Every season there are players that become the new statistical "leader" on their teams. It is important as a fantasy player to be aware of such potential situations, as to not draft the former top dog a too high a price and to not miss out on the potential boom of getting a top producer from a discounted draft pick. Several wide receiver corps could see such changes this year, so here is the way I see some of these potential situations shaking out for 2010.
Mike Wallace vs. Hines Ward
This is one of the more interesting wide receiver situations. Wallace showed the Steelers enough that they had no problem watching Holmes wave bye-bye. I’m sold on Wallace. I think people will be saying “Santonio Who?” in no time. But will he displace Hines Ward as the lead receiver on the team this year? I think it is certainly a possibility.
Ward is 33 years old, but last season was one of his best. As a fantasy player, you have to love guys like Hines Ward. Consistent. Tough. Starts every game and produces every game. And the last several years, since his last down season, he has been a draft day value. This year Ward is garnering a little more respect in drafts, but will the rug be pulled out from under us? Will Wallace lead the team in receiving? Will the Steelers offensive line in doubt across the land render both of these guys persona non grata?
I tend to think that Ward might be the better play early in the season. With Big Bender out at least the first 4 weeks, the team will likely try to concentrate on the run and controlled passing game. It takes Leftwich 4-5 seconds to set and throw on a good day, just enough time for the "hole finder" to find a hole. And even when Bender comes back, he might need to lean on his possession receiver a bit for a few weeks before he feels comfortable winging it downfield to Wallace much. Kind of assumptive thinking there, I might have it all wrong.
In any case, I think both of these guys are fairly valued, if not bargains. I guess the choice comes down to what you need. If you are looking to try to hit one out of the park, Wallace is definitely a candidate. It is not out of bounds to think he could match or better Holmes stats starting this year, and of course if he did, that would be a great hit. He may start out slow because of the situation, but I wouldn’t bet against him finishing strong. With Ward you know what you are getting. Safe. Predictable. Value. Plug him in and forget him. I hate to be a downer after all this optimism, but something to keep in mind if you draft either of these guys, they project to have three bad passing match-ups during weeks 14-16, and worse yet, all are potential bad weather games played at Heinz field. So any member of the Steelers passing attack could leave you hanging even if they get you to the playoffs.
Steve Smith vs. Hakeem Nicks
Here is another situation where both receivers may be undervalued. And the situation while different than the Steelers, kind of shapes up the same way as far as the choices. I think most people are sold on Nicks and believe he will reside alongside the elite some day. He is the riskier player with upside. Steve Smith has an edge in experience and a well defined role as the possession receiver. A known commodity, and his 100 plus catches a season ago has surely caught PPR drafters attention.
The question is, will Nicks or Smith be the better fantasy option this season?
You will probably have a hard time finding any publication or service that will rank Nicks higher than Smith. And I fall into that line of thinking myself. There is a reasonable assumption by many that Smith is a lock in PPR format, but Nicks may well be the better option otherwise. The logic is sound. Smith will catch a lot more passes, and Nicks will score a lot more touchdowns. Seems reasonable.
The question with Smith is will he regress? Was last season his ceiling or is there more to come? Smith was a PPR monster last in '09, and while it may seem optimistic to expect a repeat, I don’t see any reason why he can’t approach last season’s numbers.
We know Nicks is supremely talented, but will this be the season he takes the lead role on his team? He was inconsistent and injured last year, but he did look real good in between. Like I said before, I think there is a very good possibility that both of these guys will be draft day bargains. The Giants are billed as a running team, but Jacobs and Bradshaw don’t exactly instill a lot of confidence that they can be relied on to carry this team.
Meanwhile, Eli Manning has finally become the player his legacy would suggest. The Giants might still want to pound the ball, run the clock, and play defense, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Luckily, they are no longer bound by that strategy. My gut tells me that both these guys might be top twenty receivers, but if I could only draft one my preference would be Smith.
Nicks will have to come by a lot of his points via the touchdown, and when you are talking about a guy in his first full season as a starter (we assume), that makes me nervous. Smith is the proven consistent commodity, and to me that trumps any upside Nicks may offer, albeit at a higher price. Smith is the player I would be targeting, and another top ten WR finish seems well within reach. But if you miss him, Nicks wouldn’t be a bad consolation prize.
Jeremy Maclin vs. DeSean Jackson
This is an interesting situation. The Eagles finally cut ties with Donovan McNabb and will turn the keys over to Kevin Kolb. Kolb has certainly showed he could play during his brief stints. Nobody seems worried that he will not be up to the task, as he is being drafted as a top ten quarterback. The dicey component to this change at QB is that you always have the question of chemistry between a new starter and his receivers. Last year Sidney Rice became a star when Brett Favre latched onto him more and more as the season wore on. By season’s end it was clear Rice was Favre’s preferred target. You just never know for sure what relationships will form between QBs and WRs.
While Maclin has few detractors it seems, he is not seen as a serious threat to Jackson’s role as the “go to guy.” This may be shortsighted thinking. Maclin does not quite have the down-field speed of Jackson, and that may actually work in his favor. Kolb does not have a big arm, so his game of short to intermediate passes plays well into Maclin’s style. That in and of itself is not all that compelling, as Jackson’s game certainly is not limited to the deep pass either.
But the fact is that Jackson and his home-run ability will draw double covers where Maclin will likely not be so burdened. After week 5 last year Maclin caught more passes than Jackson, and that was as a rookie learning a complex offense. Is it crazy to imagine that the split of targets for DJ and Maclin will be fairly even now that Maclin is “up to speed“ in his second full season? Maclin’s numbers were actually very close to Jackson’s first season, one might argue Maclin’s rookie performance was superior thanks to a hefty 61% completion percentage.
The bottom line for me is this: Yes, I am biased. As good as DJ is, I think Maclin is the better football player. That being said, bias aside and just strictly from a “value” standpoint, Maclin looks to be your choice this season. Jackson is being drafted around the end of the 2nd and beginning of the 3rd round, and 2-3 rounds earlier than Maclin. DJ is priced for a best case scenario, you have little room for error because you are probably drafting him as your WR1. That seems kind of risky considering the very real possibility that he may not even end up the best WR on his own team. If I had to draft one of the two, I would be putting my money on Maclin’s upside rather than Jackson‘s status quo.
Devin Hester vs. Johnny Knox
Step right up and spin the wheel folks. Yes, yes, I know you have been let down by Chicago receivers before, but now the mad scientist is in town. I held and later traded Johnny Knox last season. Had I known Martz was coming to town I may have reconsidered. Probably not, but you never know. I think it will end up being Knox and Hester at the start of the season, preseason should tell us for sure.
Right now the fantasy money seems to be on Knox with Hester and Aromadoshu right on their tail. I think Aromadoshu is getting a bit too much respect. The guy has caught 31 passes in the NFL and has been cut loose 4 different times by NFL teams. But the interest is not really all that great in any of them as far as the fantasy community is concerned. They are being drafted 7-8th round or so.
I liked what I saw from Knox in his rookie season. He gave me no reason to think that he couldn't fit right in to this kind of offense, and he may benefit from this coaching change more than anybody. He is the only Bears receiver I would draft.
I have watched Devin Hester in the role of starter, and I must say that I think he should go back to flagging down the occasional long-ball and returning kicks. That is where he was the most effective weapon for his team. I think he is miscast as a starter.
But in the end this whole Chicago/Martz marriage is kind of a strange one. I mean, they don't call it the "windy city" for nothing. Martz circus act might play well in September and October, but may turn tragic in November and December. In the end, the conversation about which of these guys will be fantasy relevant might be a lot more enjoyable than actually owning one.
Sidney Rice vs. Percy Harvin
This is one of the tougher decisions on the board to me. Rice is drafted about 2 rounds ahead of Harvin as of this writing. Rice apparently still has a left-over hip issue from last season. Though he assures everybody it won't be an issue, and he will be ready for the start of the season, fantasy drafters are knocking him down a peg on their boards even as I type.
Then we have the continuing Brett Favre saga. Yeah, everybody assumes he is coming back, and everything will be just fine and dandy. But we are talking about a 40 year old that took an enormous amount of sacks last year. And supposedly Favre is still feeling the effects of the extended season of last. How confident are you in Tarvaris Jackson is Favre finally breaks his streak and misses some games. I mean, if he keeps playing, it is going to happen.
I think both of these receivers are players I would not be targeting this year. It isn't about talent. It's just about being real. And to be realistic, this team is unlikely to repeat the magic of '09. The schedule simply won't allow it. Therefore, each individual offensive player is likely to regress as well. I think both of these receivers are priced at their absolute ceiling of value, and should Favre miss any time, watch out below. I don't envision drafting either one of them, but gun to my head I would take Harvin at the cheaper price.