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Receiving Help
By Joe Levit
September 26, 2003
  Every fantasy football owner worth his salt knows that rookie wide receivers rarely make a fantasy impact. Last season for instance, no rookie receiver finished among the top 40 for receiving yards. Though Donte' Stallworth did score eight touchdowns for the Saints, neither he nor fellow first-rounders Javon Walker or Ashley Lelie helped owners to a fantasy championship.

That is why most rookies selected in fantasy drafts are running backs, as owners have a realistic chance at choosing a player who can help them like Clinton Portis did for owners last year. Randy Moss aside, the wide receiver position simply requires too much from a rookie for him to excel in his first season. In recent years, it has been a solid choice not to count on rookies to fill your wide receiver slots.

In 2003, however, perhaps fantasy owners should look to add a little pepper to their lineup. After three exciting weekends of pro football action, two rookies are among the top 10 in the league in receiving yards gained (Anquan Boldin and Andre Johnson), and two other rookies are making a significant fantasy impact (Bryant Johnson and Charles Rogers). Is this an aberration or a developing trend? Let's look to these four rookies to give us some clues.

Anquan Boldin - Cardinals - 2nd Round Pick - Boldin is a big receiver who at one time in college was considered to be a future first-round selection in the NFL Draft. Now we know why. So far, Boldin is second in the league with 378 receiving yards, or an average of 126 per game. He also has two touchdowns so far, so there is no concern about whether he can tote it to the endzone. Anquan has developed a rapport with new Cardinals quarterback Jeff Blake, and the two of them were even instrumental in recently beating the Green Bay Packers. Look for Boldin to be big for Arizona all year. The team is trying to build a new identity, and what better way than with a strong rookie. At this point, there is no reason to not start him every week. You can always switch to a veteran later is he begins to struggle.

Andre Johnson - Texans - 1st Round Pick - Houston's first-round pick this year is making the entire team better. His explosiveness on offense takes some of the pressure off of quarterback David Carr, allowing the second-year QB the chance to make plays to other receivers, like last year's second rounder Jabar Gaffney. Johnson's 249 receiving yards currently rank him 10th in the league, and like Anquan Boldin, Johnson has crossed the stripe twice this year. There is no doubt that Johnson has assumed the role of number one receiver on his team, and the Texans will air it out to him every game, looking for large gains from their big and fast receiver. Johnson is clearly a starting fantasy wide receiver, and will remain so unless NFL defenses decide to double-team him consistently, and soon.

Bryant Johnson - Cardinals - 1st Round Pick - When the Cardinals got rid of Frank Sanders and decided to let David Boston leave in free agency, they tabbed Johnson as a starter in the 2003 Draft to replace those players. Johnson, like Boldin, has passed by players like Bryan Gilmore, Larry Foster and Jason McAddley into a starting position. Johnson is a big target, and is getting better at making something of a play after catching the ball. He is already a decent possession receiver, and should add to his impressive fantasy start this season (161 yards). If he can start to reach the endzone he will be a third starter in larger fantasy leagues.

Charles Rogers - Lions - 1st Round Pick - The former Michigan State standout started off the season hot, catching two touchdowns against Arizona. Since then, both he and his quarterback (three interceptions in each of the last two games) have been cooled by division rivals Green Bay and Minnesota. Though Rogers is not among the top 40 in receiving yards yet this season, he could quickly vault back into the rankings with one big game. In his favor is the fact that the Lions will be playing from behind in most of their games this season (the product of losing three of their top four cornerbacks to injury) and will find it necessary to use the passing game to have a chance to catch up. Rogers is clearly the top wideout on his team, and more time with Joey Harrington will only benefit Detroit's soon-to-be dynamic duo. See if you can trade for Rogers now to use him later in the season. He already is a decent bye-week risk.

The question remains about the success of these rookie receivers. Are they a collective anomaly? I think that they are not, and for a reason that will grow in scope in the NFL in the next few years: They are part of a trend to start skill-position players as soon as possible due to dire need, created by rampant free agency pressures. Think about the New York Jets losing Laveranues Coles this offseason to the Redskins. Coles is a young wideout who was developed by the Jets, and was just coming into his prime as a wideout, when they decided to let him go and focus on other positions. This trading of wide receivers happens a lot these days, and you can see that it hurts the teams who lose those players, as Coles is currently leading the league with 391 receiving yards.

Both Detroit and Houston took players they thought would become their number one receiver immediately. The Cardinals selected two wideouts in the first two rounds, hoping that at least one of them would quickly become a star. That plan starkly contrasts with what the teams who drafted receivers in the first round last year were hoping to accomplish. Denver took Ashley Lelie as insurance for aging star receivers Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey. The Packers selected Javon Walker to compete with Donald Driver and Robert Ferguson for one of the two starting jobs, and the Saints tabbed Donte' Stallworth in the first round even though they had star Joe Horn at the position.

I think the rate of standout rookie receivers is a bit high after three weeks in 2003, and I fully expect a few, if not all of them, to produce at a slower pace as the season wears on. However, I also expect there to be an increase in the number of rookie receivers who can have a fantasy impact in the coming years, making it a position not be ignored in future fantasy drafts.

Joe Levit is based in Boston, and is a columnist for cnnsi.com and thehuddle.com. His work has appeared in Fantasy Football Index, Grogan's Fantasy Football Analyst and several other fantasy magazines. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a devoted Detroit Lions fan. Reach him for comment, criticism or congratulations at lavishjetpoet@aol.com.