Change happens every year in the NFL, this is no secret. Fantasy owners bet on which rookie running back will be the next Emmitt Smith or L.T. They debate whether the one or two first round quarterbacks will end up more like Ryan Leaf or Matt Ryan. They wonder if the new environment will suit the latest superstar free agent to swap teams, or if he’ll lose his superstar status. These things happen in small doses every year, it is part of the game…until it isn’t. Every once in a while there is a year that transcends ‘normal’, a year that turns almost everything on its ear, a year when the fantasy world ‘resets’, a season when everything you knew a year ago – to a great extent – has change, a year like 2010.
In this series I break down the various skill positions, not from a prognostication standpoint, but rather simply to discuss the state of affairs, where people are, where the uncertainty lies and various other things to help primarily the guys (and girls!) who play fantasy football, but might not pay as much attention as the diehards. Things are going to be very different this year in fantasy football than they have been in quite a few years, this is hard to debate. Whether it is the tilt back toward more teams being built around quarterbacks and receivers due to the almost league-wide RBBC approach that has become epidemic of late, or more fantasy leagues experimenting with things like starting two quarterbacks, this is not the fantasy football environment you knew even a couple of years ago. However, knowledge of the situations at hand will go a long way when making the tough decisions on draft day, so buckle up and hold on, because this is going to be a lot to digest!
Closing out our 2010 Restart series, we move on to the wide receiver position. Obviously, compared to the running back and quarterback positions, there are many more names and options to consider, so keep that in mind as you read. The numbers break out quite interestingly when we look at receivers this year. First, it should be noted that at the ‘primary’ receiver spot for teams in the NFL this year, it can be said with relative safety that 78 percent of the teams in the league will have a veteran who has been with their team for a while in this position. Understand that this doesn’t necessarily mean the veteran is the same one who was the primary receiver last year – for instance, this includes teams like Buffalo where Lee Evans is the primary receiver this year and has been with the team a while, but was not the primary receiver last season. So, it would seem as though there is much less resetting at this position this year, but that isn’t necessarily true. Teams with major questions with their receiving game – 72%; teams that will have essentially a ‘wide receiver by committee (WRBC)’ approach, with really no primary pair of receivers – 53%; and finally teams where the team relies very heavily on the tight end and/or running back in the passing game, in many cases as the top or second highest pass catcher – 84%. All told, there are plenty of things to discuss and understand as drafts get underway, so let’s get down to business.
Reset for Quarterbacks | Reset for Running Backs
Reset Year in the AFC
On the surface all is much more ‘at peace’ in the receiving games of the AFC, at least when compared to the other primary fantasy skill positions. That being said, there are plenty of teams with more than a few questions as to who is going to be doing what in the passing game. As teams have gone away from punishing running games the passing games have been getting more potent, but with that potency has come much more parity at the position. The days where a team has two receivers who get 80-90 percent of the catches are becoming extinct. New England last year was one of the few examples of a team with this set up, and should be again this year. So, who is going to be where and getting what when it comes to catches? The key, as I’ve been saying in this series to date, is to know who is where and understand the situations; knowledge is key, so let’s gather some info on the AFC.
AFC EAST – As previously mentioned, the closest thing to a traditional passing game you’ll probably see in the NFL this year is in New England. Last year Randy Moss and Wes Welker caught 206 passes between them. The closest on the team to that? Two other players had 37 catches each, and one of them was a running back, Kevin Faulk. In other words, if you don’t draft one of these guys, don’t draft anyone from the receiving corps here, unless you’re drafting Julian Edelman as insurance for Wes Welker due to fears regarding his return from a bad knee injury. Now to the three other teams in this division, where there is no end of uncertainty. In Miami Chad Henne will still be learning the job, and while he’ll have good days he’ll struggle at times too, hurting the receivers somewhat. The primary receiver role however will be very clear. Brandon Marshall is the man. This is a role the Dolphins did not have at all last year, so that will be a good thing. The questions, outside of the young signal caller, are after you get past Marshall. The team is hoping Davone Bess will settle in to the second role, and he had a solid season as a makeshift number one last year, but he’ll share time with Greg Camarillo and Brian Hartline, making a WRBC approach for the rest of the catches. The team also relies a lot on the tight end, Anthony Fasano, so there are a lot of people vying for attention. Buffalo, not the greatest place to be looking for receiving help these days no matter how you slice it, is a fantasy owner’s nightmare regarding the passing game. With Terrell Owens gone, Lee Evans reclaims the number one role, but he’s only got so much upside. Still, later in drafts he becomes a great bargain who gets passed over quite a bit, so the smart fantasy owner can get some nice production late if you don’t mind missing out on the ‘flash’ of some other big names. Rookie Marcus Easley could gain time as the year goes on, but he’s missing time with a knee injury right now so should be passed on until he performs. The names that will be in a WRBC rotation include ‘veterans’ with very little experience, James Hardy, Steve Johnson, Roscoe Parrish and Chad Jackson. None are really worth drafting because the second busiest receiver on the team will likely be Fred Jackson – a running back. The craziest situation in the AFC East, however, resides with the NY Jets. Besides having a second year quarterback who is basically asked to not lose the game, just to manage it well, you have a stable of veteran, some big names, receivers that will all be vying for the ball. Saying that, it must also be factored in that the team is a running team first and foremost, they ran about 600 times last year and receivers only had a total of about 200 catches, which speak volumes. So, newly arriving veteran Santonio Holmes will, after serving his four game suspension, have a big task at hand to command ‘stud’ numbers, and the likelihood is that he won’t. Add Braylon Edwards, Jerricho Cotchery and now Laveranues Coles back into the mix and this is going to be a prime spot for guys who will be winning but having lousy personal seasons – statistically speaking. Dustin Keller, the tight end, will also demand a large amount of attention and is likely to again be the number two pass catcher on the team this season.
AFC NORTH – The AFC North has one team that seems pretty set in how it plans to operate in the passing game. Baltimore does have a new veteran as its number one, but there is no question that he is. Anquan Boldin will be the lead receiver on this team, barring injury, without a doubt. Former number one on the team, Derrick Mason, will move to second fiddle happily, playing in what could be his final year. Both are solid fantasy options, but it should be noted that the leading receiver on the team last year, by five catches, was Ray Rice, a running back. It can be expected that he’ll be the number two receiver this season in terms of receptions. The bigger questions come when we move to the other three teams in this conference. Cincinnati’s questions don’t come as much from the capabilities of the personnel as they do from how well those personnel will perform. Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens are two of the most capable receivers in the game, but the questions of age with Owens and the lingering questions around Carson Palmer leave enough uncertainty that both receivers are going a little lower in drafts than might be expected. Antonio Bryant was brought in to be the number two receiver, and he’s still being drafted, but lingering injury issues but a big cloud on the now number three guy, leaving the scraps to Andre Caldwell, who makes a nice third and is the last real receiving option to be concerned with here. Cleveland is the messiest situation of the four, starting with a true mess at quarterback, which will affect the receivers all season. Should they get involved, none will have a whole lot of NFL experience. Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie are looking to be the starters, but both have precious little experience. Josh Cribbs is going to bet a bunch of action from all over the place, which makes him really the best option here, in spite of him not being listed as one of the top two receivers on the depth chart. This is going to be one of those teams you’ll want to avoid as much as possible on draft day, plain and simple. Finally, in Pittsburgh, the questions will be more at the front of the season than the later part due to Big Ben’s suspension. The lack of a solid starting quarterback will hamper the passing game significantly. Hines Ward remains the starter you can rely on, but that is about it. Mike Wallace is a promising second year guy who should see plenty of action, but there will be struggles. The only other receiving option with any certainty or value is tight end Heath Miller. Note that the only team in this division that doesn’t use its running back or tight end to any serious extent in the passing game is Cincinnati, and the only one of the teams that can be categorized as employing a WRBC approach this year will should be Cleveland.
AFC SOUTH – Two of the teams here are relatively consistent in what owners can expect. Indianapolis is as solid a passing game as there is and won’t have too many changes this year, retaining the same constants fantasy owners are used to. Reggie Wayne is the number one guy and tight end Dallas Clark is the safety valve. There are a good number of questions, however, after these two. Anthony Gonzalez returns from injury and usually would jump right back into his second receiver spot. The problem is, while he was gone, Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie did so well that now there are too many good receivers. Which one will ultimately end up as the third fiddle is anyone’s guess, but know this, the Colts share passes between about four receivers, a tight end and a running back, and do get most of them respectable or better numbers, so taking any of them shouldn’t damage your team. Houston comes back with pretty much the same setup as last year, one of just a few teams to be able to say that. The best receiver in football, Andre Johnson, is the sure fire top receiver pick in the draft. Across from him Kevin Walter and Jacoby Jones will share time and put up ok numbers, with Owen Daniels, if he returns from an early injury before too long into the season, and the running back combo of Steve Slaton/Arian Foster getting a fair share of catches as well. This is the method they used very successfully last year and the plan for this year. Then we have the two teams that have a few bigger questions in this conference, Jacksonville and Tennessee. Jacksonville will continue to flail around as one of the most unpredictable passing games in the league. The only thing that can be known with any surety is that Mike Sims-Walker will be the ‘number one’ guy, though in Jacksonville that doesn’t mean a whole lot. He should be able to top his numbers from last year though to reach close to 1,000 yards to go with another seven or so touchdown catches. After that a WRBC will abound, to say the least. Mike Thomas, Troy Williamson and a few others will be fighting for time on the other side, and the tight end, Mercedes Lewis, will stay busy as a safety valve, but none have top tier or even top middle tier value and the questions won’t be answered until after the season starts as to who the primary number two guy will be on this primarily running team. Tennessee is another place where it is anyone’s guess as to just who will emerge as a viable receiving threat. Second year Kenny Britt should improve, but Vince Young isn’t the most reliable quarterback out there, hampering upside of his receiving corps. Nate Washington and Justin Gage are veterans but no one on this team had more than fifty receptions last year, the epitome of WRBC. Don’t expect that to change much. The team uses the tight end a good bit, but there is a battle there as well between Bo Scaife and Jared Cook, so questions continue to abound. Again, knowing what to avoid can go a long way to helping you have a successful season, and Tennessee is a fine place to avoid on draft day if you’re not drafting Chris Johnson.
AFC WEST – Now we get to the one division in the AFC in which every team has plenty of questions at the receiver position. San Diego, while retaining its very good quarterback and tight end (Anthony Gates), is not likely to end up having last year’s number one receiver Vincent Jackson anymore unless something gives, and all indications are that neither side is going to give. Recent talk is of Jackson getting sent to someplace like Seattle, but nothing here is certain. That makes Malcom Floyd the de facto number one, and also gives last year’s surprise playmaker Legedu Naanee a chance to step up, something he seems to be doing so far in camp. All things considered though, after Gates there is very little to take to the bank here. In Kansas City things are at least steady when it comes to the starters, but the questions abound with them. Dwayne Bowe and Chris Chambers are the two primary starters, but Bowe has had problems staying out of trouble and has yet to prove his value as a number one. Not to mention both of these two only combined for 83 catches a year ago, of course that was only with a half season on the team for Chambers and a four game suspension for Bowe. So needless to say, there are enough questions here to make fantasy owners nervous. This was, overall, a very bad WRBC last year, and could be only a bit better this year. Oakland made a move to get a better quarterback, but how much better remains to be seen. For all the “talent” at wide receiver, the fact is that the only person with more than 34 catches on this team last year was the tight end Zach Miller, who could be in about the same position this year once again. Chaz Schilens is banged up and may need surgery, leaving Louis Murphy, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Johnnie Lee Higgins as the primary options in a very rough WRBC. Anyone excited by anything there? Thought not. Finally, in Denver, the questions are seemingly without end. Who will step up to be the number one? Will it be Jabar Gaffney? He had a great end of the season, and looks good in preseason, but there are still uncertainties. Eddie Royal? He just can’t seem to get over the hump to become the elite receiver the team thought he’d be. Rookies DeMaryius Thomas and Eric Decker have both been battling injuries so haven’t been able to make too many moves forward in on the depth chart. Questions abound all around this offense, affecting the entire squad. There will be fantasy value here though, because the running game could struggle, so the passing game will have to suffice. Note that the Broncos, Chargers and Raiders all like to make heavy use of their tight ends and running backs in the passing game, whereas the Chiefs not as much these days.
FINAL AFC ASSESSMENT: 16 teams, 12 with significant questions in the receiving corps, 9 will basically be WRBC’s, and 12 teams that give a significant number of passes to either their tight end, running back or both, all leading to plenty of options, but very few that are anything close to guarantees.
Reset Year in the NFC
There are a couple of significant differences between the NFC and AFC at the receiver position. First, while there are only two of sixteen teams that don’t have the same veteran number one returning as their number one receiver, there are eleven teams that have either a new vet or a receiver with less than two years of experience at the number two spot. Another difference is only half of the teams appear to be set to have a WRBC approach, much less than in the AFC. Finally, only one team, Carolina, really doesn’t use their tight ends or running backs heavily in the passing game, combining for only 73 passes to the two running backs and starting tight end last season.
NFC EAST – Dallas leads the way with Miles Austin stepping into the primary receiver role, and it appears he’ll be very comfortable with it. Rookie Dez Bryant is off to a rough start and may not make an impact right away. Roy Williams and Patrick Crayton will get some mop up duty behind Austin, tight end Jason Witten and whomever the running back is on the play (Choice, Jones and Barber combined for 60 catches last year). Questions? Outside of Austin and Witten there are plenty, but those two are as solid as they come. The team is solid and comfortable with itself, however, which will go a long way to good production. Fantasy owners just have to figure out where the production will be. Washington, in heavy contrast, is anything but comfortable with itself. They have a new quarterback, a still horrible offensive line, a cluster at running back and a bunch of receivers that either are old or too young and inexperienced. When you’re talking about Joey Galloway being your top receiver, you know you have some issues. Santana Moss will be the primary starter and could do better than he has lately with McNabb throwing to him, but don’t bank on too much. Galloway, Devin Thomas and second year long shot Anthony Armstrong will vie for catches in a WRBC reminiscent of the one that Philly had when McNabb was there. Add tight ends Chris Cooley and Fred Davis into the mix and there are a whole lot of fourth and fifth fantasy receivers but very few top draws. The NY Giants have a lot of talent at receiver, but Steve Smith stands head and shoulders above the rest. After him the catches are likely to be split relatively evenly between tight end Kevin Boss, Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham. The good news is they all should get close to fifty catches or more, making them at least viable mid round options in most leagues. While the tight end plays a big role here, the running backs influence is minimal. The bad thing here is that, outside of Smith, the WRBC approach seems to be in broad display, meaning guys like Domenik Hixon and second year giant Ramses Barden (he’s 6 foot 6) could see significant action, but just enough to make the other guys less valuable and themselves not valuable enough to fantasy options. Uncertainty is the fantasy owner’s worst nightmare. In Philadelphia the era of Kevin Kolb begins and many expect this to be an arial assault week in and week out, and it could be, but it will be to a WRBC for certain. Here’s an interesting piece of information to aid you on draft day when thinking about Eagle receivers. Last season five people on the team had between 40 and 76 receptions, including the tight end, one running back and three receivers. Out of those five, the tight end had the 76. How’s that for question marks? Of course, Brent Celek and DeSean Jackson again will lead in receptions, but Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant and a host of others will compete for catches week and week out, picking the right one to start or own will be the moving target.
NFC NORTH – As much as we see in the receiver rundown, the NFC North is fairly evenly divided. The Lions and Packers are fairly set at receiver pecking order, while the Bears and Vikings have major questions, a lot of talent, and likely WRBC approaches on the horizon. In Detroit the main target is Calvin Johnson, no questions asked. The team does use the tight end and running backs heavily in the attack, combining for 128 catches last season, a number that is likely to rise a bit this year as Tony Scheffler is added to the mix. Newly added veteran Nate Burleson will command the majority of the other catches in his well defined role as second fiddle. Green Bay is similarly set. Greg Jennings is the primary target and the number two guy is Donald Driver – still. Tight end Jermichael Finley became a favorite target of Aaron Rodgers last year and should become a top option this year. Supporting roles will be played by James Jones and Jordy Nelson, but barring injury they’ll be late round options at best. Questions are almost nonexistent in both Detroit and Green Bay. The same cannot be said in Chicago, where the only thing that is close to certain is that the team is going to throw the ball – a lot. Mike Martz brings his ‘Greatest Show on Turf’ to the Windy City and, at least while the weather stays nice, the passes will be plentiful. The biggest question will become who will be the recipient of these passes. At least four receivers, two running backs and two tight ends will all be heavily involved in the mix, not something fantasy owners usually like to see. No one really knows who will become the primary target or even the second target, but the smart money is on Devin Hester and Johnny Knox filling those roles. Some would argue that Devin Aromashodu, last year’s big surprise, will take one of the top spots, but regardless, the three will rotate the big days, so it won’t matter too much overall. Earl Bennett will be in the mix as well, adding one more ‘mouth to feed’ – and that is just among the true receivers. Tight ends Greg Olsen and Desmond Clark and running backs Matt Forte and Chester Taylor will grab up a good share of passes as well, so pick your poison, but don’t expect anything close to good consistency from this bunch. And then there is Minnesota. What’s not to hate here if you’re a fantasy owner. You have a quarterback capable of huge stats but at age 40 is no guarantee to stay on the field from one week to the next, two top receivers who may not be able to start the season – evidenced by the team bringing in veteran Javon Walker this week, a tight end and running back who between the pair had 29 of the teams 53 touchdowns, and only one reliable, veteran receiver on the team. Oh yeah, gotta love this. Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin are adding more and more question marks every day that passes. These are the ‘future’ of the teams receiving corps, so that is a bad start. Bernard Berrian has quietly become the only reliable receiver on the team as it stands today. Tight end Visanthe Shiancoe is the top target of Favre in the red zone, and the running backs last year accounted for about 100 receptions. All in all, there will be a lot of offense here, the problem is, figuring out which receiver will benefit from it, outside of Berrian, is a crapshoot at this point.
NFC SOUTH – New Orleans passing game is, simply put, awesome. It is likely that at least seven players, however, will have 40 or more passes. Marquis Colston is the primary receiver, but barely. Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem share the spotlight a bit as second and third fiddle, but Lance Moore, injured last season, is likely to bite into their catches quite a bit. The running backs, including the versatile Reggie Bush, take up a good number of catches and tight end Jeremy Shockey is involved in his share of touches as well. What this amounts to is, similarly to the Vikings, is a WRBC approach that gets a lot of people a lot of balls, but doesn’t allow fantasy owners to have a lot of consistency. Atlantareturns their two top receivers last year, Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez, along with solid number two guy Michael Jenkins. They are relatively traditional and use the receivers a bit, but not enough to worry about. There are few, if any, questions here. In fact, it’s almost boring. The good thing about boring, though, is that it tends to be consistent and reliable, both good things for fantasy owners. Carolina, much unlike the previous two teams, is in a state of flux this year. They’re breaking in a new quarterback and really don’t have any reliable receivers outside of aging Steve Smith. Smith is still fantastic, but it remains to be seen if the team, which is now primarily a running team, will be able to get him the ball enough to make him effective. There will be a crazy, weak WRBC outside of Smith this year, a situation fantasy owners will avoid at all costs. Tampa Bay has been showing signs of life lately, but only in spurts. The team has a young quarterback in Josh Freeman who looks to have plenty of skill, but he’s not close to a prolific passer. He does seem to have a solid stable of receivers however, but they are all very early in their careers and don’t have a whole lot of experience. Rookie’s Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams, Sammie Stroughter, Maurice Stovall and Reggie Brown will form a WRBC that will limit their effectiveness for fantasy owners, although Williams and Stroughter would be picks to have the strongest seasons at this point. The team relies heavily on their tight end, Kellen Winslow, and do look to their running backs as safety valves quite often in the red zone.
NFC WEST – We close with the NFC West, which has shifted significantly in the last year or so, leaving plenty of unanswered questions in the wake. Arizona, the previously amazing passing game, is likely to downshift quite a bit this year. Kurt Warner retired leaving Matt Leinart in the starting spot, a major down turn. One of the two top receivers the team had, Anquan Boldin, bolted for Baltimore, and Larry Fitzgerald has already been banged up a bit this preseason. Steve Breaston should step up into the second spot, but youngster Early Doucet will get a decent number of balls, similar to Breaston the last couple of seasons, but probably proportionately lower. The only other threat to take a significant number of passes will be Tim Hightower, one of the team’s pair of running backs. It remains to be seen how these guys adjust to the new roles and how quickly they gel. Seattle brings back their aging veteran quarterback, but there are questions about what he has left, which could affect the receivers across the board. T.J. Houshmandzadeh, had he scored a few more touchdowns, would have had a very nice season last year, which is significant because of all the shuffling at quarterback due to injuries. He’ll be the number one again this year, but the remainder of the corps will be a WRBC. Rookie Golden Tate will compete with former top receiver Deion Branch and former washout and now comeback player of the year favorite Mike Williams for time, but at the moment none of them are likely to get consistent enough action to make them prime fantasy targets. Tight end John Carlson and running back Justin Forsett will take about 100 catches away from the receivers as well, making them better draft options than most of the receivers here. San Francisco is building itself into a running team, but they don’t shy away from passing when they have to, but they are an extremely young and inexperienced unit. Michael Crabtree is the number one receiver, but the real number one is tight end Vernon Davis. Crabtree will improve in his second season, but still may finish behind Davis, at least slightly. Crabtree is a major talent, however, with major upside, so he’s a good earlier round pickup. Josh Morgan and Ted Ginn, Jr. will join running backs Frank Gore and Brian Westbrook in picking up the remaining dump passes, not helping enough to warrant too much concern for fantasy owners. The team to avoid from the perspective of the passing game, however, more so than just about any other team in the league, is St. Louis. With a rookie quarterback and receivers that are talented but not proven, including Donnie Avery and Laurent Robinson, the teams ‘one’ and ‘two’ receivers. The team includes the running backs in the receiving game to a good extent, but not the tight ends as much. There are a gaggle of receivers lining up behind Avery and Robinson that will see varied action and the entire group is very likely to become a horrid WRBC with few if any of them topping 40 catches on the season. This is a team best avoided, end of story.
FINAL NFC ASSESSMENT: 16 teams, 11 with significant questions in the receiving corps, 8 will basically be WRBC’s, and 15 teams that give a significant number of passes to either their tight end, running back or both. There are more reliable situations here than in the NFC, but just as many questions, if not more, overall.
The wide receiver/tight end position has the most point producers, obviously, due to more of them being on the field on every play. However the days of each team having a clear cut one and two, with maybe a good tight end and possibly a solid slot receiver, are gone, at least for a while. The teams that still have that set up are the best fantasy point sources, though the teams like New Orleans and Indianapolis are more fun to watch and have more receivers with big play potential, if not steady, consistently solid numbers. Again, as I’ve said before, more championship teams are likely to be won this year by teams built around quarterbacks and receivers than running backs for the first time in quite a while. Know the situations and know them well, then draft smart. There will be some very good receivers (Jabar Gaffney, Nate Burleson, Mike Williams?) drafted quite late in many drafts this year, so build your team wisely! All the best on draft day!