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Fantasy footballers know to avoid rookie receivers, for immediate success stories are few and far between. Last season was no exception, as only two rookie wideouts cracked the top 50 at their position in fantasy points per game despite 13 receivers hearing their name called on the first two days of the 2010 draft.
This season’s class stacks up similarly, with a couple of elite-level prospects expected to go off the board in the first round followed by a deep, solid group of second-tier wideouts who could find themselves in position to contribute right away. Here’s a rundown of the players vying to become this year’s Mike Williams, Jordan Shipley, or even Blair White.
THE UPPER ECHELON
Viewed by some scouts as the best receiver prospect since Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green offers the complete package for an NFL wideout: speed (4.48 40), size (6-3, 211), and a productive if abbreviated college career in which he missed a handful of games due to injury and/or suspension yet produced 2,619 yards and 23 touchdowns in 32 games at Georgia. Those numbers aren’t system-inflated, either, and despite Julio Jones’ strong Combine showing Green remains atop most team’s receiver boards. If there’s a quibble, it’s that even with his size he looked a bit thin at the Combine. A reported single-digit Wonderlic score could also concern teams, but all that really means is that Green won’t be moved around as a receiver; he’ll be given a role, at which he’s likely to excel quickly.
Not far behind Green is Alabama’s Julio Jones, who used a sterling Combine showing to close the gap. Not only did the 6-2, 220-pounder run a 4.39 40, he did so on a broken foot. But he’s not just a physical marvel; he’s also a polished route-runner, a reliable pass-catcher, and a willing blocker whose combination of size and skills has drawn comparisons to Andre Johnson. Jones started all 40 of his games at Alabama, producing 179-2,653-15; in other words, he’s not just a workout warrior. A reported 15 on his Wonderlic isn’t likely to hurt his draft stock, but teams will want to check up on the foot injury that was revealed at the Combine. Nonetheless, he won’t be long for the green room on Day One of the draft.
Who’ll follow the first two wideouts in this class off the draft board will largely be a matter of personal taste, as there is no clearcut candidate after Green and Jones. Maryland’s Torrey Smith will appeal to teams looking for the big play; his 4.43 speed and a conference-record 2,983 career kick return yards demonstrate what he can do in space. At 6-0, 204 Smith isn’t a small target, either, and while his hands could use a little more consistency he rightfully bristles at comparisons to fellow former Terp Darrius Heyward-Bey. Smith may be limited to deep work initially as he learns the NFL passing tree and improves his route-running, but his home-run potential will definitely appeal to NFL teams and fantasy owners alike.
Speaking of speed, a strong Senior Bowl showing positioned Titus Young as “the next DeSean Jackson,” a label bound to make folks take notice. Like Jackson Young is smallish (5-11, 174) but with great speed and the ability to get behind a defense. He was productive at Boise State, averaging 15 yards per catch during a career that netted him 204 catches, 3063 yards, and 25 touchdowns in 43 games. Young may have to play out of the slot, at least until he builds up more strength, but he could contribute in the return game as he adjusts to the NFL.
Jerrel Jernigan could have drawn some of the Jackson comparisons Young received had an ankle injury not kept him out of the Senior Bowl. Like Young Jernigan is small (5-8, 185) and speedy, and he proved it throughout a stellar college career at Troy that saw him establish school and conference records in receptions (262), receiving yards (3,128), and all-purpose yardage (5,971). Jernigan’s versatility might make him more of a Dexter McCluster type than a DeSean Jackson type, but NFL teams would be more than happy to find room for either.
If you prefer your NFL wideouts bigger, Jonathan Baldwin is more your cup of tea. The 6-4, 228-pounder declared for the draft despite a final campaign at Pitt (53-822-5) that wasn’t nearly as productive as his sophomore season (57-1,111-8). Some of his struggles may be attributable to shaky quarterback play, but pro scouts can certainly see the potential in Baldwin’s game. He has good speed to go with his size, but the rest of his game—hands, route-running, maturity—could use some polish. Despite being mentioned by some draft pundits as a potential late first-rounder, Baldwin is more likely to go off the board on Day Two with expectations of taking a little more time to develop than some of his classmates.
BE VERY AFRAID
After a solid junior campaign (40-796-4), Nebraska’s Niles Paul was considered among the elite wideouts in this senior class. But his senior season was marred by a broken foot, some critical drops, and diminished production (39-516-1). He still has NFL size (6-0, 224) and decent speed, but the drops and some off-the-field concerns—namely a pair of alcohol-related incidents from his sophomore and junior years—combined with his drop-off in performance threaten to torpedo his draft-day stock. Paul could offer some immediate help in the return game, but the general consensus seems to be he’s a guy with all the tools who has yet to figure out what to do with them.
TAKE A CHANCE ON...
Tandon Doss doesn’t capture your attention with elite speed or unique size of the elite wideouts in this class, and a groin injury kept him from working out at the Combine. But he’ll likely hear his name called on Day Two of the draft because he has good size (6-2, 201), adequate speed, and an excellent pair of hands. He also demonstrated the ability to get open in college, posting 154-1,854-13 in three seasons at Indiana. Like most of his classmates his game needs some work, but Doss has everything necessary to carve out a solid career as an NFL possession receiver. Miami’s Leonard Hankerson is similarly built (6-1, 209) and like Doss is expected to be a second-day selection. He was heralded at “The U” as the next Andre Johnson but struggled with drops early in his career. To his credit, Hankerson sought help from a pair of former NFLers, Mark Duper and Cris Carter (his former high school position coach) and improved his game each season to cap a 134-2,160-22 career with 72-1,156-13 as a senior. He’s a good route-runner with leaping ability and improved hands who should also be able to find a role to fill in the NFL.
WHO NEEDS ONE?
Last year 22 of the 32 NFL teams took at least one wide receiver in the draft, and that ratio is likely to hold up in 2011. Cincinnati and Cleveland are two teams picking in the top 10 likely to be looking strongly at wideouts, but Carolina and Washington could also use an upgrade at the position. The Rams are hoping an elite receiver slips to them with the 14th pick, lest they be forced to reach beyond Green and Jones to beef up their wideouts. The Chiefs and Falcons will be seeking complementary options to Dwayne Bowe and Roddy White, respectively, while the Ravens are looking for a wideout to stretch the field vertically. New England could be in the market for a wideout, and with six picks in the first three rounds they should be able to target a player and maneuver to get him. Sometime on Day Two or early on Day Three the Bears, Lions, Colts, and Jaguars will likely be looking to augment their receiving corps; depending on what happens in free agency (or if there even is free agency), so too will the Vikings, Jets, and Chargers.