Even though the 2014 draft class was thick with wide receivers and even featured a few quality tight ends, NFL teams still chased help at those positions via free agency and trades this offseason. Here’s a look at the old faces in new places with potential to generate fantasy value in their new uniforms.
DESEAN JACKSON, REDSKINS
One team’s trash is another team’s treasure, and in the case of DeSean Jackson both those teams were in the NFC East. Coming off career marks in receptions (82) and yards (1,332) while matching a personal best of nine touchdown grabs, Jackson was deemed overpriced and expendable in Philly. The Redskins were more than happy to claim him off the scrap heap, giving Jackson two opportunities to make Chip Kelly’s decision look foolish—one of them a revenge-tinted fantasy championship Week 16 outing.
Jackson should have plenty of chances to flourish in Jay Gruden’s new offense, giving Robert Griffin III the sort of deep target he’s lacked since his Heisman days at Baylor. DJax will have competition for targets in holdover favorite Pierre Garçon, emerging tight end Jordan Reed and fellow free agent signee Andre Roberts. But with Washington more passing-oriented under their new offensive coordinator and RG3 bombing away like his college days there should be plenty to go around—and enough to return Jackson to top-10 fantasy WR numbers.
ERIC DECKER, JETS
Eric Decker had $36 million reasons to leave the comfort zone of catching passes from Peyton Manning for a Jets offense that’s ranked 30th and 31st in passing the past two seasons. But more than just the money, Decker is looking forward to the opportunity to be “the guy”—not a complement to Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker, but the go-to guy for Geno Smith or Michael Vick.
Certainly, there’s bound to be a drop off from Decker’s gaudy, Manning-padded numbers in Denver. But Marty Mornhinweg’s offenses have featured productive fantasy pass catchers before—Jeremy Maclin’s 70-964-10 with the 2010 Eagles comes to mind—and Decker will be given every opportunity to be that guy for the Jets. He’s not unfamiliar with being a marked man; as the entirety of the Minnesota Gophers’ passing game in college he led the Big 10 in receptions and receiving yards despite facing constant double- and triple-coverage. While it’s almost impossible to see Decker returning to the top 10 fantasy receivers in his current situation, the dropoff may not be as steep as many are expecting.
HAKEEM NICKS, COLTS
It’s been 59 catches and 112 targets since Hakeem Nicks last saw the end zone, a 25-yard grab in the third quarter of the Giants’ 52-27 win over the Saints in Week 14 of 2012. That drought has contributed to Nicks falling out of favor with the Giants—and fantasy owners—and landing in Indianapolis as a complementary option to TY Hilton.
Obviously the Colts are hoping their minimal, one-year investment nets them something more like the 2010 (79-1,052-11) or 2011 (76-1,192-7) version of Nicks. The short-term contract should hopefully keep Nicks motivated, though that didn’t seem to work for him in New York. And if Reggie Wayne returns to form following last season’s knee injury Nicks will be caught in a numbers game in what has been a run-first offense under Pep Hamilton. But the potential of Nicks teaming with Andrew Luck to rekindle the magic of just a few years ago has him creeping up fantasy radars once again.
EMMANUEL SANDERS, BRONCOS
The aforementioned Eric Decker ranked eighth among wideouts in fantasy scoring last season, so his departure leaves a void in the Denver attack. Enter Emmanuel Sanders, who carved out a respectable 67-732-6 in Pittsburgh last season before leaving via free agency for the opportunity to catch passes from Peyton Manning. It’s a situation that has produced multiple top-10 fantasy receivers in each of Manning’s two seasons in Denver, and unless you see Wes Welker climbing significantly from his 73-778-10 (20th in fantasy points among WRs), that top 10 gig has Sanders’ name written all over it. Sure, Julius Thomas will take a bite but Manning has fed multiple mouths before—much to the delight of fantasy owners.
It would be aggressive to simply slot Sanders for Decker’s digits given he’s never topped 800 yards or a half dozen touchdowns in his NFL career. But being on the business end of Peyton’s passes has meant big things for plenty of otherwise unproven receivers before; even if it’s Welker climbing the charts and Sanders “settling” for top 20 fantasy WR numbers, he’s a bustout waiting to happen.
GOLDEN TATE, LIONS
Over the course of his four seasons in Seattle, Golden Tate saw his Seahawks throw the ball roughly 200 fewer times per season than either the Lions—Tate’s new team—or the Saints—where Tate’s new offensive coordinator, Joe Lombardi, has been plying his trade. So Tate’s giddiness with his new system is understandable.
Tate also likes the prospects of playing opposite Calvin Johnson, as he’s unlikely to see anything more than single coverage. In this area Tate’s enjoyment is less rational, especially from a fantasy perspective. Over that past four seasons the best a Detroit WR2 has placed among fantasy wideouts is 38th—Nate Burleson’s finish back in 2010. The past two seasons Detroit’s second-best wide receiver has finished a less-than-robust 71st in fantasy scoring. And while Tate sees himself playing the Lance Moore role in Lombardi’s offense, Moore’s only two fantasy seasons of note each required 100-plus targets; over the past four seasons Detroit’s WR2 has averaged 84 looks per season. So while in theory there’s upside to Tate’s arrival in Motown, fantasy owners needn’t rush to greet it with enthusiasm.
JAMES JONES, RAIDERS
The Raiders’ passing game has had its share of issues over the past few seasons, so bringing in James Jones as a bona fide WR1 gives the group some stability—and also allows the likes of Demarius Moore, Rod Streater and Andre Holmes to be recast as supporting players. Bringing in Matt Schaub to throw the ball doesn’t hurt, either, though the last time Houston’s QBs ranked ahead of Oakland’s QBs in fantasy scoring was 2010.
Where James will really find the going tough is dropping from a collective that ranked 3rd, 1st, 1st, and 2nd in fantasy scoring amongst wideouts to a club that’s ranked 25th, 18th, 10th, and 29th over that same span. Further, Schaub’s receivers in Houston haven’t failed much better, ranking 22nd, 26th, 31st and 11th since 2010. Bottom line, for Jones to be anything other than a mid-tier fantasy contributor in Oakland he’ll need to be Andre Johnson good; that seems optimistic at best.
STEVE SMITH, RAVENS
The polar opposite of David Banner, fantasy owners actually like Steve Smith when he’s angry. And the diminutive receiver, who’s parlayed his Napoleon complex into 836 catches, 12,197 yards and 67 touchdowns, definitely enters his 14th NFL season with a chip on his shoulder.
The Ravens added him as much for what he brings to the locker room and for intangibles such as toughness and competitiveness as for what he’ll do on the field, as his numbers tailed off in 2013. The plan is to insert him opposite Torrey Smith, though in a Gary Kubiak offense there historically hasn’t been much for a second target; Houston’s WR2 the past three seasons has been targeted 91, 68, and 65 times. Smith is used to seeing the ball substantially more, with at least 99 targets every year since blowing out his knee in Week 1 of 2004. So long as you’re not looking for peak-era Smith, you shouldn’t be angry with his fantasy production in Baltimore.
MIKE WILLIAMS, BILLS
Last year the Bills drafted E.J. Manuel to be their quarterback of the future, then followed up with Day 2 selections Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin to be his primary targets. This year Buffalo went even further, trading up to grab Sammy Watkins and acquiring Mike Williams via trade from the Buccaneers. Prior to last year’s season-ending injury Williams had been a more-than-serviceable fantasy receiver, ranking 18th among wideouts in fantasy scoring as Vincent Jackson’s wingman in 2012 and clocking in at 11th in that same category as a rookie WR1 in Tampa. That’s a lot of mouths for Manuel to feed in Buffalo, and if he’s everything he’s supposed to be Watkins will take the biggest bite off the top. But don’t overlook Williams as a wingman with some intriguing fantasy upside.
MILES AUSTIN, BROWNS
Even before learning they’ll likely lose Josh Gordon for the season the Browns had holes to fill at wide receiver; now it looks like they’ll have a massive 87-1,646-9 gap to fill as well. Among the players Cleveland brought in—Nate Burleson, Andrew Hawkins, Earl Bennett—the one with the best shot of emulating Gordon is Miles Austin. The former Cowboy isn’t that far removed from four straight 100-fantasy point seasons, including a 2009 campaign in which he ranked third among all fantasy wideouts with 1,320 yards and 11 touchdowns. He’ll be 30 by the time he catches his first official pass in a Browns’ uniform, but of the assembled candidates he’s the one with the most fantasy upside as a target for Johnny Manziel.
JERRICHO COTCHERY, PANTHERS
After nine mostly unremarkable seasons—his 1,129 yards in 2007 was a high point but came with just two TDs that year—Jerricho Cotchery got hot in Pittsburgh and scored 10 times on just 46 receptions. Evidently the Panthers thought that qualified him to be their WR1, as they inked him to replace Steve Smith and head up a receiving corps that also includes Jason Avant, Tiquan Underwood and first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin. There’s something to be said for being the only show in town, but even that isn’t enough for fantasy owners to look to Cotchery for anything resembling a repeat of last year’s touchdown output.
KENNY BRITT, RAMS
Kenny Britt has flashed the talent that made him a first-round pick only briefly: a productive 42-775-9 sophomore season in 2010 and a fast start the following year that was derailed by a season-ending injury. But the guy who drafted him, Jeff Fisher, will give him another chance in St. Louis. After just four TDs combined the past two seasons—and a disappointing 11-96-0 in 10 games last year—fantasy owners won’t be as quick to do the same.
OWEN DANIELS, RAVENS
Over the past seven seasons Houston consistently produced viable fantasy tight ends, ranking 12th or better in tight end fantasy scoring every season and finishing in the top 10 each of the past four. Owen Daniels is a big reason for that success, ranking in the top 10 in tight end fantasy points per game five of the past 10 seasons, and he follows Houston coach Gary Kubiak to Baltimore, where Kubiak will now call the plays for the Ravens. That’s all fine and good, but Daniels will turn 32 this season and hasn’t stayed on the field for a full season since 2008. Plus, in Dennis Pitta the Ravens already have a younger version of the pass-catching tight end Kubiak likes—and they spend a third-round pick on Crockett Gilmore to develop the next version. If your fantasy league awards mentoring points Daniels is a solid get; otherwise, you’ll be chasing old stats if you’re banking on a contribution from this year’s edition.