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Old Faces in New Places: Wide Receivers
John Tuvey
April 26, 2013
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Used to be that big-ticket wide receivers didn’t fare well when switching teams, but the recent successes of Vincent Jackson and Brandon Marshall set that theory on its ear. With several top targets donning new uniforms in 2013, it’s worth a closer look to determine if that trend will hold true this time around.

Wes Welker, Broncos

As if having Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker at his disposal wasn’t enough, now Peyton Manning swipes Tom Brady’s favorite hookup (on the field, at least) and adds Wes Welker to his arsenal. Go ahead and start salivating, because the news is almost universally good.

For starters, consider that by his own admission Manning’s arm strength isn’t what it used to be; that bodes well for his slot target, the role Welker will be filling. And with Thomas and Decker on the outside, opposing defenses can’t devote their top cover corner to Welker as New England’s opponents frequently did.

Last year in Denver Brandon Stokley and sometimes Jacob Tamme worked out of the slot to the tune of a combined 97 receptions, 1,099 yards, and seven touchdowns, so Manning is certainly familiar with that area of the field. Or go back to 2004, when the Manning-led Colts produced three 1,000-yard, 10-TD receivers—including slot machine Stokley’s 68-1,007-10. And while it’s true that Thomas and Decker combined for 16 more catches than Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne did that season, last year Manning threw 86 more pass attempts than in 2004.

The only negative to Welker’s new role is a likely drop in the volume of targets he’s become accustomed to—and the subsequent dip in PPR productivity. But if the trade-off is a bump in touchdowns while maintaining the 1,000-yard pace, it’s not out of the realm of possibility for all three Bronco wideouts to rank among the top 12 fantasy receivers as they did in 2012.

Danny Amendola, Patriots

Danny Amendola has often been referred to as “a poor man’s Wes Welker”, and the similarities are obvious: both played collegiately at Texas Tech, and both are high-volume slot receivers. And now, with Welker off to Denver and Amendola filling his shoes in New England, we’ll learn just how accurate that comparison is.

Thus far Amendola hasn’t posted nearly the numbers Welker has; Amendola has seen a combined 153 targets over the past three seasons, while Welker has topped that number each of the past two seasons. Amendola also has yet to hit the 700-yard mark or score more than three touchdowns. But given that Tom Brady has 600-plus attempts each of the past two years, a number Sam Bradford has yet to reach in three NFL seasons, there’s certainly room for growth.

Also consider that both of New England’s primary passing-game targets, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, are banged up and at risk of not being available for training camp—and potentially the start of the 2013 season. Amendola will have ample opportunity to prove himself to Brady and take over as his new favorite target. And it wouldn’t be surprising if the Patriots made a concerted effort to help pad Amendola’s numbers after Welker walked away from the same contract in New England.

It would be aggressive to simply pencil in Amendola for Welker’s numbers. But when you consider that Welker caught 67 balls for 687 yards in his final year as a Dolphin before moving to New England in his fourth NFL season and putting up 112-1,175-8, it makes it easier to accept a jump from the 63-666 Amendola posted last year in St. Louis to something significantly more fantasy-relevant in New England in 2012.  

Percy Harvin, Seahawks

The biggest trade of the offseason (thus far, at least) was the proverbial win-win between teams that have enjoyed an otherwise acrimonious business relationship (see: Hutchinson, Steve). The Vikings received a first-round pick and other considerations for a player whom they weren’t going to pay and was going to be a problem—maybe even a holdout—for them anyway; the Seahawks give their emerging quarterback an elite target with proven game-breaking ability.

Call it a win for fantasy owners as well, as it’s tough to find a downside for Percy Harvin fantasy-wise. He gets an upgrade at quarterback, specifically one more inclined to throw the ball down the field. Harvin has been down this road before with Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, in 2010 when both were in Minnesota. That year, according to Pro Football Focus, 14 percent of Harvin’s targets were 20 yards or more down the field, compared to just six percent of his targets last season, and Harvin posted a career-best 12.3 yards per catch.

Seattle ranked third in passing yards per attempt last season, so Bevell won’t be shy about going deep with his new/old weapon; by comparison, the Vikings ranked 31st in that category in 2012. Harvin also still enjoys the benefits of a secondary drawn up to stop a power running game, plus Russell Wilson has proven to be a more accurate passer than Christian Ponder despite taking more shots down the field.

If you want to nitpick, Harvin is certain to see a drop in targets. Last year he was targeted 85 times in nine games; Sidney Rice led Seattle receivers with 82 targets in a full 16-game slate. Ponder also threw 90 more times than Wilson, so the numbers suggest Percy won’t see quite as many balls heading his way. While that apparently made him unhappy in Minnesota, his fat new contract in Seattle should soothe those headaches.

So maybe you dial back the PPR love for Harvin, and since he’s never been a TD guy (his high is six TD receptions, which he’s done twice, and he has four rushing scores in as many NFL seasons) there’s no reason to ding him in that category. What’s left is a dynamic receiver in an improved offense who may not see the volume of opportunities but will provide more than enough bang for the buck to offset any decline.

Mike Wallace, Dolphins

The weather’s nicer and the money’s piled higher, but none of that makes Mike Wallace a better fantasy prospect this year. In Pittsburgh, Ben Roethlisberger shrugging off would-be tacklers before firing the ball downfield to the speedy Wallace; the numbers don’t suggest a similar scenario in South Beach.

First, there were more balls in the air in Pittsburgh, where Roethlisberger averaged 34.5 pass attempts per game, then in Miami, where Ryan Tannehill averaged 30 throws a game. Tannehill also completed fewer of those passes (58.3%, compared to Big Ben’s 63.3%), despite those throws being much closer to the line of scrimmage (Tannehill averaged 6.8 yards per attempt, near the bottom of regular signal-callers; Roethlisberger averaged 7.3 yards per attempt). Fewer throws, even fewer completions, and fewer deep balls—that’s three strikes against Wallace holding the value that barely made him a fantasy WR2 last year.

With Brian Hartine also getting (over)paid, Wallace will take the bulk of his targets from Davonne Bess and fellow newcomer Brandon Gibson. As both Hartline and Bess topped 100 targets there should still be some opportunity. And it’s entirely possible that Dolphins wide receivers ranked 31st in fantasy scoring because they lacked a talent like Wallace. But scheme and quarterback also factored into that ranking, and those things aren’t changing with Wallace’s arrival. Add in an offensive line that bid Jake Long adieu and is still looking for a tackle to keep Tannehill upright long enough to go deep to Wallace, and following Miami’s lead won’t be money well spent for fantasy owners.

Greg Jennings, Vikings

At least Wallace got the sun and sand with his downgrade at quarterback; all Greg Jennings has to show for his QB swap is a roof over his head—and that’s only for the next year, after which the Metrodome will be torn down.

Not that you need stats to back up the assertion that catching balls from Christian Ponder won’t be as lucrative fantasy-wise as catching them from Aaron Rodgers, but here they are anyway: Rodgers attempted 69 more passes, completed them at a rate that was 8.9% better than Ponders, and averaged almost a full yard more per attempt.

What, then, does Jennings gain? He may very well have been the Packers’ fourth receiver, or at minimum been frustratingly inconsistent as Rodgers picked which of his talented wideouts to grace with fantasy glory on a week-to-week basis. In Minnesota he’s the unquestioned WR1, with or without the Vikings adding help in the draft. He’ll work against defenses crowding the line of scrimmage to stop Adrian Peterson, so despite the toll age and injury have taken he should be able to make plays down the field once again—as his 15.4 career yards-per-catch average suggests.

Jennings should claim the bulk of Percy Harvin’s vacated targets, so while he can’t be expected to approach his peak Packer productivity there’s enough volume to suggest he can still be a productive fantasy contributor.

Anquan Boldin, 49ers

Anquan Boldin moves from a run-first, defensive-oriented franchise that just played in the Super Bowl… to a run-first, defensive-oriented franchise that just played in the Super Bowl. And actually, the receiving talent he’ll compete with in San Francisco (Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis) is stiffer while the attempts, based on last season at least, will be fewer.

Perhaps Boldin can replace some of the looks Delanie Walker produced in the San Francisco offense, as that may be a better comparison for him speed-wise than Randy Moss. However, while he came on late last season with three touchdowns in the final four games and four more in the Ravens’ Super Bowl run, barring a significant shift in the 49er offense and a dip in the fountain of youth from Boldin he’s seen his last turn as a reliable every-week fantasy starter.

Backups of note

Speedy former Raider Darrius Heyward-Bey joins Andrew Luck and the Colts just as Bruce Arians takes his vertical passing game to Arizona. Pep Hamilton will incorporate more of a West Coast flavor to the Indy offense, and DHB has shown flashes of “getting it” as more than just a deep threat, but he’ll be battling Reggie Wayne, TY Hilton, and a pair of second-year tight ends for targets… Conversely, Donnie Avery departs Indy with Arians, stopping off in Kansas City to join Andy Reid’s pass-happy attack. He’ll provide a DeSean Jackson-like speed option opposite Dwayne Bowe, as the remainder of the Kansas City receiving corps (read: Jonathan Baldwin) has demonstrated little competence in wingman duties… Steve Smith (no, the other one) is reunited with Mike Sullivan in Tampa Bay; Sullivan was the Giants’ wide receivers coach when Smith was catching 107 balls for 1,220 yards. He gives Josh Freeman an intriguing slot option between Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams—though we thought the same thing last year in St. Louis and Smith barely saw the field… Kevin Walter joins a crowded receiving corps in Tennessee after failing to take advantage of numerous opportunities opposite Andre Johnson in Houston... Mohamed Massaquoie departs Cleveland for Jacksonville, where he’ll back up Justin Blackmon and Cecil Shorts and catch passes from Blaine Gabbert and/or Chad Henne. Yeah, that’s gonna work well… Domenik Hixon and Ted Ginn will battle Brandon LaFell for wingman duties opposite Steve Smith (yes, that one) in Carolina… Joining Danny Amendola in New England are former Bill Donald Jones and ex-Viking Michael Jenkins, notable only because Tom Brady has made lesser receivers look at least competent… Speaking of former Bills, David Nelson stays near the Great Lakes by landing in Cleveland. He’ll back up Josh Gordon and Greg Little and could elbow his way into relevance if Little can’t shake the dropsies that have plagued his NFL career—and the Browns find a quarterback… Chip Kelly nabbed former Buc Arrelious Benn off the scrap heap. If healthy he gives the Eagles’ receiving corps a bigger, different target than the speedy yet smallish DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin.

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