1 from the moment his name is called and one of the first rookies off the board in both dynasty and redraft fantasy leagues.
Is it possible for an elite high school prospect to spend four seasons in the spotlight at Notre Dame, post career numbers that rewrite the Fighting Irish record books… and yet fly under the radar? Of course not, though before blowing up at the Scouting Combine Michael Floyd wasn’t getting nearly the pre-draft ink Justin Blackmon or Alshon Jeffery are receiving. The only flaw scouts can find in Floyd’s game is that he doesn’t have elite speed, though an unofficial 4.42 40 at the Combine may have put that to rest as well. Aside from that, Floyd is a prototypical NFL WR1: good size and physicality, reliable hands, outstanding ball skills, the ability to separate and productivity after the catch. Look at those numbers again; those came despite an array of ordinary quarterbacks at Notre Dame and with opposing defenses singularly focused on limiting Floyd’s production. In addition to Floyd’s 40 time, teams will want to learn more about his three alcohol-related offenses in college—two citations for underage consumption and a DUI in 2011. After speaking with people who know Floyd personally, I’d characterize his past (and potential future) as less Pacman Jones and more Jared Allen, whom the Chiefs parted with due to concerns about alcohol-related offenses and who has been an All-Pro and model citizen with the Vikings. Teams looking for an excuse not to take Floyd can come up with one, but he’s unlikely to fall out of the first round and could very well be out of the green room within the first half of Day One. Comparisons range from Andre Johnson to Roddy White to Larry Fitzgerald—the fantasy elite of wideouts. Follow the lead of whichever team trusts Floyd’s character and make him a priority rookie; hey, if Fitz can make fantasy hay out of John Skelton, the similarly gifted Floyd should be able to turn a bad-looking situation into productive numbers himself.
Recruited to Baylor as an “athlete”, Kendall Wright has two passing touchdowns and two rushing touchdowns to his credit in addition to his stellar receiving stats. In fact, Wright also played on the Baylor basketball team as a freshman and was a high school long jump and triple jump champion in addition to playing quarterback, running back, and cornerback in high school. He quickly settled in at wide receiver at Baylor and had at least two catches in 50 straight games, starting 42 over his four years with the Bears. He didn’t see a ton of press coverage and is obviously not the same size as Larry Fitzgerald or Calvin Johnson. But despite being widely viewed as the best deep threat in the draft, he’s more than just a burner. Wright has reliable hands and isn’t afraid to go across the middle. That fearlessness, combined with his stature and the high emotional level at which he plays, has drawn comparisons to Carolina’s Steve Smith; other scouts see him as a burner-plus in the mode of Mike Wallace. Wright also has experience in the return game, and he’s the kind of player who makes things happen every time he touches the ball. Wright’s 4.61 40 time at the Combine was unexpectedly slow, but his game film and a couple of 4.4 clockings at his pro day confirm he has plenty of speed. He’s unlikely to be the first wideout off the board but there’s a good chance he exits the green room on Day One, and he has all the skills to make an immediate impact.
Alshon Jeffery has been an enigma this offseason. After rumors swirled that he could be approaching 250 pounds, Jeffery showed up at the Scouting Combine at a svelte 216 pounds—then opted not to run the 40-yard dash or participate in any of the position drills. Jeffery’s pro day at the end of March answered at least a few questions, with his weight holding steady at 213 and his 40s clocking anywhere from 4.38 to a shade over 4.5 depending on which scout you talked to. Ultimately teams will use Jeffery’s game tape and individual meetings to help determine whether he’s an an elite big wideout with amazing ball skills… or just another big receiver who dominates smaller college defensive backs but can’t gain separation in the pros. Jeffery can also use the interview process to explain why his productivity dropped across the board from his sophomore to junior campaigns at South Carolina. That’s the off-the-field stuff; on the field, Jeffery has been for the most part exemplary. He dominated the SEC—a pretty good football league, by the way—as a sophomore, including 7-127 against Alabama. His numbers nosedived as a junior in part because of the Gamecocks’ issues with the quarterback position. Jeffery caught a touchdown in the regular season finale despite having broken his hand earlier in the game, then just weeks after surgery went for 4-148 against Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl—or at least the portion of the Capital One Bowl Jeffery participated in before being ejected for fighting with Cornhusker CB Alfonzo Dennard in the third quarter. There you have Jeffery in a nutshell: elite talent, but other factors come into play to negate that talent. There are plenty of positives to the Jeffery scouting report: great size (just hopefully not too great), long arms, big hands and fantastic ball skills; good burst, decent top-end speed, and the strength to separate from defenders. Offsetting those positives are concerns about weight, work ethic, and speed. The track record of receivers from Steve Spurrier offenses who fail to translate their success to the NFL doesn’t exactly instill confidence in Jeffery’s prospects, either; nor does the most common NFL comparison for him: former Lions’ first-round pick Mike Williams. Jeffery’s pro day addressed some of the concerns, and which team lands Jeffery could provide further clarification, but there are bound to be lingering questions about his potential and ability to tap into it.
THE NEXT TIER
Mohamed Sanu bears more than a little resemblance to Justin Blackmon: both are big, physical targets with great hands and questions about their speed and ability to separate. Sanu didn’t put up quite the college numbers Blackmon did, but he did enough to set the Big East record for receptions and produce 21 touchdowns in three seasons at Rutgers. Sanu’s hands are considered among the best in the draft, and his experience as a “Wildcat” quarterback (nine rushing scores, four passing TDs on eight career completions) and in the return game bring added value to his game. A handful of draft analysts see Sanu as a potential first-rounder, especially after he upgraded his 4.6 40 from the Combine to a pair of times in the upper 4.4s at his pro day. The more consensus opinion, however, pegs Sanu as a possession receiver who’s a better fit for WR2 duty than a feature receiver role. With an anticipated draft value no later than Day Two, however, expectations for Sanu might be loftier than just a second receiver. His upside appears to be an Anquan Boldin type of role, either in support of a Fitz-like WR1 or like his current duties in Baltimore.
Rueben Randle’s stats don’t necessarily stack up against the more prolific receivers in the upper echelon of this draft class, but his healthy yards-per-catch average certainly hints at his NFL potential. Pro scouts are well aware Randle’s numbers were negatively impacted by LSU’s quarterbacking, and after he upgraded his mid-4.5 40 times to 4.42 or better (some reports hand-timed him as fast as 4.37) there’s no hiding his upside. Randle has good size, natural ball skills, and plenty of room to develop both physically and as a receiver; the most prevalent pro comparison is Vincent Jackson. With the speed to be a vertical threat, Randle could slip into the bottom of the first round. There are also plenty of receiver-needy teams at the top of the second round who, if they pass or miss out on Justin Blackmon or Michael Floyd could view Randle as a solid backup plan.
Few players saw their stock rise more at the Scouting Combine than Stephen Hill; something about a 4.36 40—tied for the fastest in Indy—when you’re almost 6-foot-4 tends to excite NFL coaches. There isn’t a whole lot of tape for scouts to go on, as Hill had just 49 receptions playing in Georgia Tech’s run-heavy triple option offense. But at more than 25 yards a catch for his career, Hill definitely has play-making upside. NFL teams see his large frame (with room for additional muscle), athletic ability, and obvious speed and figure they can teach him to run routes. They’ll also want to see more consistency in his hands and concentration, but those are far more coachable items than size and speed. Hill’s tantalizing upside could sneak him into the first round despite the lack of college productivity; worst case he’ll be off the board early on Day Two.
WORTH PAYING ATTENTION TO
The son of former Badger legend and Jets wideout Al Toon, Nick Toon is a solid prospect in his own right. Even with Montee Ball racking up the scores and the Badgers more than willing to run the ball down the throats of their opponents Toon put up solid numbers in his redshirt senior season. He does everything well—good size, good speed, good routes—but he always seems to be battling nagging injuries. Last season he aggravated a foot injury that required surgery the previous offseason, and while he only missed a game his durability will be a concern. He also has inconsistent hands, making the spectacular grab but putting more than his share of catchable balls on the ground. Perhaps because he was surrounded by so much offensive talent at Wisconsin Toon never really dominated—he was only second-team All Big 10—so he doesn’t project to be an elite receiver. But he has all the tools to be a solid contributor, and the pedigree doesn’t hurt, either.
Marvin Jones was Cal’s leading receiver each of the past two seasons, but his numbers were more solid than spectacular. He wrapped up his Golden Bear career with a bang, however, catching eight balls in the Holiday Bowl against Texas. From there he earned a trip to the Senior Bowl, where he impressed scouts by showing more strength and ability to get deep than he had in Cal’s West Coast offense. Jones has good size, decent speed, and after his performance in Mobile plenty of upside as well. He could move quickly into the mix in a WCO system and might very well develop into a more productive pro than collegian regardless of system.
Chris Givens is a running back-turned-wide receiver whom many draft analysts have pegged as a sleeper in this deep class. While he has no standout qualities—freakish size, blazing speed, etc.—he does everything well and has upside as he learns the nuances of the receiver position. Givens is most effective in the slot and does his best work after the catch, as you might expect from a player with a running back background, and he also brings return skills to the table as well. Last season at Wake Forest Givens stepped up his level of productivity, and even though he more than doubled his career reception total he took advantage of his speed to inflate his yards-per-catch average. The low end of Givens’ productivity seems to be as a contributing WR3, and there’s enough upside to make him an intriguing prospect.
Depending on what teams are looking for, there are as many as 10 more receivers who could go off the board before the end of Day Two. Appalachian State’s Brian Quick has intrigued many scouts with speed, size, and athleticism but he’s extremely raw. A.J. Jenkins of Illinois, Dwight Jones of North Carolina, and Tommy Streeter of Miami all could stand to bulk up and develop more consistency, but their talent level is enticing. Iowa’s Marvin McNutt and Arizona’s Justin Criner are at the opposite end of that spectrum, with good size and hands but lacking the ability to separate deep; they project as possession receivers at the next level. Ryan Broyles of Oklahoma, Jarius Wright and Joe Adams from Arkansas, and TY Hilton of Florida International all fall into the “undersized” category; their greatest NFL impact is projected to come out of the slot and/or in the return game.
WHO NEEDS ONE?
Even with the trending two-tight end offense, plenty of teams are in the market for a wide receiver this season. Cleveland, St. Louis, and Jacksonville are among the Top 10 teams who could jump on one of the elite targets, but if Blackmon, Floyd, or Wright slip the Dolphins, Panthers, and Bills could all be in the mix as well. Further down the first-round board the Cardinals, Jets, and Bears have all been linked to wide receivers, and the Browns will have a second opportunity to upgrade their moribund pass-catching corps with the 22nd overall selection. Late in the first round the Texans could be eyeing a running mate for Andre Johnson and would be more than happy to capitalize if most of the aforementioned squads opt to address other needs on Day One.
While the Class of 2012 doesn’t appear to be in danger of pitching a wide receiver shutout in the first round, if the number of Day One WRs is small it will only lead to an outpouring of Day Two picks at the position. The Colts, Vikings, and Buccaneers all have more pressing needs to address in the first round but will definitely be looking at wideouts in Rounds 2 and 3, along with many of the teams mentioned earlier. Additionally, the Dolphins, Saints, and Chargers all lost key WRs this offseason and could look to Day Two to replenish.