Targeting rookie wide receivers in fantasy drafts has traditionally been a bit like panning for gold: a few gold nuggets are found among lots of shiny stones that are dropped back into the stream.
Fantasy owners have witnessed an exception to that rule the past two NFL seasons. Nary a week passed during the 2004 and 2005 NFL campaigns in which a handful of rookie wideouts didn’t make an impact in fantasy columns. This made the selection of a number of rookie wideouts in the mid- to late rounds of the draft a prudent strategy indeed.
The past two seasons produced first-year playmakers like Larry Fitzgerald, Roy Williams, Lee Evans, Michael Clayton, Keary Colbert, Braylon Edwards, Reggie Brown – and the list goes on. However, this year’s crop of rookie wideouts doesn’t show the same type of promise.
Case in point: the 2004 and 2005 NFL drafts each saw five wide receivers taken off the board by the time the 25th pick rolled around. By comparison, the 2006 draft saw its first wideout selected (Santonio Holmes) by the Pittsburgh Steelers with that 25th overall pick.
Panning for rookie gold may prove to be less fruitful in 2006, but that isn’t to say that gold won’t be lurking in those hills come draft day. Following is a list of first-year wideouts who appear to have the greatest opportunity to make a fantasy impact during the upcoming season.
Santonio Holmes, Pittsburgh Steelers
Round 1, 25th overall. No coincidence that the first wide receiver chosen in the 2006 draft is also the rookie wideout most likely to reward fantasy owners this season. Steelers coaches have expressed their desire to get Holmes involved in the offense early and often, and the team’s No. 3 wideout position appears to be his to lose. Size notwithstanding (he’s 5’-11”, 187 lbs.), Holmes is the complete package with big-play potential, to boot, and he provides additional value as a return man. The best-case scenario sees him supplanting current No. 2 wideout Cedrick Wilson for the starting job, in which case 800 yards and a few TDs is within reach.
Chad Jackson, New England Patriots
Round 2, 36th overall. Jackson was the fastest wideout at the combine (4.34/40) and was rated the top receiver available by many people who have an opinion on the matter. His size (6’-1”, 212), great hands and solid route running give Jackson all of the credentials to be a good possession receiver for spread-it-around QB Tom Brady. The Patriots are thin at wideout after No. 1 WR Deion Branch, and early reports are that Jackson will compete with Reche Caldwell and Troy Brown for the team’s No. 2 spot, with Caldwell having a slight edge. The Patriots’ challenging system may delay Jackson’s development at the onset of the season, but he offers too much potential to go unnoticed in fantasy play for long.
Greg Jennings, Green Bay Packers
Round 2, 52nd overall. Former No. 1 WR Javon Walker is now a Denver Bronco, Donald Driver remains as the only lock as a starter, and QB Bret Favre has a history of getting everyone involved in the offense. That spells opportunity for Jennings, who is widely viewed as the most polished wide receiver to enter the league in 2006. Jennings has been described as an intelligent player who does everything well and perhaps nothing great, and that fits the mold of the type of wideout with whom Favre generally takes a liking. Veteran WR Robert Ferguson is a safe bet to begin the season as the team’s No. 2 WR, but given Ferguson’s propensity for getting injured Jennings could be a starter before too long. Even in the No. 3 role he should see plenty of action and makes perhaps the best sleeper rookie wideout in fantasy drafts.
Sinorice Moss, New York Giants
Round 2, 44th overall. The Giants craved a speedy, explosive playmaker, and they may have found their man in Moss. He’s small for his position (5-8, 184), but that’s never mattered much to his brother, Santana. The Giants coaching staff will use Moss to stretch the field at times, which could lead to a few big plays, but the fact remains that QB Eli Manning simply has too many other playmakers at his disposal for Moss to produce consistent fantasy rewards. The best-case scenario sees Moss beating out the oft-injured Tim Carter as the team’s No. 3 wideout, but he’ll remain in line behind a solid group of playmakers that includes WR Plaxico Burress, TE Jeremy Shockey and WR Amani Toomer.
Derek Hagen, Miami Dolphins
Round 3, 82nd overall. Hagen (6-2, 209) isn’t a burner, but he is a tall, physical, athletic player known to dish out as much punishment as he takes when fighting for tough catches over the middle. He enters a good situation with a Miami offense starving for a viable No. 3 wideout, and he may even give WR Marty Booker a run for his money for the No. 2 spot. The wild card is the health of recently acquired QB Daunte Culpepper (knee), who may not be ready to play when the season begins. If Culpepper is not the man behind center when the season begins, Hagen’s value takes a big hit unless he beats out Booker for the No. 2 spot.
Maurice Stovall, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Round 3, 90th overall. The Buccaneers may have found their long-sought-after possession receiver with the selection of Stovall, who has the hands, the size (6-4, 218) and the grit to fight for tough catches in traffic. Stovall should get quality playing time behind Joey Galloway and Michael Clayton, and if Clayton’s injury issues persist Stovall may become a weekly fantasy consideration.
Travis Wilson, Cleveland Browns
Round 3, 78th overall. Wilson is another rookie wideout for whom opportunity may knock early and often. If No. 1 WR Braylon Edwards’ knee doesn’t heal by the time the season begins, Wilson may very well find himself in a starting role. On paper, he has most of the makings of a bona fide possession receiver – size (6-2, 213), speed and great hands, and a knack for getting open – the only knock on him being his rough route running. Starter or not, Wilson’s immediate value will largely be dictated by the level of mediocrity the Browns’ passing game achieves in 2006.
Brandon Williams, San Francisco 49ers
Round 3, 84th overall. Williams is another smallish wideout (5-9, 180) who has made his name by running good routes and catching most everything he touches. He’s a speedster who gets a boost in value given his potential to contribute in San Francisco’s return game. The 49ers have a large group of wideouts who will compete for time in 2006, and Williams will mostly like begin the season as the No. 3 or 4 wideout on a passing team that simply isn’t very good.
Willie Reid, Pittsburgh Steelers
Round 3, 95th overall. Reid is more of a long-term project in both the real world and in the fantasy universe, but he could provide immediate value in the return game. Though he’s small in stature for an NFL wideout (5-11, 187), Reid has good hands and, like fellow rookie and teammate Santonio Holmes, represents another big-play threat for the Steelers.
Jason Avant, Philadelphia Eagles
Round 4, 109th overall. The Eagles have a bevy of so-so wide receivers, and only up-and-coming second-year man Reggie Brown shows much long-term promise. Avant isn’t a burner, but he is a smart possession receiver who runs good routes and has good hands. That makes him a nice fit for the Eagles’ West Coast offense and gives him an edge to start the season as the team’s No. 3 or 4 wideout. Rookie wideouts tend to struggle a bit in the Eagles’ system, but the situation is ripe for Avant to make Greg Lewis, Jabar Gaffney and Todd Pinkston even greater non-commodities in 2007.