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What to Look for in a Mid- and Late-Round Receiver
Paul Sandy
July 19, 2004

Pick any fantasy football league in any part of the country and you’ll likely find that the majority of league owners emphasize the running back position in their drafts. During the season, free agent running backs are hard to come by, and if there is one, he’s likely snatched up quicker than a ham sandwich at an offensive linemen meeting. As a result, most owners feel it’s critical to land at least two or three quality running backs early in the draft.

There is certainly logic behind this blueprint. After all, running backs have the lowest supply and highest demand. Therefore, it makes sense to draft them early. But running backs alone do not win championships. If you’re going to go with a draft strategy that focuses on building a quality backfield, it’s imperative that you have the ability and knowledge to find high-value receivers in the mid- and late-rounds of your draft.

Even a first-year fantasy owner would be quick to learn that the beginning rounds of every draft are occupied by those rare receivers who are consistently good (think Marvin Harrison and Torry Holt) and by those who put up big stats for the first time and are expected to repeat their performance (think Anquan Boldin and Steve Smith). These players are easy to scout. But by the late fourth and early fifth round, the top receivers are no longer available. To the untrained eye, the remaining choices are a hodgepodge of receivers who are all destined to put up the same mediocre stats.

It begs the question, “What makes a great mid- and late-round WR?”  

Fortunately, there are some tell-tale signs that a less-publicized WR is on the brink of a special season. By breaking the WR pool into the following four categories, it will help decipher which receivers are poised for success:

1) Opportunity Knocks Receivers – These are guys who are flying under the radar because of a poor season or two, but the situation is right for a big year.

2) Third Year Receivers – Every year one or two break out. Find the right one and you’ll be the envy of your league.

3) Rookie Receivers – Rookie receivers rarely find success, but when they do it can be the difference between the playoffs and the potty bowl.

4) Contract Year Receivers – In search of the big payday, these receivers may up their game to a new level.

Knock, Knock

The bulk of players you should target fit into the Opportunity Knocks category. Due to varying circumstances, they have a tremendous opportunity to have a breakout year. Now, varying circumstances could be anything. It could be a change to the offense. It could be that for the first time in his career, he’s participating in his team’s optional offseason workout program. Heck, it could be that he is dedicating his 2004 season to his 15-year old pet beagle that died a month before the season started. In any case, the opportunity is presenting itself and there is a compelling reason to draft this receiver over another.

One example of a situation that might indicate the potential for a strong season is a free agent quarterback signing. In 1998, Tim Brown gained just over 1,000 yards receiving. By anyone’s calculations, it was a down year for the Pro Bowl receiver. Then in the offseason, Al Davis signed veteran QB Rich Gannon and things got immediately brighter for Brown. During the next season, Brown caught 90 passes for 1,344 yards – the second-best season of his career. In the same year, Kerry Collins made his debut with the New York Giants. By all accounts, wideout Amani Toomer had been a bust. But with Collins under center, Toomer made a jump from 360 yards receiving in 1998 to 1,183 yards in 1999. More recently, in his first season with the Bills, Drew Bledsoe provided a significant boost for Eric Moulds.

Unfortunately, a quarterback change doesn’t always lead to a season full of touchdowns for wide receivers. Last year, Kordell Stewart flopped when he moved into the starting role in Chicago. Jake Plummer saw limited success in his injury-riddled first season with the Broncos. In 2001, Matt Hasselback struggled mightily in his first season as Seattle’s starter. But that same season, Brad Johnson hardly missed a beat in his transition from Washington to Tampa. In Johnson’s first year with the Bucs, WR Keyshawn Johnson went from 71 receptions with Shaun King the year before to a career high 106 catches.

The conclusion here is that younger, less experienced quarterbacks rarely succeed when they move to a new team as the starter. As a result, this often has a negative impact on receiving statistics. Conversely, a veteran quarterback is more likely to make a successful transition and have a positive impact on his receivers’ numbers.

When applied to the 2004 season, this finding indicates that Mark Brunell’s (WAS) and Jeff Garcia’s (CLE) respective WRs could be poised for big seasons. Brunell and Garcia are each three-time Pro Bowlers. Brunell has 10 years of experience. Garcia has five. Fantasy owners should consider bumping Laveranues Coles, Rod Gardner, Quincy Morgan, Dennis Northcutt and Andre Davis up a few notches on their cheatsheets. Opportunity is certainly knocking loudly for these WRs.   

Just as a new QB arrival can boost a receiver’s performance, the departure of a star receiver can have a similar impact. That was certainly the case for Donald Driver in 2002. In Driver’s case, former starters Antonio Freeman and Bill Schroeder were out of the picture. With rookie Javon Walker and second-year pro Robert Ferguson as the only other options, Driver was the most experienced remaining WR and in a great position to succeed. An owner who was paying attention and had some knowledge of the situation would’ve had the insight to snatch up Driver in the late rounds of his or her draft. Santana Moss’ situation last year mirrors that of Driver. Laveraneus Coles went to Washington. Moss stepped into the spotlight.

Players who could benefit from similar scenarios this year include: Cedrick Wilson and Brandon Lloyd of San Francisco; and Kassim Osgood, Eric Parker and Reche Caldwell of San Diego. The departures of Terrell Owens and Tai Streets from the 49ers and David Boston from the Chargers have left holes wider than Andy Reid’s waistband in both squads’ passing games. Neither team is very promising, but even a number one receiver on a bad team can score a lot of points.

Another factor that could help boost a receiver’s performance is the addition of a proven, workhorse running back into the offense. An improved running game keeps a team on the field longer and makes safeties have to respect the run. That leads to more opportunities and more open space for wideouts. An example of this: Last season, the Carolina Panthers added Stephen Davis. The team went from being ranked 31st in passing in 2002 to 21st in 2003. More importantly, Steve Smith was a big time benefactor, catching 88 passes for 1,110 yards. Early in 2002, it looked like the trade for Ricky Williams would have a similar impact on Miami’s passing offense. QB Jay Fielder started the season with nine passing TDs in his first five games. Then he got hurt and the Dolphin passing game plummeted – along with Chris Chambers’ and Orande Gadsden’s values. Looking back to 1998, the Jets acquired Curtis Martin from New England. Keyshawn Johnson upped his yardage to 1,131 from 963 the prior year and doubled his touchdown production.

Look for similar scenarios this year in Washington, New England and, to a lesser extent, Tampa. The Redskin receivers stand to benefit the most. Washington acquired franchise RB Clinton Portis from Denver. As a result, owners should consider moving Laveranues Coles and Rod Gardner up another notch or two in their rankings. In New England, the rich got richer. The Super Bowl champs traded for disgruntled RB Corey Dillon. Dillon’s presence should provide even more opportunities for Deion Branch, David Givens, Troy Brown or Bethel Johnson. Tampa Bay also scored a new rushing threat in Charlie Garner. Garner’s versatility could mean good things for Keenan McCardell, Joey Galloway or Charles Lee.  

Many additional factors can have opportunity knocking for wide receivers. For example, WRs who finish the season strong frequently use that success as a springboard the following year. That was certainly the case for Chad Johnson, who closed out 2002 with five 100-yard performances in the final eight games. In 2003, he continued his climb, becoming a top 10 fantasy receiver. Will we see the pattern repeat itself this year for Marty Booker (CHI), Charles Lee (TAM), Marcus Robinson (MIN) and Robert Ferguson (GB) – each of whom finished last season strong? Don’t be surprised.

Other circumstances to consider are how a revamped offensive line can help give a quarterback more time and how a coaching change or new offensive scheme might help or hurt a receiver. Scout these and other factors to help you uncover more possible WR sleepers.

Third Time’s a Charm

Third-Year Breakout Wide Receivers 1997-2003
Player Year No. Yards TD
Rod Smith 1995 6 152 1
1996 16 237 2
1997 70 1180 12
Eric Moulds 1996 20 279 2
1997 29 294 0
1998 67 1368 9
Marcus Robinson 1997 0 0 0
1998 4 44 1
1999 84 1400 9
Ike Hilliard 1997 2 42 0
1998 51 715 2
1999 72 996 3
Donald Hayes 1998 3 62 0
1999 11 270 2
2000 66 926 3
Marty Booker 1999 19 219 3
2000 47 490 2
2001 100 1071 8
Laveranues Coles 2000 22 370 1
2001 59 868 7
2002 89 1264 5
Plaxico Burress 2000 22 273 0
2001 66 1008 6
2002 78 1325 7
Santana Moss 2001 2 40 0
2002 30 433 4
2003 74 1105 10
Steve Smith 2001 10 154 0
2002 54 872 3
2003 88 1110 7

Over the last 10 years of fantasy football, an interesting trend has emerged. A host of receivers have posted ordinary numbers in their first two years in the league and then exploded in their third years. This observation has led to the Third-Year WR Theory. Some may consider it to be just another reckless supposition, but the sheer volume of WRs who fit this description is too great to ignore.

Whether you chalk it up to needing time to learn the nuances of the position, needing experience to adjust to the speed of opposing cornerbacks or simply needing to mature physically and mentally, receivers are markedly slower to get their games in top form than other positions. In each of the past seven seasons, at least one third-year wideout has stepped up his game in a big way. Several players like Eric Moulds, Rod Smith and Marcus Robinson have gone from having less than 300 yards in their second years to posting well over 1,000 in their third years. The jump is less dramatic for other receivers, but no less important for fantasy owners who were able to nab these mid- to late-round gems in their drafts.

Looking back at the 2002 NFL draft, there are several receivers who should be primed for big years. Take for example Javon Walker (GB), who has increased his contribution over the past two seasons from 319 yards to 716 yards. Don’t be surprised to see Green Bay’s first round selection in 2002, finish this season with 1,100+ yards and 10 touchdowns. Another player worth a gamble is Deion Branch (NE). Branch is a speedy receiver who racked up more than 800 yards last season in his second year. He could make a jump in yardage and touchdowns similar to the one Steve Smith made this year. Finally, take a good hard look at Ashley Lelie (DEN). Although Lelie didn’t have as much success in his second year as Walker or Branch, he should see more opportunities in 2004. Long-time Bronco pass catchers Ed McCaffrey and Shannon Sharpe have retired and Rod Smith isn’t getting any younger. 

Other notable third-year WRs include: Donte’ Stallworth (NO), Jabar Gaffney (HOU), Josh Reed (BUF), Reche Caldwell (SD), and Andre Davis (CLE).

Rookie Monsters

Last year, Anquan Boldin and, to a lesser extent, Andre Johnson may have spawned a mini-revolution when they posted huge numbers in their rookie years. Conventional wisdom has told fantasy owners that rookie receivers should be avoided. Sure, players like Randy Moss and Kevin Johnson excelled in their freshman years in the league. But for every Moss there are two dozen Michael Westbrooks. Consequently, fantasy owners have historically drafted around rookie wideouts.

That may not be the case in 2004.

Boldin could eventually prove to be another exception to the rule. However, that likely won’t stop the fantasy community from hopping on the rookie receiver bandwagon this year – especially considering the crop of talent coming out of the college ranks. Seven receivers were drafted in the first round of the NFL draft. Players like Larry Fitzgerald, Roy Williams, Lee Evans, Reggie Williams and Rashaun Woods are sure to play a big role on your fantasy draft day. The question is, “Who has the best chance for success?”

The Freshman 16: Rookie wide receivers with 700+ yards (1994-2003)
Year Name Ht. Wt. NFL Team W/L Opposite Starter College No. Yards TD
2003 Anquan Boldin 6-1 216 Cardinals 5-11 Bryant Johnson Florida St 101 1377 8
1998 Randy Moss 6-4 204 Vikings 9-7 Cris Carter Marshall 69 1313 17
1996 Terry Glenn 5-11 195 Patriots 6-10 Shawn Jefferson Ohio State 90 1132 6
1995 Joey Galloway 5-11 195 Seahawks 6-10 Brian Blades Ohio State 67 1039 7
1999 Kevin Johnson 5-11 195 Browns Exp. D. Chiaverini Syracuse 66 986 8
2002 Andre Johnson 6-2 220 Texans 4-12 Jabar Gaffney Miami (FL) 66 976 4
1996 Eddie Kennison 6-1 201 Rams 7-9 Isaac Bruce Louisiana St 54 924 9
1994 Darnay Scott 6-1 204 Bengals 3-13 Carl Pickens San Diego St 46 866 5
2001 Chris Chambers 5-11 210 Dolphins 11-5 James McKnight Wisconsin 48 833 7
1996 Keyshawn Johnson 6-4 212 Jets 3-13 Wayne Chrebet USC 63 844 8
1996 Marvin Harrison 6-0 175 Colts 9-7 Sean Dawkins Syracuse 64 836 8
1995 Chris Sanders 6-1 188 Oilers 2-14 Haywood Jeffries Ohio State 35 823 9
1999 Torry Holt 6-0 190 Rams 4-12 Isaac Bruce NC State 52 788 6
2001 Rod Gardner 6-2 213 Redskins 8-8 M. Westbrook Clemson 46 741 4
2002 Antonio Bryant 6-1 192 Cowboys 5-11 Joey Galloway Pitt 44 733 6
2000 Darrell Jackson 5-11 201 Seahawks 8-8 Sean Dawkins Florida 53 713 6

When we take a look at some of the top rookie wideout performances over the past decade, several things become clear. First, there doesn’t seem to be a prototype body when it comes to successful rookie WRs. The best performers have come in all shapes and sizes – from short and speedy guys like Terry Glenn to tall, physical types like Andre Johnson. We won’t make any judgments based on height or weight.

Fortunately, there are some things that will help us narrow our focus. For example, most of the pass catchers on the list were drafted by poor teams. The W/L column represents the team’s record in the season prior to the draft in which they selected the receiver. For example, Terry Glenn was drafted in 1996 by the Patriots, a team that had a 6-10 record in 1995. Of the 16 players listed, only three were drafted by teams with a record that was better than .500. As a result, we can draw the conclusion that rookie receivers who play for poor teams have a somewhat better chance at stardom in their first years than those who play on quality teams. This can likely be attributed to teams with poor records being more inclined to risk putting an inexperienced player on the field and simply not having same level of talent as a playoff team.

It’s too bad that when applied to the 2004 rookie receiver class, this finding doesn’t help us much. All seven of the wideouts drafted in Round 1 were selected by a team with a record below .500. However, two of the three receivers selected in Round 2, Keary Colbert (CAR) and Darius Watts (DEN), were drafted by quality teams. Fantasy owners might consider lowering their expectations for Colbert and Watts.

Another interesting discovery is that most of the top rookie receivers from the last decade, particularly those with 900 or more yards, didn’t have quality wideouts starting on the opposite side of the field. Nine hundred yards is an important benchmark because at that level of performance a receiver can be counted on as a fantasy starter in most weeks. Of the seven rookies who reached that goal, only two had really top quality, Pro-Bowl-level teammates starting alongside them (Randy Moss with Cris Carter and Eddie Kennison with Isaac Bruce). This tells us that the most successful rookie WRs are not only thrust into a starting role, but they’re thrust in a featured role or something close to it.

Looking at this year’s rookie crop, we can make several adjustments to our rankings based on this finding. Larry Fitzgerald (ARZ), Lee Evans (BUF), Devery Henderson (NO), and Keary Colbert (CAR) all play opposite a receiver who is well above average. Darius Watts (DEN), Michael Jenkins (ATL), Reggie Williams (JAX) and Michael Clayton (TAM) are ‘tweeners. Jenkins has Peerless Price, who underachieved last year. Williams and Watts will play opposite the likes of aging veterans Jimmy Smith and Rod Smith, respectively. Clayton has the depth of Keenan McCardell and Joey Galloway to deal with. While any one of these players might buck the trend and find success in 2004, the fact is this rookie class is big. To help us narrow our focus to a few favorite choices, we’ll play the averages and knock this group down a bit in our rankings. 

One other interesting observation: Ohio State WRs have historically excelled early in their careers. The Ohio State University has Terry Glenn, Joey Galloway and Chris Sanders on the list of top rookies, plus David Boston, who was quiet in his first season but exploded in his second year with 1,156 yards. Glenn, Galloway and Boston were first-round picks in their respective classes. Sanders was a third-round selection. It’s hard to say whether it’s the system or the attitude that leads to success for Ohio State receivers, but don’t bet against this year’s Buckeye rookie, Michael Jenkins (ATL). In fact, bump him up a couple notches in your rankings. 

Based on these findings, fantasy owners should prepare for their seasons knowing that of the rookie receivers, Roy Williams, Michael Jenkins and Rashaun Woods have tremendous chances to make an immediate impact in 2004. Reggie Williams and Michael Clayton should also make a fantasy impact at some point during the season. The others should not be completely written of as busts, but perhaps considered slightly less desirable because of their situations.

“Show-Me-the-Money” Receivers

Besides being one of the top five date movies of all time, Jerry McGuire provides the perfect illustration for the final type of receiver to keep an eye on. In the movie, fictional Arizona Cardinals receiver Rod Tidwell passes on a low-ball contract extension offer, thinking that he’ll ride out his current contract, have a great year and sign a huge deal after the season. Tidwell puts it all on the line, making catches across the middle and taking punishing hits from opposing safeties. In the end, the increased effort pays off. His agent, played by Tom Cruise, inks a big deal and Tidwell is left speechless.

Unfortunately, Hollywood endings like this don’t play out quite as well on the real gridiron. A receiver in his contract year may want to do well, but the opportunity may not be there. The coach could favor another receiver in the offense. Or maybe the receiver has simply lost a step.

While the hypothesis that receivers do better in their contract years is difficult to prove, it can’t be completely written off as foolishness. Attitude and effort are certainly worth something. Just ask any one of Keyshawn Johnson’s coaches last year. That little bit extra that a player gives in practice and in games could mean the difference between a 700-yard season and a 900-yard season. And that’s why contract status should play a role in scouting and rating receivers, albeit a minor role. 

With that in mind, there are a few receivers in their contract years who are worth considering. First, take a look at Travis Taylor (BAL) as a potential sleeper. Taylor inked a $10.9 million deal in 2000 that expires after this year. This being his fifth year in the league, Taylor is in his prime. A good season in 2004 could lead to a big-time free agent deal. Taylor is not unknown to the fantasy world. In 2002, he caught 61 passes for 869 yards and six touchdowns. Those are respectable numbers for a mid-level wideout. Unfortunately, last year Taylor tailed off, compiling only 632 yards receiving. The decrease might be attributed to a shaky quarterback situation. Rookie Kyle Boller started for most of the season until he was injured and replaced by journeyman Anthony Wright. Another year in the league for Boller should help Taylor in his quest for the big payday.

Chris Chambers and Plaxico Burress are two other WRs whose contracts are up at the end of the year. Both are more well-known than Taylor, but could be devalued on many cheatsheets in 2004. Miami’s offseason trade for David Boston could have owners shying away from Chambers due to competition on the other side of the field. Meanwhile, Burress is coming off a horrible year and will certainly slip in drafts this year. If you buy into the contract-year concept, Chambers and Burress could be poised for huge years in 2004.

Other notable players in contract years: Corey Bradford (HOU).

Some fantasy owners will argue that this synopsis has overlooked players like Jerry Rice and Curtis Conway. These veteran-types will certainly get you points and it’s worth having one of them on your roster as a backup. However, avoid stocking up on this type of receiver because they are very likely past their primes and won’t win you a championship.

To up your chances for glory, you’ll need to uncover at least one receiver who will send shockwaves through your league and inject unexpected points into your boxscores. These players typically fit one of the descriptions highlighted above. If you have a strong feeling that a particular mid- to late-round WR will make headlines in 2004, then don’t hesitate to draft that receiver a round or two in advance of where the fantasy magazines have him ranked. Your fellow league-mates may have a chuckle or two at your expense, but before long you will likely be the one laughing. And as the saying goes, “He who laughs last, laughs the loudest.”